England’s reliance on Joe Root and Alastair Cook is becoming ridiculous – it is time someone else stepped up

 

It is the fashion for an England player to kiss the badge of three lions on his helmet. At Lord’s Pakistan’s Misbah ul-Haq did his famous press-ups, while Azhar Ali sank to his knees and pressed his forehead to the turf at Taunton and Hove in the warm-up games.

Whichever way he chooses to celebrate, the first batsman to score a century in the third Test will shape the outcome of this series which stands at 1-1. A century means that he has mastered all the bowling, that he is king for the day and tomorrow’s headline.

If it is an England batsman who scores this match-defining century, the crowd will raise the roof on the Hollies Stand which runs along the bank of the River Rea. England’s captain, Alastair Cook, did not offer a reason on Tuesday for what makes Edgbaston such an inspiring ground, but one is the volume generated by the best part of 10,000 voices in the most patriotic stand in English cricket.

Australia, this time last year, were put to flight as much by the crowd as James Anderson. The Australian batsmen were used to being roared on at home, not roared at by 25,000 people.

The second reason why Edgbaston has been such a successful venue for England is that it is a swinging ground on a cloudy day when juice lurks in the pitch – which there is bound to be at the start of this match after it spent Tuesday under the covers. Swing and seam movement, enhanced by the ground’s new and higher stands, are what English bowlers specialise in.

Hence no Asian team have won a Test at Edgbaston. Six of the nine biggest Test wicket-takers here have been English outswing bowlers, from Fred Trueman and James Anderson to Sir Ian Botham and Matthew Hoggard. Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes on his home ground: England should have an attack of the right type and calibre whether Steven Finn, on his recall, bowls like a dream or drain.

A special cheer may be added to the roar if a century is scored by an England specialist batsman other than Cook or Joe Root – an ironic one. It is becoming ridiculous: not since May last year, when Adam Lyth scored 107 at Headingley, has an England specialist batsman made a Test hundred apart from the captain and vice-captain.

Alex Hales has had 17 attempts, to no avail. Ian Bell had 15 innings before being dropped. Nick Compton had 13 innings before he took his timeout in early June; James Taylor had 10 before he was forced to retire; and Lyth nine. Both Gary Ballance and James Vince have had seven chances to make three figures.

This makes a total of 78 innings since the Headingley Test of last year by England’s specialist batsmen other than Cook and Root, and they have not made a century between them. Some batting – and, one might add, some selecting too.

For once Pakistan will go flat-out with the new ball, rather than wait for the old one to reverse-swing according to their habit.

Centuries have been scored for England since Headingley 2015 by Jonny Bairstow as a keeper-bat, and all-rounders Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali, but this hole remains in England’s middle order.

While the swing is conventional in the first half of this match, following this week’s rain, Mohammad Amir must be the biggest threat to England.

Having taken three wickets each at Lord’s, where he was extremely tense, and at Old Trafford, where he was no-balled by some spectators, Amir will find the ground in this series most suited to him; and if Pakistan supporters turn up to a Test in any numbers, it will be here.

Pakistan will strengthen their attack if they pick one of their two right-arm fast-medium Khans, Imran or Sohail. To have three left-armers has been too much of a good thing. Then, if they can score even 300 in their first innings, they will be in the game, with Yasir Shah their match-winner when the ball turns.

For England, this will be their 500th home Test; Pakistan have played 151.

Both countries illustrate the value of home advantage and local knowledge: England are 206-115 up at home, Pakistan 56-22. The difference is that Pakistan have not played a home Test since the bullets sprayed into the Sri Lankan team bus as it drove to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore in March 2009.

Misbah ul-Haq, Pakistan’s captain and statesman, spoke movingly about this deprivation: no inspiration for his country’s youth, no heroes in their midst, no investment in infrastructure.

It is a disturbing sign that the majority of Pakistan’s Test team are past the age of 30, even a relative newcomer like Shah, and some far beyond. But the first step is to stage the Pakistan Super League at home, safely and successfully, not in the United Arab Emirates. Only then will touring teams return.