What Needs to Be Done to Fix English Test Cricket?

English Test Cricket is in disarray. What can be done to fix it?
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Boxing Day at the MCG was supposed to be the start of an English fightback. Instead it was all over within seven sessions. Scott Boland had 6/7 and the Ashes over within two weeks. 3-0. Midnight on Tuesday marked the nadir of English Test Cricket. It was the lowest low. Ex-players blaming coaches, captains, systems. Best-performing domestic players not performing at international level, captain blaming bowlers, star bowler blaming batters.

But whilst the Australians are rightly enjoying their triumph, there is also a recognition that the English Test team being uncompetitive is not good for the wider game. In times where Test cricket is being questioned- people calling for franchise based 4-day tournaments, players retiring for families. One of Test cricket’s most storied sides must remain competitive. This may need a “new era” as Joe Root called for. But what actually needs to be done to fix it?

What Needs to Be Done to Fix English Test Cricket?

Step 1 – Shift importance towards County Cricket:

How can the County system be fixed? There are two parts to this. The County Championship for 2021 began on 8th April. The IPL began on 9th April. The English players involved in the IPL were Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Sam Billings, Jos Butler, Sam Curran, Tom Curran, Chris Jordan, Liam Livingstone, Dawid Malan, Eoin Morgan, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, and Chris Woakes. Seven of these players are part of the Test set-up (Ali was at the time at any rate). Which raises the question: how are these players ready for Test cricket if they aren’t playing any form of red-ball cricket?

The obvious counter-argument to this is: Virat Kohli doesn’t play in the Ranji trophy yet he still walks into the Test team and performs. But Bairstow, Butler, Curran, Malan and Woakes are not generational Test match talents. Their performances have come under scrutiny more often than not- so if their Test match performance isn’t up to the standard- shouldn’t they be playing domestic cricket to prove themselves?

As such, the England Cricket Board needs to place importance on the County Championship. This would involve passing an ultimatum of sorts: If you aren’t guaranteed a spot in the Test side (with guarantees to be based on Test match performance) you must enter yourself in the county system and perform for a spot on the international side.

This has worked pretty well for Australia. Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Alex Carey, Scott Boland, Jhye Richardson, Usman Khawaja, and Michael Neser all earned their spots in the Australian side by playing several rounds of Sheffield Shield Cricket. Marnus Labuschagne, the top-ranked Test batter in the world, has also kept his skills sharp by playing in Shield cricket.

Coincidentally, what this will also do is improve the quality of County Cricket as many more international level players will be involved in the competition which will serve to further test young talents as they make their way through the domestic system. This will ensure that the young players that are tried out at the international level are much better prepared and equipped for the top level.

Step 2 – Improve the playing conditions in County Cricket:

This has been a debate that has carried on around the County system for a while. Many ex-players and current critics which include Kevin Pietersen, Michael Vaughan and Darren Gough have criticised the pitches prepared at the County level as it “encourages the wrong style of cricket”. What they’re talking about is the reality that as the weather gets colder the pitches get damper and there is more moisture in the air, medium-pacers come to the fore and batting becomes nightmarishly difficult.

In the September round of matches this year, over 100 wickets across eight games fell on the opening day. Batters aren’t being taught how to construct innings as they are fighting for survival on these pitches and bowlers aren’t being trained to bowl to different plans, to toil and fight for wickets as rather the process becomes “simple” on green tops. In essence, they need only aim for the pads with a wobble-seam and no batter will last long. But what are the solutions?

Moving the County Championship back to the summer would be a start, but there is also more that can be done.  This is an idea for the future as the trajectory of Test cricket moves similar to the scientific trajectory of T20 Cricket in which matchups, conditions and short boundaries are studied. Pitches should be prepared by rounds. Take this as a hypothetical: round one- English pitches, round two- Australian style pitches, and round three- Subcontinent style pitches.

While this is a radical idea for many reasons, not least because the financial demands would place a strain on the ECB budget, the groundsmen may not be skilled enough and the English weather wouldn’t allow for it, it could be realised in part. For one thing, pitch information is public these days. Adelaide uses around 8-10 mm of grass, Centurion uses around 9mm. This information can be useful in training teams for foreign conditions and perhaps it’s a move that the ECB needs to make to better their chances for future foreign tours.

Step 3 – Use the England Lions productively

The England Lions tour to Australia in 2021 began with the Lions arriving in Brisbane in October. This was one month before their first game- to the common observer, this seems like plenty of time to prepare for a tour which should consist full of great opportunities right? However, they were only there to play one game.

They arrived in October, were scheduled to play a game in December and then go home. This game in December coincided with the first Ashes Test, as such, the inherent purpose of the England Lions which is to provide a pathway to the first team was also made redundant as no England Lions players could be considered for the England side in any capacity until the second Test at the earliest. And in the end, they were nearly all sent home anyway.

Moving to the future, the Lions need to be used more productively. This can be done by improving the selection and the scheduling.

Selection:
Once again, only those who have committed themselves to County cricket should be considered for selection. Young players who are performing in domestic cricket should be selected to be given an opportunity at a level that looks to emulate the highest level. This will ease the discrepancies arising in the English system right now where players like Ollie Pope average close to 65 in County Cricket but only 30 in Test match cricket. Those who are also guaranteed in the Test side but haven’t played a lot of cricket and are available for Lions tours should be taken. There is nothing better than match practice.

Scheduling:
The Lions tour should begin before a scheduled Men’s Test side tour. If Lions played a few matches against Australia A before the Ashes: 1. There would be players who have adapted to the conditions, 2. There would be potential players to pick from amidst the Ashes tour who have performed in the Lions tour. This would also help to ensure that England don’t continue to spiral and merely concede the Ashes through continuing with players who are simply not good enough to succeed in Australia.

Step 4 – Current squad/leadership shakeup

The current English squad in Australia is simply not good enough. In fact, Ricky Ponting described the team as the “worst touring party to come to Australia probably ever”. For future tours, the vision is simple in the sense that most of these players probably won’t cut it.

The approach for the future should be that all consistent County cricket performers in the last few seasons should be noted- put in Lions tours or intrasquad games to prepare them for the first time. There also needs to be a capable coaching setup- ex English opener Nick Compton revealed that Chris Silverwood got the English coaching job over Gary Kirsten based on a PowerPoint. Yes. A PowerPoint.

Since then, Kirsten has registered his interest in coaching the England Test team again. That interest should be followed up with. The English team needs strong, experienced leaders. Leaders who give them a reality check and then help them improve. Chris Silverwood’s ‘reassuring’ stance post the MCG Test was simply bizarre as he claimed “there were positives” moments after one of England’s lowest points in Test cricket.

There is also debate around whether Root should remain captain or not. Root doesn’t deserve to be sacked as captain as he is the only one who has consistently performed, but if it helps him better his performance even more and sustain his form then it may be the way to go for the future.

If that call is to be made it needs to be made now- this English Test cricket era needs to begin with consistency. The era needs to be either built around Root or whatever other suitable candidate ECB considers. However, as of now, Root may be the only one who has cemented his spot in the side (as a batter, assuming England want a batting captain), therefore, they have to also be cautious in their decision.

The frenzy of opinions around the English circuit right now has made it so that the ECB has a lot on their plate. It’s true, there is a lot that needs to be fixed. Starting internally and domestically may be the best approach so that the foundation for the future is strong. But what is absolutely certain is that this cannot be allowed to continue.

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