Burns Eye View

Is this the worst performance by an England batting line up ever?

England 58 all out. Number 9 Craig Overton remains undefeated on 33 not out. What a remarkable recovery from 27-9!

Is this the worst performance by an England batting line up ever?

Back in 1994, England’s 46 all out v West Indies in Trinidad was in the 4th innings on an ‘up and down’ pitch. And, it was in opposition to two of the world’s greatest fast bowlers in Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. The bulk of the damage was done in the hour before the close of play, just when England’s innings started. And, instead of seeing their team safely to the close of play, Mike Atherton and his fellow top order batsmen fared poorly against West Indies’ legendary bowlers, who were both fresh and highly-motivated as they had no other option but to go at England’s top order at ‘full throttle’ in order to have any hope of winning a Test match they were on the cusp of losing.

This time around in New Zealand, the bowlers were skilful, highly-respectable, and the conditions were favourable to both batsmen and bowlers. And, instead of Mark Stoneman and Alastair Cook seeing off the new ball delivered by Trent Boult and Tim Southee, they were knocked over cheaply and therefore exposed Joe Root and the middle order, to a new ball against bowlers with their individual ‘tails’ up. England’s upper middle order was not up to the task of defending effectively against accurate, fast-medium paced swing bowling. With a modicum of seam movement off the pitch too, the inadequacies of England’s collective batting techniques was badly exposed.

Fundamentally, too many of England’s batsmen lack the technical skill and required temperament to succeed against the world’s best bowlers on a consistent basis. The top order has failed too often, and the middle order are only ‘at ease’ when playing ‘freely’ with a license to attack, or counter-attack. The whole, rather sorry process, revealed both a lack of quality and a lack of maturity in England’s batsmen. But should we be shocked? Surprised? Yes. But, not shocked.

England’s failings have been too apparent for too long, and the odd good individual innings from Alastair Cook and co at the top of the order should not mask the fact that England get ‘knocked over’ too easily, too often. Joe Root has been a consistent run-maker at number 4 and Jonny Bairstow has been a stellar performer in the middle order for a good while now. And, of course, Ben stokes is a top-class middle-order batsman too. But the top three batsmen have been failing consistently for a long while now.

Marcus Trecothick, Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen were all fine players who helped underpin England’s success because they achieved with the bat consistently, and more importantly, when it mattered most. Skill needs to be matched with an iron will if success is to be experienced as a batsman at international level.

I doubt the selectors judgment in not sticking with players they originally selected, but in their defence some of the batsmen selected to replace Straus, Trott, and Pietersen in recent years have proved to be worryingly short of Test match quality and have not rewarded the Selectors for offering them ‘a golden opportunity’ to cement a place in the team.

So what is the problem? Is it the standard of county cricket? Is it the lack of international class bowlers available to populate the domestic game? Is it the role played by ECB central contracts which seem to have created a possible ‘cosiness’ for England’s batsmen? Would they not be better off playing all the time and being challenged to outscore their contemporaries to justify their international selection?

My biggest concern is the relative lack of skill against both pace and spin. Playing with dominance (either in attack or defence) against the moving ball is also a major problem for the majority of modern players today. It might be that despite their failure to produce performances that reveal their class and instead suggest they are out of their depth, is a bigger problem than the administrators and coaches are prepared to admit. Fundamentally, if they are ‘England’s best’, then they must continue to be selected, or the team becomes a circus whereby players move in and out of the team through a fast-revolving door.

Whenever the ball has bounced (Perth; Wanderers) or spun (sub-continent) or seamed /swung (Cape Town/Headingley/Lord’s/Trent Bridge) England’s top order look vulnerable. Cashing in on ‘flat ones’ like at the MCG this winter made Alastair Cook’s form look better than it has been for some time. Other players have been found wanting even on ‘flatties’. The standard of technical skill and the absence of concentration needed to make Test centuries among the modern generation of English batsmen is arguably the worst it has been for a long time. But what will be done to rectify it? Probably nothing.

English cricket’s administrators have contributed to this current predicament. They have pushed the county championship to the margins of the calendar and in doing so, have denied the country’s players the necessary platform to develop the skills needed to excel in Test cricket. When, if ever, will England develop the likes of Compton, Hutton, Cowdrey, Dexter, May, Barrington, Graveney and Boycott, if the developmental phase of a player’s career is not better than is the case presently?

There is much work to do. I, like many others hope another Gooch, Gower or Grace can emerge in due course. Preferably a core of highly-promising players can develop simultaneously, so that the team can become the ‘world’s best’.

Will the likes of Luke Wells, Nick Gubbins, Keaton Jennings, Joe Clarke, Liam Livingstone and Haseeb Hameed become the answer to a major problem? I sincerely hope that we can find at least one or two ‘gems’ otherwise the possibility of losing overseas will become ‘the norm’. Fundamentally Alastair Cook and co. need to be pushed from ‘the bottom up’ and be challenged by a new generation of batsmen otherwise ‘the cosy club’ of ECB centrally contracted batsmen will keep being selected based on their past record not their present form.

Neil Burns


Click here for other blogs