England in South Africa 2015-16 January 19, 2016

Compton must dare to be dull

Nick Compton has shown that he has the technique to strengthen this team but, as the series has progressed, he appears to have departed from his natural game

Like attending a wedding and pointing out that nearly half of marriages end in divorce, it seems churlish to find fault in England's Test team in the immediate aftermath of their series victory in South Africa.

To defeat the No. 1-ranked side in the world on their own pitches is a fine achievement. Yes, South Africa are in decline - or at least transition - and yes, they have missed Dale Steyn for much of the series. But their team still contains some fine players and history makes it clear how tough it is to win here. Nobody is claiming England are the finished article, but they have demonstrated improvement. They deserve a great deal of credit.

But if England really want to rise up the world rankings, if they really want to be the best team in the world, there are several areas in which they will need to strengthen.

Already the tours of Bangladesh and India loom at the end of the year. Given England's issues with spin - both playing it and bowling it - they look desperately tough assignments. England have recently taken steps to encourage the development of more spin bowlers - such as experimenting with allowing the visiting captain to chose to bat in county championship cricket - but even if those policies are successful, it will take time for them to take effect. Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Zafar Ansari are being asked to compensate for several years' mismanagement. It is a daunting requirement.

But England's most pressing concern is their top-order batting. While the excellence of the middle-order - Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow - has partially masked the problem, the fact remains that, in all three Tests, the top-order has failed to contribute the platform required.

From 49 for 3 in the first innings in Durban, England were 223 for 5 in Cape Town (if that sounds reasonable, it is worth checking what the final totals were in that run-drenched match and reflecting on how much trouble England would have been in if they had been dismissed for 350) and then 91 for 4 in Johannesburg. On each occasion they were rescued, but it is asking too much of the middle-order to expect that to happen every time. They won't reach No. 1 that way.

We have seen enough of Alastair Cook to conclude that his modest returns (he is averaging 17.16 in the series) are no more than a blip. And we can probably conclude that Alex Hales (averaging 20) requires a decent final Test if he is extend his run in the Test side into the English summer. His decision to skip the IPL to play more county cricket gives him a decent chance of retaining his place.

Nick Compton departed from his natural game in Johannesburg and suffered the consequences © Getty Images

It is, perhaps, Nick Compton who has caused most frustration. For Compton has shown that he has the technique to strengthen this team but, as the series has progressed, he appears to have departed from his natural game in pursuit of windmills and wild geese.

Compton produced a match-shaping innings in Durban. His first innings of 85 steered England from the rocks and allowed them to post a strong total. He followed up with a second-innings 49. It would have been perfectly reasonable to name him as man of the match. He provided exactly the contribution England have been missing since the best days of Jonathan Trott.

It was, in many ways, classic Compton. It was full of well-judged leaves and that stoic defence that looks as if it could keep out the rain. While there were a couple of elegant drives and pleasing cuts, Compton's strengths are more prosaic than those of Stokes or Root. It was sedate. In Test cricket, though, there is still a place for such play. After all, England won in Johannesburg with more than two days unused; they have the time for Compton to build foundations.

A good leave is, perhaps, the least glamorous gift with which a batsman can be bestowed. But it is still a gift. And just as Compton will never emulate Stokes, so Stokes will never be able to emulate him. A well-balanced England team can accommodate both. Indeed, a well-balanced England team will see Stokes flourish more often for the groundwork that Compton can prepare.

It perhaps didn't help that, following the first Test, his coach, Trevor Bayliss suggested that, in an ideal world, he would prefer a more dynamic No. 3. Compton is, having fought hard to return to the team, more sensitive to criticism than most and talk about his relatively slow pace of play will have eaten away inside his head.

How else to explain his increasingly bizarre play in the rest of the series? Concerned that he may be deemed too passive for this dynamic side, he has tried to prove he has a gear beyond his comfort zone. Having played himself in, he has attempted to accelerate but like a driver losing control of their car. He has tried to hit the ball too hard; tried to chase balls he would normally leave; tried to be something he is not. He is the hippo that wants to be a gazelle.

What he needs to do is be unashamedly him. He has to dare to be dull. He needs to remember why he was selected and the role he performs in county cricket. He needs to block out the talk of his pace of play as he blocked out Dale Steyn in Durban. He needs to allow Root and Stokes their glory and understand he is the Ringo to their Lennon and McCartney; the Mick Ronson to their David Bowie; the Horatio to their Hamlet. He may not make it anyway, but he has no chance if he tries to emulate them. He has to play the hand he was dealt, not the hand he wishes he was dealt.

And what the coaching staff need to do is reassure him. They need to tell him to relax and play his way. To take it easy, as Glenn Frey put it. England have struggled with top-order fragility for more than a year. They have the answer in front of them. They are in danger of squandering it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on January 21, 2016, 13:36 GMT

    I would keep Compton involved as he must be taken to India at the end of the year but I would suggest they look at somebody else long term. Balance isn't a no.3 I wish Team England woul stop fooling the England fans who don't know anything about the County game. All of his success comes at 5. If he plays then he bats at 5 not 3. Interesting to note Compton bats at 3 for Middlesex, Hales bats at 4 a lot of the time for Notts. Explain the decision to have either of them as opener? ECB going down the Van Gaal route. Right back playing left back, Left winger at right back, left sided midfielder at centre back and a target man with dodgy hair playing the holding role. We need to make sure we have the right players for their positions. I am all for flexibility but they must be able to be successful in those particular roles.

