Moeen Ali does not want to bat at number eight. Jonny Bairstow is too good to bat at eight. Ben Stokes is also too good to bat at number eight.
Liam Dawson will bat at number eight to get in the team. Liam Dawson is not too good to bat at number eight.
Have England picked a bowler who is not good enough for Test cricket, who is also a batsman not good enough for Test cricket because he’s a good team man? Or is it because they want a specialist number eight, and nobody else fits the role?
Number eight is an odd position. Theoretically if you put a batsman there, it’s no different to number seven. Except it is. Number seven is a respectable place to bat if you’re an all-rounder or a wicketkeeper. It’s not a place for a proper batsman, but if you’ve got another string to your bow you can be tagged on to the top six, not quite there but not far enough away to feel like a tail ender.
Number nine is a tail-ender. In teams like England it might be a good one. Graeme Swann made the position his own for a while, flogging tired bowlers around for a quick thirty or so, before slogging one up in the air.
Number eight though…
Jonathan Liew put it well in a piece about Moeen for the Telegraph, “too often it feels like a role handed out by default, to either the last recognised batsman or the least inept bowler.”
Ideally it’s somewhere in-between. England’s 2005 side had Ashley Giles, the least inept bowler. England’s Strauss era number one in the world side, had a constant tussle between Broad and Swann
In the end it comes down to one decision. Do you use your two front-line all-rounders to build a side with six bowlers, or do you use them to deepen your batting order whilst still having five bowlers?
When Liam Dawson walked in, England were 367-6, having just lost their new captain. Dawson lasted two balls. One comfortable forward defensive, then a Morkel nip-backer that took him high on the pad.
A touch unlucky maybe, the ball just clipped the bails, but it’s pretty obvious he’s not an international batsmen. Twenty-seven year old batsmen who average 33 in First-class cricket rarely are.
He’s not an international bowler either. An average of 36, but more pertinently, little more than a wicket an innings marks him as a batting all-rounder.
Playing a batting all-rounder at eight is a move that poor teams make. Look at Bangladesh, in years previous. Players like Mahmudullah and Shuvagata Hom, batsmen who bowl, have batted at number eight for Bangladesh because they were worried about their tail, and they knew that with Shakib al Hasan batting up the order and playing as a front-line bowler, they could fit a batsman in at number eight.
In the last year or two they’ve changed tack, and batted their least worst tail-ender, someone like Mehedi Hasan who would get into the team for their bowling, at eight. It’s no coincidence that that has coincided with a period of time in which they’ve started to look to win Test matches, not just draw them.
England are not going into this game against South Africa just looking to draw it, but their team selection sure looks like they are.
They’ve taken the flexibility of two all-rounders, and a wicket-keeper who could bat in the top six, and used it to add another all-rounder, one who wouldn’t get in the team for either of their skills, let alone both.
The answer is surely to play an extra batsman if seaming, and an extra spinner if is spinning, England have tried to do both but ended up doing neither.
They could have added another batsman to bat three. One of Stoneman or Westley could slot in there, Ballance could move down to five, and the three all-rounders would provide batting depth down to eight, and five bowlers.
If they really thought this pitch was going to turn, they could have added Adil Rashid, who averages the same as a batsman than Dawson, and is also a frontline spinner. That may have been overkill; six bowlers are rarely necessary in Test matches, but at least Rashid would have made the side for his bowling, rather than as a bits-and-pieces makeweight.
If they wanted to be really radical, England could have taken the gloves off Jonny Bairstow, allowing England’s third best batsman to bat at number five (or even number three) unencumbered by keeping. Stokes and Moeen batting at six and seven would make room for a specialist keeper at number eight, a Michael Bates type (if he was still playing county cricket). Ben Cox, and James Foster both come to mind.
Liam Dawson is a symptom of a team that’s scared of losing. If you’ve got a spare place in the team, add a batsman, a bowler, or a wicket-keeper. At Test level, Dawson is none of these. He’d barely make the Hampshire team as either a frontline batsman or bowler only.
Liam Dawson will not score more runs than Tom Westley or Mark Stoneman would.
Liam Dawson will not take more wickets than Adil Rashid or Mason Crane would.
Liam Dawson will not bowl overs that Joe Root couldn’t.
This may be a very short lived experiment.
Originally published 5-Jul-2017