Tim Murtagh is a good but unremarkable county bowler. He has a career first-class bowling average of 25.33. He does not have magical powers relating to the Lord’s pitch. He bowls a medium pace delivery with minimal movement which international batsmen, particularly when they’re being paid what England’s batsmen are being paid, should be able to handle if not absolutely dominate.
All of which is to say that I was both surprised, and yet at the same time totally unsurprised, when Murtagh tore through England’s top order like Ian Austin through a free buffet. England have had a long run of giving thoroughly ordinary bowlers their best career figures. The first example which springs to mind is from a few months back, when Roston Chase took 8/60 on a pitch which was not turning in the slightest. Even after that innings, Chase’s Test bowling average remains well over forty.
There is an undeserved arrogance which England seem to project when facing what should, on paper at least, be weaker opposition. Most of today’s team haven’t played a game in this year’s County Championship, meaning their last game with a red ball was either in the West Indies in February or 10 months ago in the previous home season. The compressed schedule to fit in the World Cup and a five-Test series meant here was no time to add in any warmup games. Not that this mattered to the ECB and the England team, because they (and much of the English media) have treated this Test match as a warmup for the Ashes.
This is not a new phenomenon either. Last year, England played an ODI against Scotland as a precursor to their series against Australia. With no warmups or team practices before the game, the highest ranked ODI team and current World Cup-holders were smashed to all parts of the ground by the Scottish batsmen. England’s Test team are considerably less able relative to to their ODI counterparts, and yet still the expectation that they can rock up to a full international game against a ‘weak’ opposition and win without any preparation whatsoever remains.
The most worrying thing about this batting performance by England is that this is quite possibly their first-choice top five. Buttler and Stokes were rested after the World Cup, but they bat at 7 and 6 respectively. All of the batsmen seemed to play miles away from their pad when driving, both to the front and side. It was absolutely terrible technique. These five batsmen scored a total of 36 runs between them, with their team having won the toss and whilst playing in rather benign conditions. Joe Denly was the best of the lot, contributing 23 runs, but by no means was he good enough.
Since the start of the 2018 season, only two English batsmen in the top five average over 30: Alastair Cook, and Joe Root. Root averages 33.76 in that time. During Cook’s struggles as opener, his continued selection was excused by people declaring that there was no better alternative to take his place. This now seems to apply to every member of their batting unit, including the captain. Ten years ago, an average of 33.76 would have seen any batsman dropped. Now, such a thing would be inconceivable.
Such selection niceties don’t extend to the bowlers, despite their consistent good work with the bat and ball. Olly Stone and Sam Curran took three wickets each plus were the second and third highest-scoring batsmen in the first innings, and yet both are likely to be dropped to make way for the rested Ben Stokes and injured Jimmy Anderson. It is a consistent thread in recent times that England’s bowlers pay the price for the batsmen’s failures.
That England are in this game at all is thanks to their bowlers. Restricting any Test team to 207 runs in their first innings is a great achievement, particularly on what is a flat (if somewhat slow) pitch. They are 122 runs behind, but that is not an impossible margin to recover against a fragile opponent.
England might have been in a worse position at the close of play if there had been 98 overs in the day, as there was supposed to be. Being a four-day Test, the sessions have an extra half hour added. Instead, the day finished with 12 overs lost. This was not, I hasten to add, England’s fault. Ireland were about ten overs short in the first session, in large part due to the rapid succession of English wickets. Because the rules regarding over rates are extraordinarily lax, it is also unlikely that either team will face any penalty for this. Allowances are made for drinks breaks (of which there were six rather than the normal three due to the freakishly hot weather) and short innings such as England’s effort are also given due consideration. We do bang on about it, but this a consistent problem which cheats paying fans out of their money.
England have made one much-needed change to their batting lineup: They have replaced Jason Roy as opener. Jack Leach seems infinitely better equipped to open the Test batting, as shown by his ability to face six deliveries without giving the opposition a chance to take his wicket. Such a solid foundation might help England’s middle order produce a few more runs than they managed in the first innings. I can only assume that Roy will be batting at 11.
If you have any comments about today’s play (and boy, do I bet you do), please make them below.