“With a number of issues still to ponder over, England is running out of time but one solution could go a long way in fixing the loopholes”
Stepping out of the comfort zone is a long philosophized statement but a thin line does exist between risk and adventure. As England’s captain and by far their best batsman currently Joe Root accepted coach Trevor Bayliss’ offer to bat at the coveted number three spot in Tests this summer, the sense of risk that the move would bring had not dawned upon the duo.
Neither could they have foreseen the future – a dark uncertain future that stems right from the top. It is no secret that the opening slot has provided not just headaches but migraines to the English camp with twelve players being tried alongside Alastair Cook since Andrew Strauss retired. While the latter is now enjoying his role as the administration in the ECB, Cook makes for a sorry figure at the crease with both him and his dozen partners hardly finding any sort of momentum especially in the last year.
In the last twelve months, the openers have put on an aggregate average of 26.30 with only Cook scoring a hundred – a mammoth knock of 244 in the Ashes. However, since then the troubles have only increased manifold as no opener from England has crossed an average of more than 24 since the summer. Cook averages 23.77 in 6 games, with his current partner Keaton Jennings averaging a poor 17.57. In order to make up for the lapse, Root once again showing great selflessness sacrificed his preferred number 4 position where he averages 52.56 to play at 3 where his average dips to 40.47.
Initially though the ploy worked like a charm. He scored 68 and 45 in the two Tests against Pakistan and then returned to score 80 in the first innings at Edgbaston in the first Test against India. With runs under his belt, the focus shifted from Root’s adaptability at 3 to the inability to convert 50s into 100s. But the topic of his batting place is under scrutiny again as he has failed to make a mark in the series since then, churning out only 56 runs in 5 innings with his highest score being 19. Is the pressure of playing at 3 starting to tell on a player who is already burdened by the inconsistent form of the Test team in the last few months?
There is a reason why the world’s best players have consistently batted at 4. Even though the openers might be in indifferent form, a solid number 3 player can steady the innings and help the new ball to lose its fieriness. The number 4 then, can play his natural game under lesser tough conditions with the lower middle order to help the team to a competitive total. Players like Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting performed this role to perfection by navigating the swinging deliveries in overcast conditions to set a platform for the Tendulkars and Waughs to perform. This is what Cheteshwar Pujara too has done reasonably well in the series.
After the relatively early dismissal of one of India’s openers in the last two matches, Pujara handled the pace and bounce of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, which then allowed Virat Kohli to play with more freedom. While the number 3 swims through the tide, the player at 4 constructs and builds a solid foundation. And this is the role that Root has flourished in for so long.
But in this series, the captain has found himself out batting earlier than expected in all the innings so far. He batted in the ninth over in the first innings at Edgbaston and found himself out in 3.4 overs in the next innings. In 7.3 overs at Lord’s, 11.6 and 9.5 overs at Nottingham and in just 2.1 overs in this Test. Since his 80, his trail of scores are – 14, 19, 16, 13 and 4 and the best suggestion would be to push Root back at four and play Jonny Bairstow at three – a step that was suggested by former England captain Michael Vaughan as well.
The wicket-keeper is temperamentally tough and relishes a challenge, which was vastly evident in his stiff refusal to give up on his keeping gloves despite fracturing a finger ahead of the game at Southampton. Though England are now playing Jos Buttler as the keeper, Bairstow’s team-man spirit is just what is needed from a player at 3.
“What could push Bairstow to being one of the best batsmen in the world is batting in the top four, even at three, as a specialist batsman. He has worked so hard on his keeping and wants to stay as a keeper. But England could sell it to him as his chance to be bracketed with Root, and even Smith, Kohli and Kane Williamson, among the elite Test batsmen today. He could be that good”, stated Vaughan in his column for The Telegraph.
With a number of issues still to ponder over, England is running out of time but one solution could go a long way in fixing the loopholes. And it does involve pushing back Root to a place where he is comfortable batting. After all, a thin line does exist between risk and adventure.