England v India, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 2nd day August 16, 2014

Do England stick or twist with Robson?

A number of holes in England's Test team have been filled, but the second opening slot has not been nailed down. A tricky decision will need to be made with an Ashes looming next year
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Who will open the batting for England in the Ashes next year?

The series may seem distant but, with England currently playing their last Test of 2014, time is running out to establish a settled line-up. They now have only three Tests against West Indies, in a series starting in April, and two Tests against New Zealand, before the Ashes begins.

While the middle-order now appears relatively settled, Moeen Ali has taken the spinner's role and a batch of seamers - the likes of Liam Plunkett, Chris Jordan, Chris Woakes and Steven Finn - have been identified to support Stuart Broad and James Anderson, England are yet to find a secure opening partnership.

Sam Robson and Alastair Cook contributed England's highest opening partnership of 2014 in the first innings of the final Test of the Investec series, but it was a stand of only 66. Only for the ninth-wicket do England have a lower highest stand figure this year and not since March 2013, when Cook and Nick Compton made 231 together in Dunedin, have England enjoyed a century opening stand.

Even if doubts remain over Cook's form - his 79 on the second day of the final Investec Test was far from convincing as he was dropped twice - his position now seems secure again so we look at the contenders to open alongside the England captain.

Sam Robson
England have to decide to stick or twist with Robson. Seven Tests - six-and-a-half, really - into his career, he has demonstrated some decent characteristics - he scored a fine century at Headingley and has impressed the management with his attitude on and off the pitch - but has failed to cement his position with an average of 30.54. Of most concern, he has looked particularly susceptible to deliveries on or just outside off stump, which is an area sure to be exploited by the Australian and South African attacks. England's problem the gap until the Caribbean and, at that stage, they may consider it too late to change such an important position just before the Ashes series starts. The Lions have a tour to South Africa in the New Year and that may offer a last chance to persuade the selectors to retain faith.

Michael Carberry
Carberry might have every right to consider himself unfortunate. Australia was a harsh test against a ferocious attack on quick pitches and, though Carberry certainly did not excel - he managed one half-century in 10 innings and averaged 28.10 - nor did he capitulate. He faced more balls than anyone and impressed with his bravery and determination. Some thought he had done enough to earn an opportunity against the somewhat less fearsome attacks England have faced this summer. But Carberry will be 34 at the end of September and, after a modest season in Division Two Championship cricket (he is averaging 37.88), a recall seems unlikely.

Adam Lyth
A 26-year-old left-handed opener, Lyth has long been thought of as a talented player - he represented England U-19 and the Lions in 2011 - but has sometimes appeared to lack the concentration required to make the most of his talent; many a bright start has been ended by a nick to the slips. But he has enjoyed a fine season for Yorkshire in 2014 - he has scored over 1,000 Championship runs at an average of 56.44 - and, with a more aggressive temperament and wider range of strokes, could offer England a more positive start at the top of the order than either Robson or Cook can manage. It would be asking a huge amount for him to start his Test career against Australia, so if England want him, he should be selected for the Caribbean tour.

Joe Root
Root made an elegant 180 as opening batsman in the Lord's Test during the 2013 Ashes and averaged a respectable 37.66 in five Tests in that position. Such moments of success were fleeting, however, and there were several occasions when he seemed troubled by the extra bounce of the new ball. He has delivered much more consistently since he was moved back into the middle-order. He had made 720 runs in seven Tests this summer, rebuilding the innings where required and accelerating when appropriate, and is averaging exactly 90. Still aged only 23, it may well be that a time comes when Root moved back up to the top of the order but, much like Gary Ballance, it might well be considered weakening a strength to promote him now.

Nick Compton
The decision to drop Compton remains one of the mysteries of English cricket. Having appeared to establish himself with back-to-back centuries in New Zealand, he was left out of the side ahead of the Ashes after failing to reach 20 in the next three Tests. While he has managed only one century in this summer's County Championship, he has been out in the 90s three times and remains as good a player of fast bowling and as hard to dismiss as anyone in the English game. Aged 31 and with a first-class average of 43.82, he continues to make a case for selection, though the sense remains that some in the England management simply did not like him and will not countenance his return.

Varun Chopra
Chopra, a former England U-19 captain who scored a century on first-class debut in 2006, worked his way to the brink of the England side with strong and consistent performances. But after becoming the only Warwickshire batsman to score 1,000 first-class runs in 2011, 2012 and 2013, he has endured a pretty dismal 2014 Championship season in which he has failed to score a century and is averaging only 21.50. It may prove a bad time to have lost form.

Gary Ballance
As a young man, Ballance opened the batting at every level. He eventually found his opportunity at Yorkshire in the middle-order but the success he has made of the No.3 position this summer (he has averaged 70.40 in the seven Tests since he was promoted) suggests he probably has what it takes to move up another position. Whether that is desirable, though - finding a replacement to Jonathan Trott at No. 3 was thought likely to prove difficult and it might prove unwise to weaken a strength - remains highly debatable.

