DEPENDING on which way you look at it, there has never been a worse or better time to be an opening batsman in county cricket.
On the one hand, it is no fun facing the new ball beneath cloudy skies in Arctic April or shivering September, when most County Championship games are now normally played.
On the other, anyone who prospers at the start of the coming season – one with a better spread of Championship matches throughout the summer to avoid a clash with the World Cup – knows they could easily propel themselves into an England Test team crying out for consistent batsmen and openers in particular.
One man who realises this as much as anybody is Adam Lyth, the Yorkshire left-hander.
Four years ago, Lyth opened in seven Tests before becoming one of the many players tried, tested and ultimately thrown to one side after the retirement of previous incumbent Andrew Strauss.
Including Sir Alastair Cook (himself now retired from international cricket), England have used 15 openers at Test level in the six-and-a-half years since Strauss’s departure.
If that suggests they do not have much of a clue who should be opening, it would hardly be an egregious slight on those who have chosen, in chronological sequence, Messrs Compton, Root, Carberry, Robson, Trott, Lyth, Moeen, Hales, Duckett, Hameed, Jennings, Stoneman, Burns and Denly, a list so extensive that not even Don Juan’s little black book contained quite so many names.
Unless something remarkable happens in the final Test against the West Indies that starts in St Lucia today, it is likely that England will return from the Caribbean arguably less near to knowing who their best openers are than before they set off, a black mark against Ed Smith, the national selector, who has yet to convince since replacing James Whitaker.
Indeed, Trevor Bayliss, the England head coach, effectively got down on bended knee after last week’s annihilation in Antigua and pleaded with county openers to present a compelling case for selection, a clarion call that Lyth has every intention of heeding.
Asked whether he senses an opportunity to reignite his England career amid the present climate of top-order uncertainty, Lyth said: “Absolutely. If I get out of the blocks fast and score some runs for Yorkshire, you never know what might happen later on in the summer.”
However, the 31-year-old quickly added the time-honoured caveat: “I don’t want to look too far ahead. I just want to score a lot of runs for Yorkshire and win games for Yorkshire. If an England call-up comes, I’ll be over-the-moon. If I get that chance, hopefully I’ll grab it.”
Is a recall for Lyth really realistic? After all, he averaged 27.33 in last season’s Championship and 25.22 the year before.
It is perhaps on the outer extremes of probability at this stage, but by no means impossible if he does start well.
Indeed, on joining Yorkshire as their new batting coach recently, Paul Grayson, the former England all-rounder, made clear that he sees part of his role as trying to help Lyth and also county team-mate Gary Ballance get back to the highest level.
I found it tough against Australia, but everybody did in that series apart from maybe Rooty ... hopefully, if I get another chance, I’ll be better equippedYorkshire’s Adam Lyth
“Take fine players like Ballance and Lyth,” pondered Grayson. “There’s no reason why they can’t get back into the England team.
“I know Adam’s last two seasons have been inconsistent, but he’s got to believe he has the ability to score big runs and, if he does so, why shouldn’t he play for England again?”
Lyth’s taste of international cricket was, in some ways, a microcosm of his career.
There were times when he looked a million dollars, not least when scoring 107 against New Zealand at Headingley on only his second appearance, “probably the best knock I’ve played in my career,” he reflects.
Other times, he struggled to cope with Australia’s pace attack, managing only 115 runs in the five Ashes Tests of 2015.
“I found it tough against Australia, but everybody did in that series apart from maybe Rooty (Joe Root),” he said.
“I was probably a bit too loose outside off stump and I got out a lot on the back foot trying to play a back foot punch, when I should have probably been leaving the ball.
“That’s where, with a bit more pace and bounce, I got a bit unstuck and probably should have learned a bit quicker than I did. Hopefully, if I get another chance, I’ll be better equipped.”
It was a difficult period for the Whitby-born player, whose technique was dissected by ringside sages.
“There’s nowhere to hide in Test cricket,” he reflected.
“If you get three or four low scores for Yorkshire, nobody knows, but if you get them playing for England, you’ve got the whole world watching.
“It’s tough, but that’s sport at the highest level.
“Generally, the best players come out on top more often than not.”
Despite the merry-go-round of Test opening batsmen, more of a gloomy-go-round, if truth be told, Lyth insists there have been some quality players among Strauss’s replacements.
“It’s not that the lads aren’t good players,” he said. “Opening the batting is tough, the hardest job in cricket.
“There were some good players after Strauss, people like Sam Robson, but I guess it also goes to prove how good Alastair Cook was and also Strauss.
“England have also struggled to replace (Jonathan) Trott (at No 3), but Gary (Ballance) came in and did very well before he got dropped, so there are good players out there, in my opinion.”
Lyth refutes the idea – prevalent after England’s gung-ho capitulation in Antigua – that there are no batsmen in county cricket capable of playing long innings.
“There’s players out there willing to soak up a 200-ball hundred,” he insisted. “The trouble with early-season, for example, is that if you try to hang around, there’s going to be a ball with your name on it, and maybe some players have tried to counter-attack by playing a few shots.
“But it’s tough early-season. It’s not as easy as what people are making it out to be, and there’s some very good bowlers out there. We played against some very good attacks last year. Surrey had Morne Morkel, Hampshire had (Kyle) Abbott and (Dale) Steyn and Fidel (Edwards). There’s some Test wickets among that lot.
“Potentially, the first game of next season, we could be facing (Stuart) Broad and (Jake) Ball (at Notts). But that’s Division One cricket.
“The best players in the world come and play early-season and they also struggle. Look at (Cheteshwar) Pujara. He struggled with us at Yorkshire last year, but he’s just gone to Australia and churned them out.”
For his own part, Lyth is looking to go back to his natural game.
Refreshed after a period recharging his batteries at home, he thinks he knows the key to reprising the form that got him picked for England in the first place.
“The last two seasons have been frustrating, and I need to get back to playing how I’m at my best, and not looking to be too technical and too defensive, which I have done probably in the last couple of years,” he said.
“When things don’t go well at the start of a season, for example, you start thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t drive at this ball and that ball’, and you get too tense, and then when you do get one there (in the slot), you’re not quite in the best position to put it away, and before you know it you’ve nicked off to the slips or the keeper and you’re walking off thinking, ‘I should have put that away and I’m out.’
“So I don’t want to get too technical, or anything like that.
“I just want to get back to being my positive best, and see where it takes me.”