The answer, I would suggest, goes something like this.
We have two batsmen – and only two – who are capable of scoring runs consistently: Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow.
Both, some would say, are out of position, with Root at number four (the best player often bats at three to better dictate/influence) and Bairstow at seven (surely too low for a player of his skill).
A personal preference would be for Root to bat three and Bairstow four, thus bringing the two Yorkshiremen together to give the top-four a more solid look, while they have often batted well in tandem for their county and sharpen each other’s competitive edge.
To those who fear that it would be too much for Bairstow to bat four and keep wicket, or that he should be relieved of the gloves to play as a specialist batsman, something I would be firmly against, I would say only this – try him at four before discarding the idea.
Should it indeed prove that the demands are too great, Bairstow could drop down to five – the lowest position I feel he should bat. But there is a flaky look to the top-order at present, with openers Alastair Cook and Mark Stoneman struggling and with James Vince yet to persuade at three, where Root, of course, would rather not bat.
Some say that Cook should be dropped (take out his double hundred against Australia at Melbourne and he has scored only 155 runs in 12 Test innings this winter), but I would urge caution.
Apart from Root and Bairstow, and Ben Stokes on the reddest of red-letter days, England do not have anybody else capable of scoring a Test double-hundred.
In the absence of compelling alternatives, I agree with those who say Cook should stay in the side and, within reason, choose the time of his own going. He is eminently capable of performing well in home conditions this summer against India and Pakistan, although must do so to keep justifying faith.
Perhaps I am biased, but I genuinely believe that Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth is good enough to come again as a Test opener, while Lancashire’s Haseeb Hameed also strikes me as a better option than Stoneman. However, like Vince, Stoneman may well get the chance to restate his claims in the summer Tests.
Bairstow’s form behind the stumps is exemplary, so there is no issue there, while his all-round ability effectively creates an extra place. Bowling-wise, however, England’s winter is best summed up by the following statistic: in the seven Tests, James Anderson and Stuart Broad took 47 wickets at 29, while the other bowlers took 34 between them at 72.
In other words, apart from the veteran pace pair, there has been a worrying lack of penetration from the England attack.
To a great extent, this explains why England are now winless in 13 away Tests after yesterday’s draw against New Zealand in Christchurch, their worst sequence on the road in the game’s history.
For all the progress England have made in white-ball cricket, the Test team have gone nowhere, perhaps even backwards. In some ways, of course, “it is what it is”; you can only work with the tools at your disposal.
England, in my view, have five outstanding players in Root, Bairstow, Stokes, Anderson and, when the mood takes him, Broad. Cook, on his day, is still capable, but the rest – like Stoneman, Vince and Dawid Malan – are arguably much of a muchness.
What England need to do is identify the players they want going forward and stick with them. Do they want a specialist spinner? If so, they should retain Jack Leach for the forthcoming summer.
It is no good jettisoning Leach, recalling Moeen Ali and finding yourself back to square one when you next go abroad; they already made a mess of handling Adil Rashid.
The planning must start now, with tough calls made on the likes of Stoneman and Vince, in particular, if they do not perform at the start of the summer – assuming, of course, they are given that chance.
Some are calling for the head of coach Trevor Bayliss, who is leaving after next year’s Ashes in any case. That situation is far from ideal, but, in the meantime, England might look again at whether they have the right pegs in the right holes.