Promoting Pope means England’s new Test era starts with middle-order muddle | Mark Ramprakash
The first Test of the summer and of a new era starts against New Zealand on Thursday at Lord’s. Some will be expecting instant results from the new coach, Brendon McCullum, and his captain, Ben Stokes – after all, when the white-ball reset was triggered after the humiliation of the 2015 ODI World Cup, in England’s next match on home soil, also against New Zealand, they scored more than 400 runs for the first time and set out on a path that ended in them winning the World Cup four years later.
The progress was remarkable, with a strategy of ultra-aggressive batting, Adil Rashid’s leg-spin in the middle overs and pitches flat enough for the batters to enjoy themselves. It was a formula that worked, but one-day cricket is quite formulaic.
To take a single strategy into Test cricket isn’t so straightforward. A consistent mindset – if there are opportunities to score you must take them – is important, but you will be facing different conditions that require a range of skills and a variety of approaches. In England, the ball might swing all day, in Australia you will be facing pace and bounce, in Asia a turning ball, so no one formula will always work.
The great challenge for McCullum and Stokes will be to get players to buy into a basic template. Some will argue England have been performing so poorly that the only way is up, but when a team has won once in 17 Tests it is not easy to feel confidence and trust your skills.
The New Zealand team that visited England last year showed the kind of template England will be thinking about: two reliable opening batters in Tom Latham and Devon Conway, two excellent opening bowlers in Trent Boult and Tim Southee, a wicketkeeper who is integrated into the side, some role clarity and continuity.
We already know what the batting lineup will look like, but I am not keen on what they have done with it. Most young players, when they come into county cricket, will start in the middle order – even if they were openers for their entire school career – because you want them to integrate at a higher level, to build skills and confidence before moving up the order. The same thing should happen at Test level, with the senior players higher up the order while you integrate the younger ones.
I’m disappointed not to see Joe Root batting at three for the good of the team. When he was captain I was happy for him to bat at four, but his whole focus now is scoring runs and assisting his teammates. Jonny Bairstow has huge experience and if he is going to be in the team he must bat at four, with a younger player at five and Stokes at six.
Instead, Ollie Pope is to bat at three for the first time in his career. I am a huge fan of his, but this decision defies logic. You want players in positions where they are more likely to succeed, and though Pope has the game to be successful in recent times he has been a bit frenetic and anxious at the start of his innings and I don’t think his promotion will do anything to calm that down.
As much as I like Pope, Yorkshire’s Harry Brook has looked a serious talent this season, in whatever format, and I would like to see him selected while he is on the crest of this wave. He has shown great pedigree and there could be no better time to let him loose and give him a run.
This year, Brook, like Kent’s Ben Compton who is five years older at 28, have shown in the red-ball format the ability to go in on different pitches, adapt and succeed. In 2017, I coached England Under-19s on a tour of India that included Brook and Pope, but the absolute star of that team was Delray Rawlins, a middle‑order batter who scored a brilliant hundred in the first ODI and 140 in the Test.
When he came back from that tour Sussex put him in at No 3, where he struggled. He was soon dropped and has yet to make good that early promise. That is a perfect example of a wrong decision concerning a young player’s development when you are trying to integrate them at a new level.
I also hope to see a blend of youth and experience in the bowlers, with Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson rightly recalled after a spate of injuries elsewhere. Hopefully, they can help the integration of Matty Potts, a 23-year-old who is bang in form, has got good players out on fairly dry pitches this year, and who I would certainly pick.
Having seen a few games at Lord’s this year the pitches have been much better than the past few years, dry surfaces with a lot in them for everybody. Toby Roland‑Jones has been outstanding for Middlesex, showing how bowlers with height and decent pace can get a response. Given the weather and the dryness of the pitches I would also expect Jack Leach to play and do a fair amount of work.
While there will be plenty to learn along the way it is unrealistic to expect any coach to make an instant impact with a group of players who have struggled, but I am looking for progression across the next few months and to learn about the side’s setup and attitude.
There may be times when the desire to be aggressive causes them to come unstuck, but over the long term I expect to see players being a lot more confident and assertive. When it looks like they are enjoying their game, those of us watching will hopefully do the same.