“We’ve had a shocker.” Trevor Bayliss.
That pretty much sums up England’s abject performance in the second test against South Africa. The England batsmen dug themselves into a huge hole on day 2 that they weren’t able to recover from. That being said, the way they fell apart inside two sessions on Day 4 was equally as disappointing, especially for those who paid good money to watch.
England middle of the pack
England possess an extremely talented group of players capable of some thumping wins. What’s so frustrating therefore is that they follow up these good wins with totally catastrophic displays like the one at Trent Bridge over the weekend. They don’t seem to be able to dig in for periods when the going gets tough. As the above graph shows, England are below average in terms of win percentage over the last two years. If you were being ultra-critical, you’d have to say that this is a reflection of where England are at the moment. Yes, they have some wonderful players, but they are not consistent enough to rival the teams at the top.
Similar woes for Gary Ballance
It’s become clear that there may well need to be personnel changes at the top of the order. It has just been revealed that Ballance will miss the third test due to a broken finger. He may well have been dropped anyway. Old concerns about his susceptibility to the fast full delivery have resurfaced (or never gone away). I was one of those who wanted him back in the team, but his test average over the previous 2 years is way below par (20.3). It may be time for England to look elsewhere. There are also concerns over the form and technique of Keaton Jennings. But he has scored a hundred and a fifty in his short test career so far. It may be worth persevering with him at the top of the order.
Ballance troubles masking other frailties
But the truth is England’s top 6 has struggled to score the volume of runs necessary to consistently win games. Jennings and Ballance are not the only players culpable. Root (53.1), Bairstow (47.9) and Cook (44.2) are the only members of the current top 6 to average over 40 in the last 2 years. The inability to nail down a consistent top 6 has been a considerable issue for England (see below table).
Something that is seldom mentioned is the fact that Ben Stokes has only averaged 30.9 over the last 2 years. As good a player as he is, this isn’t a world beating batting average for a number 6. His all round numbers over this period are very good (53 wickets at 28 is exceptional for an all rounder). But his recent batting average is much lower than Moeen Ali (37.9) and not considerably higher than Chris Woakes (28.7). Therefore, could number 6 be too high?
Further, Bairstow has thus far performed markedly better at number 6 (57.4) than 5 (32.9). Bringing in an extra batsman and shifting Bairstow and Stokes down one may be a good option for England. Despite earlier posting that England didn’t need an extra specialist batsman, I think there is good cause for batting reinforcements. Without the reliable Chris Woakes at number 8, the tail looks long. This is harsh on poor Moeen though. He has deserved to cement his number 7 position over the last couple of years (averages 69 & 21 with bat & ball, respectively).
The England top 6 are struggling to convert
There’s another statistic that is quite concerning for England: Converting 50’s into 100’s. England batsmen are worryingly inefficient at converting starts into match defining centuries. Indeed, as our graph shows, England’s top 6 have the lowest conversion rate over the last 2 years. Of even more concern to England fans, Australian batsmen convert 45% of their 50’s into hundreds. This has benefited the Australians massively, highlighted by their high win percentage over the same period. England are often bailed out by their excellent tail (conversely Australia have a very weak one), but if they want to be amongst the best in the world they will need more big scores from their top 6.
Mixed messages from the top?
Is this a problem with the management? It’s possible that Bayliss’ positive style of play, that has made England an excellent one-day side, has come at the detriment to the test team. Are they so hard-wired to attack that they’ve forgotten how to defend? Prior to Bayliss’ appointment Cook (40.3%) and Root (35.3%) had higher conversion rates. These players in particular are world class, but they could be getting too fixated on being aggressive. The key players for other nations have substantially higher conversion rates than England’s best batsmen (see below). Most of these are naturally positive, but manage to get more hundreds than England players in the Bayliss era.
Don’t get me wrong, the way that players like Root and Stokes counter-attack is fantastic to watch. But these players are experienced enough to realise when they need to dig in and when they need to be ruthless. Bayliss must also ensure that the correct selections are made and that the message to play positive cricket is interpreted in the right way. There is a lot of potential in this team. It’s about time they fulfilled it.