England in a flap as ECB’s chickens come home to roost

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.

James Morgan

17 comments

  • Totally agree. The ECB seem to have abandoned red ball cricket. The insufferable Harrison said in an interview with Jonathan Agnew, that The 100 will improve our Test Cricket! The man should be sectioned immediately.

  • Tactics and team selection continue to be questionable. Silverwood is Mr Bland and Root’s toothless reaction every time is grating. Remove both from leadership roles. Stokes for captain and try playing a bleedin spinner not a part-timer.

    • Given that Stokes is currently absent due to mental health issues I’m not sure giving him captaincy over a very limited group of players would do him any favours. Not sure what Root is supposed to say really. He is a world class cricketer in a team of average first class players and white ball specialists. Blame the ECB for this mess not Root.

  • The spin cupboard is not completely bare, though there is a shortage of talent there. Jack Leach has 62 wickets in 16 tests at 29.98 a piece and is also notably economical. Matthew Parkinson takes his FC wickets at 23.69 each and could well get a debut at his home ground. Jack Carson and Amar Virdi both show signs of promise, though I would not pick either at this stage, not least because a tour to Australia is coming up, and English off spinners have almost never found that part of the world a happy hunting ground. Also Liam Patterson-White of Nottinghamshire may merit consideration. England have played Moeen Ali over Leach because of an obsession with batting depth, which actually Ali does not really provide anyway. With Woakes now fit and definitely capable of batting at seven a recall for Leach or a debut for Patkinson is virtually mandatory if it is going to spin.

  • For me, the positive thing is that this match – indeed, the whole series – has been a fantastic advert for Test Cricket. The always-excellent George Dobell makes similar points to you, James, in this regard:

    “In the greater scheme of things, there was a fair bit to celebrate from The Kia Oval. We had a sell-out crowd for five days in succession, after all and, on the last day in particular, when tickets were priced at £20, there were many families and children in attendance. Let’s never forget how wonderful it is that, at cricket at least, the supporters of both sides (and it appeared as if there was a pretty even split of India and England supporters) can sit side-by-side for hours without falling out. We have a fantastic sport.”

    Let’s hope those at the top are paying attention!

        • He was 18, ill-informed and immature – his parents should of dealt with it. If Dobell thought he was being self righteous and woke, he might have waited until another time, not ruined what would of been an amazing debut. Sadly his memory will always be of being hounded out by a journalist seeking his own fame.
          There are better ways of dealing with these sorts of things and the ECB, his captain Root and Michael Vaughan jumping on the woke wagon displayed no sensitivity at all. Chuck him out and throw him to the lions – job done, next?

          • So, if the ECB can’t be bothered to do their job, that excuses everything?

            Surely, they have what 400+ staff to look at all things concerning England. That includes social media of players and the like. Then again, the ECB taking responsibility for ANYTHING is out of the question (unless it is success, or outrageous bonuses have to be justified; then at least selective responsibility will be taken).

            The least that should have happened on the ECB side is that the person in charge of social media got a written warning. Or a summary dismissal for blatantly sleeping on the job.

  • Agree with pretty much all of that James. The saddest thing is who’s out there knocking on the door for red ball selection. The fact that Moin has been promoted to vice captain shows where the Root/Silverwood mindset is. Why not Burns, an experienced county captain. Moin is no shoe in for the Ashes.
    Pope batted sensibly in the first innings, but the inability of our players to bat time is the key. As Michael Vaughan, not my greatest pundit, alluded to we should have made a better fist of it than 290. On that pitch you always felt India were still in the game. England batting collapses are inevitable on less than flat tracks. Bairstow and Moin showed their white ball limitations, especially in the first Innings, losing patience when just batting time was enough to give us a decent chance, run rate in those circumstances doesn’t matter. Good to see Hameed coming good, but even he lost patience in the first innings, however it’s that tender Stokeless middle order that looks all at sea when it comes to building innings. If we’re not scoring runs we just hit the self destruct button as white ball sensibilities take over. Without Root this series 4-0 is nearer the mark than 2-1. Can only hope that India show their vulnerability again at Old Trafford as the pressure comes thick and fast and burn out looms, before the September dew problem sets in.

