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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

England's batting woes could be exploited again on Ashes tour of Australia

Misfiring top order can expect more pressure from Australians when series starts in November.

Joe Root, left, and Alastair Cook are the only established performers in England's Test arena. Michael Steele / Getty Images
Joe Root, left, and Alastair Cook are the only established performers in England's Test arena. Michael Steele / Getty Images

It is highly unlikely that the announcement of the England squad for the Ashes tour on Wednesday will give Australia's bowlers any sleepless nights.

Indeed it is more likely that players such as Michell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon will be salivating at the prospect of getting into the English top order when the first Test starts in Brisbane on November 23.

In fairness to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) selectors, given how the side performed with the bat throughout the summer, whoever they picked in their 16-man squad in the batting positions would look a little underwhelming.

What England will be fighting to keep

The problem for England is that they have struggled to fill three slots in their top five for more than a year now.

Only captain Joe Root and opener Alastair Cook are established performers in the Test arena, and the pressure on both men to score big runs in the five-match series will be immense.

Mark Stoneman as the second opener, James Vince at No 3 and Dawid Malan or Gary Ballance at No 5 are the latest route that the ECB has gone down in its attempt to solve the problem of the misfiring top order.

On paper England had a good summer, winning 3-1 against South Africa and 2-1 against the West Indies, but a healthy amount of that achievement came through the endeavours of middle-order batsmen Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Mooen Ali, with the bowlers shining in home conditions.

England averaged 320.5 in their first innings during the seven Tests in the summer (four against South Africa, three against the West Indies), but their average score for being four wickets down was 146.7.

If you take out the first Test against the West Indies at Edgbaston in August, where Cook scored 243 and Root 136, that average for four wickets drops to 96.3, highlighting just how important the runs scored by Stokes (527), Bairstow (389) and Moeen (361) were.

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England cannot realistically hope to retain the Ashes without stronger support for Cook and Root in the top five, as they cannot, by law of averages, expect the middle order to bail them out every time.

When England won in 2010/11 in Australia it was on the backbone of heavy run scoring.

Their average first-innings score in that series was 444, and five batsmen, led by Cook with 766, scored more than 300 runs.

While this is by no means a classic Australia side they will be facing, big first-innings scores are integral to triumphing over there and putting pressure on the hosts.

Conditions usually get harder for batting as the matches wear on, so runs on the board early in the match will be vital.

Their 2013/14 tour fell apart because the side could not handle the pace of Mitchell Johnson. Their average first innings score was 193.8, and that doomed their hopes as in four of the five Tests they trailed the hosts by more than 100 runs after the first innings, putting them in unrecoverable positions.

Strauss on Stokes selection

The fear, looking at the squad, is England's large travelling army of fans in Australia could be set for more of the same.

Stoneman struggled against the pace of the West Indies, while Vince, who underwhelmed in 2016 when he played seven Tests and averaged 19.27, is an unlikely recall in place of Tom Westley to bat at No 3.

Malan will likely start the series at No 5, his two half-centuries against the West Indies currying favour.

Ballance was dropped during the last Ashes series in 2015, and the left-hander has struggled for consistency since then, and has only passed fifty once his past 18 Test innings.

The upside to him is he can bat anywhere in the top order and can slot in as opener, No 3 or No 5 if Stoneman, Vince or Malan struggle.

But, Australia will fancy their chances of exploiting his problems with foot movement again.

Right now it is hard not seeing England needing more heroics from Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen, and one or both of Cook or Root having monster tours if they are to have any hope of returning with the urn.

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