Summer 2021 has been the hardest I have witnessed as a fan of England Test Cricket. 1999 gets a lot of mentions, but I at least felt we headed into 2000 with Hussain and Duncan Fletcher + central contracts giving us a platform to move forward.
After a little period of time feeling pretty sad about the worst summer of test cricket in my 28 years watching, I set about trying to review it.
Seven tests were scheduled, six were played and only one was won by England. To start with a quick note in India, they were the superior team. The batsmen are better both technically and mentally, the bowlers are better, especially with an older ball or an unresponsive surface. Their catching was better. Their preparation was better, which is remarkable as the away team. Their decision not to play the final test was unforgivable. The ECB and ICC need to stand up to the BCCI.
New Zealand, as always a pleasure to see the Blackcaps, they also completely outplayed us and are worthy ICC test champions. They deserve a meaningful 4/5 test series in the future (I can’t imagine them missing a match).
On to England, Joe Root the batsman has been nothing short of phenomenal. He should be protected from much of the noise around this side and is probably only a couple of 100’s in Australia away from cementing his place as out best batsman ever (or at least that I have seen).
Ollie Robinson, one foot shorter than he was at the start of the season has also shown a remarkable aptitude for test cricket. It’s hard to remember when someone not only settled in but created such a meaningful impact.
Sadly here ends the good news, I can find not one single positive about the reminder of the performances, selection or tactics. The absence of Stokes and Archer at the start of the season were known, and the unfortunate Olly Stone was injured before the India series. The equally unlucky Ben Foakes fell over (literally) before the tests started.
The injuries and illness are unfortunate, but all can be attributed to the schedule the ECB asks its player to play. There has been little interest in performance in the test arena for some time, just the ability to cram tests in back to back with weakened line-ups.
Tactics and selection:
Silverwood was given full control, many are uneasy with this. I note that Duncan Fletcher in his recent interview for Sky TV actually favours this model, I think he is correct. The coach should be able to select his squad, the fault here is not the system but the incompetence of the person making the decisions.
The batting is appalling, yet we continue to select only 5 batsman and inadequate wicket keepers at no 6 followed by even weaker players at no7 and no8. The result is that our already poor batting fails and then we have less capacity to take wickets as we have not picked the best bowlers and keeper.
Stokes when available plays as a top 6 batsman, Woakes almost certainly plays as a frontline bowler. No one else is a test match allrounder, least of all Moeen and Sam Curran. Unless your definition of allrounder is that no part of their game is good enough to merit a place in the team.
Spin, I don’t know why but Silverwood and Root clearly do not know what they want form a spinner (save batting ability) or how to use one. The combination of non-selection/poor fields/short spells illustrates their incompetence in this regard. Not playing and/or not bowling your spinner puts more pressure on the seam bowlers.
Then there is the personnel, the schedule (again) has made it hard to pick on form, but we have now reverted to Malan, Bairstow, Moeen and Craig Overton. The first three were left behind for a reason but we are dangerously close to taking the same XI back to Australia that got hammered 4 years ago.
Craig Overton I can understand based on his county form, however his performance at The Oval was very much that of the honest cricketer who lacks the ability to move the ball or bowl quick enough to unsettle the best batsmen. At the start of the summer there was debate about Robinson V Overton, that is surely now settled.
Sadly we are none the wiser about Tom Abell, Saqib Mahmood or Matt Parkinson.
The catching in the slips has been nothing short of abysmal, whilst ability plays a role in catching there is no excuse for the standard being so low. Picking the best wicket keeper might help set the tone.
The identity of the side:
Two years into Silverwood’s reign as coach the side still lacks any meaningful identity. The continued struggle to ‘balance the team’ is bizarre.
This side needs to select 6 specialist batsmen, not scoring enough runs is the Achilles heel. Runs create enormous pressure on the opposition and tire their bowlers and batsmen out whilst ours rest. It is difficult when the county game is producing batsmen with such poor technique such as Sibley and Lawrence. However it is also producing players with good technique such as Crawley and Pope, what value are the coaching team adding for these two young men to play so many frenzied innings where they seem to lack clarity of thought?
