England have more openers than the middle-overs can stomach

If England were in any doubt about the challenge posed by this Indian team, they aren’t any longer after a humbling eight-wicket defeat at Old Trafford. Virat Kohli’s men are a crack outfit and the heady days of the six-match whitewash over Australia are long gone.

Of course, one defeat does not suddenly make England a bad side but there were clearly areas where they were exposed in Manchester. None was more striking than the middle order’s ability to combat the spin of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav who combined to restrict England to just 30 runs between the 7th and 14th overs. Kuldeep took four wickets in that time, too, including three in an over.

England are very much a top-heavy team in T20I cricket and the move to open the batting with Jos Buttler has reinforced the tactic of going hard in the first six overs. Since the last World T20, only Australia of Full Member nations have scored their runs quicker in the powerplay period and England score a boundary every 4.58 balls in the first six overs, again second only to Australia.

Buttler was once again the standout batsman for England, registering his third half-century in as many innings opening the batting in T20I cricket. He’s only the second player to score half-centuries in their first three innings opening, following Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene in 2010, and tonight he carried this England effort almost singlehandedly. Only two other English batsmen made double figures.

Such has been Buttler’s recent form as an opener – he now has seven scores of more than 50 in his last eight T20 innings – that it is likely that he will lead England’s charge in the first six overs for the foreseeable future. But England were already blessed with top order players before the move and Buttler’s elevation has simply added to the number of batsmen who would, ideally, open the innings.

Alex Hales is the only man to have scored a T20 hundred for England – scored as an opener – while Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy have been pulling up trees opening for the ODI side. Joe Root, a player of touch and timing, is a top order player too and is unsuited to batting down at number six as he did here. Captain Eoin Morgan is the only real middle order batsman in this current team.

And it is in the middle order than England have tended to struggle of late. In the two matches against Australia during the winter’s Trans-Tasman Tri-Series, England’s scores between overs six and sixteen read: 7 for 67 in Hobart and 1 for 53 at the MCG. At least there was some improvement in the next two matches against New Zealand. Prior to the winter, against West Indies in Durham last summer, England lost 5 for 63 in the same ten over period of their innings.

Contrast England’s display today against Kuldeep and Chahal with the batting of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul after the powerplay had finished. After six overs, India had the same number of runs, 53, as England. However, in the next five overs, Rahul and Sharma scored 70, taking Moeen Ali’s first two overs for 30 and Liam Plunkett for an over of 20. It was a fine example of setting a platform and kicking on.

Kuldeep was the difference, of course. Not only did he prove difficult for England’s batsmen to get away but he kept on taking wickets which isn’t the worst combination. England’s batsmen, notably Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root, just didn’t seem to pick Kuldeep’s wrong ‘un – which he bowled a stack of – and the rarity of left-arm wrist-spinners gives him a certain novelty value. None of England’s bowlers, and particularly Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, had the same potency.

“We were probably about 30 or 40 short,” said Morgan. “The start we got off to was brilliant. All the feedback was that it was a good wicket. Notoriously here, it does get a little bit harder but I don’t think it did. Kuldeep bowled well and we know he can bowl well. We know we can play him better than that. Between now and the next game we need to assess our plans, make sure they’re the right ones and stick with them.”

It could be that England decide to take fewer risks against Kuldeep in the remaining matches to avoid a similar spate of debilitating wickets. Buttler, Morgan and Hales were all dismissed attempting big shots at the 23 year-old while there was a general inability to rotate the strike off both spinners which needs to be resolved. They could do with picking his wrong’ un as well which is easier said than done.

“The more time at the crease, the better you see the ball,” said Morgan, alluding to perhaps a more cautious approach in the next two matches. “It is going to be difficult to start [against Kuldeep’s googlies]. That’s the hardest part about batting. [We need to] Face more deliveries.”

There is, of course, Ben Stokes to come back into this side and he is expected to be available for the third match in Bristol. He is a genuine middle order player as well as adding another left-handed option into England’s top six. Who would miss out? Alex Hales, after his innings of eight from 18 balls today, looks most vulnerable and swapping him with Stokes would allow Root to go back up to number three.

While England’s game plan at the start of their batting innings is clear – and with Buttler at the top of the order, working better than ever – they need to work out a similar method once the fielding restrictions are over. If they don’t, India’s spinners could have a field day in this series.

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