Head coach Trevor Bayliss admits England’s top three is up in the air heading into an Ashes summer and is no closer to finding a first-choice Test XI than he was four years ago.
A 232-run win over the West Indies in St Lucia represented the final away Test of Bayliss’ reign, which will come to an end after this year’s clash with Australia.
His first overseas assignment in the role, a fine 2-1 success in South Africa in 2015-16, ended with question marks over batsmen Alex Hales, Nick Compton and James Taylor and Bayliss calling for challengers to emerge from the county game.
Six Test tours later, there is a sense of deja vu with Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly the men under the microscope and Bayliss once again seeking contenders.
“We’re still looking for those places. Supporters of English cricket want to have 11 exceptional cricketers but it’s taking time,” Bayliss said.
“The guys trying to nail those places down are working their backsides off to do well in international cricket but it’s taken a bit longer than they would like and longer than we would like as well.
“The top three positions, the struggles they’ve had, is well documented. They’ve all shown what they can do but it’s about doing it more regularly.”
National selector Ed Smith and Taylor, now on the panel following his premature retirement with heart problems, will have their own views but Bayliss appears willing to consider a variety of options when England resume their red-ball exploits following the World Cup.
That includes the unlikely option of Burns, Jennings and Denly being retained as a trio, a gamble given they average just 25, 25.19 and 28 respectively.
“Those three guys are the incumbents in those positions, I suppose,” he said.
“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. If Keaton 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.”
Bayliss was also clear there were other interesting candidates, such as the uncapped one-day opener Jason Roy and the recently discarded James Vince.
“If those two guys come out and score runs they’ll be in the mix as well,” he said.
“Jason is one of the names that’s been spoken about over the last six to nine months as possibilities and James is another one who 12 months ago played pretty well in Australia in patches.”
England Lions pair Ollie Pope and Ben Duckett earned namechecks but there was a lukewarm reaction to suggestions 36-year-old Ian Bell could add to his 118 Test caps.
“To be honest his name hasn’t been mentioned as near as many times as those other guys,” said Bayliss. “But you never say never.”
While there is a lack of certainty at the top of the card, Bayliss indicated that Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali were now inked in to their positions between four and eight.
That makes Surrey wicketkeeper Ben Foakes, dropped in St Lucia just two games after being named man-of-the-series in Sri Lanka, the odd man out.
Asked if the three-game experiment with Bairstow at number three was now over, Bayliss offered a one-word answer: “Yes”.
As to whether that meant bad news for Foakes, he added: “Yes, unfortunately.
“I think we’ve known for a while that those players at four to eight are our best, but we make no apologies to try to make it even better. That meant trying to find a number three out of those guys. Obviously it hasn’t worked for one or two reasons but certainly that has been successful in the past and we’ve gone back to that.”