What is England’s best batting line-up?

Ben Stokes, Rory Burns and Ollie Pope will soon be available again for Test cricket, but Jonny Bairstow and Dan Lawrence both shone during England’s seven-wicket win at Galle; watch the second Test between Sri Lanka and England live on Sky Sports Cricket from Friday

Last Updated: 18/01/21 3:15pm

Jonny Bairstow (R) and Dan Lawrence saw England home by seven wickets in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Galle
Jonny Bairstow (R) and Dan Lawrence saw England home by seven wickets in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Galle

It was not too long ago England’s batting line-up almost picked itself, but their victory in the first Test against Sri Lanka has thrown up several new questions going forward.

Captain Joe Root built the foundations of England’s seven-wicket success in Galle with his mammoth knock of 228 and, while Dan Lawrence impressed on his Test debut, the opening pair failed twice.

Although there are unlikely to be changes to England’s batting unit when the sides meet again for the second Test which begins on Friday, next month’s tour of India is another matter entirely.

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Ben Stokes and Rory Burns will be back in contention, while Ollie Pope is working his way back to fitness – potentially leaving the selectors to grapple with the conundrum of trying to fit eight names into six batting places.

So which specific issues must England resolve?

What is their best opening partnership?

Neither Dom Sibley nor Zak Crawley covered himself in glory during the first Test, with both openers falling cheaply to left-armer Lasith Embuldeniya in each innings.

Sibley’s technique against spin, in particular, has previously come under scrutiny, but the strength of India’s seam attack has meant their wickets are no longer guaranteed ‘Bunsen burners’, as was once the case.

The Galle Test was only the third time Sibley and Crawley have operated in tandem at the top of the order – and, with two 50 partnerships and one of three figures on their record, it is far too soon to write them off as a pairing.

Rory Burns struggled to make runs during England's home series against Pakistan last summer
Rory Burns struggled to make runs during England’s home series against Pakistan last summer

Burns and Sibley seemed to be established as England’s regular openers during last year’s home series against West Indies and Pakistan, yet their partnership has so far yielded just one century stand in nine Tests.

While Sibley endured a lean run against Pakistan, so did Burns – who mustered only 20 runs in four innings and actually has the lowest Test average – 32.44 – of the trio.

Burns’ last Test international century came eight Tests ago, against New Zealand in Hamilton and, despite his greater experience, the left-hander may be the one who has to fight his way back into the team.

Has Jonny Bairstow found his niche at last?

Sky Sports pundit Rob Key has long championed Bairstow’s suitability for the No 3 slot – and the recalled Yorkshireman underlined his credentials with vital knocks of 47 and 35 not out in Galle, repairing early damage to each England innings.

“Watching that, you forget that Jonny Bairstow has been out of the team and has had to fight for his place back in the side,” Key told The Cricket Debate.

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Jonny Bairstow says he was focused on playing positive cricket and running hard after steering England to victory over Sri Lanka in the first Test
Jonny Bairstow says he was focused on playing positive cricket and running hard after steering England to victory over Sri Lanka in the first Test

“You think ‘there’s an established Test batsman playing with a debutant who’s finding his way’. That’s a seriously good effort from Bairstow in the first and second innings – he looked absolutely at home at No 3, as he has done before.”

Bairstow felt somewhat bruised after losing the Test wicketkeeper’s role in the wake of the 2019 Ashes series but, whether or not he is a superior gloveman to Jos Buttler or Ben Foakes, it is clear the selectors have no intention of handing the job back to him.

Given that situation, it would make sense for the 31-year-old to focus on a different role in the side – utilising his considerable experience to provide ballast to a top order that can at times, as was shown in Galle, look flaky.

Jonny Bairstow struck an unbeaten 35 to steer England to victory in the first Test against Sri Lanka
Jonny Bairstow struck an unbeaten 35 to steer England to victory in the first Test against Sri Lanka

Although Bairstow’s white-ball persona is that of an explosive opening batsman, his return to the Test side – steering England calmly through a minefield in the closing stages – proved he is capable of much more.

Is Dan Lawrence or Ollie Pope the better prospect?

Whichever way you slice it, the chances are that – in the short term, anyway – it will come down to a straight fight between these two 23-year-olds for a top-six spot.

If available, Stokes’ match-winning ability with both bat and ball make him indispensable to the England side and his preferred position at No 5 would allow Buttler or Foakes to move down the order to seven.

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Sri Lanka legend Mahela Jayawardene was impressed by England debutant Dan Lawrence’s mindset and movement at the crease during the first Test in Galle
Sri Lanka legend Mahela Jayawardene was impressed by England debutant Dan Lawrence’s mindset and movement at the crease during the first Test in Galle

Lawrence caught the eye in Galle, sharing key partnerships with Root in the first innings as England accumulated a sizeable lead and then with Bairstow second time around to guide the tourists to victory.

Former Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene said: “Lawrence is quite proactive and he’s not just trying to sit and defend, he’s looking to score runs. When you are looking to score runs, you are always putting the opposition under pressure.

“He is very good on the back foot, he will sweep, paddle and reverse. He will learn from this experience as well – it can only get better for him.”

Ollie Pope featured in England's intra-squad warm-up match ahead of the first Test in Galle
Ollie Pope featured in England’s intra-squad warm-up match ahead of the first Test in Galle

Pope impressed when he scored his maiden Test hundred a year ago in South Africa, but his form had begun to dip even before the shoulder injury that sidelined him in August, with his last three innings against Pakistan realising only 19 runs.

For now, Lawrence is the man in possession – but to have a fully-fit Pope breathing down his neck again would surely do no harm and help both young batsmen to raise the bar further.

Watch the second Test between Sri Lanka and England live on Sky Sports Cricket from 4am on Friday.

Source : Sky Sports