I love a good tour of New Zealand me. The scenery is gorgeous (unless they’re playing in Aukland), the people are nice, the teams are evenly matched, and the weather is good but not so good that you immediately want to emigrate.
But unfortunately this wasn’t your ordinary New Zealand tour. The scenery was pretty (especially at Mount Maunganui) but the cricket was pretty dull. What’s more, there was an unsavoury incident when a local racially abused Jofra Archer. I guess every country has its fair share of ignorant morons. Some of ours even become political leaders.
The most frustrating aspect, however, was that the teams weren’t evenly matched this time. New Zealand’s batting is a lot stronger than ours – only Root and Burns would make a combined top 6 for specialist batsmen – and their bowlers had slightly more nous than ours in the benign conditions.
It’s interesting, for example, that they omitted their one genuine quick in Lockie Ferguson. Instead they trusted the likes of Southee and Wagner to keep control and pick up the odd wicket. And of course, they picked a spinner in both games.
As a result, it’s not wholly surprising that the Kiwis won the series 1-0. We made them slight favourites beforehand and that’s exactly how it played out. Losing therefore wasn’t a disaster.
Because the two Test matches didn’t count towards the world test championship (for reasons known only to those who reside deep within the inner sanctum of the authorities’ masonic temple) there was a pre-tour inkling that performances would be more important than results. This series was therefore billed as a learning experience for the Silverwood / Root axis. Ed Smith’s squad selection also hinted at experimentation.
So what did we learn in defeat? I’ve jotted down the main findings beneath:
→ England struggle to take wickets on flat pitches with the Kookaburra ball.
→ Dom Sibley favours the leg-side
→ Ollie Pope is a batsman not a wicket-keeper
→ Jofra Archer doesn’t always bowl as quickly as we’d like him to
→ Joe Root can score runs batting at No.4 if he’s captain (albeit perhaps not quite as regularly as we’d like)
→ Joe Denly is a very good fielder but he’s human
→ People are very quick to get on Jack Leach’s back
Can you think of any others? I might have added that England’s new management team are just as capable of making bizarre morning-of-the-game decisions as previous regimes but that would’ve been stating the bleedin’ obvious.
Unfortunately, therefore, we haven’t learned much at all. We knew all the above points two months ago before the team left Blighty. Although the squad selected by Ed Smith suggested experimentation, when it came down to it England disappointingly reverted to type. Silverwood and Root were given some shiny new toys to play with but they kept them in their boxes and barely unwrapped the cellophane. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ultimately returned them to the shop.
Take Matt Parkinson and Saqib Mahmood for example, who were part of both legs of the tour (the five T20s and the Tests). The former bowled just six international overs in the entire tour and the latter bowled just ten. Jofra Archer managed 40+ in one innings alone.
What’s more, when it comes to the spin department the side has inexplicably gone backwards. We left home with a left arm spinner who had impressed all and sundry in his first two series. He’d out-bowled the Sri Lankan spinners in Sri Lanka, and he’d out bowled Nathan Lyon in the Ashes. One bad game later and Jack Leach has been dropped, and many people are praying that Moeen Ali is recalled for South Africa.
When it comes to the batting we didn’t learn much either – although the top 6 has taken some small steps forward. Rory Burns’s stock rose again, thanks to a gutsy half-century at The Bay Oval and a fluent hundred at Seddon Park, and Joe Denly also cemented his place with 74 at Mount Maunganui. Ollie Pope also made runs in the second test which atoned for his two poor shots in the first game.
The wicket-keeper’s spot also remains a conundrum. England gave the gloves to Jos Buttler at the start of the tour but injury prevented him from completing it. His performance at The Bay Oval was somewhat mixed. He’s a more than good enough Test No.7 but he doesn’t have the softest hands in the world. As for Ben Foakes, well, heaven knows what’s going on there.
The biggest positive of the tour was probably Joe Root’s batting. He was awful at Mount Maunganui but moved mountains at Hamilton. The skipper’s captaincy remains a little erratic and unpredictable but he’s a class act with the willow. But then we knew that already.
As for the bowling unit, again more questions were raised than answers provided. After the Ashes it looked like Stuart Broad was back to his best and might play another two or three years. This looks uncertain now. He bowled economically but looked about as penetrative and incisive as a Fox News investigation into Donald Trump most of the time.
Jofra Archer was also a bit of a disappointment – although the way he was utilised surely didn’t help. After the Ashes we thought we’d found our X-factor who would make all the difference on flat pitches with the Kookaburra ball. Nope! Archer remains one hell of a prospect but he’s not the finished article yet. What’s more, we saw signs of some niggling aggro between our spearhead and the captain. This doesn’t bode well for a long international career.
When it comes to the other bowlers we learned that Chris Woakes is Chris Woakes – who’d have thunk it? – and that Mahmood and Parkinson make an awesome cuppa. Meanwhile, Sam Curran bowled the odd good spell but is this enough to compensate for the times he looks like a teenager playing a man’s game?
One question, however, has been answered. I’m just not sure that it’s the right answer. Root’s fine double ton at Seddon Park has cemented his place as skipper for the foreseeable future. But surely his abilities as captain are a separate issue to his undoubted abilities as a batsman?
Although Root’s runs will silence the critics for now, there was plenty to criticise his captaincy for. He still has a horrible habit of bowling the wrong bowlers at the start of sessions, and one wonders how strong his man management skills are.
Questioning Jofra Archer’s effort after the first Test seemed curious to say the least, and his post-series promise to phone Moeen Ali and almost plead with him to return must have felt like a massive kick in the nuts to Leach. It’s also rather bizarre as Root has often seemed reluctant to bowl Moeen (ditto Adil Rashid) when he was actually in the team last year.
This illogical behaviour might prompt critics to ask whether the questions I’ve raised today are actually relevant. It seems, at times, as though the only question that matters is whether a player’s face fits. With Moeen set to return to a Test side that is apparently building for The Ashes (despite Mo’s horrendous record down under), and Jonny Bairstow also set to return despite not playing any red ball cricket since he was dropped, England’s core group doesn’t seem to have evolved much at all – despite Ed Smith’s somewhat experimental picks.
But I suppose that’s what happens when you employ the continuity candidate as head coach even though the squad clearly needed a shake-up, a fresh voice, and some outside expertise.
It’s still early days into Chris Silverwood’s tenure, of course, but a lot of supporters might wonder why the ECB spurned Gary Kirsten just because he doesn’t excel at pointless powerpoint presentations.