Post-mortem (1): England's batsmen
In 2005, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss consistently got the innings of to a fine start, invariably attacking from the off. A top three consisting of Strauss, Cook and Bell were always going to seek to give England the advantage by batting time; but they have palpably failed to do that. Until their sixth innings of the series, England were always 50-2, or worse. As a result, the attacking axis at five, six and seven regularly came in with England struggling. Kevin Pietersen has majestically risen to the task, but Andrew Flintoff has seemed overburdened and Geraint Jones feeble.
Alistair Cook is a player of palpable quality, but he inevitably found an Ashes tour at 21 highly-challenging; however, his 116 at the WACA proves his worth and he will only improve. Andrew Strauss, thanks to some injudicious strokeplay and a trio of poor umpiring decisions, has failed to pass 50, although he has always appeared in fine form. Ian Bell has hit three fifties, displaying an increasing maturity and confidence, especially against Shane Warne, though his wait for an Ashes hundred continues.
Of 18 completed innings, England’s top three have only twice passed 60. Experience of Australian conditions, be it in the shape of the stylish batsmanship of Michael Vaughan, the technical class of Mark Ramprakash or the resilient qualities of Mark Butcher, has been badly missing; however, I do not think Trescothick's withdrawal was hugely significant. Given the ineffectualness of England’s fifth bowler, hindsight tells us that one of Butcher or Ramprakash should have played at three, Bell should have been moved to six, where he was so excellent against Pakistan, and Flintoff should have played at seven.
Paul Collingwood has displayed fighting qualities reminiscent of Butcher, and exceeded all expectations in making 200 at Adelaide. Nonetheless, the suspicion remains that the finest player, Pietersen, should be allowed to bat at four. Many were worried Pietersen would be unable to control his impetuosity, and would regularly be caught trying to hit sixes on the huge Australian outfields; instead, he has batted with wonderfully maturity and got the better of Warne and especially McGrath.
At six, Flintoff’s batting has been characterised by a lack of coherent thinking; until his second innings at the WACA, he was too tentative but was still dismissed to rash shots; it seems the captaincy has overwhelmed him. There was a time when he and Pietersen were considered roughly equal as batsmen; while Pietersen is fulfilling his talent, it touches the confines of lunacy to suggest Flintoff would even be considered as a batsman only – which proves he should not bat in the top six. His friend Jones has been reasonable with the gloves, but calamitous with the bat. He seems incapable of playing long, disciplined innings, and he should not be selected for England again.
There are a number of positives to take from England’s batting endeavours – Pietersen’s brilliance, Collingwood’s feistiness and genuine fight and application from Cook and Bell on occasions. Yet, they suffered one cataclysmic collapse in each Test and, from six onwards, the resistance was negligible. Duncan Fletcher, then, was right to be concerned about England’s tail. So why did he select non-bowling number eights Giles and Mahmood ahead of a sixth specialist batsman?