England have never liked or trusted attacking openers. Colin Milburn was dropped, ostensibly for his fielding, but tut-tuts were audible when he hooked West Indian fast bowlers for six. At Edgbaston the barrel-chested John Jameson still regrets being axed after four Tests. Bob Barber was given a run in the England side in the 1960s but he could afford to attack, literally, as an amateur of private means.
Since Ben Stokes became England captain, however, and Brendon McCullum head coach, attacking openers are no longer mavericks, to be spurned, but mandatory. And no opening batsmen in the whole history of Test cricket has attacked quite so effectively as Ben Duckett since his reinstatement in the England side last winter.
Scorers of the Victorian era did not have the software to record the number of balls that Test batsmen faced but, judging by all the existing data, India’s opening batsman Virender Sehwag scored faster than any other specialist batsman, never mind opener, at 82 runs per 100 balls, before his retirement a decade ago. And Duckett, since his comeback, has hit 690 runs off 710 balls at the rattling strike-rate of 97 – or 88 overall in his 10-Test career.
Mind you, Stokes owed him a favour. It was the last day in Rajkot, in the opening match of England’s five-Test series in India in November 2016. Duckett, having made a brave debut in Bangladesh, was into his third Test, and England needed quick runs for a declaration – an ideal situation for a young dasher to air his strokes and find his feet.
Duckett’s demotion was no doubt well-intentioned, but it was plain wrong. Stokes came in at No 4 instead, and hit 29 at a run a ball until England’s (delayed) declaration. In the second Test England’s batsmen were instructed to block out the last day for a draw, and Duckett without sweeps and reverse-sweeps is half the batsman he would otherwise be. He was dismissed by Ravichandran Ashwin cheaply both times, and was binned for the next six solid years.
For his first home Test, aged 28, Duckett could not have asked for a friendlier pitch or a friendlier bowling attack: In modern times, at least, only Bangladesh in 2005 have spread out such a sumptuous buffet, even banquet, for England’s batsmen at Lord’s. Had Stokes allowed his batsmen 150 overs, England might have overtaken their record Test total of 903 in 1938.
Nonetheless, a century before lunch (the first for England at Lord’s since Sir Jack Hobbs in 1924), and 182 off 178 balls, was some going.
Duckett has left the ball eight times in six Tests
In mid-afternoon Sky came up with this startling stat: Duckett, since his recall last December, had left the ball – had let it pass unplayed outside off stump – eight times. Eight times in six Tests. Most England openers through the ages have left the ball many times more than eight in every session.
A big question that will be asked on 16 June is: Can a batsman, especially an opener who has to contend with a new hard ball, succeed against Australia without leaving the ball more than once per match? It will be a first if Duckett does, but then so much in contemporary Test cricket has no precedent.
And will Australia’s fast bowlers land the ball in the area which Duckett least likes, on a fullish length, just outside off stump, to drag him into driving off the front foot, when his strong bottom hand takes over? Ireland’s pace bowlers, who have barely played red-ball cricket since Covid save in their handful of Tests, were unaccustomed to pitching more than two or three balls in a row in the appropriate place.
It is in Duckett’s favour that he is a fast learner as well as fast scorer. He began his career by standing on leg stump and lashing everything offside. He has balanced up to become equally prolific on either side of the wicket. Can he continue this summer as he has started, or has England’s dress rehearsal for the Ashes gone all too well?
The opening scene in the last Ashes series featured Mitchell Starc propelling the first ball at England’s left-handed opening batsman, and bowling Rory Burns behind his legs. Duckett, surely, has to keep playing his strokes, but he is allowed to leave the ball more than eight times in the whole series.