Tom Banton's middle-order teething problems expose flaw in England set-up
Young batsman struggles to adjust to life at No.4, after making name as Somerset opener
"We have an abundance of top-order batters," Eoin Morgan said on the eve of England's ODI series against Ireland. "[But] an area that we need to fill is in the lower and middle order, where we need a bit more strength in depth."
Between the start of 2019 and the World Cup final, 51 of the 55 innings at No. 4-6 for England were played by the same three men: Morgan, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. The other four men to fill those slots were Moeen Ali - the usual No. 7 - in two warm-up games against Pakistan, and Joe Denly and Ben Foakes in the low-key win in Malahide. If any of the main three men had gone down injured in the weeks before the tournament, England would have been in serious trouble.
Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that Morgan highlighted the paucity of options in those roles as an area of weakness, laying down the gauntlet for the fringe players involved in this series. While Sam Billings' 113 unbeaten runs have helped him secure his status as the main back-up in the middle order, the other man to be handed an opportunity - Tom Banton - has struggled, with scores of 11 and 15 to date.
In 11 List A innings for Somerset as an opener, Banton averages 41.27 at a strike rate of 94.6; in six innings in the middle order, those numbers are 11.67 and 55.1. Evidently, the demands of the role suit some players better than others: when Banton opens, he faces quick bowlers with the field up in his first few balls; in the middle, he comes in against spin with the field back.
"I'm not going to lie, it does feel unnatural at the moment," Banton admitted on Monday. "It's about giving myself a chance, because I know I can catch up.
"Seeing the scoreboard, I'm usually quite an aggressive player and my strike rate seems to be around 100, so then seeing [it lower than that] is sometimes a bit tricky. But I don't want to put too much pressure on myself, it's the first few times I've batted there so I'm not expecting too much."
If it seems extraordinary that Banton's first-ever white-ball innings at No. 4 should come in an England shirt, it also serves to illustrate how difficult they have found it to unearth middle-order talents. The fact that Denly - a 34-year-old who bats at No. 3 for Kent - was in line to come in at No. 5 or 6 before back spasms ruled him out of the series furthers the point. Even Denly's replacement, Liam Livingstone, opened in his most recent 50-over games for Lancashire.
One underlying reason England have found it so hard to produce middle-order batsmen is that there are so many teams in their domestic set-up. The Royal London Cup has come into its own in the last four or five years, with particularly high scoring rates despite its early-season window, but the nature of an 18-team tournament is that a lot of players will appear in it, and the best ones will generally move up the order to face as many balls as possible.
As many as 198 players will appear in a single round of games in the Royal London Cup, compared to 66 in the Australian equivalent, the Marsh Cup. In the last three seasons of the Royal London Cup, the players in the top ten run-scorers from No. 4-6 who have also scored at better than a run a ball have been two South Africans (Colin Ingram and Dane Vilas); an England discard (Gary Ballance) and a senior county pro (Steven Mullaney). In Australia, the names on the equivalent list are all on the fringes of international selection: Peter Handscomb, Marcus Stoinis and Mitchell Marsh.
That leads to a situation where a player like Banton bats at the top of the order for Somerset despite standing little chance of unseating either Jason Roy or Jonny Bairstow in the near future. There must be a temptation for Morgan to suggest to players such as Banton, Phil Salt, Tom Kohler-Cadmore and Will Jacks that in the long term, their chances of playing white-ball cricket for England will be better served by a shift down the order.
Furthermore, the reality of a middle-order position is that a single three-match series is unlikely to provide much opportunity to bed in. Billings is emblematic of that: while he has been the first reserve for Buttler's spot for the best part of five years, he has already faced more balls and scored more runs in this series than any other in his ODI career.
"If I do play for England I am probably not going to be at the top of the order as the team is so strong at the moment," Banton recognised. "It is probably the most difficult sports team in the world to get into at the moment, especially for me trying to get in past Bairstow and Roy.
"I've spoken to a few guys and they've told me a few things to try and take into my game. I'm getting used to it, trying to find the right tempo. A score there would probably give me a bit of confidence and that'll feel good but I'm just waiting for that at the moment."
So when Banton goes back to domestic cricket, would he consider sliding down the Somerset order? "It's tricky," he admitted. "If I do want to play [for England] I'm probably going to slide in at No. 6, realistically. [But] I love opening, so I'll probably carry on doing that."
For Morgan, therein lies the problem.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98