England coach Trevor Bayliss predicts “tough decisions” will have to be made when the selectors meet to pick the Test squad to tour Bangladesh and India.
Top of their agenda is sure to be the inclusion, or otherwise, of three batsmen in what have become problem positions this summer.
Alex Hales, James Vince and Gary Ballance have batted at numbers two, four and five respectively in the drawn Investec series against Pakistan.
Yet they loiter at seven (Ballance), nine (Vince) and ten (Hales) in England’s series averages – with a combined 498 runs between them, at a paltry 22.6 per innings.
It is an unsustainable collective shortfall for a Test team with aspirations to top the world rankings.
England have an established policy of ensuring all players selected are given time to prove themselves, but as Bayliss assessed the team’s performance after their ten-wicket defeat at The Oval on Sunday, there were hints perhaps that time may well be running out in some cases.
“They’ve definitely had a decent run at it,” said the Australian, pictured inset.
“We’ve probably got around a month before we get together and discuss the next Test series, so there will be some tough decisions to be made.”
England have been trying for four years, since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, to find a long-term opening partner for captain Alastair Cook.
After 11 Tests, Hales is still searching for a maiden century – he would become the first Englishman to own a full set across the international formats if he managed it.
His average of just above 27 means the jury is very much out on his future, especially after a wretched Test at The Oval in which he could make only 18 runs in two innings, dropped a straightforward chance at gully and earned a £1,500 fine – and England’s disapproval – for marching up to the third umpire’s room to confront the official about his dismissal to a controversial low catch.
England must decide whether to move on again, at the top and in the middle order, but compelling candidates in county cricket are thin on the ground.
A clutch of batsmen – from Durham, Essex and Kent, among others – can be identified, but none truly stands out.
“There doesn’t seem to be anyone crying out to be selected above anyone else,” added Bayliss.
“There’s a number of guys we’ve seen score some runs earlier this season, under a bit of scrutiny when their names are mentioned about the possibility of getting into the team. Some of them have dropped off.”
The scrutiny is even higher, of course, in Test cricket.
Bayliss said: “I think I heard Cookie say the two or three guys we’ve got in the team have been very good players over the last two or three years, experienced players at county level, and they have found it tough to jump up to this level.
“They have shown bits and pieces, but I think it just proves that the jump between first-class cricket and Test cricket is a big one.”
Bayliss’ opportunities remain limited between England engagements to see for himself what is out there.
He confirmed he will try to do so. But with a round of county championship matches ending today, time will be short before white-ball cricket takes over again for the remainder of this week.
By the time the championship resumes, England will be practising for their first one-day international against Pakistan – leaving, conceivably, another brief last-minute chance in mid-September for Bayliss to appraise himself in person of the plausible contenders.
Asked if he will do so, he said: “Certainly, I’ll be trying to get there when I can.
“There might be a chance in the next few days, but you’ve got to be lucky enough that whoever you are going to watch is actually batting or bowling on that day.
“There’s a month to go in the county season and there’s a challenge out there for some of those other guys to put their hand up and keep scoring runs.”
Before then, England will announce a squad this morning for five ODIs against Pakistan, starting next week.
They are likely to stick with most of those successful against Sri Lanka in mid-summer, bolstered by the possible returns from injury of key all-rounder Ben Stokes and fast bowler Mark Wood.
The latter has not played for his country since last October’s Dubai Test against Pakistan, since when he has had two ankle operations.
Captain Eoin Morgan and wicketkeeper Jos Buttler have been out of action too, each with hand injuries, but are both thought to be fit for selection again.
England ODI squad (possible, v Pakistan): E Morgan (captain), J Roy, A Hales, J Root, J Buttler (wkt), B Stokes, J Bairstow, M Ali, A Rashid, D Willey, C Woakes, L PLunkett, M Wood, J Vince.