Shaping Up: The Condition Of England’s Test Team

Although the 2020 summer was weird to say the least, one thing was remarkably familiar: England won both their home Test series. Indeed, if one didn’t know there was a global pandemic going on and simply looked at the scorecards, you’d probably assume it was just another routine summer for English cricket. The only thing that wasn’t in the script was losing to Australia in the ODIs as the days grew shorter.

The bottom line is that England are still tough to beat in their own back yard. We’re not a perfect Test side by any means but we’re good enough to beat most touring teams due the unique challenges presented by English conditions plus, for the time being at least, England still have enough quality experienced cricketers to prevail on home soil: Ben Stokes, James Anderson and Stuart Broad amongst them.

We are also fortunate that the supporting cast are pretty handy on their day. Chris Woakes is a superb all-round cricketer in English conditions, Jos Buttler found some form at last, and we have a number of youngsters who seem to be improving: Zak Crawley was a revelation and Jofra Archer is a very handy weapon. This suggests that the post Anderson and Broad world might not be as bleak as many of us once feared.

So who took a step forward and who took a step back this summer? I was going to write one of my usual ‘stick or twist’ pieces but I didn’t really see the point this time. Every single player is probably a ‘stick’ for now. Even the guys who didn’t particularly shine against the Windies and Pakistan have shown enough in the past to suggest they’ll be around the broader squad for the foreseeable future. This current England team has precisely zero lost causes. And that’s a really refreshing change.

First up there’s the opening pair of Burns and Sibley. Are these guys bankers? Probably not, yet. But they’ve both shown promise. Sibley averages 38 in his first 12 Tests with two centuries. Considering that a large portion of his dismissals have been strangles down the leg-side, I think this is a very encouraging effort. He just needs to stop playing outside the line of his legs / body when the bowlers target his leg-stump. We all know that Sibley isn’t the prettiest to watch but neither was Shiv Chanderpaul. I’ll happily take a guy who’s prepared to bat all day without ‘entertaining’ if he can lay the foundation for the dashers lower down the order.

Rory Burns is a strange one because he hasn’t really kicked on after a promising Ashes series in 2019. He struggled badly against Pakistan although he did make two half-centuries against the Windies. Personally I think he’s worth persevering with – although he probably shouldn’t persevere with his barber (if indeed he actually has one).

There’s a fair chance that Burns will struggle a bit this winter because he’s not the best player of spin; therefore he’ll be somewhat handicapped in Sri Lanka (if the tour goes ahead) and against India. However, when the calls to drop him inevitably arise we should just remember his performances against Australia. The Ashes will be the next big target for England and Burns has already shown the character to stand up to the Aussie seamers.

Next up we’ve got Super Zak at No.3. I’ve always liked the look of Crawley so I’m thrilled that he’s fulfilling his potential ahead of schedule. Can he keep up his great form? Who knows. Plenty of young batsmen suffer sophomore slumps as bowlers around the world work them out.

What encourages me about Crawley though, other than his natural talent, is Crawley’s attitude. He’s intelligent (trust me, you’ve got to be bloody intelligent to get into Tonbridge School these days) and very level headed for a guy his age. I was invited to couple of webcasts that featured Zak last summer and he seems like a diamond – confident but not arrogant, eager to learn, and he’s got his feet very firmly on the ground. I suspect he’ll go far.

England are extremely lucky to have two (very) young quality batsmen in Crawley and Pope. Both these guys could easily play one hundred Tests. Although Ollie didn’t have the best summer (he averaged 20 against Pakistan and 34 against the Windies) I don’t think many people doubt his potential nor his ability to play all around the wicket.

I actually think that Pope and Crawley could make an interesting partnership at the crease. The latter is 6 ft 5 and the former 5 ft 9 so they could be a difficult combination to bowl to. Put your free bets on these two to add plenty of record fourth wicket partnerships in the future.

