After losing to the West Indies in such dramatic style at Headingley, England have plenty to think about but not too much to get hung up on. At home at least, they remain a superb Test side. It would be a shame if the efforts of Shai Hope and Kraigg Brathwaite were couched in terms of their hosts’ failures rather than their own intoxicating brilliance.
Where England should be worried is that their batting all summer has been more bass-based than Meghan Trainor. Their top order have been discordant, relying time and again on the middle or lower order of Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, and now again Chris Woakes to turn disaster into dominance (if not, as seen in Leeds, always victories). At times it seemed like their specialist batsmen were there just to hustle the opposition's bowlers into complacency. It has made for some thrilling cricket, but is a strategy unlikely to catch on universally and one probably undesirable to take into the away Ashes series this winter.
After Dawid Malan's gritty second innings 61 in Leeds, perhaps England can breathe a little more easily about their number five slot. The question of who walks out with Alastair Cook in Brisbane, however, remains more problematic, the ex-England captain recently going through more partners than Don Juan and a Black Window combined. Mark Stoneman, his latest date, is a superb county player and could yet prove a very decent Test one, but his propensity for flashing on the off side without due diligence will surely be problematic on bouncy Australian pitches. My personal hunch would still be for Gujarat over Geordie.
The most fascinating dilemma England have, though, is at number three, where ever since Jonathan Trott retired from the role in 2015 they have had problems. No Cheteshwar Pujara or Hashim Amla has emerged as the player to consistently either stabilise or stimulate an innings or — in the case of Root — emerged and then wanted to stay there.
For a time Gary Ballance seemed to have answered the call and, after starting his career at five and six in the last match of England’s horror Ashes of 2013-14, he slotted in at first drop and in his next three series at home to India and Sri Lanka and away to the West indies averaged 69 there. Unfortunately, this anomaly proved to be more Voges than Bradman, as he then averaged 9 and 25 in the role against New Zealand and Australia respectively. So it was back to Root. Then the poisoned chalice oddly passed to an opener, Nick Compton. Then back to Root again, before even Moeen was asked to fill in briefly. Then Ballance returned this summer against South Africa. It’s hard to keep up, but Tom Westley is now the man with the dubious honour of being in possession.
Ballance, and not without reason, does have some very powerful advocates within in the media and the team itself, and not least the captain. His international average of 46 at three remains far superior to Westley’s and even a notch higher than Root’s. His county form this year has also been near peerless with only the statistically and metaphorically peerless Sangakkara having a better average.
Yet it is inescapable to look at against which Test attacks he made his biggest runs and ditto his failures and have huge faith he is the man to fill the void once more. If Westley fails at Lord's against West Indies, the gap of a couple of months before the Ashes squad is announced may actually work in Ballance's favour. England would look like they were making a more considered decision between series not a rushed, panicky one between Tests.
The nature of Westley's dismissals may actually have raised a weary sigh from Ballance, who himself endured similar scrutiny over a particular technical weakness. The Yorkshire left-hander was criticised for stalling in his crease with a trigger movement that backfired.
Westley has struggled with his tendency to try and play a whip drive across the line and get trapped in front, although ironically his dismissal second time around at Headingley was almost the complete opposite, a wild hoopla at a wide one from the indomitable Jason Holder. He looks a classy player susceptible to not-so-classy dismissals, but with England's revolving door rotating far slower than it has in the past, he is almost certain to retain his place for the third Test at Lord's. He will now — in his fifth Test — be under the sort of pressure Trott himself faced in his first, when he walked out in the deciding match of the 2009 Ashes. Westley’s innings, with Ashes on the line, will now be as much a test of character as technique.
