England and Australia openers under scrutiny amid Ashes uncertainty

Vic Marks at Headingley

Act III may bring some new protagonists. There are a few batsmen whose contributions have been akin to that of the second gravedigger in Hamlet. They are predominantly opening batsmen, with Rory Burns a glowing exception.

The Australian pair have failed to fire. There has been little chance for rabid English supporters to become hoarse while David Warner has been at the crease. He has accumulated 18 runs from 50 deliveries at an average of 4.50 per innings. Cameron Bancroft has hinted at greater permanency as he doggedly props forward and plays around his front pad but he has mustered 44 runs at 11.

On the English side the one-day cavaliers have also struggled. At the top, Jason Roy has 40 runs at an average of 10; down below Jos Buttler has 49 at 12.25. Of these batsmen Buttler has looked the most secure and at Lord’s his second‑innings 31 alongside Ben Stokes was critical. His strike rate in the series is an eyebrow-raising 29.51, which highlights an often delicious difference between one‑day international and Test cricket.

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Buttler, like Warner, has bridged the gap in the recent past. His overall record in this format is far from gobsmacking but respectable and there is scope to improve: he has 1,771 runs in 33 Tests at 34.05. But it is all new for Roy and somehow far more complicated than taking guard at the top of the order against a white ball.

The technical reasons are clear. The white ball does not swing as much; Roy’s role is to attack, to exploit the early gaps in the field and that suits him well; a few failures when playing an expansive game is an occupational hazard readily accepted. In ODI cricket the best place to bat is usually at the start of the innings. That rarely applies in Test cricket. Look at the struggles of Warner and Bancroft as well as England’s desperate, recent searches to find someone to bat there. The best bowlers are fresh, the ball swings, the nicks carry and the slip cordon is well-populated.

There is one other less tangible difference between playing Test and ODI cricket. A Test match takes so damn long, there is so much time to agonise – over a first-innings failure, a dropped catch – and there is so much scrutiny from the sages in their boxes. It all happens so rapidly in a one-day match, even if it is of 100 overs’ duration. Succeed or fail but you do not have all that time to mull over the latest cock-up. In that sense white-ball cricket is a less demanding proposition.

Especially for newcomers, a Test can be the most draining experience even if you bat for only half an hour and spend most of the time standing at second slip, which was Roy’s lot at Lord’s. Finally, on the fifth day, a chance comes along and it is dropped there and the replay is instantly visible on one of the big screens. You spend so much time waiting to atone in Test cricket. Roy is discovering the painful contrasts between the formats right now.

Joe Denly practises in the nets at Headingley. There is a case to be made for the Kent player to swap places in the order with Jason Roy. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

Provided he passes another concussion test on Thursday morning, Roy has his chance to break the barrier, after which Test cricket can become a far more comfortable experience. The assumption is that he will be opening the batting again but, bizarrely, this is not an absolute certainty.

It seems as if England have been fretting over their batting order for the past two years. Initially, the open disagreement between Trevor Bayliss and Joe Root over where the captain should bat felt like a healthy, public acknowledgement of a difference of opinion, which somehow reflected well on both parties. Yet now there is only one certainty in England’s upper order: Burns opens. After that there is considerable debate/disagreement among the coach, the captain, the odd player and the national selector. I’m not sure this is entirely healthy in the middle of an Ashes series. There may be a good case for swapping Joe Denly and Roy around, as outlined by Bayliss, but in the constant agonising this might be interpreted as preferential treatment for the Surrey man and unfair upon Denly.

It is more acceptable to shuffle bowling attacks around. However, it would be a surprise if England changed theirs at Headingley. Sam Curran is there and eager for the fray but there seems no justification for him replacing Chris Woakes, who has been bowling and batting well and was hardly overburdened in Australia’s second innings at Lord’s.

Australia have an enforced change to their team with Marnus Labuschagne as Steve Smith’s replacement at No 4. The expectation is that they may also juggle their bowling attack again with the possibility of James Pattinson returning to the side in place of Peter Siddle. Currently only Pat Cummins remains a banker among their pacemen, while Mitchell Starc, no doubt to his own bewilderment and dismay, is stuck on the sidelines.

Australia have a cunning plan for this campaign, which has control and containment trumping pace. So it seems as if an Australian defeat – or the Ashes retained – is a requirement for Starc to return. Just at the moment he might think ODI cricket is a simpler process as well.