The only area of the batting that concerns me, weirdly enough, is the skipper. Not long ago Joe Root was the only batsman we didn’t have to worry about. But sadly he’s looked a shadow of his former self for ages. Five years ago I wrote this waxing lyrical about Joe’s potential. But he’s going backwards at an age when he should be approaching his peak. His technique looks a complete mess and I don’t know what the answer is. He used to look so natural at the crease but now his game seems mechanical, laboured, and over-thought. I’m sure he’ll continue to be a ‘decent’ Test batsman but he’s capable of so much more.

The all-rounder’s slot is the one area where there’s no debate. Ben Stokes is a fantastic cricketer with both bat and ball in both red ball and white. He won’t get runs every time but he’s more likely to than not on the big occasion.

Our vice skipper is possibly the best batsman in the team technique-wise and his bowling is quality when he’s fully fit and in the mood. I think Stokes is probably the only England player in the world that every single other country in the world would want. And crucially he enables England to field a truly balanced side … if they feel like actually picking one. Ahem.

Next up is the keeper’s position. Has Buttler nailed down his place for the foreseeable? I would think so yes. It’s amazing what one good series can do. After averaging just 30 against the Windies, Jos’s batting finally found its mojo in the last chance saloon. He was magnificent against Pakistan and fully deserved his second Test ton.

The question is whether Buttler can continue this excellent form? After all, his problem has always been adapting from one form of the game to the other. Maybe it was no coincidence that he finally found his red ball feet (literally as well as metaphorically) during a period in which he was able to focus exclusively on Test cricket for several weeks? And maybe it’s no coincidence that he then scored just 12 runs in 3 innings (an average of 4) in the subsequent ODIs? Hmmmm.

When it comes to his keeping Buttler has good games and bad. He’s human. He pulled off some amazing catches against Pakistan but also missed a few that Foakes presumably would’ve eaten for breakfast. Personally I’d still like England to pick the best pure keeper available, especially as that keeper is something a bit special. However, Chris Silverwood has preferred to pick an extra seamer (who rarely bowls much) when the opportunity has arisen rather than picking a specialist keeper who’s most likely to snaffle crucial catches off said seamers.

As for the bowlers themselves I think England are in good shape at the minute. There’s pace in Archer, Wood, and Stone (if he can ever stay bloody fit), and there’s nous in Anderson, Woakes, and Broad. The latter had an amazing summer averaging an astonishing 11 against the West Indies and 16 against Pakistan. There’s also a bit of Sam Curran for variation. I think Curran is a useful fourth seamer although his opportunities might be limited moving forward.

In previous years someone with a domestic record like Ollie Robinson would’ve been a shoe-in for the Test side. But times have changed. England also have Jamie Overton in reserve too. I still think he’s an international quality seamer and should benefit from his move to Surrey (sorry Somerset fans).

Last but not least we come to the spinners. Young Aunt Bessy is the man in possession but I can’t see this lasting to be honest. He’s a very handy slow bowler and he could have a long career. However, he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations after a promising tour of South Africa ten months ago.

I can see why England like Bess. He’s got a good temperament, he can field, he can bat, and he can certainly bowl too. However, young spinners need time to figure out their game. I thought his move to Yorkshire (of all places) was a curious choice of destination but a change of scenery might do him some good. If he can rediscover that modicum of drift and loop he had in Biltongland then he could prove a very good cricketer for England.

In the shorter term, however, I think England need to prioritise Jack Leach. And I don’t quite understand why so many are reluctant to give the man who is, quite clearly, the best pure spinner available by some distance the chance to nail his spot.

Poor Leach has suffered more than most from the public’s (and the selectors’) chronic short term memory condition. He had one poor game in New Zealand on the flattest pitch imaginable – Broad went wicketless and Archer took just one in 42 overs in the same game – yet the bespectacled beau idéal became the scapegoat. Weird.

