Having witnessed another soul-destroying and utterly predictable Ashes humiliation – do even the most hardened Aussies enjoy it when it’s this one-sided? – I will, as a cricket nut, and England fan, offer my thoughts on the whole shameful situation.
I’ll try to find the root (if you can forgive the pun) causes of the decline, and a way forward. Just as I did six years ago, after the one-day side had been humiliated in yet another World Cup campaign.
Good news – the English Cricket Board did heed the calls for change back in 2015, changed the top management, coach, captain and playing team members, who then changed how they played, becoming the best one day side in the world for many years, capturing the World Cup crown in 2019. So, it can be done!
Same old same old
Beating Australia down under in a test series is damn hard, and extremely rare. It’s only happened twice in my watching lifetime (1986 and 2010), and in between it’s been very, very one-sided.
One thing is true. You cannot win in Australia unless you score regular runs. The wickets are bouncy, but true, and the Aussies have some great fast bowlers. The only way to put yourself in a good position is to score 400+ regularly in the first innings.
Everyone knows this.
400+ sets up the test match. It allows your bowlers precious time to rest and refresh, after pounding their way in, hour after hour, day after day, on hard, unresponsive pitches in 40-degree sun.
If you don’t score 400, then you are chasing the game, your bowlers are back out there too soon, and you get pulverised. I’ve seen it so often – having lived here since 1997 and seen 7 series up close (with 6 very one-sided defeats).
Sadly, the current English batting line up contains only one batsman who averages more than 40. He averages 50+ overall, and 60+ this year having scored the 3rd highest number of runs (1,708) than anyone before, and more than any Englishmen ever. He’s the captain, and carries a lot of his shoulders.
Despite this, his team has lost 9 tests this year (a record), and 12 of the last 13 tests down under. It’ll take a miracle not to lose the next 2, slated for the next two weeks.
The second-highest scorer of test runs for England in 2021 has scored 1,200 LESS runs (or less than a third) – and he’s been dropped – and the third-highest scorer is Extras.
So, it should come as no surprise that the England team has been smashed in the opening 3 tests, has already surrendered the series and the Ashes, having never managed to score above 300. Most of their batsmen are shell-shocked, sitting ducks and barely get into double figures.
Collectively, this year, the England team has recorded 54 ducks. That’s also a record. 23 of them have been among the top order (these are people specifically employed to score runs.) 20 players (from 25 used) have been out to the crease and back without scoring a single run in an innings. One – an opener – has done this six times in 2021, another 4 (also top-order specialist batsmen) have recorded 4 ducks this year.
In their last outing, having bowled themselves back into the game restricting the first innings lead to 80 odd (previous 2 tests had been 250+), the batsmen could not even muster enough to make the Aussies bat again.
Rearranging deck chairs
OK, so we all know there’s a problem with the batting. But changing personnel does not help.
I don’t see any younger players beating down the door to get into the team. Not by sheer weight of runs anyway. We already have a promising 23-year-old in Pope who averages 60+ in the county championship, but can’t get serious runs in test cricket (average below 30). Anyone else who’s had some relatively good recent years in first class cricket, has been tried and discarded as well: Burns, Sibley, Lawrence, Ali, Bracy and Vince.
Even some of these only average in the 30s in county cricket. While the English captain has scored 6 centuries in 2021, everyone else (which numbers 25 other people) have scored only one between them.
Changing players will make no difference to the short-term outcome. Backing them up with top coaches and resources has not worked either. I doubt if changing the coach will work.
It could be that captain calls it quits after this series, and the coach, admin staff and others are swept away too. But this will not fix the cause.
Change the system (it’s worked before)
Back in the 1990s, it was clear English test cricket was falling behind other countries. Not only did we not compete with Australia (home or away), we rarely competed anywhere, with the nadir being a defeat by New Zealand at home in 1999.
Around that time, several structural changes were made to the English county game that provided the system from which some world-beating players (including batsmen) and team then sprung.
A two-division structure, with promotion and relegation, was instituted, and 4-day county games became the norm. England players were centrally contracted to the England Cricket Board, and were employed by them, not the counties.
These 3 changes alone were key. It meant budding England players could play for the top teams in Division One, face the best bowlers, learn how to bat for days, then get contracted to the ECB (who could call the shots on where and how much they played). A couple of tough new, overseas-born, coaches were also employed.
Success followed. Finally in 2005, after an 18-year wait, England beat Australia in a humdinger of a test series (against a team made up of some all-time greats), and repeated the dose at home in 2009, 2013 and 2015, also beating the Aussies down under in 2010. England became the top-ranked test team in 2012-13.
