A lot of the players in the England side must be confused about their roles…..
The totals managed by England on this tour of West Indies until now have been 77, 246, 187 and 132. For a side that pretends to bat way deep, with Sam Curran walking in at No 9, it does seem a puzzling spate of low scores.
But then, we have more than touched upon the dangers of disguising all-rounders as top-order batsmen and unleashing them in a full-blown Test match. The history of cricket has very few instances of men, half of whose job description was to run in with the ball, holding their own in the top of the order with the bat.
Garry Sobers was one such man and it is generally agreed that the likes of him are born once in a century. Trevor Goddard was another, and although less heralded he was quite a special player himself. Monty Noble, George Giffen, Geoff Hirst are some names from distant, distant past, and the game has evolved much since they played more than a century ago.
In relatively modern times Imran Khan seldom batted higher than No 6 (5 times to be precise). Even Keith Miller, hallowed name though he is now with the passage of time, ended with quite ordinary figures when tried out higher than No 5. And some still say that Jacques Kallis was the fifth choice bowler of South Africa when he played, and would not quite make the team based on just that alone. It did help that he was also one of the world’s best batsmen.
In short, when batting is not what you do as a specialist, donning the mantle of a top-order batsman in Test cricket is excruciatingly difficult. As discussed already in these pages, it is the surefire recipe for inconsistency, something England is suffering from in a big, big way.
It is time to look deeper into the problem.
Let us take Ben Stokes and Sam Curran for example.
Stokes has batted 11 times at No 5 and once even at No 3 since the beginning of 2018. The remaining 12 times, he has batted at No 6. He has scored 596 runs in the 24 innings at 24.83, crossing fifty only four times, managing a 66 as his highest.
England still keep pretending that he is a top-order batsman.
If one of a side’s top-five score at 2483, there is a serious problem.
Additionally, their insistence with using Sam Curran as an odd-job-man propels Stoke’s role with the ball to that of a third-seamer. In fact, when the management was ridiculous enough to opt for Curran in place of Stuart Broad, Stokes had to play the second senior man with the ball, alongside Jimmy Anderson.
Which makes one baffled about what Curran is doing in the side.
Curran is a 20-year-old, who batted at No 9 at Antigua. If he was being used for his batting skills, that was a farcical position to play him. West Indies batted 131 overs in the first innings. Anderson bowled 29 overs, Broad, the best of the lot, 36, Stokes pitched in with 27, Moeen Ali sent down 25 overs of spin. The 20-year-old Curran bowled just 13 overs. He was neither a stock bowler, nor a shock one, during a long innings. He ended without any wicket, without even a maiden. He was just filling in when others needed a rest.
In the 5 home Tests Curran has played till now, he has 292 runs at 36.50, 13 wickets at 23.23. Splendid figures. However, in the 4 away Tests, he has 162 runs at 27.00, and 2 wickets at 105.50.
Does he merit a place in the side on tours with such numbers? Especially at the expense of Stuart Braod?
Of course he is young and can prove to be a valuable asset over the years, but at the current moment he is a burden to the side. Perhaps some time in the First-Class grounds would be a good idea.
Stokes has shown himself capable of being the No 3 seamer in the side. His bowling has improved over the past year. But, it is unfair to ask him to be a top-order batsman as well. At this stage, with an average of 24.83 over the past year and a bit, he is definitely not suited to the role. A handy No 7 yes, a No 6 at a stretch. Higher than that is difficult.
Neither is Johnny Bairstow a man suited for No 3. He is way more consistent at No 6 or No 7 and that is where he should bat. He averages in his early 40s in Nos 6 and 7 while in his late 20s higher up. Specifically, against a moving new ball early in the innings, he is not someone I would put my money on.
Another man whose batting has deteriorated alarmingly in the last 12 months is Moeen Ali. He averages 18.64 since the beginning of 2018. Coincidentally, he is another man England has used as a No 3 in the recent past.
Jos Buttler is yet another man who performs reasonably at Nos 6 and 7, while he has never quite proved himself higher in the order.
The crux, therefore, is that England has too many men fit for Nos 6,7 and 8 masquerading as No 3 or No 5, while their strategy of plugging the resulting holes is to add more Nos 7,8 batsmen all the way down to No 9, sometimes to No 10.
This method has proved to be defective.
Not only are the holes not plugged, not even temporarily, it leaves the men unsure of their roles in the team. Sam Curran, for example, does not seem to have a clue what he is doing there. Moeen wonders how much he should concentrate on his batting. Bairstow and Buttler keep wishing that they had the big gloves for themselves as the second line of defence when their place in the side came up for discussion. Stokes is simply overburdened with the expectation that he cannot cater to.
Plus, in the case of Curran, it compromises the overall bowling strength of the side.
Think of an All-Time England XI with Paul Downton at No 3, Alan Knott at 5, Andrew Flintoff at 6, Ray Illingworth at 7, John Emburey and Phil Edmonds at No 8 and 9 … with the extra protection of Chris Lewis at No 10. That is exactly the sort of England side we are looking at.
It is high time to get the combination straight.