It is now more than seven years since Andrew Strauss announced his retirement from all forms of cricket and the debate over who should open the batting for England in Test cricket has been raging ever since.
For six of those years, it was centred around finding a partner for Sir Alastair Cook but, when he signed off from international cricket in fairytale style last September, a side who had wholly failed to find one opening batsman worthy of the name at the highest level suddenly needed two.
- Giles: Difficult to look past Sibley
- What next for England’s middle men?
Twelve months on, the good news is that, after a mere seven years, England appear to have found another opening batsman who just might have what it takes to succeed in Test match cricket.
Rory Burns may average just 29.25 after 12 Tests but his performances against Australia this summer, in a series where opening batsmen struggled – just ask David Warner – suggest that there is plenty more to come from the left-hander.
Of the England batsmen, only Ben Stokes averaged more than Burns’ 39 and perhaps even more impressive than his maiden Test hundred at Edgbaston and two fifties, at Lord’s and Old Trafford, was the way he adapted and improved as the Ashes went on.
He battled hard, addressed technical issues that Australia had sought to exploit and showed real composure at the crease, never dwelling too long on a false shot or a good delivery.
Given that there were calls for him to be dropped ahead of the first Test, Burns has turned things around quickly this summer and, unlike many of those who came before him, he has a solid base to build upon going into the winter.
His spot is secured and the only reason he will not take his place at the top of the order in New Zealand is if England opt to rest him ahead of the series that follows in South Africa – the latter being part of the World Test Championship, unlike the former – and, as Burns only plays red-ball cricket internationally, that seems unlikely.
The less good news for England is that they are still no closer to finding a second opener. Joe Denly would perhaps dispute that after his excellent 94 in the second innings in the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval and that will likely be enough to book him a seat on the plane to New Zealand.
The Kent man has not opened the batting regularly in red-ball cricket for a number of years though and in his eight Tests to date, he has been shunted about the order, starting at three, dropping down to four for the start of the Ashes and then thrust in at the top of the order for the last two Tests.
Denly, to his credit, has taken it all in his stride, never complaining. It would be harsh to criticise him for failing to nail down a spot in the order given how often he has been moved around but equally, the way England have seemingly used him to plug gaps others would rather not fill, hardly suggests there is a long-term plan for him in the team.
No one could say that Denly has disgraced himself, far from it. He averaged 31.20 in the Ashes, scoring three fifties, and his overall average in Test cricket of 28.56 is not far off that of Burns.
Yet at 33 and with talk that England will attempt to inject some new blood into their batting ranks this winter, Denly could well be the one to miss out – it may be that New Zealand is his last chance to change the selectors’ thinking.
Warwickshire’s Dom Sibley has forced his way to the front of the queue to partner Burns – should Denly lose his place – after a spectacular season at Edgbaston and he could hardly have done more to grab the attention in the past few days. Scores of 215 not out and 109 in the same game are quite hard to ignore.
That’s what Sibley managed at Trent Bridge, taking his tally up to 1324 County Championship runs for the season, comfortably the most in the top flight, at 69.68 with five hundreds – two of them doubles – and five fifties to his name.
It is hard to imagine what more Sibley could do to earn himself a Test chance this winter.
Zak Crawley of Kent is the other batsman who has been widely linked with the England opening berth. An untimely dip in form could harm his chance though – he made 82 against Nottinghamshire recently, but that is his only score of note in his last six first-class innings, with four single-figure scores in that time.
Of the opening batsmen in Division One, only Sibley and Cook have scored more than his 820 runs but, at 21, Crawley is three years Sibley’s junior and it may be that he has to wait for his chance on the international stage.
If Jason Roy is to have a future as a Test batsman, it will surely come in the middle-order, and the same goes for James Vince who, having starting the season opening for Hampshire, has now dropped down to No 5.