England’s defeat yesterday was the most disgraceful thing ever to befall the national team. Losing to a side who had only previously beaten a much weakened West Indies and Zimbabwe is a new nadir in the national fortunes, for which there is no excuse.
Actually, Bangladesh are an improving side and will trouble most teams at home these days.
It was the spinners’ fault – especially that batting collapse.
Gary Ballance was at fault throughout.
It’s fair to say that there’s been no universal response to the result yesterday, and an awful lot of tiptoeing around the wider issues for the England team as they move on to face India in a five match series where they are very definitely the underdogs. Some of it goes beyond legitimate criticism about particular performances and moves on to existing prejudices in some instances, and what can only be seen as blatant attempts at deflection in others.
There are some things that can be safely said – that England do deserve credit for going in the first place, for a second tour after Australia’s aborted one cancelled for security reasons (even if justified) would have crippled Bangladeshi cricket possibly beyond repair. Amid the joy of victory, it was notable that a significant number of home supporters made a point of thanking England for coming in the first place. That it passed off without incident doesn’t in itself justify the decision to go, but it does mean we are able to talk about the cricket itself, and able to revel in the pleasure given to a country that doesn’t exactly get its fair share of good news stories.
It can also be safely said that Bangladesh are a much improved side. Whatever the shortcomings of England, they will give many teams a hard time in their own conditions – particularly the non-Asian sides. Cook deserves credit for rejecting an invitation to wallow in the excuse that the surfaces were difficult by brusquely saying “Why wouldn’t you?” in response to a question about the wickets suiting the spinners. As it turned out, rather than being low and boring in an attempt to scrape a draw, the groundsmen produced result pitches. And well done them, we had two exceptionally entertaining matches. Rather obviously, Bangladesh’s bowling strength is in their spin attack, and while Mehedi Hasan’s glorious start in Test cricket is no more a guide to his longevity than Bob Massie’s early matches, it showed that they have the attack to put sides under serious pressure when conditions allow. That means little when they go away from home, for not a single fast bowler took a wicket for them in this short series, and the prospect of the hard tracks of Australia or South Africa, or the green seamers of England or New Zealand would likely mean they were overwhelmed, but all sides have to begin somewhere, and winning at home is that somewhere.
It’s not just the bowling either; Tamim Iqbal may well love batting against England in particular, but he is a very good player full stop, as is Imrul Kayes, while Shakib Al Hasan is a potent all rounder. The lower order was too often blown away, but there is plenty to work with here. They are improving, and all they need is the opportunity to improve further. If there were to be one good thing to come out of this England tour, then it would be that teams play them more often – for this was their first Test series in over a year. Too long and simply not fair.
Perhaps in advance of the series there was a degree of underestimation about where they were as a side, although given the lack of cricket, and Test cricket in particular, it’s not too surprising that most observers were short of detailed knowledge. That they had better players than in the past was known, but it didn’t mean that there was any kind of expectation they would draw the series. It doesn’t alter the truth that having watched them play this time, there is a recognition that they aren’t a bad side at all now, and that they thoroughly, completely deserved what they got, indeed they perhaps should have won 2-0. Having lost the first game it would have surprised no one if they’d been badly beaten in the second, a narrow defeat is always hard to take. That they went after England with a vengeance instead was wonderful to watch.
That doesn’t necessarily let England off the hook for the result, and while it is true that England were beaten by the better side in Dhaka, it’s reasonable to ask whether Bangladesh should have been the better team, even with all their improvements. It therefore comes down to a question of what England did wrong, how much was forced by Bangladesh, how much was their own shortcomings as players, and how much was underperformance.
What can certainly be said is that by agreeing to play 7 Tests in 8 weeks, and skipping a warm up fixture in India to boot, they brought some of their problems on themselves. This is the ECB’s responsibility rather than the captain or the coach, for they do their masters’ bidding in terms of the itineraries. But with no match between this second Test and the opener in India, they were certainly forced to treat this one at least to some extent as a warm up match for India. That meant resting Broad and bringing in Finn for one of his periodical appearances on surfaces for which he couldn’t be more unsuited. Whether that made all the difference is neither here nor there; Broad didn’t have an exceptional first Test, but he is an exceptional bowler, and dropping him did weaken the side, no matter how necessary that decision might have been, and how wise it might turn out to have been over the next month and a bit.
The other change was dropping Gareth Batty for Zafar Ansari, and it is here we get to the thorny question of the England spin bowling. England played Moeen Ali, Batty, Ansari and Adil Rashid across the two matches. Ansari was on debut, and allowances have to be made for that, while the others have been the recipients of exceptionally strong criticism for their performances. This is grotesquely unfair for a number of reasons. Their returns were not bad at all overall, Moeen averaged 22 with the ball, while Batty and Rashid were a touch under 30. They’re not fantastic figures of course, and certainly nothing like the wicket-taking levels of Hasan or Shakib, but it has to be asked what is expected here. Bangladesh should be expected to have better spinners than England, in the same way that England can expect to have much better fast bowlers than Bangladesh (which they do). Likewise, when they get to India, they’ll be facing better spin bowlers than they possess themselves – this is normal and to be expected. Complaining about it is akin to wishing for golden elephants. The last time England toured India they had the best spinner England have had in 40 years bowling from one end, and another who in another era would have been a fixture in the team for being the best we had by a distance. Indeed, a fit and healthy Panesar right now would be a major upgrade on all of the alternatives. England does not often produce quality spin bowling, and while that is a criticism of the coaching and structure that can and should be made, whining about the positioning of the deckchairs on the Titanic is what it always has been – pointless.
