So here we are. England have lost the first test match of the summer at home to an invigorating, enthusiastic young Pakistan team, who played with maturity, nee aplomb, in conditions so unlike that they are used to one can only applaud. Let’s applaud them, because they thoroughly outplayed England, and but for one stand of resistance, could have had this game wrapped up in 3 days and won by an innings. Pakistan, a genuinely young and pretty inexperienced team, England take note, have performed. They looked like they enjoyed it, which winning always does, but also they did not fear it. England, it has to be said, look terrified of test cricket at this point. All the good work undone by a 7 for 4 morning. All the big talk undermined in half an hour of garbage. So typically this England.
So while we laud the bowling performance of our visitors, and the sensible, level-headed batting to grind out, and then build a considerable first innings lead after England spit the bit on Thursday, we have to look at England. I’d really rather not these days, but I’ve a blog team to support and a readership who seems to want to know how we feel, so it’s the necessary thing to do. The question, as I thought about when starting this piece, is where the hell do I start?
Let’s start with selection. The oddest thing is happening here. Ed Smith has taken some sort of mythical role I’ve never seen with the likes of Graveney, Miller and Whitaker in the recent past. The media are treating him like some sort of supremo over the team, almost like a manager. It’s been in the way he’s been focused upon in the stands, constantly, during this test in a way his predecessors never were. As if the role is changing into something else, almost alongside Bayliss. Is this what is intended? Anyway, no doubt his supporters will point to the “success” of his Buttler selection, and say that he should do more of this. His next dilemma is who he puts in the team to replace Mark Stoneman at Leeds, for to keep the Surrey opener in the side at this point is an act of cruelty. Let’s see what he does then.
The second issue is Bayliss. It seems clear to me he’s not a test coach in any way these days. This team doesn’t need a “good environment” but it needs a motivator. Bayliss is not getting players to play beyond themselves. People are regressing. The team is going backwards. What is his role? He’s already said he’s gone after 2019. Players respond to this sort of thing by saying to themselves that he’s not committed to the long haul. In the ODI set-up he seems to work well, but in tests we’ve been lamentable, and there seems no signs, outwardly, that it is being addressed. Social Media is full of people wanting his head, but the unsocial media are not bringing their pitchforks.
The third issue is Joe Root. Well done all concerned. Joe is being worn down by the captaincy. You can see it in his eyes. You can see it in his batting. You can see it in his demeanour on the field and being interviewed. He’s not a captain. By making him captain you are seeing diminishing returns as a player. I want his runs much more than his leadership (see also AN Cook). I want his joie de vivre as a player rather than his stern schoolmaster captain look which he isn’t. I know, the question is who replaces him, and in my view it is Jimmy Anderson for the next 18 months. I want my captain to be angry, to be a bit in your face, and challenging. This team is so mentally soft at this point, it’s laughable.
There are many weak links in the team. The batting has been a problem for ages. What do we do? Cook doesn’t have long left, but he’s still one of the best two openers in England, so he has to play. We may not like him, we certainly may not like the way the media and some who should know better treat him as a sacred cow, but we aren’t in the business of not picking our best team. And Cook is in our best team. We shouldn’t do what the geniuses in 2014 did and put the interests of personal pride over picking your best players. Because to do that would be stupid. So would those who cast aspersions over my motives on social media shut the hell up and pick on some other rubbish.
We need to try another opener while we wait for Haseeb “he reminds me of Sangakkara” Hameed learns how to bat again (I ain’t telling you I told you so….). As a Surrey man one might think of Rory Burns, but he’s not getting it. Gubbins is favoured, it seems, but not so much that he could usurp a woefully out of nick Stoneman. I genuinely don’t know what to do there. Good luck Ed. Pull a rabbit out of the hat.
