Slack batting equals fragile grip on urn

Western Australia 242-8 dec &amp; 109-1 England 223-8 dec <i>(W. Aus. lead by 128 runs with 9 wkts left)</i>: England's failures with the willow are real cause for concern as Ashes are only 18 days away
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The Independent Online

In the assessment, nay the carefree promotion, of England's chances in the Ashes, a crucial factor may have been overlooked. The batting is decidedly dodgy. Not useless perhaps, not (yet) a cause for despair, but not either a creature of solidity or trust.

England's batsmen are like the banks. We have been led to believe that we should put our faith in them for no good reason when their fragility seems obvious. This much was again evident in England's first innings of the tour yesterday against Western Australia.

Against bowling that was acceptable but hardly menacing, on a friendly surface in pleasant conditions, they came and went. They got in and got out. Like many English batting exhibitions of the past 18 months, it was not good enough. More than a crumb of comfort, however, can be taken from the fact that Australia themselves are in such turmoil, having lost seven matches on the spin, and with the entire countryseemingly gripped by Ashes fear.

Yesterday, England were taken to respectability by Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, who were both in swashbuckling mode, a condition for which they never need any second invitation. Broad's formidable century at Lord's last summer against Pakistan has raised expectations. There is an authentic batsman trying to emerge.

They had put on 64 much as they pleased in six exhilarating overs when the tourists, looking for something from the match, declared 19 runs behind. England did not make the most effective use of the new ball in the last session.

It may come as a small surprise, if not a cataclysmic shock, to learn that the England batsmen who will try to retain the Ashes beginning in three weeks are more or less those who failed to do so last time. Five of the top six in Brisbane on 25 November will be the players who strode out at the Gabba four years ago.

Of the batsmen on duty in Australia, Jonathan Trott has broken through into the inner core, with Eoin Morgan on the sidelines. In the four years since England lost 5-0 to Australia, most of the batting has been entrustedto the same quintet. Alastair Cook has played in all of England's 46 Test matches since then, Andrew Strauss in 44, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood in 43, and Ian Bell, who was briefly dropped, in 34.

Only Michael Vaughan, now retired, Ravi Bopara, who spurned a golden opportunity, and Owais Shah, never truly trusted, have come and gone. Morgan, given a chance last summer and scorer of a glittering hundred against Pakistan at Trent Bridge, looks certain to make way for Bell at the start of this series.

In the four years that have passed since they made a mess of defending the Ashes, the batsmen have by and large repaid selectorial faith. But they have been on the verge recently of taking advantage of it.

Last summer, in conditions that were bowler-friendly but never perilous, England made more than 500 once, against wide-eyed Bangladesh on a flat Lord's pitch, and more than 400 once, also at Lord's, when Trott and Broad engineered a world-record eighth-wicket partnership to rescue the side from 106 for 7.

All England's main batters average more than 40, none averages above 50. It was disappointing that they flattered to deceive yesterday. Cook had already gone the previous day and Strauss departed in the day's second over, drawn again outside off stump.

The nightwatchman Jimmy Anderson soon followed, which left the stage to Trott and Kevin Pietersen. There was nothing to trouble them. Trott scratched about a bit, but that is characteristic; he was not about to go anywhere. Pietersen looked dashing.

The clatter of wickets was distressing. Trott's essayed cut was caught behind at the second attempt; Collingwood drove high to gully; Pietersen, beginning to dominate, miscued his drive lower to the same area; Matt Prior drove fecklessly to short extra cover. There was no need for any of these dismissals.

For a while, Bell looked in lovely touch, his off-the-mark shot being a thumped straight drive for six. It was a surprise when after an hour his cut flew off an edge to slip.

These warm-up games must be taken seriously, as England have promised to do, but not too seriously. Everything is geared to the Gabba on 25 November. But the batsmen did not set a noble example yesterday. It was enough to leave a lurking worry about their shortcomings.