It’s time for England’s next Test series, which means it’s time to think about exactly which wrong side England will pick.
Most people seem to agree that Jonny Bairstow will be batting at three. This is probably correct. It is however a selection decision that is wrong for him, wrong for the batsmen beneath him and wrong for England’s bowling attack too.
England haven’t had a regular number three for bloody ages. In Sri Lanka, they got to a point where they were pretty much just randomly shuffling the batting order every innings.
In the third Test, Jonny Bairstow made a hundred batting at three and celebrated like a mental person. At this point the music stopped and everybody froze in the batting position they had at that moment.
While the rejoicing at Bairstow’s hundred was fulsome and justified, the rejoicing at the prospect of a problem solved was far more half-hearted.
Three main reasons:
- No-one was really pushing for Bairstow to be number three in the first place – it was just his turn to have a go.
- He doesn’t especially want the job. He wants to be wicketkeeper and not bat at number three.
- At heart, it just wasn’t all that persuasive an innings. According to CricViz, he only faced 13 balls of pace and pace is generally what number three batsmen have to contend with.
To an extent all of this is neither here nor there. As a near-irrelevance of a number three innings, it didn’t really prove much one way or another.
What’s far more of a problem is that England dropped a bowler to accommodate Bairstow in that match.
England need six bowlers
We keep saying this. It sounds crazy, but we’re maybe 70 per cent sure that it’s true. To reliably bowl the opposition out cheaply, England seem to need six bowlers and unless they find a truly fast bowler, they almost certainly need one of those six bowlers to be Adil Rashid.
If you don’t believe us on this, here’s a lengthy explanation.
The gist is that England have had an advantage over other sides because they’ve been able to deploy an appropriate bowler in every situation. While ideally you’d cover all bases with fewer than six bowlers, England unfortunately need six. The huge and unusual advantage they have is that with so many all-rounders, six bowlers is actually an option that’s open to them.
So who should bat at three?
First of all: it doesn’t hugely matter. While it’s looked upon as being an absolute must-have for any successful Test side, the truth is that having a reliable number three is secondary to having a bowler for every situation.
Think of it this way: Your own number three is one batsman; the opposition number three is one batsman. The guy who cuts short what would have been a big opposition partnership does as much for your cause as a guy who may or may not score more runs than his replacement (Bairstow compared to a different number three).
You can afford to pick a partnership-breaker. Sri Lanka were 173-1 in reply to England’s 336 in the third Test in November. Adil Rashid then dismissed both of the set batsmen. Even if he hadn’t taken another wicket or scored another run, he’d have done as much for England as Bairstow did with his first innings hundred.
(Quick sidebar: Bairstow was player of the match. He made 125 runs and took no catches. Rashid made 45 runs for once out, took five wickets and ran someone out.)
Someone has to bat at three
And if you want to retain six bowlers, it has to be someone who was already in the side.
The stats say that Ben Stokes is far stronger against pace than against spin and better at dealing with the moving ball early on than any of England’s other batsmen. Far from being a lower order bully, he actually performs better the earlier he comes in.
We don’t actually have any strong desire to see Ben Stokes promoted to three, but based on the evidence he seems a better fit than Bairstow and this would also allow the selection of six bowlers. Throw in the fact that Bairstow doesn’t really seem to want to do the job and Stokes seems a slightly better solution to us.
What happens next?
Bairstow’s in now and he’s made a hundred. Even if it was a near-irrelevant hundred from a batting-at-number-three perspective, the selectors have to ‘give him a run’ so that we’ll all be far more understanding when he very probably fails.
How many matches will this take? We reckon three – the three against the West Indies – which would mean a new number three (almost certainly not Stokes) for the first Ireland Test next summer, ahead of the Ashes.