Edgy England need Alastair Cook in form
Kevin Pietersen will be welcomed back but captain is key for a side whose batting is wobbling worryingly
England's batting is in a spot of bother. It is confused, hesitant, drifting, as though the black dog has descended on it. Most of all it is short of runs.
The stunning conclusion to the first Test against New Zealand could not conceal a malaise which has lasted on and off for 18 months. Bowled out for 232 in their first innings at Lord's, England's approach took caution and diffidence to a new level. The sight was never one for sore eyes.
The batsmen did not look at ease with themselves. It must be deeply perplexing for the batting coach, Graham Gooch.
The answer to their prayers appeared in the dressing room as the match reached its spectacular climax on Sunday. Kevin Pietersen's return, it would seem, cannot come soon enough.
If ever an innings was manufactured to show what it was missing it was England's first at Lord's, when they achieved the lowest scoring rate in terms of runs per over in a Test at the ground for 63 years and the lowest of all in runs per hour. It felt like it too.
Geoff Miller, the national selector, said when announcing an unchanged squad of 12 for the second Test, which begins in Leeds on Friday: "We are aware that there are still areas that we need to improve on and the players and coaches will be working hard ahead of the second Test to ensure we continue to get better as a side." He meant the batting.
Nick Compton and Jonny Bairstow, with eight and seven Test caps respectively, are the players under most immediate threat but it goes deeper than that.
England have stuttered since the start of their tour to the United Arab Emirates last year. Perhaps something in the desert sand has eaten deep into their batting souls.
The first innings frequently makes or breaks sides in Test matches. In the 19 that England have played since the start of that series against Pakistan, they have once scored above 500, five times above 400 and seven times under 300. Of those they have won five, three when scoring above 400.
In the 19 before that, when at times they could no wrong, they had one total above 700, one above 600, three above 500 and four above 450, the score from where it is extremely difficult to lose. They won 14 of those matches.
The difference in the aggregate of their first innings runs in these two periods is marked: 8,283 in the first, 5,950 in the second.
Before the first series of this summer began, Miller assessed the selection policy which, by and large, has served England so well in recent years. "Whoever is selected for whatever it is, they are selected on merit," he said. "It is not as though we are taking a gamble; we don't take gambles any more. They will be ready."
Yet, ready or not, most players need time fully to adjust to the demands of the big time. England's difficulties are mildly compounded by the style of their top three. Alastair Cook, Compton and Jonathan Trott are all largely one-paced players: grinders. This type is essential but each of them scores at under a run every two balls and this can seep down the order.
Unless there is an unforeseen squabble ahead, which can never be entirely ruled out, Pietersen will obviously come back into the fold if his knee injury permits. Although there is some scaremongering around, England are quietly optimistic that he will be ready by the third week of June.
Compton, so clearly desperate to succeed, is suffering not only because of his own form – his last four Test innings have brought 46 runs – but from the move to promote Joe Root to open. One day, Root will get the job but to elevate him after Leeds would be to start the Ashes with a brand new opening partnership. It would also be unfair to Compton, whose gritty hundreds in New Zealand appear already to have been forgotten.
If these are the main players involved, there is another. Ian Bell has had a lean time of it lately. Two important innings, one in Nagpur and one in Auckland, helped to secure draws in Test matches and will not be forgotten. But Bell can and should do more. In addition, Cook, has lost some of the early sheen which the captaincy bestowed.
That was inevitable since he could not sustain a sequence which brought him hundreds in each of his first five Tests as captain and another in his seventh. But his recent dismissals to New Zealand's left-arm swing bowlers have brought back old memories of his weaknesses in the area where the fourth or fifth stumps might be and Mitchell Starc, Australia's vibrant left-arm swing bowler, will be going through his drills.
The fuss is all about Pietersen's return but the player England really need in their hour of need is Cook.
Testing times: How six are faring
Test batting average since 1 Jan, 2013:
1. Matt Prior: 62.20 (7 innings) Overall test average: 44.35
2. Jonathan Trott: 53.85 (7) Overall: 49.95
3. Nick Compton: 37.57 (7) Overall: 36.23
4. Alastair Cook: 34.71 (7) Overall: 48.74
5. Ian Bell: 31.66 (7) Overall: 46.00
6. Joe Root: 28.42 (7) Overall: 36.50
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