George Dobell in Antigua
If you kept driving your car into a tree, you wouldn’t except your insurance company – or the police – to be pacified by the response ‘but that’s the way I drive.’
And if you kept setting fire to your house, you might think twice about cooking with paraffin.
But England’s batsmen seem reluctant to accept change. Whatever the pitch, whatever the match situation, they appear to think that attack is the best form of defence.
Antiguan roads are not especially wonderful. They contain the sort of pot-holes which can swallow a family-sized car. But you wonder if, each day, Trevor Bayliss sits upfront with the team’s bus driver urging him to go faster in a bid to reach the ground before the pot-holes can get them.
In this game, England were given a perfect example of how to negate these conditions by West Indies’ batsmen. Both Kraigg Brathwaite and Darren Bravo prospered by playing straight, refusing to follow or chase the ball and being prepared to resist for long, scoreless periods during which they had to jab the bat down on the ones which kept low and tried to keep the hands below the deliveries that reared.
At one stage Bravo – not so long ago a T20 specialist – went 174 balls between boundaries. His half-century – believed to be the slowest (in terms of minutes) in Test history by a West Indies batsman – was painstaking, but it also took this game beyond England. It was a masterclass in denial and selflessness for the team cause.
England’s batsmen seem either unwilling or unable to replicate such an attitude. They won’t – in general – dare to be dull or bore to draw. They react to every challenge (with one or two exceptions; such as the Ben Stokes–Jos Buttler rear-guard against India at Trent Bridge) by trying to hit the ball harder, further and faster. Is this really because they believe it is the best way to prosper in such circumstances? Or because they don’t trust their defensive games?
Either way, this is an episode that raise more questions about the coaching standards within the England team – who has improved in this environment, after all? – and the structure of county cricket. It is hard to imagine there has been a time in the history of English cricket when there has been such a dearth of top-order batsmen and openers, in particular. When you add to that the lack of fast bowlers and quality spinners and you are left with a domestic system – squeezed into spring and autumn, as it is – that is simply not delivering enough players of Test quality. It might be noted, however, that it IS delivering limited-overs players. It’s not hard to see where the ECB’s priorities have led us.
Perhaps this isn’t entirely fair. Joe Root, for example, received almost impossible deliveries in both innings, while Joe Denly was out leaving a ball. England have also been out-gunned in this series – just as they were in the Ashes in Australia – by tall fast bowlers who hit the pitch harder and gained more from it as a result. They bowled straighter, too, claiming nine wickets with bowled or leg-before dismissals, while England claimed just one; albeit in one fewer innings. England dropped several chances, too. It’s not all the batsmen’s fault, by any means. West Indies have, in all departments, outplayed England.
But the point remains valid. Too many England players are putting too low a value on their wickets. Buttler (who was punished for playing across the line) has one century from 30 Tests; Bairstow (who missed a lavish drive) has been bowled 29 times in his Test career – that’s 29 times out of 102 dismissals; more than any Test batsman this decade – and Stokes’ Test average is now down to 32.88. Stokes (an edge off another big drive) hasn’t scored a Test century since the incident in Bristol and has averaged 24.83 in that period; it was 35.72 before.
Moeen Ali, meanwhile, has seen his Test batting average drop to 30.28, Rory Burns wasted a solid-looking start to his innings by guiding a cut to the slips cordon as obligingly as if he had been asked to provide catching practice and, without being unkind, Denly was fortunate not to make a pair having been reprieved by the umpire in the first innings and a dropped chance in the second. Suffice to say, he didn’t look the most convincing answer to England’s opening problems.
This cannot be dismissed as an aberration. Not once in four innings this series have England reached even 250 and not once in Sri Lanka did they make 350. Only once in seven Tests in the English summer did they reach 400.
We know this England batting line-up has some talent. But talent works best when it is allied to rigour and discipline. At present, this England set-up is looking a little too cosy, a little too forgiving. If they are going to insist ‘this is the way we play’ then England will need to find other players with a bit more sense and sophistication.