When the Ashes series concluded last week, England’s victory in the final Test match meant that the series was drawn two all. But do we realise how rare a result this is in Ashes history?
Some of the headlines after the second Ashes Test would lead you to believe that Australia are not 1-0 ahead in the series.
I get it, change is sexy. There is also little more that elevates a player’s standing then watching the incumbent struggle. The tribulations of Warner and Bancroft benefit players like Joe Burns and Marcus Harris because they have their reputations bolstered without having to do anything as challenging as face a single delivery.
As much as Warner and Bancroft are struggling, it may be better for players like Burns and Harris to stay on the sidelines for the rest of the series. I realise that may seem strange, but opening in England is as hard as batting gets.
In the last few years, England have been able to consistently rely on high quality new-ball bowlers, primarily James Anderson and Stuart Broad. In this series they are also able to trot out the overqualified back-ups of Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer.
In addition, the low cloud and damp weather often found in English conditions tend to favour new-ball bowling. Lastly, the Dukes ball used in England has a slightly more pronounced seam than the more commonly used Kookaburra ball, which lends itself towards increased movement and swing early in the innings.
To indicate how difficult opening the batting is in England, I have calculated the percentage difference between the average top-order partnership and the opening partnership for the last five years in each host country.
As you may expect, the opening partnership performs worse than the average top-order partnership in all countries. After all, opening the batting is hard.
But in countries like South Africa, Bangladesh, UAE and Australia, the openers perform about 5-10% worse than the rest of their batting colleagues. The biggest difference (equal with Sri Lanka) can be found in England, where opening partnerships perform 20% worse than the average top-order partnership.
However, those stats only tell part of the story. Over those past five years, I also looked at the average opening partnership in the first, second and third Test matches of a series.
In the first Test of a series, openers have an average partnership of 21.8. In the second, it rises to 30 and by the time of the third Test, it has risen further to 34 runs per partnership.
These results suggest that openers improve over the course of a series. It makes sense that any batsman, let alone an opener, will become more comfortable with both the opposition and the conditions if given enough of a chance.
As such, if we accept that Warner and Bancroft were the correct choices to open the batting at the start of the series, then it also follows that they should be given a significant chance to reach that level of comfort and improve accordingly. If either Burns or Harris were to be selected, it would be throwing them fresh into a very difficult situation and expecting better results.
There are genuine concerns about Bancroft and Warner’s respective techniques, as outlined by Ronan O’Connell on The Roar. Yet there are also clear flaws in the techniques of their potential replacements, which mirror the incumbents.
Burns has a Bancroft-like tendency to play across his front pad early in his innings, which also makes him an early target for LBW. Harris is not dissimilar to Warner in that his aggressive intent can result in him seeking to feel bat on ball early, which renders him a high risk for edges into the cordon.
For Bancroft at least, there are small signs that he is improving. In the second innings he may have only scored 13 runs, but more importantly, he survived 66 vital deliveries and helped blunt the new ball before he was unluckily dismissed by a skidder from Jack Leach. The primary job of an opener is to survive the new ball and not expose his middle-order colleagues and Bancroft achieved that in difficult circumstances.
There are less encouraging signs for Warner, but don’t forget we aren’t far from a World Cup in which Warner was Australia’s top scorer at an average of 71. Yes, one-day cricket is a different ball game (and that may be part of the issue), but Warner has shown an ability to score runs in English conditions against strong attacks. That ability has not disappeared and it is worth trusting in Warner that he will demonstrate this skill before the series is out.
This is not the first time that I have argued against making changes in a Test team. It is better to drop a player one game too late rather than one too early, because a team is a delicate ecosystem made up of numerous moving parts and changing those parts can impact the balance of the team in ways which may not be easily seen from the outside.
For example, Bancroft is Australia’s bat-pad fielder of choice and has been doing an excellent job. If he’s removed from the team, someone else may have to fulfill that generally unwanted role. This may put that theoretical player out of their comfort zone and impact their approach to the game.
Lastly, Australia should be mindful of recent history when it comes to making wholesale changes to this team. Back in November 2016, following a terrible loss in Hobart to South Africa, Australia made four changes. Joe Mennie, Peter Nevill, Joe Burns and Adam Voges were replaced in the squad by Matthew Wade, Matt Renshaw, Nic Maddinson, Peter Handscomb, Jackson Bird and Chadd Sayers.
Outside of Matthew Wade, the common factor to all of those players is that they are not currently in the team, and Wade had to take a circuitous path to get back. In the end, the dropped players have struggled to make their way back into contention, while the replacements were not necessarily an improvement.
If Warner and Bancroft’s troubles continue, there will be a time when their removal will be justified. That time is not now.
Despite their flaws, Australia have been playing good cricket and a show of faith in these two is a statement of confidence in the team and may help push Australia to retaining the Ashes.