How many times have you watched England play test cricket in recent months, even years, and it has seemed like there wasn’t much idea of a plan for their batting? As if all the players after the openers have been told to ‘play their natural game’ with seemingly no awareness for the match? Never? Okay, fine. That’s cool. But if you have, maybe you’ve looked at the performances of some of the county sides and thought they seemed to have more idea as to what they were doing as a team than England? Maybe, after watching another England batting collapse you have in your rage suggested that England would lose to most Division 1 county sides. Maybe you haven’t. Maybe that’s just me. But if you have, I’ve had a neat idea – a county XI of players who have not played test cricket for England that could potentially beat the current England test side.
Despite England having just wrapped up the India test series with a victory in the third test at the Ageas Bowl, they have been far from convincing in this test series. Yes a win is a win, but the manner with which England’s lower order have had to repeatedly bail out the top order has been hardly confidence-inspiring. The same was the case in the test series against Pakistan. Be it runs from Sam Curran, Dom Bess, Joss Buttler or Chris Woakes – it has been too often the case that the individuals getting the meat of England’s runs in these series are coming in below number five. Joss Buttler and Sam Curran are currently England’s two leading run-scorers in this India series for crying out loud. At times it would seem that England’s top order has been suffering from a dangerous mixture of players who seem out of their depth and players who seem to have a seemingly quixotic attitude to batting in test cricket. With regards to potential attitude problems, and whether they stem from the players as individuals or the coach is hard to say, scoring runs quickly can be a fantastic way of turning a game on its head – such as Ben Stokes’ sterling century against New Zealand at Lords in 2015. However England seem incapable of playing a long game against good bowling attacks that demand respect. Words like flaky and unreliable come to mind when thinking of England’s batting. At the heart of this seems to be the ECB’s willingness to pick many batters – Keaton Jennings and Dawid Malan – that most county fans would not say are among the best English players plying their trade in the County Championship. Thankfully, we don’t seem to have the same problems with bowlers – though it looks likely we will in the near future when James Anderson retires. England seem, however, uninterested in developing players like Ben Coad who look a ready-made replacement for James Anderson, and instead are desperately looking for a speed demon like Jamie Overton. In protest of that sort of thinking, I’ve placed a premium on performance for bowlers, rather than imagined ideas of how they could perform.
Before some of you imaginary readers who probably don’t exist start complaining, I thought long and hard not just about players recent performances, but what they had done throughout their careers as well. I believe strongly that you should take judge recent performances against the backdrop of their career overall to get a better sense of the quality of the player.
1. Rory Burns*
Rory Burns has been one of the most consistent run-scorers in the County Championship for the past five years, and has been the star batter in an unbeaten Surrey side which he has led to the top of the table. He has impressed many this season with the way he has captained Surrey, getting the best out of a bowling attack that have skittled a number of teams, and shown great faith in his young spinner Amar Virdi. It is something of a marvel to many watching county cricket that Keaton Jennings has been given such a long chance opening the batting when he has only really ever had one good season, whereas Burns seems to have been in form for years now (maybe it’s not just form…). One of Burns greatest qualities is his ability to both defend and attack. If you bowl badly to him he can rattle off a 50 in no time at all, however, if the team are struggling, he can be as crabby and scratchy as the best of batters. The only reason that one can seem to find for his non-selection is his somewhat idiosyncratic method of batting where he sticks his arse out and looks at mid-on while the bowler runs in, but then again, Steve Smith looks really stupid when batting. Despite this apparent hindrance, he’s consistently scored runs and shown he can definitely do it against test-quality attacks when he scored a fantastic 100 against a Hampshire attack including Dale Steyn, Fidel Edwards and Kyle Abbot earlier this season (featured in the video above).
