Batting mishaps and number 11 Jack Leach's grind raise questions on England's form-over-format selection policies

  • Rohit Sankar
  • July 26th, 2019
  • 9:30:25 IST

"Once the players are out on the pitch, they are on their own - which makes it important to get the right ones out there in the first place"

England's current national selector, Ed Smith, wrote in his column on ESPNCricinfo in 2015.

After an outlandish couple of days of red-ball cricket at Lord's against Ireland, Smith's much-acclaimed selection policy, which interrogated primitive reasoning and brought about form-over-format thinking in England cricket, has come under scrutiny.

Did he, as a selector, ‘get the right ones out there?'

Ahead of a face-off against the Aussie pace quartet, England's World Cup hangover has come to a screeching halt against Ireland 10 days after their biggest sporting achievement at the same venue. It has brought England's egos down a peg or two but on day two at Lord's, Jack Leach, a no 11 in England's embarrassing first innings flake out, showed exactly what England's batsmen were lacking in the longest format of the game.

Defying Ireland's stump to stump medium-pace bowling with uncertain prods, nightwatchman Leach survived 162 balls and made the highest score by an England opener other than Alastair Cook at home in Tests since 2017. His 92 was filled with false strokes as CricViz's ever-reliable data shows but importantly, Leach survived and made runs.

Meanwhile, the five World Cup winners in England's top seven - Jason Roy, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes - made a combined tally of seven in the first innings and 125 in the second innings.

For England's unhackneyed white ball opening pair - Roy on Test debut and Bairstow in the middle of a red ball form slump - this Test has presented contrasting fortunes. Roy made five in his debut innings while Bairstow made ducks in both outings. But Roy, in his second Test innings, batted in a characteristic free-spirited way to make a run-a-ball 72.

Roy is a beneficiary of Smith's data-centric, yet unique, selection policy which turns a blind eye towards the age-old belief of playing your best eleven no matter what the conditions.

“The big question with Jason Roy was when was the ideal time if he was going to make the move into Test cricket? Joe Root and I spoke at length months ago about the scenario in which Jason finished the World Cup confident, full of runs and went straight into the Ashes and that’s what we’ve done," Smith had said last week when speaking of Roy's Test future.

The sharp-eyed would have noticed that Smith jumped from white ball to red-ball cricket in one sentence, a sure-shot way of earning cringe-worthy glances from the purists club.

But that's been Smith in his role as national selector. From dropping Stuart Broad at Galle to handing long-format career lifelines to Adil Rashid and Jos Buttler, Smith has relied on a seemingly infallible blend of player form and playing conditions for handpicking his team. There's no doubting that it has reaped rich dividends so far.

But the downside of this is that it basically scoffs at the whole county setup and questions the wisdom of batsmen who have the grit it out for their runs irrespective of conditions. The overconfidence that England batsmen displayed at Lord's in the first innings backfired and saw them being bowled out in under a session for 85.

The same potpourri of batting errors unfurled in another horrid 15-over phase on day two. From 182/2, England lost the resilient nightwatchman Leach and collapsed to 219/6 on either side of the tea break. But for the talent-oozing Sam Curran's intervention, they might well have set Ireland a target less than 120 in the final innings.

Leach's grind only served as a timely reminder of England's frailties with the bat at the top. Since Smith took over as selector, the batting averages at home have been lop-sided for England. Their top six collectively average 26.95 in this time frame in home Tests, making 13 scores above 50. Positions 7-9, meanwhile, average 30.51 and have eight scores above 50.

At least three England players will walk away with questions hovering over their head after this Test match- Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow and Rory Burns. None of them have the weight of recent runs backing their case. Bairstow's limited-overs rise since being elevated to ODI opener has coincided with a sharp drop in red ball fortunes at home - an average of 25.65 in 15 Tests at home in comparison to an average of 51.69 in 47 ODIs in the same timeframe. Ali's alluring all-round qualities were undermined by Leach's commendable effort while Burns is fast appearing to be another one of those quickly disposable Alastair Cook opening partners.

The sharp decline of top-order batsmen capable of following the Cook way has resonated with the rise of batsmen who are backed by white ball numbers more than anything else. Burns, for instance, averages just above 22 in seven Test appearances. Denly, at 32, has little red-ball form behind him with an average of 24.17 in his last six innings. Moeen Ali averages 21.3 in Tests with the bat in the Smith regime.

That the selectors ignored Ben Foakes, their Man of the Series in Sri Lanka, for this one-off Test and the Ashes pre-camp group after this Test is downright bizarre. Foakes had also shipped England out of trouble against the Irish on his ODI debut a couple of months back but finds himself out of favour despite a Test average of 41.5.

While Jos Buttler, another beneficiary of Smith's white-ball oriented instincts, and World Cup hero Ben Stokes will return to the starting eleven for the Ashes, England still lack the resistance needed at the top to counter the Australian pace attack with the new ball. Buttler is the highest run-scorer for England in Tests since Smith took over as selector but given his talent, the seamless migration was more or less guaranteed. He still awaits an acid test against the old ball in the Ashes.

Given the short turnaround time before the opening Test on 1 August, England are unlikely to tinker with their squad members too much. This means that a highly suspect Burns and a white ball specialist Roy will walk out to face the Aussies at Edgbaston.

The alternative is too flamboyant even for Ed Smith - the faltering Bairstow being pushed up the order to partner Roy. In limited-overs cricket, the two have had outstanding success and given England's opening woes and Bairstow's own struggles in the middle-order, this may not be a bad move at all. But it's fraught with risk just like every other move Smith has made.

The Ashes could well present this fragile England batting a trial by fire and the result, whichever way it goes, could once again put Smith's highly dramatic selection policy in the spotlight.

Updated Date: July 26, 2019 09:30:25 IST

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