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England's top-order disaster: There has been no sense of progress in India - only of technical failings multiplying

Tim Wigmore
·7-min read
Shubman Gill takes a catch to dismiss Jonny Bairstow - BCCI
Shubman Gill takes a catch to dismiss Jonny Bairstow - BCCI

At least Zak Crawley didn’t get out to left-arm spin this time. After his not-so-magnificent seven consecutive dismissals against left-arm spinners this winter, he finally broke the streak. The trouble is, Crawley had only made five by the time he succumbed to a Ravichandran Ashwin arm ball. Ashwin is a maestro, one of the most inventive finger spinners of all time. Yet against Crawley he didn’t need to be. Even if it was brilliantly executed, this was a rudimentary plan: spook Crawley with a big turning off break, and then snare the outside edge with an arm ball that held its line.

Still, Jonny Bairstow can only have looked on in envy. Never mind five runs; in three of his four innings since returning home to England, he hasn’t even got off the mark. The very next ball after Crawley’s dismissal, Bairstow flicked Ashwin straight to leg slip: a man stationed for the very shot. For all Ashwin’s mastery, Bairstow’s dismissal is not one that would elicit much sympathy in club cricket. It might yet be his final ball in an England Test shirt.

Compared to the two that had gone before him, Dom Sibley could be afforded rather more sympathy. His firm sweep off Axar Patel thudded into short leg’s foot, who was jumping to evade the ball, and then looped up to Rishabh Pant.

And so, in their smorgasbord of different ways, England’s entire top three had all been and gone by the end of the 10th over. It was, if nothing else, an apt denouement to a series in which England’s top three have looked as out of place as a plant in the wrong continent, completely unable to adapt.

England’s top three this series have scored 340 runs between them while being dismissed 24 times: an average of 14.2. This dismal return is worth contexualising. For an England top three in a multi-match Test series, you need to go back to 1906 - so long ago that the Liberal Party won a majority in a general election in the United Kingdom - for a worse combined average.

England batting average
England batting average

These travails have set the template for the batting ruts that have followed. For batsmen in Test cricket, a simple rule holds: the later in an innings it is, the easier it is to bat. Since 2010, averages for top seven batsmen increase every 10-over block, rising from 28 in the first 10 overs to 48 in the last 10 overs before the second new ball. So runs from the top three, and balls soaked up, are not only crucial for their own sake. They are also multipliers. A good top three makes batting easier for everyone else; as England’s middle order in India could attest, the reverse is also true.

By the series’ end, the failings of the top three had even enervated Joe Root. As if captaining, playing as an all-rounder and scoring nearly one-third of England’s runs this series was not enough, Root has also been tasked with coming in in the seventh, first, eighth and fifth overs in the last two Tests. Little wonder that Root’s own run production has dipped off.

For England’s top three, it is true, this has been Test cricket with the difficulty ramped up to extreme: a cocktail of stifling heat, spinning wickets and the relentless brilliance of Ashwin and Patel. Yet there has been no sense of progress; instead, only of failings multiplying during England’s six winter Tests in Asia.

Crawley arrived in the subcontinent as the new prince of English batting, fresh from his remarkable 267 against Pakistan. While he played Yasir Shah’s leg spin with consummate skill during that innings, Crawley has found the basic challenge of batting against spin in the subcontinent - grappling with deliveries that, by turns, turn rapidly and do not turn - overwhelming. Against left-arm spin this winter, he has made 34 runs while being dismissed seven times by Lasith Embuldeniya and Patel. Whether staying at the crease or advancing down the wicket, the upshot has been equally grim.

Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates a wicket - BCCI
Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates a wicket - BCCI

While Crawley will retain his place despite a bleak winter of 102 runs at 12.8 apiece, Bairstow may well never add to his 74 Tests. With England having gone off the notion of Bairstow as wicketkeeper, and no middle-order vacancies, batting at three was a lifeboat to save his Test career. In Sri Lanka, he took to the role well but a return home for the first two Tests in India deprived Bairstow of all rhythm. Ultimately Bairstow’s defence - especially against seam bowling - is ill-suited to batting at three in English conditions. The brilliance of 2016, when Bairstow scored 1470 runs at 59 apiece in Test cricket, now looks like a mirage. Since 2019, he is averaging 20 in 14 Tests.

After tinkering with his technique to thrive in the white-ball game, the disparate challenges of thriving in all three formats at the same time have been beyond Bairstow. At least Sibley, emphatically a Test specialist, is in no danger of suffering from the same fate. But while there are no concerns about his tenacity or temperament - nor his desire, given the weight he has shed since his Test debut - Sibley’s game against spin is not yet rounded enough for a Test cricketer. Since making 87 in the first innings of the series, he has made 47 in his last seven innings, tumbling to 15 in his last five. All told, he averages only 24 against spin in Test cricket. An overall average of 30.4 from 18 Tests, and just 20.6 in his last 10, speaks of a player who needs to demonstrate growth this summer to ensure an Ashes berth.

Yet, for all these individual failings, in a sense all of England’s flailing top three are victims of issues beyond their control. Bairstow’s Test career has been stymied by the schedule, which allows multi-format players scant time in the first-class game. In between his Test struggles, he has played only two first-class matches since 2018.

On their first Test tours of Asia, Crawley and Sibley have been hampered by structural issues about spin bowling in English cricket. Before Sri Lanka, Crawley had never opened against spin in first-class cricket; Sibley had done so only three times. With the bulk of the County Championship continuing to be played in the margins of the English summer, England’s batsmen against spin - like England’s spinners - need more concerted attempts to help spin if they are to avoid being so exposed on future tours of Asia. Since 2015, spinners take just 23 per cent of first-class wickets in England, the lowest proportion of any Test nation. A more enlightened approach to pitches like Taunton that favour turn, using the Kookaburra ball for at least some of the season, awarding bonus points for wickets taken by spin and a beefed-up Lions programme could all offer partial answers.

When England next line up for a Test, against New Zealand in June, Sibley and Crawley will retain their top-three berths. Who will join them in lieu of Bairstow is unclear. At this stage the likeliest option is either reinstating Rory Burns, promoting Ollie Pope - thereby allowing Dan Lawrence to retain his place in the middle order - or handing a debut to the highly-regarded left-hander James Bracey. The dearth of top-order options means that England’s selectors will follow the early-season endeavours of Haseeb Hameed, newly-made Nottinghamshire vice-captain, with great interest.

Opening the batting in England is a treacherous business. Yet at least after this series, however overcast the day, and however green the wicket, Crawley, Bairstow and Sibley will assuredly know it could be even worse.