The Boxing Day Test at the MCG. A highlight of the sporting calendar. Last year, India managed to win thanks to a truly special century from stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane, backed up brilliantly by Ravindra Jadeja with a fifty. An 8-wicket win, after being bowled out for just 36 in the first Test, and India went on to win the series.
Now this was an Ashes year. Yes, England were two-nil down and looked terrible. But could they summon the strength of the great 2010/11 side who hit 513 in the Boxing Day Test?
The answer was, of course, no. All over inside 3 days. You barely had time to process what was happening. Australia only hit 267, and yet they won by an innings? England rolled for 68. Scott Boland takes 6-7 on debut. A low, even by England’s recent standards. And to think that England had supposedly been planning for this Ashes all year….. A 4-0 drubbing and losing 19 wickets in the Test we drew. Simply not good enough.
An historically bad England side
Yes I understand England had some tough series this year. No series where players could stat-pad a little bit. We’ve played India home and away. Sri Lanka away. World champions New Zealand at home. And now the Aussies away. But these are the years that define a side. Being a part of the so-called ‘Big Three’ with Australia and India, you’d expect England to compete in all those series.
And I think that’s why there’s so much outrage. It’s why I myself feel the need to write this piece. To have the year we’ve had… something simply must change.
So let’s have a look at some of the numbers for 2021 shall we? They make for pretty grim reading:
When an average of 34 looks good, things are going wrong. Let’s say Joe Root had a decent year with the bat rather than the career year he had. If he averaged 45 – that would be 1305 runs for the year, 400 less than he ended up getting. Remove those runs, and we probably would have been battered in at least 2 more Test matches. A post-mortem would have been happening before the Ashes even began. And more so, to have your best batsman at the peak of his powers, and for your side to still be awful with the bat. Well, that is a crisis.
A half-century of ducks. A remarkable effort to be honest. 17 of those ducks came from people batting in the top 3. Supposedly you’re most assured batsmen, those who can bat long, survive the new ball and build a platform for the middle order to capitalise on. Our openers can barely survive the first 4 overs at the moment.
Question over the mentality?
Are England mentally fragile up top? An ideal opener is gritty, patient and mentally tough. Let’s exclude David Warner here as he’s an outlier who can dominate from the off – the best openers in the world right now are Tom Latham, Dimuth Karunaratne, Dean Elgar and KL Rahul. They leave really well and look to bat long. You want your opener to consistently be able to face 80-100 balls minimum.
The same cannot be said for the English batsmen. They all get caught feeling for the ball. I simply do not get why we keep trying Zak Crawley as an opener. He only averages early 30’s in first-class cricket. We shouldn’t be surprised.
Yes, he hit a great 77 down under; he hit a 50 in India where he looked good. And yes that 267 batting at 3 the summer before last. But he averaged under 11 in 2021 in 16 innings before the final two tests. You’d be a tad disappointed if your number 8 had those numbers. He’s not good enough to show the intent he does. He doesn’t look like he can face 80- 100 balls consistently. He’s not the answer right now.
Rory Burns had a poor year. He has technical deficiencies that need to be ironed out. He gets nicked off. But he got the second most runs for England this year. He’s hit tons. England should stick with him for now as I don’t think there’s anyone better right now, but his metal toughness will be tested next year.
As for Haseeb, well I always had high hopes but chucking him into an away Ashes series having been out the side for a while was never going to work. Australia is a very hard place to go, we all know that. So I feel sympathy for him. I think he’s a fantastic cricketer but I don’t see a way back into this side for a while at least.
So who should bat with Burns?
I mentioned the top openers in the world just above. To give your middle order the best chance of scoring runs, you need openers who set a platform. Forget runs for now. Who is most likely to consistently see off the new ball?
The answer is of course Dom Sibley. The man who was dropped earlier this year. Yes he looks awkward and scratchy at the crease, but I feel confident he’ll survive. Let’s change the metric for a bit. Let’s go back to the Tavare’s and Boycott’s. Let be’s be boring for a bit and give the middle order a chance to go big.
Yes you can mention the bowling being poor at times as well. But England didn’t score 300 once on this tour. 300 is the minimum required to be competitive in a Test match in Australia. The batting is the issue.
The Hundred to blame?
In short, no. We’re acting as if it’s completely revolutionised the game. Batting techniques altered due to the preference for the white-ball game years ago. I’ll get into the structural issues with English cricket in another piece, but I will say that Indian stars have managed to balance the IPL and Test match batting for some time. Just look at KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli (until recently) and Rishabh Pant (although slightly more unconventionally).
I’m aware that scheduling is an issue. We play first-call cricket at the start and end of summer. On green seamers. Oliver Hannon-Dalby bowling 75 mph seamers and getting 7 wickets.
Could we have a streamlined first-class set up? Reduce the number of top teams to 8 – similar what The Hundred has done – and play throughout the summer instead? I get The Hundred and I like it. The two can coexist. But as I say, more in a future piece.
To finish off I think nobody embodies the state of English cricket currently than Chris Silverwood. He seems like an alright guy, says ‘oh yeah well we’re trying hard’. Yeah well England trying hard is sh*t.
He’s not a win at all costs coach. He’s just happy to be there? Ashley Giles picked one of his mates, supposedly over the great Gary Kirsten, and he’s out of his depth. It’s all niceties and pleasantness. “Oh well we’ll keep going and hopefully do better”. It’s a rubbish mentality for elite sport.
He has to go? As I say, he seems like a good guy. But he isn’t the answer. Look at his counterpart Justin Langer – he pisses people off sure, but he’s tough; and Australia have won a T20 World Cup, retained the Ashes in England and now won convincingly Down Under. He hasn’t done it being ‘nice’.
When England won Down Under many moons ago Andy flower was our head coach. He was tough, he angered people. And we won?
England need to be going for a head coach with experience, but also a desire to win at all costs. Someone who simply wouldn’t allow these batting performances to happen. Jason Gillespie and Gary Kirsten should be the go-to guys next. No more mental fragility. Yes it may take time, but the change has to happen now.