It is a remarkable fact that of the seven batsmen who represented England in the epic 2005 Ashes series, four played in the last test match. While bowlers have come and gone, there has been a remarkably stability about the England batting order, with five of the top six in the recent Ashes series having more than 50 caps for England (and few would bet against Jonathan Trott achieving the same longevity). This has led to accusations of a closed shop in the past as the incumbent batsmen have been persevered with, but it does mean that when a place comes up in the batting order, there is a genuine feeling of “who can grasp the nettle”.
Paul Collingwood’s timely retirement from Test cricket gives the batsmen that first opportunity at permanency since Andrew Flintoff’s body decided enough was enough in 2009. Colly was an obdurate (the word “nuggety” will be a lot less used now) test batsman, averaging over 40, typically when the runs were needed most. His bowling was no more than handy at test level (only 17 wickets) but his fielding was outstanding and in the most recent series, probably his greatest asset. So who are the contenders?
Eoin Morgan (Middlesex) Probably the favourite having played against Pakistan last summer when Ian Bell was injured and carrying the drinks in Australia. He did score a century last summer, but that innings accounted for more than half of his runs in his eight innings. Only seven first class tons in nearly 100 innings do not seem the form of a batsman who can go on to play the big innings required at Test level. A critical part of the One Day squad, he is clearly well thought of, but would need to put to rest the perception that he is a one day specialist quickly.
Ravi Bopara (Essex) He had an extended chance before Trott was selected and while he utterly dominant against a poor West Indies team, he was dismantled by Australia in 2009. He is probably the most like for like replacement in that he also bowls handy medium pacers, but is likely to find his niche in the One Day team. Unfortunately, not quite good enough for Test cricket.
James Taylor (Leicestershire) A young man with a very bright future, he was young cricketer of the year in 2009 he scored prolifically for Leicestershire last season and impressed with the England Lions in the winter, second in the batting averages among the recognised batsmen. His time will come, but with his runs mainly having come against Division 2 opposition, he will need to continue to impress at Lions level to press his claim.
James Hildredth (Somerset) The man to beat Taylor in the Lions averages, which he managed while captaining the squad. Hildredth has long been seen as a talented cricketer, but it is only in the last two seasons that he has put the promise into practise, being a vital cog in Somerset’s push for trophies last season. Justin Langer rates him very highly and he is a very strong contender.
Andrew Gale (Yorkshire) Another man who has captained the England Lions and had a successful tour as a player over the winter. Gale took a while to break into the Yorkshire squad, but having done so, he has flourished, particularly as captain. He is a batsman who seems to deliver when it is needed most and the pressures of captaincy have enhanced rather than detracted from his game. Should he be given the chance and take it, he is also a real alternative to Alistair Cook as the next England captain.
Adil Rashid (Yorkshire) A bit more left field this suggestion, and certainly not a like for like replacement. However, with Matt Prior averaging well over 40 in test cricket, there would seem to be little reason to suggest that he could not bat at 6, with Rashid batting at 7 as a bowling allrounder. This would allow England to play with two spinners and with the likes of Broad, Bresnan and Swann, still maintain a strong batting line up.
My choice: The Rashid experiment may need to wait until later in the season. Test cricket in May is not the time to experiment with a new leg-spinner, as Chris Schofield could probably testify. For me, Hildredth just edges it over Gale to be given the first opportunity.