By Rob McHugh @mchughr @TLE_Sport
Despite all of the problems of the winter, it was a huge relief to see England back in white shirts playing test cricket again. The series against the West Indies offers the whole team the opportunity to start a new chapter and leave behind the litany of problems they faced in a winter of discontent.
To a certain extent, England had a strong start to their prolonged run of test cricket by ending day one on 341-5 against a competent, yet depleted, West Indies team. There was a time in the morning though that everything appeared very different.
England currently have what I believe to be their strongest middle order for several years. In the days of Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss, there was always a question over the troublesome number 6 position, with players such as Ravi Bopara, Eoin Morgan and Jonny Bairstow coming and going without ever successfully making the spot their own. Even at the high point of England’s recent success – the victorious 2010/11 Ashes winning team – had a fading Paul Collingwood in the middle order in his final series.
But yesterday England’s middle order showed what potential it has and why it is going to be crucial for England to answer other pressing questions before New Zealand and Australia arrive on English shores in the summer.
At number four, Ian Bell has been the lynchpin of the England batting order for several years. His magnificent century on day one of the first test was slow to begin with in tough conditions before blossoming towards the end of the day. Joe Root, at five, bristled with competitive spirit and looks like he relishes any challenge which is thrown before him. Even a bad back (perhaps from carrying the weight of English expectations at such a young age…) could not stop him as he appeared to breeze towards a century, before being dismissed 17 runs short.
Then enter Ben Stokes, England’s one bright light from the shameful Ashes whitewash in 2013/14, whose unbeaten 71 proved a timely reminder of why England should be building their team around him for years to come. Stokes is one of the most electrifying players England has produced for a generation, and he can give England the balance the team has lacked since Andrew Flintoff’s retirement. Add in the qualities that Jos Buttler brings as an attacking number 7 and England have a middle order of real potential.
But England cannot rely on their middle order to save the day every time they walk out to bat. At 34-3 on the first morning, England were in serious trouble of being out of the game in the first session. Alastair Cook has lost his confidence, and even his most ardent backers (of which I confess to being) must be questioning how long he can go on for. Jonathan Trott’s return was always meant to be a safe bet, as he has been relied upon to score big for England in the past. But one must think he needs a big score early into his return to make the opening slot his own with the hugely talented Adam Lyth waiting in the wings.
Gary Ballance just needs time to find his way in international cricket. He was hung out to dry over the winter after being parachuted into the team with no preparation, and it looks like this has affected him psychologically. The selectors need to hold their nerve and resist temptation to drop him if he has a bad run, as he showed last summer what a talented player he is. Under no circumstances, barring injury, should he be dropped and Trott moved to bat at 3 as this would be a short term step which could ruin the confidence of an immense talent. However, unless England find a top 3 who are scoring consistently, they will remain vulnerable when the big tests arrive in the English summer.