The six batsmen need to be able to play off the front and back foot, on the on and off side and to be able to build an innings where they can adapt to the situation. This not necessarily means those who are most successful at county cricket.
Ideally one or two would be able to bowl. Even without Stokes this can be done via Joe Root and potentially Tom Abell.
No7 needs to be a wicketkeeper who can bat. The former comes first because we can ill afford not to take all the chances that come out way, the keeper will also aid the slip catching.
Of the 4 bowlers, one must be a spinner, one a ‘fast’ bowler and all of the seam bowlers should be able to gain movement with an old and new ball. Much like the batsmen they should be able to attack and defend as and when the game situation dictates. Economy rate is useful, strike rate is better.
To this end Root needs to be clear about what he wants from his spinner, a patient one who can bowl long spells and hold an end (Jack Leach), or an exciting one who can turn the ball extravagantly, clean up tail ends but will be less consistent (Matt Parkinson).
Of the bowlers, it is useful if 2 can bat, but that is a distant second to their ability with the ball (I’d happily have McGrath, Walsh, Anderson, Murali at 8-11 for their bowling). Given that Woakes and Robinson look likely to be two of the four bowlers this is a non-issue.
Making the tough decisions:
It is very difficult to make decisions about genuine legends of the game such as Broad and Anderson. They also each deserve to have their own decisions made and not treated as package.
The reality is that neither have a great record in Australia, both have missed big chunks of the last 2 years with injury and most worryingly I think the concerns about their fitness is impacting the selection policy.
They take up the 10/11 slot in the batting order which means that any other bowler selected must be able to bat at 8 or 9. Plus the concerns over them lasting a long test/back to back tests in tough conditions often means we select a fifth bowler instead of the much needed batsman. Hence the selection of Moeen and Overton at The Oval, but when the heat was on it was Anderson, Woakes and Robinson who were bowled into the ground. In those conditions perhaps Mahmood/Wood and Parkinson/Leach would’ve provided the threat & variation needed?
Woakes & Wood should be automatic selections for the test team, Robinson too meaning that we only need choose between Parkinson or Leach depending on the tactical approach.
It has been a tough summer, I was excited to see Tom Abell, Ben Foakes, Ollie Stone and Jofra Archer in the test arena … that was not to be.
In August 2017 Nasser Hussain nominated Nick Gubbins to open in the 17/18 ashes. After a strong county season and runs for the Lions.
In December 2017 Trevor Bayliss felt Ben Foakes was good enough to play test cricket as a batsman.
In February 2017 Liam Livingston scored 2 X 100 in the same match V Sri Lanka A for the Lions on a very tough surface. His 2nd innings 140 not out came form 225 balls!
In June 2015 Daniel Bell-Drummond opened the batting V the touring Australians and scored a 2nd innings 100 against Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle.
These 4 players join the likes of Tom Abell, Sam Hain, Matt Critchley in appearing to be no where near the test team despite several years of serial underperforming with the bat. Sometimes you need to look beyond the numbers just as Duncan Fletcher did. They may not all succeed, but its odd to have players like Gubbins, Livingstone, Foakes play so much Lions cricket and then to ignore them.
Lammonby, Crawley, Haines, Ollie Robinson (Kent) certainly have promise, but why have we overlooked a generation who could now be 20 tests into their career aged 26-28?
The Winter promises to be even tougher than the summer, I wish the team all the best (I hope Ben Stokes is ok irrespective of cricket). I fear that it will take a disaster of a winter to bring change, but that is sad for the supporters and even more so for the captain who is a wonderful player.
Its worth remembering that the ECB chose Ashely Giles and Chris Silverwood for their respective roles when the likes of Alec Stewart and Gary Kirsten were available.