London: England have problems over three positions in their batting order as they prepare to go to Australia and the only solution put forward so far is to shove Joe Root up to No 3. We have learnt a little during the West Indies series about Mark Stoneman, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan.
Westley’s 44 not out on Saturday meant little because, after a brief attempt with the new ball, West Indies soon gave up and put spinners on to bowl from both ends, so it was help-yourself-bowling. It had nothing in relation to playing fast bowling on hard, bouncy pitches in Australia. Asking Root to move up a spot to No 3 in place of Westley would expose England’s best two players to the new ball.
I have no problem with that if Root preferred to bat at three. He does not.
The concern should be that England’s batting is so weak that Root is being touted to bat there to protect the others. All the great batsmen have batted in the first four positions but it has been their choice where they appeared. The England head coach and others want Root to bat at three to protect people. But you cannot protect people in Test cricket.
When you are batting, you are on your own. Westley just does not have the technique and did not do enough in previous innings to show he is strong enough outside off stump. Stoneman looks good on the front foot. He plays nice and straight with a good stride forward but my concern is with his back play. He does not always move his back foot back and across to short balls.
Stoneman gets stuck on the crease then wafts at the ball away from his body and gives the slips catching practice. That is what he did in the first innings at Lord’s. On faster, bouncier Aussie surfaces, particularly Brisbane and Perth, it is vital you play well off the back foot.
Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc are very fast. They will not let him push forward. Plenty of balls will be chest high or at his throat. It is vital all the batsmen have good footwork and are able to defend well or stay in against fast new-ball bowling. If you cannot stay in, you will not get a chance to score runs because you will be out before you can play your strokes.
Malan has shown grit and given the impression he is up for a fight. It is obvious he prefers to play on the back foot, is comfortable there, and comes forward only when he has to. That is fine. Alex Hales has tried to catch the selectors’ eye by moving down the order to No. 5 and making runs in county cricket. I get the impression our selectors are not keen on him and will go with Gary Ballance.
Root will be asked his views and he is a known Ballance supporter. With Stoneman and Malan new to Test cricket it will be preferable not to have another new boy in the side in Australia. At least Ballance has had some success at Test level. He was not good searching for the spinning ball with men around the bat in Bangladesh last winter. But he will not get many of them in Australia. He prefers the ball coming on to the bat.
The problem is, nobody stands out and says “pick me”. Every England fan could make a case for his favourite batsman, or another way would be to put the names in a hat and draw lots. That is how poor the quality of batting is in county cricket. Whoever bats in the first three better bring their A-game to Brisbane. If Starc and Cummins are fit, they will be a handful with the new ball.
Can England beat Australia in Australia? Yes. It will be difficult but not impossible. We worry about our England top five but the Aussie top six are not that good. They depend a lot on Steve Smith and David Warner, plus Usman Khawaja, who bats well on home pitches. England have the best middle order in world cricket with Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and now Chris Woakes.
That is England’s strength and could be decisive in winning the Ashes, particularly against the old ball. They have the talent to take any match by the scruff of the neck and change it in England’s favour. They are very, very dangerous. The big key for me is which set of fast bowlers will stay fit for five Tests in seven weeks.
Banging feet down on hard surfaces in searing heat will put a huge strain on their bodies with little or no recovery time. Cummins, Starc, James Anderson, Mark Wood and Stuart Broad have all had injuries in recent times. Managing their talents, not over-bowling them, yet getting match-winning performances from them will be a huge challenge for each captain.
It may be wise to rest the odd one occasionally because if a bowler gets injured, by the time he is declared fit again, there is hardly any cricket between Tests to prove match fitness. If Australia lost Starc or England lost Anderson for a Test or two, that would alter the odds enormously.