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England un-Ballanced by batting reshuffle

19 July 2017
Our voices

A broken finger rules under-fire Gary Ballance out of third Test against South Africa and could have serious repercussions for England's Ashes preparations


Chris Stocks is a freelance cricket writer based in London. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent and London Evening Standard.

As Gary Ballance prepared to see a hand surgeon on Tuesday evening, it's fair to say there wasn't the same sense of gnarled anguish among the English sporting public as when David Beckham broke his metatarsal on the eve of the 2002 football World Cup.

Back then, one downmarket tabloid newspaper printed a prayer mat and urged readers to will the former Manchester United midfielder to a speedy recovery. It worked.

It's fair to say Ballance didn't get the same treatment after the news that the Morne Morkel delivery that struck him on the final day of England's abject second-Test defeat by South Africa had fractured his left index finger.

Indeed, a tweet from the official England Cricket account sent out not long after the Trent Bridge surrender stating Ballance was undergoing a scan was greeted with a string of replies from irate fans willing the Yorkshire batsman to be injured for next week's third Test at The Oval.

While such behaviour is obviously beyond the pale, it does at least tell you how unpopular the decision to recall Ballance for this series was.

Those keyboard warriors got their wish when Ballance was ruled out of the third Test today. It means England will have to make at least one enforced change to a batting line-up that appears far too flimsy four months out from an Ashes series.

Quick Single: England confirm Ballance finger break

Even if Ballance comes back for next month's fourth Test at Old Trafford – a possibility say England – it still seems inconceivable that either him or opener Keaton Jennings, who is also under pressure, will still be in the team by the time the first Ashes Test starts at the Gabba in November.

Root rolled by a piece of Morris magic

The shape of things to come was hinted at by Trevor Bayliss, England's Australian coach, after Trent Bridge when he spoke of two potential batsmen who are being considered for selection for the third Test.

"The last selection meeting we had before this series started, players like [Mark] Stoneman and [Tom Westley] were spoken about at length. Obviously, also [Haseeb] Hameed, who is a little out of form this year. So those types of guys, they are on the edge."

One of Stoneman or Westley appear certain to be named in the squad for The Oval when it announced on either Friday or Saturday.

Mark Stoneman scored 58 and 86 against South Africa A recently // Getty

Dawid Malan, the Middlesex batsman who has averaged above 40 for the past four seasons and made a fine 78 on his international T20 debut against South Africa at Cardiff last month, is also understood to be in the mix.

What we know then is that England's batting line-up is almost certain to be much changed for the Ashes later this year.

But what could it actually look like?

Well, in Alastair Cook, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali there are four players who, barring injury, will definitely be in the XI come Brisbane.

Yet I envisage Moeen dropping back down to the No8 position where he operated so successfully during the 2015 Ashes, even if that would grate Bayliss, who said after the Nottingham Test: "The one I'd be concerned about the most is Mo. As a batter, I'd have the shits having to bat No8.

"To be honest, if we need eight batters, it's almost a waste, isn't it, having eight batters in the team? We played with that against Australia and it was successful because Mo as a batter at No.8 scored a few runs. In a way, that's papering over the cracks a little, it's saying we're not confident with our batting line-up."

The thing is, though, England aren't confident over their batting line-up because they've made the wrong selections time and time again.

For example, Jennings is Cook's 11th opening partner since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in September 2012.

'It's absolute chaos': Hussain calls for re-think

That problem pre-dates Bayliss but it still persists.

For Australian fans there is good and bad news. England's current batting problems means they will be forced to make radical changes ahead of the Ashes. Yet it appears likely those changes won't be made in time to give those that come in adequate time to find their feet at Test level.

Hameed, if he can find some form at the back end of the northern summer, looks locked in to return to the team. Expect to see him in Brisbane. Australia's bowlers would be advised to work him over with the short ball. Conditions won't suit him as much as India, where he made his debut last November and excelled in the three Tests he played before injuring a hand. He is the long-term pick, though, and England should go with him.

Stoneman, who averages 58.54 since his move from Durham to Surrey in the English winter, will probably be at No.3 or No.4 come the Ashes depending on whether Joe Root digs his heels in over not wanting to bat at first drop.

If Ballance is out of the picture then Essex's Westley, who scored a brilliant hundred against the Australians in a tour match before the 2015 Ashes, will be at five.

Tom Westley scores ton against touring Australians

That would see Bairstow and Stokes at six and seven and Moeen back down to eight.

It's a deep batting line-up for sure but one that might need more than three home matches against the West Indies, the finale to the northern Test summer, to prepare itself for the challenge of an Ashes series.

2017-18 International Fixtures:

Men's Ashes Series

First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets

Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets

Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Join the ACF

Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets

Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets

ODI Series v England

First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets

Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets

Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets

Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets

Fifth ODI WACA Ground, January 28. Join the ACF

Prime Minister's XI

PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets

T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series

First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets

Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets

Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets

Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14

Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16

Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18

Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21