Monday, 21 July 2014

Where did it all go so wrong?

Monday, 21 July 2014
I am writing this in a state of despair, immediately after seeing England bounced out by Ishant Sharma with an old ball. This isn't even the worst performance or defeat England have had in the past couple of years or so since they lost the number one spot, but it's the manner of the defeat - losing in conditions that would appear tailor made for England against a team from the subcontinent - that makes it a whole new low and obvious that something has to change.

First of all, credit cannot be taken away from India. Both sides have had chances to put themselves on top in this match, and both sides have squandered their opportunities to really put themselves ahead in the game. India fought back from 143/7, Rahane making a brilliant century and showing again that he has a very promising career ahead of him. Bhuvneshwar Kumar put in another strong display with both bat and ball, six wickets in England's first innings and important runs down the order in both India's innings. Jadeja was up for the fight throughout, definitely coming off better in the psychological battle with Anderson, responsible for his dismissals in both of England's innings and his 68 from 57 in the second helping put India in control. Their seamers did better than England's in general - finding that fuller length and being more restrictive throughout. Finally, Sharma's spell of well directed short bowling finished the game off for India, as England's batsmen had no answer and simply followed each other back to the pavilion after making the same bad shot choice.

For England though, questions will have to be asked and changes will have to be made. The ongoing theme of the summer - or even of the whole past year - has been the questions over the form and captaincy of Alastair Cook. With every defeat and every innings, even every day the calls for Cook's head have grown stronger and stronger, and it's difficult to deny that the burden is weighing him down. I have no doubt that he will come back with the bat - he's proved himself too good a player not to - but ever more it looks like the captaincy's just not for him and he needs a break away from the team. Will England miss him if they drop him for the Rose Bowl? Well he's not making a difference with the bat and seeing as his team couldn't do the job on the first day on a green top, it seems his captaincy isn't doing much either. County cricket isn't short of openers who could stake a claim to a place in the team.

In general, the senior players have been letting England down. The newer members aren't without fault of course, but players with such experience should be able to lead the way when a lot of the time - particularly in the batting department - it has felt like the other way round. The writing now looks on the wall for Matt Prior - he hasn't been the safe pair of hands that he had grown to become, conceding byes and putting down chances. At the start of the summer I thought it was a good call to put him back in the test side, adding experience to England's middle order. But aside from the first innings against Sri Lanka (and a couple of dubious umpiring decisions) his batting hasn't been up to scratch, both sides exposing a weakness to the short ball, and though he has had some difficult pitches to keep on, the standard of glovework is falling too. When he was dismissed for 12 in the second innings, there was a feeling of finality about it all. It could very well be a disappointing end to a sparkling career, it looking ever likely that Jos Buttler will come in. Bell's form has been somewhat overshadowed by Cook's struggles, but has been nearly as poor. Broad still looks to be struggling with fitness, and is another of England's bowlers falling into the trap of bowling too short. The same goes with Anderson, bowling too short even though he is a swing bowler who should know better. Is that a matter of poor captaincy or just poor bowling? Both, particularly Anderson, seem to bear the brunt of the workload, Cook seemingly reluctant to turn to the less experienced Stokes and Plunkett even when they were the ones picking up the wickets. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Anderson rested for the next match, one of Woakes, Jordan, or Kerrigan coming in to replace him. 

The way England succumbed so meekly to the short ball in the final innings - and moreover the whole summer so far - has also been especially worrying. Is it a hangover from facing Mitchell Johnson in the Ashes in the winter? Or, with a crop of new players in the team, does it reflect a larger weakness among English players? They've hardly faced anyone of 'express pace' so far, but next year will be facing Australia once more and South Africa - teams with faster bowlers who will expose any weaknesses they see. Ferocious spells of short pitched bowling and regular bouncers are less often found in the county game so players often do have to 'learn on the job' as it may be when they make the step up to international level. Moeen Ali has been exposed more than once this summer; Root didn't look at ease as soon as the tactic was employed and fell to a poor stroke; Stokes was caught without making a run, his disastrous run with the bat continuing. They're going to need to learn fast, because it will only continue.

England have a lot to think about if they are to make their way back into the series. Older players are looking jaded, mentally and physically, and changes will have to be made. When England were at their best, reaching the number one spot in the world, one of their key qualities was that 'never say die' attitude - always coming back when backed into a corner, being able to fight back when under pressure. England have, at times, shown signs of that quality this summer - making it to the last over in the second match against Sri Lanka, Root and Anderson's tenth wicket partnership, Root and Ali's partnership here giving England some hope of winning the match. But too often it's been the other team that's been able to make the fight back, and too often England have succumbed. Something has to give.

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