Ashes 2019: England Lord's batting 'like a Rubik's cube in the hands of a novice'
A second day at Lord's that was a first day and a troubling one for England that ended with a thrill: Jofra Archer, unleashed in Test cricket for the first time; Australia limping to 30-1, still 228 runs behind.
Archer brings excitement. Archer brings hope, and maybe more expectation than is fair for a man at the start of his international career.
England's batting, by contrast, continues to bring worry. It brings doubt, and it frequently brings new batsmen to the crease at a fair old lick.
There are problems at most places in the top six and they are both familiar to this team and more serious than in many years gone by. Not since 1950 has an England Test top order averaged fewer runs per dismissal. Not in many years of home Ashes series have there been so few established Test stars in close to their best nick.
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If it made the difference in the first Test at Edgbaston, along with the contrary indomitability of Steve Smith, it threatens to be the decisive factor in the outcome of the series.
To win Tests with low scores takes relentless bowling and capricious pitches. England have elements of the first but are yet to experience the second. If they do they may currently fear that Australia are better equipped to exploit them.
Maybe Jason Roy would be better off coming in at four or five than against the new ball. If you play the way he did on Thursday morning you can come in anywhere you like and have the same problems.
To his first ball he tried a wild swipe outside off. His second beat him all ends up. The third, a foot wide of off-stump and too high to trouble the bails, he pushed out at and was on his way, a ghastly micro-cameo that brought resigned groans from the capacity Lord's crowd.
Australia have a fine pace attack and Josh Hazlewood bowled beautifully in the first hour. But he and his team-mates were given openings and opportunities from too many English batsmen: Joe Root, trapped bang in front; Jos Buttler hanging his bat outside off; Joe Denly, driving with eager hands at a wide one that required circumspection and nicking off once more.
Rory Burns deserves credit for digging in. The catch that saw him off for 53 was a short-leg classic. Even he could have been gone on just 16, when Usman Khawaja spilled a routine pouch in the gully.
It meant, on a pitch that was doing a little but not enough to knock knees at this level, that England's partnerships were an indistinct outline rather than any sort of firm foundation: 0, 26, 66, 24, 20, 2.
The unflattering numbers did not end there. Denly this summer has been a man of pleasant starts and untimely ends. He gets going and he gets out. 23 and 10, 18 and 11, now another deceptive 30.
Root, England's most experienced batsman, the only one with a career Test average up close to 50, is down this year to just 28. Buttler is averaging 21.77 in Tests in 2019, the lowest numbers he has yet recorded in a calendar year.
Jonny Bairstow batted as well on Thursday afternoon as he has in Test cricket for some time, his half-century the difference between a poor total and one that may yet be competitive. He is still on a pretty chastening trot in Tests in 2019: 12, 30, 52, 14, 2, 0, 0, 8, 6, 52.
And so England's batting begins to resemble a Rubik's cube in the hands of a novice. You move one part and another goes wrong. You twist it this way to solve one puzzle and another problem presents itself.
Buttler is probably not a Test number five. He enjoyed that wonderful summer last year after being plucked from the IPL, averaging 46 across seven matches. Maybe that form will come back.
Yet that brief golden spell has to be set against a career Test average of 12 runs less. In 154 innings in first-class cricket he has just five hundreds.
Often in those he was batting lower, or will have run out of partners. But it does not suggest habitual accumulation, and his time at the crease since the World Cup ended does not suggest a man close to finding his form any time soon.
He is at five for the same reason that Root is being exposed to the new ball at three, that there are insufficient alternatives and few immediately obvious options.
Even in low-scoring summers of Ashes past there was a robustness to the England top order that is not yet obvious with this incarnation.
Four years ago Adam Lyth was failing to adjust to Test cricket and Gary Ballance was struggling to take one of his several chances. But there was Alastair Cook and there was Ian Bell, both of whom would finish their Test careers with batting averages above 40, who would make 55 Test centuries between them.
In 2013, a series England would win 3-0, you could add in Jonathan Trott (Test average 44, nine Test centuries) and a certain Kevin Pietersen (average of 47, 23 tons). You had a wicketkeeper in Matt Prior who finished his England career with a Test average of 40 and seven centuries.
2009? That lot plus Andrew Strauss, 21 Test tons. Paul Collingwood, Test average 40.
And on it goes: Marcus Trescothick at the top of the order in 2005, average 43, 14 centuries; Michael Vaughan at three, 18 centuries and an average of 41.
None of these teams were flawless. Comparisons to Roy, Denly and Burns are slightly unfair, in that the latter three are still new to the particular demands of batting at the highest level.
Yet it underscores the callowness and fragility of what underpins Root's campaign to win back the Ashes.
You look to county cricket and you see 23-year-old Dominic Sibley, scorer of 940 runs in Division One this summer at 62, including a double-hundred against Kent. There is Sam Northeast, 815 runs at 62 but yet to come close to an England call.
Beyond that it is the familiar and the tried already: Ravi Bopara, Ballance once again, both averaging over 55.
There is time for England to come good. We are three innings into a five-Test series. Batsmen can work out bowlers just as bowlers can work out batsmen.
But come good they must, if Root is to have any chance of winning the old urn back come the Oval and mid-September.