Alex Hales
A season that started with Hales unable to command a place in Nottinghamshire's Championship side is ending with the 25-year-old making a strong case for inclusion in the England side in all formats. He struggled horribly in 2013 averaging just 13.94 as he allowed his focus to drift towards the T20 format in which he has enjoyed such success. A fringe player in April, he has forced his way back into the county side and is currently averaging 49.73 in the top division of the Championship. And, if an unease against the short ball remains - at six feet five inches, Hales struggles to get out of the way of well-directed bouncers - he now looks far more secure outside off stump. Certain to be named in England's ODI side in the coming days, Hales will be given an opportunity to demonstrate his qualities in that format with a view to making a decision about the Caribbean tour next year. It might not be an ideal way to learn about a player's potential for Test cricket, but the management hope they can gauge Hales' commitment - he has sometimes suffered, perhaps unfairly, for a reputation as somewhat relaxed - as well as taking a closer look at his technique.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on August 21, 2014, 19:47 GMT

    what abt morgan?

  • Patchmaster on August 18, 2014, 9:48 GMT

    Surely it has to be Lyth ? But in an ideal World, they'd drop Bell, bring in Lyth and drop robson and bring in Hales. That would be a much better line up for ENG

  • __PK on August 18, 2014, 5:11 GMT

    I bet they drop Robson and move everyone up a slot, thereby turning one weak batting position into six.

  • dummy4fb on August 18, 2014, 1:18 GMT

    Bring back Nick Compton !

  • Chris_P on August 17, 2014, 22:07 GMT

    Although he hasn't been a success, nor has been an abject failure either. With England's recent resurgence, IMHO, he should be persevered with given he is going back to county cricket, can refine his issues with probably the best person to guide him batting at the other end with. His captain @ inspirational mentor Chris Rogers. After all, he did perfrm to get selected in the first place.

  • anton1234 on August 17, 2014, 15:56 GMT

    Simple really. Promote Ballance or Root to open with Cook and bring Pietersen in to fill the place vacated by Robson. Pietersen is too good a player to not be in the England team and I firmly believe he needs to be in the team for England to have any chance against Australia come next summer. Do not be fooled by the performance against India. At the start of the series I was expecting a whitewash, despite England's recent troubles. India simply does not know how to play away from home. The only thing the management has to make sure is that Pietersen is not allowed to stray out of line. If Pietersen is not in the team and Mitchell Johnson maintains his form since the comeback, I expect a 5-0 whitewash in favour of the Aussies but with Pietersen in it, I still expect the Aussies to win but somewhat more of a contest.

  • Youcannotbowlshorttoadamgilchrist on August 17, 2014, 14:58 GMT

    Very interested to see Alex Hales described as 'somewhat relaxed' in this article. When asking for his autograph after the Lions match on August 8, I asked him to add '666' to it. He seemed puzzled and asked why, to which I replied, 'Because you're the next Test player!' to which he responded, "I wish!" He seemed genuinely surprised I had brought this up and was not being falsely modest. This was refreshing but also illuminated his laidback character. Not sure there are grounds to question his commitment but he could do with someone whose opinion he respects telling him how good he is!

  • milepost on August 17, 2014, 14:50 GMT

    Just pick the player on best form, send them on the lions tours. Age isn't important and neither is whether the management like a player. KP in and Bell to open with Cook (though he is still under question) looks good. Carberry and Compton are good players. Doesn't really matter though we are going to smash England in the Ashes without breaking a sweat.

  • dummy4fb on August 17, 2014, 14:46 GMT

    None of the batsmen, as we saw on the verdict, since the retirement of Strauss have done anything worth talking about in eleven or more innings, even Cook in his last 11, apart from a 95 and a 70* , has been sub standard

    It appears that Compton is not liked because he speaks his mind-like KP did- and England management want followers, not leaders, so those who keep quite and obey the head boy, get selected over and above talent.

    Mark Butcher pointed out that Robson's technique is wrong, and they have persevered with this, due to England winning, but it has been a mistake. They need to find another opener , be it Carrbery ,or Compton [whom they won't consider] but to stick with Robson is wrong.

    Perhaps move Ballance up to open, and find another #3, as moving Bell or Root would deprive England of middle order success, given that at #6 they are still left wanting with Ali

  • MariusPontmercy94 on August 17, 2014, 14:02 GMT

    Carberry. He's a decent enough batsman, arguably their best fielder, and Aus has shown that another experienced head at the top of the order doesn't hurt (Rogers). If they're not gonna play him, then go for either Compton, or Hales if the ECB decides that Compton has done too well at first class level to get a Test recall. Both are more attacking batsmen to compliment Cook's habit of anchoring a Test innings. Not sure about playing Hales at Test level, but hey, Aus tried it with Maxwell.

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