People should remember that Leach averages just 29 after ten Tests and out-bowled Nathan Lyon last summer. He might not develop into the world class spinner we all desperately crave but give the bloke a chance! I’d much rather go back to Leach than Moeen Ali. I love Mo to bits but I question whether he’s going to develop and improve much now.

Let know me what you think in the comments below. Can England develop into a side capable of winning around the world and climbing the rankings? I’d say that the emergence of Pope and Crawley makes this eventuality more likely than it was twelve months ago but there’s still work to do done.

Let’s just hope Jimmy Anderson has an endless supply of that elixir of eternal youth he’s been swigging for years. We still need him.

James Morgan


  • Leach was on the point of being re-intruduced when he fell quite seriously ill, as I seem to remember

    • To my perception James, Bess over Leach has nothing to do with short-term selectorial memory: it’s another incidence of the idea that your bowlers must be able to bat as well as bowl. Personally I think that’s wildly overdone: provided that you don’t have four Chris Martins as your 8-11, I belong to the school that says it’s the job of the bowlers to take wickets and the batsmen to score runs. (I also think it sells Leach short as a batsman, and it’s a curiously one-sided logic: England don’t pick Luis Reece or Will Rhodes rather than Crawley or Burns just because they can bowl).

      Btw James, any chance of retiring the Biltongland “joke”? It seems to belong to that good old condescending British view of other cultures that Michael Carberry talked about over the summer. I mean, we’re presumably not going to “chapattiland” later this winter…

  • I think England can become a force to be reckoned with in all conditions. I agree that Leach deserves a chance, and if Bess fails to rediscover his South African form there are other young spinners coming through (Matthew Parkinson and Amar Virdi being the two most obvious candidates). Personally, given his record in that part of the world I would not even take Broad to Sri Lanka, relying on Anderson to supply the experience and guile, with one of Archer, Wood or Stone to share the new ball with him, and Stokes plus one out of Curran or Woakes as back up seam options.

  • Given Sibley’s strength is playing off his legs, it is surely tough to eradicate his weakness of getting caught down the leg side. Very hard to differentiate between a ball on leg stump and one just down the leg side.

    • He should just stop playing outside the line of his pads. If it’s on his legs then hit it. If it’s outside the line of his legs or hip then leave it.

  • “if one didn’t know there was a global pandemic going on”

    It’s probably because one doesn’t watch TV because there’s nothing in real life that says there’s a pandemic going on. Except in WHO’s redefinition of a global pandemic that they coindicentally introduced just before the current nonsense struck where one case of a disease in lots of different countries suddenly became a global pandemic instead of the many deaths which was how it had been defined and how most people still think it is defined.

    As for the Test team, I wouldn’t be sure any young player will play 100 Tests because I’ve no belief enough games will be played by anyone in the future. The team looks like it should be a little more competitive overseas but it doesn’t look capable of winning in India or Australia to me (unless those sides had their biggest players missing for some reason). And Zak Crawley migh be very bright but his millionaire stockbroker father might have had something to do with what school he could get into…

    Two imminent stories to look out for concern whether the SA tour can go ahead (CSA are at loggerheads with their own government) and the pay arrangements for England’s players and ECB officials (the current situation runs out at the end of this month).

  • The problem with Jos Buttler is that he can manage to catch the ball when standing back for the seamers but cannot catch or stump when standing up for the spinners. Given that our opponents are going to be Sri Lanka and India (here’s hoping) this is a serious deficiency. This is when real wicket keepers can do their job and snaffle wickets. Otherwise the poor spinners are made to look hopeless. It’s the same with Jonny Bairstow. He can’t catch standing up for the spinners. The difference with Foakes standing up is staggering. Cricket is continuing to be a sport where players aren’t selected on merit but on county loyalties and favouritism or even the whim of the selector (Smith). A talented wicket keeper like Foakes who can also bat is a huge asset to the side. But sentiment seems to be stronger. Smith had a hunch about Buttler that he could play Test cricket if persevered with. But batting is only half of his equation. His wicket keeping has not improved much. If he’s selected for his batting then he should be competing on that basis with other players. Crawley was only brought in because of the absence of Stokes. As for Crawley’s intelligence, I’m afraid the type of school he attended is no guarantee of that. You’ve only got to look at the current cabinet. If he’s a decent cricketer time will tell. He’s got a long way to go.

