Mark Stoneman feels his Test debut against West Indies under lights this Thursday is justification for his winter move from Durham to Surrey as he prepares to become the latest batsman to try to crack the puzzle that is being Alastair Cook’s opening partner.
At 30 years of age Stoneman will become the oldest specialist batsman to be handed a first England cap this century, and the hope from the selectors now is that this seasoned left-hander’s additional experience comes off in the three-match Investec series and ends the seemingly perpetual search to fill the gap left by the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012.
Stoneman will be Cook’s 15th partner since his debut, 12th since Strauss retired and, though Stoneman missed out on a top-order spot twice this summer when first Gary Ballance and then Tom Westley got the nod at No3, he always retained the hope that his surge in county runs since trading the north-east for south London would eventually force a way in.
Stoneman had already signed for Surrey before Durham’s financially enforced relegation last October, – the die was probably cast when Michael di Venuto, his former team-mate and long-time idol, became head coach at the Oval in early 2016 – but cricketers have not needed to leave the Riverside to get international recognition in recent times given the opener he has replaced, Keaton Jennings, was the club’s 10th academy player to be capped.
Nevertheless the fresh surroundings, a reunion with Di Venuto and less off-field noise at a more settled club appear to have been beneficial for someone described as an intense character by his friends. He has 1,033 first-class runs at an average of 57 this county summer, a leap from a career average of 34, albeit having passed four figures in the previous four seasons.
“I’d like to thank all the staff and team-mates at Durham for helping me to get here. The last four years at the club I was playing nicely and I can’t thank them enough,” said Stoneman, who has the chance to seal an Ashes berth with a strong showing against West Indies.
“The move to Surrey was to continue that progression, so maybe this [call-up] does justify that. I’m in a good position. I know myself quite well now as a cricketer and a person and hopefully I can do myself justice. Partnering Cook will be amazing. I’ve spent a lot of years watching him on the telly and have massive respect for what he has done.”
Known as Rocky by team-mates after inheriting the nickname from his father Ian, a prominent league cricketer and umpire in the north-east, Stoneman’s credentials have been endorsed by the seamer and former opponent Chris Woakes, who is himself hoping to break back into the XI for the first Test after two months out with a side strain.
“He is a tricky guy to bowl at, particularly for an opening batsman, as he hits the ball in quite funny areas,” said Woakes, who was too self-effacing to note that Stoneman was the first of his nine-wicket haul here last summer, when Warwickshire played Durham.
“You always find your natural length has to change a bit to Mark. That good, solid length he actually picks up quite well, a good puller of the ball. I think the fact he is Alastair Cook’s 12th opening partner since Andrew Strauss proves just how hard it is and how good Cooky has been. Fingers crossed Mark can come in and continue his good form but it is a hard job.”
Woakes is one of two Brummies in the England squad for the maiden day-nighter at Edgbaston, with Moeen Ali, the man of the Test summer to date with 25 wickets and 252 runs in the 3-1 win over South Africa, recalling the first time he came to the historic ground for an under-11s’ trial aged nine wearing borrowed and oversized pads.
The all-rounder, who came through the Warwickshire academy but truly blossomed only after moving to Worcestershire in 2006, is the senior spinner to another newcomer in Mason Crane, the uncapped 20-year-old Hampshire leggie who got the nod over Liam Dawson and Moeen’s close friend and fellow winter tourist Adil Rashid.
Moeen puts the latter’s snub this summer down to the fact they were considered too expensive a pairing by the selectors during last winter’s tours to Bangladesh and India (they went at a combined 3.6 per over across the seven Tests) but hopes Crane, like him during what has been a breakthrough season with the ball, is not too defensive when his chance comes.
He added: “I’ve not seen Mason bowl too much. But I think if his strengths are that he spins it big, he’s got a good googly and is a wicket-taking bowler. When I first came in the side I felt that was my strength too but I moved away from it, trying to be tight and safe.
“Before the South Africa series I spoke to Joe Root and [the spin coach] Saqlain Mushtaq and said I wanted to go back to attacking and what I have learned I actually bowl a bit tighter when I do. Although I will obviously give Mason some advice, I’d just let him bowl.”
Law urges West Indies to use criticism to their advantage
The West Indies players have been instructed to use the largely downcast predictions of their chances against England as motivation again for the Test series starting on Thursday, with their head coach, Stuart Law, adamant that the hosts have exploitable weaknesses.
Jason Holder’s side were dubbed “mediocre” by the ECB chairman, Colin Graves, before their last Test encounter against England in 2015 but used it to their advantage, emerging with a creditable drawn home series that hastened the end of the second Peter Moores era.
But with a current ranking of eighth in the world and only three away Test wins against opposition placed higher in the 21st century, few are tipping West Indies to provide anything other than a second series victory for Joe Root as England captain this summer.
“Our players understand there’s a few comments flying around like that. We’ve instructed them to use that as motivation,” said Law, the former Australia batsman, before his players trained under lights at Edgbaston on Tuesday evening. “You can’t keep looking back because, if you do that, you can’t move forward. Let’s rewrite that history.”
But their lack of experience is palpable. The batsman Kraigg Brathwaite and seamer Kemar Roach share the most caps with 37 apiece. On the other hand they do go into the day-night series opener having played the format – a seven-wicket defeat by Pakistan in Dubai in April – and on the back of a floodlit warm-up in Derby in which four of them scored hundreds.
Roach, who roughed up Jonny Bairstow on their last tour in 2012 and once put Australia’s Ricky Ponting in hospital with a blow to the elbow, is one of the quicks that Law claims could exploit England’s perennially limp top three, with Shannon Gabriel another provided he can overcome a no-ball problem. He sent down 24 no-balls over the weekend.
Law said: “You always look at any little cracks you can find. With a couple of debutants or new guys, it’s an opportunity for us to exploit those weaknesses. But if you don’t bowl well, you’re going to get pasted round the park. So we’ve got to stick to our plans.”
Much will rest on Holder too. The 25-year-old all-rounder has captained for the past two-and-a-half years, during which time a number of their more high profile players have exiled themselves in Twenty20 leagues, and Law sees a talented leader emerging from it.
Law said: “It is a lot of responsibility and he does it with fantastic integrity. He’s a young man but very intelligent and high quality. He takes the things said about him and this team with a pinch of salt and uses it drive them forward. He’s doing everything to make sure he captains this side not just this series but for 10 or 15 years.”
On how the success or otherwise of the tour will be judged he added: “We’ve got our own targets. I’m not going to tell the world what they are. But if we come close to them, we’ll know within our walls, and West Indies cricket will know, we have been successful.” Ali Martin