A 3-1 victory over South Africa at home. Great result, full stop. Right? Well, sort of. Whilst England will be delighted with their first series win over the Proteas on home soil since Darren Gough famously bowled them to victory at Headingley in 1998, questions still remain, especially in their top 5.
Keaton Jennings’ international career must now be put on hold for the time being. Even his most ardent supporters cannot expect him to be included in England’s squad for their next test match, the day/nighter against the West Indies at Edgbaston in ten days’ time. Jennings has now scored 127 runs at 15.87 in the series, a battling 48 at the Oval his only score of note, and even then he was dropped on six and nearly played on twice early in his innings.
England had much hope for Jennings. His record over the past few years batting at Chester-le-Street, one of the most difficult tracks on the county circuit, has been excellent. He’s also scored consistently for the Lions, who he also captained successfully on a few occasions, whilst also skippering Durham’s one-day side for the past couple of years, as well as the North against the South in the one-day series in the UAE in March. There was clearly some hope that Jennings’ leadership qualities are such that in time he could have been groomed for the England captaincy a few years down the line. Four tests later, and England are back into their familiar routine of having to search for a new partner for Alastair Cook.
Cook has now had eleven opening partners since the retirement of Strauss (twelve including a one-off when Jos Buttler was thrown in to score quickly), and none of them have been able to make an impact past their first half-a-dozen matches wearing the three lions. England must now decide on whether they go back to a past failure such as Alex Hales or Sam Robson in the hope they have learnt more about their game whilst back at their respective counties, or go for yet another new face in Mark Stoneman. Stoneman is as deserving of a test spot as anyone, currently averaging nearly 60 in his thirteen innings’ thus far in Division 1 county cricket. He would be the obvious choice, a like-for-like left-hander to come in for the out-of-nick Jennings. However, with three home tests against a vastly under-par West Indies coming up, just how much will England be able to find out about his test-match credentials before they set off for Australia in November? Clearly if he was to fail in that series he’s certainly not up to facing Starc, Cummins et al Down Under, but if he scores big against the Windies, it would be difficult to call him a test match player simply because of the standard of opposition. He can’t win. Therefore, either way England will travel to the Ashes with no confidence in Cook’s opening partner. Again.
Tom Westley, aside from a solid 59 on debut during the Oval’s one hundredth test match last weekend, has failed to impress since. He will keep his place in the side for the West Indies series, and rightly so. However, the sheer fact that he will not be tested at the level the Proteas seamers operate at until the Ashes means that there is no guarantee he will be a long-term success either. His technique will need to evolve slightly; whether he has the ability to keep leaving balls outside the off stump all day will surely be tested fully by the Australian pacemen. There is nothing wrong with being a leg-side batsman, however it does mean stepping up to the top level requires significant patience to survive. Bowlers will continue to bowl outside his off stump in an attempt to coax him into a false shot, and no doubt the Aussie fielders will do their best to tempt him as well. It won’t be easy, but with the right application Westley could be a mainstay at number three. Frankly, it appears England have no other options from county cricket to come in at first drop, so they’ll be desperate for Westley to succeed or else the calls for Joe Root to step up to number three will surface yet again – something the captain clearly wants to avoid.
The final spot still up for the grabs is currently Dawid Malan’s. Whilst he is likely to be given another shot at making the number 5 position his own against the West Indies, scores of 1, 10, 18 and 6 in his first two tests for England means there is much to do before the critics will be silenced.
What will worry England most now they’re just three months away from embarking Down Under for the biggest test of all, is that not only are there three question marks in their top five; but also the fact that with three West Indies test matches coming up before those players will have to face the Aussie seam attack on a flat Brisbane track with a hostile crowd, do England actually have time to find out what they need about their players to be confident of picking their best team for that crucial first Ashes test?
Whatever happens later in August, as it stands England’s batting order looks increasingly fallible. Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Pattinson look formidable. If Root, Cook, Stokes and Bairstow score heavily it is still a possibility England will be a match for their hosts; if they have to rely on their less established players, it could well be a repeat of four years ago.
Listen to Joe and Marty discussing the latest on England and Australia’s Ashes chances on the Sticky Wicket Cricket Podcast, available on iTunes and the Soundcloud every week.