There are two other options for the first drop berth, both highly unlikely but nevertheless tantalising. The first is for Root himself to simply move back up to three. This is apparently not a preferred option for the captain himself. However, there is one factor that might possibly be nibbling away at him. On his first Ashes tour in 2013-14, he arrived in Australia carrying a halo and then had it mercilessly stamped on, despite a firm 87 in Adelaide. There’s no particular disgrace there because most of England’s batsmen found themselves playing the role of pinata at a fiesta hosted by Mitchell Johnson. But being dropped for the Fifth Test in Sydney, Ballance ironically being the man to take his place, was undoubtedly an unwelcome marker in Root’s career.
So while it may not be prudent to move him up back up to three, it would be a show of intent for Root himself to return to Australia and decide to thrust himself up to number three back in the country where he suffered his Mitchell mauling. The Australian press of course know England have issues there and Root, whatever happens at Lord's and despite slight gripes over his conversion rate, will go into the Ashes tour in sublime Test form.
So there will be comments, albeit rather silly, made about him hiding down the order, especially as in the last three series he played in the position he averaged 73, 25, 46 respectively at home to Pakistan last year and in the winter against Bangladesh and India respectively. Root won’t ever snort fire like Alan Border or Ricky Ponting, but he might light a fire under a few Aussie perceptions of him if he moved up a notch.
England's number three merry-go-round is not a new phenomenon and ahead of those tours of Bangladesh and India last year it induced one very dizzying suggestion: Move Ben Stokes up to three. It wasn't a one that got much traction and could well be regarded as a bit absurd, but as it was made by no less than Mahela Jayawardene it surely deserves some scrutiny.
To qualify his idea, it should be noted that the Sri Lankan great was advocating Stokes should go to three because he would be more effective against a harder ball in subcontinental conditions. Whether or not he thinks he could play there in general is unknown, but is there any case at all for England revisiting the idea for the Ashes? Well the apparently obvious answer would be “Go and lie down in a dark room with a cold compress on your forehead.”
Firstly, with a top order so brittle, why would England break up their lower order fulcrum which has been so devastating. In the last two years, seven of England's 18 biggest partnerships have been for the sixth wicket or below. In Bairstow they have a player whose total runs in Tests in that period is only surpassed (for any side, not just England) by Cook and Root. In Woakes they have someone as stylish and unyielding as his hair. In Moeen they have a man who has put more games out of reach of the opponent than an incompetent toy shop manager.
As for Stokes himself, many would point to him striding in at six and see it as one of the most intimidating sights in cricket. The pace he scores at combined with how dismissive he can be of an attack even with their tail up is almost cruel at times. To be negative about why he should stay at six, in Leeds Nasser Hussain made the point that those throbbing forearms are also attached to hard hands. So the quid pro quo for his vast power is a rather jabbing defense on fourth stump compared to that of a bona fide top order player. Kraigg Brathwaite, was the one who Nasser as ever eruditely singled out, had the wrists which make edges drop like flies.
It was another bit of Nasser analysis, though, that is an argument the other way for Stokes moving up. When comparing his drives to Malan's he noted just how still the all-rounder's head was, but this is merely one component of the aesthetics buried in plain sight. Stokes's sheer power and his demeanour as a sweary, flame-haired viking overshadows the fact that his entire game is based far more on purity than pummelling. Of course, he can regularly thrash through off with the slashing violence found in Game of Thrones, but generally it is more Kallis than Khaleesi.
He can launch over cow corner, but just as often he flicks there, his strength and timing allowing him far more control than might first appear possible for such strokes. Those hands may be hard but the wrists are liquid. People can draw their own conclusions if his straight drives (with their fascinating origins) are those of a pure number six.
Even if Westley performs at Lord's this conundrum won't be fully solved. If he doesn't England will certainly have to make a choice, and they should do so in the context of all the slaughters they have endured at the Gabbatoir in the last couple of decades, where they’ve been rolled more than the average dice. Their freakish second innings of 517-1 in 2010 was the only time they have crossed 500 there in history and even then it wasn't enough to bring a victory after spluttering to 260 first up. They last won there over thirty years ago. There is a trend to be bucked and a tone to be set. Who, at number three, can answer the call?
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