If ever there was a winter that emphasised the need for England to have something different in their bowling attack, this was it.
During the 4-0 hammering in Australia earlier this winter, the alarming lack of threat from England’s seam attack and from their spinner stood out like a sore thumb. What was perhaps even more remarkable was that the tourists’ failed to change what was clearly not working – four seamers bowling 130-135kph and an off-spinner whose end of series bowling average read 115.
So, surely, moving into the next Test series in New Zealand, England would change things up. There had to be something different. To win Tests on the flat pitches in Australia and New Zealand, the requirement for extra pace, bounce and better spin option becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. England, surely, couldn’t have stuck with what went so horribly wrong in Australia.
England’s Need For Variety Seen in Auckland Thrashing
And yet they did. As soon as news filtered through about Ben Stokes’s inability to bowl in the first Test in Auckland, room opened up for another seamer. That extra seamer would be Craig Overton, a bowler who is even slower than the medium-fast trio of Anderson, Broad and Woakes. As predicted, Overton offered very little threat to the New Zealand batsmen, who racked up 427/8 on their way to an innings an 49-run victory over England. Overton took just the one wicket from his 25 overs.
Of course, you could easily point to England’s appalling performance on the first morning, getting knocked over for 58, as the catalyst to their defeat in Auckland. Such dire batting barely ever gives any team the chance to come back and salvage something in a Test match. Yet, amongst England’s batting woes, of which there are quite a few, the fight they showed on day four and five in defying New Zealand for 126 overs showed that the batsmen are capable of batting for long periods. And although it may seem bizarre not to criticise the batsmen more in a match where England were bowled out in the first session of a Test, it’s the bowling department that is causing serious room for concern.
England record away from home in Tests has become woeful. They have won just four of the last 32 matches overseas, a run that includes a current winless streak of 12 Tests abroad. They are stats that enhance the point that England are now a one-dimensional side – excellent at home but incredibly ineffective away.
The catalyst for this is the lack of variety in their attack. Sure, the inconsistencies of the batsmen is making England’s problems harder but even when England make good totals with the bat, they can’t force home their advantage with the ball. In their last 11 Tests overseas, England have spent many overs in the field during the first innings (162 – Rajkot, 129.4 – Vizag, 138.2 – Mohali, 182.3 – Mumbai, 190.4 – Chennai, 130.3 – Brisbane, 148 – Adelaide, 179.3 – Perth, 119 – Melbourne, 193 – Sydney, 141 – Auckland).
The real problem areas causing such long stints in the field is lack of pace and spin. It is hard to believe why Mark Wood, arguably England’s quickest bowler at present, was not selected ahead of the medium pace of Overton for the first Test against this Black Caps. Granted, Wood’s radar seemed slightly off during the ODI series yet his pace and bounce would have been a real asset on such a flat wicket in Auckland.
There have also been concerns over Wood’s fitness. It’s no secret that the Durham man has had numerous ankle problems during his time in the England set-up, yet it would be hard to believe that he is not fit to play, considering he is with the squad in New Zealand at the moment.
The contrast to New Zealand’s attack is stark. While the deadly swing combination of Trent Boult and Tim Southee worked wonders on the first morning, it proved relatively ineffective during England’s second innings. That was the point where New Zealand needed something different to force England’s stubborn batsmen out. Neil Wagner with his hostile deliveries, was the man to do so, bouncing out Mark Stoneman and Chris Woakes, two players well set, with aggressive bouncers. It was a timely reminder of what England were missing.
Then we have the spin department. Moeen Ali, for however successful he is in England with less responsibility, has become incredibly ineffective away from home. In addition to his bowling average of 115 in Australia, his figures in Auckland were 0-59 from 17 overs. He has been as timid this winter as he was last winter in India, where he took just ten wickets from five Tests at an average of nearly 65.
It seems amazing that England have not shaken things up in the bowling department before their latest thrashing this winter but the time for change surely has to come now. Wood, as mentioned, is with the squad and would add some much-needed pace to an increasingly unthreatening seam attack. In addition, Jack Leach, County Cricket’s leading wicket-taking spinner over the last two years, is also waiting in the wings.
Wood’s pace and Leach’s wicket-taking ability are real options for England going forward because, at the moment, it is just not working. Albert Einstein once famously said ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, and unless England change up their uninspiring bowling attack, miserable winters like this one will become all too familiar.