By Peter Hayter
Not that Alex Hales, James Vince, Jason Roy and their Lions colleagues need it spelled out, but England selector Mick Newell sees no point in trying to minimise the size of the prize up for grabs in the current tri-series against their Sri Lanka and New Zealand counterparts.
With the 2015 ICC World Cup in Australia and New Zealand just six months and 16 ODIs away, Kevin Pietersen gone, several other batting spots up for grabs, the search on for “impact” batsman at the top of the order and with England desperate finally to lift a global 50-overs trophy for the first time in what will be 40 years of hurt since the inaugural tournament here in 1975, now would definitely be a good time to impress.
What is more, while concerns over Alastair Cook’s form in Test cricket have been allayed by his batting in England’s victory over India at the Ageas Bowl, questions over whether he commands a place in their best 50-over team linger.
On the Cook issue, Newell insisted: “We haven’t honestly even talked about that. I think that will have to happen probably over the course of the fourth and fifth Tests because the one-day series is quite soon after.
“Then we’ll need to sit down around the table and have the coach’s input, say, right, let’s get our best team together and go from there.
“You’re not suddenly going to throw out all that experience and just bring in a load of kids.”
But after watching James Taylor’s men win their opening game against Sri Lanka at Taunton by 51 runs in front of former coach Andy Flower and ODI batting coach Graham Thorpe, Newell did appear cautiously optimistic that the plan to find the requisite mix of explosive young batting talent and older heads might actually be coming together.
“It has been made clear to the players and clubs what is on offer,” said Newell. “Clearly there’s a bit more on this series than there normally is.
“With the World Cup coming fast I think all the Lions players playing in this series are in contention.
“One or two have played already, like Harry Gurney, Jonny Bairstow and Ravi Bopara, and then others like Hales and Vince and Roy are being talked about as having a chance and this is an opportunity to see how they react to that.
“They’re representing their country knowing that Andy Flower and Graham Thorpe and the senior coaches are with the team, so these matches have the feeling of a full international in some ways.
“And with the World Cup at the end of it I’d like to think that most of these players would feel that there’s an opportunity to push their way in.”
On the face of it, and for all the talk of four-year plans that inevitably accompanies the latest failure by an England side to make an impact at the World Cup, the thought of going into the next one considering at least one and possibly three players yet to represent them in the format, Vince, Hales and Roy, might appear either reckless or deperate, even though Nottinghamshire opener Hales has already shown what he can do at t20 level.
But their backers would call it nothing but exciting and their recent form supports the notion. Further, the members of this shadow squad know from seeing the likes of Joe Root, Gary Ballance, Chris Jordan, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali not just survive at Test level but prosper, that the jump to full honours is eminently achievable.
In England’s 339-5 at Taunton, Hales’ 101, rarely for him, contained no sixes. Roy’s 25 ball 51 did, however, six in all and five in one over off the spinner Sachith Pathirana, two of which missed my car parked behind the Press box at long-on by inches.
Vince never got going, but Newell had already seen enough as the Hampshire dasher returned to form with 93 from 51 balls in the T20 Blast quarter final against his own Notts side at Trent Bridge.
“It’s a funny thing when young players start to get talked about and sometimes they can get ahead of themselves,” Newell says.
“So it’s as much about seeing how they handle that as their abilities and techniques.
“First of all, you want to see these players play as they do for their counties – then can they deal with the expectation and the pressure?
“As for the specifics of what we are looking for, from the top four or five you’d want to see the ability to play long innings. In 35 to 40 overs of batting at this level, you can make the big hundreds like Hales did.
“If you want to change the top order in terms of having a more impact player, probably Hales and Vince are the two leading contenders in that area.
“With two new balls and the strength of one-day cricket with international quality opening bowlers we can’t just throw in a pinch hitter, you’ve got to pick guys with a good technique and, importantly for Alex, he’s started to display the ability to play four-day Championship innings again. Vince has been terrific for Hampshire, though he returned to form in our quarter-final a week too early for my liking!
“In terms of approach Jason Roy going out against Sri Lanka and batting as he did is terrific because that’s what he does for Surrey.
“He’s an interesting one where you might think ‘is 50 overs a little bit too long for him to play like that at the start?’ I don’t know.
“Finding out is what this is about really and it might be, in the short term, that No.5 might be a good option for him, asking him to make use of the power play, and be very aggressive in that last 15-over period.”
Apart from useful contributions from skipper Taylor (when will he get the chance at Test level he deserves, by the way?) and Bairstow, the other main point of interest in an impressive Lions innings at Taunton concerned Bopara, the Essex all-rounder veteran of 108 ODIs.
Bopara made 74 from 99 balls, going in at first wicket down, a position he has filled in just six of his 99 innings since his debut in 2007 and from which he has produced comfortably his worst aver- age, just over 17, as opposed to around 30-plus elsewhere.
“With Ravi going in at No.3 we’re obviously having a look at that option,” confirmed Newell. “For all the guys playing it is good to know they are in the mix but it is also good for those in the senior side to know there are people pushing them.
“With Craig Kieswetter injured, Bairstow’s the obvious back-up to Buttler in one-day cricket. And Taylor is trying to compete with Ballance and Root for the 3, 4, 5 spots.
“We are always thinking, what if somebody broke a finger or somebody was out of nick. Where would we go?
“There isn’t a huge amount of time to experiment so we’ve got to be confident that we’ve got players in all areas who can go straight in.
“But as well as being back-up they want to feel that if they kick on now they’ve got a strong chance. It’s all about focusing minds.”