21st Century Nightmares: A Suspect Middle-Order & Other Excuses

It’s an all too familiar sight when England are playing a test match these days: stumps wrenched from the ground, bails spinning prettily in the air, and fielders out for a stroll taking catches as they go. English batsmen are crossing at the pavilion gates with alarming frequency and our top scorer seems to be called ‘Extras’.

Yes, it’s one of those times when England have been rolled over for less than a hundred runs, again. Failure is so much more interesting than success as the post mortem clicks into action. Fingers point and explanations begin to sound more like excuses.

England have succumbed to 9 double digit scores in the 21st Century and eaten a generous helping of humble pie to boot. So from the highest to lowest, here’s our bottom nine test scores over the past 20 years.

Eighty-Five: Ireland’s newly acquired test status should have been rewarded with an inaugural match against England. But Pakistan eventually did the honours in May 2018. The visitors to County Dublin secured a comfortable 5 wicket victory. It was no great surprise; with the best will in the world Ireland were no better than a top 5 county championship side.

It was expected that England would similarly cantor to victory in Ireland’s maiden test at Lords in June 2019. England won the toss and elected to bat. With barely 10 overs gone Joe Root was beginning to regret the decision.

Joe Denley topped scored with 23 before Mark Adair trapped him lbw. With Jason Roy out for 6 England were reduced to 38 for 2. Rory Burns and Joe Root went for peanuts as commentators prepared to dust off their bingo lingo. Three little ducks followed as Jonny Bairstow, Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali left without troubling the scorers.

At 43 for 7 England were staring at the abyss. Had it not been for Sam Curran and Olly Stone scoring 37 between them, it could have been a lot worse.

85 was a damning score by anyone’s standards and must provoke a reaction. They eventually woke from their slumbers and posted 303 in their second innings. Ireland showed what a real collapse looked like as they were skittled out for 38.

England won the match by 143 runs and it’s tempting to file this one under fluke. But laxity and complacency must surely have been grounds for concern.

Eighty-One: The most recent memory to feature in this rundown alights in February 2021. With the series delicately poised at 1-1, the third test at Ahmedabad would be crucial. A curiously low scoring match was assured when England could only muster 112 in their first innings; Zak Crawley’s half century had spared them further embarrassment. India replied with a meek 145, but it was England’s second innings that shaped a two day game.

Zak Crawley would not repeat past heroics and was clean bowled for a duck by Axar Patel. His replacement, Jonny Bairstow, went the same way and England were 0 for 2. Wickets began to fall like dominoes with the only real resistance offered by Joe Root and Ben Stokes who shared a stand of 31.

England lost their last five wickets for just 25 runs and scored a wretched 81. India were set a target of target of 49 for victory, which they achieved in 26 minutes without losing a wicket.

Indian captain Virat Kohli later remarked that ‘it was a good pitch to bat on in the first innings, but there was a lack of application from the line-ups of both teams’. Opposite number Joe Root was critical of the pitch and felt that fans had been cheated.

This was the shortest completed test match since 1935 and many believed the track was not up to standard. However, nothing can detract from an excellent spell of bowling from Axar Patel with figures of 5 for 32 and Ravi Ashwin who took 4 for 48 in the second innings.

Eighty-One: Occasionally a low score can be buried if defeat is avoided. The third test against Sri Lanka in December 2007 might be a case in point.

When Alastair Cook and Michael Vaughan took the crease they had just witnessed Mahela Jayawardene compile an unbeaten 213. Sri Lanka had declared at 499 for 8. After barely 8 overs England were all over the place on 25 for 5.

As is often the case there will be one batsman who pushes back and it was Paul Collingwood who stuck around to score 29. Nevertheless three ducks and three singles condemned the tourists to a score of 81.

England duly followed on and compiled a more disciplined 251 for 6 which saw them through to a respectable draw. An obdurate 118 from Alastair Cook was vital, but they were also helped by the weather as rain frequently interrupted play. It’s probably a batting collapse much easier to forget than some.

Seventy-Nine: England’s first sub 100 score of the century came at Brisbane in November 2002. Nasser Hussein’s decision to put the Australians into bat was according Wisden, one of the costliest decisions in Test history. England were profligate in the field but a massive dose of hindsight adds little to the debate.

