On the face of it, this has been a high achieving summer for the England test side: having won the series against a strong South African outfit and, excluding a slip up in a closely fought match at Headingly, exerted their dominance over a Windies side in crisis. So why does it feel as if the side still has serious problems heading into the impending challenge of an Ashes tour this winter.
It’s certainly not the bowling department. There were some lacklustre performances this summer from Stuart Broad, who’s outswinger seems to have deserted him, and Mark Wood, who continued to be plagued by a long-running heel injury. Chris Woakes, the find of last summer, was forced from the side for most of the season following a nine centimetre tear in his left side, and didn’t quite seem match fit upon his return in the second test against the Windies.
And yet, the side were effective, even dominant at some points with the ball. Rookie Toby Roland-Jones bowled like a veteran, including 5-57 on debut against South Africa, and continued in that vein, taking 17 wickets at 19.64 in the 4 matches he played. Ben Stokes, saviour of the side with the bat on numerous occasions of late, took 16 wickets at 31.31, a fine return for a fourth seamer, including 6-22 in a single spell at Lords. The spin department appears strong too, with Moeen Ali finding stellar form. He span England to victory in the first test against South Africa, taking 10-112 in the match, and by the end of that series became the first man to take 25 wickets and score 250 runs in a 4 match test series.
And then there is the man who, according to ex-England captain Alec Stewart, will be “100% the best fast bowler ever.” This summer has been one to remember for Jimmy Anderson. Already England’s highest wicket taker in tests and the first Englishman to pass 400 test wickets, he joined that most exclusive club of bowlers to have taken more than 500 test wickets. There, he is joined by some of the greats, namely Muralitharan, Warne, Kumble, Walsh and McGrath, the latter two being the only other seam bowlers to have achieved such an expansive return at the highest level. In the process, he showed that even at the age of 35 he is still the master of the swinging ball, taking a magnificent 7-42 in the final test against the Windies which all but won the game in a low scoring affair. If Anderon stays injury free, more than likely from a man who told ESPN Cricinfo that he could play until he’s 40, Courtney Walsh’s highest wicket-taking total from a fast bowler of 563 could easily be in reach, and with a fair wind, he could even be the first fast bowler to pass 600 test wickets.
So with the bowlers firing on all cylinders, and two of the best all-rounders in world cricket at the moment, what is the problem? As it always appears for England, the batsmen are letting the team down. Not all of them mind, Alastair Cook accumulated a double century against an extremely poor Windies attack in the first day-night test in this country at Edgbaston, and new captain Joe Root knocked 190 against South Africa at Lords on his way to a record equalling 12 consecutive matches in which he scored at least a fifty. As mentioned previously, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali also had strong summers with the bat.
But it was the men at 2, 3 and 5 which provided the problem. England started the summer with Keaton Jennings, who scored a century on debut in India over the winter, at 2, Gary Ballance, who’s continuing county form appeared to override his previous failures in an England cap, at 3. The inexplicable selection of second spinner Liam Dawson then meant that Johnny Bairstow was promoted to 5, with Stokes at 6 and Moeen Ali at 7.
At the top of the order, Jennings performed woefully against South Africa, averaging just 15.87, and was swiftly dropped in favour of Mark Stoneman for the Windies series. Stoneman performed better, with a top score of 52 in the three tests he played.
Ballance was similarly troubled. He showed no sign of an improvement of the technical issues which curtailed his previous spells in the England side, and averaged just 21.25 in the two games he played before a hand injury was the metaphorical jump which precedes the push from the side. His replacement, Essex’s Tom Westley, looked the part in scoring a debut 50 at the oval against the Proteas, but his technique meant that he was often playing across straight deliveries, a major flaw which was quickly picked up on by both the South African and West Indian attacks, meaning that, overall, he averaged just 24.12.
Dawson’s inclusion for the first two tests against South Africa were toothless and all agreed that the balance of the side was incorrect for English conditions, so for the third test at the Oval debutant Dawid Malan was brought in to bat at 5. He was unlucky in that series, twice being cleaned up by unplayable deliveries form Kasigo Rabada, and didn’t impose himself on the game. Against the Windies too he was largely insignificant in a series when his side was largely dominant, but a gritty 61 from 186 deliveries in treacherous conditions in the defeat at Headingly showed his mental strength. Despite this, he too only averaged 23.62.
So, with the hardest of winter tours looming on the horizon, who has booked their seats on the Qantas A380 and who will be watching the Dr Who Christmas special in freezing England? The core of the side, Cook, Root, Stokes, Ali, Bairstow, Broad and Anderson, can be pretty assured of their spots barring injuries. Chris Woakes and Toby Roland Jones can also be pretty confident of selection, the former from pre-injury performance and the latter for his showing this summer.
That leaves only the troublesome 2, 3 and 5 slots to be filled. I would expect that Mark Stoneman has done enough to book a spot. It would be unlike Trevor Bayliss’s England to drop a player after just 1 series, and he has shown enough form to justify his selection in the Ashes party. Similarly, Malan has probably just done enough to scrape into the side on the back of his work at Headingly, but Tom Westley’s head is firmly on the chopping block as it stands. It’s very unlikely that someone with such a glaring technical flaw will perform against the Aussies down under, and unless he can recover his form in the remaining county championship games this season, it is similarly unlikely that he’ll find a spot in the England side come November.
Dropping Westley then therefore begs the question of who is to replace him. There, unfortunately, we run into a problem. There really aren’t that many top order batsmen who haven’t been axed from the England ranks. The most obvious choice would be to go back to a recovered Gary Ballance, but he has technical flaws too, batting so deep in his crease that all but the fullest of half-volleys becomes a good length ball. Besides, he’s already been dropped by England twice before. Picking him would send a message to the Aussies of such desperation that we were picking a man who we knew wasn’t good enough.
I, however, think that the best option would be the reselection of Haseeb Hameed. 20-year-old Hameed played 3 tests in India in the winter, scoring a 50 with the broken finger which would rule him out of the final tests, and showing a technical and mental strength which led to him being dubbed “baby boycott” by his England teammates. He was left out of the side this summer having performed well below par in county matches, but a hard-fought 88 in Lancashire’s last game against Essex showed a return to his best form. It would not be unprecedented for an opener to bat at three, Michael Vaughan batted at three in the 2005 ashes, and Jonathan Trott scored all of his prodigious runs at the steady pace of an opener in Andrew Strauss’ world number 1 side. Hameed has the potential to be one of the best players this country has ever seen, and whether it’s by moving Stoneman to 3 or by batting Hameed himself in that position, I think it is vital for him to be in the side for success in the near future for the England test side.