I’ll start things off with a question. If the ECB bigwigs can pay themselves more than £2million in bonuses for setting up The Hundred, should they fine themselves a similar amount for England’s failure to win either one of their two home Test series for the first time since 2001? Unless Joe Root’s team win at Old Trafford in the fifth Test, it will be the first time we’ve lost both home series since the doldrums decade of the 1990s.
Sadly, however, accountability never seems to be a two-way street at the ECB. Don’t expect any resignations or any degree of contrition whatsoever if England fail to win in Manchester and then lose The Ashes too (which would be four Test series defeats in a row). And don’t expect any Schofield type reviews either. The ECB will know that any such review, if remotely independent, would pinpoint their criminal neglect of first class cricket in order promote white ball vanity projects. And that will never do.
But enough of the macro. I’m sounding like a broken record again. Let’s look at the minutiae of England’s capitulation at The Oval. Although I’ve steered clear of cricket this summer – I couldn’t bear to watch the impending car crash – I actually watched much of this particular game. A work project was postponed, I found myself channel hopping, and I finally alighted on the Test match. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
What were my thoughts as I arrived at the series with fresh eyes? Let’s start with our opponents. My initial thought was “same old India”. I’d heard about their debacle at Headingley, which didn’t particularly surprise me, and they looked equally clueless against the moving ball on the first day in South London. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t buying all the “best Indian side ever” hype.
However, as the game went on, and the conditions became more subcontinental – dry pitch, little movement off the pitch, little carrying to slip, close catchers in front of the wicket, reverse swing – India’s players finally came into their own. They obviously felt a lot more comfortable than England.
The extra pace of Bumrah (who was outstanding on the final day) and Yadav made all the difference. Jadeja’s accuracy and ability to trouble the left handers was also an advantage. Meanwhile, although I was pretty unimpressed with both Siraj and Thakur in the first innings – they really released the pressure created by the other bowlers – they were so much better on the final day. India bowled like a top quality unit and England simply couldn’t cope. It was all a bit predictable in the end.
As for England, well, nobody should be surprised. England have often done well at Headingley against Asian opposition but then come a cropper in the next game at The Oval. It’s one of the abiding memories of my youth. Neil Mallender would take a five-fer under leaden Leeds skies and then look about as effective as a punctured diaphragm at The Oval where it tends to be flat.
England’s quartet of right-arm medium-fast bowlers were never going to get the job done in Kennington once the cloud cover disappeared and the pitch flattened out. It’s been that way for decades. Craig Overton is this year’s version of Neil Mallender. And although Jimmy Anderson, Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson have a better pedigree than Tim Munton, Chris Lewis and Derek Pringle (who complemented Mallender in the 1992 Headingley Test I was referring to), they still looked toothless in the end.
The difference back then, however, is that England were able to make changes for The Oval by calling up Devon Malcolm and Phil Tufnell. Injuries and a cupboard barer than Mrs Hubbard’s prevented England from injecting some pace and quality spin into Joe Root’s side against India though. It was basically the same XI with the exception of Woakes for Curran.
So where do England go from here? Sadly there are few places to turn. In the long run, we just have to hope that Ben Stokes’s mental health improves and that Jofra Archer can make a full recovery. However, I’m not confident that the issues that caused their long-term absences will ever be addressed – burnout and injuries are part and parcel of playing for England in modern times. The ECB talk a good game about player welfare but they keep increasing their workload.
In the short-term, one hopes that Mark Wood can hit his straps at Old Trafford. He may or may not make a difference. Sadly for the hapless Chris Silverwood, however, there are rumours that it will spin at Manchester. Indeed, we might even see Ravi Ashwin for the first time this series.
If it rags then England are basically doomed. Moeen Ali simply wasn’t good enough at The Oval. He leaked 4.5 runs per over and only took two wickets (albeit valuable ones). It was a microcosm of Mo’s career to be honest: an entertaining batting cameo that ended with a flaky dismissal, and a total failure to offer his captain control with the ball. People forget that Moeen has been dropped so many times for a reason.
In many ways, the Moeen conundrum sums up England’s problems. The cupboard is bare, due to the ECB’s emphasis on white ball cricket and the marginalisation of the championship, so the selectors are forced to keep recalling tried but failed players. It’s a similar story with Dawid Malan. He’s a decent batsman, who’s pleasant to watch, but England really shouldn’t be going back to a 34 year old who averages 28 in Tests and 38 in first class cricket.
Where are all the emerging players? That’s a question for Tom Harrison to answer while he picks up his fat bonus. Sadly, the next generation simply aren’t ready. And that’s the fault of the first class system that the ECB have neglected rather than nurtured. Well, you can’t pay yourself ill-earned bonuses for simply looking after something that already exists.
What would I do at Old Trafford? I’d probably hide behind the sofa and pray. Chris Silverwood has never really impressed me, and questions are being asked re: the other coaches now too, but I do feel a little sorry for them to be honest. It’s not their fault that many of the players simply aren’t good enough. What’s more, there are few players outside the squad capable of improving the XI. Ed Smith probably left at the right time i.e. before the dung really hits the fan this winter.
Having said that, however, England simply must find room for Jack Leach at Manchester. They should also consider the possibility of giving Matt Parkinson a game because he can’t bowl any worse than Mo. Although Parkinson is far from the finished article, I’m cognisant of the fact that Old Trafford is his home ground and that leg-spinners often do better down under than traditional finger spinners. Even Swann struggled a bit in Australia. That said, I think England are probably more likely to play five seamers than two spinners in a home Test, regardless of conditions.
Before I sign off, I’d like to end with a positive. The Oval was a really enjoyable Test played in front of full crowds on all five days. Indeed, it’s been reported that several families attended, too. The banter between England supporters and the large Indian contingent was also very good natured by all accounts.
It’s great to see Test cricket in such rude health (in London at least). Approximately 120,000 tickets were bought for this game over the 5 days despite the traditionally high prices. It’s worth pointing out that less than 500,000 tickets were sold over 34 games in The Hundred, despite hugely subsidised tickets.
When you put these figures in perspective, it’s remarkable how much time, effort and money is being ploughed into the new vanity project. Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game and the ECB’s priorities are all wrong.
Red ball cricket is, and always has been, a great product. All it’s ever needed is exposure.