• Bertie Moores

ANALYSIS | England's Test batting ailment - an attempted diagnosis

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

England's latest underwhelming performance with the bat in Cape Town again provoked the attack dogs and Poirots of social media. Despite a spirited comeback their batting on the first day was described as 'dismal' by the usually measured BBC Sport. These failings are not new. Under Joe Root's captaincy, England have hit 400+ in the first innings just five times. There are a plethora of reasons as to why the Test side is so poor. Each line of reasoning has merit to varying degrees, yet it is so difficult to assess which excuse holds the most weight.

The suggestion that most regularly comes to the fore is that England have taken their eye off the ball - more specifically, the red one. Over the past four years under Trevor Bayliss, England transformed themselves from a limp, uninspiring ODI side to lungbusting World Champions and, potentially, the most exciting One Day International side ever put together. England won the World Cup by the barest of margins - the barest of all margins, rather - but they were the preeminent One Day side for several years before that. A team which broke batting world records and was characterised by powerful, free-flowing run-scorers who could hit the ball wherever they pleased. Glorious to watch, and equally successful in achieving their ultimate goal. It is therefore understandable that some are feeling the wild and sudden success in the 50-over side has crept into the batting of the Test side.

The phrase 'bat time' has been bandied around more and more amidst England's apparent inability to stay at the crease. With England so obviously successful in the limited-overs formats, it has been argued that the bludgeoning mentality has crept into the Test team. Indeed, Trevor Bayliss was the coach for all three of the national team's formats. With immense success in 50-over cricket under the same coaching regime, there's an obvious risk that England have imported too much flair into their mindset at the expense of grit.

In short, England's Test batting downfall unfortunately coincided with the attacking brand established by the side in limited-overs cricket.

There's no easy means of measuring any of this, however. It is hard to assess or know whether there were mindset changes, both consciously and subconsciously.

In terms of individual batsmen, there are few who can directly be accused of succumbing to the white-ball effect. The only reasonable candidates who seem to have faltered are Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler. Moeen's Test fall from grace was well documented in the summer, whilst the once healthy average of a fine Test batsman in Bairstow is taking a consistent battering through the gate.

Buttler, meanwhile, has never seemed to truly take to Test cricket, averaging just 33 since his debut despite obvious talent. It is, as previously stated, hard to assess the extent to which the respective shortcomings in technique and mentality has anything to do with their ODI roles, but it seems too obvious to ignore.

However, many in this England side do not play multiple formats to the same degree as in the past and their batting issues appear to go much deeper than simply a short-format process of 'see ball, hit ball, get caught' which many are suggesting has filtered through the Test side. The question must be asked of whether England’s Test shortcomings have come because of the white ball, or simply at the same time.

In other words, what evidence is there to suggest that England’s red-ball efforts would have improved if the white-ball successes had not manifested? By framing the question like that, the direct damaging link becomes less convincing.

England have had problems at the top of the order for years. This is nothing new. One only needs to look at the vast list of opening and top-order batsmen which have been handed their debuts in the past four years to see that. James Vince, Haseeb Hameed, Keaton Jennings, Dawid Malan, Tom Westley and Mark Stoneman are all players relatively unconnected to England's 50 over setup who, for various reasons, have been given their debuts and been unable to nail down a place.

Alastair Cook did not have a consistent opening partner after the retirement of Andrew Strauss. Cook's retirement at the end of last summer and the notable drop in the form of senior players has since made the problem more pertinent. Dom Sibley, Joe Denly and Rory Burns cannot be judged yet but all of these players are primarily from a red-ball background. The new waves of selected batsmen haven't been taking their chance as hoped and they haven't been imports from the One Day side (à la Jason Roy). Players can experience a dip in form - of course, it is part of performing at the top level - but when there is nobody else who can cut the mustard to rotate them out, the broader team issue persists. The red-ball core is also failing.

So in some aspects, you can regard England as unlucky. Sometimes good generations of players - and, in turn, teams - are sometimes beyond your control.

That's just what happens sometimes and that could offer some explanation to the conundrum. India had the same problem at the start of the decade. Techniques were not Test match standard, but it's cyclical and look at them now. But if you've got players out of nick and nobody to replace them it may be that the issue is indicative of a failing system.

Again, diagnosing the ails of such a system is not without complication. It is perhaps unfair to level the attraction of short-form cricket, both in terms of money and entertainment, as an ill which has damaged techniques in England as this would be the case around the world.

Even if a team‘s focus on white-ball cricket may not be the sole source of difficulty, a regular suggestion is that the county game is failing to serve players of first-class cricket. As Rob Key pointed out in Sky's analysis, the scheduling of the County Championship is all over the place. It begins in April when the ball moves drastically, and then takes a seven-week break in the middle of the season. It then resumes in late August, with the final round of fixtures finishing on 30th September when it's turning, the carry is poor and it’s often raining. Only three games in 2020 will be played in what can reasonably be described as peak summer (June to mid-August). It's little wonder county products can't bat for time as the pitches may not allow them too. Rather than batting for a reasonably long period, batters will eventually get landed with a ball with their name on it. To become better Test players, English batsmen may need more time out in the middle. It is no coincidence that England's two most promising batting prospects come in the shape of Rory Burns and Ollie Pope, who both play on the best batting wicket in the country.

With the hierarchical focus on white-ball cricket, it is inevitable that such a mindset would trickle down through the game.

If the calendar is more oriented around the short-format, then batsmen harbouring hopes of successful four-day careers face challenges. Equally, if techniques, mindsets, everything that goes with playing cricket, is being honed for white-ball cricket, then red-ball may inevitably suffer, especially batsmen's techniques, eg. going too hard at the ball, loose shots away from the body, a lack of discipline. Now, while you will have some players who are red-ball specialists unaffected by white-ball cricket, this talent pool is inevitably smaller because of competing priorities.

Sach Aggarwal, The Wrong 'Un's Chief India Correspondent relates the domestic setup situation to India: "India had the same problem for the first part of the decade. IPL drew too much focus of players away from Test matches. It was all about becoming the next big thing in white ball cricket. It also coincided with questionable technical coaching from Duncan Fletcher, again led by white-ball. They've since done well in Tests around the time the all-powerful Kohli was frank in saying that they wanted to conquer the world in Test cricket."

"The board, the Indian team management, the domestic players have all therefore had a shift in mindset - they want to be part of the Test team as that is where the prestige is. That is what the bulk of your domestic setup is concentrating on. Even from a bowling perspective, look at Jasprit Bumrah. Made his name in IPL, got a Test call-up and started honing his game for that. Because he had put so much work into his Test game, his IPL lines and lengths had changed from the norm in T20 and, hence, was not as effective there. But in the Test arena he has blossomed into one of the world's most exciting bowlers."

India is an unusual case study with it's immense population and vastly popular IPL but it could offer a few answers. Cricket in England is always looking to stay relevant and The Hundred and the Blast both occupying the middle of the summer is evidence of that. But perhaps there is a need to find a more effective balance, not only on the player workload end, but also from the talent development perspective.

This is not all to say that white-ball cricket is the evil that many would lead you to believe, both in terms of the national and county game. Nor is it to suggest that England don't need to get their minds into gear or should panic amidst a relative, but temporary, paucity of ability. None of the above can basically say anything really of note or substance. We know England can't bat in Test cricket, but why this is cannot be boiled down to a simple formula. Rather, if we could, then it would make batting a science rather than the art we enjoy it to be.

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