There has been a large dollop of soul searching in English cricket of late following a winless winter on the road in Australia and New Zealand. After one step forward last summer against South Africa and West Indies, the winter was two, perhaps three, steps back for England. Losing both series, the familiar nature of the side’s deficiencies and a distinct lack of improvement away from home during the last four overseas tours have raised many questions about the English game.
Is the County system structured in such a way that it helps prepare England players for overseas conditions? Is the ECB’s expensive and much vaunted International Pathway fit for purpose? Are the pitches in England to blame? Is Trevor Bayliss the right man to coach England’s Test team? And just where are the high quality spinners and 90mph bowlers?
As they have for a while, however, the answers to England’s travel woes seemingly remain elusive.
These aren’t new questions, of course. The very same ones, or versions of them at least, have been trotted out so often when England have struggled in the Test arena since time immemorial. But given England’s poor winter and the stagnation – regression, even – in the Test team over the past two years, the start of the Test summer at Lord’s on Thursday, where Root’s men host Pakistan in the first of two matches, looms as vitally important.
Despite England’s hapless performances during the Ashes and then in two matches in New Zealand, they will start as clear favourites against a Pakistan team who are far less experienced than the one in 2016 which drew a four Test series 2-2. After all, in early season conditions at home, England are a match for any side in the world. “Let’s be honest, England at home are a very good Test match side,” former England captain Nasser Hussain tells Cricbuzz.
“You only have to look at their record at home. Last summer under Root they beat a good South African side and West Indies as well so England’s problem of late has been away from home. But after what happened in the winter, and in a newish captain in Joe Root and a new National Selector in Ed Smith, then they’ll want to start well.”
Smith’s appointment has been the major change since the winter’s disappointments. In his first squad, he boldly recalled Jos Buttler to bat at number seven and selected uncapped offspinner of Somerset, Dom Bess for a likely Test debut. More conservative choices were available but Smith has instead chosen the path unknown in Buttler and Bess. Time will tell if his hunches, particularly that of Buttler, who averages 31 from 13 Tests, prove well founded.
“With some cricketers, you give them a little bit more leeway,” Hussain, who will be part of Sky Sports’ coverage of England’s home international summer, says of Buttler’s selection. “I travel the world commentating and watching the game. When Buttler plays like he can play, people go “Wow, this lad is a serious talent. How does he not play in all formats?” With someone like that you have to give an extra opportunity to show what they can do and [let them] jump the queue because of how good they could be.
“If he doesn’t do well, you’re not losing out on anything really. If he does do well, the potential in Buttler is absolutely phenomenal. He hasn’t really cracked red-ball cricket. He’s played at two very good grounds in Old Trafford and Taunton, two batsman friendly pitches, and I think he’s got four hundreds. He hasn’t really cracked it but if he does, he could be very destructive at number seven.”
Buttler’s return means there is a dynamic middle to England’s batting order with Jonny Bairstow elevated to number five while keeping the gloves and Ben Stokes at six with Buttler at seven. The potential of those three players to change the course of a game in the blink of an eye is mouth-watering but for too long England’s batting more generally has been madding inconsistent and over-reliant on Alastair Cook and Joe Root for its substance.
“The batting has looked vulnerable. On paper, it looks a very good line up but it has been vulnerable,” Hussain says. “I’m pleased Root has moved himself up to three so he’s not constantly coming in at a crisis at 20 for 2. He can counter-attack in the style that Ricky Ponting did at three or Viv Richards did at three. The best player should bat there.
“The middle order looks dangerous with Bairstow at five, Stokes at six and Buttler at seven, that looks a very dynamic middle-order. But all that is on paper. The batting line-up has had collapses and they need to put that behind them.”
Pakistan have their own batting concerns. The tourists are missing Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan’s 15,000 Test runs from the squad which competed so brilliantly during a see-sawing series in 2016 but there is talent in the current side, particularly in the bowling attack which will be led by the two Mohammads – Amir and Abbas, the latter of whom took nine wickets against Ireland in the one-off Test last week. That match, in addition to three warm-up games, should mean the side are well prepared for Lord’s, too.
“The key for them is getting runs on the board,” Hussain says of the tourists. “Any Pakistan side will have a gun bowling attack. They will always have wicket-takers. Batting wise, I think they need their younger players to really knuckle down and get used to conditions. The game in Ireland will be very useful preparation. That was a good Irish bowling attack on a pitch which did a little bit. That’s the key for them, getting runs on the board. Once a Pakistan team gets runs on the board, they are always in the game.”
Pakistan’s batsmen may find scoring runs against James Anderson and Co. just a little easier if the sun, as is forecast, continues to shine as it has for the last few days in England. That would make conditions far more to the tourists’ liking and, potentially, the series more of an interesting affair but even if Root’s side come out on top against Pakistan, the wider issues surrounding the game in England will remain.
“For English cricket in general, the likes of Andrew Strauss [Director, England Cricket], Ed Smith, Andy Flower [England Lions Head Coach], the people at Loughborough, need to consider how we are going to improve our showings away from home,” says Hussain.
“Are we going to get a balanced bowling attack, how are we going to get quality spin, how are we going to get extra pace into the attack? Make sure the next time we got to Australia on flat pitches, we don’t have the same one dimensional 80mph bowling attack without a full-time quality spinner. They’re questions which should be ongoing in English cricket and for the future. For right now, though Joe Root just needs to focus on beating Pakistan.”
Sky Sports Cricket is the exclusive home of England Test and ODI cricket this summer, broadcasting live action against Pakistan, Australia, India and all women’s internationals, starting with England vs Pakistan on Thursday (May 24)
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