England still appear set to promote Moeen Ali as Alastair Cook’s new Test opening partner next week, despite his double failure in their final warm-up fixture against Pakistan A.
Moeen mustered only 19 runs in two attempts, first against the new ball alongside Alex Hales and then when he returned to try again on the second day of the practice match in Sharjah.
Coach Trevor Bayliss nonetheless confirmed it is Moeen, rather than the uncapped Hales, who is likeliest to open against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi.
With just three days left before the first of three Tests, England are grappling with several intertwined selection issues – among which Bayliss conceded Jos Buttler is no longer a certainty to keep wicket, as his travails with the bat continue.
The other option is Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow, the incumbent specialist No 5 batsman who is facing a strong challenge for that role from James Taylor.
The latter was one of only two batsmen – back-to-form Ian Bell the other – to convince in a desultory England innings which accrued 198 runs for the loss of 11 wickets, in reply to the hosts’ 192-12, in a match devoted to the tourists’ Test preparation.
At stumps, Bayliss hinted strongly that Moeen remains England’s plan A at the top of the order – after both he and Hales fluffed their audition.
“I think at this stage Mo has probably got his nose in front,” he said.
“Obviously we’ve got Alex Hales here, who we know can be an explosive batter.
“But I think Mo has shown he’s a good player against spin and he can play the pace bowling, and he’s handled the pressure during the Ashes series.”
More discussions will take place between captain and coach, before the players are told who will be involved in Abu Dhabi.
Bayliss added of Moeen: “If he is batting in the top six, it gives us opportunities further down the line with the make-up of the team.
“Alastair and I will sit down and come up with the XI, so everyone knows what it is, probably by the first practice session (on Sunday).”
The identity of Cook’s opening partner has been a vexed question ever since Andrew Strauss’s retirement more than three years ago.
“It’s probably not ideal,” said Bayliss.
“What I’d like to see from English opening batters is somebody actually putting their hand up and saying ‘I’m the one for you’.
“(But) I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a problem position, because Mo is a good enough player that he could actually be the answer.
“He could turn himself into that opening batter.”
Whether he or Hales does so on this tour, Bayliss still wants to see more contenders for such an important role.
“What we’re about going forward is creating that depth in the next few years – because if you want to be the best team in the world in Test cricket you need depth,” he said.
“Certainly at the moment, I don’t think you’ve got the depth we’re happy with in the opening position.
“That’s a challenge to all the openers in England – there are opportunities.”
More immediately, he is hoping Moeen trusts his attacking instincts if handed an assignment to which he is unaccustomed – having never before opened in first-class cricket.
“My advice to him if he gets the nod is to go out and play his natural game,” said Bayliss.
“I think it will be very important to get decent starts over here against the new ball.
“The older the ball gets and the lower the wickets get, the harder it gets to score runs.
“We’ll be looking to get off to a good start – and if Mo can play his natural game, that gives us the ability to get off to those good starts.”
At No 5, Bayliss sees a tight call between Bairstow and Taylor and admits it is a ‘definite possibility’ both could play in the middle order.
One way to achieve that would be to leave out Buttler, whose batting form has been poor of late.
Asked if Buttler will definitely be picked next week, Bayliss said: “I can’t confirm that.
“His form has been a concern.
“It was good to see him out there looking like he was getting his touch back this afternoon and scoring some runs ... but we’ve got to make a decision.”
Sussex have swooped to sign Danny Briggs after the slow left-armer was given an early release from Hampshire to push his first-class credentials elsewhere.
Briggs has often been touted as a future England Test performer, and has made eight international appearances in the limited-overs formats, but he was often overlooked in the LV= County Championship this year.
He played just eight matches, taking 19 wickets at 37.42, as Hampshire ultimately secured their Division One safety – at the expense of Briggs’s new club.
With highly-rated teenage leg-spinner Mason Crane ahead of him in the pecking order, and part-time turner Liam Dawson taking more championship wickets than Briggs this summer, the 24-year-old has been released with a year remaining on his current deal.