    I’m also puzzled by the decline of Joe Root. Captaincy may not suit him. He’s not a natural captain and until recently he’s had the job of trying to mend the innings. The last few years of trial and error in Test cricket batsmen must have been very tiring. The years of discarded mantras one by one. Now we are back to thinking about Test batsmen with an eye to the long haul. Once this becomes a settled side Root might start to improve.

    • I agree about Buttler (and Bairstow) keeping standing up. Foakes should play in the subcontinent. Possible batting order:
      Burns, Sibley (though I’m not convinced by either), Crawley, Pope, Buttler, Stokes, Foakes, Bess, (perm 2 quicks), Leach.

      Oh, hang on, I seem to have forgotten someone….

      • When I said “perm 2 quicks”, I meant Archer/Wood and Woakes/Curran. I don’t think I would take Broad or Anderson to wear themselves out on unfriendly pitches in the subcontinent.

    • Good point about keepers standing up Jackie. However I fear it will be a plea on deaf ears as clearly Foakes and Co clearly aren’t on the agenda for now, except as reserves, as it disturbs the balance of the side the present selectors want.
      I think you have to persevere with Root for now, despite his lapses of concentration, as the only realistic alternative is Stokes. Although Stokes has shown more maturity on the field than either Botham or Flintoff ever did it rarely pays to make your best player captain. If Burns could come good against spin in Sri Lanka and India he is an option, being a county captain, but his place is hardly guaranteed at present.
      I think we should persevere with Crawley and Sibley in the test team as it gives the batting a nice balance. When we dropped Crawley this summer it clearly upset that balance, with Root and Stokes both being exposed, batting too high in the order.

    • It seems to me you’ve fallen into the trap–again!–of creating a rather paranoid smorgasbord of county loyalties, favouritism and selectorial whims out of what is simply the selector using different logic than you would have used.

      It’s not even new selectorial logic–think Prior over Foster, Jones over Read, Stewart over Russell, Downton over French, even Knott (though he was very good) over Taylor. And oddly enough you haven’t mentioned a much more glaring example of the same logic in the selection of Bess over Leach.

      Of course selection is sometimes subject to selectorial whims–when hasn’t it been? (That’s what you get when you appoint a human being as selector rather than a robotic algorithm). But where’s the evidence of favouritism–rather than simply your disagreement with the selections?

      And county loyalties–give me a break! Even if that’s what Smith’s strange Kent fetish is (and as I’ve said before his career at Kent makes that a more complicated subject than it appears if you look at it superficially), are you seriously trying to suggest that two selectors who played for Kent, Middlesex, Leics and Notts have a vested interest in the England careers of two players who’ve played for Lancs, Somerset, Essex and Surrey?

      Crawley wasn’t brought in only because of Stokes’s absence. He’s played eight of England’s last 11 tests for a start. He was left out (at a point where he was averaging 26 from six tests) because Stokes wasn’t fit to bowl. He would have been recalled anyway when Stokes was fit to bowl again.

      • The problem with keepers is you can only have one in a side at any time. I lived through the Knott / Taylor era and can assure you Knott was worth his place every inch as a keeper. The fact that he could bat a bit, unlike the excellent Taylor, was a bonus. Witness the amount of times he and Greig baled out our fragile batting. You can’t compare their like with the obvious weaknesses of Bairstow and Buttler compared to the likes of Foakes and company.
        Prior, Jones and Downton were all first class county keepers if not as good as their lesser batting oriented compatriots, Foster, Reid and French, whereas Bairstow and Buttler particularly are county part timers.
        Even Alec Stewart was a better all round keeper than Bairstow or Buttler, though Russell was clearly a different class and he did have a run in the test side.

