Mark Butcher has proposed a radical change to England’s line-up for the Ashes with Ben Stokes or Harry Brook opening at the expense of Zak Crawley.
While Jonny Bairstow’s return from injury is a significant boost to England’s Ashes hopes, it does leave Test coach Brendon McCullum with a selection headache.
Bairstow enjoyed a sensational 2022, scoring four centuries in the space of five innings last summer to help the McCullum-Stokes era get off to a flying start.
The World Cup winner was absent over the winter after breaking his leg in a golf accident, but has returned to action for Yorkshire as he looks to earn an England recall in time for the Ashes.
England expect Bairstow to be a key member of their Ashes squad but with his injury replacement Harry Brook enjoying a record-breaking start to his international career, it remains to be seen where Bairstow slots into the team.
It has been suggested that Bairstow could replace wicketkeeper Ben Foakes but ex-England batter Butcher believes this would be a mistake, with Foakes proving to be a dependable member of the side.
Instead, Butcher believes England should promote Stokes or Brook to open and allow Bairstow to reclaim a position in the middle order.
That would mean dropping Kent batter Crawley, who averages less than 30 from 33 Tests and is the ‘obvious weak spot’ in the team, according to Butcher.
‘There’s only a certain amount of batting spots in the England team,’ Butcher said on the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast.
‘Ben Foakes has come out at the beginning of the season, one of the Five [Wisden Cricketers of the Year], and kind of said, “well, you’re not having my spot”. And he is brilliant, he’s proven that in an England shirt.
‘It would be unfair and it would also put Jonny back in the position he was in before, where he’s never been as productive as he was as a lone batter batting at No. 5, so to me, that’s not the answer.
‘What you would be doing here would be compromising Jonny’s ability with the bat to give the team balance to have him bat at No. 7 and keep wicket.’
‘Now you’ve got six places with seven players looking for them. There is an obvious weak spot somewhere – I’m not even going to say his name because it makes no difference what anybody says or what logic says.
‘But there is a player in there who hasn’t pulled up any trees and is under increasing pressure, and you’ve got these two guys in Bairstow and Harry Brook vying for the No. 5 spot.
‘Brook has already said, “I’ll bat anywhere. Don’t worry about me, I’ll bat where you put me”, and Jonny would be very, very keen to reprise No. 5.’
Butcher, who scored eight hundreds in 71 Tests and averaged more than 40 during his first-class career, added: ‘I might ask Harry Brook to do it, but Stokes might go, “I’m not going to ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, so sod it, I’ll do it”.
‘For me, I don’t think you’re messing with somebody like Harry Brook’s career in doing this. For me, that’s where it becomes more palatable. It’s not ideal. None of this is ideal.
‘We’re not talking about, “this is the best thing to happen and it’s going to work forever.” But I just think Harry Brook is so good that you’re not messing with him too much.
‘He might have a bad series. He might, who knows? But the risks of moving someone like Ben Stokes with all the other stuff that he has to deal with in terms of setting the agenda for the entire team… I’m quite happy with him where he is.
‘But Jonny Bairstow is the one that gets more affected by him bouncing up and down [the batting order].
‘Even the psychological effect of the youngster being preferred to him, the knock to his ego would be more detrimental to him, if you were to move him, than it would be to anybody else.
‘In an imperfect world, there is my explanation for why that is the way I would go. However, it’s all completely moot because Zak Crawley will be playing!
‘I like both ideas [Stokes or Brook opening]. I don’t think either one would be wrong. The only wrong would be Ben Foakes not playing. I think that’s wrong. And then you do what you like with the rest.’
This summer’s Ashes series starts on June 16 at Edgbaston. Australia hold the urn following an emphatic 4-0 win on home soil in 2021-22.
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