Yesterday’s drama at Lord’s will allow for many narratives to take shape. The unlikely partnership between Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah at the end of India’s innings, the performances of India’s bowling unit as a whole, and the thrilling end to the match all make for entertaining talking points. But there is a less happy issue at hand. England threw away a very promising winning position, again. They do this far too often. It is easy to talk about English batting collapses (or their failing to bowl out tailenders) with an air of ironic inevitability, but there needs to be a serious discussion about what allows these frustrating defeats to occur so often. Some of Joe Root’s tactical decisions as captain deserve examination, too, but there is a wider issue with English cricketing culture which is even more of a problem.
English Cricketing Culture Needs to Change
The Match Itself
As with any Test match, there were multiple turning points across the five days. Arguably the most important of all, however, was the partnership of 89 runs off 120 balls between tailenders Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah. Much of the media focus was on the unexpected efforts of the two batsmen, who averaged just over 11 and 3 respectively before this innings, but the way that England gifted them runs was nothing short of a debacle. Overs went by where not a single ball pitched on the stumps (generally a dependable way of getting out people who aren’t as competent at hitting cricket balls as their team-mates further up the order); field placings became more and more defensive, allowing the two batsmen to rack up singles far too quickly; and Root rotated his bowlers seemingly hoping for a breakthrough, rather than planning for one.
This is not to discredit Shami and Bumrah, who batted well and played some attractive shots along the way. It isn’t ‘easy’ to get almost any professional cricketer out. What is more worrying than the partnership itself is that Root allowed himself to be intimidated by a few expansive shots and started moving fielders around and taking pressure off the batsmen. Tailenders playing aggressively is part and parcel of the game, and even if they happen to hit some quick runs, it is important to keep them under pressure and trust one’s bowlers to get them out.
Joe Root’s Captaincy
Unfortunately, Root has had several incidents as captain where a combination of panicked bowler rotation and conservative field placings have allowed teams to score too many runs after early wickets. Two of the most high-stakes examples came in the 2019 Ashes, first in the first Test, where England allowed a 90-run first innings lead to vanish, with the Australians scoring 487-7 off only 112 overs despite being 27-2, and on the fourth day of the fourth Test at Old Trafford. Although England were down by nearly 200 runs after the first innings, some inspired bowling by Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer meant that Australia slumped to 44-4, and went into tea under genuine pressure. After tea, however, Root chose to bowl Craig Overton and Jack Leach, despite the incredible form of Archer and Broad in the previous session. Suddenly, the Australian run-rate increased to well over four runs an over, and they were able to declare before the end of the day’s play, even picking up two bonus wickets before stumps.
In both of these cases, England were without Jimmy Anderson and had some bad luck, but the way that the relieved the pressure on the batsmen and allowed them to score quick runs displayed a lack of killer instinct and even tactical acumen. Unfortunately, killer instinct is something which has been lacking in the English Test team for several years now.
A Lack of Intangibles
Every cricketing nation wants to beat England. One could argue that they want to beat every team they face, but the history of cricket means that every country has added motivation against the English. One only had to look in the eyes of many of the Indian players at Lord’s to see this on display. At least from an external perspective, it is often difficult to see the same fire in the eyes of the England players. At this point, it is important to mention that the intangibles of sport can be used as an excuse to explain away more complicated issues. Words like ‘passion’ and ‘desire’ can be thrown around, as if those who have made it to Test cricket level could have done so without some kind of passion for the sport.
At the very least, however, some proof of a lack of fight can be seen in the plethora of batting collapses, or occasions where opposition batsmen have been allowed to score runs to easily in pressure situations. Different people control their emotions in different ways, and we cannot expect every English cricketer to channel anger into match-winning performances every single time but, especially with Ben Stokes out of the team, there has been a clear lack of outward emotion in losing situations. Cool heads are just as important as swashbucklers, but the team has shown neither of these things in this ongoing Test series; panic, instead, has been the most abundant emotion on display.
Of course, it is not just Joe Root’s captaincy and a perceived lack of will to win which is stopping England from winning Test matches. It would have been useful for England’s selectors, for example, to tap into the County Championship to find potential replacements for those struggling in the Test side, but the debut of The Hundred (which fills a non-existent gap in the market) has meant that there is no domestic red-ball going on in the middle of August, and there were other problems to worry about before the advent of this particular White Elephant. All of these issues, however, will take a long time to sort out. In the short term, England must find a way to play without fear, and to stand up to the opposition rather than give them gifts. This is much easier said than done, but fans invest a lot of time and energy into following Test matches, and performances like yesterday’s final day can make that time and energy feel wasted.
Embed from Getty Images