Who should bat at No 6 for England is a hardier perennial than the geranium robustum. Many have been planted in recent years and few have bloomed. It must sometimes have felt to Andy Flower, the team’s coach, that he is digging in the wrong garden.
The last official No 6 to score a hundred was Eoin Morgan at Trent Bridge in July 2010, 42 Test matches ago. The No 6s’ collective average in that time is 31.09, which might be acceptable if an all-rounder were filling the berth, but in these days of six specialist batsmen, four bowlers and a wicketkeeper it barely cuts it.
The opening has been created again by the departure from the Ashes tour of England’s steadfast No 3 Jonathan Trott with a stress-related illness. The strong feeling is that one of the others, probably Joe Root, will move to three, leaving the vacancy lower down.
Nine players have been picked at six since Morgan made his hundred. In the improbable setting of Traeger Park, Alice Springs, the latest contenders strutted their stuff on the first day of a two-day game.
How they performed against the unsung players who made up the bulk of the Cricket Chairman’s XI (and it is difficult to imagine the estimable Wally Edwards burning the midnight oil as he mulled over the selection conundrums) was perhaps not the overriding issue but it was a factor.
There was a clue about selectorial thinking in the batting order. The three candidates lined up thus: Gary Ballance at three, Ben Stokes at five, Jonny Bairstow at seven. If it seemed perverse that none of the potential No 6s was actually batting at six, it was of no import. The line-up meant that Ballance was being given first dibs.
He was also the most successful of the trio on yet another day of this tour which did not go England’s way. That all three realistic aspirants batted was at least something, but a total of 212 for 7 declared from 78 overs did not represent batting riches for a team so desperately short of Test match runs. The conditions were tricky, in temperatures which approached 40C, but not that tricky.
Ballance, portlier than is usual for international batsmen these days, made 55 before being run out in a yes-no interlude with England’s captain for the match, Ian Bell. Stokes scored 28 before clipping firmly off the face of the bat to short leg, where the sharp chance was snaffled. Bairstow was unbeaten on 31 and played busily, as he invariably does.
The favourite is 24-year-old Ballance, Zimbabwean born and raised, and a nephew of Dave Houghton, scorer of the country’s highest Test innings. Last summer he was the leading run-scorer in the First Division of the Championship, hitting six first-class hundreds. He is burlier than his uncle, has a biffing back-foot game and ignored being beaten a few times. The word is that he has plenty of important supporters.
He needed runs because in three previous innings for England (a one-day international and two of the warm-up games on this tour) he had made a grand total of four runs. A hundred might have been the clincher for him.
“It’s a been a long month working hard in the nets,” Ballance said. “So just to be able to bat for a few hours out in the middle gives me some confidence, so that if I do get picked I think I’ll be ready.”
Stokes would seem to be his main rival, the places in the batting order probably replicating the pecking order. He unfurled some firm-footed drives in his innings which did not all bring justifiable reward on a well-grassed outfield. There has been rain hereabouts lately.
For no publicly announced reason, Bairstow, who started the last Ashes series at No 6, appears to have slipped down the list of desirables. Maybe it is felt that a bottom-handed method and a tendency to aim across the line can take you so far and no farther.
England, put into bat, would have preferred more runs, or at least to have lost fewer wickets.
In every way, this was a few cricketing planets away from what they confronted in Brisbane last week and what they will face in Adelaide next week.
The welcome in Alice Springs could hardly have been warmer or friendlier. The local paper, The Advocate, has produced a special wraparound containing a photograph of Alastair Cook, the England captain, surrounded by admiring local females of all ages.
The Chairman’s XI (or XII, strictly speaking, since the whole squad is taking part in the match with either bat or ball) have played some, not much, first-class cricket. Simon Mackin of Western Australia, who took two wickets, has played none.
Both his victims, Matt Prior and Bell, were caught behind by the 16-year-old wicketkeeper Jake Doran. The second was a sharp chance to Doran’s right as the ball died on him.
Prior, who is not keeping wicket in this match, made a bustling 19. His lack of runs is becoming a deep concern.
It would have been hard to guess it from the affable atmosphere, a small-town big occasion. But there is plenty else for England to worry about as well.