“With the inability to adapt to dire situations and with the format of white-ball so deeply ingrained, players from England especially have lost the art of playing the swinging ball patiently”
A now-familiar sight greeted cricket spectators during Day 1 of the second Test between England and Sri Lanka, though many might argue that sans Rangana Herath and Alastair Cook, there is hardly anything left reminiscing over. However, as the English opening pair once again failed to pile on a competitive score and as the rest of the players were unable to settle down as well, the responsibility of bailing out the team once again fell on the shoulders of the lower-middle order, who have more often than not raised to the occasion.
Hence, as England lost their first four wickets for 89 runs, and as the likes of Jos Buttler – who was not even in the fray till a few months ago, and Sam Curran – the 20-year old who is already a superstar, battled it out to save the team in what was just one their many battles, the increasing pressure on the top 4 has reached a crescendo.
In the last three years, the top four for England have scored 9755 runs combined at an average of 33.63 and a strike-rate of 49.62, which is the sixth worse in the world. Only Sri Lanka, West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe the two new debutants Ireland and Afghanistan have a worse batting average of the top four players. In comparison, English batters from positions 5 to 8 have aggregated runs at an average of 36.83, with 16 tons – more than the 14 that the top 4 have compiled. This, in comparison, is the best batting average from players between 5-8 for any team in the interim. The contrast thus is worrying, considering that the Three Lions have prided themselves in having a settled domestic structure in place.
Since November 2015, England have managed to score 300 only 13 times in 28 matches, which is an alarming stat that can be attributed to their top-order. In the same time period, England have lost their top four wickets with less than 100 runs on the board 35 times out of 65 games. Hence, as a batting unit, the top order is failing almost 46% of the times.
The reasons for the consistent failure
The opening slot has remained England’s Achilles Heel ever since Andrew Strauss walked away from the game. The opening pair form the foundation of any Test side and even when we trace back into history, we see that most dominating sides had some of the most dangerous opening players. With Cook partnering 13 partners, the unsettled pairing at the top did in no way improve the health of the side. Also, while most openers believe in getting a feel of the wicket in the first 45 minutes of an innings, the current English openers rather take the attack to the bowler early on. Hence, we have seen the English openers strike at almost 47 in the last three years, which is much more than the strike-rate of 38.94 that they had previously adopted.
The second worry for the England side has been the number three slot. Since the start of the year, 4 players have been tried one-down, without much success. Moeen Ali, James Vince, Joe Root and Ben Stokes have combined to average only 28.63. Ali, who averages 31.53 with the bat was pushed to three, hoping that he could convert his successes with the ball at the spot. Root was uprooted from his preferred spot at four to see whether he could solve the persisting problem, failing which, all-rounder Stokes, who relies more on power than anchoring an innings was asked to bat at 3 in the ongoing Test.
The declining ability to hold an innings together has been highlighted in the domestic structure, where the batting averages are dipping whilst strike-rates are soaring. Often, Ollie Pope has been guilty of scoring at a rapid rate, without defending or with an intention of leaving a delivery. At the Trent Bridge Test against India, Pope was out chasing a ball that was wide and well beyond reach. Vince, has been guilty of this as well – he does well to get a solid start, but with the urge to get some quick runs, often the cricketer finds himself back in the pavilion.
The story unfolded in a similar fashion in the first Test against Sri Lanka as well. Despite warning the players of playing unnecessary strokes upfront, the English top-order along with Root kept searching for regular boundaries. The skipper was out after falling victim to an unnecessary aggressive approach as he looked to step out and smash the ball, when the situation demanded a calm head. After England’s top-order had again failed, it needed debutant Ben Foakes in the last Test to step up and steady the ship – taking 40 balls to get 7 runs. It was in stark contrast to the way the team had planned until then – making 100 in just 23 overs.
With the inability to adapt to dire situations and with the format of white-ball so deeply ingrained, players from England especially have lost the art of playing the swinging ball patiently. It is being seen as a major reason for the struggles at the top of the order, where skills to play in conditions conducive to fast bowling are essential.