Matthew Hayden was in majestic form scoring 197 runs in a total of 492. England gingerly pushed their first innings to a conservative 325. Australia nonchalantly declared on 296-5 setting a target of 464 for victory. With one day remaining England were staring at Mount Everest and became the mother of all nightmares.

England found themselves at 3 for 2 as Mark Butcher entered the fray. He was the only batsman to show any resistance. He remained for 24 of the 28 overs that England’s innings lasted. Picking up runs where possible but quickly ran out of partners.

Nasser Hussein was dismissed for 11 as the rear guard action failed to launch. With John Crawley and Alec Stewart both gone for ducks, England were 35 for 5. Craig White was one of only three players to reach double figures but eventually walked for 13.

Mark Butcher had gallantly posted 40 including five boundaries, but at 74 for 8 the end was nigh. Matthew Hoggard had the title of not out batsman as England were bowled out for 79. We lost by 384 runs.

This was symptomatic of a classic middle order collapse; the longest partnership between Butcher and White yielded just 31 runs. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were efficient and shared 7 wickets between them, but were no better than they had to be. It was nothing short of a white flag.

Sadly, this performance set the tone as Australia won the Ashes 4-1.

Seventy-Seven: Barbados was the setting for the first test against the West Indies in January 2019. The homesters won the toss and elected to bat. A modest score of 289 was an indication that a positive result might be obtained. However, England could only dream of a draw when Ben Stokes was dismissed for a duck leaving the tourists on 48 for 5.

England crawled to a sick and under nourished 77. With a comfortable lead it was an opportunity the West Indies would not waste. A declaration of 415 for 6 capped a remarkable recovery when they were 120 for 6 at one point. Jason Holder (202) and Shane Dowrich (116) accounted for three quarters of the total in a fine stand of 295.

This left England with a ridiculous target of 628. They lost by a hefty 381 runs. That fatal first innings felt more like an aberration than sheer incompetence, but how many times has that been said over the years?

Seventy-Two: Ongoing security issues had forced a switch of the 2012 tour against Pakistan to the United Arab Emirates. In the second test, England had the advantage when set a friendly target of 145 for victory. With the likes of Strauss, Cook and Pietersen it appeared to be the proverbial walk in the park.

But any such assumption came crashing down as Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman ripped through England’s top order. Andrew Strauss top scored with 32, but was all over bar the shouting when he was caught lbw by Rehman.

England’s last five wickets could only muster 16 runs. Pakistan won by 16 runs and whitewashed England 3-0 in the series. It was more about the bowlers as off-spinner Saeed Ajmal took 24 wickets including a massive 7 for 55 in the first test.

Sixty-Seven: It was one of the great comebacks inspired by a peerless Ben Stokes; and almost feels out of place in this feature. However, England’s first innings score in that historic 2019 Headlingley test remains the third lowest score compiled by England this century. The very idea that a side could score 67 and still win is difficult to process.

The 2019 Ashes were finely balanced going into this game. Australia led the series 1-0 with the Lord’s test drawn. England’s first innings was a travesty with only one player reaching double figures.

Australia set England a target of 362 and the early signs weren’t promising. Both openers were dismissed with only 15 runs on the board. Joe Denley and Joe Root both posted half centuries, but it was an unbeaten 135 from Ben Stokes that secured victory by one wicket.

Australia retained the Ashes but the series was drawn 2-2 with pride duly restored. All was forgiven and the memory of 67 rightly banished to the footnotes.

Fifty-Eight: When your number 9 batsman is top scorer, it’s safe to assume you’re in a spot of bother. And when that score accounts for over half the total innings it descends into parody.

Craig Overton scored a solid 33 in the first innings against the Kiwis in Auckland. It was the first test in England’s 2018 tour of New Zealand and could not have been a worse start. They were 23 for 8 when Overton joined the fray scoring 5 fours and 1 six in a fine knock.

But there was no chance of recovery as New Zealand won by an innings and 49 runs. England coach Trevor Bayliss said the players were like ‘deer in the headlights’. I’m not sure what happened to the rabbits but it seemed a little unfair on the deer. As a performance it deserved to be down there with the lowest.

Fifty-One: Sabina Park in Kingston has witnessed the demise of many a test nation; but no collapse could be more dramatic than England’s 51 against the West Indies at Kingston in February 2009.

England was only 74 runs behind when they commenced their second innings. But it was a capitulation of epic proportions as England slumped to 23 for 5.