One Day Over Emphasis
However, while all was going on, England had fallen behind in the short-form (50 over and T20) of the game. After making the finals of the World Cup back in 1992, the team had not been a serious one-day contender since, and were bundled out in the pool stages, by Bangladesh, in 2015.
It was then that, with the 2019 home World Cup looming, things changed. A new coach, new captain, new players and a new way of (positive) playing were put forward. With remarkable results.
However, during this time, to make way, and to make more money, the 4-day county game was shunted to the sidelines. T20 became a format played throughout the season, rather than boxed into a convenient window (such that the best overseas players could attend), and T20 leagues flourished around the world.
Money flowed into the game, via these shortened – mainly T20 – formats.
The best T20 players could earn a very nice income, well after normal retirement age, in 4- or 6-week tournaments in India, the Caribbean, Pakistan, Australia, and elsewhere.
Young English batsmen had very little incentive to put in the hard yards to develop a test career, when there were easier pickings elsewhere.
A new, even shorter, competition, The Hundred, was then shoe-horned into the schedule in 2021, relegating the 50-over competition to the county 2nd teams (played at the same time), and stopping all 4-day county championships games mid season.
In 2021, only two English batsmen scored 1,000 runs across the entire 4-day county championship season, whereas previously there had always been a race to score 1,000 before the end of May.
Medium pace bowlers were picking up hat fulls of county wickets in April/May and late August and into September, when the 4-day county games were played.
Spinners rarely got games, as the medium pacers collected wickets on spicey early or late season wickets under leaden skies. Batting became a minefield. Few could bat for a few sessions, let alone a day or so.
Wind on a few years and we wonder why no county batsman can make the step up to test cricket, where they face 90 mph bowlers on fast, pacey wickets. Nor why they cannot play spin in India or elsewhere. They simply don’t get to face this in the county game. And the pitches – and ball – are very different.
The English county system is simply not producing test batsmen, fast pace bowlers or spinners. It rewards mediocrity, and spicey wickets prepared to ‘get a result’ well inside 4 days (including any rain around).
Here’s the solution
Rather than bleat on about the problems, let me offer some solutions. (This won’t happen, by the way, but what the hey?)
- Make county championship the ‘spine’ of the whole season – everything hangs off it, from April through to September. Have 2 Divisions, 9 teams per division. Each team plays 16 x 4-day games (7 home and 7 away), from mid-April to the end of Sept, including playing a couple of games when The Hundred is on. With 17 weeks during those 5 months (23 weeks), there is ample time to play 16 x 4-day games (starting Monday and finishing Thursday each week), with the 7 spare weeks used to play 50-over and T20 games to complete those tournaments (such as quarter, semis and finals);
- Good Pitches – the quality of pitches is poor in the county championship – deliberately – to get results. There are few draws now, as the pitches are mine fields to bat on. New Zealand improved their test team by insisting on better pitches, which then encourages counties to invest in decent spin and pace bowlers (the best way to prise out wickets). Get away from the samey, dinky-dobbly 70 mph bowlers who only have to roll their arm over to take a hatful. Let batsmen bat for sessions, and more than a day… as they are supposed to do in tests. Fine counties for substandard pitches.
- Every week a 50 over or 2xT20 games are played. These one-day or evening games can be played on Friday nights, and weekends.
- The Hundred is as now, an 8-franchise team tournament, played in a 4-week concentrated block (late July/early August).
- Test matches are either one 5-test series (such as The Ashes) or 2 x 3-test series, played May/June and July/August, with spaces in between for players to play a county game, or refresh/recover for each test. Why not re-establish a ‘rest day’ during the middle test of a 3 test series, and during 2 tests of a 5-test series? That way, you don’t burn out the players, playing back to back 5 dayers week in week out.
- Use the end of Sept for 4-day and 50 over finals. T20 semi and finals day can occur during a week towards the end of Aug.
Hold to this structure, and everyone should benefit. Some exciting one-day games every weekend, some long-form games played throughout the year to encourage potential test batsmen, pace bowlers and spinners to develop their craft.
I would also (ideally) split the test and one-day England teams into two – with different coaches, captains and players, as mentioned before. Very few (perhaps only 3 or 4 max) players would play all formats.
This would also allow a lot of cricket to be played, but less injuries and burnout for the players (as they’d have the other time off, to work on technique, injuries, fitness, rest and recovery).
No doubt this series will see changes – probably to the players used, maybe the captain, coach and back up staff, and management. If that’s all that happens, it will be a wasted opportunity. The underlying structural issues need addressing, and soon, otherwise nothing much will change, and in four years time, I’ll be hiding behind my couch, rather than watch another shellacking.
(Prediction: this won’t happen as the counties rule the structure and want to keep it as is. Some strong leader (… yeah, good luck with that) needs to stand up to them.)
- Test runs from England team batsmen, 2021: CricInfo