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Two New Kids on the England Block

September 17, 2016

George Dobell, in ESPNcricinfo, 16 September 2016, where the title is Duckett and Hameed set to vie for Cook’s approval”

Alastair Cook has kissed a few frogs in his search to find a new opening partner, but will now be hoping that either Haseeb Hameed or Ben Duckett turns out to be his prince. If all goes to plan, one of them will become his 10th opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss (at the end of the 2012 season) when the first Test against Bangladesh starts in Chittagong on October 20.They are far from like-for-like selections. While Hameed is a fairly classical looking player – he is no blocker, but he has a solid defence and pleasing armoury of conventional strokes – Duckett is a bold choice in the modern sense that he seems naturally inclined to attack and has every shot in the book, as well as several that are not. While he has scored his 1,338 Championship runs this season at a strike-rate of 79.45 – a rate that, not so long ago, was considered respectable in List A cricket – Hameed has scored his 1,154 at a strike-rate of 39.33. Hameed, however, has been opening in Division One, while Duckett has been opening in Division Two.

haaeeb-hameed Haseeb Hameed ben-duckett Ben Duckett

Duckett will have the first opportunity to impress. He is expected to open in the ODI series that precedes the two Tests and it is possible that he will convince the management in those games that he has the character as well as the skills to win selection for the Test side. James Whitaker, the national selector, is clearly a huge admirer, referring to Duckett as “a special player” and “a point-of-difference player”. Not since the elevation of Joe Root as a debutant been spoken of in such terms.

After the ODI series, the pair will go head to head in the red-ball warm-up games. With Cook absent on paternity leave, they will open in both the two-day warm-up games that precede the Tests, and though the captain is expected to return in time for the first Test, there has to be a possibility that Duckett and Hameed will open together; the first pair of debutant openers for England since 1937 when Jim Parks senior and Len Hutton did so against New Zealand at Lord’s.

While it has been presumed that Hameed is in pole position to open – testament to his incredible ascent, really, given his age and lack of first-class experience – it may prove that Duckett is more Trevor Bayliss’ type of player. Bayliss has gone on the record previously as stating his preference for quick-scoring players and, while he has retracted that a little, he may be hesitant at positioning Cook and Hameed together at the top of the order. While Cook has certainly increased his scoring range and Hameed is not the out-right blocker some suggest, it is not impossible to envisage a scenario where progress becomes sluggish with the two of them together. Whether that should matter is another point entirely.

Duckett, speaking shortly after his selection was announced, promised to continue to play his natural, positive game and suggested his aptitude against spin bowling might play to his advantage.

“I do play aggressively in first-class cricket and that has worked for me at the minute,” he said. “But there is plenty for me to learn in the Test game.

“I’m still learning with the red ball stuff and haven’t nailed my game in that format just yet. To watch the likes of Cook out in Bangladesh it will be amazing for me to learn a few things.

“One thing I do have is my ability to play against spin. I think in Bangladesh they could bowl spin first-change so that is something I’d be confident in facing and if I was given a chance then I’ll try and be as positive as I can be and, fingers crossed, it pays off.

“I played hockey at school so the sweeps, reverse sweeps and quick hands might have come from that.

“The main thing about playing spin is that a spinner wants to bowl six balls in the same spot and you could just block it. But my main thing is about putting them under as much pressure as I can and whoever that guy is bowling at me, whether it is Shane Warne or whoever, I just have to put them under as much pressure as I can.

“If you can find ways of scoring then they’ll be on the back foot straight away.”

Hameed’s skills are, perhaps, not as obvious, but they are substantial nevertheless. Blessed with an apparently unflappable technique, he has made a huge impression at Lancashire in recent months. Not only is he their leading run-scorer in the Championship season – an astonishing achievement for a teenager – but he has become the youngest man to be capped by the club since World War Two. He has, as Whitaker put it, “run-scoring in his DNA.”

“We think he’s got loads of technical qualities,” Whitaker said. “He has a really good, solid technique and a great temperament.

“We’re excited. I’m sure he’ll bring lots of quality to the team. He’s passed every test so far in his young life, and he’s really hungry for success.

“He plays the ball late. He’s got good discipline and defence as well. But make no mistake, he’s got the shots. We’ve seen him take on some good-quality county bowling, with cuts and pulls. He’s got the shots in the locker; he’s just very shrewd as to when he uses them.”

Whitaker also confirmed that a decision had been made to drop Hales from the Test squad before it became apparent that he was unwilling to tour Bangladesh. While he is likely to return for the ODI series in India – there has been no date set for when the India squads will be named, but it is expected to be a 16-man Test squad – he will not be considered for the Test series there.

It seems the non-selection of Jack Leach, Somerset’s left-arm spinner, owed something to the experience of Simon Kerrigan in the Oval Test of 2013. While Kerrigan had played some A team (or Lions as it is now known) cricket before that Test, he was still something of an unknown quantity and perhaps hadn’t spent enough time around the rest of the squad to feel completely comfortable.

As a result, it is thought Kerrigan was not in the best position to do himself justice. He conceded 53 runs from eight first-innings overs and did not bowl again in the match. The experience seems to have scarred him and he has never quite recaptured the excellence of his bowling before it. The selectors are keen not to expose Leach to the same experience. It was noticeable that his county captain, Chris Rogers, said earlier this week he felt Leach “emotionally still has a bit of a way to go” before he was ready for the top level.

The flaw in such an argument comes with the realisation that Hameed has not played any Lions cricket, either. Is the discipline of spin bowling so different mentally to that of opening the batting? Perhaps. Or maybe Hameed is simply a more phlegmatic character. Either way, expect Leach – and Ben Foakes, who was another to narrowly miss out on selection in the Test squad – to feature in performance squads named on Monday.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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