A couple of indications of where England are:
New Zealand chose to put them in on a perfectly good batting surface.
290-8 represents a pleasant surprise.
Of course, it’s about more than that – England wouldn’t have got close to such a score without a breezy batting contribution from Mark Wood, and New Zealand thoroughly justified their decision to bowl by reducing England to 94-5 before the recovery. It’s one thing to have a weak team – and this is a weak team – but it’s another to give no indication of there being any kind of plan or strategy around making it better.
Countries that know where they’re going and what they’re trying to achieve bring young players in to blend with the experienced cricketers, the path to the future being laid out. England don’t even have the excuse of being a team in transition to a newer, brighter future – it’s merely one repeating the same things and hoping for a different outcome.
Thus it is that Mark Stoneman does ok, without threatening to look like a fully fledged Test cricketer, Dawid Malan continues to perform like a competent enough player (he does, at least, show bottle, which is why he’s the best of the new batsmen) but no more, and James Vince looks pretty and then gets out when he’s scored about 20. This is exactly what should be expected of them, and exactly what they deliver. It’s not their fault, it’s what they are.
And then we have Alastair Cook, a player who remains immune to criticism on the back of two huge scores in favourable conditions in recent times, and nothing else. His double century in Melbourne looked exceptionally good, on a slow, low surface, but more than that, his technique appeared in good order. It suggested that he’d sorted his technical demons to a fair extent, yet here again he looked all over the place, feet stuck in concrete, head miles across to the offside and falling over – which is why the ungainly shot for the ball that bowled him made it look a better delivery than it was. It’s not that he needs to be dumped, for there’s not the remotest indication that any replacement would be better, it’s that there’s every sense that this is a player coming to the end.
Root looked good, as he always does, before making a basic error, as he so often does. Sometimes it’s just one of those things that happens in cricket, but it may be that the pressure put on him by a misfiring team is causing those errors. Or it may be him. But it’s often the case when a team struggles that the best batsman makes silly mistakes, because concentrating on his own game isn’t sufficient.
Ben Stokes’ return hasn’t been a success. Who knows, maybe his mind is on other things.
And then we have Jonny Bairstow – one of very few bright spots in this side. He’s been shunted up and down the order, and been left stranded time and again. Here he was back at number seven, and again in danger of being left high and dry. But here’s the point: number seven is an all rounder spot and always has been. Moving him up because of those behind him reflected a total lack of confidence in anyone staying with him, and his positional change was a symptom, not a cause. If the tail folds, that is the problem, and would be an issue for anyone left with them. Broad at 8 these days looks terrifying for all the wrong reasons, a far cry from the days when he looked as good as many a batsman when he came in.
Presumably Mark Wood was selected for his bowling (it’s hard to tell with the England batting order these days) but he was the man to rescue the situation, specifically because instead of just holding up an end and leaving all the work to Bairstow, he went after the bowling, a display of aggression hugely welcome in a side that all too often appears to be trying to passively stave off defeat and stay in the game as long as possible.
If there was a welcome selection, it was that of Jack Leach, an actual, proper spin bowler. Questions of how good a bloke he is don’t seem to have been the major factor in his inclusion. Small victories.
New Zealand bowled well, with Boult and particularly Southee deserving their wickets. It’s hard to believe that Southee is still only 29, he seems to have been around forever. Yet the New Zealand attack looks to be in their prime, while England’s is long in the tooth. Anderson and Broad have been outstanding bowlers, but with an injury prone Mark Wood, a three man seam attack looks to be a big risk. They will need a big day tomorrow, or England are going to be up against it yet again, but then the bowlers always seem to need a big day, and always seem to be castigated for failing to rescue the batsmen from their own disaster. Speaking of which, it remains as notable as always that England’s response to batting calamity is to change the bowlers.
When 290-8 invites a sigh of relief, it says everything about where this team is. When it’s that sigh rather than an explosion of rage at another struggle, it says more about where the fans are. And when the ECB aren’t in crisis mode, it says it all about where the English game is.
Day two can make a fool out of any review of the first one, but who would want to bet on it?