England must consider the captaincy, top four and wicketkeeper

Tim de Lisle
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

1) The captaincy

Joe Root is not a disaster – he has still not lost a home series – but his captaincy weakens England in two ways. It diminishes their only world-class batsman: Root’s average as captain slumps from 53 to 41 and the hundreds dry up. And it stops them maximising limited resources, as Eoin Morgan has done with the 50-over team. Root played most of his Tests under Alastair Cook and it shows. He is doggedly orthodox, then suddenly, unconvincingly, funky; he seems one step behind, not ahead; he will have Australia teetering at 44 for four, then settle for containment. He can be tactless, waving at Jofra Archer from slip to order him to go round the wicket, rather than having a quiet word from mid-off.

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He is oddly inconsistent, using a nightwatchman as a shield, cashing in with a crucial 71, then spurning one two nights later and falling first ball. A true captain can be spotted just by listening – is he intense, forensic, a touch fanatical? Nasser Hussain is, Mike Atherton is not. Michael Vaughan is, Alastair Cook not. Stuart Broad is, Joe Root not. Let Broad take over for now, until Jos Buttler returns to form or Rory Burns becomes a fixture. And let Root bat and bat.

2) The top four

Australia’s openers are averaging around 10, an all-time Ashes low, but they have Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, the sorcerer and his apprentice, to magic away the mess. England’s openers have been better, averaging 27 – the latest, Joe Denly, still unsure of his Test place, sails into this summer’s composite XI.

But England’s top order remains brittle, with Root a reluctant No 3 and Jason Roy, a walking wicket as an opener with his hard hands, only slightly more comfortable at No 4. For Trevor Bayliss’s farewell, the selectors have deferred to his dictum that he would rather give a batsman too many chances than too few. Soon, opportunity will knock for Dom Sibley and Ollie Pope, young men who make big hundreds.

3) The keepers

England have three wicketkeeper-batsmen with better credentials than Tim Paine of Australia, yet it is Paine who will lift the Ashes urn next week. England have got their keepers in a twist. The best gloveman is Ben Foakes, who also made a Test hundred on debut, only to be dropped after a few low scores (no sign of Bayliss’s dictum there). The best batsman should be Jonny Bairstow but his recent Test record smacks of a one-day specialist – which is what Buttler was until Ed Smith audaciously reinstated him to the Test side 16 months ago. In Morgan’s team it is all perfectly clear: Buttler keeps, Bairstow opens, Foakes is Buttler’s understudy (one game so far, one match-winning knock). What would Morgan do with the Test gauntlets? Hand them to Foakes, surely, and leave Buttler and Bairstow, who seldom bat well together, to contest the No 6 spot.

<span class="element-image__caption">Ben Foakes has not featured in this summer’s Ashes.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters</span>
Ben Foakes has not featured in this summer’s Ashes. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters

4) The balance between defence and attack

England are often accused of bringing their one-day swagger to Test cricket, as if they were going to church in their party shirts. And they are not guilty. At Old Trafford they batted for 30 more overs than Australia and scored 185 fewer runs. In the series England have faced 345 more balls and made 320 fewer runs – the opposite of their one-day method. If anything, they have not been aggressive enough.

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Or perhaps judicious enough. At Old Trafford straight balls – the kind that never find their way past Steve Smith – dismissed Root, Roy, Bairstow and Buttler twice each. England’s strokemakers have to get better at keeping out the good balls, while remembering to use the crease, rotate the strike and force metronomic bowlers to change their settings.

5) The third seamer

Even without Jimmy Anderson, England have used the new ball superbly. They have discovered a superstar in Archer and rediscovered a stalwart in Broad. The two sides’ new-ball pairs, through the series, both have a strike rate in the mid-40s. The difference between them has been Smith – without him, Australia’s collective batting average is 26 to England’s 27 – and the back-up bowling.

No England bowler bar Broad or Archer has taken a four-fer. Chris Woakes has been steady, unlucky, perhaps weary from the World Cup; Craig Overton more impressive with the bat than the ball; Ben Stokes a strange mixture of inspiration and ineptitude. After Nathan Lyon outshone Moeen Ali at Edgbaston England adapted fast, dropping Moeen and defusing Lyon by playing him off the back foot. With Australia’s seamers they have found no such solution.

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