Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss from Test cricket in 2012, England has had no luck finding a long-term partner for Alastair Cook at the top of the order. It has become a major predicament and despite recapturing the Ashes over the summer, the failure of Adam Lyth - who scored just 115 runs in the five-match series - is the latest to come and go, following in the footsteps of Michael Carberry, Nick Compton and Jonathan Trott.
With tours to the UAE and South Africa approaching fast, England need to find the perfect complement to the gritty Cook, who looks to be through the worst of his batting crisis. Let’s assess the players the selectors have called on to fill the role, and analyse whether they can make the spot their own, or if they are destined to be yet another hero-to-zero choice.
England has finally opted to bring Alex Hales into the mix and it’s a move which brings much excitement. Not since Marcus Trescothick has the team had an aggressive opener and it’s high time England reembraced the sort of style the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Chris Gayle and Virender Sehwag perfected.
The modern Test approach is rooted in attack and Hales’ significant success in first-class cricket and limited-overs international cricket suggests his hand may fit the glove. The tall, lanky right-hander is one of the cleanest strikers in the country and has a penchant for big innings - he hit 236, his highest domestic score, against Yorkshire earlier this year.
While not with the most prolific first-class statistics - in 85 games he averages 38.71 with 12 hundreds - the 26-year-old’s stock has grown considerably of late. His performances certainly warrant the trial he has been given, and like Lyth, he will hopefully be given a few months to stake a claim to the spot long-term.
The left and right combination offered by Cook and Hales is just another bonus.
Moeen Ali’s name has also been touted for the spot, despite the fact that he has never opened in first-class cricket. The all-rounder’s credentials make him a strong number eight, but the step up to a Test opener is one that could perhaps be beyond him.
Moeen has flirted with the role in one-day internationals - with varied results - and has displayed his ability to dig in as a Test batsman, making a memorable 108 not out from 281 balls in England’s agonising loss to Sri Lanka last year.
The consensus should be that Moeen is a much more valuable asset in the mid-to-lower order than he would be at the top. With a Test average of 31 he has shown himself to be more of an all-rounder than a fully-fledged batsman.
England do not need someone who would flirt with consistency at the top, and while he could perhaps be considered again in the future, for now, there are better options for England to consider.
For now, Joe Root looks to have embedded himself in the middle of England’s batting lineup, but he has had experiences opening in Tests, and it’s feasible that he may be called upon again in time if a suitable candidate cannot be found.
In his five matches at the top, Root averaged 37.66 with a highest score of 180 - which came during the 2013 Ashes series. It’s a whole 17 runs of his overall average, but with the glut of middle-order prospects - Gary Ballance, James Taylor and Jonny Bairstow to name three - it could be in England’s interests long-term to install him as an opener again.
Root ending up with the job would look like a backwards step from the selectors. However, it could work out for the best. England may end up with a world-class opener to continue on from Cook’s legacy, and another gap for the wealth of young batting talents would be created.
Nick Compton was brought into the England side after hitting a purple patch of form at Somerset but was discarded before the last Ashes series in Australia. In comparison to the others who have had a crack, Compton’s numbers were not too bad.
In his nine Tests, he hit two gritty hundreds; however, his 32 average and measly strike rate of 34.68 went against him. His tentativeness made him look vulnerable - and he often was - but the right-hander showed that when he settled in, he had the temperament to apply himself and build a strong base for the team.
In an attempt to bolster his chances, Compton has returned to his former county Middlesex, where he has been steady, if not superb. His England days are most likely behind him, but many considered him unlucky not to at least be in the squad for the upcoming Pakistan series.
He just has to continue scoring runs, and hope another opportunity comes his way in the future.
Misfortune has struck Zafar Ansari at the worst possible time - he dislocated his thumb in a County Championship match against Lancashire shortly after being called up for the UAE Tests against Pakistan.
The 23-year-old Surrey all-rounder was brought in largely because of his spin bowling, but he is no stranger to opening the batting either.
However, his painfully low strike rate does not stand him in good stead - in his first-class career he has scored at around two-an-over, around half the speed which has become the norm.
But if he does regain fitness and Hales doesn’t fire, Ansari could get a couple of innings to prove his worth.
Hales will seal the spot for himself with a good winter, however, if he fails like the others before him have then England will remain in a quandary. Ansari would be the most probable beneficiary from a Hales failure, but if neither can impress then perhaps Root will be called upon to take one for the team, and hold things together at the top.