Three options to solve England's top order batting crisis including Surrey's Rory Burns

Alex Broun 31/08/2018
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Surrey's Rory Burns is the County Championship's most consistent run-maker

After yet another catastrophic failure from England’s top order on the opening day of the fourth Test against India in Southampton, the selectors are once again looking for solutions ahead of what is shaping up as a deciding fifth Test at The Oval.

The England openers, Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings, have been nothing short of a disaster with Cook averaging just 16.16 in the series to date and Jennings a woeful 15.66.

Jennings’ highest score in six innings so far is 42 while Cook’s is just 29. Their opening partnerships in the series read like this: 26, 9, 28, 54, 27 and 1 for a pitiful average of just 24.

So bad was Jennings latest dismissal that former England captain Michael Vaughan described it on Thursday as a “bad a dismissal as you can see in Test match cricket”.

Captain and No3 Joe Root hasn’t been much better with a humble average of 24.33 in the series.

With those kind of stats it is incredible England still hold a 2-1 advantage.

England clearly need to do something and quick or they are in danger of becoming the first team since England’s 1936-37 Ashes side to lose a five-match series after leading 2-0.

With the Three Lions desperately in need of answer, here are our three quick fixes to help the top order batting ahead of the fifth Test starting on September 7.

1. Rory Burns

Calls for the inclusion of the Surrey opener are growing in strength and deservedly so as 28-year-old Burns is the County Championship’s heaviest runscorer this season and the most consistent domestic batsman in the country for five years.

Over the last four seasons he has topped 1000 runs in England’s top division begging the question why the stylish left-hander has not been given his chance beforehand.

He is on his way to doing the same this year as he currently sits on top of the runscorers’ list 961 runs, from 15 innings at an average of 64.06 with a high score of 193 against Worcestershire at The Oval back in May.

The only question mark around his form could be his 5 and 38 for England Lions against India at Worcester in July, but he made 153 against Notts less than a week later.

Ian Bell has been in vintage for Warwickshire

Ian Bell has been in vintage for Warwickshire

2. Ian Bell

Bell showed England exactly what they were missing with a double century to guide Warwickshire into a commanding position against Glamorgan at Colwyn Bay this week.

While the national team’s batsmen were floundering against India at the Ageas Bowl, the 36-year-old – who has never hidden hopes of an international recall – scored 204 out of Warwickshire’s 445 for eight.

It was Bell’s third championship century of the season against Glamorgan and saw him pass 20,000 first-class runs in his career.

Bell played the last of his 118 Tests when England lost to Pakistan in Sharjah in November 2015.

“It meant a lot for me, especially after the disappointments of last year,” said Bell, “but it has been a good day for the team. We have a big lead, and hopefully our bowlers can do the job on Friday.”

When asked about a possible England recall, Bell added: “I’m enjoying my cricket with Warwickshire at the moment, but I will certainly answer the phone if they call.”

3. Dawid Malan

With India’s pace quartet currently bending it like a banana England desperately require someone who can occupy the crease to dull the new-ball.

Although he started the series poorly with scores of 8 and 20 in Birmingham, and some shocking dropped catches, and was dropped after just one Test, the 30-year-old showed exactly what he is capable of on Thursday with a stoic unbeaten half-century to keep alive Middlesex’s hopes of victory over promotion-chasing Sussex on day two at Lord’s.

The Middlesex skipper produced a timely return to form, hitting 69 not out to guide the hosts to 210-5, a lead of 208 in three absorbing sessions at the Home of Cricket.

His was a study in defiance and concentration, exactly what England need right now, as he batted for four hours and 11 minutes and faced 173 balls in an innings that included just five boundaries.

Malan averages 67.7 balls per Test innings while Keaton Jennings averages only 52.4.

Another option is another recent discard, Mark Stoneman, who occupies the crease 59.4 balls per Test innings, again better than Jennings, and returned to form with a spanking 144 for Surrey against Nottinghamshire in the County Championship on Thursday.

James Vince is also hovering after being put on standby for the Southampton Test for Jonny Bairstow after scoring 74 and 147 for Hampshire against Nottinghamshire at the same venue in the County Championship just a week prior.

His balls faced per Test innings is the worse of the lot though with on average 50 per Test knock.

Curran scored a superb 78

Sam Curran scored a superb 78 to rescue England on day one in Southampton.

WILDCARD: Sam Curran

Although this may seem the most desperate of the choices there is a current example of an all-rounder who started batting low in the order but now is the leading batsmen for their team – Steve Smith.

Curran has been world-class so far in the series, saving England with superb second innings of 63 in Birmingham and Thursday’s 78 in Southampton.

He has scored the second-most runs for England behind Jonny Bairstow in the series with 205 and has the second best average of 51.25, behind Chris Woakes. The only person to have a better average than him or score more runs in the series is Virat Kohli.

Barely 20 Curran has shown exceptional maturity and rare courage and no doubt would welcome the challenge of being offered the No3 spot.

If not Curran then why not play Chris Woakes as a specialist batsmen. His technique and temperament, as she displayed in his superb 137no at Lord’s, is currently better than most of the England top four.

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England can't afford to play the waiting game in Southampton as India will hit them hard

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England are leading the five-Test series 2-1. They crushed India inside two days at Lord’s and only need to draw one of the remaining two Tests against India to ensure they don’t lose the series. They are playing at home and have a pretty much fully fit side to choose from.

