Ben Jones takes a look at whether the Nottinghamshire opener should come into England’s side for the second Test.
England’s batting is in a bit of a mess. You need only glance at a recent Test scorecard, Chris Silverwood’s exasperated face in the dressing room, or the furious hoards on social media, to know that when it comes to putting up big totals in red ball cricket, things could be going a hell of a lot better for Joe Root’s side. In 2021, their top three are averaging a combined 20.29, the lowest they have managed in a calendar year since 1906; Root himself is taking on an almost unprecedented burden in terms of run scoring, his own work totalling 29% of England’s Test runs in 2021, the highest percentage for a single player in any year since before the war. Rory Burns is the only other England player to make a Test ton this year.
While Dom Sibley (averaging just 22 this year) is far from being at the top of his game, the obvious fall guy from England’s top order trio is Zak Crawley. The Kent man is in a historically poor run of form; his Test average this year, 11.14, is the lowest for any England top order batsman in a calendar year (min 10 games), and the fifth worse for any player from any country. Right now, he looks well out of his depth in Test cricket.
England’s persistence with Crawley is understandable. His 267 against Pakistan last summer was one of the finest knocks we’ve seen in England shirt for many years, and even now he does seem the sort of player who could arrest his slump with an out of the blue century. At a time when England have lots of middle order options, but no obvious candidates to bat at No.3, Crawley has been performing a role nobody else wants to, filling a gap; the issue is, since that 267, that’s pretty much all he’s managed to do.
It feels likely that Crawley will be dropped at some point in this series, perhaps even on Thursday when the second Test begins at Lord’s. His likely replacement, given the current make-up of the expanded squad, would be the Nottinghamshire batsman Haseeb Hameed. After three tough years, the Bolton-born right-hander has found some good red ball form, leaping ahead of other more established options to assume the position of reserve top order batsman in the squad. He is the next cab off the rank to slot into the top three, should England choose to make a change.
But let’s not skate over quite what a few years it has been for Hameed. Everyone remembers that outstanding debut series in India, where he blocked, blocked and blocked some more, as England sought to soak up deliveries and get out of matches alive. While their mission was not successful, Hameed was a clear and obvious positive to take home from the tour, a starting point for the imminent change of captaincy. Then things rather fell apart. Injury prevented Hameed taking his place for the series against South Africa at the start of the 2017 summer, forcing him back into county cricket, where he sank like a stone. Having previously smashed it for Lancashire (as a FC average of 49 before his England debut attests), Hameed couldn’t back up those early performances prior to Test selection. He averaged 29 across the season without reaching a century, and a malaise set in. For the next two seasons, he averaged just 17, making a solitary ton in 32 innings.
The quirks which had previously set him apart, the feature-writer lines, went from positives to negatives. His slow tempo – Baby Boycott, etc – had previously been cast as a throwback to a golden era, but soon came to be an anachronistic failure to adapt to the modern game. Even the references to his family background went from ‘cricket obsessed father drives son to the pinnacle of the game’ to inferences of over-controlling, of influence above and beyond what a young athlete should. As is so often the case for British-Asian cricketers, the tone of discussion quickly turned from intrigue to scepticism – make of that what you will.
Unsurprisingly for those who watched his performance in India, Hameed’s issues in this period came almost exclusively against pace bowling. During that domestic slump (2017-2019), Hameed averaged 59 against spin in the County Championship, but just 19 against seam bowling. Early on in matches (first innings), when seam plays a greater role, he was averaging 17; as games wore on and spin came into things (second innings), that rose to 31. For a top order player whose defining characteristic in the eyes of general cricket fans was his stickability, it was a real blot, a sense of a player slipping from the mould. A move from Lancashire to Nottinghamshire at the end of the 2019 season felt like the best thing for all concerned.
For Hameed, the transfer seems to have done exactly what it needed to, and his record is much improved since arriving at Trent Bridge. 15 innings at an average of 47 includes three centuries, with one for the County Select XI that faced India a few weeks ago. That average against pace which underpinned his appalling form has risen to 41 for Nottinghamshire, encouraging signs on paper which accompany a general sense of returning confidence and form. Visually, Hameed’s boyish cropped hair has grown out halfway down his back, his beard full – he is quite literally taking up more space, and those around the camp speak of a young man far more at ease with himself as a professional than in recent times.
