With the ball at least the opening day at Lord’s was a good one for England, a rampaging Ben Stokes posting career-best figures of 6 for 22 as the West Indies limped to a first innings total of 123.
Yet with England resuming at four down with only 46 on the board, the value of that effort has yet to be determined. This being England in a period of sustained flux, little about the plot is straightforward.
Once again an opening batsman went cheaply, Mark Stoneman back in the house with just one run to his name. Tom Westley, rudderless at no.3, went for eight. The conditions undoubtedly favoured the bowler and the West Indies were chucking down cherries at 90mph plus, but that’s the game.
Alastair Cook and Joe Root also went cheaply, but one is England’s record run scorer, the other is the skipper, and both are unassailable. At least with a bat in their hands. They might want to practice their catching, however, having floored chances in the slips. Neither errors were costly on this occasion but they might be Down Under on hard pitches with a Kookaburra ball that doesn’t do half as much as the English Duke’s.
The beaching of Jimmy Anderson on 499 career wickets was unfortunate. If anything Anderson was too good for an outclassed Windies tail that could not get close enough to a ball darting violently off the seam.
Was it only ten days ago that the England attack laboured on the last day of the Headingley Test failing to defend a lead of 321 runs? And this after the mauling of Edgbaston, where England imposed a crushing defeat on their callow opponents by an innings and 209 runs.
You might have spotted a pattern here. In the 37 tests leading into Lord’s, England had lost as many as they had won boasting a record that read W:16 L:16 D:5. Only one Test this summer has been properly contested, that cracking meeting at Headingley, and even then England failed in the first innings, notching just 258 runs.
That feeble total goes to the heart of the inconsistency besetting England as they prepare for the most significant engagement in their cricketing calendar, an Ashes Tour. Cook has not had an opening partner to call a friend since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, five years ago.
Stoneman is the 12th to audition for the spot and after a grinding 50 in the second innings at Headingley there was hope that he might convince sufficiently at Lord’s to top the order in Australia. The edge to Shane Dowrich off the bowling of Kemar Roach took the selectors back to square one.
The one incumbent who did hint at a real future in the role during last winter’s tour to the sub-continent, Haseeb Hameed, at least showed a welcome return to form propping up Lancashire in the top of the table clash with Essex at Old Trafford. His 88 might not scream ‘pick me’, but in the context of a low scoring match on a seaming wicket, it spoke of the adhesive qualities so obviously lacking up top in the England team.
That structural weakness has exposed a connected fault at no.3. Westley began his Test career with an encouraging 25 and 59 in the third Test against South Africa but arrived at Lord’s for his fifth appearance speared by doubts after scores of three and eight at Headingley took his total to 141 runs in eight knocks.
Cricket has a way of eating into the psyche. The attributes that got you through the door are scrutinised at the first sign of trouble. Doubts set in as pundits pour over technique. When those voices in your ear are former England captains writing for prominent newspapers there is no place to hide.
Both Nasser Hussain in the Daily Mail and Michael Vaughan in the Daily Telegraph highlighted Westley’s leg-side bias, and how he tried to compensate by driving at the ball on the onside, an unfamiliar move that has reduced him to a shell of the confident chap that breezed in from Essex on the back of a great season.
England’s problems at no.3 are exacerbated by Root’s refusal to countenance playing there himself. As a former opener, Root has all the attributes to flourish in the role and as England’s finest technician you might expect him to accept the challenge. But his preference is to bat at no.4 and no one in the camp is minded to persuade him otherwise.
England are further undermined by the failure to establish a regular no.5. Should Dawid Malan add to the two half centuries he cobbled at Headingley and England take the series with a win at Lord’s, that ought to be enough to secure a seat on the plane to Australia. But there is no guarantee with the ball seaming under grey September skies.
England are fortunate that the Australian team waiting for them this winter is similarly beset by selection insecurities in the batting and injury concerns among the bowlers. Mitchell Starc did not travel to Bangladesh, where Australia won the second Test to level the series, James Pattinson was a late withdrawal with a sore back and Josh Hazlewood is heading home with a side strain.
On the positive side for England there is always the mighty Stokes, who closed the opening day at the crease, holding back the tide alongside Malan on 13 not out. Stokes is an example to every young tearaway in any sport who might be getting in their own way with a peacock strut and overly cocky attitude.
In his youth, Stokes was every bit the enfant terrible, courting the attention not only of the cricket authorities with his dissolute deportment but the local constabulary in County Durham. He was sent home from a Lions tour to Australia four years ago for persistently breaking late night curfews and this after receiving a caution for obstructing police during a night out in December 2011.
Yet here he is at 26, unrecognisable from that louche adolescent, the glue that holds this England team together. Underbowled at Headingley, Root gave him his head at Lord’s where he inked his name on the honours board with an emphatic burst either side of tea.
If England are to end the series on a triumphant note you suspect Stokes might be the architect. Bringing a straight bat to proceedings never gets old and with a blade as constant as his England have every chance of bringing a sense of order to the chaos that characterised the opening day.
Weather permitting, of course. The forecast is flush with moisture. That said, with the ball so obviously dominant in autumnal conditions and the batting on both sides so brittle, there looks to be plenty of time to absorb delays.
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