Inasmuch as England are in this match at all – and their chances are very slim indeed – is down to the bowlers, who fought manfully to undo the damage caused by yet another abject batting performance and try to drag their side back into contention. Stokes in particular, in a marathon spell that yielded two wickets and deserved far more epitomised a bowling attack attempting to pull off the impossible given what happened in the morning. It isn’t going to happen, not without a batting display entirely out of kilter with everything that’s gone on recently, but if nothing else it showed heart and desire.
England have batted 13 times this year, and of those 13 innings they have been skittled out for under 100 on three occasions. On a further three it’s been under 200, while only three totals have been over 300 and none have reached 400. So when hands are thrown up in horror just because it’s happened against Australia, and because the Ashes are probably gone about as early as was possible this series, let’s not pretend for a moment that anyone should be surprised at this. It’s routine, it’s normal, it’s exactly this England side.
When assorted bloggers, tweeters, fans, hell, people down the pub have been able to spot what was coming, it remains extraordinary to witness the wilful blindness from those who use their positions of influence to talk up their awareness of the game while ignoring the bleeding obvious staring every single cricket follower full in the face. There have been a few, a a noble few, who have pointed out at every stage what the direction of travel was going to lead to, but so many have simply existed in the moment, suggested the deckchairs be moved around a bit, and reacted with amazement at the latest capitulation of a team comprised of white ball specialists and players out of position.
The Hundred is merely the culmination of a deliberate strategy to focus on short form cricket, at the expenses of the longer game. It hasn’t even begun, it can’t be said to be responsible, but it is a symptom rather than a cause. The county championship has been curtailed and shunted to the margins of the season where batting technique is compromised – and let’s not put aside the other likely impacts of that to come in the bowling department – all the while pushing the case that shorter is better. Fine. The aim was to win the World Cup, and that’s been achieved, albeit with a plan to immediately scrap 50 over cricket as a top level domestic competition to make way for a 16.4 over thrash-fest. But the cost of that single minded pursuit of limited over cricket has been the Test game, the one that the ECB repeatedly state to be the most important form while doing everything in their power to undermine it.
There is no point being angry at today’s abject batting capitulation. The damage has been done over several years, deliberately and pointedly, in favour of enriching the game at the top at the expense of the rest of it. Blame the England batting line up for their performance today, don’t blame them for the structure that got us here. Half of them are batting out of position, or being asked to do something to which they aren’t suited. Some are simply not good enough but have been selected anyway by a chief selector who was happy enough to talk to the media as a leftfield cricketing guru (despite reservations even at the time even when things initially came off) but has skulked away into a corner the moment the strategy of ignoring 150 years of cricketing history in favour of funkiness began to unravel.
For that might just be the worst part of the way this England team is set up. It’s not just that the batting isn’t good enough, it’s that they aren’t even being given the chance to make the most of what they have. An opener in white ball cricket who has barely done the job in 4 day cricket, let alone Tests is dumped into the team (with the strong and vocal support of so many of the cricketing press and pundits) right at the top of the order and unsurprisingly fails to demonstrate the kind of technique required to do the job. It isn’t just that Roy might never be good enough to be a Test cricketer, for that is a question to be answered by playing him, it’s that he isn’t even being given the chance to prove whether he is or not. He’s a middle order player, and one who only may be of the standard required. Who would ever have suggested that someone like Kevin Pietersen, a much superior player, could go and open? The idea is preposterous.
Root was pushed to bat at three by a baying mob who felt the only response to the failures of others was to compromise England’s best player and then be shocked at the outcome. Root has a reasonable enough record at four, but he was an outstanding one at five. He’s another middle order player, a stroke maker. The captaincy may well be having an effect on him, but probably not as much as the prospect of having to carry the batting order doing a job for which he’s not best suited, which was known perfectly well back when he opened the batting and was moved down because he wasn’t that good at it.
