England’s openers must learn from lessons of Nair and Hameed

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As England head from Galle to Chennai for a four-match test series against India, they do so in good spirits after an impressive 2-0 series win against Sri Lanka. Beyond the skill level of their spinners, the main concern will be the form of Crawley and Sibley at the top of the order, and their ability to play spin from the start of the innings.

Their struggles on the back of an impressive home summer, in which Crawley scored a mesmerising 267 against Pakistan, is a reminder of just how hard it is to establish yourself at test level.

On the back of his gritty 56 not out in the last innings of the tour, Sibley admitted that he had been in a ‘dark place’ on the tour and that his struggles against Lasith Embuldeniya meant his place was under threat in India. His awareness of the vulnerability of his place in the team illustrates Sibley’s consciousness of the cut-throat nature of test cricket.

Despite an impressive start to his career which has included a test hundred in South Africa, his place at the top of the order is uncertain. Similarly, despite a sparkling 267 against Pakistan, Crawley’s average of 8.3 on the Sri Lanka tour means his place is by no means guaranteed.

The question now is whether Sibley and Crawley have the mental courage to overcome this difficult spell and firmly establish themselves as part of England’s top order for years to come. One only has to ask Karun Nair and Haseeb Hameed, the two stars the last time England toured India in 2016, to realise the England openers early success is no guarantee of a prolonged test career.

The main concern will be the form of Crawley and Sibley at the top of the order, and their ability to play spin from the start of the innings.

Many cricket fans may have forgotten the name Karun Nair, such has been the carousel of Indian stars that have taken the stage since he last played for his country, but his average of 62.3 in test cricket remains the highest of all current Indian test players, albeit only from six matches.

In December 2016, Nair became the second Indian after Virender Sehwag to score a test match triple century when he notched up 303 not out in Chennai against England. This was only his third test match and saw him become only the third player to convert his maiden test ton into a triple hundred after Australian Bob Simpson and Sir Garfield Sobers.

More impressive still was his ability to score 232 runs in one day; his final century was completed off 75 balls, as he ramped Stuart Broad and reverse swept Moeen Ali to the boundary on many occasions. Having arrived at the crease at 211-3, Nair saw his team through to 759-7 declared.

Such a herculean effort would in most people’s eyes lead on to a glittering test career. If he could score 303 not out against England he would surely have the concentration, skill and temperament to succeed anywhere in the world. Even the Indian Prime Minister spoke out to congratulate Nair on his achievement.

Fast forward five years and the 29-year-old Nair is playing domestic cricket for Karnataka, having only played two matches for his country since his mammoth innings against England.

After being inexplicably dropped for the first match of India’s next series against Bangladesh in 2017 (the first since England’s tour), Nair returned for the next two matches, scoring 26, 0, 23 and 5 in four innings. With competition for places so intense at the top of the Indian order, such miserly returns were not enough to keep him in the team as he was replaced by Hinuma Vihari.

The closest he got to playing for his country again was his inclusion for the 2018 tour of England, but he never got the opportunity to showcase his talents again, instead relegated to the role of water carrier as England won 4-1. The fact that Nair has only played two test matches since his triple hundred is staggering and serves as a stark warning to Zak Crawley not to lean on his 267 as a way of justifying his future place in the team. Test cricket is so demanding that you have to keep improving just to keep up.

While Crawley’s sparkling knock against Pakistan will no doubt remain in the minds of the England selectors if his difficulties against spin continue in India, he can’t rely on it as insurance for his place in the team. The struggles of Sibley and Crawley make one wonder what happened to the other emerging star of England’s last tour in India, Haseeb Hameed who, in contrast to the current openers, looked completely at ease in the face of an onslaught from Ashwin and Jadeja.

Hameed was a shining light on a very difficult tour for Alastair Cook’s team. Over three tests Hameed averaged 43.8 with two fifties, as he became England’s youngest test opener at the raw age of 19.

While England’s players floundered against Ashwin and Jadeja, Hameed looked far more at ease, even scoring an unbeaten half century with a broken finger in the second innings of the third match of the series. His injury dictated that that would be his last involvement in the series, and as it turns out, his last match for England to date.

After his performances in India, Virat Kohli dubbed Hameed a ‘future star’, while others nicknamed him the ‘Baby Boycott’. The career that has followed is therefore difficult to comprehend.

While skill alone can lead to success in the white-ball game, it only gets you so far in the longer format.

Having scored over 1000 runs in his debut County Championship season in 2016 and then been England’s standout player in India, Hameed’s fortunes have been on a downward spiral ever since. 

The grit and determination he showed in resisting India’s spinners have disappeared, along with his confidence in his own ability. After averaging only 10 for Lancashire in the 2018 domestic season, he was ignominiously dropped to the second eleven before being moved onto Nottinghamshire. His decline in such a short space of time is baffling, and again shows the mental perseverance needed to succeed in international cricket.

Still only 24, Hameed has plenty of time to re-launch his test career, and if Crawley, Sibley and Burns fail to build on their early promise at the top of England’s batting line up, his chance may still come. What the fortunes of Nair and Hameed make brutally clear is the importance of a good temperament and self-confidence when forging a career in test cricket. While skill alone can lead to success in the white-ball game, it only gets you so far in the longer format.

One only has to look at the career of Alastair Cook, a man not blessed with an array of eye-catching shots, to understand what it takes to succeed at test level. The key ingredient to Cook’s career was the ability to concentrate for hours on end without making a mistake.

If Crawley and Sibley want to follow in Cook’s footsteps they would do well to be guided by his mental fortitude and gritty determination. While a solid defence and ability to score runs is important, it is the mental side which separates the world-class players from the highly talented.

Like Karun Nair and Haseeb Hameed, they undoubtedly have the talent, but the question remains whether they will ever find the mental determination they need to harness it. If not, they could follow the stars of 2016 in becoming two highly talented players who failed to adjust to the relentless nature of cricket at the highest level.

Image: ForwardDefensive via Creative Commons

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