Sam Robson was beaten for pace by Varun Aaron. The ball was full but barely moved at all. Robson was late, almost looking to leave at first, as if he was opening the batting by numbers. Stumps everywhere.
Adam Lyth is pushed onto the back foot and, though the ball was further forward than he thought, it is arching away from the left-hander’s off-stump – Peter Siddle’s usual vibe from over the wicket. He poked. Michael Clarke at second slip took the catch.
Alex Hales, trapped in front by Yasir Shah, thinks the umpire has done him wrong. The finger is up, but Hales has doubts. A lot of them. He sends for a review and has to watch on as the big screen at the Oval shows that he has not only played around the ball, but that it is hitting the top of middle stump.
Keaton Jennings wants to cut. Though maybe not. In this form, he probably doesn’t know what he wants to do with what’s sent his way. The ball is close to him and a cut is not the shot to go for but cut is what he does. Hashim Amla at first slip thanks him for his cooperation.
Mark Stoneman had just edged a four between the keeper and first slip. He’s battling, but heck, that’s four and now he’s on nine from 44 balls. Shadab Khan pitches a ball on a good-ish length. Stoneman goes to ride the bounce from a neutral base. But there is no bounce. In fact, this ball bounces the least out of any ball Shadab has delivered on day three. The base of off stump is hit and Stoneman has the face of a man who has walked in on someone cleaning themselves with his toothbrush.
If there is something that has linked the procession of England’s full-time openers in the last few years it has been the utter hopelessness of their final dismissals. Dismissals that not only speak of cluttered minds, but also that now may be the time for mercy. The build-up might have been scathing of their previous performances and iffy techniques. But now, exposed and out in the open, there is nothing but sympathy coming their way. That their time is up and now they need to be taken out of the firing line, for their own sake.
This felt like Stoneman’s final dismissal.
Would Stoneman have a right to feel aggrieved if it is? Probably not. As the 12th of Alastair Cook’s opening partners since Andrew Strauss’ retirement in 2012, he knew what he was getting into. He had to settle quickly and he had to settle well. After 20 innings, he has only managed a best of 60 – one of just five half-centuries. Perhaps most damning of all, he has not scored 100 runs in a match. His average has dipped to 27.68
He was turned inside out by Mohammad Abbas in the first innings for just four, bowled through the gate comprehensively after being hoodwinked on the outside edge at first. Disconsolate in the field as Pakistan established a lead of 179, he scrapped for his life: edging Mohammad Amir just short of second slip, playing and missing or edging around once every four balls. His wicket, while unfortunate when it arrived, was inevitable. The muted applause he was afforded as he trudged back to the pavilion felt almost patronising.
Make no mistake – this has been a berth Stoneman has earned. Five successive summers of a thousand-plus runs – four for Durham, one for Surrey – show, comfortably, that he is a quality opening batsman. Having found a way to tough it out on Chester-le-Street pitches that give bowlers a fair crack, he grew as an opener, adding an array of shots to his game in the process. His 146 in last summer’s Royal London Cup final at this very ground showed as much.
To his credit, he has fought to stay true to his method. During England’s first two-day warm-up against a New Zealand XI in Hamilton, in which both sides took turns to bat all day, regardless of the number of wickets that fell, Stoneman was out twice in a day. After he was out the first time, it was suggested to the 30-year-old that he could do with a net. But Stoneman knew his own game and, rather than have a pressurised session with the bat that could exacerbate the problem, he took the decision to back himself and say no. In the next two-day that immediately followed, he notched 48.
While only managing 11 in the dreadful 58 all out in the first innings of the first Test at Auckland – one of only two players to reach double figures in that debacle – he dusted himself off in the second innings and registered 55. The following match, 35 and 60. Not world-beating feats by any stretch, but the improvement and, crucially, working things out his own way, would have given Stoneman confidence to move forward. However, skipping that optional Hamilton net had marked his card with some.
It was relayed to Stoneman, via a few trusted confidants within the England set-up, that there was a view he did not train hard enough. Soon, that became the trope. On the BBC’s Tuffers & Vaughan radio show, Michael Vaughan stated, “I don’t think he practises like an international cricketer.”
He knew he had the backing of his teammates, but the episode gave him reasons to doubt that others had his back. Perhaps previous openers Michael Carberry and Ben Duckett can relate.
It was a peculiar criticism, too, as Stoneman, whose wife is Australian, chose to fly back to England for a few days before the New Zealand series, instead of staying Down Under, so that he could train with his Surrey coach Michael Di Venuto and director of cricket Alec Stewart.
Maybe that’s why he entered the summer scratching around, wary that questions were being asked of him. Wary that some had already earmarked in for failure. For Surrey, he looked a player searching for runs, rather than one who knew they would come, as they had done many a time in the past.
A magnificent fightback from Somerset’s own sons Jos Buttler and Dom Bess might give him one last chance, after their magnificent stand took England from 75 behind to 56 ahead. Defeat in the opening Test would lead to wholesale changes, especially as national selector Ed Smith made it clear this squad was only for the first of the two matches. While the start of the Headingley Test is this Friday, there will be pressure on Smith et al to ring the changes if England need to win to square the series. A 1-0 lead may afford Stoneman two more innings to salvage his international career.
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