For English batting it’s back to the drawing board (and possibly James Vince)

Burns, left, has already been dropped. Hameed, right, looks ill-equipped for Australian conditions

Credit: Jason O'Brien/PA

It was, if nothing else, a nice idea: that a searingly honest team meeting could rectify England’s batting. Instead, the frank words that the players exchanged after Adelaide have been the prelude to England’s worst batting performance of the 2021/22 Ashes yet. 

Across the opening two days in Melbourne, England have lost 14 wickets for just 216 runs. While the unrelenting excellence of Australia’s phalanx of pace bowlers provides considerable mitigation for the second evening collapse to 31 for 4, it only cast England’s first innings 185 all out, in altogether more benign batting conditions, in an even harsher light.

Statistics illustrating England’s batting incompetence have become like illicit government parties last Christmas: everyone has their favourite, and the challenge is keeping up.

For starters, try these. In 15 Test matches in 2021, England have been bowled out 12 times for less than 200; it will surely be an unlucky 13 before the year is out. Joe Root is averaging 62.7, standing out like a rose in a dung heap; the rest of England’s top seven average 22.1. England’s average opening partnership in 2021 is 20.9, the lowest ever in a year in which they’ve played at least ten Test matches.

England’s worst ever year for opening partnerships

Or, consider the personnel who England brought in for this must-win Test. Zak Crawley scored 12 and five on his recall – about what England could have expected given that Crawley now averages 10.8 in eight Tests in 2021. No specialist batsman in Test history has ever averaged so few playing as many Tests in a year. 

Zak Crawley is the first to go in what is a relentless spell of opening bowling 🔥

There are 35 minutes remaining in the day’s play… 😶#Ashes

— Cricket on BT Sport (@btsportcricket) December 27, 2021

Jonny Bairstow is on his fourth stint in the side in 2021 alone; he hasn’t passed 57 in his past 36 Test innings, going back to November 2018.

This, then, is not a malaise can be fixed by forcing batsmen to rewatch their dismissals in the last Test, with head coach Chris Silverwood explaining which deliveries should have been left out. Nor is it really an issue of personnel.

The causes for England’s batting travails — since Root made his debut in 2012, no new debutant has averaged more than 38 — are altogether deeper. They are questions about the schedule, about pitches in the county game, about whether the quality of the County Championship is spread too thinly, and about the very way in which batting is coached in England.

“Coaches are not being strong enough,” Paul Farbrace, England’s assistant coach, told CricBuzz recently. “They’re not working hard enough to instil the basics in our young players, and as I say, there are too many players at the age of 15, 16, the techniques ingrained into them are not good enough.”

But if it is delusional to think that a panacea exists for England’s batting, this does not mean that England’s selection has given them the best chance of success. Discarding Rory Burns — for all his flaws, comfortably their second highest run-scorer this year and England’s most robust opener since Alastair Cook retired — in Adelaide was emblematic of England’s tendency to abandon their selectorial principles in the white heat of an Ashes series.

Without Burns, England lined up with two openers who both average less than 32 in first-class cricket. Crawley’s 267 against Pakistan in 2020 increasingly feels like a brilliant dream. Hameed, with his strong preference for spin bowling and unease playing off the back foot, is proving as ill-suited to Australia as the data suggested.

Vince, Bohannon, Brook among other options

As England once again face a reboot after an Ashes debacle, James Vince is among the most compelling alternatives. His first-class record has improved since his last Test in 2018, he scored 56 and 102 against Pakistan in his two one-day internationals last summer, and his average of 26.9 in the 2017/18 Ashes now seems altogether more flattering. As he is playing in the Big Bash, Vince could yet be summoned to play in the last two Tests. At 30, it would be a waste if England did not give him a chance to see if he can improve on his previous record in Test cricket.

Lancashire’s Josh Bohannon is perhaps the outstanding uncapped batsman in the county game. While Bohannon has just three first-class centuries, and only moved up to number three this season, he averages 44 for Lancashire. Bohannon suggested that his discipline can bring success at a higher level by making a half-century earlier this month against an Australia A side including Michael Neser and Scott Boland. Other players worth potential consideration for 2022 and beyond could include Somerset’s skipper Tom Abell, who has made advances on Taunton’s challenging wickets in the past two years and developed his range of shots in the shorter formats. James Bracey’s century against Australia A showed that he is better-suited to batting at number three than being used as a keeper-batsman. If he can continue his first-class progress since 2020, Yorkshire’s stylist Harry Brook is a tantalising prospect.

Yet recent months have reaffirmed that a chasm exists between the County Championship and the Test game: Dom Sibley and Ollie Pope, the two leading home-grown batsman in the Championship in the past three years, were both dropped with averages of under 30 in more than 20 Tests. And so the words that are ultimately needed to help raise the standards of England’s Test batting are not from their men in boots, you suspect, but their men in suits.

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