Alec Stewart column: England top three ready for Ashes

 

Second Test: England v New Zealand

  • Venue: Headingley
  • Dates: 24-28 May
  • Start time: 11:00 BST

Coverage: Ball-by-ball Test Match Special commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio 4 LW & via BBC Sport website, mobiles and BBC Sport app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website, mobiles and app

The first Test between England and New Zealand at Lord's turned out to be an amazing contest.

On the surface, when you look at the 170-run margin of victory for England in the first Test at Lord's, it gives the impression of a one-sided game, but in fact it ebbed and flowed throughout and was right in the balance before New Zealand's fourth-innings collapse.

If you analyse it more closely, it could be argued that of the 10 completed sessions, New Zealand won six and a half and England only three and a half, so there is evidence of room for improvement from Alastair Cook's side as we look ahead to the second Test at Headingley, starting on Friday.

The most obvious area to analyse is in the batting department where, admittedly in bowler-friendly conditions, England again failed to post a significant first-innings total.

Individually, no member of the top seven posted a century in either innings and only two batsmen - Joe Root and Jonathan Trott - made fifties.

Headingley heroics

Alec Stewart

I have some great memories of Headingley, where I scored 170 against Pakistan in 1996 and captained England to a series-clinching victory over South Africa in 1998.

The latter was a do-or-die Test match which turned out to be a thriller. In a low-scoring contest in seamer-friendly conditions ,we set them 219 to win. We got off to a great start and had them 27-5, but a partnership of 127 between Jonty Rhodes and Brian McMillan took the match into the final day with South Africa on 185-8.

The match could have been all over in two balls but a full house turned up to watch Angus Fraser and Darren Gough take the vital last two wickets to clinch our first series win over a major Test-playing nation in 13 years. It was a huge moment and one of the highlights of my career.

The rate of England's scoring has come under scrutiny with some critics suggesting that a top three of Nick Compton, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott is too one-paced and doesn't put enough pressure on the opposition bowlers.

Although I can understand the debate, my view is that England have chosen a strong and reliable top three and should certainly stick with it for the start of the Ashes series.

Cook and Trott have been outstanding for England and since Nick Compton has come into the side as former captain Andrew Strauss's replacement, he has done enough in his short Test career to suggest to me that he has what it takes at this level but will also be fully aware that he needs a run of big scores to silence his doubters.

The obvious alternative is to move Joe Root to the top of the order.

He will definitely end up opening for England but I would be loath to put him at the top of the order just yet. I would prefer to see him stay at five or six and develop his game at Test level some more before promoting him.

As for the batting as a whole, England's average first-innings total has dropped from 412 between the Ashes win of 2009 and beating India in 2011, to 322 in the period since then.

These figures are quite alarming, but you must take into account the fact that in that time they have played South Africa, who are the best team and have the best bowling attack in the world, as well as Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and New Zealand - all away.

With Strauss and Paul Collingwood having retired and Kevin Pietersen out injured, England currently have three players in their top six who have fewer than 20 Test caps between them.

When you bear that in mind, there are inevitably going to be inconsistencies in performance, but each player still has a responsibility to improve and develop his own game.

As has been shown in recent times, if you choose the right players and show patience with them it pays dividends.

The more time Root, Compton and Bairstow spend in the Test arena, the more likely they are to replicate their county form. They have all shown glimpses of what they are capable of; given time they can only get better.

On Daniel Vettori

On paper, the call-up of Daniel Vettori following a long-term Achilles injury, strengthens the New Zealand squad for Headingley - he is not only a top-class finger spinner with 360 Test wickets to his name, he also adds to the strength of their batting.

But in some ways, it looks a bit of a desperate decision because you are asking a guy who has just stepped off the plane to possibly play in a Test match for the first time since July last year.