2. Daryl Mitchell
Yes, I know what you’re saying – no Nick Gubbins? Well, yes, there is no space for Nick Gubbins in this team, and you know why? Because Daryl Mitchell is an absolute legend. He is the incumbent chairman of the PCA, he has so far represented the views of the professional cricketing community with wit and foresight – particularly in his assessment of the ECB’s plans for the Hundred (boo, hiss, hiss, hiss, boo). Beyond that, and more importantly, he’s been one of the finest opening batter plying his trade on the County circuit for years, and has carried that on this year as he’s piled on the runs for his beloved Worcestershire. He’s perfect for this team really as he’s dedicated a huge amount of time to the county game, never got a look in for the England setup, and would be well up for the challenge.
3. Joe Clarke
Joe Clarke is a name that’s been mentioned as a future England prospect for a number of years now, and in all honesty there’s a strong argument for that future bit being replaced by current. Anyone who has seen Clarke play can attest to the clear talent he has, and should Worcestershire suffer relegation to Division 2 again, there will definitely be a number of counties sniffing around him. He was Worcestershire’s second-highest run-scorer as they won promotion to Division 1 in 2017 and has carried that on this year too, behind the immovable Daryl Mitchell. What helps Joe Clarke’s case dramatically is that he has batted at three for his county. Though he has spent most of his time batting at four, he recently moved up to three as Tom Fell has moved to opener, and Moeen Ali has been selected for England. He has the shots and the temperament to play at three, and it would be a great boost to his England chances if he could cement himself as a number three for his county. I think he can do it, so that’s where he’s going to bat. Got it?
4. James Hildreth
Is James Hildreth the man most unlucky to miss out on a test call up in living memory? He is without question one of the best batter in the County Championship, and would walk into any batting lineup in the country. Not only would he walk into those teams, you would move other players to accommodate him. Age is definitely against him in terms of getting an England call-up these days, and when it seemed like it was his turn to get the call some ten-ish years ago, he was trying to force his way into the strongest England batting lineup for decades. However, when you consider some of the names who have got a go since then – Dawid Malan and Tom Westley spring to mind – it is frankly bizarre that he’s never been selected for the test side. He gets in this team and there should be no debate about that selection.
5. Sam Northeast
Now, this is where we can start directly comparing this XI, and what each players role in the batting lineup is, with how England seem to do things. Ben Stokes, a bowling all-rounder (yes, he is a bowling all-rounder, I don’t care what you say about his innings against South Africa, he impresses more often and more consistently with the ball, and that is shown by the stats), is currently batting at number five. It would be great if Ben was capable of being picked as both a specialist batter and specialist bowler at test level, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think the former is true. Instead, in this team, we’re going to pick Sam Northeast, an actual batter who is able to play the situation, being capable of both attacking and defending brilliantly. Rather than trying to force someone in at five, I’m going to pick someone who, wait for it, bats at five, and has experienced a lot of success batting at five. he finishes off a top order of batter who make their wicket valuable, who are unlikely to get out as foolishly, or lazily as the England top order seem to consistently do.
6. Liam Livingstone
This position was a slightly tough one and was between two players. I knew that I wanted a player who was capable of scoring very quickly at six. Why? Well, in terms of the balance of the team I looked at Hildreth and Northeast and I thought I had two players there that I was confident could occupy the crease. Players who could stay out there even if they weren’t scoring heavily, and my faith in their ability is what allowed me pick a more expansive risk-taking player after them. The choice was between Liam Livingstone and Jason Roy – yes, Jason Roy. A lot of people are surprised at that one but he’s actually got an exceptionally good record in first-class cricket. However, I went with Liam Livingstone, despite the lacklustre season he’s enjoyed this year. He’s known as one of the biggest hitters in the County Championship, and it’s a reputation that is well-earned. Also, he bowls some quite tight spin so you know, if you fancy it. That’s not why he’s picked okay. It’s not. We’re not going to do a Moeen with him. I promise.
