Joe Root is a warm favourite to become England’s new No 3 batsman. The Ashes may depend on it. His new status will not be formalised until Thursday morning when the second Test in Adelaide begins but even now there remains scope for a change of strategy.
England are whistling in the dark at present, though they would prefer to call it being flexible. The meticulous planning and eye for detail that has been the calling card of this regime has been usurped by unforeseeable issues.
As is the way, Root offered assurances and platitudes yesterday that he would be proud to bat for England anywhere he was asked. His short Test career has already embraced six, five, two and a return to six. Three is the blue riband position, frequently, though not invariably, occupied by a side’s most accomplished and glamorous batsman.
Don Bradman, for Australia, and Wally Hammond, for England, gave it all the kudos it needed and they have been followed by the likes of Viv Richards, Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting. It is not everyone’s cup of tea. Michael Clarke, for instance, has often been urged recently to bat there as Australia’s best player but has resisted it, perhaps sensing that it would expose the side lower down.
It takes a particular set of skills and if that can be said of most positions in the order, the others do not have to combine the skills both of an opener and strokemaker. The position carries wide responsibilities and batsmen know it.
“I’d love to bat three, I’d love to bat five, I’d love to open,” said Root. “If I get an opportunity to bat at three I’ll cope with the situation and try and make sure I do the best job possible for England.
“I don’t think it differs too much from opening. You can be in there second ball of the game and other times you can be in there in the 60th or 100th over of the game if you’re playing exceptionally well. In that regard it’s quite nice that I’ve opened and batted down the order because I’ve covered all bases and I’ve got those experiences to call upon. I’ll just make sure I try and take as much from them to help me if I am to bat at three.”
England have yet to make a definite decision. They had plenty of time yesterday to mull over that and other matters – such as whether they play two spinners – when their flight from Alice Springs to Adelaide was delayed by six hours. It was another little thing going wrong on a tour where lots of little and too many big things have gone wrong.
The break in the central outback may have been good for them, though the two-day match also did not go according to plan, with only Gary Ballance scoring a fifty. Of the eight wickets England took, seven of them fell to the spin of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, giving them a morsel of food for thought amid the batting order summit.
Ian Bell, though willing anywhere, has long sought a move back to No 3. The last time he was specifically picked to bat there he made 235. That was at The Oval in the second of two Tests in which he replaced the injured Jonathan Trott against India in 2011.
The position has become suddenly vacant because poor Trott has left the Ashes tour with a stress-related illness. He is a difficult act to follow. England will not lightly discard Bell’s obvious claims.
He restated them on Saturday evening in Alice Springs after England finished their two-day match against a Chairman’s XI without looking especially convincing at any point. “We’ve spoken about it and while we’re lucky enough to have a number of options I’ve put my hand up,” Bell said.It can be taken that he will be disappointed when his application is rejected. Bell will feel he has unfinished business as an Ashes No 3. It never quite worked out for him in 2006-07 when his 10 innings brought him 330 runs.
Bell is a different player now but England will turn to Root primarily for two reasons. Of the 185 men to have batted at first drop for England – 56 of them had only one innings there, filling in for illness or as nightwatchmen – only Hammond with 3,440 runs has scored more than Trott’s 3,109. It is measure of the task facing the next man.
If Bell were to take over, it would mean that England would almost certainly move up Root from six to five and bring in a new No 6. Chopping and changing might be flexible but it is also the hallmark of a team which knows where it wants to go but is not sure how to get there (see Australia last summer).
Moving Root up would at least keep the middle-order engine room of Kevin Pietersen and Bell together at four and five. Root also brings the virtues of an opening batsman to the role. There are pleasant precedents for England of picking in the first three batting positions men who are all openers by trade.
In 1970-71, Geoff Boycott and Brian Luckhurst opened the batting, while John Edrich (with whom Boycott opened in 21 other Tests) went in at three. It worked splendidly, with each of them averaging over 50 and contributing two hundreds. In 2005, Andrew Strauss opened the batting with Marcus Trescothick while Michael Vaughan, who had made a golden reputation as Test opener, went in at three. It was not quite so overwhelmingly triumphant a ploy as 35 years previously but England still won the Ashes.
If it will now look a makeshift arrangement, it could just work. Much, maybe everything now, will depend on the senior triumvirate: Alastair Cook, Bell and Pietersen. At least of two of them must function at the peak of their form from here on and anything from elsewhere will be gratefully received.