  • Dean on January 21, 2016, 13:17 GMT

    @ADR, re Ballance he did start off like a house on fire & when he came back from the WI he was ave well over 60 from his first 11 tests. However against NZL & Aus he ran in to some technical problems & managed just 134 runs in 8 Inns at an ave of just 16. I think most agreed at the time he needed to be withdrawn from the firing line but it was always anticipated that he would get another chance probably a bit further down the order. With Eng playing Stokes as the all rounder at 6 & Root now firmly established at 4 that only really leaves the 5 berth. Taylor was always going to get his chance in this series so it didn't leave any room for Ballance. It's quite possible that Eng will end the Hales experiment for the SRL series, push Compton up to open & move Taylor to 3, which would leave a place at 5 for Ballance. There's no point him playing in this test he's had no cricket since before Xmas but his time will certainly come again.

  • Dean on January 21, 2016, 11:31 GMT

    @EnglishSaint, Interesting side you have there. Re Vince I think he will be a strong contender for a place in the side this summer, if he starts the domestic season well. He had prolific seasons in 2013 & 14 but had a poor one last year which probably cost him a place on this tour. I feel he could potentially slot in to any of the potential problem areas at 1,3 or 5. On Hildreth I was quite vocal in that I felt he should have made this trip & batted at 5 (I would have had Taylor at 3 & Compton to open). However he's now almost 32 & with Vince potentially coming in to the frame & with Ballance also waiting in the wings you have to think that Hildreth's ship has now sailed. As for Mason Crane it's way too early to talk about him as a test match bowler. He's only 18 & has only played 2 FC matches. Regardless of how well he does this summer the series in Ind next winter will be too soon for him. We will have to make the most of Ali, Rashid & perhaps Ansari for that series.

  • Six on January 21, 2016, 6:26 GMT

    Compton needs to believe in himself and his own style. The coach, media etc have got in his head. Compton as a grinder demoralises the opposition completely. He needs to focus on playing his natural game and grind the opposition into the dust.

  •   Michael Banks on January 21, 2016, 4:51 GMT

    In defense of Nick Compton

    I was fortunate enough to watch Nick play for an LA team in a Last Man Stands tournament last season at Marin Cricket Club. He hit the last ball of the innings for a straight six that was by far the longest I've ever seen on our beautiful cricket field. The boundary is perhaps longer than a typical test boundary. But Nick hit it way beyond the boundary rope and the ball landed almost at the distant car park. Compton can hit!

  • Cricinfouser on January 20, 2016, 23:30 GMT

    Why is Ballance is sitting out this series is a mystery! People Say he got 'easy' runs before, but he got them, and he got more than anybody else exept Root.

  • Martin on January 20, 2016, 21:49 GMT

    Good article. Compton is the new Trott. Not yet as good - but strongly reminicent. He's lost his way a little since Durban - but England needs this kind of player if they are going to play Stokes, Root, Bairstow. These players won't always deliver - that's where a player like Compton comes into his own. Other wickets might fall.... But not his. This is the kind of player he needs to be, he should forget what Bayliss said that wasn't helpful.

  • Jerry on January 20, 2016, 16:27 GMT

    I think that Nick Compton has served his purpose (i.e. provide some solidity to a top order that looked slightly fragile coming into the SA series). But now, it's time for him to make way. Gary Ballance, James Vince and Jason Roy would all be better test match options for both the short and long terms (in terms of age, style, and mindset). Compton's selection was probably England's most backward-looking selection in recent times. This isn't the 1990s... England are now a good enough team to not have to rely on 33 year-old batsmen who have no versatility, regarding batting style.

  • Dave on January 20, 2016, 16:23 GMT

    Compton should open with Cook. End of story.

    Having watched Hales, I have come to the conclusion that he is he is a walking wicket as an opener in test cricket . Way too many technical difficulties to overcome. As painful as watching Ballance against pace. One of the two may make a number 3 yet, but please, Team England, move Nick up to join Cook.

    We have a wealth of middle order batsmen who can take most bowling attacks apart after their initial burst of energy with the new ball (recent matches as reference). Having someone who can blunt the new ball, and frustrate a quality attack early doors, so the likes of Ben Stokes can go hell for leather @+5-an-over against them 40 overs in when they are jaded, makes their contributing run-rate irrelevant.

    No one ever critisised Dravid or Chanderpaul for their resilience - in the latter's case he was the only glue that held the Windies together on many an occasion. If you want Stokes to thrive, wear them down with Compton. Simples.

  • David on January 20, 2016, 11:30 GMT

    Agree with this article. I thought Compton's 85 and 49 much more praiseworthy than Stokes' 258 in the 2nd, but I seem to remember Botham for one heaping all the honours on Stokes and mildly denigrating Compton. Winning test matches is not just about who can hit the most 6s (why test matches remain a cut above many other sports). That said, I would not have picked Compton on this tour because he is in his mid-30s and we already knew he was only capable of one type of innings. Ideally you want a no 3 who can grow a bit in the role - I would have given Ballance another go much sooner. The latter is a good example of where the selectors, media and fans often overreact. He was overpraised for his easy-ish runs against SL and India in 2014, like he was England's best no 3 ever, and then all too quickly castigated for hitting a rough pitch - there is a touch of the irrational about his current exclusion, as if everyone still feels personally betrayed by his struggles in early 2015.

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