Taylor the latest to fill problem role as England expect No 6 of the best

Debutant comes in with captain Strauss hailing 'proper batter who can play really long innings'

It is difficult to imagine there has been so much to-do about No 6 since Patrick McGoohan was up against it in The Prisoner more than 40 years ago. This number in the order has become the cult position almost to the degree that McGoohan's surreal series became a cult which has endured to this day.

This year, it has not been so much come in No 6 as get out No 6. James Taylor, the 22-year-old Nottinghamshire batsman who will make his debut in the second Test against South Africa at Headingley today, becomes the fifth occupant of the sixth batting place in the England side this year.

He is following a litany of failure. None of the sixth batsmen employed by England has made a hundred since Ian Bell in Sydney in the fifth Test of the last Ashes series in January 2011.

The highest score since then has been Eoin Morgan's 79 and that was in the first match afterwards in Cardiff against Sri Lanka. The last half-century was in the second Test against India. Since then, in 11 Test matches, Morgan, Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel and Jonny Bairstow have all had a bash and got nowhere.

In Patel's case he did not bat at No 6 but at seven in two matches in Sri Lanka – but had he made decent runs, promotion and semi-permanency might well have followed. It is getting beyond troublesome and is beginning to affect the whole basis on which England's side is selected – six batsmen, four bowlers and a wicketkeeper who bats.

There are probably several reasons for this catalogue of low scores. One is that England made almost too many runs at the top of the order last summer so that the sixth batting position was rendered virtually redundant. Conversely, another is that this year they have made so few runs at the top of the order that the pressure to contribute has been constant and found a few out.

As Andrew Strauss, England's captain, said yesterday: "You want to have a solid and consistent batting line-up and that No 6 position has been a bit of a problem for us, so James has an opportunity to fill it. I think what I like about him is that he bats higher up the order and averages really well in first-class cricket. His record stands up there with anyone's and we've got a proper batter at No 6 who can play really long innings."

All true – as it was, of course, of all the men who preceded Taylor. In each case they were selected because they batted solidly in the middle order for their counties.

In the cases of Morgan, who already has two Test match hundreds, Bairstow, who on reflection might have been promoted too soon, and Bopara, if the management means what it says, all can come again. But England need Taylor's runs now.

The sixth batsman has contributed less than five per cent of England's total this year since their trot of five defeats in nine matches began. If Taylor succeeds, it will be all too easy to say he should have had a go before now. Plenty of people thought so.

Strauss said: "James is just at the start of his career, but I think he's got an old head on young shoulders and he'll stand up well to any challenge he encounters."

For the moment the sixth batting spot has become a burden. It demands of the incumbent to follow McGoohan, be his own man and say: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered." Hundreds should ensue.

England's Colly-wobbles

How England's No 6 batsmen have fared since Paul Collingwood retired from Test cricket in January 2011:

Tests/Innings/Runs/Average

Ian Bell 2/2/166/166.0

Eoin Morgan 7/11/185/16.82

Matt Prior 4/5/150/30.0

Ravi Bopara 2/3/29/9.66

Jonny Bairstow 3/3/38/12.66

Research by Toby Harrison

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