Denly, Root, Stokes. Those three batsmen are basically all that stands between England and a crushing defeat characterised by poor batting on a pitch which is frankly every bit as dead as Melbourne in 2017. There is absolutely no reason that this Test should not have been a bore draw, except for England’s ineptitude in the middle.
The New Zealand innings, which lasted for just over two sessions last night, was pretty much a repeat of day 3. Watling and Santner batted through most of the day, with England’s bowlers causing few if any problems. The scoring accelerated after Lunch, with the two batsmen pushing New Zealand’s first innings lead beyond 250 until the hosts declared just after Tea. England’s bowling was flat, but so was the pitch and it doesn’t really seem fair to ascribe any blame to them when virtually every wicket which has fallen has been to a collossal mistake by the batsmen.
Which brings us to England’s innings. They needed to bat out 118 overs in order to save the game. Historically, that is seen as a very tough task. On a dead pitch where New Zealand’s numbers six and eight have just shared a partnership lasting 83.2 overs however, a solid batting lineup should at the very least fancy their chances. Burns and Sibley saw out the first hour from Boult and Southee, and then left-arm orthodox spinner Mitchell Santner came on.
Sibley was the first wicket to fall, edging a forward defensive prod to a ball which was about a yard wide of the stumps and spinning away. Four overs later, with England just three overs away from the end of the day, Burns top-edged a slog sweep which went almost straight up in the air before being caught at square leg by de Grandhomme. The only blameless wicket was right at the end, when nightwatchman Jack Leach was wrongly given out caught behind. A specialist batsman would almost certainly have immediately reviewed the decision, even if they thought there was a possibility they had in fact hit it. Leach, probably aware that the outcry for wasting a review in the England camp would almost certainly outweigh the potential congratulations if it was successful, chose instead to walk off.
Mitchell Santner has never taken more than three wickets in an innings, but seems poised to exceed that by at least a couple more tonight. I think it is remarkable how many mediocre (as Colin Graves might say) spinners excel when playing against England. Of the 24 spin bowlers (a number which includes quite a few part-timers) to have played against them in the last two years, seven made their career Test best bowling figures. New Zealand’s Santner and Astle; Chase in the West Indies; Sandakan, Pushpakumara and Dananjaya in Sri Lanka; Vihari in India. None of these are world-class bowlers who other teams seem to have trouble facing, and yet they run through England like a vindaloo through an incontinent grandpa. This is a consistent, clearly identifiable flaw in England’s Test batting which needs addressing.
There was an interesting conversation on Sky during the Lunch break, following an interview between Wardy and Ashley Giles about the changes the ECB has made recently in coaching and developing England players. In just two minutes, Key absolutely destroys the ECB’s National Cricket Performance Centre as a worthwhile endeavour.
Nick Knight: What about Loughborough? What about the Lions pathway? Ashley [Giles] spoke a little about it there. You’ve been through both those pathways. Have they worked over a period of time? The ECB have invested a lot of money and time in those pathways. Are players now more developed, having come through that pathway than they were before it existed?
Rob Key: There’s two different things there. Loughborough, I’ve always seen as a bit of a waste of money because I see Loughborough as a bit of a glorified indoor school. Where it’s the hub in the middle of Loughborough University. There’s an indoor net facility, a few other things, gyms, all of that type of stuff that I’ve spent many an hour in. Generally, Loughborough itself hasn’t really done anything to help cricketers. But what has, as Ashley Giles spoke there, which is a big difference, which I’m all for, is if someone wants to practice against spin. You’re not going to learn to play spin at Loughborough, but you will do if you get shipped out to Mumbai and you go and practice playing spin out there for three or four weeks. And then you want to play fast ones, they help people go to Australia. So then you can just send the players all around, it’s like a finishing school or it’s meant to be a finishing school, the Lions programme. Like he said, Ben Foulkes going out and playing in Sri Lanka. The Lions tours that they go on are absolutely vital, and they’re really good. The academy trip or the Lions trip I went on, we spent six months in Australia facing Simon Jones, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Chris Tremlett, Alex Tudor. Forget about coaches, you can’t not improve in that sort of environment. But that wouldn’t have been any good just being at Loughborough, in the middle of winter in an indoor school.
So I have no idea how much money gets ploughed into Loughborough, there’s nothing against the coaches there or anything else. I just don’t see the point in having an expensive facility that pretty much every county has. Probably not as nice, put it that way, but every county has its own indoor school. But the Lions programme I think is actually very good. It gives the opportunity to players that you don’t get in counties, especially in the winter. So they have a whole pathway system where they have Daniel Vettori doing a bit with the spinners out in the UAE and places like that. So that I think is really vital. Loughborough itself… It was a pain having to go up there. Bowlers don’t want to bowl in an indoor school. So you’re going up there, you’re not doing any cricket. You just do fitness testing. That seems like an expensive thing to have for that.
Ashley Giles clearly thinks the problems at Loughborough lie with the staff, as major personnel chances have occurred since he took charge. I agree with Key on this. The core issue is in the concept itself, not its execution. No indoor net, no matter how sophisticated, can replicate the experience of playing overseas. Nor can it simulate an innings which spans more than a few overs. Fitness, whilst obviously important, in no way requires or justifies a multi-million pound annual investment in a specialist facility. County cricketers are, as far as I can tell, as fit as any international players. The main problems with England’s Test team in recent years have been lack of concentration and focus by the batsmen, and frequent spells of ineffectiveness from the bowling attack when overseas. Loughborough can’t and won’t do anything to clear either of these hurdles.
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