Andrew Flintoff, so often England’s saviour, could not oblige this time and was bowled for 24 by Fidel Edwards. He had taken the tourists to 51 before Steve Harmison became the final batsman to walk.

England were humiliated and dismantled largely by Jerome Taylor who took a scintillating 5 for 11 as the West Indies won by an innings and 23 runs. It was enough for the West Indies to squeeze a 1-0 series victory, but it was the manner of defeat that stung the most.

Such disasters often happen away from home; all but two of the nine innings described occurred on tour. Unfamiliarity with playing conditions and a different climate will invariably play their part. Tactical errors and a simple failure to win the toss may also be a factor.

However, these are challenges that confront every XI. Test innings that lasts barely longer than a T20 game does take some living down. And, as you can see above, England have had far too many.

Brian Penn


  • Can’t see an end to this one as white ‘go at the ball’ technique dominates batsmen’s thinking and reactions. It may seem a simple solution to let the ball come to you but that doesn’t score many boundaries, the stock in trade of batsmen nowadays. Playing accross the line has become a necessary risk to do this. How do you put all that aside in the test arena. White ball edges often end up as boundaries but in the long game they’re potential catches, bowlers having as many close fielders as they like. How many times do we see batsmen bogged down defending and losing patience. Crowds don’t help either with their off the field antics when things get ‘boring’. It all puts on pressure to ‘entertain’ as people’s attention span becomes every shorter.

    • There are also what appear to be orchestrated media attacks on any batsman who tries to grind it out.

      Compton was the first on the receiving end, on the SA tour with Swann chief cheerleader. In the First Test Compton ground out crucial match-winning scores, by the Third Test he was dancing down the pitch on nought and holing out. Sibley was the last recipient. All this was of course entirely unconnected to Tom Harrison’s pronouncements about the England team playing a certain brand of cricket.

      The end result is presumably what the ECB wanted – white ball winners and a hopeless Test team (who’s hopeless would be even starker if the other Test teams outside the Big Three hadn’t been ruined).

    • I disagree, to the extent that blaming the crowd is the wrong route. Even more so in England, where it is usually not that hard to get a good crowd in for the Tests. People still appreciate dogged rear guards to save the draw, but usually squad selections makes such quests futile beforehand (never mind, if there are 3 days remaining to get to the nominal 400 runs).

      If you prioritise limited overs cricket (as a player), then obviously that will influence technique, patience, temperament and all those vital red ball skills. For most players, prioritising limited overs cricket makes economic sense. This is also increasingly true in England. Sure making it to the national Test team comes with a sweet pay day (certainly compared to other countries), but obviously, chances of that are far more remote than they are for getting a slot in the limited overs leagues. This is only exacerbated by selections of limited overs dashers who have failed to convince after even 50 Tests (Buttler, Bairstow to give but the two most obvious examples; we can probably add quite a few failed openers to that list, such as Hales, Roy etc).

      How often do we not see batsmen’s (and to a lesser extent bowlers) technique being ruined by limited overs cricket? Why learn to bowl long spells, if in limited overs cricket, at most you’ll be tasked with 10, and that is for a form of the game the ECB seems to be desperate to abandon!

      Obviously, if a national board decides to prioritise limited overs cricket (again, for less wealthy teams such as West Indies that makes economic sense), it will increasingly be the case that the creation of batsmen in the mould of say a Dravid or Cook becomes more and more unlikely.

      The ‘saving grace’ for the England Test team, is that barring New Zealand and the Big 3, the rest of the sorry lot would have struggled to be competitive with England in the 1990s.

      • Anyone whose been to a test match in recent years knows how easily the crowd get distracted when there’s not much action. This has to affect the players and their concentration.

        • That much is true. Though I am not sure if that is solely a thing of recent years. Undoubtedly limited overs play a role in that. Also if batsmen don’t have the technique / temperament to bat out a day for 4 or 5 wickets (or better), it will increasingly be perceived by people in the audience that a dull passage of play is effectively time wasting. And that when something happens, the collapse is immediately on. Sadly we have seen many examples of that by England (and other teams) in the last few years.

          Point still stands though, that England find it easier to attract Test crowds than other countries. And thus, should find it easier to get more Test lovers in than say Pakistan, who won’t even have to deal with distracted crowds in the UAE, for lack of crowds to begin with.


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