England v India: 'Hosts have four number sixes when they need top-order batsmen'

By Jonathan AgnewBBC cricket correspondent

Sam Curran is playing only his fourth Test, but he is becoming used to digging England out of trouble.

In his 78 on the first day of the fourth Test against India at Southampton, an innings that dragged England from 86-6 to 246 all out, he once again looked like an accomplished, confident young player.

I wrote during the first Test, when Curran played a similar knock in the second innings to set England on their way to victory, that I liked his temperament.

He seems like he relishes being in situations where the team need him stand up and pull them through. That is certainly what England required on Thursday.

The Surrey all-rounder is only 20 years old, so probably has not had the opportunity to experience any doubts of his own ability just yet. He is certainly playing like a man free of negative thoughts.

On a day when the ball nipped around, I cannot remember a time when Curran was beaten. His movement was excellent, he was tight and light on his feet and he had the audacity to take on off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. It was a brilliant innings.

The confidence that Curran showed was everything that some of his team-mates are currently lacking. He is a bit of a free spirit who just goes out and plays the game.

There was some discontent from England fans when Curran was left out of the side for the third Test at Trent Bridge in favour of the in-form Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes, who had just been cleared of affray.

In reality, that decision from the selectors was sound, but Curran is giving them a harder one to make when Woakes recovers from the quad problem that has ruled him out of this game.

I am not sure what the answer will be, but it is very difficult to see how Curran gets left out again.

There will be times when he will struggle, but he is looking more and more like a player who can be pushed up to number six and act as a fourth seamer.

England have four number sixes

Strangely, though, that in itself is a problem for an England side that already have enough number sixes.

It could be argued that Jonny Bairstow, Stokes, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali are all best suited to batting at six. In this game, Bairstow has found himself at number four, Stokes at five, with Buttler and Moeen behind them.

Having so many all-rounders providing plenty of depth and options can be a great strength, but the long-standing issues around England's batting, which showed themselves again in Southampton, centre around an excess of free-scoring players.

There is abundance of lower-middle-order players when England are in desperate need of specialist batsmen.

Yes, all-rounders can make telling contributions with the bat but, in general, they play with greater freedom because batting is only one part of their game.

That collective freedom is one of the reasons for all of England's collapses. Time and again they find themselves four wickets down or worse with less than 100 runs on the board.

In Southampton, the ball did a little for the India pace bowlers and, when that is the case, you have to have a tight defensive technique. We have said for so long that is something missing from England's batting - and it was exposed again here.

Without a number of established middle-order batsmen putting their hands up in the County Championship, I am not sure what the answer is. England cannot move the likes of Bairstow, Stokes or Buttler because, at the moment, there is no one better to take their places.

Jennings' mind looks a mess

However, one person now under real pressure is Keaton Jennings. The opener was already short of runs before he was dismissed in a horrible fashion by Jasprit Bumrah.

It is fair to say that it was a lovely piece of bowling by Bumrah, moving the ball back into a left-hander who was clearly determined to leave as many deliveries as he could.

But Jennings playing no stroke to a ball that would have hit middle and leg stumps did not look great. It was the dismissal of someone whose mind is a mess.

His place in the side looks incredibly vulnerable and he may well be playing for his international future in the second innings.

Before he gets that chance, England will hope to replicate the performance of India, who were outstanding with the ball in the early part of the first day.

Because of the movement enjoyed by the tourists, you would fancy England to bowl well when they take a ball that is only four overs old on Friday morning.

Still, India will be the happier of the two teams, even if Curran has given the home side a chance of dragging themselves back into contention.

Jonathan Agnew was speaking to BBC Sport's Stephan Shemilt.

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