ENGLAND’S TOUR OF WEST INDIES, 2019
“The struggles of the top three is well documented.” © Getty
If you had a pound for every time Trevor Bayliss has asked for batsmen in county cricket to put their hand up for a place in England’s Test team, you’d be pretty rich by now. After nearly every series since his appointment in 2015, the head coach is trotted out to face the media, asked about England’s struggling top order, and says he is looking for players in domestic cricket to score a mountain of runs to push their name forward. And to be fair, what else can he say?
Once again, England’s top order shambles – for that is what it has become now – continued in the series against West Indies. Three different openers were tried, two different number threes, and yet England are no nearer to knowing their top order for this summer’s Ashes. After seven years of issues, trying and failing to replace Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott, it is now the unsolvable puzzle.
It’s not for the want of trying either. A quiz question in years to come will be who can name all the top order batsmen England have tried since 2012 and without the use of the internet, it’s not a gimme. The only certainty is that none of those tried, including the top three of Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly which finished the series in St Lucia, have yet nailed down a spot. Which is why Bayliss uttered his familiar refrain at the end of the three-match series in the Caribbean.
“The struggles of the top three is well documented,” he said. “They’ve all shown what they can do but it’s about doing it more regularly. Those three guys are incumbents in those positions, I suppose. If they come out and score as heavily as they have done in the last few years in county cricket, then it might be difficult to look past them.”
Does that include Jennings, a player who was dropped in Antigua for the third time in his career? “That definitely includes Jennings,” said Bayliss. “He’s made two Test hundreds and has been one of the heaviest scorers in county cricket. If he comes out and scores a lot of runs in the early matches of the season and no-one else does, then there might not be a decision to make.
“We’ve seen what he’s capable of but at the moment he’s lacking some confidence. It’s not easy when everyone is talking about your position and he’s coming to terms with that as well. Hopefully there are some names out there who can score heavily in the county season to give us a choice to make.”
Bayliss name checked Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope, both of whom are currently playing for the Lions in India, and James Vince but there are others worthy of consideration including Mark Stoneman and Adam Lyth. Former captain Michael Vaughan even suggested that Ian Bell, a fine Test player, should be in line for a recall at the age of 36. All of these players have, of course, been tried and discarded before although Bell, of course, was anything but a failure.
At least England seem to have recognised that the maddening phase of trying to plug top order gaps with middle order players needs to end. “We’ve known for a while what our best four to eight is,” Bayliss said. “But we make no apologies for trying to fit our best eight batters into a team. That meant trying to find a No. 3 out of those guys. Obviously it hasn’t worked for one or two reasons but four through to eight has been successful in the past and we’ve gone back to that.”
In St Lucia, four to eight was Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali and it looks as if that is a core which England will stick with for the one-off Test against Ireland at Lord’s in July. Bayliss admitted that it doesn’t bode well for Ben Foakes, Man of the Series in Sri Lanka lest we forget, who missed out in the final game in West Indies with Bairstow reclaiming the gloves.
“Yes that means the experiment of batting Jonny at No. 3 is over. And yes, that is unfortunately bad news for Foakes,” Bayliss said. “Foakes is obviously a very good keeper but I think we’ve also discovered someone who can put pressure on that middle order from a batting point of view.”
The battle between Foakes and Bairstow for the role of wicket-keeper batsman could come into sharp focus during the summer if Bairstow’s recent drop off in form continues. Since the start of last season, Bairstow averages just 27 with the bat and despite playing expertly in the first innings in Antigua on a sporting wicket, he was bowled three times in the series, continuing a worrying recent trend for a player of his class.
“It is one of those things,” Bayliss said of Bairstow. “He is working on it and he has got to continue to work on it. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you work on it though, if you’ve been playing a certain way for a long time it is difficult to get out of it in a hurry. He is aware of it.”
With the World Cup fast approaching, Bairstow will not have much red-ball cricket between now and the Test against Ireland with which to make those improvements but for others, like Burns and Jennings as well as the other batting contenders, the early Championship rounds loom as terribly important. For the greater good of England’s Test cricket, however, Bayliss would like less Championship cricket in April.
“In early season it is very difficult to produce flatter wickets,” he said. “So it’s not easy for batsmen. It doesn’t necessarily help the good fast bowlers or the spinners playing on softer, greener wickets, either. Maybe you should play some one-day games in the first few weeks of the season just to put the start of the four-day competition back. One day wickets are normally flat and they use a kookaburra ball in that format.”