In the build up to the series, there was little doubt that England’s batting fragility was going to be a factor in the outcome of the series. Australia’s too for that matter, though while the quality of Smith was well known, it might not have been factored in that he’d score nearly 300 runs in this Test. The difference between the two teams can in no small part be put down to his performance.
Coming into the final day, it might well have been the case that there was no reason England couldn’t bat the day to save the game, but that didn’t mean there was any confidence they would do so. The batting line up of a few years back would specialise in rearguard actions, and while they didn’t always succeed, they gave it a damn good go on most occasions, and pulled it off more times than their fair share.
Not this lot.
Hardly anyone can have had confidence England could bat a full day, just based on recent history. The number of batsmen who can be counted on to graft session after session is very few, and one of the most likely candidates can be found down at number nine in the order – and in the event was top scorer. The moment the first wicket went down, the sense of inevitability was already there, while Jason Roy’s skip down the track and abysmal hack at the ball was indicative of the inability to play traditional Test cricket. Four down by lunch, all out mid way through the afternoon session. It wasn’t even close. It didn’t threaten to be close at any stage.
While Australia (or Smith, specifically) deserve huge credit for digging themselves out of the mire at 122-8, England still had a chance to put themselves in a powerful position when they were 282-4. Their eventual lead of 90 was useful, but not overwhelming, and it should have been more. It only got to that many because of Woakes and Broad, and England’s collapse otherwise presaged what would happen in the second innings.
There will be the usual handwringing about what went wrong, and why it went wrong, plus the calls for selectorial changes. Moeen Ali will likely be dropped, as much for his own good as anything else, so shorn of confidence did he look. Denly too might be removed, but it won’t alter the fundamental problems that apply, and which can be laid squarely at the door of the ECB and their determination to sideline first class cricket to the margins of the season. Not only is it that a focus on white ball cricket leads to a white ball cricket style of batting, it’s that those who do play red ball cricket are playing in conditions that don’t suit long innings. That’s not to say it’s a direct cause of a collapse today, but a line can be drawn from it to a diminishing number of players who might be deemed specialists in long form cricket, and the subsequent selection of white ball cricketers to play in the Test team. Roy and Buttler are fabulous players on the attack, not so much in today’s circumstances, or indeed the circumstances Australia found themselves in the second innings where they too needed to grind down the bowlers rather than play as many shots as possible.
Root afterwards said that England had been got out today rather it being a poor batting display, and while that’s true to a degree, England certainly didn’t sell their wickets especially dearly. Lyon bowled well on a fifth day pitch that played as a fifth day pitch should, taking spin, and even had England batted well, it might have proved too much to resist. But England batted only half a day here – 45 overs. Even in challenging conditions, against a good bowler, it’s pretty poor. And it’s not even an outlier. Would it be expected that England would have done so even if the pitch hadn’t been taking spin? Not really.
Root himself seems to be suffering from declining performances – from an admittedly very high level to a still good level overall – whether due to the captaincy, due to the batting fragility around him, or some other reason. Bairstow can barely buy a run currently, nor can Moeen. Only Stokes and Woakes appear to have the nous to bat long in the middle order. Rory Burns at the top showed he could do it and if he manages that a couple more times this series, that at least will be one position filled. Cook never did manage the fourth innings saviour act in his career, but at least you thought he might do.
It’s hard to be angry about a batting collapse several years in the making, and repeated on a regular basis. This is where England are, and if they are to get back into the series at Lords, it will likely be on the back of Australia being every bit as flaky, bar one player.
Defeat is disappointing. The entirely predictable nature of it irritates.