The love for Hameed in English cricket is palpable. The goodwill he carries with him in the broader culture is vast, and it’s shown in how quickly he’s returned to the forefront of selection debates, perhaps ahead of other more consistent performers. There is a desire for him to succeed which perhaps reflects a broader desire, for the next generation of cricketers to be capable of playing Test cricket with some of the traditional vigour which can be lost in a white-ball dominated calendar. A fair thing to want – but a lot to put on one young man.
At this point, some tempering of expectations is no bad thing. People do need to be braced for Hameed’s style of play, and embrace him (and others) for their strengths as much as their flaws. While there’s no question that Hameed has more shots than Dom Sibley, his potential colleague in the top three, they do score at similar rates; in fact, Hameed’s FC scoring rate of 2.3rpo is actually lower than Sibley’s 2.4rpo. While much of the criticism thrown at England’s incumbent opener has been technical, rather than being just about tempo, there has been more than a small amount of the latter as well. Hameed is an elegant batsman, and far more watchable than Sibley, but the overwhelming goodwill behind him could be tested when people have to watch him, and not simply follow his progress on a scorecard. Even since the move to Nottingham, Hameed’s attacking instincts are among the lowest in the country.
On top of the stylistic elements, it’s also worth noting that while Hameed’s reputation has been rebuilt in the last 18 months, his underlying numbers warn against too overexcited. Contact Average is a measure based on traditional batting averages, but which gives greater weighting to runs made with clean connections, and less weight to runs made with edges or mistimed strokes. During his slump, Hameed was – according to this measure – suffering from slightly bad luck, with his Contact Average superior to his actual average. Since moving to Nottinghamshire, both measures have increased, further illustrating his obvious improvement, but Hameed’s Contact Average is middle of the pack in comparison with others around the country. Of all the guys to bat 20+ times over that period, Hameed ranks 27th by this measure.
In many ways it’s a sub-optimal way to re-introduce Hameed to Test cricket. As a FC opener, he averages 36.02, but at No.3 that falls steeply to just 17.07, and his highest score in that position is just 55 – his only half-century from 17 innings. As a reserve top order bat who has suffered the sort of fluctuating form he has in recent years, you take any in you can get, but there are well-documented differences between opening and batting first drop.
By no means is any of this intended as an overt criticism of Hameed, or indeed as reason not to pick him. He is quite obviously an extremely talented player, and with England’s current batting fragility, Hameed is one of very few candidates for selection that come with a big, weighty upside. That little flurry of caveats is more to suggest that while Hameed is a very good player, with a clear technique that should serve him well in a number of settings, he probably isn’t the heir apparent to Cook and Root that he appeared to be on first viewing in India. Indeed, given his vulnerabilities against high pace, a strong summer could easily give way to a (very) difficult winter in Australia; acknowledging that now should make the landing a touch softer were things to go that way.
For now, England may choose to offer Crawley a stay of execution, given that the short turnaround before the next Test is not conducive to sweeping changes, and those changes may be better spent elsewhere. They may feel strongly that Hameed is an opener and not a No.3 option, and that they would rather wait for Burns or Sibley to lose form before reintroducing Hameed into international cricket.
In some respects, the similarities between Crawley and Hameed are greater than you might think. Both of them were thrust into international cricket early, perhaps before they were fully ready; both of them played innings which grabbed attention, stood out and marked them as prodigious talents; and both of them suffered huge collapses in form almost immediately afterwards. Both have mediocre FC records, but have been trusted to perform in Test cricket because of certain abstract qualities, and off the back of encouraging streaks of domestic form. While he might replace Crawley in the XI, Hameed’s own recovery arc should offer solace and incentive.
Yet for all the talk of Ashes planning and forward thinking, England’s current top three haven’t been first-choice for that long. Burns, Sibley, Crawley, have been No.1-3 in just six Test matches; while they could feasibly double that before the end of the year, let’s not pretend England have been banking experience, allowing these partnerships to form, and that to change personnel now would be to tear it up and start again. They are neither too far down the line with this current order to turn back, nor too close to the stated priority of the Ashes series to make the change. It could well be the perfect time for Haseeb Hameed.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.