Nothing has summed up the England recent decline like the problems they have faced filling the No. 3 slot.
Throughout the mid 90’s, when England went through their greatest struggles in the history of the game, it was this position that was constantly brought up as being the hardest to fill.
Unsurprisingly, England’s march from bottom of the pile to second coincided with the successful stints of first Nasser Hussain, then Mark Butcher in the role.
Originally, Hussain made it his duty to make himself an immovable object. Although he had begun to fill the role with some success in the late 90’s, it was when he and Fletcher took over in late 1999 that he really knuckled down and made the position his own. The Hussain approach to batting at No. 3 in a struggling side was typified by his 146 in almost 11 hours to claw England up to a first innings 366 against South Africa in his first overseas series as leader.
As England improved, the requirements of the No. 3 shifted. Mark Butcher exploded back onto the international scene in the 2001 Ashes with a career defining 173*, and continued to provide impetus at No. 3 until 2005, when injuries cut his career short.
Although neither Butcher nor Hussain managed to make the 2005 Ashes, their impact on the England side that just a few years earlier had been a laughing stock was clearly evident.
Since then, England have struggled. Vaughan has batted there, but infuriatingly seems to follow a gorgeous century with a run of low scores.
Ian Bell has been given more than one opportunity to make the position his own, and has yet to even score a century in the position.
Both Cook and Strauss have been moved down the order, and yet both are back opening.
The successful nations of the world have built their team around the No. 3. Ponting and Dravid are the obvious examples. It cannot be coincidence that the improvement of Sri Lanka and South Africa have come when they found Sangakkara and Amla respectively.
So, what options do England have?
Pros – Always looks a class act. Pietersen aside, Bell has more natural ability than any other player in the England side. As the present incumbent, it is his position to lose.
Cons – He is doing his best to lose it. 199 against South Africa in the summer series should have been a major point in his career, but thus far has proved to be yet another false dawn for the Warwickshire man. Patience is beginning to wear thin as Bell continues to make good starts, only to throw them away when he is most needed.
Pros – Has literally been waiting for his turn for years. Batted superbly on debut against India in 2006, but has only added one cap since—he will be hungrier for the opportunity than anyone. Always scores runs in ODI cricket and for Middlesex in all forms of the game.
Cons – Questions remain as to whether his unorthodox technique will suit batting at No. 3 in Test matches. Also struggled when moved up the order in ODI cricket.
Pros – Having the best batsman in the side coming out at first drop is always a boost to the batting side. Without a doubt good enough to do it, and giving him responsibility with his batting has always had a positive effect.
Cons – England cannot afford for this experiment to go wrong at the present time. Pietersen bailed England out of trouble at least once in every series in 2008 from No. 4—to lose that would be disastrous.
Andrew Strauss/Alastair Cook
Pros – Both have done it with relative success in recent times. Cook would naturally slide into the Hussain school of No. 3’s, while the reinvented Strauss would also be a good proposition at 10/1. Would also allow room for a more aggressive opener to come in.
Cons – After a long period of struggle, the two finally seem to be clicking as an opening pair. While the run rate is slow, they are both very adept at batting against the new ball.
This is not even considering those who are not even on the tour—Michael Vaughan and Robert Key to name but two.
When considering the squad, I think it is fair to say that Bell’s time might be up. A season of county cricket, rediscovering the ability to score big runs up the order rather than at No. 6, might be just what he needs.
That would open the door for Shah, who is long overdue his chance. However, come the summer, I would rather see Cook drop to 3, perhaps Key (another who will feel hard done by at the England selection policy) to open, and then Shah and Collingwood to battle it out for the No. 5 position. While Pietersen is happy and scoring runs at No. 4, it seems likely that he will stay there.
A top eight of Key, Strauss, Cook, Pietersen, Shah/Collingwood, Flintoff, Prior, and Broad seems to have a nice balance of defence and attack, something that England have been sorely lacking for some time now.
To get moving in the right direction again, England need to go back to having a No. 3 that they can build around, and Cook seems to be the logical choice for that.