Chris Waters: Problem position of opening up alongside Alastair Cook remains an issue for England

Who is the best option for opening alongside captain Alastair Cook? Graphic:Graeme Bandeira.
Who is the best option for opening alongside captain Alastair Cook? Graphic:Graeme Bandeira.
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IT is widely accepted that England made a serious selection error when they recalled Jonathan Trott to open the batting on last year’s tour of the West Indies.

Trott, who had not played international cricket since returning from the 2013-14 Ashes tour with a stress-related condition, was badly exposed as he managed only 72 runs in six innings including three ducks.

It was a sad end to a fine Test career and a blunder that rather summed up the latter stages of Peter Moores’s reign as coach.

Trott, quite simply, was never the right man to open with Alastair Cook, and it is baffling that the selectors ever thought that he was.

To make one serious selection error might be considered unfortunate, but to make two, or even three, is positively careless.

For having dispensed with Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth at the end of last summer, England have since turned to Moeen Ali and now Alex Hales to fill this problem position alongside the England captain.

Ali managed only 84 runs in the three Tests against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates before he was moved back down the order, while Hales has so far managed only 102 runs in the three Tests against South Africa.

The worst thing, however, is that it is all so predictable, with England looking increasingly frantic in their efforts to find the right answer.

One says two or three selection errors, but, of course, it could be argued that there were more beforehand.

Many felt that Nick Compton and Michael Carberry were harshly treated after they, too, were jettisoned as openers, while others felt that Joe Root should not have been promoted before he went on to enjoy greater success further down the order.

Selection is never easy, but in the past 12 months, in particular, England’s opening strategy has been curious to say the least.

Had Lyth played in the West Indies, as he surely should have done ahead of Trott, the left-hander could have been eased into Test cricket ahead of the sterner challenges last summer against New Zealand and Australia, and it is difficult to see how Ali or Hales are superior options to the Yorkshire batsman.

Hales, who failed again yesterday as England scored 238-5 in reply to South Africa’s 313 on an intriguing second day in Johannesburg, is a brilliant one-day player.

But does he have the technique to thrive as an opener in Test cricket?

To judge by his performance in this series, the jury is most certainly out.

Four of his five dismissals have been to catches behind the wicket, including yesterday when he drove with no footwork against Kagiso Rabada and was caught at second slip by AB de Villiers.

Hales, in fairness, has been picked for his ability to attack and balance Cook’s more conventional style and that of Compton at 
No 3.

But the problem at the moment is that he is doing neither one thing nor the other, neither defending well nor attacking well.

He is playing push-drives rather than going confidently at the ball and seems unsure of the best way to go about his business.

Have England been seduced into trying to find a David Warner-type opener, just as they spent many years trying to find a wicketkeeper-batsman like Adam Gilchrist?

Is Hales good enough, indeed, and consistent enough to be England’s version of a Warner, or would they be better off persevering with a more traditional opener like Yorkshire’s Lyth – albeit still a highly aggressive player – or perhaps looking somewhere else altogether, despite alternative options being currently thin on the ground?

Of course, it could all turn out right in the end and Hales may suddenly find his feet, at which point a sizeable portion of humble pie will be consumed hereabouts and voluminous quantities of egg scraped off a crimson visage.

Lyth, too, did not exactly pull up trees in his seven Test appearances, with the exception of a brilliant century against New Zealand at Headingley.

But the problem is, Hales does not give the impression that he is the answer, let alone possess the statistics to prove that he is.

In addition, Cook is struggling for runs himself, having managed only 60 in his five innings in the series at an average of 12.

When Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, it was always going to be difficult to replace one of the finest openers that England have had in recent times.

Only two other opening partnerships in the history of Test cricket have put on more than the 4,711 added by Cook and Strauss: Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes (6,482) and Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer (5,655).

A little over three years on, and it is staggering that England have tried eight different batsmen to partner Cook.

To judge by current events, they are going backwards in their search to find a solution.