But after world No1 India fought back in Trent Bridge, the equation has changed. It’s the Indians who are looking like the team that is 2-1 ahead in the series. And there is a reason for it.

India began the England tour as the favourites. Their bowling attack is world-class with enough venom and variety to get 20 wickets cheaply against any side. However, injuries to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah denied them their two best bowlers in the first two Tests. Also, selection mistakes in the opening two games plus an abysmal batting effort from almost everyone apart from captain Virat Kohli saw them fall behind quickly.

But the thing about five-match series is there is enough time to find a way back. Even at 2-0 down. And at Trent Bridge, India did that. Their openers put on 50-plus partnerships in both innings and the Indians crossed 300 in both essays. Bowling has not been a problem for India for the better part of two seasons and they didn’t need a second invitation to bowl the team to a 203-run victory.

It was the manner of their win that has given India confidence going into the fourth Test in Southampton.

Jasprit Bumrah provided the pace spark that the Indian team needed. Suddenly, all four Indian pacers were comfortably outgunning their English counterparts in the speed department and that works on the psychology of a team. When the opposition knows they can only take blows without landing ones of equal ferocity, half the battle is won.

Aggression is Kohli’s mantra. He lives for a challenge on the field and expects his players to abide by that philosophy as well. It works brilliantly when the going is tough. Attritional cricket is not the style of this Indian team and England need to match that intensity in the fourth Test.

The hosts are in a quandary. If they prepare a lively pitch in the next two Tests, India’s fast bowlers will make life miserable for their batsmen. If they go for a flat surface, India’s batsmen will pile on the runs and the pressure of the scoreboard can weigh on the English line-up which has been misfiring for some time.

India’s eleven looks settled now and there is every chance the visitors will go in with an unchanged XI. England, on the other hand, will be considering whether to bring in left-arm seamer Sam Curran in place of Chris Woakes while Jonny Bairstow’s long-term future as a Test wicket-keeper has been suddenly and unnecessarily questioned. Also, England’s openers Keaton Jenning and now even Alastair Cook look some way off their best.

It’s imperative that England don’t wait for things to happen because India are on a roll. They were just waiting for their batsmen to find some form as their bowlers have been delivering admirably. It’s up to England to match the level of the Indian team.

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Jonny Bairstow has to remain England's long-term Test wicket-keeper

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Jonny Bairstow's build-up to the fourth Test has been disruptive.

Over the last five years, Jonny Bairstow has been the best wicket-keeper batsman in Test cricket, alongside Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed, Kiwi gloveman BJ Watling and South Africa’s Quinton de Kock.

In 40 Tests during that period as gloveman, Bairstow has 149 dismissals – 140 catches and nine stumpings. He has 2,794 runs at an average of 42.33 with five centuries. Sarfraz’s numbers are excellent as well – 37 Tests, 2,178 runs at 41.8 with 121 dismissals. Watling (39 Tests, 2,046 runs at 40.9 and 154 dismissals) is right up there with De Kock (34 Tests, 1,884 runs at 36.9 and 150 dismissals).

Bairstow, it can be argued, is the more dominant and consistent wicket-keeper batsman among among all four, while Sarfraz is the more accomplished man behind the stumps as well as captain.

However, despite those highly impressive numbers, Bairstow is defending his position, in a way, in the Test team. No, Jonny is not getting dropped. But England are looking at Jos Buttler as a possible long-term option.

It started with Bairstow fracturing his finger while collecting a ball in the Trent Bridge Test against India. Buttler took over as the wicket-keeper and hit a fine century.

Suddenly, Bairstow finds his wicket-keeping spot under the spotlight despite being consistent behind and in front of the stumps.

“For the last couple of years, I don’t think you’ve (media) mentioned or questioned my wicket-keeping once,” Bairstow said when he was asked about the scrutiny over his position.

“Before that, I would cop a barrage every other Test. So for me that’s a huge feather in my cap. I don’t know what the conversations are that are going to be had, but it’s a difficult one because you put so much hard work into keeping wicket over a long sustained period of time.”

Which is a very valid point. When Bairstow started his career in 2011, it took him a long time to even get a consistent run in the limited-overs side. It seemed he had to work twice as hard to justify his selection. But credit to him for raising the bar considerably since 2015 in both Tests and ODIs. But despite emerging as the only guaranteed all-format, all-condition England player, alongside Ben Stokes, Bairstow is not being accorded the freedom do what he wants. Buttler has joined this list only in the last few months.

One would think that by this time, Bairstow would be the first name on the sheet with his position and comfort level given greater emphasis than that of some others. But after reading coach Trevor Bayliss’ comments that the team might have to convince Bairstow to possibly give the gloves to Buttler in the future and play purely as a batsman, it seems Jonny is back to the start of his career where he had fight for himself despite being better than most in the team.

The Yorkshireman’s journey to become Test keeper was a long one and he rightly wants to remain in the role. His batting has improved alongside it and Bairstow feels assured with gloves on throughout a Test. If England take one set of gloves away, his second set of gloves might begin to feel tight.

Bairstow is feeling on top of his game and he can pretty much walk into most teams as either a batsman or a keeper-batsman. But at this level, it’s all in the mind. England are unnecessarily looking to fix something that is working absolutely perfectly. And if they continue down this path, it can impact the confidence of Bairstow the batsman. And that would be a tragedy.

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