We have been here before, haven’t we? Actually, not really. But day two at Trent Bridge had that familiar, uncomfortable feeling, like an old pair of trainers two sizes too small. For the third time in the last two years, England were bowled out inside a session. To Mirpur 2016 and Auckland 2018 we can welcome Nottingham 2018.
Auckland takes the biscuit: rolled by New Zealand for 58 on the first morning of the match. Mirpur pushes it close: England were 100-0 going into tea on day three, chasing 273 and, 23 overs after the restart, were all out for 164 and Bangladesh had their first Test victory over their opponents. This latest fart in a lift, which saw England lose all 10 first innings wickets for just 115 runs in the middle session, is particularly noteworthy as it did not occur overseas, in an era of home dominance. Funnily enough, none of these three occasions featured a comical run out – usually a staple of such aberrations. England cannot even collapse properly.
Perhaps most galling for the hosts is not that they have form, but their opponents know they do. “They have a few important players that, if you get them out, they get into trouble,” said Hardik Pandya post-match, one of the main benefactors, emerging from the wreckage with a maiden Test five-wicket haul on Sunday (August 19). “They have problems.” Until that point, it was all England.
India’s tail was mopped up fairly easily, adding just 22 runs to their overnight score. England then reached lunch on 46 for none thanks to some wayward bowling from Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, who looked to have wasted a new ball and optimum conditions for seam bowling. But just when the score moved on to 54 for none, England’s highest opening stand this year, it all came crashing down. In the space of two balls, both Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings were gone.
Credit should, of course, go to the Indian attack, notably Ishant Sharma who bagged Cook for a 10th time and, more importantly, showed his fellow quicks that fuller lengths and an attacking, yet conservative line just outside off, was the way to go. But batting in these conditions in domestic cricket is how these English players made their name and, somewhere along the way, whatever got them into this position has been lost.
That debutant wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant took five catches is commendable on his part, but three of them came through the error of batsmen who should’ve known better: Cook pushing forward a ball after being dropped, Jennings (recipient of the best ball of the trio) unable to keep his edge to himself and Ollie Pope wristly flicking down the leg side.
Even Pandya, not one lacking in self-confidence, admitted his ability to move the ball laterally is minimal. Nor is he one blessed with great pace. Yet, Joe Root was caught in two minds on the back foot before Jonny Bairstow, unbalanced, drove expansively to a gentle outswinger. Head coach Trevor Bayliss is the usual focus of ire, but you wonder what role batting coach Mark Ramprakash has in this. Not only are new players struggling to make the step up, but the established ones are starting to dwindle, too.
They could perhaps argue that the travails of the newcomers has created a vicious cycle, where their own work is being distorted through having to do the brunt of the scoring. A case in point: of the nine debutants before Pope, only Hameed (43) averaged over 28. But it is also true that those players come in and are expected to hit the ground running because the senior men are not pulling their weight.
Since Cook put his name on the wall of the Percy Beames bar at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with an unbeaten 244, he’s managed just 252 runs from the next 12 innings, averaging a miserly 19.38.
The only thing saving Cook from further scrutiny is the fate of his post-Strauss partners, which will soon be adding a new member, unless Keaton Jennings, himself the 13th change of opener since the end of 2012, can pull something special out of the bag. It seems only hesitancy to start afresh with two new openers is preventing the selectors from having a difficult conversation about England’s leading Test scorer.
Bairstow, too, presents an intriguing problem. He is now a senior batsman and should be judged as a senior batsman – and senior batsman should be averaging more than the 35 he does from the 13 innings this year. It might be as simple as giving up the gloves, but the man himself simply will not entertain the idea and there is a fear that irritating an already stubborn man may be counter-productive. It is how we have a situation where Jos Buttler – England’s most destructive white-ball batsman – is a specialist number seven.
Even as Buttler went into “Twenty20 mode”, it was hard to go along for the ride with him. Beyond the theatre of Buttler searching for singles among heaves for hopeful sixes – he managed two in the end – there was a sense that, if Buttler was to put together something remarkable, it would have papered over the cracks.
There seemed an element of futility to his striking, even if his 39 did save England the ignominy of falling under the 129 follow-on target. When Buttler’s out in the middle, his teammates will tell you they always have a chance. But even he of outstanding feats, could not undo the damage unfolding before him when he stepped it up a gear on.
His position low down is supposedly to add the cherry on top. The reality is he is the emergency measure that will be called upon far too many times, despite the fact there are six players above him who, at the very least, should ensure he’s got something to work with. Not 108 for 5. At 128-9, he pulled the chord, only managing to get the score to 161.
It’s like using your fire alarm as an indicator to let you know that your oven has preheated. By then, the damage is already done.
“There’s a lot of emotion,” said Buttler when asked about the state of the dressing room. “The key is trying to not make the same mistakes. To get where we want to go, we need to eradicate these collapses.”
Just as there were in the aftermath of Mirpur 2016 and Auckland 2018, there were frank conversations in the dressing room. Usually, bad days on the field are best parked to one side and even left in the past altogether. But Nottingham 2018 had to addressed.
“We have to talk about it. But at the same time there’s a game going on and no one’s going to give up and throw the towel in.”
That game, with India holding a second-innings lead of 292, looks like it has already gone.
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