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Jason Roy selection demonstrates stark difference between Test cricket and one-day internationals

Tim Wigmore
In six innings opening, Jason Roy has averaged just nine - AFP

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The new ball is pitched up, to invite swing. Showing contempt for traditional notions of playing himself in, Jason Roy leans forward. He crashes the ball through the off side with such power that Australia’s fielders do not even bother giving chase. Before the over is out, Roy repeats the shot, with the same result. 

The start of Roy’s audacious 85 in the World Cup semi-final embodies why he is one of the world’s most feared openers in one-day international cricket. And it illustrates why, as England came looking for their 15th Test opener since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, they could not resist the allure of Roy. 

Before his debut, skipper Joe Root declared that he wanted Roy to channel his ODI belligerence. “We want Jason to go out and be himself, to express himself and trust his instincts as much as possible.”

There was just one snag: opening in Test cricket is a challenge of an entirely different order to doing so in ODIs. In the first 10 overs in England since Roy’s ODI debut in 2015, the ball swings twice as much in Tests as in ODIs; the seam movement is more than a third greater. 

This all speaks to the perils of trying to import a method from one game to another. So rapidly are the skills needed to thrive in cricket’s limited overs and Test formats diverging that, rather than merely being different versions of the same sport, they are better understood as being completely different sports. The selection of Roy to open was only a little removed from England picking their rugby union World Cup squad based on performances at the rugby league ground which backs onto Headingley. 

Roy is one of the world’s most feared openers in one-day international cricket Credit: PA

The most obvious precedent for Roy’s Test selection is playing for Australia. But the greatness of David Warner, like Virender Sehwag, as buccaneering Test openers conceals how rare cricketers of this ilk have been in Test history. Only eight openers have ever scored 1,000 runs with a strike rate above 65. And even the very best of this rare breed have been enfeebled by the jagging English pitches: Warner’s Test average of 49 everywhere else falls to 30 in England; Sehwag average of 50 outside England tumbled to 27 here. 

England’s hope was that Roy would defy history. If their paucity of options encouraged England to land on him, it was also in keeping with the style of cricket they wanted to play, and Trevor Bayliss’s long-standing preference for having two attacking players in the top three. 

As England have got through Test openers like Tinder dates, the myth that they had yet to try an aggressive opener has taken hold. But it is only three years since England were selecting a Test opener based on his white ball prowess: Alex Hales, who only averaged 27 from 11 Tests.

The most curious aspect about Hales’s Test career was how radically he changed his limited overs approach: his strike rate in Tests was so funereal that even Alastair Cook scored quicker. 

“I was fighting my natural game a little bit,” Hales says. “But I felt like if you want to succeed as an opening batsman in Test cricket I don’t think you can go out and start playing shots from ball one because you'll just nick one.

“You can’t just walk out to open the batting in England and start playing shots from ball one. I can’t really think of any successful England openers who've done that. 

“I found it particularly difficult especially at the top of the order. With the red ball in England there’s no hiding place - it swings, it seams, it’s really difficult so I found it’s a completely different game opening 50-over to Test cricket.” 

So far, Roy has diverged from Hales’s approach to Test opening. Yet the results have been even worse. In six innings opening, Roy is averaging nine, a record he maintained perfectly when he flashed Josh Hazlewood behind in the fourth over of the morning. 

Jason Roy performs outstandingly in ODIs Credit: PA

Openers in Tests are amplifiers. They can both reinforce the strengths of the batsmen to come, who are protected from the new ball and fresh bowlers - or expose their weaknesses, as Roy has done in continually exposing Root and those beneath him to the new ball. 

Only once all summer have England’s openers lasted the first ten overs - and that was when Jack Leach was nightwatchman against Ireland, pushing Roy down to number three. Protected from the worst of the new ball, he made a fine 72 then, suggesting that he could succeed in Tests if given a better chance. Even before his debut, Surrey’s coaches believed that he would be most likely to excel in the middle order. Indeed Hales, looking back at his own Test career, believes that he may have done better had he batted lower down. 

And so, while Roy’s shot selection has been egregious this series, in a broader sense this is perhaps not really his fault. For Roy has been selected to play in a very specific way - to bat, essentially, as if the colour of the ball does not matter - and is doing accordingly. The results are a simple microcosm of an enduring truth: that a brilliant limited overs template can translate shoddily to Tests.