Alex Hales will open the batting for England with Alastair Cook when the first Test against South Africa begins in Durban on Boxing Day.
By Chris Stocks in Potchefstroom/The Guardian
That England are holed up for the first week of their South Africa tour at the same training base used by Spain in 2010 during their victorious football World Cup campaign could be read as a good sign. But perhaps of greater significance is that Trevor Bayliss, England’s coach, has acted decisively by telling Alex Hales and Jonny Bairstow they will start the four-Test series that begins in Durban on Boxing Day.
The squad flew out from Heathrow on Thursday, with Alastair Cook, England’s captain, admitting several positions were still up in the air, but the issue of who will open with Cook against South Africa – and who the wicketkeeper will be – now appear resolved. Hales, Bayliss confirmed, will become his captain’s eighth opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012.
The Nottinghamshire batsman was overlooked in favour of Moeen Ali for the recent Pakistan Test series, but the Australian left no doubt that Hales would be winning his first Test cap. “He’s the other opener in the squad at this stage and I very much doubt whether anyone else would take that spot. He deserves his opportunity at the top of the order to try and make that spot his own.”
That is no big surprise given that Nick Compton, Cook’s first post-Strauss partner three years ago, but now seemingly duelling with the recalled Gary Ballance for the No3 position, was the only other contender. Hales will take confidence from Bayliss’s backing so early in this tour – as will Bairstow. “Jonny is the incumbent wicketkeeper and hasn’t done a lot wrong, so I would envisage he will be starting,” said Bayliss.
Bairstow’s selection may appear straightforward given he took over the gloves from Jos Buttler for England’s final Test against Pakistan in Sharjah last month. However, Buttler’s return to form during the subsequent limited-overs matches in the Emirates put him back in the frame for the South Africa series. The most compelling argument for Buttler’s recall in Tests came in the final ODI in Dubai, when he hit a stunning 46-ball hundred to wrap-up the series for his team. It was the second time he had broken his own record for the fastest ODI century by an England player. As it is, Buttler, barring injury, will work on his game in the nets and be unleashed on to the international stage again for the limited-overs matches that follow the Test series and then the World Twenty20 in India.
One man who does look likely to play a part in the Tests against South Africa, though, is the Middlesex fast bowler Steven Finn, who was sent home from the UAE on the first day of the Pakistan Test series after sustaining a stress injury to his left foot in the buildup. On Friday, in his first match back, Finn took three for 22 for the England Lions in a T20 against Pakistan A in Dubai.
It means Finn, who has two more Lions games to play in the UAE, is likely to join the Test squad sooner than expected and may even be available for the second Test in Cape Town that starts on 14 January. “The signs are good,” said Bayliss. “But there are still one or two small hurdles for him to get over. If he can get through those pain free and bowling well I’d expect to see him here at some stage.”
There was more good news in the form of Ben Stokes, who sustained a nasty shoulder injury during the Sharjah Test, but bowled in the nets here without any apparent trouble.
England play their first warm-up match against a South African Invitation XI in Potchefstroom from Dec. 15-17 and face a similar selection side in Pietermaritzburg from Dec. 20-22.
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