Stance and style set England batsmen apart
There are four tall right-handed batsmen in England's front five: all appear much the same, all are different. The trend is to stand with bat aloft and the left hip slightly cleared. It is a set position and comes from the baseball-like requirements of the 21st-century game. In essence, it is an attacking set-up and can then be adjusted to allow defence. It reflects laws, pitches, equipment and bowlers: a sure sign of the age in which we live.
Batting is a craft that has evolved over a couple of centuries. Film of WG Grace tells us little, other than he played mainly back which suggests that pitches were tricky. Indeed, to the modern player and method they might have seemed impossible. In 1937, the lbw law changed so that bowlers could trap a batsman in front by pitching the ball outside off stump and bringing it back into his pads. Previously the ball had to pitch on the stumps and be going on to hit them, which takes some bowling.
In England, batting technique was driven by the need for defence first and attack second. Uncovered pitches played their part in this because it was near impossible to stride forward and drive on wet pitches. Thus, batsmen played back to manoeuvre the ball by using its pace, rather than go hard towards it and to strike. Photographs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground of Walter Hammond and Bill Ponsford remind us that many of the pitches of the day were barely identifiable from the outfields and therefore the balance between bat and ball was far less weighted in favour of batsmen than it is today.
This evolution had been slow and precise, until T20 cricket turned evolution into revolution. In T20 sixes are like confetti. In modern Test matches, hundreds are sometimes scored at better than a run a ball. At Newlands, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow put on 400 at seven an over. A few days later, a 15-year-old Indian made 1009 in one innings over two afternoons. Not even Sachin Tendulkar did that.
While Test cricket maintains its place at the top table, we can be reasonably assured of an ongoing reference to the techniques that have made batting an art form. A good, relatively orthodox method is adaptable for all forms of the game and is a reason why cricket remains aesthetically appealing, even as we have moved from touch and timing into this era of brutality. Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers are crossing this divide with élan. Others, such as Joe Root, are not far behind.
Batting is moving so fast it is hard to predict what comes next. The nature of cricket has always led to one inherent fear: the fear of failure. T20 all but eliminates this for batsmen. It is near impossible to be bowled out in 20 overs and therefore the currency of wickets has lost value. Which is a telling reason why Test cricket matters so. It is a terrible cliché but Test cricket is exactly that, a test. Part of the test is fear - the fear of failure - and how a cricketer deals with its implications.
Alex Hales trusted his batting in the short forms of the game, in which he was consistently successful, but he could not be sure that both method and mind would so comfortably embrace the longer form of the game. Given his opportunity against a good attack and in challenging South African conditions, he found himself broken open to failure. He made mistakes that he could not understand and committed sins that led to self-doubt.
To his great credit, he went away and worked them out, adapting his game to cope with the examination he had been set. To their credit, the selectors stuck with him and the fruits of his labours are crystal clear. His stance is more relaxed than a year ago, with the knees nicely flexed and ready to move. His head is still and held on the same plane through the shot, whether in defence or attack. Neither is he afraid of defence, in fact he appears to rather enjoy the added resilience in his game. His hands are kept closer to his body, proof of discipline and concentration. His mind seems committed to the method.
It was not easy to bat first this morning, even against so modest an opposition. But Hales had it covered, like an old pro. He moved beautifully forward and back and made certain his bat was text-book straight. His driving through extra-cover and mid-off was a joy to watch; his punches either side of midwicket an indication of balance and time to play. This was a pure innings and one that deserved a first Test hundred. The only surprise was that he blew the chance. The next step is to knuckle down and take it. The game does not give up such form and opportunity often enough to treat it lightly.
Next of the tall right-handers is Nick Compton. Where Hales triggers his batting with a small move of the right foot, back and across the stumps, before a forward press of the left foot, Compton stands dead still until the ball is released. This gives the impression of a hurried reaction, which is unusual in the contemporary game off stand-and-deliver. But Compton is no T20 hitter. He likes to soak it up, reckoning to be there when the bowler is long gone. This is an admirable mind-set but open to question if the scoreboard remains static. In the end, batting is about scoring runs and if a batsman ignores this, he allows the opponent a free rein. His pain is our pain, for the desire in his cricket is plain to see. Perhaps too plain to see.
We have got the hang of right-hander number three now. We know that Joe Root is a game-changer. Few players judge length so fast and efficiently. This skill brings myriad options for the business of run-making, which is Root's overwhelming strength. He adapts and reacts, playing the game with a delightful sense of urgency and purpose. When he reaches 30, you wonder how. At 50, you applaud with the crowd. By 100, you swoon at the simplicity of it all. His trigger is exclusively back, holding himself tall and strong to make good anything remotely short of a length. Thus, the bowler must pitch up and then an in-form Root springs forward, nice and low, to drive with authority and presence.
Those two words will not be lost on James Vince, who doubtless benefitted from the time he spent at the wicket with Root. Vince sets up well, very much like Hales in fact, and eases the ball into spaces. He has both a good temperament and a strong mind - fine assets - but he must announce himself with more authority. There is no value in talent surpressed by shyness. Whatever he may feel inside must not be evident on the outside. Test cricket is the perfect game for his manner and attitude. He must believe so himself and then a kaleidoscope will unfurl before his eyes.
Of these cricketers, Root is the craftsman to follow; a man at home in the 21st century through his references to the long evolution of batting. Hales has suggested he is worthy of notice. Compton is betwixt and between one career and the next. Vince is on the journey of discovery. The key now is for each to trust the gifts accorded them.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK