Rain in London may well help Australia hold on their 1-0 Ashes lead but it can’t obscure the dire state of their opening partnership.
While David Warner is struggling to re-adapt to Tests, his opening partner Cameron Bancroft is having his technique picked apart by the English quicks, who did the same thing in the 2017-18 Ashes.
Leading into this series, England’s opening combination shaped as their biggest weakness. They had churned through endless failed openers and were now picking a white ball specialist in Jason Roy to pair with Rory Burns, who had averaged 22 in his first seven Tests and looked well short of Test standard.
Australia, by comparison, were in the enviable position of choosing between four openers whose claims for selection varied from very strong to solid.
Depending on your viewpoint, it either seemed like a luxury or a mistake that they were able to leave both Joe Burns and Marcus Harris out of their starting XI at Edgbaston.
Burns averaged 40 from his 16 Tests and had four Tests tons in his kit, including 180 in his last Test. Harris, meanwhile, had made an okay start to his Test career, averaging 33 from six matches, and was coming off one of the most dominant Sheffield Shield campaigns of the past decade, with 1,188 runs at 70.
Bancroft pipped them both, though. This was due to his hot county form, having made 513 runs at 73 in his last four matches for Durham, as well as his gritty 93* on a minefield against an attack of Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle in Australia’s last practice match.
I agreed with Bancroft’s selection. I felt his surging form, together with having acclimatised to English conditions in county cricket, made him the safest option. While I did not expect him to pile up runs in this Ashes I thought he could do a role, that he could blunt the new ball well while Warner attacked.
That has not been the case. Bancroft’s batting is a mess right now. During the last Ashes, he joked during a press conference that he had the “heaviest head” in the West Australian squad.
Perhaps that’s why he’s overbalancing to the offside constantly.
This is causing two major glitches in his technique. The first is that his lack of balance is forcing him to reach around his front pad to access deliveries directed at the stumps.
This contributed to his downfall last night as he was trapped LBW by Jofra Archer for a painful 13 from 66 balls, giving him a total of 28 runs from three knocks so far in this series.
The second major issue stemming from his head position is the angle in which his bat is arcing towards the ball.
Even in peak form, Bancroft’s bat tends to swing through from the line of first slip. But right now this angle is even more pronounced, such that Bancroft is not showing the full face of the bat in defence but rather half of it, at best, as his blade swings across, almost like a windscreen wiper.
This is not a sustainable technique. Good form masks some of Bancroft’s flaws, but right now he looks a long way from discovering touch.
If he fails again in the second innings here, Australia will need to consider whether they give him one more Test to get back on his feet, or make a tough call and dump him for Harris for the third Test.
It isn’t helping Bancroft, either, that Warner hasn’t fired a shot. Historically, opening the batting in Tests with Warner has been a privilege, with his partner benefiting greatly from the pressure he places on new ball bowlers with his brilliant belligerence.
While Warner belts the quicks off their line and length his partner gets to cruise along in his slipstream.
Yet after a terrific World Cup, during which he made three tons and averaged 72, Warner has had zero influence on this Ashes to date. With scores of 2, 8 and 3, Warner is being bossed by England’s veteran seamer Stuart Broad, who has dismissed him all three times.
The left hander has been batting well out of his crease in an attempt to smother the lateral movement offered by the Dukes ball. This hasn’t worked. Broad’s around-the-wicket approach has flummoxed Warner.
By angling the ball in towards Warner, and then getting the odd delivery to swing or seam away, Broad has opened up his defence.
The Aussie clearly fears getting beaten on both the inside and outside edges and so has gone into his shell. As much as many Aussie fans have yearned for Warner to rein in his aggression across his Test career, he undoubtedly is at his best when he is putting pressure back on the bowlers.
Stonewalling has never been and likely never will be his strength. When quicks are able to work him over with a clear plan, and he’s doing nothing to make them think, Warner is a sitting duck.
If he cannot regain his confidence, and begin making Broad feel some heat, then it’s hard to see how he can have a big series from here on out. That’s not to suggest Warner needs to start trying to blast the England bowlers, rather that he’s not the same batsman when he’s allowing the opposition to dictate terms.
Bancroft, by comparison, has no choice. Terms will be dictated to him for the foreseeable future, based on his current form. If Warner can rediscover some of his old menace that may just ease the pressure on both of these faltering Aussie openers.