Stoneman raises red flag ahead of Ashes

The apparent reluctance with which England have finally called up Mark Stoneman is a cause for concern before the Ashes

Picking an opening batsman who the head coach has never seen play and who many in the camp are believed to harbour reservations about is not a great place for England to be less than three months before the start of an Ashes series.

However, Mark Stoneman has nevertheless been handed his first international call-up after he was selected in the squad for next week’s day-night Test against the West Indies at Edgbaston.

The 30-year-old Surrey batsman has enjoyed a superb season in domestic first-class cricket, scoring more than 1,000 runs at an average of 58.82.

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Yet it is the apparent reluctance with which England have finally called up Stoneman that raises a big red flag before the Ashes.

It is no secret that the selectors are heavily favoured towards Haseeb Hameed after the Lancashire youngster’s fine debut series in India last winter, where as a teenager he showed a calmness and skill beyond his years as he looked to have finally ended the search for a permanent partner for former captain Alastair Cook at the top of the order.

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Hameed was No.10 in the never-ending search for a suitable foil for Cook since the retirement of Andrew Strauss five years ago.

However, a fractured hand in the third Test against India at Mohali last December cut short Hameed’s series and gave a chance to Keaton Jennings.

The Durham batsman duly took it, scoring a hundred in his first Test innings at Mumbai and retaining his place this northern summer after Hameed suffered a poor start to the season.

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Now, though, Jennings, No.11 in terms of Cook’s post-Strauss partners, has been jettisoned following a shocking series against South Africa, where his average of 15.87 tells its own story.

Despite his horrendous form, it was expected that England would keep faith with Jennings for the three Tests against West Indies.

Indeed, coach Trevor Bayliss intimated as much after his team’s victory in the fourth Test against South Africa at Old Trafford on Monday.

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Bayliss, captain Joe Root and England’s coaching staff all believe Jennings has what it takes to succeed as a Test batsman. Indeed, they were keen to allow him to face West Indies in the hope he would score the runs he needed to book his place in England’s Ashes squad.

Instead, Stoneman has been given the opportunity to take that spot on the plane instead and this can be interpreted as the three selectors other than Bayliss – James Whitaker, Angus Fraser and Mick Newell – pulling rank over a player they believe has done everything asked of him in county cricket.

With the Ashes on the horizon, there is a touch more urgency over selection right now, especially as England see their pink-ball Test at Edgbaston as crucial preparation for the first day-night Ashes match at Adelaide in December. 

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Bayliss famously admitted he had “never seen Stoneman play live” earlier this northern summer.

Now he will be tasked with making him a success at Test level and given the calibre of opposition in his first series, Stoneman has every chance of doing that initially. 

If Stoneman does flourish, it will present England with a problem. Part of the reason they were keen to extend Jennings’ spell in the team was because the thought picking a 12th partner for Cook at the top of the order since Strauss would signal panic so close to the Ashes.

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Secondly, by giving Stoneman a chance now, it may well block the path for a Hameed recall in time for the tour of Australia.

Hameed is seen as the long-term answer by England but with just one first-class half-century so far this northern summer, albeit with that coming this week, the 20-year-old needs a sustained period of good form before he can be picked again.

The hope was that time would come at the end of the season, leaving it a two-way fight between Jennings and Hameed to open alongside Cook in the Ashes opener at the Gabba.

Now that been complicated by Stoneman’s selection. Having gone for an experienced opener in Michael Carberry on the last Ashes tour back in 2013-14, this feels like a similar kind of pick.

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Carberry did little wrong for England on that trip, at least showing fight against Mitchell Johnson and company as England were whitewashed 5-0.

Yet he was not universally popular in a dressing-room that back then had some unhealthy cliques that soured the atmosphere further on a tour that went from bad to worse.

This group of England players are far more welcoming and inclusive, so Stoneman should be given every opportunity to succeed. However, there is a feeling that he may only be keeping that opening slot alongside Cook warm for Hameed.

Whether or not Stoneman is the long-term solution for England at the top of the order is debatable. But if he scores runs against the West Indies he cannot be overlooked for the tour of Australia - regardless of whether he is Bayliss’ first choice or not.

2017-18 International Fixtures:

Magellan Ashes Series

First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets

Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets

Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets

Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets

Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets

ODI Series v England

First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets

Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets

Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets

Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets

Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF

Prime Minister's XI

PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets

T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series

First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets

Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets

Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets

Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14

Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16

Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18

Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21