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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

England's top order must fire if they want to win cricket Test series against South Africa

For far too long the middle-order batsmen have had to rescue the team following a fall of wickets early in the innings. It has reached crisis levels now.

England's batting line up struggled against South Africa's bowling attack in the second Test. Carl Recine / Reuters
England's batting line up struggled against South Africa's bowling attack in the second Test. Carl Recine / Reuters

As honeymoon periods go, Joe Root’s as England captain was a very short one.

A week to be exact. The crushing 340-run defeat at the hands of South Africa in the second Test last week at Trent Bridge a reality check on the size of the challenge facing him in the months ahead.

In fairness to Root, it is not as if he is not following in the traditions of past captains such as Graham Gooch and Michael Atherton by chipping in with runs and leading by example, even if it is a losing one.

He was the only England batsman to come out of the match at Trent Bridge with any reason to to hold his head up high.

His brisk 78 in the first innings, making batting almost look easy, while his teammates struggled against Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Chris Morris, was another demonstration of just how good a batsman he is.

But cricket is a team game, not an individual sport. Root’s 190 set up the win at Lord’s in the first Test, rescuing his side after they had teetered at 74-4 on the first day, but the first two Tests of this series have again underlined the issues that have hindered England as a force in Test cricket in recent years.

August 2012 saw South Africa usurp England as world No 1 in the Test rankings with victory at Lord’s and since then they have not returned to the top spot.

The main reason for that has been the batting and the lack of runs from the top of the order.

In the first Test against South Africa they were 76-4. At Trent Bridge they were 143-. Those kind of scores have been a regular sight on home soil for England fans over the past five years.

England’s average score for being four wickets down in home Tests since 2013 in their first innings is just 156.

Not a great statistic, considering this is their home turf, and it demonstrates the cracks in the line up.

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England’s overall average in their past 30 home Tests in their first innings, the innings that usually defines the momentum of a game, is 366.

Not too bad, but when you look at the fact they are usually around 150 down by the time the fourth wicket goes, on average, it emphasises that much of their runs comes from the middle and lower order.

The trio of wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow and all-rounders Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali have been crucial to England getting to creditable scores after the top order has struggled in the past, and it is no coincidence they have gradually shuffled up to where they are now currently batting at 5, 6 and 7.

England’s top order has come to rely heavily on the runs of Root and former captain Alastair Cook.

In the past five years England have only passed 200 with less than four wickets down seven times at home, and you have to go back to the summer of 2014 when they did that without needing big runs from Cook or Root to get there.

The most glaring issues are that England have not found a regular opening partner for Cook at the top of the order since Andrew Strauss retired in the summer of 2012.

Keaton Jennings is the 11th player to be to be tried in the role since November 2012, and another poor match at The Oval will put him under pressure given he is averages only 11 against South Africa in the series so far.

Middle-order runs should be a bonus to an innings, rather than a necessity. It is good England bat deep, but that should not be needed to bail out the innings.

It feels like England are in crisis right now, but it is not a new scenario.

In 2014, there was huge pressure on Cook after they had lost by 95 runs at Lord’s to India.

They were thrashed inside four days by Australia in 2015, and then lost the opening Test against Pakistan last summer.

On all three occasions England bounced back and found an answer, usually inspired by the bowlers, but to win a home series against South Africa for the first time since 1998 will be a tall order considering the Proteas now have their tails up after their dominance in Nottingham.

Sorting out the top order and getting more runs on the board is the crucial element. Whether it is poor technique or shot selection, England are consistently under pressure early in the innings.

Both openers are out of form, and Bairstow has yet to fire at No 5 in the series.

Tom Westley will make his debut at No 3 on Thursday as replacement for the injured Gary Ballance and England desperately need him to make a quick step up to the world of Test cricket.

South Africa have the momentum, and only more runs from the top order, and not having to rely on Root to score the bulk of their runs, will ensure they end this series victorious.