Graham Gooch offers up a staunch defence of the batsmen

Batting coach insists players are still 'best in England' and that Strauss has full backing

Galle

As England spent yesterday contemplating yet again what might have been they also took the opportunity to circle the wagons. This reaction is perfectly normal for sides who sense the winds of change are gathering strength and in its way is both logical and understandable.

It has the two-fold effect of bringing everybody closer together inside the camp (or preventing anybody else seeing that they are at each other's throats) while keeping at bay those who would seek to disrupt and undermine it from outside. The undoubted intention is to be left alone to get on with it because everything will come right in the end. There is a hint of desperation about it, the last days of empire.

The points that Graham Gooch, England's batting coach, made yesterday were that the captain, Andrew Strauss, still has the unwavering support and devotion of his team and that the players remain the best available.

The first of those assertions seems to have solid evidence, the second is much more debatable.

England have lost four Tests this winter because of their frailties against spin bowling on slow, turning pitches. The latest and perhaps most disappointing defeat was by 75 runs in the first Test against Sri Lanka on Thursday.

The tourists' wretched first-innings total of 193 followed efforts against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates of 192, 327 and 141. Only once, then, have they been adequate in the first innings all winter and in that match, in Abu Dhabi, they were bowled out for 72 in the second.

Gooch, whose first tour this is as England's permanent batting coach, offered a touching and pertinent defence of 35-year-old Strauss. He understands the stresses of being opening batsman and captain. Twenty years ago his tenure started to unravel on the sub-continent in a sequence when England lost seven consecutive Tests, three in India, one in Sri Lanka. By the following summer he resigned.

"I firmly believe that Andrew Strauss is one of the best two openers in England, along with Alastair Cook," said Gooch. "He has been a vast contributor to winning Tests, not just with his captaincy but with the bat for England.

"He is having a lean patch in Test cricket. I don't think he is out of form, he scored a good hundred in the practice match last week. I don't see a guy who is near retirement, a guy who wants to give it away, I see a guy with fierce determination and discipline to be successful in Test cricket. Every player goes through a bad patch, you've got to hold your nerve and keep your self-belief."

Strauss has scored only one hundred for England in his last 48 innings and, though he frequently passes 20, as he twice did in the Galle defeat, his batting average has plummeted. Still above 42 in his career, it is 32 since his wonderful 161 in the defeat of Australia at Lord's in 2009.

He has appeared in 44 Test wins, more than any other England player. As captain, he has led the team to 21 victories, a number bettered only by Michael Vaughan, who orchestrated 26 wins. Strauss's winning ratio remains a healthy 48.84 per cent, greater than all but five captains who have led England in at least 10 matches, and behind only Vaughan and Mike Brearley in the last 78 years.

But the juxtaposition of poor results and lack of runs has created an inevitable debate. Suddenly, Strauss's unspoken desire to go after the 2013-14 Ashes in Australia seems a long, long time away. But Gooch was unequivocal in his support and his reasoning that Strauss continues to have the team's backing. There was no suggestion that his position was other than secure.

"Absolutely, not a thought about it," said Gooch. "All those guys firmly believe in him and are right behind him and we as management are as well. Andrew Strauss has been a great leader and a great anchor for the England side and I hope he remains like that.

"This is the last phase of his career; when you get to his age you can't say you've got 15 years ahead of you. He wants to be successful, to be in that England side contributing on merit as a batsman and when you're an opening batsman you dictate terms. You are up front there. You can set the tone. I will restate: I see in his eyes every day a guy who wants that success for the England side. I don't see a guy contemplating retirement."

Strauss still has reserves of credit, though the present run is eating into them, like the millionaire who starts lighting his cigars with £50 notes. But if Strauss is secure for the moment, it makes it much more difficult to leave out any of the other batsmen.

The received opinion has come to be that if this bunch of batsmen are still in the team when England go to India for a four-Test series later this year, the upshot will be just as catastrophic. Gooch sees things rather differently, perhaps not least because, like many others, he is not certain about the readiness of the next generation.

"I don't think it's a blip because we've not been equal to the task put in front of us about scoring enough runs against that type of bowling," he said. "All I can say about the players we've got is they've served us very well and I've got confidence they have the ability to score runs against all kinds of bowling. Yes, they have to improve because that's the area we've been deficient in the last four matches. If you're saying, come India, the whole team is going out and a new team is coming in, that's not the way forward in my opinion."

What seems astonishing is that England did not realise they had such weaknesses. It seems only now that they understand them and are addressing them. Only last month was Gooch made full-time.

"It takes time; some people pick it up quicker than others," Gooch added. "It is mindset as much as anything else. It has to be developed and what I see is players working furiously hard to improve that in a short space of time."

The question arises that if they do not do so by the time of the second Test, which starts in Colombo on Tuesday, what then?

Bresnan back in frame as injured broad goes home

Injury caught up with Stuart Broad again yesterday as his tour of Sri Lanka came to an end. Although he had overcome a sprained ankle to play in the first Test, a right calf strain means he will miss the second, which begins in Colombo on Tuesday.

Broad flew home yesterday for assessment, and his chances of taking part in the Indian Premier League must be slim. He has a $400,000 (£250,000) deal with King's XI Punjab and had been due to go to India for the tournament after the second Test ended.

With a long programme of international cricket ahead, England will be anxious that Broad does nothing to aggravate the damage. In the last 18 months he has had a sequence of injuries, which have forced him to miss matches.

A torn abdomen forced him out of last winter's Ashes series after two matches and this was followed by elbow and shoulder injuries, which marred the start to his tenure as captain of England's Twenty20 side.

England will not summon a replacement for Broad, whose place in the Test side is likely to be taken by Tim Bresnan. The other option will be to include Steve Finn, but Bresnan's batting enhances his claims.

Stephen Brenkley

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