Root at 3 is symptomatic of muddled thinking. He likes it, he doesn’t. He volunteers for it, he does it under duress. All this shouldn’t matter, but in this soap opera it shows they just don’t have a clue. I prefer him at 4. But to do that we need to find a 3. A 3 should be a third opener, or someone who plays there regularly. Please, not Cook. Please, not Malan. Again, I genuinely have no idea. Who is playing well in County cricket to bat at 3? Do you chuck in a novice at test level there? Again, Ed, you make the call. At now, it’s Root at 3. It just seems one place too high.
Malan at 4? No. I’m not convinced about him at all – biggish hundred at Perth notwithstanding. To me he’s the John Crawley of this era. He might make that lovely hundred that secures his future for a while, but you get the impression that if he’s as near as you have to an automatic selection out of the new lot, you are in trouble. He’s safe for now, but you get the feeling he’s holding the spot until we find someone better, and that he’s really blocking a place up.
Bairstow and Stokes are two players who need to step up. I have a feeling they are both one place too high, but Stokes isn’t going to countenance batting at 7. Jos Buttler at 7 is a nonsense. He’s being picked as a specialist batsman, and yet he’s in a slot for your all rounder. If you genuinely think he’s a test batsman, play him in a test batsman’s slot. Otherwise, you are just making a mess of things.
The bowling is not good enough. We know it. Broad and Anderson are on the decline, and we know that too. Anderson had a quiet test, Broad too. Dom Bess looked like the latest in the long line of spin bowlers who had unimpressive debuts with the ball, but might surprise you with the bat every now and then.
This is a mediocre team. You can either try to hope that it becomes less mediocre, with the top players in it stringing consistent scores together, in groups, to make big scores. Or you can blow this up and start again. Some were mentioning a “Hobart Moment” for England, but we’re not about to chuck out a load of players because to do that here is seen as “panic”. The way the Lions performed this winter doesn’t suggest we’ve got a conveyor belt of great test talent on the way.
Yesterday, I was raging. A test team representing England folded on a decent batting surface. Root stood up, but not for the time he really needed to. Bess and Buttler batted well as Pakistan tired physically and mentally last night, but listening to people saying we could set the visitors 200 was fantasy land stuff. Ladbrokes had us at 5/2 according to their TV ad at start of play, for heaven’s sake. Until we stop deluding ourselves about our place in the test firmament, we have no chance. But today I can’t be so angry. England have been in denial since 2014. In 2013 we won an Ashes series 3-0 at home and we berated the team for being boring. Now we lose to Australia 4-0 away and arguably the response was less caustic than the attacks on the winning team. I feared that blithe acceptance of that hammering set the wrong tone. There’s always an excuse with this lot. The excuses are running out.
Back in 2014, after a 5-0 rout, England replaced Andy Flower as coach. Andy Flower was given the job he wanted, and in it, his latest body of work was to see his Lions team humiliated in the Caribbean. His reward now is to take temporary charge of the England set up. You have to wonder if the ECB is deliberately taking the piss out of its supporters. This appointment sends the wrong message. It really doesn’t matter if you played a role in destroying a test team, that broke up under mass recriminations, and then took the younger players under your wing, none of whom make it in tests. This record, in the recent past, is shocking. Your last great thing done for England was 2013. Five years of limited evidence of progress. Then you get the top job, albeit in circumstances no-one would have wanted. What message does that send? The same one that keeps Bayliss in a job. The same one that lauds Cook’s success while ignores his long droughts. The same one that tells us dead rubber hundreds are as significant as live ones. The same one that keeps Ramps in a job as the batting declines. The same one that just shrugs off losses in Australia and New Zealand, and will no doubt shrug off this one too. It’s a culture of resignation, of not showing the desire, of not showing ability. This England team isn’t soft, it’s liquid.
And as I write that last bit, I feel the anger again. It’s important we do. We can’t let the ECB win this. Tests matter. Legends are made in tests. I fear for us if we don’t do something. This team needs a change of direction, not fine words, motivational speeches and good environments. I keep thinking it needs a Nasser Hussain in there. It seems that time again. But what do I know?
Feel free to comment. Not sure this England team are worth much of our time these days, but fire away. There’s only one thing worse than a team that makes you angry. It’s a team that makes you not care.