Wednesday, 21 December 2016

England, what's going wrong?

Wednesday, 21 December 2016
So, really all my attempts to be optimistic in the face of impending doom in my last post turned out to be in vain. It's like I made them in the face of impending doom, or something. Funny how that works.

England slipped to their fourth defeat of the series yesterday and their second innings defeat in a row - and that being their second innings defeat in a row after scoring 400 in their first outing with the bat. There's not really a lot you can say about that. India simply outclassed England in every department; everything England did well, India then went and did better. England score 477? India scored 759, and declared. Moeen Ali gets a century? Lokesh Rahul gets 199, and then Karun Nair gets 303* - his very first test century and it's a triple. India never settled for just winning matches, they dominated them, pummeled England into the ground. Nair's triple was scored off only 381 balls, with Jadeja scoring a 55-ball 51 alongside him at the end.

England had a day to bat to save the match, a perfectly achievable aim on a pitch doing nothing for the bowlers. They made a strong start, too, with the openers sharing a century stand. But there was always that sense of inevitability as they crashed to 207 all out, losing by an innings and 75 runs. Their first innings score of 477 became the highest ever to end with an innings defeat.

So what's going wrong? Whilst they're still searching for their best eleven - and more so when playing in Asia than anywhere else - there's still a group of players with unquestionable talents who just aren't adding up to the sum of their parts. And some of it will be tiredness, yes, but when you see the same things happening again and again you'd expect them to learn a lesson at some point. English batting collapses are nothing new, for example, but over this winter they seem to have found a new template. It might even be one more frustrating than before. Mirpur, Vizaj, Mumbai, Chennai - all times when England surrendered completely when sensible batting might have saved them, or at least offered some dignity. I mean, innings like that do happen on occasion - opposing sides start to smell blood and move in for the kill whilst batsmen fall like dominoes - but England have made it a habit this winter, and more than usual. And a lot of the time, they're getting themselves out, playing shots that in the situation they have no business playing. What was Bairstow doing, what was Moeen doing? When you have a very real chance to save the game, to at least salvage some scrap of dignity, why would you do that?

So is it the coaching then? Bayliss has worked wonders with England in the shortened formats, but the test side has gone up and down and not really got anywhere. The year started with a brilliant away win in South Africa and it looked like England were in a position to build from. But since then we've had disappointing draws against Pakistan and Bangladesh and now humiliation in India; with plenty of batsmen going in and out of the team and nearly as many spinners this winter alone. There's no specialist fielding coach whilst chances are going down; no permanent spin coach when the spinners are struggling (and when Saqlain Mushtaq arrived, Rashid for one did much better); there's no wicketkeeping coach for a keeper still learning his craft. The same attitude that's brought so much success in the one-day arena doesn't translate to a match that lasts five days: there's still room to attack with the bat, but application has to come first and foremost. There's a time and a place to take the game to the opposition, and England haven't found either.

Things can go to far the other way though, which they often do in the field. It means coming back to Alastair Cook, and talking about his captaincy is unavoidable. The thing is, though the batsmen can be too aggressive when they don't need to be, in the field England have been defence first, and probably defence later too. And when it goes wrong, Cook rarely has a plan B to turn to. England just drifted in the field, Cook just rotated his bowlers - not really providing a firm leadership or notion of creativity. It's hard to see him continuing in the job for much longer. Even Cook himself has been hinting at it since the start of the winter. Four years in the job is a long time. There have been times before when he might have gone, but there didn't seem to be any heir apparent - or at least one that's ready yet. Now Joe Root has played over fifty tests, and that younger generation that includes star performers like Stokes and Bairstow look ready to step up.

Choosing a star batsman as captain always has that element of risk, that the pressures of leading will take their toll and neuter their offerings to the team with the bat. The same might happen for Joe Root, or it could be the impetus he needs. There's no doubting that he's one of the best batsmen in the world, but his collection of scores in the eighties look more of a missed opportunity than anything. Could the responsibility of being captain give him that edge he needs to convert these into centuries, 'daddy hundreds', the big scores England need to dominate the opposition? It's what Kohli does for India, at least. Root also seems to be more pro-active in nature and could offer that fresh approach England need, a new angle of looking at things, the man they need to shake things up. A tough home series against South Africa and an Ashes tour on the horizon may not be the ideal time to start, but then again, when is? It feels like his time is coming.

There's so many other comments to make about this winter, and it's hard to find the space to go into on just one post here. There are selection issues, often dubious; the lack of penetration with the ball; the question of just how many all-rounders is a blessing and how many makes too many; the scheduling; to name but a few.

The good thing at least is that England have seven months before they next take to the field in their whites, seven months they need. Though the defeat was, well, pretty horrific, it's not a time for rash, knee-jerk decisions. They were expected to lose and did just that against a strong Indian side. The question is why it was so bad.  There will be changes in personnel in the team, but none too drastic. It feels more like changes in approach off the field will make the bigger effect - and even that's not a call for Bayliss to go. They need to address why it is that such a talented bunch of players are underperforming to this extent, why they don't seem able to string together a sequence of performances across tests, even across innings. There are seven months before they play again, seven months to have a long, hard look at what's going wrong.

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