Monday, 20 June 2016

That never-ending question

Monday, 20 June 2016
It's not the first time recently that England have emerged from a series victorious, yet still find themselves with several questions still to answer about the side. And yes, it quite often seems to be the very same question that rears its head - after every series, after every match. It's a batting line up that still never fires consistently, still finds itself three or four wickets down for not-very-many, and though the personnel may change, the problem still stays the same.

In any team, there's normally one man under pressure. It's not often that a top six will contain six players all in fine form at the same time. Even in great successes, there's always somebody who has found it that little bit tougher. For England over the last couple of years though, it's rarely just been one batsman. It's happened so many times that it can feel like the phrase 'England's top order failings' is just whirring on repeat in the background. During this series alone England found themselves at 83/5, 84/4, and 50/3 at various times. The lower-middle order, numbers six to eight, bailed them out this time (Bairstow in particular continuing his purple patch), but still - there's only so long England will be able to manage with half the batting line up functioning.

Compton was the man under the spotlight this series, and sadly his international career will surely now be at an end. Though certainly a fine player at county level, we only ever saw glimpses of this in an England shirt - two centuries in New Zealand and the 85 he scored on his return in South Africa, one of the most important innings of the series. But generally at test level, it's never stuck for him. Maybe it's the mental side, or maybe it's about finding his way to score, with comments about his strike rate following him wherever he went. Sport moves on quickly, and chances are hard enough to come by at any age. Almost 33, a third go won't come around.

Times were hard too for James Vince, though just at the beginning of his international career. He is unquestionably a lovely player to watch and easy to appreciate, one who can make it all look easy on a good day. But test cricket is a learning curve, and just looking good doesn't compare to actually making runs. Some also pointed to the fact that his batting average in the second division of the County Championship far exceeds his average in the first (averaging over 60 in both 2013 and 2014 in division two but just 32.70 last year in division one). He's a player who has been on England's radar for a long time and will certainly stay in the side for the series against Pakistan in the second half of the summer. But Pakistan's bowlers should provide more of a threat than Sri Lanka's, and Vince will need to learn fast.

It's not all doom and gloom, of course not. England won the series, and with Cook and Root not providing their usual weight of runs, others stood up. It's still too early to tick off the opener's spot, but Alex Hales certainly stated his case, though ultimately falling just short of a test century in three innings. Maybe he hasn't provided the swashbuckling innings that might have been hoped for when first selected - but more importantly he's shown the key qualities of a test batsman, like patience and control around his off stump. It wasn't easy in South Africa, but he looks to have learnt from the experience. The lower-middle order delivered as well, with a century for Moeen Ali, two for Jonny Bairstow, and Chris Woakes also chipping in with some runs. Whether or not Bairstow should take the gloves will be a debate sure to continue throughout the summer, but he's shown his star quality with the bat on the international stage and has truly been a joy to watch.

What next? Scott Borthwick looks to be the next man in line, a chance to add to his only test cap from the end of the 2013/14 Ashes. He was chosen as a spinner then, but over the past few years his batting has made him stand out more - hitting three centuries this season already. As ever with England, it's a matter of finding the last pieces to complete the puzzle. There's undoubted talent there and they've come out with the result, but they're still something of a work in progress, never quite fully functioning. As it is, the questions continue.

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