England’s top order finds a way to fire

England secured their first overseas whitewash since 1963 in Colombo, defeating Sri Lanka 3-0. In doing so, they’ve answered some lingering questions which have hung over the side, notably around the top order batting and some of the fielding.

Jonny Bairstow made a century in his first innings batting at three. Can he be a long term solution to a problem position for England?

England sought to attack with the bat from the off and it looked like it might be a familiar tale of top order woe after the first innings in Galle, with England finding themselves 103/5 and relying, once more, on the lower order prowess of Sam Curran with the bat. It was all so familiar after a summer of batting discontent.

Curran was joined by his Surrey teammate, Ben Foakes, who contributed a debut century from number seven, but the lower order positivity was counterbalanced by the continued failing of those up the order.

But England found a way. The much maligned opener, Keaton Jennings found a much needed century in the second innings at Galle, with a half century from Ben Stokes at five. Onto Galle and the captain, Joe Root found a century of his own, with fifties from Rory Burns and Jos Buttler to supplement his efforts.

Then in the final Test, Jonny Bairstow was thrown in at three and responded with a century of his own – his first without the wicket keeping gloves. There were further half centuries for Stokes and Buttler, too.

Nine Englishmen passed 100 runs for the series, with four of those passing 200. Ben Foakes led the way in the series with 277 runs at 69.25. He scooped the Man of the Series award for his efforts and his inclusion has answered a dilemma that England were facing around the wicket keeping spot, following a summer in which Bairstow and Buttler both kept wicket. Foakes wasn’t included in the original squad but immediately looked at ease in tricky conditions. I’ll try and do another blog on this topic as there’s a lot more to add.

Do these performances definitively answer the long-term questions around England’s batting? No, but you can only judge this series on this series and the improvement from the summer in the top order output is notable.

Jennings still has questions to answer about how he copes against quality seam bowling. The West Indies series is massive for him. As it is for Burns, who looked good enough as Alastair Cook’s replacement but will need to find a big score in the Caribbean to nail down his place.

The question of number three continues to vex England. Moeen Ali, Stokes, Jennings and Bairstow all had a go during this series, highlighting the uncertainty around who should bat there. Bairstow’s century was the most encouraging performance and he at least provides a short-term answer to who should bat there, with the opportunity to make the spot his own. He needs to take it, too, since it’s difficult to envisage him being first choice keeper again unless Foakes suffers an injury.

Root has, surely, put to bed any conversation over where he should be batting. There has been a clear desire to see him bat three, but equally as clear has been his discomfort in batting first drop. He has as many centuries batting four in his last four Tests as he does in his entire career at three.

Stokes made steady contributions to the cause, albeit with one innings coming at three in the shortest lived of experiments. A century eluded him, but his contributions were consistent and useful. His ability with the ball, too, means he is one of the most important cogs in this machine.

Buttler, too, found consistency and showed admirable adaptability in his approach, using the sweep and his feet to good effect. His recall to the side can only be considered a success at this juncture, but like Jennings, there are still questions over how he will fare against quality seam bowling. That said, it would surely make sense at this juncture to bat Buttler at five and Stokes at six, to make the best use of their talents. Stokes will also face higher bowling workloads than he did here, so the extra rest could come in handy.

So, England’s batsmen have at least moved in the right direction during this series. They showed tremendous adaptability too, with premeditated plans to sweep and reverse sweep paying dividends, as well as positive use of the feet to counter the amount of spin bowling they were facing.

These tricks, however, are unlikely to carry long term benefits when the conditions move away from so heavily favouring spin bowling, so adaptability will again be the order of the day going forward. Finding a method of achieving a series whitewash in Asia should not be underplayed though – this is a tremendous achievement from a side that has shown plenty of fragility in recent times.

After the tour of the Caribbean in early 2019, there is a home Ashes series followed by away tours to New Zealand and South Africa. These series will present very different and arguably tougher challenges, but the early signs are at least encouraging. This series has represented a major step forward for England’s Test team.

By Miles Reucroft

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