The abject performance of the Test team has been the defining story in English cricket over the last 18 months. The summer of 2020 was reasonably positive for England as they beat the West Indies 2-1 and Pakistan 1-0, before recording a dominant 3-0 win away from home against Sri Lanka. They even got the better of a formidable Indian side in Chennai to extend their unbeaten streak to eight matches, six of which were victories. But since then, the wheels have come of completely.
That unbeaten streak was based largely on their bowlers mastery in English conditions and then Joe Root’s magnificent form with the bat. But although Root has continued to score heavily, that has not been enough to prop England’s waning fortunes up. They were dismissed in the next three matches by India, before suffering another reverse on home turf to New Zealand. India then took a 2-1 lead on English shores, before departing early after a covid-scare in their camp.
England’s fortunes looked to have reached their nadir in the Ashes. Australia are, make no mistake, a very good side, but they are probably not quite as good as England made them look. The English batters were entirely unable to deal with the pace and bounce on offer as the Australian attack, led by their captain Pat Cummins, put them to the sword. The result was a 4-0 drubbing, with only a valiant rearguard action in Sydney averting the humiliation of another whitewash.
With the Ashes long the yardstick by which England measures its cricketing fortunes, that unsurprisingly led to considerable soul-searching and more than one job being lost. Coach Chris Silverwood departed, as did managing director Chris Silverwood. Root kept his job as captain, but his days looked to be numbered. So it proved as another reverse, this time away from home in the West Indies, proved to be the final straw for Root.
He resigned the captaincy. He left the post in the best form of his career with the bat, but with the side he led in complete disarray. Root is clearly a fine man and an excellent cricketer, but the sport has long thrust the captaincy, by default, on the best player in the side and Root’s captaincy serves as a prime example of why that is rarely a wise decision. It might be said in his defence that he sought to lead by example and should not be faulted for their being insufficient talent to follow it. Regardless, the problem for England is that there is no obvious candidate to replace him.
Ben Stokes, also a superb cricketer and clearly a more inspirational leader than Root, will likely be the man to replace him. But Stokes has struggled to stay fit of late and his returns with the bat have been diminishing. That is not to suggest that he is in decline, but it is questionable as to whether saddling him with fresh responsibilities is the right response when England’s batting line-up is so frail. Unfortunately, if the position does not go to Stokes there are really no alternatives.
There is no other batter guaranteed of his place save perhaps Johnny Bairstow. He has been in fine form recently and has plenty of experience of Test cricket, but very little of captaining. Australia’s Cummins has proved that fast bowlers can make successful modern-day captains which has led to some suggesting the role be given to Stuart Broad. But Cummins and Broad are very different cricketers and, crucially, at very different points in their careers.
In the meantime, England need to find a way to get back to winning Test matches. They have managed just one victory in their last 17 outings which for any side, let alone one with their considerable resources, is unacceptable. But where is England’s next win going to come from? It looks a tall-order to expect a team so short of identity to get the better of New Zealand. Particularly as New Zealand’s formidable seam attack will surely be licking their lips at the thought of bowling to these England batters with a Duke’s ball.
India will be their next opponents, returning to finish the five-match series that started last summer, and they too look far stronger than England. Perhaps South Africa then? England did beat them when the sides last met in Test cricket and in South Africa to boot. But the Proteas are a very different proposition now, with good stocks of batting talent and a fast-bowling attack featuring at least three genuinely first-rate players in Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi.
That is seven Test matches in the coming summer in which it is hard to see England scoring a single win. It was thought that the nadir of England’s fortunes was when they collapsed to 68 all out with journeyman Scott Boland taking 6/7. Then that it could get no worse than the meek surrender in Hobart, bowled out in 38.5 over when there was a chance of victory even if only slight. Then that rock-bottom had been reached with another collapse to lose Richards-Botham Trophy in Grenada. Unfortunately for fans of England cricket, however, the reality is that it looks like it is going to get worse before it gets better.
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