Is Ben Stokes the answer to England’s ongoing No3 problem?
Jonathan Trott retired from international cricket in May 2015 after a return to the England side ended in a disappointing stint against the West Indies.
While the struggles to find a successor to opener and captain Andrew Strauss following his retirement in 2012 have been well documented, the difficulties in the No3 batting position have gone more under the radar.
Trott was a dependable and disciplined No3 with an unflashy but effective technique. He was perfectly suited to the rigours of Test cricket, averaging 44.08 in 52 matches.
The 13 players drafted in to open the batting since 2012 have been an obvious weakness for England, but those coming out after the first wicket drops have been similarly struggling.
Of the seven since Trott, only two – Gary Ballance and captain Joe Root – have averaged over 40; Ballance was jettisoned after a loss of confidence, while Root has made clear his preference to bat at No4.
Ian Bell preferred a lower position, James Vinces tendency to throw his hands at the ball outside the off-stump made him unsuitable, Nick Compton and Tom Westley didnt work out and the most recent incumbent, Moeen Ali, has been shunted back where he feels comfortable in the middle order.
That drawn out trial-and-error procedure has led England to their eighth No3 since Trott: Ben Stokes. Like Moeen he is moving into the unwanted position at the behest of the side in the second Test match against Sri Lanka tomorrow. He is taking one for the team, despite the party line.
“Bens game is in good shape and he is more than capable of batting at No3,” Root said. “We are in a fortunate position that many in the side could bat in that position. Bens technique is sound and he will be able to adapt to this role.”
Root was not alone in framing the merry-go-round as a positive, with Jos Buttler putting himself forward to fill the void earlier in the week.
“There are not many egos in the side that need those defined roles as to where they bat,” he said. “You need a good balance of being settled but it shows a good team environment and ethic that people are willing to play wherever is required.”
But while England are busy pointing to flexibility, and Stokes has the skill and mentality to make the repositioning a success, the reality is that a settled side is a more desirable option.
Flexibility, like that which the one-day side is built around, is one thing but the Test sides decision making looks more like uncertainty.
Stokes will have batted in every position from No3 to No11 when he faces his first ball in Kandy. Likewise, Moeen has been situated everywhere from No1 to No9. All-rounders are valuable assets in Test cricket, but it seems England are yet to find the best way to use them.
They may have stumbled upon the perfect solution – a way to play three all-rounders, two wicket-keepers and three spinners at once – yet it appears a temporary one.
Had Joe Denly impressed in the all-too-brief warm-up games, or had Jonny Bairstow been happy to move up to regain his Test place following injury, then Stokes might still be among the glut of middle order batsmen.
As it is, tomorrow's Test could mark the start of a new Stokes – one defined by judgement outside his off-stump and run accumulation, rather than the power game his previous berth allowed.
“Ben is relishing the added responsibility of doing the job,” Root insisted. Swing bowler, enforcer, gun fielder, slip to the spinners, middle order aggressor, No3 batsman – Ben Stokes is apparently the man for every role.