England still looking for top three ahead of Ashes but engine-room and spinner is sorted

England may have relinquished the Wisden Trophy with defeat to Windies but that will quickly be forgotten if they land their plum targets this summer.

The goal eight months from now is to be clutching the World Cup title for the first time and having regained the Ashes, the latter lost away from home during a chastening 2017-18 tour beset by off-field incidents.

England have 11 ODIs before their World Cup opener against South Africa at The Oval on May 30 – five in the West Indies, five at home to Pakistan and one against Ireland in Dublin.

But they have just a solitary Test – a four-day encounter versus Ireland at Lord’s in late July – before they lock horns with Australia and no-one is assured yet of a place in the top three.

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As Sky Sports Cricket’s Michael Atherton put it, England “look pretty good from four to 11 – and the top three is a mess. I don’t think any of them have inked their names in for the Ireland Test.”

Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly comprise that aforementioned top three, one which England deployed in the St Lucia Test after ending the trial of Jonny Bairstow batting at first drop and instead placing him back as wicketkeeper-batsman at No 7.

Burns might be the most likely of the trio to line up against Australia at Edgbaston from August 1, despite his average of 25 from six Tests hardly making an overwhelming case.

The Surrey captain has found unusual ways of getting out in his short Test career to date, including whipping the first ball on day four in St Lucia game down square leg’s throat.

But those aberrations have been interspersed with some confident knocks, including a fifty in his second Test against Sri Lanka in Pallekele and a best of 84 against Windies in Barbados, the latter knock including myriad impressive drives.

The current incumbent at No 3, Denly, did his no prospects no harm in St Lucia but could have made an irresistible argument had he turned his maiden fifty into a first ton.

“Sixty-nine is not the sort of score to really imprint upon your mind,” Atherton said on the eve of Denly’s first half-century, the Kent batsman having only survived on 12 after Shimron Hetmyer dropped a dolly at slip.

“[But] he looks the part, is an elegant player, stands tall, and played some lovely shots through the off-side off front and back foot. He timed the ball as well as anybody and he didn’t looked overshadowed batting with Root.”

So, two of the three may be hopeful of an Ashes start but the other, Jennings, faces a real battle to retain his place, having surprisingly won it back in St Lucia after England opted to alter the balance of the side. A truckload of county runs may not even be enough to save him.

The stats show the left-hander’s struggles against seam bowling – he averages just 15.30 against pace in Tests – and Sky Cricket’s Nasser Hussain says selectors must weigh up how Jennings scores his runs, not just how many he may rack up domestically for Lancashire, if they consider putting him up against Australia’s quicks.

“It’s not just the runs you get, anyone can be a selector [it that’s your only measure],” said Hussain. “Watch Jennings and if he is getting hundreds, is he still on the front foot? Are bowlers working him over at any stage?

“Has he changed his technique? Will he get runs in Test cricket? You need to be a bit smarter as a selector than just picking who is top of the County Championship averages.”

If not Burns, Denly and Jennings – or at least not all of them – then who else? A cursory glance at the scores of the England Lions batsmen in India shows the cupboard is not exactly overflowing with ready-made replacements.

Jason Roy – gearing up for the ODI series in the Windies – and James Vince – playing Big Bash League cricket for Sydney Sixers – are on England’s radar, according to Trevor Bayliss, who also revealed an international recall for Ian Bell is not beyond the realms of possibility.

“To be honest, his name hasn’t been mentioned as near as many times as those other guys. But you never say never,” the Australian added of Bell, who has scored 22 Test hundreds, a tally only bettered for England by Kevin Pietersen (23) and Alastair Cook (33).

With 12 sets of County Championship fixtures before the opening Ashes Test, batting incumbents (Burns, Jennings) and hopefuls (Vince, Haseeb Hameed, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Max Holden) alike have plenty of time to press their claims.

But the most compelling case could be made by Roy, who, barring anything sinister, will open for England during their World Cup campaign between late-May and mid-July. Should he play a significant role in taking his country to or close to a global international 50-over title, the temptation to let him loose on the Aussies may be too strong to ignore.

Denly, meanwhile, is in an unusual position.

Having been snapped up by Kolkata Knight Riders for this spring’s IPL he will miss the early stages of the county campaign and if he remains in England’s ODI plans – he is in the squad in the Caribbean – he may not have played a first-class game by the time the Ireland Test rolls around, meaning his chances may hinge purely on white-ball cricket and hoping Ed Smith and co look back fondly on his 99-ball 69 in St Lucia.

If the top three remains unclear, then, the same cannot be said of the engine-room of four to eight – Root, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Bairstow – no matter how many people want Root to bat at No 3 and Bairstow to feature higher up the order sans gloves.

“I think we’ve known for a while that those players at four to eight are our best. The experiment of batting Jonny at No 3 is over. And yes, that is unfortunately bad news for Ben Foakes,” added Bayliss. So that’s that then!

Runs have not exactly flowed for Moeen Ali this winter – he averaged 13 in Sri Lanka and 15.40 in the West Indies – but as his batting has faded, his bowling has flourished, the off-spinner taking a combined 32 wickets in six Tests to confirm his status as premier tweaker.

Below him, the bowling looks well-stocked, particularly in English conditions. James Anderson and Stuart Broad will play, with Sam Curran – who suffered a tough tour of the Caribbean – and Chris Woakes – not seen in Tests whites this winter – further options if there is some nip in the air and turf on the surface. Conditions that Australia failed to deal with in 2015, particularly at Trent Bridge when Broad’s 8-15 razed them for 60.

Should England require some extra velocity, though, then there is Mark Wood, who delivered a whirlwind performance in St Lucia after coming out of the Test wilderness, clocking around 95pmh as he had Windies hopping, excited pundits, and bagged a maiden Test five-for.

Australia are not exactly shorn of searing seamers, however, as England found out away from home two winters ago when Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood claimed a combined 66 wickets. They visitors also be reinforced by the return of batsmen Steve Smith and David Warner from their ball-tampering bans.

The Baggy Greens’ home series defeat against a superb India side may have made them look worse than they are, in the same way a thumping 2-0 win over a struggling Sri Lanka may have masked some of their deficiencies.

All things considered, England and Australia are probably pretty evenly matched – both with match winners and both with question marks over batting positions and personnel.

What it could lead to is a tight, nail-biting Ashes series, the like of which we have not seen in quite a while.

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