Trevor Bayliss quickly moved to quell talks of a crisis after England were beaten comprehensively by South Africa to square the series at 1-1. This is England’s 6th loss in 8 tests and inevitably the question marks around the side, which were still very large after last weeks’ win, will grow even larger. The decision to recall Gary Ballance and to bat him at number 3 seem to be the issue that is dominating most of the discussion however the issues run deeper than just that selection. England have a full-blown identity crisis in test cricket, and it is this that Joe Root must sort out first and foremost, for this talented yet deeply flawed side to move forward.
Firstly, England must move Ballance down to 5 in the order. I am a firm believer in class showing through and he has scored his runs for Yorkshire at 5. This would mean moving Root back up to 3 which would be perfect and a seamless transition for him. I understand he wants to bat 4 but with no other stand out 3 in the team or in county cricket then he must put the team first and bat 3 like his contemporaries; Kohli, Williamson and Smith. Gary Ballance has not suddenly become a bad player and whilst his technique has been found out against the moving ball I foresee him scoring runs with that technique down at 5. He bats very similarly to Paul Collingwood but just a left-handed version, Collingwood was successful at 5/6 and that’s were Ballance should be. We should not forget he has scored runs at this level, something which no other player who’s come into the side has managed to do.
Secondly England must move Bairstow down to 7 and pick a genuine batsman at 4, in my opinion that should be Tom Westley as he has been terrific for a few seasons now and scored a 100 versus the South Africans for the Lions earlier this summer. If you look at all the truly great sides over the years, they have never been with their keeper batting at 5. Bairstow batting at 7 after Stokes at 6 gives England the opportunity to take the game away from the opponents in the same way Hussey/Clarke and Gilchrist did with Australia in their great sides. The key is for the top 5 to set the game up for these brilliant attacking players, and if England are in trouble they can counter attack with less reprisals.
My final point on the batting order is the second opening slot, I would go with Stoneman he averaged mid 30’s on some difficult pitches up at Durham, since the move to Surrey he averages over 50, this proves he has what it takes to do the job in the international game. He is also a good positive player which will help take the pressure off Cook and set the innings off to a good start. The man has worked hard for his chance and has been in and around the team for quite some time. This is his time and I feel he is ready to take that opportunity.
On the bowling side, I would leave Mark Wood out for the foreseeable future, he should go to Australia in the squad as he is an excellent tourist and is still up there with one of the better bowlers in England. However, he has looked poor in the first two tests. His pace is down and he is not swinging the ball either in an orthodox fashion or reverse. England have options in this position for The Oval they can either pick another spinner in which case I would pick Crane, however if they feel he is not ready or they want 4 seamers then Liam Plunkett would be my choice. He’s bowled beautifully in ODI cricket and looked a real threat every time he has bowled.
England must also decide how they want to play. This positive cricket mantra is nonsense unless the underlying basics of test cricket are there. You must soak up pressure, bowlers will bowl well and you can’t score at 4 an over all the time. England are a team that seem unable to handle 10/15 overs of 2 an over. They do not have the patience to grind out a difficult session of 70-1 in 30 overs to really kick on later in the day and later in the innings. All the players these days can accelerate so why would worry if you’re 10 off 35?! You’ll catch up and score a 160 ball 100 if you just stay at the crease. The mentality is wrong and that needs changing.
This England team has the potential to be great and their bowling attack looks potent (particularly when Woakes returns). They must somehow overcome their batting woes and really dig out scores when they need to. They must also understand that they don’t necessarily need to score 500 at 4 an over to win test matches and series. All they need to do is not lose the game for the bowlers and crucially give them a rest, the bowlers would be delighted if England scored 300 in 110 overs twice and I would wager if England did that they would win more test matches than they lose. England must discover this grit in order to be a real force in this format, which they surely can be given their talent.