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Derek Pringle on England’s bad habit of misfiring starts to their Test innings…
It was Michael Atherton, the sage of Sky, who reckoned that you don’t get far in Test cricket without a good top three, a contention England have done their best to disprove these past two years up to and including yesterday’s innings against South Africa at Lord’s.
Batting first under azure skies, England quickly found themselves three down, on this occasion for 49. It was familiar territory and not just because it involved some familiar faces and their foibles – a nibble away from his body by Alastair Cook; a flat-footed nothing shot by Gary Ballance.
England’s top order batting has been misfiring for a while, a bad habit it seems that has become as ingrained as the good ones modern professionals spend their lives trying to repeat.
The stats, of which there are two sets, are damning. The first reveals that in 23 of the last 68 innings, England have found themselves three wickets down for 55 runs or fewer. The second, a widening of that point, says that they have been 100 for three, or worse, in no less than 38 of their last 57 Test innings. Either way, it is far from good.
Naturally, some context needs to be applied. Being 55 for three in one’s second innings is not ideal but it might not be the potential party pooper it might if that were the case in the first innings. Obviously, neither position is ideal for winning Tests which may explain why, since the start of summer in 2015, England have endured a motley time of it winning 11 matches, losing 12 and drawing four. It is a mixed bag and goes some way to explaining why they are fourth in the ICC Test rankings.
Many of those wins, and a fair few of the draws, have relied upon rescue acts by the middle-order. But there is only so long that the top three can cry wolf and five, six, seven and eight come running. Yesterday, Jonny Bairstow, so often the saviour in the past, could not answer the 999 call this time, his misjudgment against one from Vernon Philander seeing him dismissed lbw for just 10.
Fortunately, England bat deep and, with Ben Stokes at his side, Joe Root, the new captain, was able to rescue the situation from a parlous looking 76 for four. The pair, who had put on 166 for the fifth wicket by tea, a partnership that simultaneously drew the sting from South Africa’s bowlers and once again reprieved the imprudence of England’s top order.
Such mercy missions have become something akin to routine though that does not mean they should be relied upon. In the 30 Tests since May 1, 2015, England’s top four has involved 11 combinations of players with Cook the only name constant to every one.
A superb servant and player, Cook’s Test average in that period is 46.75, about the same as his average prior to that. Only his hundred count, five from those 30 Tests, is down as a ratio but only by a fraction.
The other near constant in that time has been Root, the current captain and someone whose figures in that period are just a shade below his career stats. Mind you, that number is over 50, so, like Cook, it would be nitpicking to hang the poor showings at their door except to say that they can rarely have scored heavily in the same innings.
Instead, it is the men around them, some household names, others used briefly then discarded, who must have contributed to the sense of failure and flux of the top four. In all, 11 batsmen other than Root and Cook have been used in those 30 Tests.
Ian Bell, remember him, was one. He played in four of those combinations, one of them containing opener Adam Lyth, before both were dropped to make way for a quartet that included Alex Hales and Nick Compton, a yin and yang combination if ever there was.
Then came James Vince and after him Ben Duckett, young bucks full of shots and positive intent but lacking in the technique to play the length of innings that sway Test matches. Their failures paved the way for Ballance’s first comeback, last winter in Bangladesh.
He didn’t last long, a man who looked mentally shot as low confidence and some fruity, spinning pitches pulled him this way then that. But some hard work on his technique and footwork has brought him a third chance though it is thought that Root had to be at his persuasive best for the selectors to rubber-stamp it.
The other man in yesterday’s top four was Keaton Jennings, a tall left-hander who made a hundred on debut in India after he replaced the injured Haseeb Hameed. The man in possession, he also got the nod here because Hameed has not been able to buy a run for Lancashire this season, a curious turnaround for a young man who looked so calm and assured during his brief taste of Test cricket.
Such a turnover cannot be good for creating the consistent conditions in which batsmen feel confident and thrive. For years, county cricket has done well to provide batsmen equal to the step up required by Test cricket.
That still seems to apply save for those who have recently been brought in to fill the top order. This might suggest it is the bowlers’ fault, the class of those taking the new ball in domestic cricket being several rungs below those taking it in Tests.
But bowlers being blamed for the shortcomings of batsmen – ’twas ever thus.