Who Will Be England's 700th?
Sammy Woods. Andy Ducat. Bill Edrich. Peter Walker. Norman Cowans. Michael Vaughan.
What do these six men have in common?
Yes, they've all played Test cricket for England, but there's something more than that. The distinction that these men share is not based upon their cricketing ability, or their longevity, or even one of cricket's more niche nuggets, such as them all having made their debut on the same ground or against the same opponent.
These men are all Test centurions, but not in the expected sense. No, their connection is in fact that they are, respectively, the 100th, 200th, 300th, 400th, 500th, and 600th man to play in a Test match for England.
It's a rather exclusive club, membership of which falls very much by luck as opposed to talent or judgement, but it is once again preparing to admit a new member. In the drawn first Test against New Zealand at Lord's, England handed out Test caps number 698 and 699, to Gloucestershire's James Bracey and Sussex's Ollie Robinson respectively, meaning that the next fortunate soul to debut for England will take the nice round number of 700.
And thus, that got me thinking. Who? Who exactly, of all the prospects across the county circuit, will be the one to claim that number? The moment in question will almost certainly happen before the end of the year, and with five Tests against India still to come and many questions over selection following a humbling in the aforementioned series against New Zealand, it may even arrive before the end of the English summer.
In this week's post, I will look at five likely candidates for that spot and assess each of their credentials, before making a final prediction for who I think will earn cap number 700.
Let's make a start.
Tom Abell (Somerset)
When Zak Crawley made 267 against Pakistan last summer to cap a year which had seen him average 65.25 in red-ball cricket, there was zero talk that his place as England's number three was under threat. On the contrary, the chatter was that in Crawley, England had finally found the solid number three they had been searching for since Jonathan Trott's retirement.
And then came tours of India and Sri Lanka, during which Crawley missed two Tests with a freak injury and averaged only 12.75 across the other four. Against New Zealand, he hit just 21 runs at 5.25, and so, the inevitable questions have raised their heads.
Should the Kent man be sent back to his county to try and regain some form, one man who has certainly done his chances of being Crawley's replacement at the top of the order no harm at all is Somerset skipper Abell. Averaging 63.50 this season so far, with four fifties and a ton, the latter of which was a quite magnificent 132 not out in a rain-affected game against Gloucestershire in Bristol, Abell has made Somerset's number three spot his own.
He has both the technical ability - he scores with ease in all areas of the field, including behind square on both sides - and the temperament - his career strike rate is 49.21 - to be a successful number three at Test match level. However, there is of course only so much the stats can tell you, and the only way to truly find out how Abell might do at the pinnacle of the game is to put him there. His domestic form has ensured his name is in the mix to be given his chance very soon.
Sam Billings (Kent)
Kent's wicketkeeper-batsman Billings was called up to the squad for the New Zealand series following an injury to fellow keeper Ben Foakes, but did not find a spot in the team for either of the games. However, following defeat at Edgbaston, conversations over the state of England's middle order are rife, pushing Billings ever closer to the starting XI.
Despite his wicketkeeping abilities, Billings would likely play as a specialist batsman, with Bracey either given another chance behind the stumps, or the likes of Foakes, Jos Buttler or Jonny Bairstow returning. It would probably be Dan Lawrence at number five who would make way for Billings, as despite a well-crafted 81 in the first innings at Edgbaston against the Black Caps, the Essex man made zero in his other two outings in the series.
Billings knows the international set-up well, having played in 22 ODIs and 29 T20Is, and while white-ball cricket is certainly his strong suit, he is comfortable against the red ball at domestic level, averaging 49.63 in the past three seasons for Kent. Whether he has the Test temperament remains to be seen, but given England called him up to the squad, regardless of whether he actually played, he clearly features high in their minds.
Joe Clarke (Nottinghamshire)
The fact that we have not one, not two, but three candidates to fill spots at three to six suggests that England are having big problems with their top to middle order... and of course, that would be an entirely correct assumption to make. Given we have Abell and Billings, it only seems right that we make the third suggestion follow the pattern, and thus we have Clarke of Nottinghamshire.
If we're entirely honest, Clarke should really have been playing for England a few years ago, but some transgressions, the details of which we won't go into here, served to stymie his progress and led to a downturn in his form. However, since joining Nottinghamshire in 2018, he has shown the class that was always present, playing the sort of drives that leave the purists purring with delight.
