“You don’t have to be Einstein to work that out,” Trevor Bayliss quipped dismissively when asked if England’s top-order frailties will tell on their Ashes chances. And one really doesn’t have to deep-dive into stats to find out that instances of England losing four wickets for less than 90 runs and five for less than 100 have been 9 and 11, respectively, out of the 24 innings in Tests since August 1, 2018. Nine out of the 11 collapses mentioned above have been in the top order, but such has been England’s dominance with the ball on friendly home surfaces that they have lost only one of the six home Tests during this one-year period and only two out of the six they have played away.
In the India series the England batsmen averaged 30.74 but their opponents were poorer in that regard, averaging only 25.23. This average difference of 5.1 runs coupled with the bowler-friendly conditions enjoyed by their pacers helped the hosts clinch a resounding 4-1 series win.
Things got better but only just when England travelled to Sri Lanka and swept the Lankans 3-0. The English batsmen averaged 33.32 to Sri Lanka’s 25.93, the average difference of 7.39 helping the visitors make the most of the batting-friendly subcontinent conditions, helped all the more by the spin exploits of Moeen Ali and Jack Leach, who accounted for 18 wickets each. But even amidst the relatively rich returns, the batsmen found themselves 39/4 in the second innings of the third Test, albeit with the cushion of a 135-run lead and an unassailable 2-0 series lead.
Until this point the bowlers had rescued the team on many occasions, both with the ball and bat and England had lost only one out of eight Tests. Things changed with the turn of the year when the West Indies fast bowlers spat fire in the Caribbean by shooting England out for 77 in the first Test and setting up the tone for the rest of the series. The West Indies batsmen averaged 31.15 to England’s 23.27 and the evenly-matched bowling line-ups meant that England were made aware of what lay for them if a fast-bowling attack could match theirs and the batsmen continued to flounder – just like Australia can in the Ashes.
Their worst fears came true, perhaps serendipitously just before the Ashes, when Tim Murtagh, playing only his third Test, ran through the England batting on the first morning at Lord’s, helping Ireland stun their big brothers by bowling them out for 85 before the lunch break.
The fragility of the top order is a major reason behind such vulnerability with the bat. England have tried 10 batsmen in the top four slots since the home series against India, including Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes, but only Joe Root and Burns have been able to stick to their positions. Of the two, Burns has already endured a slump since his breakthrough first-class season that earned him his Test cap in Sri Lanka – he has failed to cross 30 runs in his last six innings.
Bairstow averages 24.42 over the past 12 months and Ali only 17. With the influx of Jason Roy, another white-ball maverick into the Test side, a top three of Roy, Burns and Joe Denly looks far too inexperienced, so much so that England are mulling promoting Root to No.3 despite the England Test captain’s insistence to stick to his more preferable No.4 slot where he averages 48 as compared to 40.47 at No.3. “It’s been my thought for a few years [that Root should bat at No. 3]. But he’s the captain and he’ll make the final decision. He knows how I feel,” Bayliss said, perhaps reluctantly, knowing that a stop-gap solution to the unpleasantly frequent collapses is the need of the hour.
England are placed fifth on the ICC Test Rankings, eight rating points adrift of the No.1 ranked India and six points behind the No.2 New Zealand – both teams have had significant differences in batting averages over the teams they have beaten in the past year.
Leach’s 92 as a nightwatchman in the second innings against Ireland was the second-highest score by an England opener since Alastair Cook’s retirement last year. That’s telling of the kind of struggles the team has endured since the departure of their highest scorer, not that Cook oversaw fewer collapses over the past year from the dressing room than he has seen from the press box.
At the time of handing over the Test cap to Roy, Cook said, “It (the cap) gives you the opportunity to test yourself against the best players in the world, in the hardest format.” He would hope that against some of the best in the world, in the most important Test series for any Englishman, his ex-teammates bring about a change in fortune.