England news May 7, 2016

Vince faces one last challenge before potential Test debut

ames Vince in action for England in World Twenty20 © AFP

James Vince has one final task awaiting him - to withstand a going-over from England's record Test wicket-taker - as he seeks to satisfy expectations that he is ready for a Test debut against Sri Lanka at Headingley.

There is a growing sense in the higher echelons of English cricket that Vince's time is nigh and a commanding performance for Hampshire at Old Trafford against James Anderson, 433 Test wickets to his name and no thoughts whatsoever of retirement, and the rest of Lancashire's attack, would add the final touches to a CV that England are of a mind to accept.

It has been a good early season for batsmen wishing to pronounce themselves of England quality. Pitches are flatter in the Specsavers Championship because of the new toss regulations which allow the visiting side the bat first if they wish (11 of 13 matches have been drawn), and demand an approach from batsmen and bowlers alike which have more in common with Test cricket.

Now a mini-heatwave has arrived across England with the promise of more batting rewards. Batsmen are expected to bat long; bowlers know that wins will be hard earned on pitches that no longer nibble around all day.

What 25-year-old would not want to grasp the opportunity which has presented itself as respected judges sing his praises?

A full programme of matches, beginning on Sunday, is the final chance for England contenders to enhance their claims with all attention on the composition of an England top six that is awash with uncertainty.

Alex Hales will probably be retained as opener, but Nick Compton only averaged 30.6 during his Test return in South Africa and appears vulnerable at No 3 and the sad end to James Taylor's career because of a heart ailment leaves England with a vacancy at No 5. Vince's admirers spend most time debating which slot he should fill.

Trevor Bayliss, England's coach, returned to the country on Wednesday after a short holiday in his native Australia following World Twenty20 and he is expected to hot foot it to Manchester to draw his own conclusions about Vince's readiness for Test cricket as well as take in Ian Bell's form down the M6 at Edgbaston.

Vince's flawless 119 against the defending champions Yorkshire at Headingley last month has been presented as a defining innings in his first-class career. Jason Gillespie, Yorkshire's director of cricket, said afterwards: "He's a proper player, no doubt about that." James Whitaker, England's national selector, was another admirer looking on.

Andy Flower, coach to England Lions and the England Performance Programme, is often guarded with his assessment of up-and-coming players, but he has made little secret of his admiration for Vince. "He made a great start this season with Hampshire up at Yorkshire making a hundred in a tough situation against a good attack, one that's used to winning," he told the Daily Mail "That bodes well for him and he's learnt a lot about himself over the last few years. I'd be surprised if he's not pushing hard for selection for that first Test."

One of Flower's responsibilities is to develop leadership potential among young England players and, although England's most pressing need from Vince is for runs - whether at No 3 or No 5 with Joe Root bound to be retained at four - Flower is always predisposed to players of discipline and team ethic as Kevin Pietersen became keenly aware.

Andy Flower has turned his attentions to England Lions © Getty Images

It is two-and-a-half years Flower was sacked as England's team director in the wake of an acriminious Ashes whitewash and his rehabilitation as coach of the Lions has had Vince, as captain, at its heart.

"Tactically he's very astute and very calm," Flower said. "His players like playing for him and he communicated very well with his bowlers. I think he's really started to enjoy the responsibility of captaincy and that's been great to see. That's very much part of our job, to give them these experiences."

Vince's England debut was a non-event - a rained off ODI against Ireland in Dublin when all attention surrounded Flower's replacement as team director, Peter Moores, who learned of his sacking immediately after the match. Four Twenty20 internationals have followed, including a level-headed contribution in World T20 against Afghanistan in Delhi, in which he has integrated smoothly into the squad.

Vince's first-class average of 41 is hardly irresistible, but Michael Vaughan, the former England captain and a batsman much in the same mould, believes that he is capable of addressing the rise in quality in Test cricket better than most. That was certainly true for Vaughan, who averaged 37 in first-class cricket but 42 in Tests.

"You have to try to move the team on with better players and I think Vince is the better player," Vaughan said. "He's played well for Hampshire for many years. He's got the right style of game that might even go to another level when he plays Test cricket."

Vaughan would bat Vince at No 3 where Compton has done little to appease his critics since his return. He made 85 as England beat South Africa in the first Test in Durban, followed that with solid returns of 49 and 45, but as the tour progressed did not pass 26 in five innings. His form for Middlesex has also been unspectacular - he averages 24 without a half-century - and if he was omitted he might view a third coming as highly improbable.

Gary Ballance's tortuous form for Yorkshire has also stilled talk of his potential return in the middle order.

Bell, by contrast, has been in bountiful form in his new role of Warwickshire captain, averaging more than 80. It remains to be seen whether the selectors will wish to back-track and return to him so soon, especially at 34, but unless they drop Alex Hales to No 3 to find a place for Sam Robson at the top of the order, they might have to.

As for Vince, in a summer where Sri Lanka and Pakistan are the visitors, it seems a good time to discover in Test cricket whether he has the substance to go with his style.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps