After Ollie Stone was ruled out of the second Ashes test yesterday, I Tweeted out my preferred side for Lord’s. It went as follows: Burns, Roy, Stokes, Root, Buttler, Bairstow, Woakes, Curran, Archer, Leach, Broad.
I was immediately given a tongue lashing (I’m going to copyright this expression when Josh Tongue plays for England) by several people who hated this team. “White ball hitters all of them”, “useless”, “where’s Hildreth?”, “Where’s Sam Northeast?, “Where’s Sibley?”
All of these were legitimate questions, I guess. But I didn’t see the point in suggesting a team that was never, ever, going to take the field in a month of Sundays. I wasn’t tweeting out my ideal England XI per se; I was tweeting out the side I’d like to see from the realistic options available.
The truth is that although many cricket fans (me included) would love to see red ball specialists aplenty in the side, it’s just not going to happen now. Ed Smith and the management have nailed their colours to the white ball mast and they’re not going to change after one defeat. So what’s the point in suggesting names from outside the inner circle?
When he became chairman of selectors, Big Ed made it abundantly clear what his philosophy was. He loved all-rounders, wanted to pack the team with players who offered a bit of everything (the most talented ‘cricketers’ available I think were his exact words), and he put his faith in players with big match temperaments i.e. those who had excelled in the IPL or in front of big ODI crowds.
In doing so Smith ranked the ability to perform in front of big crowds as more important than technique. Dealing with the pressure of a noisy environment was considered more important that knowing how to deal with a moving red ball delivered by test class bowlers – bowlers who who could put fielders wherever they wanted, and bowl as many overs as they liked.
When the selection of Jos Buttler appeared to work (at least to begin with) Smith and certain allies in the media saw this as controvertible evidence that Smith was right. Even though he wasn’t. And I think some people in the corridors of power shared my doubts …
England’s decision to ask Dukes to manufacturer several hundred cricket balls for The Ashes that replicated the ones used against India last summer – even though they’re using different ones in the championship this season – suggested all was not well. It suggested that England didn’t think they could win unless the ball stayed harder for longer and swung around corners. In other words, they didn’t think they could win unless every single tangible was doctored in their favour. If all things were even, England would probably lose.
This recipe that has papered over the cracks for so long. And it’s why we usually get thrashed abroad. “Let’s make as much money as we can from white ball cricket – and screw over the championship in the process – but we’ll get away with it if we win enough games at home. And we’ll do this by preparing green tops and giving Jimmy Anderson a lovely red cherry that swings more than any other ball in the world”.
The problem at Edgbaston, of course, is that the doctored Dukes didn’t swing. And they went soft much quicker than expected too. What’s more, after the first morning the pitch didn’t behave itself either. And when Jimmy got injured the bankruptcy of England’s strategy became crystal clear. “Oh shit”!
So what on earth are England going to do? I’m not sure to be honest. Anderson looks like we won’t be fit until the 4th test (if that), Wood is out for the season, Stone’s setback is concerning, and if we prepare green tops I expect our white ball hitters to struggle as much against Peter Siddle as the inadequate Aussie batters are likely to struggle against Chris Woakes. The differentiator, once again, is therefore likely to be Steve Bloody Smith.
But if I’m not sure what England can do to change the Ashes momentum, I’m absolutely certainty what they won’t do: admit they’ve got their strategy for the last few years completely wrong. Do you really expect Ed Smith to come out after one defeat and say “sorry guys, I dropped the ball on this one, so we’re bringing in Sibley for Roy, Northeast and Hildreth will bat 3 and 5 respectively, and Ben Foakes is going to be given the gloves for the rest of the series”.
It’s. Not. Going. To. Happen. And even if it did it’s unlikely to work. County players haven’t been playing championship cricket in recent weeks. This part of the summer is T20 time. Therefore, to ask Sibley or Northeast to suddenly rock up at a test match, swap their pyjamas for proper clothes, and make their test debuts in front of a packed crowd at Lord’s with Pattinson and Cummins bearing down on them, is almost unfair.
The truth is that although England’s batsmen might be substandard and under-cooked for test cricket, they’ve still played more red ball cricket in recent weeks than their potential replacements. Yes Ben Stokes shouldn’t be batting at 3 or 4 with a test average of 33, yes Jonny Bairstow’s average of 35 isn’t good enough either, and yes Jos Buttler’s return of one century from 32 matches is rubbish, but I really don’t think Sibley or Northeast, in the current circumstances, would do any better. In fact they’d probably do worse.
What’s more, chopping and changing now would give the Aussies another huge fillip. It would smack of panic and desperation. It would be like the 1980s all over again when England might pick thirty players in the space of a few games. Therefore we have no choice but to send out the same old faces at Lord’s (perhaps with the odd tactical changes or two) and simply hope they perform better.
It’s still possible England might turn this one around. Stokes, Buttler, and Bairstow really aren’t bad. And Joe Root is due a ton too. We might get lucky. And let’s not forget that Australia’s batting has its weaknesses too. Our lot beat India last summer and Australia aren’t much better.
And that’s exactly what the ECB will be desperately hoping. They’ll be hoping that their gross incompetence and betrayal of the first class game won’t be exposed for all to see. Heck. When you put it like that, perhaps an Australian win wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world? It might hurt like hell, but it could be the best thing for English cricket in the long run if it exposes all the flaws and increases the pressure on the ECB to change tack. It’s a thought anyway.