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.