Mark Stoneman, the England opener, is aware his next two Tests against New Zealand could go a long way to deciding his international future as he tries to secure one of England’s troubled top-order positions.
Stoneman has shown moments of promise in his eight Tests to date – and the England management like what they have seen – but has failed to convert three fifties into a century. Having played three matches against West Indies last season and then the five Ashes Tests, he averages 27.07 which is very similar to many of the openers tried since Andrew Strauss retired more than five years ago.
After facing Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins over five bruising encounters in Australia – literally in the case of the blow on the helmet Stoneman took against Hazlewood in Perth – it would have been understandable if Stoneman had wanted to hightail it out, but instead he spent another six weeks in the country visiting in-laws (his wife is from Australia) and netting with Surrey team-mate Ollie Pope. He only had 10 days back in the UK before heading to New Zealand.
With the selectors having quickly named their squad for this tour after the Ashes – “It’s nice to have that bit of faith in you,” Stoneman said – he did not have to fret over his place, but now has two Tests, one of them the potentially demanding experience of a day-night encounter at Eden Park, to persuade those selectors he is worth keeping for the home season against Pakistan and India. He knows the only way to stop the questions is to score big.
“I think I’ve got myself on trial really,” he said. “I always put myself under pressure and can be my own worst critic at times. I’m expecting good things of myself, that’s the most important thing.”
He used much of his extended stay in Australia to reflect on his Ashes experience. “I sat back and looked through it all and said, right there’s some good stuff there and at other times there doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot wrong, but probably what was wrong there was my thought process,” he said. “I’ve got the shots, I feel I’ve got the technique to make the runs, I’ve just got to make sure I apply it for longer. What I do for three hours for 50 I’ve got to do for six hours for 100 and build on that.
“I’ve shown glimpses but that’s been the problem, it’s only been glimpses so far and if I can go on and do some really good stuff here hopefully I can go on to have a successful international career.”
It was a series of two halves for Stoneman: before and after the blow on the helmet by Hazlewood at the WACA – one, final, bristling period of pace bowling at the old ground. He was 52 at the time, having survived a barrage of short stuff to reach his second fifty in five innings in the series, but then fell four runs later when he feathered another searing short ball from Starc. At that point he had made 186 runs; his next four innings brought 42.
“I think it was just coincidental on the back of that and it was unfortunate I wasn’t able to finish the series stronger,” he said.
The challenge ahead in New Zealand will be less brutal than across the Tasman – although Neil Wagner will no doubt test his technique against the short ball – but more about the moving ball. However, despite what is on the line Stoneman is trying to keep a balance amid the pressure of the international game.
“Problems start arising when you start living on the peaks and troughs of cricket,” he said. “Just trying to keep things on a general level in life and you work hard at the cricket and at the end of the day it will be what it’ll be.”