England are not as good as they think they are

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Sep
9

5:35 PM ET

There is a scene in the film The Edge which might capture the moment England started building the side that took them to No. 1 in the Test rankings.

It centred on a team meeting just after England had been bowled out for 51 in Jamaica in early 2009. In that meeting, for the first time in a while, the players were encouraged to be honest with one another; to criticise one another; to try to pinpoint the exact reasons why they were underperforming.

The conclusion, in short, was that England weren’t as good as they thought they were. They weren’t training as hard as they should be; they weren’t living the lifestyles they should be. And only by acknowledging their short-comings could they understand where they needed to change and improve. Diagnosis is the very step towards recovery.

Might England be in a similar place now? Yes, we know some of this team have excellent records in white-ball cricket. And yes, we know some of them are hugely talented. But it increasingly seems several of them are living on the promise of what they might achieve rather than what they have. Eventually, such promises must be kept.

Also Read: Root wants to carry on as captan despite Ashes defeat

There is a danger, perhaps, that England may focus on positive moments in this series – their admirable resilience under pressure; their stubborn refusal to accept they are beaten; the glimpse of victory offered at Lord’s and the miracle of Leeds – and allow it to obscure their weaknesses. But if they’re really honest with themselves, they will admit that their batting unit – a unit that has lost 10 wickets within a single session four times in three years – has been painfully fragile for several years and that their faults this series were, for a while at least, simply obscured by Ben Stokes‘ brilliance at Headingley.

Certainly that seemed to be a theme of Joe Root‘s post-match media conference. It focused a little too much on the positives – and yes, his side is engagingly hard to kill off – without acknowledging that good sides don’t get themselves into the position where they have their backs against the wall this often. It was hard to avoid the impression that Root is increasingly in denial about the holes within his England side. Only one man in the team averages as much as 36. They’re not as good as they think they are.

Now, it may be that there is no combination that England could have selected which would have won this series. Australia have been, by some distance, the better side. Steve Smith has been exceptional and Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins not far behind. Without the Stokes-inspired miracle of Leeds, the scoreline in this series might be 3-0 already.

But England’s selection requires attention. For asking players to fulfil at Test level roles they do not fulfil at county level is irresponsible and foolish. The failure of Jason Roy, a man who has never batted for two sessions in his entire first-class career, as opener was not just predictable but raises questions about the judgement of the selection panel. His technique – his hands pushing in front of his pad offering the hope of an edge to the slips and a gate onto the stumps – was apparent long before it was exposed so brutally by this Australian attack. It’s both weird and worrying that the selectors couldn’t see it.

And it’s not as if Roy is a one-off. Ollie Pope, who had never come in before the 20th over of a first-class game and batted No. 6 for Surrey, was asked to come in at No. 4 – and in the first 10 overs of the innings – when he represented England last year. Joe Denly, who gave up opening years ago, has been asked to take up the role once more at the higher level.

Remember Sam Curran being preferred to Stuart Broad in Barbados? Dom Bess being preferred to Moeen Ali last year? The grim refusal to accept that Keaton Jennings wasn’t up to it or that Denly wasn’t the spin-bowling all-rounder England required ahead of the World Cup? Increasingly, the judgement of Ed Smith is looking suspect.

And then there’s the captain. Root now averages 40.87 as captain of this side, compared to 52.80 when not captain. All of which provides compelling evidence that the leadership is compromising his ability to perform his primary role in the side: run scorer. At the same time, England have won 16 and lost 13 of his matches at the helm. Having inherited a side that seemed to have the potential to build into something special, he has instead presided over what increasingly looks like its disintegration. Moeen Ali has already gone, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler may not be far behind. There’s not much evidence to suggest he has the tactical or rhetorical skills to lift this side.

Most of all, England should acknowledge that this disappointment was the result of choices made long ago. When Andrew Strauss was appointed as director of cricket, he made a clear decision to prioritise white-ball cricket. The coach was chosen with that in mind, the domestic schedule was changed with that in mind and players were selected with that in mind. The entire landscape and language of English cricket was altered and, without it, England would not have won the World Cup.

But there were also negative consequences. And they have been increasingly apparent in this series. If England do still value Test cricket, there has to be some recalibration of the balance between the formats. The white-ball window that dominates the 2020 season schedule suggests the ECB’s talk is not matched by their actions. While they have that window, they have a problem.

Too many players in this England side are doing just enough to retain their places but nowhere near enough to shape games. Take Bairstow, who is averaging 20.57 this year (and 26.38 since January 1, 2018), Denly, who averages 24.92 after seven Tests and could have been caught at deep mid-wicket – yes, deep mid-wicket – as he batted for a draw on Sunday, and Buttler, who has now played 35 Tests and scored only one century. None of them are improving in this England set-up. None of them are doing enough to shape games for their side.

Indeed, it may be Buttler who most exemplifies this team. Yes, he’s talented. Yes, he can hit a white ball as well as anyone in the world. But he goes into the final Test of this series as a specialist batsman coming in at No. 7 and averaging just 16.25. Various other players – the likes of Pope, Moeen, Bairstow and Stokes – have been moved to accommodate him. But the return on the investment is modest and the reputation, in Test cricket at least, is bigger than the achievement.

His returns shouldn’t surprise us. He averages just 32.12 in first-class cricket. He’s made only five first-class centuries in his entire career of 99 games. But his raw talent – his ability to hit balls to the boundary, really – has seduced the selectors into thinking he’s something he’s not and concluding that he can turn those figures around at the higher level. It’s poor logic. He’s been living off promise for years.

That’s, basically, the story of this England side. It’s full of batsmen with big reputations and small averages. Batsmen who can impress for an hour or two but lack the old-school skills required to build match-defining innings. And bowlers who, while honest, were put in the shade by the sustained excellence of Cummins and Hazlewood. Yes, England did wonderfully well to win the World Cup. But in Test cricket, at least, they’re not as good as they think they are. They need an honest appraisal of where they are – much like Jamaica in 2009 – if they are to move forward.

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