Therefore the only option is to work with what is there. Rashid is a leg spinner; they have always been prone to bowling a bad ball an over, it tends to be in the nature of them with the rare exception of the very best like Shane Warne. Even one as good as Stuart MacGill was relatively expensive. That isn’t to defend his performances, but it is to make the point that if a legspinner is going to be selected in the first place, then some understanding of how to manage that legspinner is needed, plus a decent and realistic level of expectation about what they can and can’t do. You simply don’t pick a leg spinner if the aim is to dry up the runs, it’s not going to happen. Cook has shown little sign of understanding how to captain Rashid, who should be considered a wicket taking weapon, who will go for some runs (rather like Finn come to that). Betraying a complete lack of confidence by having as at one stage six players on the boundary hardly helps the bowler or the team and removes the whole point of having a leggie in the side in the first place.
This is a common attitude problem in the English game, one that goes all the way down to Sunday village cricket, where a seam bowler who gets smashed around the park comes back for another spell later – a spinner suffering the same is lucky to get another bowl three weeks afterwards. It takes an astute and clever captain, sympathetic to his bowlers to manage it and to make the best use of their assets. Cook, unfortunately, is not the man to do that.
Moeen overall bowled passably well – he is what he is, a batsman and part time off spinner converted into being the senior slow bowler. He does let the odd bad ball go down, but the truth of the matter is that people need to deal with that, he’s quite probably the best England have, and is someone who is doing relatively well given where he’s come from bowling wise. Batty’s recall was frowned upon or approved of depending on perspective, and while he didn’t bowl as well as he might have hoped, even at his best he simply isn’t going to run through an Asian side in Asian conditions. These players are very used to facing spin – something else that hasn’t been taken into account when berating the bowlers for not being better than they are, while imagining that left at home is a miracle worker who would have repeated Laker’s feat.
If that reads like an extended defence of the spinners, it’s only partially meant that way. They could certainly have bowled better, they unquestionably could have been captained better, but they are players limited by their English upbringing and learning. The truth is that those who don’t play find their reputations enhanced by virtue of missing a defeat; whoever England select would not change things dramatically, and complaining that they aren’t Graeme Swann is as futile as the years Australia spent discarding spinner after spinner for the crime of not being Shane Warne.
More to the point, if the spinners were average but not appalling – in other words pretty much what could be expected of them, then the attempt to blame them for the match loss and the drawn series is downright peculiar. It certainly wasn’t the cause of collapsing from 100-0 to 164 all out in little more than 20 overs. The pundits have a real habit of demanding the heads of the bowlers for batting problems, and it’s much more realistic to point to the batting failures as being key to England not winning this series. Not one of the top 5 averaged even 30 and they managed just four fifties between them in the series from a combined 20 attempts, with a top score of 68 from Moeen Ali as he and Bairstow attempted to rescue the team from the wreckage of the first morning of the first Test. Only Woakes, Bairstow and Stokes managed to even score 100 runs over the four innings,while just behind those three in the averages was Adil Rashid, who with Woakes performed another recovery act from the shambles of the upper order.
Put simply, blaming the bowling is simply an attempt to project from the reality of where England went badly wrong – the top order batting. Cook was poor, Duckett was brand new, Ballance was lucky to be in the team and was extremely poor, Root was poor. Not many sides can handle the core of their batting malfunctioning repeatedly and go on to win. And here is the problem for India, for it is hardly a shock to anyone to know that they have superior spinners, but for England to have a chance they need in particular for Cook and Root to step up and score runs – and lots and lots of them. They are more than capable of course, Root is a fine player and Cook is an exceptionally good player of spin, and for an opener a phenomenal one. But they could and should be feeling particularly uncomfortable with the way the spinners are getting the blame for not winning a series that was fundamentally about the inability of the England batting to reach 300 in any innings – and only once getting close because the middle and lower order got them there.
Furthermore, of the England players Ben Stokes is the one who can really hold his head up, his bowling was outstanding and his batting was good enough to score more runs than anyone else. Yet the comment about him largely concerns his behaviour in getting into a spat with opponents. Stokes is a fiery character alright, but it is peculiar to say the least that this gets attention and criticism ahead of the failures of those above him. This blog has expressed concern on a number of occasions that a few media types are waiting for him to fail so they can properly put the boot in – nothing has happened which changes that worry, for we know all too well that it has happened before.
Bangladesh can bask in the glow of a successful short series, while England go to India with a lot of questions to answer. It is to be hoped that some spend time on the questions that matter rather than wishing things were different than they are. That is nothing but carping. Whinging. And if it’s unfair on some of the England players, it’s more than just unfair when it comes to the Bangladesh ones – it’s disrespectful. This was an enjoyable and hard fought series, and one where a deciding Test would be just perfect. Bangladesh would be quite strongly fancied to win it.