7. Ben Foakes †
Alec Stewart thinks Ben Foakes the best gloveman in the world – and that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he plays for Surrey, alright? Don’t ‘what’ me you whopper. Anyway. he’s a banging keeper who’s actually a pretty nifty batter as well – he bats at five for Surrey after all. What’s particularly impressive about his batting is how intelligent he is. He seems very capable of playing the situation, and has on numerous occasions played really important innings for Surrey, not just for the runs scored but for the length of time he spends out there. Also, he’s the best looking man in cricket, possibly even sport, so has to be in the team for marketing purposes. The ECB would really be best-advised in forgetting about getting old white eyebrows Ben Stokes signed up for marketing the Hundred, and instead just get Ben Foakes and his perfect teeth.
8. Keith Barker
The term ‘unsung hero’ is always a something of an oxymoron – once you start calling someone an ‘unsung hero’ they are by definition no longer an ‘unsung hero’. That’s why, just before I say it, let’s bask in it for a moment, this moment, right here. Great. Okay, so, if there is one real ‘unsung hero’ in county cricket it’s Keith Barker. Barker has consistently been Warwickshire’s, if not one of the country’s, best swing bowler for years now, and there are very few teams in the County Championship that have not been torn apart by this left-armed genius. Though you might say he’s at the back end of his career, and didn’t enjoy a great 2017 – then again, who at Warwickshire did? – he’s shown his quality this year again having had a sensational 2016. His ability is reflected in his record and the fact that he’s left arm offers the bowling attack vital variation. Not to mention, he’s actually a pretty handy batter as well, handy enough to be fairly considered a very talented bowling all-rounder.
9. Ben Coad
It’s somewhat curious that Ben Coad doesn’t seem to get more of a look-in for England selection. After all, since making his debut for Yorkshire he has been quite comfortably their best bowler. This absence of consideration speaks more to the never-ending obsession with pace for the sake of pace than Ben Coad’s ability I would say. Of course, the equation goes that pace = wickets, which is why the fastest bowlers are always either amongst the leading wicket-takers and have the lowest averages or strike-rates. They’re not? But, but, Mitchell Johnson destroyed England a couple of times and he’s really quick wah wah wah. Anyway, Ben Coad is an unfashionable selection for England because he is an out-and-out swing bowler (despite our best bowler being just that) and England selectors have a massive hard-on for quick bowling, regardless of how effective it is. There is no question in my mind however that Ben Coad is one of the most talented bowlers currently playing the County Championship. Sadly it seems that George Garton has more chance of being picked for England than Ben Coad.
10. Jamie Porter
Jamie Porter will in all likelihood be the next fast bowler to be given a test cap, and with good reason. He was absolutely unstoppable as Essex charged to the 2017 County Championship, and has since shown that behind that form is substantial class. He’s not the fastest bowler, nor are Coad or Barker for the matter, but looks a fine successor to Stuart Broad as he’s shown great ability to move the ball off the pitch and has that uncanny knack of tearing through batting lineups when the mood takes him. Prior to the 2017 season Jamie Porter would have been nowhere near this team, but a lot change in cricket, and now he’s on the verge of an England test selection. There’s still hope for me yet then.
11. Matthew Parkinson
This selection is more a reflection of the paucity of high quality spinning options available in the County Championship right now who haven’t had a go in the England team. Not to say that Matthew Parkinson isn’t a really talented player – he is – but it’s very early days yet in his career. This was a toss-up between Parkinson, Amar Virdi, and Ollie Rayner. Now, Ollie Rayner was a vital part of the Middlesex side which won the County Championship in 2016, but hasn’t done much since, nor was he particularly brilliant before that. So, in the end, it was between Virdi and Parkinson, who are both very exciting young spinners with rather similar first class records who have both shown they have the ability to get batsman out, rather than batsman get themselves out to them. However, it was Parkinson’s one day record which got him in this team – Virdi hasn’t played one day cricket yet. At the age of 21 Parkinson has established himself as Lancashire’s frontline spinner in all formats and has done that not through the blind faith which England showed in Mason Crane, but through the weight of his performances.