Do England Have An ODI Batting Problem?
Jack Hope looks at England's ODI batting line-up, and asks what needs to change.
When Chris Silverwood stood down as England Head Coach rumours circulated in the game that some prospective candidates were not interested in the white ball job. As hard as that was to believe, there was a view that the team was on the decline, and it was going to get worse before it got better.
A few matches into the tenure of Matthew Mott and it looks as though that was a fairly prescient take. Firstly, the master of ceremonies, Eoin Morgan, hung up his spikes. Weeks later their vaunted batting line up was bowled out three times as they limped to a 2-1 series defeat against India. Then, the day after that series ended, their talisman, Ben Stokes, followed his ex-captain out of the door.
Surprisingly, given their ageing and permanently injury afflicted stable of bowlers, it is the batting side which is showing the most strain. With cracks starting to emerge from 1-7.
What’s going on here, why is this happening, and what can England do about it?
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Roy & Bairstow v The New Ball
The problems for England start at the top. Between 2015 and the end of 2019 England’s batters ruled the powerplay, scoring far faster than the second best team, and without losing noticeably more wickets. Then Kookaburra changed the ball, and the batters who ruled the powerplay suddenly didn’t.
The impact of this is observable across the global game. With bowling averages in the Powerplay taking a dive 2020 onwards versus 2015-19. Going from an average of 36.2 runs per dismissal pre-2020, to 33.8 since.
It is also possible here that the “go-hard” style of England’s openers leave them extra vulnerable to this change. A theory the numbers probably support, as both have been much easier to dismiss in the first 10 overs of an innings in the last two years, versus 2015-19.
Obviously here there are some sample size issues (the pair have played 18 and 16 matches in the 2020-22 period). They both also have a fair amount of credit in the bank. However, the situation is becoming a headache for the team, and if it persists they will either need to change tactics or players.
If they choose to mix up personnel then Phil Salt is an obvious option. A player who already seems to be an international quality opening batter. An alternative argument is that England need to re-evaluate their powerplay approach entirely. As bowlers receive more help from the new ball, should their batters view the first 10 overs as a spell to survive, rather than a spell to exploit?
Given the success of the 2015-19 period, writing that feels sacrilegious. But England cannot ignore that they are literally playing a different ball game. They cannot afford to be 60-3 every other game in the name of dogma.
England’s Middle Over Cruisers
Sadly for England there’s more bad news in the middle order. In the 2015-19 cycle Root, Stokes and Morgan plundered teams between the 10th and 35th over of matches (the traditional dull middle overs). All scoring at nearly a run a ball, and all doing so with relatively little risk.
In fact, to demonstrate how good they are, I went out of my way to compare them to the rest of the best. The English batters still come out looking great. Above are all batters at 3, 4 or 5, who faced 1000 balls between 2015-19, and played for a team who featured at the 2019 WC. The England batters are represented by the red diamonds. Stokes and Root feature in the top right quadrant, about as close as anyone came to Kohli (the farthest point on the right). And Morgan batting in the more dynamic position of number 5 also delivered during this phase of the game.
As further context, Bangladesh (Shakib and Mushfiqur), South Africa (du Plessis and de Villiers) and Pakistan (Azam and Hafeez) are the only other teams to have two qualifying batters who struck at more than 80 in this phase. England had 3 going at over 85, with extra-terrestrial balls per dismissal rates. That is incredible.
Sadly for them, two of those players no longer feature in the team. A scenario without an obvious answer, as the trio have completely dominated those positions for England for 7 years. Almost unbelievably, James Taylor has the fifth most appearances at 3, 4 or 5, for England since 2015!
Fourth on that list is Jos Buttler who has talked openly about stepping up to 5. Although he does get out more frequently than Root, Stokes or Morgan, he probably would at least partially solve the problem. Although they would then need to find a player to replace Jos Buttler - an unenviable challenge.
Dawid Malan may also be in the frame. He has built a fine body of work in a similar role across his List A and ODI career to date, but will be 36 at the next World Cup and may not be an ideal choice for Indian conditions. Alternatively, England could drop Bairstow to 4 and play Salt as an opener. Though it is doubtful they’ll want to mess with one of their greatest assets.
This leaves players from outside of the squad. Here again England are a little stuck. Thanks to COVID and a restructuring of the domestic calendar there aren’t any England players who have played meaningful domestic 50 over cricket for, quite literally, years. If this is the route they take, and it seems like they may have to, it is a proper “hope for the best” situation. Not ideal in the run up to a World Cup.
The Moeen / Livingstone Conundrum
I am overall less convinced that this is an issue, but towards the end of England’s batting line-up there is a lack of role clarity. The best examples of this are Moeen Ali and Livingstone who both basically do the same thing. Thriving towards the end of the innings, but struggling to make a serious impact when they come in earlier in an innings.
If we assume that the problems above mean that England are going to be less good at setting platforms for lower order hitters, then we must ask, do England actually need two hitters at 6 and 7? Particularly if their numbers 8 and 9 are likely to be highly capable of doing the job too.
Moeen at 7 provides a really interesting case study of what I mean here. He becomes more and more threatening the later he is batting in an innings, until he becomes one of the best batters in the world at the death. On the flip side, he is the worst number 7 in the world when batting before the 40th over, averaging only 20.4 in these situations (again, when compared with players from other 2019 WC qualifiers, since 2015).
When your top order averages over 200 runs before the fourth wicket falls, that isn’t a problem. I don’t think we can expect England to be able to do that any more. That means England might be left with a player who compounds rather than solves their top order issues.
As I said when opening this section, I am not completely sold that this is a huge problem. Livingstone and Moeen are good players. I am pretty certain though that the old 6/7 pairing of Moeen and Buttler was better, meaning it’s a third portion of England’s batting line-up where production is likely to fall.
If this remained a problem England may also hedge towards a player who offered greater stability, but less top end power. A player like Sam Billings could be used at 6 to extend their top order, making scores of 275 more likely, but scores of 325+ less likely.
Whilst this is a pessimistic take on England’s batting in the near future, it’s probably worth pointing out that many of these points are relative to the highest highs we’ve seen in the game. That said, the days when they dominated the entire batting innings may be over. The combination of playing conditions, personnel, and tactics that made it possible are not there in the same way they were between 2015-19.
Bairstow, Root and Buttler are all great players and I’m not predicting that England are going to dive down the rankings. Indeed, if England can find a bit of stability to replace Stokes, sort out Jason Roy one way or another, and clear up the roles of the players batting 6-8, they’d probably still have the best batting line-up in the world. Whether it will be strong enough to support whichever bowlers end up in India next year is a different question entirely.