Will Cook find his perfect partner in Bangladesh?
Ben Duckett is set to become Alastair Cook’s ninth opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss when the Test series against Bangladesh begins in Chittagong on Thursday.
Duckett, who has recorded four half-centuries from his most recent five innings on the tour, has been favoured over Haseeb Hameed, with Gary Ballance expected to retain his place in the middle-order – he will probably bat at No. 4 – and offspinner Gareth Batty returning for his first Test since June 2005.
Cook confirmed that England will field three seamers (Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes) and three spinners (Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Batty). It is interesting to speculate on which of the seamers might have missed out had James Anderson, or even Mark Wood, been available. Or perhaps the balance of the side would have been different. The pitch looked surprisingly green on Wednesday evening but all the predictions are for a heartbreaker for seamers.
While Hameed remains highly rated by the England team management, they have been impressed by Duckett’s form and his naturally positive approach to batting. With batting against the new ball offering perhaps the best chance for relatively free-scoring, the management have decided they might be missing an opportunity if Cook was partnered by the equally patient Hameed. And with the decision made to open with Duckett, rather than bat him at No. 4, if left Hameed, who is seen as a specialist opener, with little opportunity.
Hameed could be in for a long few weeks now. While the talk is of everyone in the squad winning an opportunity at one stage or another before Christmas – and it is true that the ferociously hot and humid conditions will test even these impressively fit cricketers – it is not hard to see a scenario where he misses out. England’s selection policy over recent times has been to give players ample opportunity to find their feet at this level and Duckett, likes Alex Hales and Alex Lyth and Sam Robson before him, can reasonably expected to retain his place well into the India series.
The case for Duckett is close to irrefutable. After a prolific season in List A and first-class cricket, he became the first man to win both the PCA’s players’ player of the year and their young player of the year award in the same season and took to international cricket with two half-centuries in the three-match ODI series. Blessed with a wide range of strokes, fantastically fast hands and an apparently unflustered temperament, he may well be that England have found something quite special in Duckett. David Smith, the former Warwickshire batsman who has been CEO of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, offered both Duckett and James Taylor their first professional contracts. He rates Duckett the more talented of the two; even referring to him as a genius.
Ben Duckett’s early tour form has been convincing © Getty Images
Perhaps there will be times, as he pushes at the ball, when Duckett is forced to tighten a technique that can leave a gap between bat and pad. And perhaps it will take time to adjust to this standard: there are few truly fast bowlers or top spinners in Division Two of the County Championship. But, aged only 22 (he celebrated his birthday on Monday), he has the time and talent to go far. It might also be noted by those who suggest the selectors only pick those playing in Division One of the County Championship, that both England’s opening batsmen play in Division Two.
He does not have to look far for a role-model. His partner in Chittagong, Cook, will become England’s most capped Test player on Thursday. He has already broken just about every English Test batting record (including most Test runs and most Test centuries) and, aged 31, there could be trunk-loads more to come. Only Allan Border has played more consecutive Tests (this will be Cook’s 132nd; Border played 153 in succession) and no non-Asian batsman has score more runs in Asia.
It is asking a great deal for Duckett to emulate such levels but he is the sort of player who could have a decade in front of him at this level. Though tours to Bangladesh often spring an anomaly or two (quiz question: which former England captain made his Test debut on the previous tour to Bangladesh? Answer below), it really does seem as if this could be the first step in a wonderful journey.
It says much for the enduring demands of Test cricket that, on the brink of another milestone, Cook once again finds himself leading something of a rebuilding job with this England team. The failure to find long-term replacements for the likes of Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell sees England go into this game with only two centrally-contracted specialist batsmen (the number of allrounders in their top seven renders that a slightly dubious statistic), while the recall of a 39-year-old off-spinner underlines a sense that, for all the good things about county cricket, it has failed to produce quality spinners in recent years. The next nine weeks represent as tough a challenge as Cook has faced as captain. To win in India would be a remarkable achievement.
To win in Bangladesh would be impressive, too. While Bangladesh play too little Test cricket to give themselves the optimum chance of success – they may well have played more had they agreed to the introduction of promotion and relegation in the format – they have a strong top six and a familiarity with these conditions that gives them a decent chance of improving their grim record against England (played eight, lost eight) at Test level.
As if playing seven Tests in nine weeks is not hard enough, as if playing in Asia is not hard enough, as if playing in this heat and against spin bowling is not hard enough, England have also agreed to do so without adequate warm-up time. Playing one two-day match and one 45-overs a side game has not given their batsmen time to adjust to the conditions and a couple of them looked a little under par in the nets the day before the game.
But it is such challenges that motivate Cook these days. Indeed, so concentrated is he on the redevelopment of this new England team that he admitted he required reminding of his impending personal landmark earlier in the week.
For that reason, Bangladesh have probably never had a better opportunity to beat England. But if the last decade or so has taught us anything, it is not to write off Cook.
*The answer to the quiz question is James Tredwell who made his Test debut in Dhaka in March 2010 and captained England in a T20I at The Oval against New Zealand in June 2013.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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