  • Well let’s all been said before. The thing is if you loose 5 top wickets cleaned bowled on a near perfect batting track and drop 6 catches you ain’t gonna win anything. Ok the schedule doesn’t allow Test players to hone red ball skills, but I’m now beginning to doubt that most of them are good enough to be able to do so.
    And surely only England can loose by 153 runs after gaining a 99 run 1st innings lead. India bowled superbly but we have no patience, and fold under pressure every time. A good Test? Well yes from an attendance perspective, but England were, well, crap.

  • If India players become available for the 16.66 or the BCCI adopt the 16.66 for a home tournament in the next three years, it’ll be clear what this Test was all about. However assuming not, some random observations:

    1) Have England batted out the last day to save a Test since Bell and Prior in 2012/13? I can’t think of an example. It’s a serial failing and it has its basis in a management that have contempt for survival-mode batting and an honorable draw.
    2) There’s no way a Anderson-Robinson-Woakes-Overton-Ali attack would be anything but a disaster in Australia. However if you pick an attack to win the next Test, they better win it or else you look extremely foolish. If they’d picked a tyro young seamer or spinner (like a Parkinson or a Garton – the latter’s the only example of a long-shot speedster who’s not injured to my knowledge) and lost, at least we’d have learnt something. Also, why did Overton bowl so many fewer overs than the other three? It seems there’s always one bowler who appears not trusted.
    3) Burns and Hameed both got excellent deliveries and can’t be blamed for their dismissals. However their SRs more or less took the win out of the equation. I’m surprised they haven’t copped more media flak for this (and I’m definitely not saying that they should). I remember Tres getting all the blame for England losing the 2nd Test in 2001 when he decided tthat an SR was too demanding. He held out for six hours while Vaughan-Thorpe-Stewart-Ward-Knight who collpased escaped censure. The media (including former players) seem oblivious to the differences in a white-ball SR and one on Day Five of a Test with a worn pitch, no overs’ limitations for bowlers and less stringency on wides. Jadeja didn’t run through England but his spearing the ball into the rough meant Kohli always had control.
    4) The fact the game had shifts of fortune and was relatively close has persuaded too many people it was a great match. There was, at different times, some poor batting, bowling and fielding. India have improved a little outside Asia and England have declined a lot, that’s all.

    • 1) There is no example. The longest England have batted since to draw in the fourth innings was 70 overs. Against New Zealand at Lord’s earlier this year. For which … England received a lot of flak. In terms of not collapsing to a defeat, 206/5 in 2013 against the Aussies at the Oval was England’s best effort.
      BTW, the last time both England openers made 50s in the fourth innings was Dhaka 2016. When England managed to collapse in a heap after the first wicket fell.
      2) Not sure of that. 4-0 was a resounding success, so 5-0 will be hailed as a total victory.
      3) Agreed. Obviously always going to look a bit silly if you get out to a spinner in England playing with a modest strike rate, but if you bat for 4 hours as an opener, a collapse is really not on the opener.
      4) Agreed with your match assessment. The batting was pathetic from India on Day 1. It was pathetic from England in the first innings as well.

      Also it is beyond me how Thakur did not get MOM, for keeping India in the match in the first innings, scoring crucial runs in the third innings and making 3 crucial breakthroughs (Pope in the first innings when England threatened to run away with the game, Burns and Root on day 5), rather than Rohit who barely scored more runs, did not take a wicket, and did not even field on day 5). Whoever it is, must be hired by the ECB for being a total incompetent, with no understanding of match dynamics whatsoever.

  • Another great article James. England were poor but credit to a great England team. And yes the atmosphere and crowd banter was brilliant.

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