1010010 makes up the individual scores of England’s batting line up. Those who avoided base 2 scores instead batted in binary with only the slog and block buttons utilised. Ironically England’s binary score of 82 is still more than they actually managed. The two facets are not unrelated.
Not since 2000 have England enjoyed a (significant) series victory in the sub-continent and on the current evidence the wait will continue a while longer. Significantly the 2000 success was built around Graeme Thorpe, an expert player of spin and one who knew how to pick the gaps and rotate the strike. Indeed what is eye-catching about that tour is that the stroke makers were way down the averages and the best batters were the grinders like Atherton and the big hitters like White. The likes of Stewart, Hick, Hussain and Trescothick all had dreadful series.
I mention this because it may give some clues as to why the present team has struggled. The grinders, Cook and Trott have done ok as has Broad in the Craig White role but once again the stroke makers have struggled with the ball not coming onto the bat. Why is that? A lack of footwork, an inability to pick the doosra, going back when they should be forward, a lack of confidence? Why is it that such proficient players of seam bowling have failed so abjectly against quality spin bowling?
My sense is that there are too many players in this England team who feel the need to send the ball to the boundary to build their score. We praised them for their aggressive approach in taking apart the Australian and Indian attacks but on sub-continental pitches there needs to be a plan B and there hasn’t been. Ironically this is the same disease that afflicted the one day team during the recent world cup. For all the talk about how one day cricket spoils test cricketers it appears there is actually still something to learn from there. A player like Eoin Morgan, so adept at manoeuvring then ball into gaps during the middle overs in ODIs, would never have got out playing the shot he did in a limited overs game.
Maybe then the problem is T20. As world champions in the game’s shortest format England have proved adept in recent times at hitting out and slogging. One almost imagines that if handed their coloured kit and told to chase to 146 in 20 overs they would have made it at a stroll. There has been a recent backlash against the IPL amongst some Indian fans in the wake of their recent test form and maybe it has diminished the key skill of finding the 1s and 2s when batting. For all we’ve heard about innovation in shot making, the evidence is that it seems to count for nothing when runs are needed in a test match.
Others will counter and say imagine if they’d got out slogging; we’d be talking about brainless shot making and a lack of application. This is once again to miss the fact there is a middle ground. 6 hitting certainly has its place in test cricket. Misbah-ul-Haq in his first innings 84 gave an almost perfect demonstration of how to manipulate the field by hitting Panesar for 2 sixes and, once the field change had been made, reverting to his previous strategy of finding the gaps. The sad truth is that England didn’t appear to have any thinking batsmen during this test. There was no-one with a plan to relieve the pressure, to play the nudges and nurdles and to put pressure on the Pakistanis by scoring runs.
Maybe we can blame psychological issues. English cricket has been synonymous with batting collapses as far back as institutional memory seems to go and, as a fan, I’m usually sub-consciously offering a “bat first so we don’t have to bat last” prayer at the toss. Other teams have worse records at chasing small totals (the Australians and South Africans in particular) and whilst this may be our worst chase since most the Sky Sports commentary team were playing themselves there have been plenty of 4th innings collapses chasing larger totals. For me the psychological issues come down to lack of experience playing quality spinners in these conditions and nothing more deep-rooted than that. We’ve heard about Merlin, which can replicate Ajmal’s deliveries in the nets and I’m sure some very pretty sixes were hit in training sessions. It will never though be a substitute for time in the middle, learning to read the delivery and learning to fight to keep your wicket. Indeed one questions the efficacy of Merlin when so many of the English batsmen appear to have such basic technical issues facing spin. Pietersen, although unlikely to admit it, has a problem. Morgan’s technique appears wholly inadequate and Bell’s inability to work out which way the ball is turning has made him a walking wicket.
So what of the suggestions for a new broom? Get new blood in as they could hardly do worse. Jos Buttler after a one day century against Bangladesh A has been mentioned. Whilst as has been shown a different style of player could prove effective it’s sadly delusional to suggest that any batsman coming in would have a better chance of playing the spinners properly. The English county game simply doesn’t prepare players for this kind of examination. England are going to have to learn by doing. Maybe it’s time some of our over-pampered players went and took part in the Ranji Trophy or something. The IPL may pay better but until England learn to play spin on slow pitches they’ll never have a chance in sub-continental series.
Suddenly the parting comments of Indian fans that “we’ll beat you back home” start to cause alarm bells. Indian have just been hammered 4-0 in consecutive series but they will beat England, and probably whitewash them too, if things continue as they are. England are the number one team in the world in English conditions (helpfully provided by the Australians during the last Ashes series) but they will be over-taken and surpassed by others if they don’t make rapid improvements to their batting in non-English conditions.
Therefore England have 10 choices. Either they must put in the work required to master the conditions and the bowlers or they must be content to remain also-rans who are only really a force at home. There is no third way.