By Will Jennings
Over 5000 miles away in the heart of Chittagong, a new England cricket team is being born. A fresh group of players are emerging, fearlessly determined to lead the way for their country over the next decade. A new dawn is beginning, pioneered by the brilliance of Ben Duckett and the unerring temperament of Haseeb Hameed.
Both batsmen must play in the first Test on Thursday. The dichotomy between the two cannot be greater: one left-handed, the other right, one innovative and overtly modern, the other more traditional and anachronistic for 2016. All England supporters will be praying that Hameed is the answer to the team’s seemingly relentless problem at the top of the order aside captain Alastair Cook, whilst Duckett will add dynamism and enterprise to the middle order.
The duo both seized their opportunity in what was essentially their Test match trial yesterday, both scoring fifties in contrasting manners and subsequently retiring to give the middle order batsmen a chance to find form. Only the opinion-dividing Gary Ballance – who surely faces a head-to-head shoot-out with Duckett for a place at number four – impressed, being left not out on 36 as the rest of his team crumbled to a dismal 256 all out.
Ballance is a good player, but has failed to find the form he demonstrated so impressively during the summer of 2014 against Sri Lanka and India. The turmoil inflicted on him by Trent Boult the following year remains an enduring memory for England followers, where a conspicuous lack of foot movement and a failure to get forward became palpable. Duckett is the better player, providing the team with aggression and innovation rather than Ballance’s less stimulating style.
Joe Root at three is a must, fresh from a prolonged break from cricket after being rested during the well-contested one-day international series. England’s talisman will surely score runs in abundance this winter, manipulating the ball off Bangladesh’s range of spinners and being unmoved by the home side’s new ball threat.
Bangladesh’s seam bowling does possess some form of potency, as Hameed discovered during his 125 ball innings on Monday. The 19 year-old opener was struck on both the helmet and glove by the dangerous Taskin – who did not even make the test squad – during his opening spell, signalling Bangladesh’s intent on making conditions hostile for the tourists. Hameed’s ability to bat on to make a chanceless half-century is testament to the young man’s disposition and determination, characteristics that have ostensibly been noticeable throughout his brief time with the team so far.
Whilst England’s middle order will surely comprise the much-improved Jonny Bairstow at five and Ben Stokes – who balances the side so well – at six, the real issue concerns bowling selection. The debate between playing two spinners or three remains a compelling one, with the inclusion of the evergreen Gareth Batty in the squad surprising many. Cambridge graduate Zafar Ansari has also travelled, taking four wickets in the recent tour game and also providing additional strength with the bat.
Deploying a trio of spinners in order to combat Bangladesh’s range of slow bowlers and the slow, turning pitch at Chittagong would be a polemical decision by Trevor Bayliss, inevitably meaning the omission of both Jake Ball and Steven Finn. Given the shoulder injury of James Anderson – the spearhead of England’s attack – Stuart Broad and the terrific Chris Woakes will surely not miss out, whilst Stokes would function as the team’s third fast bowler. That would leave three positions available, two of which will surely be claimed by the important but often inconsistent Moeen Ali and the effective but unreliable Adil Rashid.
If England choose the bold yet correct option and do only select three seamers to facilitate the inclusion of a trio of spinners, the choice between Surrey team-mates Batty and Ansari is a difficult one. Batty possesses control and experience, not turning the ball as much as Ali or Rashid but offering significantly greater accuracy. Nonetheless, his age is an issue and his selection would surely prove contentious to those who want to see the fresh-faced Ansari given a chance.
Batty’s role on the tour comprises more than just playing. His wealth of experience at county level and ability to take wickets for such a prolonged period of time will inevitably help the likes of Ali and Rashid develop, whilst Ansari will have learned lots from him back at Surrey. If Batty is overlooked, his journey to Bangladesh will not have been a futile one.
If England are to play three spinners, Ansari must play. He will provide an extra dimension to our attack owing to his left-arm action, and making his test debut will only serve to accelerate his progression as a cricketer. He would also be a considerably useful batsman at number nine, averaging 31 in first-class cricket with three hundreds. Choosing Batty ahead of him would be negative, especially given the stage he is at in his lengthy career.
England must be bold. The pitches will be turning. Playing four seamers may seem a safe and thus attractive option, but gambling and deploying a spin trio is the superior option. England must learn from their mistakes on previous sub-continent tours, be brave, and allow the fresh talents of Hameed, Duckett and Ansari to flourish. With this formula, the team will too.