It’s all up for grabs at the top of England’s Test batting order. Yet another series has come and gone – this time a 2-1 defeat in the Caribbean – with none of the incumbents making a definitive case for retention going into this summer’s Ashes.
Tom Westley knows that feeling well. It’s been nigh on two years since Westley made the last of his five Test appearances in the summer of 2017. In nine innings against against South Africa and West Indies, he managed a solitary half-century at an average of 24.12 before being dropped for that winter’s Ashes campaign.
But, having this week celebrated his 30th birthday on Essex’s pre-season tour of Abu Dhabi, Westley has not given up hope of earning himself a second chance at Test level – especially with nearly four months of county cricket in which to hone his form before England’s next Test engagement, against Ireland on July 24.
“It’s quite exciting, not only for myself but a lot of county cricketers,” Westley told ESPNcricinfo. “If an individual scores three, four, five hundreds early in the season, they are going to be spoken about to play for England. That’s everyone’s goal, and my goal personally is to play for England again, but the only way to do that is to score those runs.”
Two years older and wiser, Westley has vowed that – whatever comes to pass – he will be truer to his own game this season than he was when he last got his opportunity with England.
“I just really regret not scoring more runs,” he said. “There are a few technical things that I thought they would make me a better player. I changed my stance a little bit; I thought would help my balance. I changed my back-lift. Not huge changes, but things that I felt were important in order for me to be more successful at international level.
“Actually, in hindsight, I should have worked on what I was good at, and increased the intensity and the preparation around that, to elevate the player that I was by 10 percent, rather than try and be someone that you’re not.
“You end up taking two or three steps back and only one step forward, rather than actually going through the difficulty of working on what you’ve already got and improving that to take the step forward.”
One obvious strength of Westley’s going into his Test debut was the quality of his leg-side play, but in attempting to make himself a more rounded off-side player, he recognises that he perhaps blunted some of his effectiveness.
“It was actually explained to me quite nicely by Paul Farbrace,” he said, “whether you are playing at club level or first-class cricket, you are the same player, but you try and improve by 5 or 10 percent because the standard increases, and it was quite refreshing to view it like that.
“At the end of the day, you don’t really need to have every shot in the book. I mean, look at players like Jonathan Trott, a very strong leg-side player, KP, Mark Waugh. Pietersen was not a big cutter of the ball, nor is Trott, but they have strengths in other areas and their strengths were good enough at international level to be successful. I think it’s more having that sort of mind-set and honing those skills in order to succeed.”
Talking of mind-set, Essex are set to benefit from the long-term return of one of the toughest players of his generation, with the newly-knighted Sir Alastair Cook set to play the entire first-class season for the club following his retirement from international cricket.
“He’s hardly spoken about it!,” Westley joked about Cook’s encounter with the Queen last month. “It’s an honour for him to be knighted, but it’s an honour for us to have him back here full time now, because his impact on the squad goes a long way. He’s an England and Essex legend, so adding someone like that to the squad; it’s always going to help.
“Having won the league in 2017, he was a huge part of that; his runs in the early part of the season really set us up. So hopefully he can continue where he left off for England and score bucket-loads of runs for the county.”
Would Westley himself be picking Cook’s brains in his bid to regain England recognition?
“I’ve been asked that a lot in recent seasons,” Westley said. “He can’t score runs for you and he even said that to me. We sat down before I made my debut and I asked him if he had any bits of advice. He said ‘not really, you’ve got to where you’ve got to because you are good enough, you’ve scored the runs to be here but only you can go out and score runs now for yourself’.”
“It’s so true because if you strive for bits of secret information – what’s the elixir? The answer? – you’ll never find it. The only way you’re going to achieve that is scoring runs consistently. He’s banged on about that for a long time can’t see anything changing. I’d be disappointed if he now says learn a new shot.”
Westley will get his first crack at scoring those vital first-class runs in Abu Dhabi at the end of the month, when he plays for MCC against the Champion County, Surrey, in the season’s curtain-raiser, alongside his fellow Essex players Dan Lawrence and Sam Cook.
The conditions may be somewhat different to what will be awaiting back home at Chelmsford, but the opponents are very familiar – given that Westley made a century against Surrey at The Oval in the final match of last season, to set up what turned out to be an incredible one-wicket victory, as Surrey battled back from being bowled out for 67 in the first innings to take the game right to the wire.
“They were the team to beat last year and we managed to beat them, so hopefully we can start the season strongly,” said Westley. “I think they’ll admit we controlled the game for most of it, but we made it very, very difficult for ourselves to win. But it was a fantastic game of cricket for the neutral and the spectator, and it was nice to beat them. It’ll go a long way towards us trying to beat them again in 2019.”
“Places are not nailed down in [England’s] top three, which gives a lot of hope for us county cricketers who want to play for England.
“The selectors have been very good; say with [Rory] Burns for instance, he definitely deserved his chance last year because of the weight of runs he scored in the county game.
“And picking Joe Denly in the winter gives every 30-plus cricketer hope that, if you do work out your game a bit later or do fantastically well, then you do have the opportunity to potentially play for your country.
“That’s very important because it gives everybody hope and a nice pathway. You don’t just feel that no matter what you do your time’s gone.”