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ENGLAND’S NO. 3 PROBLEMS CONTINUE

England will head into the late summer Test series against Pakistan with some comfort regarding certain selection issues. The bowling, although Steven Finn has taken some time to get going, is settled. Chris Woakes has filled in admirably for Ben Stokes and will count himself unfortunate to miss out on 14 July if the Durham man is fit and firing by then.

Most pleasingly, Alex Hales, ironically by throttling down his attacking instincts, has become the opening partner Alastair Cook has craved for. The irony is that he was given the role specifically to provide some oomph up front, but there is no way anyone can crab a production rate in this series of 292 runs at an average of 58.40 even if he has batted more slowly than expected.

Jonny Bairstow was the batsman of the series, but his wicketkeeping continues to cause serious cause for concern, and one solution going forward would be to pick a specialist gloveman while of course retaining Bairstow’s batting ability. Nick Compton looks sure to be discarded. And even though he has had just this series to make an impression, James Vince can scarcely be relaxed about his chances of appearing against Pakistan with only 54 runs in four innings.

The selectors put faith in Compton to make the problematic no. 3 position his own this summer after the 32-year-old had earned 13 Test caps on the fringes of the side starting in late 2012.

He has failed to pay that faith back, returning scores of 0, 9, 22 not out, 1 and 19. CricViz data reveals that during his relatively short stays at the crease the ball found the edge of his bat eight times and he was hit on the pads seven times. Those edges, by the way, do not include shots designated as “thick edges”, ones less likely to fly to catchers. The same analysis process finds that Vince, who had one fewer innings than Compton, edged the ball six times and was hit on the pads twice. In addition, he played and missed five times (Compton only once) for his four dismissals (9, 35, 10, 0).

What this data suggests is that beyond their poor results, these two right-handers were not playing well enough in any event to suggest that a big score would be around the corner. We might, for example, expect a batsman to play and miss a few times and edge the ball once or twice in a long, substantial innings – just as Compton and Vince did – but not in such curtailed circumstances.

Now let us look in particular at the no. 3 position and how England have tried to fill it since 1 January 2012. Why pick that date, you might ask? Well it was after sweeping India 4-0 that very summer that England reached the coveted no. 1 position. A rapid decline ensued with only one of the following four Test series won, and they’ve been generally inconsistent all the while.

At the start of 2012, the man in possession was Jonathan Trott, a reassuring presence at the crease. Trott performed creditably during the time in question (averaging 40.40), but was forced to relinquish the position after one Test of the 2012-13 Ashes debacle when suffering from severe mental burn-out.

The first man England turned to was Joe Root. But, for all his success before and since lower down the order, a promotion for the talented Yorkshireman did not work and it is not thought likely there will be a further Root experiment at three again any time soon. In June 2014, England went with Gary Ballance. For a while this was a great success, but then there was a run of five poor Tests for Ballance. And despite an average of 50.82 at number three, he was dropped. Ian Bell was tried – it didn’t work – and finally we got to Compton.

Good number threes are difficult to find. In the modern era, Kumar Sangakkara, Ricky Ponting, Hashim Amla and Rahul Dravid stand out. Before them, you really have to go as far back as Don Bradman, Wally Hammond and George Headley to find exceptionally good players at first drop. It’s notable that the great West Indians Brian Lara and Viv Richards preferred hiding themselves further away from the new ball, Greg Chappell did better lower down and Sachin Tendulkar never batted higher than no. 4 in 200 Tests. In other words, there appears to have been a golden age of number threes before the War, and then a 60-year hiatus before the emergence of Sangakkara et al.

It’s fair to conclude that this is a position that as a selector you have to take great care over. But England guessed when they dropped Ballance. They asked Bell to move up a spot following scores of 1 and 11 from the Warwickshire man in last year’s heavy Lord’s defeat to Australia. And they guessed again when they put Compton there despite some fairly modest form for his county Middlesex.

Essex’s Tom Westley and Durham’s Scott Borthwick are among the players who will be considered now for this critical position, and whichever one gets the nod could have quite a tough baptism given that Pakistan have a significantly more exciting bowling attack than Sri Lanka’s. There’s the added menace of the returning Mohammad Amir to consider too.

England’s specialist batsmen cannot expect to keep being bailed out by the lower order, as they were both in South Africa and again during this series against Sri Lanka. And that’s why the men who are paid to make the big calls need to take great care in getting that number three selection spot on.

BINARY BELL’S UNTIMELY SLUMP

When Ian Bell struck 143 in his first Test innings of 2015 his exclusion from England’s touring party for South Africa seemed unlikely. But seven months is a long time in cricket, especially for England players, the busiest in the Test arena.

Four half-centuries in 23 innings since – top score 65 not out – has resulted in the removal of a senior player that is difficult to argue against. Bell battled hard with little reward against the turning ball in the UAE, but it was his run of low scores against the high class pace bowling of New Zealand and Australia that was perhaps a bigger factor in his axing.

Dale Steyn and co. were presumably considered too big a challenge for a player who failed to record more than a solitary run in nine of those knocks since his century in the Caribbean. Bell’s age counted against him in the choice between the Warwickshire man and Gary Ballance, when the former’s 33 years – or vast Test experience at least – was a crucial factor in his retention earlier in the year.

Both Ballance and Bell were under huge pressure after the second Ashes Test and it was the Yorkshire player who made way for the in-form Jonny Bairstow. The old hand was not only retained, but promoted in the order, batting at three in six Tests since.

So what has changed?  Giving youth a chance and Ballance’s strong start to his career partly explain the switch, but Bell’s twin half-centuries at Edgbaston justified the selectors’ choice – he was thought to be more likely to produce that Ballance in that pivotal Test, and so it proved.

The selectors now think Ballance and Nick Compton are the more likely run-makers, an eye on the future notwithstanding. This might just reflect a personal preference of Trevor Bayliss, but the characteristics of Bell’s slump must have alarmed the selectors.

Nine of Bell’s 22 dismissals since his North Sound ton have been bowled or LBW. Seven of these have been for 0 or 1. A bad habit of binary returns, made worse by the manner of the dismissals.

The balanced tempo that is the hallmark of Bell’s best innings has also deserted him. He was skittish in his crucial knocks at his home ground, seemingly trying to hit his way back into form – a brave approach that made his first innings aberration against Nathan Lyon forgivable.

However, that positive intent has not been maintained. Bell laboured against Pakistan’s spinners, hitting 158 runs in six innings, at a strike rate of 31.6 – the lowest of England’s top order.

A comparison of Bell and Alastair Cook’s innings in the first innings of the third Test at Sharjah shows just how becalmed England’s number three was in his battle to regain form. Being proactive against good spinners on a tricky pitch is not easy, but Bell’s intent was lacking.

He left alone or played defensive shots at 70% of the 158 balls he received in scoring 40. Cook hit 49 from 119 balls, leaving alone or playing defensively to 45% of his deliveries. Bell didn’t just fail to dominate the barrage of spin – 47 of the 51 balls he faced from Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali were dots.

All this points to a player ill-equipped to cope with a skilled South African pace attack that can be complimented by the leg-spin of Imran Tahir. Whether those who fill Bell’s shoes can do so remains to be seen – there might yet be a way back for the 118-Test veteran.