ONE OF the flies in the ointment – or bedbugs in the hotel room – as England gear towards this summer’s Ashes is the fragile nature of their opening batsmen.
Like the average football manager, neither Rory Burns nor Keaton Jennings possess the air of permanence, the pair continuing to stumble along unconvincingly towards what their supporters must fear is the inevitable axe.
In seven Test innings Burns has managed only 157 runs at 22.42, while Jennings has mustered just 736 runs in 29 innings at 26.28.
The high numbers of Sir Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss feel almost as distant as those of Sir Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe; this perennial problem, it seems, is not going away.
On the second day of the Barbados Test, a day when England’s batting bombed collectively as they collapsed to 77 in reply to 289 before West Indies reached 127-6 after choosing not to enforce the follow-on (themselves collapsing from 52-0 to 61-5), the tone was set by opening batsmen scrambling from one low score to the next.
England cannot keep expecting the rest of their batting to bail them out, as it so often does, and this was one of those rare times when it did not, the tourists crashing to 49-7 during a dramatic afternoon as Kemar Roach took 5-17 from 11 overs.
Considering that England have won eight of their previous nine Tests, including a 4-1 triumph over No 1 India, it is as well to keep the collapse in perspective, just as it is wise to keep in proportion any proclivity towards proclaiming England as the finished article.
Granted there was no excuse for some of the shots played in the face of some high-class bowling, intelligent and inventive as opposed to just devastatingly quick in the best West Indian tradition, but the reliable core of England’s batting is entitled to the occasional off-day, even if this was at the more X-rated end of the off-day spectrum.
If only the off-days of the opening batsmen were occasional, however.
Ever since Strauss retired in 2012 England have struggled to replace his consistent returns alongside Cook, who has himself now joined the ranks of ex-Test players.
Why, England have tried so many opening batsmen in the intervening period that it is almost easier to list those who have not been invited to drink from the poisoned chalice, a reflection not so much of an embarrassment of riches as an absence of alternatives.
At the same time the selectors had a right to expect more from the many who have been tried, tested and ultimately jettisoned, just as they have a right to expect more from the present incumbents, who already have that sitting-duck look about them with faces that betray their inner demons.
The fact that Jennings’s 17 was the highest score of England’s innings was an utterly perverse statistic that should not mask the most pressing problem with the England line-up.
His dismissal, the first of the innings, was the catalyst for a dire combined team effort that evoked memories of England’s infamous showings at Trinidad in 1994 (46 all out) and at Jamaica in 2009 (51 all out).
Having actually played well to reach 17 (he has got to double figures in 16 of his last 20 innings, but only once reached fifty), Jennings skewed a half volley to gully as he tried to drive Jason Holder through the offside.
Earlier in the over, he had driven Holder to the cover boundary only for the West Indies’ captain to tempt him by pitching the ball up further still, resulting in Jennings’s eyes growing wider to fatal effect.
Departing with an angry swing of his bat, as though trying to scatter a swarm of flies, it is vultures rather than insects that are encircling Jennings, who looks so stiff at the crease that he might benefit from a spray of WD-40.
Burns was a tad unlucky, playing on as he defended to Roach straight after lunch, but the shot was limp and lacking conviction. Jonny Bairstow was even more unfortunate, playing on to Roach when the ball struck his elbow, while the rest fell in a blur of misjudgments, rash strokes and West Indian supremacy.
Stuart Broad, whose pace bowling partner James Anderson earlier completed his 27th five-wicket haul in Tests, equalling Sir Ian Botham’s English record, was given the day off by the England management, having been left out of the side following unconnected reports that he had been bitten by bedbugs at the team hotel.
The hotel was said to be considering legal action after the allegations made by the BBC, which added to the surreal nature of events in this fixture so far.