England’s attempts to convert one of their established batsmen into a No.3 has been going on for a long time.
Since the start of their last home summer, captain Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, and Jonny Bairstow have all been tried at first drop with varying degrees of success, but none has nailed down the spot.
The latter has perhaps come closest, scoring an emotional Test hundred in his first innings in his new role in Sri Lanka, and following up with a quick-fire half-century in the second Test against the West Indies. However, after England lost that game to concede the series, he dropped down to No.7 to allow him to reprise his role as wicketkeeper, and England head coach Trevor Bayliss has indicated that that is where he will remain for the time being.
"We've known for a while what our best four to eight is," he said. "But we make no apologies for trying to fit our best eight batters into a team. That meant trying to find a No. 3 out of those guys. Obviously it hasn't worked for one or two reasons but four through to eight has been successful in the past and we've gone back to that. Yes, that means the experiment of batting Jonny at No. 3 is over.”
England’s No.3 problem is a long-standing one – Bairstow’s century there was the first by an Englishman since Joe Root’s 124 at Rajkot in 2016 – and while Bayliss confirmed that those who filled the top-order roles in the third Test – Keaton Jennings, Rory Burns, and Joe Denly – are still in the mix, he also suggested that there is the opportunity for someone to pile on the runs at the start of the Championship season to come into contention.
"The struggles of the top three is well documented," he said. "They've all shown what they can do but it's about doing it more regularly. Those three guys are incumbents in those positions, I suppose. If they come out and score as heavily as they have done in the last few years in county cricket, then it might be difficult to look past them.
"That definitely includes [Keaton] Jennings. He's made two Test hundreds and has been one of the heaviest scorers in county cricket. If he comes out and scores a lot of runs in the early matches of the season and no-one else does, then there might not be a decision to make.
"We've seen what he's capable of but at the moment he's lacking some confidence. It's not easy when everyone is talking about your position and he's coming to terms with that as well. Hopefully there are some names out there who can score heavily in the county season to give us a choice to make."
He namechecked some players who have come up in selector’s meetings recently, including ODI opener Jason Roy, and England’s No.3 in last year’s Ashes, James Vince.
"Roy could be a Test player, yes," Bayliss said. "He's one of the names that's been spoken about [by the selectors] over the last six to nine months. James Vince is another one. Ian Bell not as many times. There's a couple of names who've done well in county cricket over a number of years that have been spoken about. If those two guys come out and score runs they'll be in the mix as well.
"The younger guys, too, are starting to put their names up in lights. There were a couple on the Lions tour: Pope, who's obviously played before, and Duckett have done well."
England will have to wait a while for their next Test assignment, with their one-off Test against Ireland scheduled for after this summer’s Men’s Cricket World Cup.