“England do need a solid man at No 3 and Root at 4. And that solid man can very well be Ian Bell, just as a stop-gap solution, to add experience and class to the line up even as other talents are allowed to flourish and take over, even as Alastair Cook, preferably with a new partner, attempts to regenerate his flow of runs”
17, 0, 4, 6…
That was what the England top four managed in the current Test match. That makes it 425 runs from 24 individual innings, with one solitary half-century.
If the top four of a side manage one fifty between them in 24 completed innings between them, it requires no supreme analyst to deduce that they are going through a torrid time.
Of them, the openers Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings have managed 97 and 94 runs, at 16.16 and 15.66 respectively. And they have been persisted with all through.
It is understandable that Cook, with his immense experience and the lack of similar pedigree in the English line-up, has been given a long rope. But Jennings surviving the scrutiny, which includes his butter-fingered slip catching, and managing to stick around while making every Test look like his last in a while … that is indeed baffling. It is not as if the Englishmen are devoid of every option. Rory Burns has been making quite a few runs for Surrey. Jim Vince has just made 74 and 147 in this very ground for Hampshire against Nottinghamshire.
Besides, with the top four failing to deliver over and over again, what did the management do for this crucial Test? They dropped the No 4, young Ollie Pope, who has looked more assured than most of the others in his brief outings even though those forays have not been translated into big scores. And they replaced him with yet another all-rounder, Moeen Ali, while pushing Johnny Bairstow up the order.
Result? As mentioned, 17, 0, 4, 6.
Yes, Bairstow is a fine batsman … and without his big gloves in this Test, it is perhaps reasonable to expect him to take more responsibility with the willow. But is he the right choice as a No 4?
I doubt it. In fact, the best No 4 for England at present is very much in the side, only the lack of specialist batsmen in the outfit is forcing him to bat one slot higher.
It is perhaps commendable on the part of Joe Root to walk in at No 3 in an attempt to stem the rot. Leading from the front and all that. Yet, it should not compromise his performance. He averages 52.56 at No 4 with four hundreds and a fluent strike rate. When he bats at No 3, his average comes down to an ordinary 40.47, his strike rate is more pedestrian and his frequency of failure is far higher.
England do need a solid man at No 3 and Root at 4. And that solid man can very well be Ian Bell, just as a stop-gap solution, to add experience and class to the line up even as other talents are allowed to flourish and take over, even as Alastair Cook, preferably with a new partner, attempts to regenerate his flow of runs.
There is the school of thought which genuinely believes that Bairstow, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali is a formidable middle-order because all of them can bat well and lend depth to the batting. However, as I have been harping for quite a while, there is a difference.
Specialist batsmen build innings. They think in terms of batting hours, sessions. The ones for whom making runs is just half the job, on the other hand, tend to bank on their talents to come off now and then. It is not the priority for them to think like batsmen and construct big scores.
To give you an idea of what I mean, let us look at a piece of statistic.
Joe Root crosses 50 in 40% of his innings. It is a high rate, which makes him one of the best batsmen of the world.
Alastair Cook does so in 31% of his innings.
If we look at names from the past, Kevin Pietersen passed 50 in 31% of his innings. Ian Bell in 32%. Jonathan Trott did so in 30% of his outings.
However, when one gets to all-rounders, the number becomes a lot lower. Ben Stokes, for all his brilliance, crosses 50 in 25% of his innings, Bairstow in 24%, Buttler in 23% and Moeen in 20%. Chris Woakes, another all-rounder who has hit a hundred in this series, manages this in just 11% of his innings.
Yes, the figures state that Bairstow, Stokes, Buttler and Moeen are all-rounders who are exceptionally good with the bat. But to expect them to fire as frequently as top order batsmen are rather far-fetched. There will be days when two of them will fire together, as Stokes and Buttler did in the second innings of Trent Bridge. However, there are also days when they will fail … and since their frequency of failure is higher than that of specialist batsmen, the probability of their failing together is higher as well.
This has been a glaring problem of England selection for a long time now. For curious reasons the management is rather unwilling to look at the batting problem closely, preferring the solution of loading the side with more and more all-rounders. It may give the side plenty of options for seam, spin and people who can hold their own with the bat, but as far as putting totals on the board regularly is concerned, this is less than optimal as a strategy.
Sam Curran did come in at No 8 and played the most exceptional innings of the day. It is early days yet to use the small sample of numbers under his belt and compute the frequency of success he has with the bat.
But, perhaps as a slightly independent thread, one can point out that this is one young man who has shown signs of thinking like a batsman and trying to build an innings every time he has gone in to bat in this series. When he bats with the tail, he backs himself to improvise and bring off outrageous strokes, even as he keeps things relatively simple.
The fact is that he has played two exceptional rescuing hands back to back, picked up wickets while adding the left-arm variation to the seam attack … and has been omitted from the side in between his rescue acts. This also speaks volumes about the quality of selection that the English management has put in action during the series.
The Indians have indeed bowled splendidly all through, and batted exceptionally at Trent Bridge, to come back from the brink of decimation in this riveting series. But the selection debacles of England have indeed contributed quite a bit to this recovery.