      • I wouldn’t argue with any of that Marc–and obviously with Knott and Taylor in particular the line was fairly fine.

        But I think the principle is the same: do you just pick your best keeper (and from what I remember of the time almost everyone thought that Taylor was a better pure keeper even than Knott), or do you trade off the runs the worse keeper loses as a keeper against the runs that they score as a batsman?

        As I posted above, it’s interesting that we apply it to some disciplines but not others: we’re much more likely to pick Buttler over Foakes or Bess over Leach than Reece over Crawley.

        For me, the whole Buttler-Foakes saga shows two other things. One is the perils of dropping players too late–the danger is precisely that in the last-chance saloon they then make such a big score that you look a bit foolish dropping them. The second is how much Foakes’s batting is underestimated: forget the keeping, he has a much better batting average both in tests and f-c matches than Buttler, and scores hundreds much more often at f-c level.

        I don’t see why England can’t pick Foakes anyway in Asia, as a horse for a course, even if they’re thinking of selecting Buttler for a while longer elsewhere. The seam bowling attack isn’t going to be Anderson-Broad-Woakes in India, after all, even if it might be the first choice line-up in England! And if they’re thinking of taking Jennings as an Asia specialist….

    • Buttler doesn’t have a single Test stumping. It must be really demoralising for spinners bowling to a Keeper like that..

      • I’m no fan of Buttler as a keeper the main reason he has no test stumpings is we haven’t had a spinner since Swan who beat the bat much. Bess, Moin and Leach hardly turn the ball square, so there’s precious few opportunities anyway.

  • Jamie Overton over Craig on current form? You are Duncan Fletcher and I claim my five pounds…

    • I don’t think Craig is quite good enough to play Test cricket and enjoy sustained success. I think Jamie just might. He has a higher ceiling imho. Craig is a good cricketer though.

  • But England only gained 146 out of a possible 240 points this summer in the World Test Championship. India and Australia both scored 240 out of 240 points in their home seasons in 2019-20 by winning all 5 Tests. England only won Tests at Old Trafford this summer. Not much success in Southampton.

  • England were pretty disappointing in home Tests in the World Test Championship with 5 wins in 11 Tests, 3 draws and 3 losses. Especially, when you take into account two of the wins were miracle wins like Headingley last year and the series opener vs Pakistan this year at Old Trafford. It could have been even worse.

    Found it strange that Root happily walked off the field in the 3rd Test vs Pakistan with 15 overs left and 6 wickets to get. It was England’s last home Test in the WTC and they could have done with an extra 27 points that you get with a win in a 3 match series in comparison to a draw. They seemed content with a 1-0 series win.

  • I agree, especially about Root. He’s not a natural captain and even though he’s now up there with some of the best in terms of matches, he’s not noticeably better than he was when he first started and it’s demonstrably true that his batting is not as good as it was in the pre-captaincy days. I remember Vaughan saying this summer that in the modern era – with media and promotional demands – a captain has a finite life span and Root must be not far off that. It would be great if there was a way of getting him back to batting only without demoralising him, but that, I suspect, is easier said than done.

  • Anyone looking for some 80s’ cricket nostalgia might look at Youtube uploader DM Mordecai who has recently posted some rare stuff (1980, 1981 and 1988 mostly covered so far).

  • 36 matches down in the IPL and still over two weeks of it to go.

    I wonder what the odds on two consecutive matches on super-overs were? Not at all dubious….

  • Tragically Colin Graves won’t be heading the ICC. I’m sure a nation mourns….

    Let’s hope it’s not out of the frying pan into the fire time as a NZer seems favourite to get it and their governing class seem full-on insane at the moment.


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