No 1 for cricket
With selection and the batting order ‘fluid’, to say the least, current regime is still full of surprises
Paul Hayward, Scyld Berry, Nick Hoult and Tim Wigmore with the best reports, analysis and opinion from the Ageas Bowl
This England camp has doubled up as a careers fair, with batsmen and wicketkeepers lining up to be told which job suits them best. With all this shifting around, England have borrowed an idea from the Dutch and created “Total Cricket”.
Drinks all round for England’s all-rounders, who have preserved England’s advantage in this series. To an outsider, the fuss around whether a batsman should come in at five or six can seem a bit neurotic. This Test has set a new level of debate about the order in which people should leave the pavilion. Moeen Ali, for example, moved up from seven to three for England’s second innings, but Jonny Bairstow, bowled by Mohammed Shami first ball, seems disconcerted by being promoted. More so, by the possible long-term loss of the wicketkeeping gloves to Jos Buttler.
A broken finger from Trent Bridge precluded Bairstow from crouching behind the stumps here at the Ageas Bowl. He can have no complaint about being protected from a bullet that might slam into his hand at 80mph. But there are political ramifications. There has been a shift this summer towards squad rotation, flexible deployment and, critics could argue, a tendency to over-think the search for specialist batsmen, the area where England are weakest.
The openers, Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings, we know all about. They are in deep trouble. There is simply no base on which England’s middle order can build. Musical chairs have taken over. England started this week with Joe Root, Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Buttler all higher than they would want to be, and Moeen, who scored 219 for Worcestershire batting at No3, initially coming in at seven.
Moeen, who scored 40 in England’s first innings, shot up to three second time round but lasted only 15 balls. This allowed Root to drop back to four, but only 19 minutes later. The difference is negligible.
As Buttler led the fight to set India a tough target on a blissful Hampshire afternoon, politics took a back seat. But you can bet your boat that Bairstow’s grouchiness will have grown. In effect, England used his broken finger at Trent Bridge to accelerate a move to turn him into a specialist batsmen. Buttler is now “triple-glazed” as vice-captain, keeper and No7 batsmen, while Bairstow has lost the gloves – possibly permanently – and has been discombobulated at the crease. Bairstow went lbw to Shami for six in the first innings and lost his leg stump after lunch yesterday, pushing his bat through at a rising ball while leaving his feet behind. It was the shot of a man not thinking, or not settled.
And Bairstow is never slow to defend his corner. “If you look at the stats, they suggest I’m better if I keep wicket as well,” he has said.
“You’re kind of entering into uncharted territory and, as I mentioned, I’d like to keep my spot as keeper because I like to think it’s gone well over the last 38 or 39 Tests since I’ve been keeping for England.”
Contrast that with Root’s announcement in Southampton: “We’re very fortunate to have two fantastic options in Jos and Jonny. Jonny is obviously frustrated and disappointed as he loves doing the job. He’s done extremely well over the last couple of years. But that’s part of international sport. You don’t always get what you want. There are no guarantees in international sport. It [Bairstow’s finger injury] has opened the door for someone else. Jos has an opportunity for this game and potentially the rest of the series and I think that’s a good thing in terms of development for this group.”
All this will need sorting out. But the impetus, currently, is with Buttler, who scored his maiden Test century at Trent Bridge and struck 69 off 164 balls while posting a 50-run partnership with Stokes – his accomplice too in Nottingham – as England turned the tide against India on the south coast.
The bigger picture is England’s willingness to improvise and rotate, football-style (Bairstow v Buttler is still a little way short of Peter Shilton versus Ray Clemence for the England goalkeeper’s jersey). Two examples are Sam Curran being dropped for Stokes, despite his player-of-the-match award at Edgbaston, and Ollie Pope coming in at four despite playing at six for his county – and then being bombed for Southampton.
Of that decision, Root said: “The thinking is purely for the balance of the side. It is no reflection on how he has gone in the first two games. We could get to the Oval and it’ll be very different again – that’s being a part of a squad. At all times, you’re not far away from playing. It doesn’t just take 11 guys to win a series.”
So this is a squad game now, and purists had better get used to it. But will Bairstow? “You don’t always get what you want” is a new direction. Root and the England management need a series win against India if Total Cricket is to become the new religion.
There is no base and now musical chairs have taken over
Skittled: Jonny Bairstow falls first ball to Mohammed Shami