What a week it has been in the world of cricket.
Some may even say a great week to be bowled out inside one session for just 58.
Well, at least that’s what England fans might be feeling as England’s frankly shocking performance in the first test against New Zealand has flown under the radar amongst the ball tampering scandal from our friends down under. Only Craig Overton’s 33 not out prevented England from achieving their worst ever test score, with England’s first innings becoming only the 15th test innings of all time in which only two bowlers were needed to dismiss a side.
Despite the reduced coverage in the media, the Auckland debacle raises many worries for this England side. England have now lost 10 of their last 12 test matches away from home, 6 of which have been by an innings, 3 in which England scored 400 or more in their first innings. This is an extremely poor record and whilst, perhaps, some may point towards this being a trend in international cricket of teams winning at home and losing away, the reality is that only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe of the test playing nations currently have worse away records in test cricket.
One of England’s main struggles in away test matches has been a limp pace attack. Anderson and Broad are world class, although it must be acknowledged that Broad hasn’t been himself in the past year, but the rest of the bowlers are ineffective away from our shores. There is a lack of express pace, with Woakes, Broad and Anderson bowling around 85mph and Overton, whilst his commitment and fight can’t be questioned, bowls high 70s to low 80s. Coupled with this is Moeen Ali’s dreadful form and it is no wonder that England have failed to take 20 wickets in their last 9 away test matches. Moeen is a prime example of the toothlessness of England’s attack away from home. He had a memorable summer, which included a famous hat-rick at the Oval against South Africa, and he became the fifth fastest player of all time in test cricket to reach 2000 runs and 100 wickets, even quicker than England all-rounder legends Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff. However, in the Ashes he took 5 wickets across all 5 tests at 115 apiece, whilst the combined figures of Overton, Woakes and Moeen in the first test match in New Zealand were 75 overs, 1 wicket for 236. England cannot just win test matches relying on Anderson and Broad, who themselves are likely to be limited by the amount of time England have spent in the field in recent away test matches.
This ineffective bowling attack is tied together with an inconsistent batting line-up. It is no secret in recent years that England have struggled for an opening batsman, a number 3 and a middle order batsman to consistently contribute and secure their place in the team. However, there has also been a regular problem of batsman not batting big enough and ‘getting in and getting out’. England’s captain Joe Root is the main example. There is no doubt that he is the finest English batsman of his generation and one of the top four batsman in the world along with Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Steve ‘Sandpaper’ Smith, but his conversion rate from 50 to 100 is extremely poor in comparison. For example, Kohli has 21 centuries and 16 half-centuries, Smith 23 centuries and 24 half-centuries, whereas Root only has 13 centuries and 38 half-centuries. There is no doubting his world class ability, but it is hundreds that win games, rather than 50s or 60s, and this is something that he was outshone in by Smith in the Ashes in what was billed as the key battle of the captains. Mark Stoneman is another great example of this, perhaps the most successful of Alastair Cook’s 12 opening partners since Andrew Strauss retired. He has four scores of 50 or more in his first nine test matches, yet these are scores of 52, 53, 56 and 55, hardly match-winning innings. England only scored 3 centuries in the Ashes, compared to Australia scoring 9, a big factor in England’s hammering down under one might argue.
During the past few years, England have had a core of senior players which have often helped to lead the team to great victories. There is no doubt that Ben Stokes was a huge miss in the Ashes and his inability to bowl in the first test in Auckland was a massive disappointment for England. He is the cog of the team that brings it all together and England will have everything crossed that he can bowl in the second match. Moeen’s lack of form and Root’s lack of centuries along with Broad’s slight decline has already been mentioned. This is four key senior players mentioned that need to be on song for England to have success and are currently not at the best. Another key player is Cook, still crucial to this team, but it is no coincidence this England side have struggled to score big, when he has been struggling himself for form. Since the start of 2017, he has scored 955 runs in 24 innings, yet this includes 243 against West Indies last summer at Edgbaston and 244* against Australia at the MCG. These were two fabulous innings but 468 runs in 22 innings at 21.27 excluding these two scores is poor for a man of Cook’s calibre.
Throughout the Ashes and to the first test in Auckland, England made very few changes , but there is now huge pressure on the captain and coach to switch up the side. This is a hugely important game for the pride of the team and getting the test team back on track. For England to develop as a side in the test arena, they must start winning games away from home and whilst New Zealand are underrated as a side, a defeat in a series to them, following a heavy Ashes defeat, would cap of a miserable winter for England in test cricket. There is no question that England’s one-day ball cricket has improved immeasurably under Trevor Bayliss, but the argument is strengthening for a separate test match coach. This is not only due to the hectic schedule, but Bayliss often concedes how he doesn’t know much about county cricket along with the admission that he watches very little and this England test side has hardly developed under his leadership, with very little progress made since the 5-0 hammering in 2013/14 in Australia. There is support amongst the cricket world for a specialist test coach for England; someone who knows county cricket inside out and would be able to scour the country for current and future talent.
There are changes available to the England side of course. Lots of supporters have been clamouring for Mark Wood to be given a game. There are questions about his fitness, which raises further questions about why he is in the squad if he isn’t available to play. His express pace would give some penetration to this England attack and, as one of four seamers, assuming Stokes is fit, he would be able to be managed effectively. Ben Foakes as the reserve wicket keeper along with James Vince seem to the only two members of the squad not to be pushing on the door for selection. There is a strong case to play Jack Leach, the left arm Somerset spinner, called up as a late replacement for the injured Mason Crane. Moeen’s terrible form only strengthens this case and Leach, who has taken 116 wickets at 23.59 in the last two County Championship seasons, may have felt hard done by for being picked behind Crane in the first place who has picked up 47 wickets at 45.19 in the last 2 County Championship seasons. Crane also took 1 for 193 of 48 overs on his test debut in Sydney. Furthermore, there are calls for Liam Livingstone, with the promising Lancashire batsman, who averaged 47.23 in last year’s County Championship, along with the fact that he was recently appointed Lancashire’s First XI captain, being a strong contender for selection.
These are all three big changes that could benefit the side with Woakes, Overton and Moeen likely to be in danger of dropping out. This game has huge importance in the future direction of the England test team who have a lot to prove. Having seemingly been outclassed by being unable to play spin in India a year ago, by pace in the Ashes, and now by swing in the first test in Auckland, all 3 key facets of international batting, it is time for them to step up in Christchurch.
The second test begins on Thursday 29th March, 23:00 GMT and is live on the Sky Sports Cricket Channel.
By Will Pickworth