In case you haven’t noticed, England’s Test batting line-up is in an absolute maelstrom. You used at least to be able to rely on it for perversity – for the top half to sink without trace (not much change there then, admittedly…) before that gloriously stacked lower-middle order would come rampaging into the breach, blades whirring like vengeful ninjas as they boshed and hacked their way out of a hole to achieve something north of 300 and place their side firmly in the contest.
But right now, the components of this England team don’t seem to know where to bat, let alone how to bat in the Test format. An auto-completed innings on some late-1990s cricket captaincy simulator couldn’t have generated a more random route to England’s eventual 258 in 77.1 overs – a few fits here, a few starts there, a collapse, a recovery, a fade. It might prove competitive. It probably won’t.
Either way, it left an awful lot of opportunity squandered, on a day when Nathan Lyon admitted that Australia had not been at their best. For, with the honourable exception of Rory Burns at the top of the order – whose latest display of Test-calibre yakka did owe a considerable amount to a terrible drop in the gully on 16 – there was arguably not a single other member of England’s 11 who was batting in his optimal position, and it showed in the final analysis.
Jason Roy – too high! Joe Root – too high! Joe Denly – Too low! Jos Buttler – Too high! Ben Stokes – too low! Jonny Bairstow – too low! And so the spiel goes on, right down to the retention at No. 11 of a man who made 92 on his last visit to Lord’s. If England’s innings had been an episode of Play Your Cards Right, then Bruce Forsyth’s catchphrase “didn’t they do well?” would have been a bare-faced lie.
Take that period, in the early afternoon, when a typically even-paced (okay, flat…) Lord’s pitch had lost any suspicion of venom under gently breezy blue skies, and Burns and Denly were chugging along with suspicious ease, at a perfectly acceptable rate of 2.9 an over, in a 66-run third-wicket stand.
It was the sort of passage of play that ought, by rights, to have caused Tim Paine‘s brow to furrow just a touch, as he considered the possibility that his decision to bowl first might have been a little bit impetuous. But, of course, by then Roy and Root – two of the men best equipped to take advantage of such conditions – had already been chopped down before they could get going.
Now, you shouldn’t be surprised to suffer a few early casualties in a Test innings, especially when Josh Hazlewood is bearing down on you like a sweaty-toothed attack hound unleashed from a summer in purgatory. But seeing as the primary virtues displayed by both Denly and Burns were caution, judgement and a straight bat at the point of impact (irrespective of where Burns may have waved it before the ball was released), it seems strange not to have deployed both when survival against the new ball was the primary aim.
And moreover, if Denly really does have a future in this England Test team, then surely he needs to be that man to bite the bullet, and front up alongside Burns and revert to a role that he has played for Kent in the past (and on far more occasions that Roy has ever done). If he soaks up some new-ball overs, job done. If he gets out cheaply, then at least he’s not a more prized scalp. Either that, or England need to start to accept that their quest for a reliable opening partnership is a simple case of damage limitation, and that Leach should be handed the nightwatchman role on a permanent basis. Harsh though it sounds, the same principles apply in both cases.
Instead, England have opted to expose a batsman of proven international pedigree in the one-day game, not least against Australia, against whom he averages 49.64 in 17 ODIs, including an England-record score of 180 at the MCG in 2018, but who is finding the transition to red-ball cricket as problematic as Hazlewood himself predicted on the eve of the series.
According to CricViz, Roy’s false-shot percentage is 28.7 percent, the second-highest among all batsmen in the past 12 months – and though Burns is lurking fifth on that list, at 21.1 percent, his game is at least built to factor in the inevitability of new-ball hardship. Roy’s hand hands and pro-active mindset, by contrast, appear to be inviting more trouble than his talents can currently compute.
As for Root, his reluctance to hunker down at No. 3 doesn’t even qualify as an open secret – he now averages less than 40 there in 43 innings, compared to 48.00 at No. 4 in 60. But he took one for the team in this series because there were no better alternatives, and his scalping against the new ball, pinned lbw by one that Hazlewood jagged back up the slope, was a classic example of why he’d prefer not to be exposed so early in a Test innings.
And the upshot was, that even at 92 for 2 half an hour after lunch, Australia knew that England were just one wicket from sinking into genuine peril, given that what remained of their counterattacking middle order was now pre-programmed to be trapped in two minds. Enter Buttler, exit Buttler – a man looking more frazzled by his role in England’s World Cup glory than perhaps any other player, and that’s saying something. If there was a silver lining to England’s four-wicket capitulation in the third hour of the day, it was that Bairstow at the very least was reacquainted with the middle of his bat, after one of the most extraordinary collapses in Test form imaginable.
Do you remember the days when Bairstow was without question England’s most accomplished Test batsman behind Root? At times in the past 12 months, you wonder if he remembers it either, but there it is – plain as day in his career record: 1470 runs at 58.80 for the calendar year in 2016, with four centuries including a career-best 167 not out on this ground against Sri Lanka.
The discussion back then was whether Bairstow had it in him to become a genuine Test batsman, rather than a Gilchristian counterpunching No.7 … but as we all know, his preference has always been for the security that comes with his dual role of wicketkeeper, even it if means pinning him squarely to the lower-middle order, with all the jeopardy that that entails.
His hard-earned half-century was at least the beginnings of a typical Bairstow riposte to criticism, though seeing as it began at 136 for 5 (soon 138 for 6), it never had enough road to develop into a full-blown screw-you-all performance. But either way, his form in the intervening period had been nothing less than shocking – eight single-figure scores in his previous ten on home soil, with a best of 18 and five ducks to boot.
In such circumstances, allowing yourself to be typecast as a not-really batsman looks nothing like an insurance policy, more an invitation to be dropped. But that is rather the problem all the way up and down the order at present. Not really is as good as it is getting at present. And it’s not looking like being good enough to withstand an Australia team with as singular a focus as they’ve displayed on these shores in a generation.