England in West Indies: How concerned should fans be by England's form?

Joe Root and James Anderson after England's series defeat by West Indies
England have lost two Tests in a series against West Indies for the first time since 1998

The ups and downs of the England Test team are enough to make even the strongest stomach nauseous.

From beating the world number ones to abject failure in the West Indies in the space of a few months.

Home dominance and travel sickness, all underpinned by a batting line-up more likely to disintegrate than a biscuit in a cup of tea.

Yes, skipper Joe Root has some incredibly talented players at his disposal and there is every chance that England could win the World Cup and the Ashes in the home summer.

But would that merely paper over cracks that are fast becoming chasms?

How worried should England fans be about the Test team?

Aren't England ranked third in the world?

Not for much longer. Regardless of the result of the third Test in the West Indies starting on Saturday, being hammered in the first two will see Root's men drop to fifth.

England's previous rise up the rankings (they were as high as second at the end of November) was built on a very strong home record - they have lost only one series in the UK in more than six years.

Their very recent results have been excellent. India, the world's best side, were beaten 4-1 last summer, a success that was followed by a 3-0 clean sweep in Sri Lanka.

Graphic showing the results of England's past six Test series
*England have one Test remaining in the current series in the West Indies

But the devil is in the detail.

England have fallen to a crushing defeat in one Test in three of their past four home series (South Africa at Trent Bridge in 2017, Pakistan at Lord's and India at Trent Bridge in 2018).

In the series against India and Sri Lanka, Root won the toss in all eight matches. In three of England's four wins over India, there were prolonged periods when it looked like the result would go against them. On top of that, the strength of a Sri Lanka side in transition is being exposed by the hammering they have taken in Australia.

When conditions are suited to their pace bowlers moving the ball sideways, there is perhaps no finer side in the world than England.

However, when the situation demands batting patience, application and determination, or the surface requires a different sort of pace bowling (faster, hit-the-pitch, like in the Caribbean), England are incredibly vulnerable.

So what's the problem?

Chiefly, runs.

Even in an era where Test run-scoring is in decline, England compare unfavourably to their rivals when it comes to posting big totals.

Only once since the beginning of 2018 have England gone past 400. From the top nine Test nations, only Sri Lanka have been so averse to going big.

Then, there are the collapses - the hide-behind-the-sofa, if-one-goes-they-could-all-go implosions that only ever seem one wicket away.

Read 58 all out against New Zealand in Auckland last March; 161 against India at Trent Bridge (when all 10 wickets fell in a single session); and 77 against West Indies in Barbados.

Indeed, the 16.06 runs scored per wicket lost that England have managed on the current tour of the Caribbean is their worst in any Test series for 131 years, going back to the 1888 Ashes.

England's self-destruct button gets pushed more often than a light switch.

Why is the batting in a mess?

On the surface, it can be argued that the players who have occupied or are presently occupying the England team either are not good enough or are underperforming.

Of the current top seven, only Root has a Test average above 40. Since the beginning of last year, just Tom Curran (one Test), Chris Woakes (four) and Ben Foakes (five) are averaging more than 40. None of that trio is a specialist batsman.

Looking deeper, though, England's woes come down to two problems that exacerbate each other.

One is a failure to settle on a stable and reliable top three, the other is an abundance of attacking batsmen being asked to fill roles to which they are not suited.

Alastair Cook spent the second half of his career looking for a regular opening partner and retired before he found one, with the problems at the top of the order now bleeding into the number three spot.

With Root preferring to bat at four, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow have been tried at three in England's past six Tests.

Ordinarily, the attacking strokeplay of that trio - and Jos Buttler, who has also become a regular in the side - would be a strength.

In an ideal world, none of those players would be any higher than number six. Instead, the majority of England's batting line-up is filled with players who would rather hit than grit their way out of trouble - and who look pretty silly when gifting their wicket away in a time of crisis.

There is a strong argument to say that these players should be able to adapt or improve their games and, in the short term, that is probably England's best hope of making big scores.

Ultimately, though, the real problems lie at the top. If England could fill the vacancies in the top three (and even at five), the dashers would be free to do what they do best.

So England need some new blood in the top three?

If only it were that simple.

Since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, England have tried 21 different batsmen in the top three, with one of those being the near-omnipresent Cook. Only three - Cook, Root and Gary Ballance - have averaged more than 40.

England have cycled through the options available to them in county cricket, sometimes returning to give discarded players another go.

In truth, and as the England hierarchy are aware, the cupboard is practically bare. Only two Englishmen who played more than 10 games in Division One of last season's County Championship averaged more than 50.

That pair, Surrey's Ollie Pope and Rory Burns, have found themselves in the England set-up, although it is too early to judge their Test credentials.

Joe Denly, given a debut at 32 to open with Burns in the second Test against the West Indies, averaged 34.50 for Kent in the second tier of the County Championship last summer.

There are numerous theories as to why county cricket is not producing Test-quality batsmen.

Recent scheduling of Championship matches at the bowler-friendly beginning and end of the season will be eased with a more even spread of matches in 2019, but the idea that too much emphasis is placed on limited-overs cricket will not be helped with the introduction of the new 100-ball competition in 2020.

It may be that England have to solve their batting problems from within the current set-up, because reinforcements from the domestic game are not forthcoming.

Having said that, if a county batsman - say, Nick Gubbins of Middlesex, Lancashire's Alex Davies or Joe Clarke from Nottinghamshire - piles on the runs in 2019, England might only be too happy to open the door for them.

Leading England-qualified run-scorers in County Championship 2018
*Trott retired in September 2018
Rory Burns281,35964.7115
James Hildreth341,08945.3710
Ian Bell361,02754.052118
Wayne Madsen351,01637.6220
Ollie Pope2198670.4212
Will Rhodes2397244.1820
James Vince2796240.08113
Daryl Mitchell3595736.8010
Jonathan Trott*3793546.75252
Ben Brown3091243.4220
Gary Ballance2990639.39123

The batting is bleak but everything else is fine, right?

Erm, yes and no.

As discussed, England's pace bowlers are masters of exploiting any sideways movement, but that assistance can be in short supply when they play away from home.

Even then, their two most skilful pace bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, with more than 1,000 Test wickets between them, are much nearer the end of their careers than the beginning. They will leave holes almost impossible to fill.

On top of that, England's catching remains patchy at best.

The positives? Moeen looks to be maturing into the frontline spinner England have long craved, while 20-year-old Sam Curran is an all-rounder of outstanding potential.

When everything clicks, England are a fine all-round side, packed with skill, variety and showmanship.

However, the suspicion is that they need a lot of things in their favour for the clicking to take place.

But at least Australia are in a mess...

Not as much as they were.

Yes, Australia were beaten at home by India and, admittedly, the runs they have piled on in the past couple of weeks have been against a weak Sri Lanka.

But exciting newcomers like Travis Head and Kurtis Patterson will soon be joined by Steve Smith and David Warner, whose ball-tampering bans come to an end in March.

In Jhye Richardson, they have a pace bowler seemingly suited to bowling in English conditions, joining the fearsome trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.

England have only two Tests in which to get their house in order before the Ashes begin on 1 August.

The time for concern has arrived.