Now, in this England team, batting at one or five doesn’t amount to a whole lot of difference given how they routinely lose early wickets, but there’s the perfect storm of choosing square pegs for round holes, multiplying the errors and causing a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That England have plenty of middle order players is no surprise – they’re geared that way because of that same focus on white ball cricket. Some of them are decent players in Test cricket too, but they can’t overcome the fundamental problems in the top order. Jos Buttler might be considered a luxury player at 7, but he’s one that might well be highly effective if he had a decent platform when he came into bat rather than constantly reaching the crease with the team in crisis. He’s done reasonably in an order where reasonably amounts to a success. He’s just another unable to show his best because of the wider so called strategy.
There are some players around whose game is geared towards the longer game – Sibley and Crawley are the two mentioned most often – but they aren’t the salvation of a structure that actively works against developing such players in the first place, and which is geared ever more to accelerating that trend. Even the obvious Test cricketers like Root have been working hardest to develop their T20 game as the sport heads further in that direction.
This is a global phenomenon, and Australia’s batting order shorn of Smith hardly looks one to terrify bowlers of past and present, but only the ECB have gone quite so far down the direction of deliberately undermining the Test team in pursuit of the short term cash provided by T20 and now the Hundred. Yet they clearly have produced players with a greater Test match mentality than England have, and Labuschagne is a perfect example, having ground out another invaluable knock today.
The bowlers on both sides in this match have performed well. There was a period yesterday when England’s were profligate and even downright poor, but overall they have struggled manfully with trying to rescue a team that is holed below the waterline. Likewise, while Australia have a very fine bowling attack, for England to be bowled out (again) in well under 30 overs was unacceptable however disciplined their opponents were.
It’s not about individual performances at this stage, it’s not about the effort that is being put in. Ben Stokes bowled as fine a spell today as could be wished for, and with the bat shows every sign of being determined to be as good a player as he can. But he’s fighting an uphill battle alongside all of the individuals in a team that has no idea how to approach the Test game and a governing body that barely pays lip service to the concept of generating players who can perform in it. The sound is of chickens coming home to roost, of a structure that has been intended to create precisely the kinds of batsmen that we now have.
Two years ago Tom Harrison unveiled the ECB strategy by stating that England under Root were to play a positive, exciting “brand of cricket” even if they lost a game or two. The rationale stated was that this was how to excite the young and get them into the game of cricket. It’s the same justification all the time from an organisation that never questions its own genius, and responds to every setback or criticism by insisting the answer is more of what they are already doing.
The England Test team is the jewel in the crown of English cricket not because of old farts harking back to a golden age of cricket, but because it is the form of the game that drives the most interest from those who love the game, and which still garners by far the most attention. A weak England side getting hammered by Australia is somewhat unlikely to raise the level of interest in the sport, no matter how many domestic competitions are created.
None of this absolves the England batsmen for their shots this morning. Throwing their hands at the ball outside of off stump is reckless in any Test match, but that it is anything but the first time in recent matches that they’ve done so is why it can’t be approached as though it were a one off team aberration. It’s systemic, and while the entire batting order bar, arguably, Root were out to balls they didn’t need to play at, this remains a consistent mindset in the England team. If it were as simple as them not doing it next time, it wouldn’t keep happening.
England are fighting hard, but they are a team with one hand tied behind their back and with their bootlaces tied together by those tasked to help them make the most of themselves. It isn’t about England not being a particularly good side, for God knows any England fan in middle age has seen that on plenty of occasions. It is that the entire ethos of the sport at the highest level in this country seems determined to make it even worse.
Perhaps it will be that a heavy home defeat against Australia will be the factor that forces action – if not a change in direction, a moderation of the current approach. But successive 5-0 and 4-0 away defeats didn’t do that, and with a World Cup in the bag this summer, the ECB will continue to slap themselves on the back and insist all is going marvellously. Perhaps it might even be that they are right, and that in a decade Test cricket, played over 4 days, will merely be a hangover from an older generation’s desire to wish the game hadn’t changed. But those who love cricket, those who really care about the game, almost universally think of Tests as the apogee, the summit of the game, and so do the players. Going all out to wreck it in favour of the filthy lucre provided by the shortest versions of the game are more likely to drive it to that end irrespective of desires or wants from players or fans.
England’s batting was abysmal yes, but look behind the actions of today for why it is far from a one off.
And lastly, 98 overs were scheduled today, 87 including the two for change of innings were bowled. It’s getting worse.