Just when it looked like England’s opening act in Australia couldn’t get worse, it did. Batting mainstay Jonathan Trott announced that he was leaving the tour for an indefinite amount of time due to a stress related illness that the team had known about and managed for some time, however the problem had been exasperated by the South African born player’s poor performance in the first test in Brisbane and had become unmanageable. Although Trott struggled mightily in that game where his weakness against the short ball exploited ruthlessly by Aussie fast bowler Mitchell Johnson, his record in an England shirt demonstrates just how crucial he has been to their success in recent years. In 49 test matches Trott has averaged 46.45 with the bat while striking nine centuries, including an Ashes winning ton on debut at the Oval in 2009. A one day average of 51.25 confirms his undoubted skill, with nearly all of his runs for the three lions made from the previously problematic number three spot in the batting order.
Of course the main concern in this whole episode should be for Trott’s well being, and speaking for myself I wish him a speedy return to health. But I also don’t know enough about stress related illness to comment insightfully about the situation Trott has found himself in, with the extent of my knowledge on the subject restricted to Marcus Trescothick’s autobiography ‘Coming Back To Me’. So opposed a less than perfect examination of Trott’s mental state I’m going to focus on the tangible effect his departure will have on the England cricket team, who are currently reeling after being trounced by 381 runs this past weekend by Michael Clarke’s aggressive Australian outfit. Scores of 136 and 179 on a belting wicket will have embarrassed the England batsmen, rightfully so, and it’s now been 18 innings since the team passed 400 despite facing weak opposition such as New Zealand during that run. Trott, along with perhaps Alistair Cook, has been one of the rocks of the batting lineup in recent years and has helped sett the tone at the top of the order with not just centuries but the ‘Daddy tons’ which Graham Gooch preaches so earnestly to his disciples. What Trott lacks in flair he makes up for in substance, and he will be missed at first drop in the order even in spite of his current poor run of form.
The first question England coach Andy Flower must answer is who will replace Trott at number three in the lineup. Ian Bell has experience there for his country and following his stellar performances against Australia during the return series last summer he would be my preferred choice for the role. However rumblings in the press suggest that Flower is leaning towards Joe Root for the role, even though he was recently demoted from an opening berth and repositioned back at number six in the lineup. However Root’s less than impressive efforts against the new ball last summer should worry Flower, Gooch and company, for if the Aussies were to get an early breakthrough at Adelaide next week then they will surely smell blood and look to expose another weakness in the construction of England’s batting order. Perhaps the biggest problem the situation presents England with is the identity of the batsman who’d fill the middle order spot vacated by either Root or Bell. There are three choices, all of them less than appealing. Gary Ballance is yet to play in a test match and his scores in the warm up games were ordinary to say the least, all-rounder Ben Stokes is a novice at test level and his game with both bat and ball needs serious refinement, while Jonny Bairstow (my choice for the position) owns a mediocre test average of 30 over twelve games, suggesting he may not yet have the technique to compete at this level. Whomever England choose will have a lot to prove and while hindsight is 20/20 the decision to omit Nick Compton, who could slot straight in at three, from the squad could come back to haunt Flower and the tour selection panel.
At the risk of being pessimistic, following that first test dressing down the number three position is but one of many issues England need to address. Chris Tremlett displayed none of the pace and zip that made him such a success on England’s previous tour down under and in the second innings he was barely able to crack 80 miles per hour on the speed gun. While Tremlett took four wickets at the cost of 120 runs in the match he failed the eye test and if Tim Bresnan comes through the England Performance Program game starting tomorrow unscathed then he will almost certainly return to the team in Adelaide, replacing Surrey man Tremlett.
Another major worry for the visitors is the form of wicket keeper Matt Prior. The Sussex glove-man, like Trott and Cook, has been central to England’s success since Andy Flower took charge of the team in early 2009. However thanks to a calf strain picked up in the second warm up game he entered the Brisbane test thoroughly undercooked and it told with him being dismissed twice in poor fashion by Australian off-spinner Nathan Lyon. However to simply dismiss the Brisbane test as an aberration for Prior would be wrong. His last 15 scores stretching back to the start of the summer read as follows: 4, 0, 0*, 47, 0, 17, 30, 1*, 6, 31, 1, 4*, 39, 0, 0. In case you were wondering that’s an average of 15, and at 31 years of age it could be that Prior’s best days are in the rear view mirror. On a purely professional level Trott’s return home may have come at an opportune time for Prior, who could have seen his own place in the side come under scrutiny with more below par performances. However with Jonny Bairstow likely to replace Trott in the side Prior is as good as guaranteed his place for the rest of the series.
This isn’t to say Australia don’t have question marks of their own. Opener Chris Rogers and middle order batsman Steve Smith both failed to replicate their encouraging summer performances on the fast Gabba wicket. Mitchell Johnson remains unreliable and will maintain that designation until he produces consistent performances for an entire series. Johnson’s new ball partner Ryan Harris is an injury risk and could break down at any time. Yet the more I search for Australian weakness’s the more I feel as though I’m clutching at straws. England’s own problems are far more tangible and much easier to demonstrate with statistics. For example in six career test matches in Australia Graeme Swann has taken just 17 wickets at an average of 47.76. By contrast Australia’s own off-spinner Nathan Lyon has taken 40 wickets in 12 home test matches at an average of 31.82.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story and they don’t predict future performance. But they do give an indicator of what to expect based on past events. When you look at the above evidence there’s no denying England find themselves in a tricky situation, and the stats overwhelmingly suggest that they are a team in decline. But the same could have been said after the Ahmedabad debacle in India last year. On that occasion England came back from a disastrous first test to prevail 2-1 against all the odds. The same could well happen this time round. Unfortunately for England lightning seldom strikes twice.