England, with their grumpy veteran opening bowler, an unreliable top order, a couple of dominant allrounders and one or two blokes making up the numbers, are essentially the world’s best club team.
They won comprehensively at The Oval with some wonderful individual performances but doubts remain over three of their top five. Keaton Jennings made 48 in the second innings but did little to convince at the top of the order, Tom Westley showed promise at No.3 on debut and his fellow first-timer Dawid Malan, a short-form success batting at No.5, made 1 and 10. Just imagine how strong England could be if they managed to get two of those three positions settled.
Malan in particular looks vulnerable, with Liam Dawson still in the squad and ready to be selected as an allrounder if the pitch looks like a turner. Joe Root said clearly after the 239-win on Monday that it was conditions that dictated that decision at The Oval, which for its 100th Test turned out to be more seamer-friendly than for much of its storied past.
That ‘luxury player’ position aside (extra batsman at No.5, wicketkeeper to free up Bairstow, extra spinner, wildcard bowler) the more pressing issue is that England need to sort out their top order. Jennings is a capable player and has earned his chance, but you sense that Australia’s quicks will have spent his recent innings – filled with stiff-legged prods – tucking in a napkin and sharpening some cutlery. Sometimes the way a player looks is as important as their run tally, and Jennings doesn’t look good.
In Westley, a replacement for the injured Gary Ballance, England at least have a No.3 who bats in that position for his county. Scores of 25 and 59 in seaming conditions were an encouraging start. Westley has a touch of class about him and if he has a significant weakness against the short ball it is, at least, yet to be exposed.
But it is Dawid Malan’s selection that is hardest to fathom. Whatever your view on Liam Dawson’s selection for the first two Tests, there was at least a kind of logic. Thanks to Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali, England have space for a bonus player and Dawson offered the variety of a left-armer and the promise of batting competence – plus a record of having impressed the people who matter. Still, they ditched him after two Tests. In Malan, England have selected a player whose strongest suit is limited-overs cricket – one who has scored heavily for the Lions and, given the opportunity at senior level, made 78 from 44 balls in a T20 against South Africa earlier in the summer.
All of which is fine, but if you’re going to pick someone on the strength of their short-form prowess and having impressed at international level, surely there are stronger candidates? Alex Hales and Jason Roy are fully established as England’s long-tem opening pair across both ODIs and T20s and have made nine international hundreds between them. Both now – since Hales’ switch this season – bat in the middle order for their counties. How is it that Malan has leapfrogged them both?
That says nothing against Malan – who is clearly very talented and has the potential to succeed – just that England are showing an unappealing lack of logic and strategy in their selection. Malan’s first-class record (averaging 38.09 with 18 hundreds from 142 matches) is similar to the other two (Hales averages 37.23 with 12 hundreds from 104 games and Roy 38.12 with eight hundreds from 75 games) but he’s done far less in an England shirt. None of which even mentions the most consistent run-scorers in the County Championship.
Wouldn’t England supporters prefer either a proven red-ball specialist or a proven international run-scorer? Malan, picked by an England coach who’s seen minimal county cricket and a captain who previously insisted on the inclusion of Ballance out of position at No.3, seems like little more than a punt.
Ask the Australians who of the available options they’d least like to see walking out to bat at three down and their answer would probably be Jonny Bairstow. Picking an alternative wicketkeeper to allow one of England’s best four batsmen to bat in the top five still seems a sound move – with the replacement gloveman, most likely either Ben Foakes or Jos Buttler, only having to bat at No.8 (with Moeen at No.7).
But if Bairstow is to keep the gloves, the next-best option could well be Hales. This season he has hit a string of remarkable match-winning knocks. His laid-back attitude and love of the big stage suggests he has the temperament to withstand a vocal Aussie crowd and he has a sustained record of hitting the best bowlers in the world for four and six. Although his start in Test cricket was hardly a world-shattering success, nor was it an abject failure; overall he made 573 runs at 27.28 in 21 innings, with five half centuries. At No.5, he would find the going a lot easier and be able to change games, while carrying with him valuable experience of facing the new ball.
England are a good team, who’ve twice in three Tests hammered South Africa (though in between times, at Trent Bridge, being hammered themselves). But they are a good team plagued by dramatic inconsistency and with at least two places up for grabs. They have four Tests to play between now and the Ashes down under. Time is running out for the management team to clear up their muddled thinking and put together an XI that looks ready for that challenge.
What do you think? Comment below.