Dobell: More hand-wringing over top order as England try to persuade Joe Root to bat at No.3

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Jul
27

1:00 PM ET

There must have been a time – a simpler, happier time – when the conclusion of each Test didn’t precipitate another bout of hand-wringing about the frailties of England’s top-order batting.

But like roadworks on the M1, the saga of Brexit and Shahid Afridi’s career, it seems England’s search for a solid top three might really be endless. That Jack Leach, a county No. 11 who came into the Lord’s Test averaging 4.66 this season, now has the second-highest score by an England opener since the retirement of Alastair Cook speaks volumes. As does the fact that the one man with a higher score – Keaton Jennings – has already been discarded.

So it was that, hours after England sealed their dramatic victory over Ireland at Lord’s, the England management tried once more to persuade Joe Root to move back to No. 3. No matter that he has said, many times, that he doesn’t want to do it. No matter that, just one Test ago, Trevor Bayliss suggested England had accepted that the side’s middle-order – from No. 4 to No. 8 – was a strength that should not be weakened. No matter that the Burns-Roy experiment had been given just one innings to bed-in. The England management were clearly concerned by the fragility of their side’s batting at Lord’s and continue to look for a new solution.

That’s understandable. The top three in action in the first innings at Lord’s have just 11 Test caps between them. The promotion of Root might add some experience and solidity. Rory Burns, in particular, looked short of form and confidence. It wasn’t so much that he twice nicked off, as much as he did it defending a wide ball in the second innings; a stroke that suggested some uncertainly over the position of his off stump and a scrambled mind. He has reached 30 just once in his last 10 Test innings and not at all in his last six. That is not a sustainable run of form. And while the selectors are probably right to give him a prolonged run in the side – England have been down the road of revolving door selections; it didn’t work – Burns will know opportunities are running out. That knowledge won’t make his job any easier.

So, if the off-field team management have their way, Root will bat at No. 3 (where he averages 40.47) at Edgbaston. That means Jason Roy could move to No. 4 and Joe Denly could open with Burns. By comparison, Root averages 48.00 at No. 4 and 71.44 at No. 5. He has made it abundantly clear he prefers to bat at No. 4 and, as captain, the decision will rest with him.

“Joe knows how I feel,” Bayliss said. “It’s been my thought for a few years [that Root should bat at No. 3]. But he’s the captain and he’ll make the final decision. He knows how I feel.”

There were other options. Dom Sibley, the top run-scorer in Division One of the County Championship (he has 940 at an average of 62.66), has learned to play much straighter (he has taken to using Alastair Cook’s old coach, Gary Palmer), and has recently enjoyed a run of seven centuries in 20 first-class innings. And while his somewhat old-fashioned approach may not be to England’s current taste – nobody in the top 30 of the Division One batting averages scores as slowly as Sibley (41.44 runs per 100 balls this season) – the selectors may reflect that it is being bowled out too quickly rather than scoring too slowly which is England’s primary problem.

In the longer-term, Zak Crawley, the 21-year-old Kent opener, looks an outstanding prospect. It seems, however, the selectors were keen not to risk a potential 10-year career by blooding him six months early and against an especially daunting pace attack. Both he and Sibley – who opened together for England Lions recently – could break into the side before the end of the series, however. James Vince‘s star fell during the World Cup but he, too, could yet return.

It was surprising to hear Root be quite so critical of the Lord’s surface on Friday afternoon. Not just because it is out of character – if Root has such views, he has tended to keep them to himself – but because if England are going to win the Ashes, they are going to have to play on surfaces assisting their seam attack. So while this Lord’s surface may have been an extreme example of a green seamer, it was hard not to think back to Trent Bridge and Edgbaston in 2015 and wonder how different this really was.

To be fair, those 2015 Ashes surfaces were a little better than this. They offered more pace, more even bounce and less lateral movement. And Root may well argue that, having already arranged to use the 2018 version of the Dukes ball – with its prominent seam and propensity to swing for much of the day – his bowlers do not require further assistance. But pitch preparation is not an exact science and Root may reflect that his side are far better suited to surfaces offering too much rather than those offering too little.

Certainly it is worth thinking back to the previous couple of Ashes series and remembering what happened when the sides met on good batting surfaces. Whether it was in London (Australia won heavily at both Lord’s and The Oval) or in Australia, England’s seamers struggled for penetration on good batting tracks and the extra pace in Australia’s attack proved crucial. Put a little simplistically: if the Ashes is played on good batting surfaces, Australia may well be favourites.

“You don’t have to be Einstein to work that out”

Trevor Bayliss on whether a lack of top-order runs could be England’s biggest obstacle to regaining the Ashes

All of which means England’s batsmen probably face more tough days. And all of which means we probably have to be just a little more understanding of the challenges facing top-order batsmen in England. It is a desperately tough job. It is inevitable that the statistics may look grim. It’s just a question of how much grimness is acceptable.

Elsewhere among the batsmen (or the all-rounders, anyway) there might have been a case for replacing Jonny Bairstow (averaging 24.42 in Test cricket since the start of the 2018 English season) with Ben Foakes and a case for replacing Moeen Ali (averaging 17.00 in Test cricket since September 2017) with Leach. But neither was especially likely at this stage. Moeen was the top-wicket taker on both England’s winter tours (albeit equal with Leach in Sri Lanka) and Bairstow enjoyed a good World Cup. Still, that late middle-order – they remain likely to bat at No. 7 and No. 8 – is not quite so daunting as it once was. England will require more from both of them.

The selectors also have some difficult decisions to make with the seam bowling. Only James Anderson is, if fit, guaranteed to play (there is every indication he is fit), with the other two specialist seamers (Ben Stokes’ position can be taken for granted) to be taken from a list including Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Olly Stone.

Odd though it sounds for a man who has yet to make his Test debut, Archer is probably an automatic selection if he is deemed fully fit, too. But England are admirably keen to protect a once-in-a-generation asset – not since the emergence of Broad, or perhaps Steven Finn, has an England seamer promised as much – who has not played a first-class game this year. So Archer’s involvement at Edgbaston is not certain. And, with England keen to include some pace in their attack (and with Mark Wood being injured), Stone could yet sneak into the team. His pace, his skills and his control looked every inch Test quality at Lord’s. Woakes’ superior batting may give him a slight edge on Broad, but Broad’s Ashes experience, record and temperament render him a strong contender. Whoever misses out can consider themselves unfortunate.

But it remains the batting that is the concern. And much remains reliant upon Root who admitted, after the Ireland Test was won, that “it would be wrong to say I’m not” feeling the exertions of recent weeks. “It’s been 10 weeks of hard cricket of high emotion and of ups and downs,” he admitted. “It does take a lot out of you.”

There is much to like and admire about Root. Not least his appetite for the game and his desire for hard work. He is a special player and the natural leader of this side. But he may, at some stage, need protecting from himself. The only game he has missed this year – and it wasn’t even a proper game – was the World Cup warm-up match against Australia. And he only missed that because one of his family died. To give him just two clear days off between the World Cup and this Test and just one between this Test and the start of the Ashes seems dangerously demanding. As does asking him to bat in a position in which he is uncomfortable. The ECB talk a good game about understanding the dangers of anxiety, stress and burn-out these days and they have, no doubt, improved. But until the schedule is tailored to allow for fallow periods, their words will ring hollow.

“You don’t have to be Einstein to work that out,” Bayliss sniffed dismissively when asked if an absence of top-order runs could be England’s biggest obstacle to regaining the Ashes. “They have been for the last six or seven years.” That we are still here, juggling players, considering alternatives, desperately searching for a solution, doesn’t reflect especially well on the system.

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