Ben Duckett has edged out Keaton Jennings to open the batting in Pakistan and, in his second crack at Test cricket, will find an England environment where a freewheeling style is given licence to thrive.
Duckett played four Tests in 2016 and averaged 15.71 in Bangladesh and India. His last Test innings in Vizag was a 16-ball duck. It was macabre viewing as he was tormented by Ravi Ashwin after being given orders to try and block for a draw as the team sank to a heavy defeat.
His only success that winter came in Dhaka where he blazed a fifty reverse-sweeping Shakib Al Hasan into the stands with the kind of innings taken as a desperate attempt to slog his way out of trouble in that environment but now looks ahead of its time given the recent revolution in England’s thinking.
A very respectable first-class average of 41.6 proves he can play red-ball cricket and is more than a Twenty20 merchant. He has amassed 2,111 first-class runs over the past three summers for Notts, averaging 52 in the Championship – far better than Zak Crawley, for example. Strike-rates were largely irrelevant in Test selection before Brendon McCullum came along, but Duckett scoring 72 runs per 100 balls last summer batting mainly at No 3 went a long way to him being named as a reserve for the Oval Test against South Africa when Jonny Bairtstow was injured.
He was the second-highest run scorer for England in the T20 series against Pakistan in September, looking very adept against spin which sealed his Test spot, replacing Alex Lees, even though Jennings, with two hundreds in Asia to his name, was picked in the squad.
Lees never fully convinced wearing the disguise of a dashing opener to fit into McCullum’s thinking when his natural game is to accumulate in a manner befitting a player who learned his game at Yorkshire.
Duckett will not have to change to fit in, with McCullum signalling after the team’s first practice session at the Rawalpindi Stadium on Monday that he wants the same approach – “It remains to be seen how that will go on the road but I still envisage that we will play positive cricket,” he said. Duckett was first in the nets – facing Stokes and Ollie Robinson as England began their preparations after arriving on Sunday.
Never underestimate the clarity of message in Test cricket. Duckett knows what is expected of him and can be confident he has the coach and captain’s backing if he does not succeed playing the way they demand. He was a little out of sorts scoring 28 against the Lions last week but was facing Jofra Archer bowling quickly and with a point to prove.
At least if he fails this time he will do it staying true to his talent, which was not the case in 2016. As he said at the time: "Cookie spoke to us – 'we're going to try to bat all day here, whether it's 20 runs off 160 balls'. That isn't my game. My way of batting for the draw is actually trying to get 120 off 160.” Music to the ears of the current regime.
He should naturally compliment his opening partner, Crawley, not just as a right/left-hand combination. Crawley at 6ft 5in towers over Duckett at 5ft 6in, and the height differential will force bowlers to readjust their lengths. Their scoring areas are different – Duckett strong square and Crawley down the ground – and this is a good opportunity for both with opening one of the best spots to bat in Pakistan because the new ball does not swing as much as it does in other parts of the world. Reverse will take around 50 overs to materialise, although the lushness of the square at the Pindi stadium suggests it might not be such a factor in the first Test anyway. No Shaheen Shah Afridi, injured in the World Cup final and also recovering from surgery to remove his appendix, helps too.
Duckett had a good reputation playing spin in England when he was first called up but soon learned that being able to play the turning ball in county cricket is very different to facing it in India. He has tweaked his technique since facing Ashwin, showing less of his stumps having been bowled by balls pitching middle and leg and hitting off, and the pitches in Pakistan will not turn like they did in India six years ago.
Duckett has also matured off the field since his brush with the Test squad in Australia in 2017-18. Then he was fined and suspended for pouring beer over James Anderson’s head at a time when a drinking culture was partly blamed for England’s troubles. Duckett was in Australia with the Lions and that incident set him back until new management swept in.
Duckett will be given a run at the top of the order and it is Crawley that is under more pressure. Stokes and McCullum have invested in Crawley’s promise but he was poor last summer, his shot selection still a problem and few signs of improvement after 28 Test matches.
Jennings is a good tourist – popular with players and management, hard working and a brilliant short leg as well as a good player of spin. He will push Crawley if he continues to struggle.
Duckett can be versatile and is seen as an option anywhere in the top five but he will start as an opener and if he can grab his chance it will solve one of England’s long-standing problems.
Livingstone could play first Test despite lack of red-ball cricket
By Nick Hoult
England are not reluctant to overturn convention these days and Brendon McCullum will have no hesitation in picking Liam Livingstone if he feels he is the right fit for the first Test even though he has not played first-class cricket since 2021.
Livingstone has concentrated on white ball cricket since nailing his position in England’s one day teams two summers ago and in turn becoming a big signing on the franchise circuit thanks to his six hitting prowess and all-round skills.
But his first taste of England touring was as a spare batsman in the squad for a Test series in New Zealand in 2018 while his first-class batting average of 38.36 is respectable and only dipped as his white ball game took precedence.
He is competing for a place in the Test XI in Rawalpindi with Will Jacks who bowled better in the nets on Monday and was a regular for championship winners Surrey playing 11 out of 14 matches, averaging 54.
Both could play, offering England three spin options alongside Jack Leach but that would require one of them batting five in place of Harry Brook, who made his Test debut in that position against South Africa in September when Jonny Bairstow was injured.
England like Brook, Ben Stokes was so keen to pick him last summer that they considered using him as an opener, so it would go against their normal thinking not to give him a decent run this winter with Bairstow probably not fit until the summer.
So it looks like Jacks or Livingstone at seven – Jacks with his off-spin and Livingstone bowling leg and off-spin depending on the situation – unless McCullum really wants to spring a shock and pick 18 year-old leggie Rehan Ahmed, who was only added to the squad a week ago.
Livingstone had more or less given up on red ball cricket under Joe Root’s England captaincy but he is close to Stokes and is exactly the kind of cricketer he and McCullum like – aggressive with the bat and feisty too.
“I've seen a bit of him on the T20 circuit and international cricket and enjoyed his style of play – he bowls off-spin, leg-spin, fields well and smacks the ball out of the park – it's hard not to get around a player who plays like that,” said McCullum after England’s first net session in Pakistan.
“He carries himself in a great way and a great manner. It's a real feather in the cap for the skipper and some of the senior players within the group that one of the best T20 players in the world is desperate to be part of this squad because of the goodwill that's been built up over the last few months.
“So they've got all excited for his involvement and I'm sure he'll be able to put in a strong performance given the opportunity.”
When asked if he thinks it matters that Livingstone has not played red ball cricket since the 2021 summer – when he averaged just 11 for Lancashire – McCullum was unfazed. “Not really. I think he's a good player, so we'll find out I suppose.”
Ahmed was described as a “rough diamond” and “nowhere near the finished article” with this tour an invaluable learning experience. “What's the alternative? Leave him in a system which may not come through necessarily as the product you'd hope for in the end?” said McCullum. “So we get him in here and we believe we can help get his talent through quicker. He's a rare talent worth investing in, and we'll make sure we'll try to look after him.”
James Anderson and Ollie Robinson look to be the choice seamers for the first Test on a pitch that is likely to be flat and full of runs. Mark Wood is injured and Jamie Overton is the other option but likely to play when England rotate Robinson.
Pakistan scored 728 for four across two innings in Rawalpindi against Australia earlier this year on a graveyard of a pitch. There was a covering of grass on Monday but it will be shaved before the Test starts and it is likely to be low and slow, with Pakistan wary of giving England’s firecrackers with the bat much carry to work with.