Again, it would most likely be Lawrence that would make way, although Ollie Pope could be vulnerable too should England decide to make wholesale changes. However, Clarke remains an unknown quantity, and given his white-ball striking skills are just as adept as his red-ball tenacity, if England do want to blood him in international cricket, they may well take him down the same path as Billings and try him in the ODI and T20I setup first.
Jake Libby (Worcestershire)
The unluckiest man in world cricket right now probably has to be Worcestershire's Libby. After watching England struggle to find an opener to partner Alastair Cook for nigh on seven years, Libby must be cursing his luck that despite being probably the most in-form batsman in the country right now, there are two men at the top of the order in Rory Burns and Dom Sibley that look as set as we've seen in a long time. Indeed, at Edgbaston, the two made it to lunch unbeaten, which was the first time in a decade that an England opening pair had seen off an entire session in a home Test.
However, don't count Libby out just yet. Sometimes, sheer weight of runs make you simply impossible to ignore, and were he to fight his way into the side, it would most likely be Sibley he would replace. As much as he tells you he isn't, the current occupant of a spot in England's side will often be looking over his shoulder, and Sibley may want a big score just to ease any doubts, given that his opening partner scored well over double the number of runs that he did against New Zealand.
If this situation was to unfold, there would be no irony lost on the Worcestershire fans who would realise that England had followed their advice and found that it really would be better to be a Pear than a Bear.
The surface at New Road this season has been - to put it kindly - rather benign, but the crux of the matter is that you still have to score the runs, and Libby has certainly had no trouble doing that, both home and away. He has hit 776 runs at 64.66, making him the most prolific England qualified batsman in red-ball cricket this year, and should just one of Sibley or Burns hit the skids, there is someone waiting to pounce.
Matt Parkinson (Lancashire)
It's not just the batting that's an issue at present; it goes without saying that England have several weak spots, and one of the most glaring is a dependable spin bowler, or lack thereof. England were so confident in their two spin options against New Zealand that they picked precisely neither, instead plumping for skipper Joe Root's part-time off breaks, which yielded just one wicket at an average of 99.00 across the series. Yes, the UK is hardly spin paradise, but the tourists' Ajaz Patel was still able to claim match figures of 4-59 at Edgbaston.
Lancashire leg spinner Parkinson's 24 red-ball wickets in seven outings this term have come at an price of just 19.75 each, giving him the best average of any spinner to have bowled more than 60 overs in the 2021 Championship. His season-by-season average has never strayed above 30 since his debut season in 2016, and his career average currently sits at 23.69, making him the prime candidate if England are looking for a fresh twirler.
He would certainly occupy number ten or eleven in the batting order, but that scarcely matters; his job is to bowl, and his ability to do that is not in question. Parkinson is just 23, and has the potential to make the spinner's role his own for many years to come. Whether England allow him the opportunity to do so will simply have to remain to be seen.
Elite sport is cutthroat. A rich vein of good form can power you to the top level, but if you start to run dry, you'll be jettisoned as quickly as you arrived. The man to take the mantle of 700, whether it's one of the above candidates or someone else entirely, may be remembered as an England legend, or forgotten about after one series. That said, representing your country, however good or bad your performance on the field ultimately turns out to be, is something that stays with the individual for the rest of their life.
With everything considered, I'm thus plumping for Sam Billings as my prediction to be the lucky soul who will forever remember being England's 700th male Test cricketer. I take nothing away from Abell, Clarke, Libby, or Parkinson, and would be delighted to see every last one of them in an England shirt at some point in the not-too-distant future. However, Billings, as the current closest man to the starting line-up, looks the most likely to fulfil that spot, and join Messrs Woods, Ducat, Edrich, Walker, Cowans, and Vaughan in the club of Test cap centurions.
As ever, I'm always open to comments, suggestions, queries, and feedback, so please do get in touch using the form at the bottom of the homepage or through my social channels. You can like my Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/longstorysport, and you can also follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LongStorySport. Connecting with me through social media brings the benefit of being among the first to know when I post something new!
I’ve also launched a YouTube channel recently, where I’ll be posting videos relating to a whole variety of sporting topics. I’ve kicked things off with a weekly series called The County Review, where a guest and I discuss all the goings-on across the county cricket circuit, and more sporting series are in the pipeline!
You can view all that at www.youtube.com/channel/UCDqpYy71F7DVsFh9otbzXqw.