What did they think would happen?
What did they think would happen when they pushed the first-class competition into the margins of the season so its viability as a breeding ground was compromised?
What did they think would happen when limited-overs cricket – and the money it can generate – was prioritised at the expense of the red-ball game?
What did they think would happen when they encouraged the batsmen to attack for several years so that the the value of a defensive technique was downplayed?
What did they think would happen when – with their young player incentives, their purge on overseas (and similar) signings and their decision to allow players to go and play overseas domestic events instead of the county game – they diluted the standard of their own domestic tournaments?
England’s defeat at Lord’s was an accident waiting to happen. It was a culmination of several years’ of ECB policies that have disrespected Test cricket. And, when you do that, the game tends to give you an almighty smack up the backside.
Of course it ended with a full toss. Of course the game ended with the second full toss of an over. But for a brief oasis of competence on Saturday afternoon – when two players who have not been in the England environment showed how runs could be scored – England were wretched at Lord’s. Either side of that Buttler-Bess stand, England lost four wickets for 19 runs and four wickets for six runs.
So let us have no more of this tosh about England being inconsistent. Their batting and their catching has been fallible for years – only once since the start of the Ashes, eight Tests ago, have they made 600 in a match, while they missed, by a conservative estimate, five chances at Lord’s. And their bowling on flat wickets has been shown to be impotent – in India and Australia, they averaged around 150 overs in the field in their oppositions’ first innings. This defeat – their sixth in eight Tests and third in four at Lord’s – proves it is no aberration. They are remarkably consistent. They’re just not very good.
At moments such as this, there is a temptation to seek scapegoats and quick fixes. And it is true that Trevor Bayliss and the batting coaches must be under some pressure.
But sacking a coach here or there won’t make much difference. While you have a Championship season that is played disproportionately on low, slow seamers, you are doing nothing to encourage spinners or fast bowlers. While you have a game that is invisible to most in the nation for more than a decade, then you reduce the talent pool until it’s a talent puddle. And while you have a window in peak season to help you milk every pound from your white-ball formats, you’re always going to have a problem scheduling your red-ball games. Bayliss – hired to improve the white-ball side, remember – is a symptom not the cause. The problems are much higher in the organisation.
Bayliss is actually very good at the job he was employed to do. He was, essentially, employed to improve the white-ball teams and take the pressure off the players in a Test dressing room that had, in the past, been too tense. He has done both those things.
But what he’s not – what they didn’t want him to be – was a hands-on coach. Andy Flower was criticised – probably fairly at the end – for being too intense and Peter Moores was criticised – largely unfairly – for complicating the games in the minds of the players. Bayliss was employed to be the antidote to them both. In a funny way, he’s done exactly what he was asked to do.
Whether he’s part of the solution is another thing entirely. What English cricket needs is someone who believes in the domestic game enough to fight for it. Someone who believes in Test cricket enough to demand it is prioritised. Someone who can demonstrate that players in their coaching environment are improving. That’s not much evidence of that with England, is there?
England are now on their 12th opening partner for Alastair Cook since Andrew Strauss retired. And they’re on their 12th spinner since Graeme Swann retired, too. It is increasingly hard to ignore the conclusion that the system – the entire English system – just isn’t working when it comes to red-ball cricket.
It was interesting – and encouraging – to note Root’s calls for his team to “be more patient” after the match. There were some shots in this game – notably Root’s own in the first innings and Jonny Bairstow’s in the second – which were oddly loose and impatient.
But it is hard to square Root’s comments with those we have heard from Bayliss previously. It was, after all, not long ago the coach was arguing for “attacking-style batters” at the top of the order as “it puts pressure on the opposition”.
“If you’ve got three who don’t necessarily get on with it you can be half-an-hour before lunch at 0 for 30, you happen to lose two and it’s 2 for 30 two hours in,” Bayliss said during England’s tour of South Africa. “If you’ve got guys who can play their strokes and get on with the game, if you lose a couple before lunch you’re 80, 90 or 100.”
Root, too, had a poor game as captain. Apart from the decision with the toss – and, to be fair, if England had batted better, it might have appeared reasonable – he presided over a fielding display which descended into something approaching a rabble. The slip cordon – a hugely specialist role – changed by the over at times, while the infuriating failure of the most experienced seamers to aim at the stumps went uncorrected by a captain who seems unwilling to challenge his senior colleagues.
The average runs per wicket from seamers’ deliveries bowled at the stumps in this match was – staggering as it sounds – just five. England’s fast bowlers, for all their experience, missed a trick. And in encouraging a short-ball barrage, Root was complicit.
That’s not to say he should go. He’s still learning and he is entitled to make mistakes as he does so. And, as with so many other positions in the side, there is hardly a stampede of other candidates. England do need to be careful with their continuity of selection policy, though. We all understand the general benefits. But like most policies when unchecked, it can be dangerous. England are beginning to look a bit soft and a bit unmeritocratic.
An an aside: Pakistan won this game playing good, intelligent cricket. They played hard, they played fair and they played with smiles on their faces. There was no talk of broken arms or ending careers. There was no snarling or sneering. And, when a moment of controversy did arise – the incident with the smart watches – they dealt with it quickly, honestly and graciously. “It was an error,” they said. “We won’t do it again.”
It was a reminder, if one were needed, of the point that should be drummed into all young cricketers: you don’t have to be a prat to be a good player. Pakistan, despite the obvious issues with which they are dealing, continue to produce wonderful skilful, entertaining cricketers. And sometimes it is a delight to be proved wrong.