Rotate the bowlers? Jettison Johnny? Up the ante? Here’s our take on the big talking points from Trent Bridge – and we’d love to hear yours.
How well are we actually playing? Jonathan Agnew, who knows a thing or two about the game, argued yesterday that England must be more ruthless. Repeatedly in the series so far, our side has dropped the intensity and allowed the West Indies to reclaim some of the initiative. That just won’t do against South Africa, he points out. From another point of view, though, England have proved effortlessly superior – we won this test by nine wickets inside four days, and beat the tourists by eight wickets at Lord’s.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. West Indies have fought much harder than India did last summer, and perhaps more tenaciously (in patches) than Australia did in the last couple of 2010/11 Ashes tests. You can only play the opponent in front of you, the old saying goes, and that’s just as true if they rally as when they’re supine. We’ve been less dominant than usual for the principal reason that West Indies have intermittently played some decent cricket. You can beat someone who’s playing well, but you’re unlikely to thrash them. Even at their peak, Australia never won every single match by enormous margins.
As England fans, our expectations have become unrealistic, swollen by 2011’s ridiculously emphatic win over India. We now resent any failure to win inside three days by an innings, so we nitpick and exaggerate any minor disappointment. But all of that said, there is still a sense, difficult to entirely dismiss, that the England machine has not quite clicked into full functionality. I can’t quite put my finger on either the evidence or cause, but two things come to mind: the bowlers losing tenacity when the ball is soft, and a vague malaise around the middle order. I have a feeling in my bones that Matt Prior is in for a difficult summer.
Drop Bairstow? This is an almost unbelievably silly suggestion. So far, he has only actually batted twice. What can you soundly deduce, either way, from two innings? To say he justifies a proper run in the side is axiomatic. As Graham Gooch will tell you – he made a pair on debut – dropping him now would injure his career, and abrade the team’s cohesion, to no advantage.
I’m only an armchair punter, but I’m confident about this next assertion: the talk of Bairstow’s weakness against the short ball is a red herring. No other England player, in this match, was subjected to an intense short-ball scrutiny in the way Bairstow was. At the time, Roach was really purring – is anyone claiming that neither Bell, nor KP, Trott or Prior might have been discomfited too? In the Ashes Oval test of 2009, Ian Bell was very nearly dismissed about a dozen times by Mitchell Johnson short balls which somehow kept managing to evade short leg. Bell was by then an experienced test player; because it was far from the most significant phase of the match, everyone forgot about it afterwards.
Rotation policy An intriguing one this, but we shouldn’t get misled. The cricket media have worked up this theme because they have little else to talk about: the punditariat needs a debate to wrestle with. Rotating the bowlers is no more or less expeditious – in terms of what’s best for the team – than it was a month or a year ago.
Is it a good idea, for example to give Onions a game and rest the injury-prone Broad? My frank response is – how the hell should I know? Only the bowlers themselves, the captain and coach, and the inner circle around them, can gauge the levels of stamina, fitness and preparedness involved in making that kind of decision. The rest of us are guessing.
But as spectators, we are party to the principle of the issue. My view, as a supporter, is that rotation smacks slightly of arrogance, rather akin to Manchester United fielding three seventeen year-olds after winning the league with five matches to spare. The act suggests that the test match is not to be taken seriously – that it’s a dead game unworthy of the ‘proper’ players. That’s not very nice for the paying punters, nor very respectful to the opposition.
On the other hand – and isn’t cricket a game of equivocation? – Andrew Strauss was rested from the 2010 tour to Bangladesh, and he was the captain. The intention was to keep some of his powder dry for that winter’s Ashes. It worked, but of course we would almost certainly have won anyway.