Strauss loss of form has exposed the fault lines in England's batting

Click to follow
The Independent Online

On the eve of the third Test, Andrew Strauss might have been acting as a prophet. As captain of England, it comes with the job.

"We all have to deliver all the time," he said. "It just seems that there's always one batsman under the microscope, that's the way it is and it's a good test of character to have to go through it." He must have known as he spoke where the lens was preparing to move.

Strauss scored 15 and four at The Oval in a match England eventually lost by four wickets on Saturday – although only after Pakistan, panicked by the sight of the finishing straight, stumbled to the line. Since Alastair Cook, the previous resident of the slide, made a defiantly brave hundred in the second innings, it is the captain who now finds himself the object of rigorous scrutiny.

He has been short of runs and fluency for most of the summer and it has now reached a point where Strauss must score heavily in the fourth Test, starting at Lord's on Thursday, or travel to play in the Ashes in late October with Australians lining up to take a pop at a lame duck captain.

It would not be true, but the home supporters would hardly turn down the opportunity to let the Poms know exactly what they thought of their leader. It is their best-loved national sport after cricket and a distraction the leader could do without. England have named an unchanged squad for Lord's – Tim Bresnan on top of the starting XI. There is not only no inclination for anything else, there is no time.

If Strauss is the member of England's batting order most obviously out of form – it is 22 innings since his last hundred and he averages 33 in 16 innings since the triumphant Ashes campaign of last summer – he does not have exclusive squatting rights under the microscope. The harsh truth is that England have been lacking cohesion as a batting unit for most of this year.

This is partly because they have too often lost early wickets, putting the middle order under immediate pressure. Strauss and Cook are a mere 54 runs away from breaking the most cherished of all England Test records, the 3,249 runs shared for the first wicket by Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe between 1924 and 1930.

But since their scintillating 196-run stand against Australia at Lord's last July – when Strauss compiled that glorious 161 to seize the initiative from the first morning – they have opened together 22 times, only to be separated on 10 of those occasions before the total reached double figures. This happens against the new ball but it would be more acceptable if, on the other 12 occasions, they had accrued something substantial. They have not, as one century stand and only four others above 50 confirm.

It is true that the sporting pitches in England this summer have not helped openers and nor did the change in rules governing the use of the heavy roller benefit them in finding form in the County Championship. But the plain truth is that Strauss and Cook have lately not functioned as they should have. They are 2-1 on to overtake, though not surpass, Hobbs and Sutcliffe at Lord's. While it is a formidable effort, it took the holders of the record 38 innings to score their runs, whereas Strauss and Cook have already opened together 79 times.

The art of when to leave a delivery is crucial in seeing off the new ball. Pakistan's bowlers – the Mohammads, Asif and Aamer, who, together with the off-spinner Saeed Ajmal form an A-list to rival anything Hollywood can offer – are smart. They do not allow this stroke to be played as often as batsmen would like but there has still been too much pushing outside off-stump.

Strauss again finds himself struggling with his undeniable weakness against high-calibre left-arm swing bowling. In 2007, when India were in town, he was out five times in six innings to Zaheer Khan (four times) and RP Singh (once) for a top score of 55, which led directly to his being dropped for the first winter tour – before he saved his career at the last knockings against New Zealand in Napier the following March by making 177, batting at three, incidentally.

This summer, he has already been dismissed in five of his six innings to left-armers, four times to the wonderful Aamer, who was man of the match at The Oval, and once to the newcomer Wahab Riaz. This is a glaring weakness. Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger lie in wait this winter.

If the poor run of the opening pair has exposed the middle order too soon, it is clear that all is not well in this region either. Figures from this year's nine Test matches, going back to Cape Town in January, show that, Matthew Prior aside, four of the seven regular batsmen, six of whom play at any one time, average below 40.

Cook is one of the other trio but then he scored two centuries in Bangladesh – not dirt cheap, but also not encrusted with the jewels of Asia. Ian Bell, both absent and missed at present because of a foot injury, averages 71.50 this year, 65.36 since the end of the Ashes.

His putative rival for the number three position, Jonathan Trott, has a 2010 Test average of 46.40 and a double-hundred to boot, also against Bangladesh. But Trott is equally part of the problem. At The Oval he faced 130 balls in the second innings for his 36. In its way, it was admirably gritty, almost old-fashioned stuff but his hard graft was wasted when he carelessly got out.

There is the suspicion that Trott, possessed of some fine qualities, somehow plays himself out of form.

Then there are Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood and Eoin Morgan, all with difficulties of varying stripes. Is Pietersen ever going to be the player he was? Has Collingwood still got what it takes? Is Morgan yet a Test batsman? In all three cases, the answer is: "Maybe, maybe not."

Perhaps, as everybody else has, they all have an eye-and-a-half on Australia. It is the perennial folly of English cricket, to a point induced by the official policy of the England and Wales Cricket Board, that possession of the Ashes is always the ultimate goal.

Andy Flower, the team coach, is pragmatic about the recent collapses. In the seven Test matches last summer not involving Bangladesh, England have six times lost four wickets before reaching 120, which reinforces the need to play six batsmen.

"I think the first two pitches we played on in this series, at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston, were very tricky surfaces," Flower said. "So they would have undoubtedly have contributed to the collapses that have happened. At The Oval, although we won the toss and batted, they were still quite trying conditions.

"In the second innings, there are no excuses whatsoever. We set up a brilliant platform through Cook and Trott and we underperformed poorly after that. Any batting collapse is concerning and there have been too many of them."

Similarly, batting coach Graham Gooch, against whom silly and uninformed criticism is being directed, said: "It is a concern. We dominated the first two Tests on bowler-friendly wickets, so maybe you are not expecting such big scores on those wickets, but it is something that needs to be addressed and is something the team has to put right with the cricket coming up."

Against this backdrop, it was intriguing to hear Pakistan's estimable captain, Salman Butt, question the incision of England's bowling. Asked innocently whether it had the wherewithal to topple Australia this winter, he expressed his doubts, pointing to the lack of swing and the different ball used in Australia. That lends another dimension to the winter's quest.

It was a big win for Pakistan, not least in the context of the appalling natural disaster in their country, a flood which shows no sign of abating. There is no doubt that, on Saturday, they were doing it for their people as much as themselves.

It was wonderful stuff. The most deserving team won and England have to stop thinking of Brisbane in November and concentrate entirely on Lord's on Thursday.