Cook, Bell & Trott. England’s best Top 3?

Whilst England managed to reach the final of the ICC Champions Trophy and find themselves 2nd in the ODI Rankings, there is a huge room for improvement if they wish to contend for the ICC World Cup in 2015. In this piece, I look to analyse the make-up of England’s top order which has come under much criticism in recent weeks.

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Last Sunday at Edgbaston it was perhaps inevitable that when harsh weather forced the ICC Champions Trophy to be decided by a T20 International in all but name, England’s ODI trophy drought would go on for at least another couple of years.

England battled courageously and could perhaps count themselves unlucky to end up on the losing side. If Jonathan Trott had held that sharp chance off Virat Kohli, or Ian Bell had not have been given out by a dubious decision from the Third Umpire, then perhaps they would have been the ones celebrating.

Yet the Indian’s tactical nous and vast experience in the shortest format of the game, largely through the IPL, shone through as the England batting line-up seemed completely at sea against the spin of Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. The two spinners combined for match figures of 8 overs for 4 wickets, conceding just 39 runs (at 4.9 runs per over).

However, whilst Limited Overs Head Coach Ashley Giles will take heart from England’s showing at the tournament, it is important take stock of how much we have really learnt about England as a 50 over side. Ignoring the rain affected games so far this summer, in straight 50 over contests England have won 3 and lost 3. However, this is not to deny the fact that England have certainly strengthened in this form of cricket, especially in the last couple of years.

For much of the 2000s, England in ODI’s was a mixed bag. They seemed to win as many as they lost, throw out call-ups for fun and perform disastrously in World Cups. It is clear what has benefitted England hugely in recent years is consistency of selection.

There is now a nucleus to the side. Before there seemed a habit of selecting “bits and pieces” cricketers; players who could bat and bowl yet seemed unlikely to score 100s or take 5 wickets in a game. Perhaps this is being slightly harsh, but you could add the likes of Michael Yardy, Dimitri Mascarenhas and Luke Wright to this list. However, nowadays there appears a focus on trying to select what is close to the best 11 cricketers in the country, with the team sharing a large similarity with the Test team, yet with a sprinkling of two or three players who appear moulded for the shorter format of the game.

This has not come without criticism. For the majority of the ICC Champions Trophy, there was a huge debate surrounding England’s top 3 – Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott. These players strike rates are around 75-80 (runs per 100 balls) in ODIs. The England selectors argue that this high quality top 3 will more often than not provide a stable platform, allowing the more fluent and expansive players to express themselves later on in the innings.

The criticism from some in the media is that these players score too slowly, putting too much pressure on the middle order to score runs at a quick rate. However, I am not of the belief that there are any current county cricketers that are putting themselves in a position to suggest that they could do a better job. Joshua Cobb at Leicestershire has smashed 467 runs from just 7 innings in the YB40 competition so far this season, at a strike rate of 120. If he continues that form through the season then perhaps he will get a chance in the near future. Michael Carberry is evidently still in England’s thoughts, after his selection for the England Lions recently, and is averaging 67.16 at over a run a ball for Hampshire at the top of the order. He is another batsman who would be seen as the player closest to forcing his way in to the One Day reckoning.

Based upon form at this stage of the season, these two players are possible suitors to the role of pinch-hitting at the top of the order. These are batsman who like to dictate at the beginning of the innings, looking to upset the bowler’s rhythm and therefore should be watched closely by the selectors. However, as Ashley Giles will be thinking, making runs in the 40-over competition and scoring heavily in ODIs are different propositions altogether.

England’s next ODI fixtures are not until September, where they face Ireland in Dublin before taking on Australia in five games, to wrap up the summer. I believe after a hard fought Ashes campaign, England may rest a few heads at some stage during the limited over games, therefore the likes of Cobb and Carberry could find themselves as surprise selections if they can prolong their superb form.

Moreover, whilst Jos Buttler is in position of the gloves at this present time, Steven Davies must still be in the thoughts of the selectors. A very capable gloveman, and an aggressive stroke maker at the top of the order, the Surrey wicketkeeper is showing signs of recovery after a turbulent 2012 campaign. Davies already has 8 caps for England, where he has averaged a touch over 30 with a highest score of 87.

Buttler has had a mixed time during his first 14 appearances in ODIs, yet it is only right that England stick with him for at least another series. In the past England have chopped and changed wicketkeepers, with the likes of Craig Kieswetter, Tim Ambrose and Phil Mustard, and have yet to achieve consistent success, yet Buttler’s potential is evident and they should persevere with a player who has clearly worked extremely hard on his keeping.

It is less than 2 years until the start of the World Cup, but England will have the opportunity to experience the likely conditions that they will be faced with, a year earlier with 5 ODIs down under in January 2014. Giles should treat this as a dress rehearsal for the tournament itself. This therefore makes September’s ODIs absolutely crucial, as he looks to piece together a squad that he would like to take out to Australia, this winter. At the present moment I believe England are in a good place right now with a settled top order, and with Kevin Pietersen to return, things look set to improve further.

However, I believe it is crucial that Giles uses the upcoming ODIs to experiment with a player or two that could potentially get the team off to a flyer in the next World Cup. This does not necessarily mean an out-and-out slogger, more a batsman who thrives upon facing the new ball and can take advantage of the powerplay overs by piercing the gaps and hitting over the top. Whilst I am not advocating for the dropping of any of England’s top 3, I am suggesting that England need to fly to Australia for the next World Cup with a variety of options, whether that be with spin bowlers, all-rounders or in this case top-order batting.

In the last World Cup, England opened the batting with Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen. With Pietersen set to return to the England fold this summer, it is unclear how he will fit back in to the setup. Ian Bell has good statistics at the top of the order for England, however a left hand/right hand combination of England captain Alastair Cook and the enigma Kevin Pietersen is a mouth-watering prospect.

Opening the batting for England in ODIs, Pietersen averages 58.85 from 8 matches, with a strike rate of 87.84. These are statistics that Ashley Giles should pay close attention to. In a 50 over game there is a temptation to say that you want your best batsmen to bat the most amount of overs. With a combined 61 hundreds between them in International Cricket, Cook and Pietersen have the potential to propel England to World Cup success.

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