Eyes on Keaton Jennings and Moeen Ali as England look for answers

George DobellSenior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo6 Minute Read

Root explains Bairstow, Moeen decisions

Joe Root reveals why Jonny Bairstow will pick up the gloves again, and why Moeen Ali will bat at three for England

Like mentioning at a wedding that these things tend to end in death or divorce, it seems churlish to point out the realities of England's situation at The Oval.

They have beaten the No. 1 rated Test side in the series, after all.

And, inevitably, this match will be, in part, a celebration of the remarkable career of Alastair Cook. It would be understandable if there were a sense of satisfaction around the England camp.

But it would be a mistake if that was the only focus. For England end this home international season with as many questions to answer as they had at the start of it.

Perhaps not since 1982, when Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch and Wayne Larkins - all of whom had opened the batting in Tests in recent months - went on a rebel tour, has there been such uncertainty over England's opening partnership. They remain unclear over their first-choice spinner, their first-choice keeper, their batting order, their slip cordon, their choice of No. 3 or how to accommodate all their allrounders and in what order. And, gnawing away all the time, is the realisation that, sooner or later, they are going to have to find a succession plan to deal with life after James Anderson.

The men with the most to prove at The Oval are probably Keaton Jennings and, with the bat at least, Moeen Ali. Averaging just 19.87 in five Tests since his recall to the side, Jennings can count himself highly fortunate to have retained his place. Particularly as one of his rivals, Rory Burns, passed 1000 Championship runs in a season earlier this week - he is the only man to have achieved the milestone this season - and could have been given a debut on his home ground.

But Jennings did look more secure in the second innings in Southampton - he was finally beaten by a brute of a ball that scuttled along the pitch - and has been given one more chance to prove his value. England openers of a previous generation - the likes of John Stephenson (one Test in 1989), Hugh Morris (three Tests in 1991), Steve James (two Tests in 1998), Graeme Fowler (whose last four Test innings were 49, 201, 2 and 69) to name four of many - could be forgiven for wishing they had such opportunities.

"Keaton has a great opportunity this week to show everyone how good he is," Joe Root said. "It's been a very challenging summer for batsmen. I thought the way he played in the second innings was brilliant. Hopefully he can take confidence from that and really lay down a marker now."

Root did make it clear, though, that "we've not looked part this series" in terms of selection, so Jennings will know this may well be his final chance.

Moeen's challenge is different. Having largely re-established his credentials as a bowler with a nine-wicket haul in Southampton, he has now been given another chance to establish himself as a top-order batsman. With Ishant Sharma - something of a nightmare to left-hand batsmen - in the opposition, he will have his work cut out to make a success of it, but it would solve many of England's problems if they could accommodate one of their allrounders in the top-order. The sense persists, though, that Moeen has again been asked to accommodate what is best for others rather than given a chance to do what is best for him. He currently averages 12.25 from five Tests (eight innings) in the top three.

"Moeen has performed exceptionally well for Worcestershire in that position," Root said. "It gets the best out of him as an all-round cricketer. It's just for this game at the moment. We'll make a decision about Sri Lanka at the end of the series. No. 4 is my preferred position, but I don't think anything is written in stone."

Jonny Bairstow's stump goes cartwheelingGetty Images

There will be scrutiny, too, on Adil Rashid. For all the talk that he has become irrelevant, however, he has taken seven wickets in the series - including that of Virat Kohli - at an average of 32.42 apiece. It doesn't compare too badly with Ravi Ashwin's 11 at 32.72. It would be a surprise if Rashid is not among the spinners in the Sri Lanka tour party. Moeen and Jack Leach will surely join him.

England may, at least, have gone some way to ending the uncertainty over the keeping position by their stance for this game. In making it clear that Jonny Bairstow was to remain the Test keeper and Jos Buttler the limited-overs keeper, the team management should have reassured both men while also reducing the chances of either suffering burn-out. It seems a sensible solution.

"Jonny has had the gloves for a long time and done exceptionally well for a good period of that time," Root said. "I think he deserves the opportunity to keep wicket in Test cricket. I also think Jos has done exactly the same in white ball cricket.

"So why mess with something that has worked so well for so long?

"You look at the scheduling of all international cricket across the formats and sharing that workload could be really key in terms of keeping everyone fresh and ready and at the top of their game."

It was, however, largely a problem of their own making. While Bairstow would accept that he had to relinquish the gloves to Buttler for the Ageas Bowl Test - he had a broken finger - he seems to have become unsettled by the talk around the decision. He was, in particular, disturbed to hear Root offering no guarantees of their return once he recovered and disturbed to hear his coach, Trevor Bayliss, suggest that "it always helps to have a vice-captain standing behind the stumps" so they can offer tactical advice; Buttler is England's vice-captain. Bayliss also name-checked Ben Foakes, who is clearly an outstanding keeper, as another viable option.

Nobody's position in professional sport can be guaranteed. It is always dependent upon performance. But it seems unnecessary - and contrary to their policy toward other positions - to have talked up the precariousness of Bairstow's role. The ethos of continuity of selection has been developed to ensure players feel as valued, relaxed and comfortable as possible in the high-pressure world of professional sport. To show such patience in Jennings, for example, but undermine Bairstow so publically seems an oddly inconsistent piece of management.

So Bairstow's unease was probably understandable. He has worked hard on his keeping since coming back to the side in 2014 and has improved out of all recognition from the nadir of the South Africa tour. It would be odd for England to make such an investment and then make a change just as it started to pay off.

But there may be more to it than that. Many allrounders feel that having two strings to their bow allows them to relax and perform to their best. So any suggestion that he could lose the gloves might leave Bairstow feeling vulnerable in the side and far more tense than has been the case in recent months.

Belatedly there seems to have been some recognition that Bairstow - like everyone else in the side - required a balance of motivation and reassurance in his role. Every player is on trial every time they go out to play, but it probably doesn't help to remind them of the fact.

England have lots of holes to fill and lots of questions to answer. Picking at an area that seems to be working pretty well is an unnecessary distraction.