<
>

Positional wranglings, on and off the field, leave England unbalanced and vulnerable

play
Dobell: 'Lazy' play from Bairstow not good enough (1:31)

George Dobell joins the Match Day team from Southampton, and slams Jonny Bairstow's batting (1:31)

If there was one moment that encapsulated the unsettled atmosphere that seems to pervade the England dressing-room at present, it was the sight of Moeen Ali walking out to bat at No. 3.

That's Moeen Ali who batted at No. 7 in the first innings. Moeen Ali who has batted everywhere between No. 1 and No. 9. Moeen Ali who always seems to be the man forced to accommodate the whims of others.

But it appears Joe Root has decided, mid-Test, that enough is enough. He has tried to bat at No. 3 this summer but, having averaged 28.54 in the position and failed to make a century in the six Tests, he has suddenly put his foot down and said 'no more'. So the England batting order that changed once again ahead of this Test changed once more midway through it.

The positive interpretation of this would be to suggest it marks the start of a more assertive period of captaincy from Root. And it is true that, on Friday, Root appeared to stamp his authority on proceedings when his senior bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, seemed to be setting the field without a great deal of concern for the thoughts of their captain. In the words of a member of the team management, Root has "taken one for the team" by agreeing to bat No. 3 (where he averages 40.47) for so long but is now insisting that he feels more comfortable at No. 4 (where he averages 52.45).

The less positive interpretation would be to suggest there is a certain amount of chaos in the England camp right now. With the opening batsmen failing to build the platforms required - to be fair to Keaton Jennings, he produced his most impressive innings for some time here and was eventually undone by one that kept horribly low - the middle-order are being exposed by fresh bowlers and a newish ball. England appear to be shuffling their cards by the day.

It might also be relevant that several of the team management appear to be considering jobs elsewhere. It appears Andy Flower spoke to Middlesex about a role there and was also interviewed for the role of national selector. It appears Mark Rampakash, the batting coach, is on the shortlist for the Middlesex coaching role. And it appears Paul Farbrace is considered for just about every coaching role that crops up in world cricket. The bowling coach, Chris Silverwood, and the fielding coach, Carl Hopkinson, are new and the contract of the head coach, Trevor Bayliss, ends in 12 months with it clear he has no intention of seeking an extension.

The result? Instability. The coaches don't know if they'll have a job next year so feel they have to look elsewhere, and the batsmen don't know where they'll be batting in the next innings. Few are comfortable, few are settled and few are fulfilling their promise.

Either way, it seems that Root went to the team management sometime between the end of England's first innings and the start of their second and said things had to change. And, in producing his highest score in six innings, he was well on his way to justifying the move when he was called for an unnecessarily sharp single. Jos Buttler might have made it. Jonny Bairstow might have made it. But Root, for all his strengths, lacks their pace and was, for the second time in the series, run out.

The benefit of Moeen's promotion was that it allowed the rest of the batting line-up to slip back into something like their normal position. Bairstow, however, is probably still higher than he'd like at No. 5 - the manner in which he pushes at the ball early in his innings is being exploited by bowlers increasingly often - and the thought persists that it is not where Root is batting that is key but how. If he worked on his technical faults - the propensity to fall towards the off side - he could probably bat in the top three without undue difficulty.

But these days batsmen seem to concern themselves more about confidence than competence and Root says he feels more comfortable at No. 4. As the team captain and team's best batsman, it makes sense to accommodate him.

Whether it makes sense to sacrifice Moeen in the process is less clear. He was informed on Friday that he would be batting at No. 3 and, as a top-order batsman in county cricket, he might be expected to be ready for such a challenge. He might, however, have benefited from some preparation time. Most batsmen want stability; Moeen is no exception.

"Stability is a key pillar in a lot of successful teams," Jos Buttler said at the end of play. "That's the golden egg of what every team is trying to get to."

Wherever these players bat, though, some of them simply have to bat better. If there was a shot that encapsulated the looseness that has taken hold of this side over the last few years, it was Bairstow's in the second innings here. Not for the first time, he attempted an airy push with bat well in front of pad. And, not for the first time, he was bowled as a consequence.

Bairstow is a fine, destructive player. But he is a fine destructive player coming in at No. 6 or No. 7. All five of his Test centuries have been made in those positions (three of them from No. 7) and whereas his aggression is a positive in ODI cricket, where the white kookaburra and perfect batting surfaces offer the bowlers little lateral movement, in Test cricket it is becoming a major weakness.

Nobody is asking him to turn into Chris Tavare or Geoff Boycott. But he has now been bowled eight times in his 18 most recent Test innings and he is in danger of squandering his substantial talent. An average of 37.79 is modest for one so able. He has to tighten up. He has to respect the bowlers more in the early stages of his innings. He has to learn from these repeated errors.

He could do a lot worse than look to the example of Ben Stokes. For the second Test in succession, Stokes demonstrated as good a defensive technique as anyone in the side in resisting for 110 deliveries. He still has a higher career strike-rate (runs per 100 balls) than Buttler, but he has shown an ability to adapt his game to respect the circumstances and the team's needs. If Bairstow is to fulfil his talent, he will need to do the same.

With Buttler apparently ambivalent about the wicketkeeping role, it makes sense to allow Bairstow to take back the gloves and bat him back at No.6 or No. 7. But with Moeen, Stokes, Buttler and, arguably Chris Woakes and Sam Curran, all pushing for those middle- to lower middle-order slots, England are left with an abundance of strength in that area and no answers for their problems in the top three.

One thing is for sure: Root does not want to bat there.