Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Future of England’s Test Match Side

Edgbaston provided a perfect demonstration of the vitality of the longest form of the game. In what was one of the greatest test matches of the twenty-first century, England showed immense character to overcome the excellent Virat Kohli’s Indian team. Joe Root’s men will hopefully improve as the summer progresses, helping English fans fall in love with the new look test team.

Despite the excitement the close match generated, the game itself was a case in point of both sides’ shortfalls. Captains Joe Root and Virat Kohli have issues to address in terms of team balance and personnel. However, the former should be alarmed by the fact England are playing in home conditions. With conditions conducive to batting, they relied upon Sam Curran’s knock of 63 in order to set a competitive second innings score. England cannot allow this to happen again this summer.

The match was an amazing advert for test cricket, yet England must improve in all three components of the game to stand a chance of securing the series win.

A Bright Future in Tests

Although this piece will primarily deal with weaknesses in the England test side, it is important to recognise the potential this young team possesses. Joe Root is one of the best four batsmen in the world. He is renowned for failing to convert fifties into centuries nevertheless, with a test average of 52.18 he will undoubtedly be one of England’s greatest. In fact, in 43 percent of his test innings Root scores a half-century, the best conversion rate from 0-50 since Sir Don Bradman. As captain, Root is improving immensely, which was evident in the final innings of the Edgbaston test. If the skipper can maintain his form with the bat alongside his leadership responsibilities, English test match cricket is in safe hands.

Further to the brilliance of Root, England have a number of high quality international cricketers. Alastair Cook, nearing the end of his career, can provide advice and guidance to any youngster making their way in the test arena. Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler are all highly talented individuals, who have the potential to be superstars on the biggest stage. In the bowling department, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad remain among the finest in the world. In essence, the England side is in a period of transition; yet we should not forget the calibre of individual currently available.

Opening Partnership

Alastair Cook’s record is arguably the greatest of any England batsman in the history of the game. His 12,158 test match runs places him in sixth position in the all-time highest run scorers in the format. His capacity to turn a century into a ‘daddy hundred,’ a phrase used by Graham Gooch, sets him apart from other famous England openers such as Andrew Strauss or Marcus Trescothick.

Yet his form with the bat is evidence that his career may be drawing to a close. Since the retirement of Strauss, England have failed to find a long-term opening partner for Cook. In reality, England will soon be forced to find an entirely new partnership. Keaton Jennings has acquitted himself well since moving to Lancashire. He needs to score a big hundred to cement his position. However, until England find a solid opening pair, the middle order will remain susceptible to horrendous batting collapses, such as that seen in the tour of New Zealand.

The Bowling Department

The selection of Adil Rashid, a player who quit four-day cricket for Yorkshire this year, sparked uproar among commentators, journalists and fans. Ed Smith, the new National Selector, has adopted a bold approach to selection this summer. While it is positive to see a selector give public backing to players, it is a damning indictment of county cricket that England called upon Rashid. As the county setup evolves over the next few years, young spinners need the opportunity to bowl with the red ball in peak summer months. Without this, many more may opt to take the route Rashid chose in March and England will continue to struggle in dryer conditions.

Another problem is the fitness of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. There are already discussions on rotating the bowlers during the series, with five test matches in six weeks. Once again, the transition the side will undergo will be a very difficult one to manage for the selectors and captain. It is hoped that the next generation will step up to the mark.

Specialist Batsmen for Specific Conditions?

The latest selection decision undertaken by Smith is the removal of Dawid Malan. He is quoted as saying, “Dawid has not found his best rhythm this season and it may be that his game is better suited to overseas conditions.” This is a novel approach, a significant shift away from the management of Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, who both preferred adaptable players. Possibly this may be a new reality in test match cricket, with the variance in pitches around the globe. Despite this, to my mind England’s inconsistency should not be remedied by a ‘chopping and changing’ selection style. Only a balanced side given long-term backing will help England become a stronger unit under Root’s leadership.

Longer-Term View- County Championship

The future of the game of cricket is undoubtedly reliant upon the success of the shortest format. Without a strong T20 domestic tournament, other nations will surpass England in attracting top overseas talent and developing high quality youngsters. Yet the beating heart of the sport remains the longer form, with the vast majority of players still considering test matches to be the ultimate test of character. Neither the ebbs and flows of test cricket, nor the application of technique or the skill used with ball can ever be replicated in a T20. The test match remains the pinnacle of our sport.

The ECB must ensure that the County Championship is not seen as the least important domestic tournament. England needs to have players able to play in swinging conditions in April as well as scorchers in July. This may require some form of pragmatism, such as hosting rounds of matches in overseas conditions. Most importantly, players need exposure to different types of pitches, bowling and batting styles. If the County Championship can once again become a breeding ground for international talent, then success will return to England. Failing this, inconsistency will remain entrenched in our test match record for years to come.

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