There’s nothing quite like test cricket. After the end of the English summer a few T20I series and South Africa’s embarrassing tour of India have been scant morsels for the cricket world to feed off. While England began their two-test series against New Zealand, the rest of the cricketing world was back to normal. Australia were thrashing Pakistan at home with powerful fast bowling and imperious batting, and India were cruising to victories over a depleted Bangladesh side. It seemed like the early 2000s all over again.
England, though, tried to break their usual mould. New head coach Chris Silverwood and captain Joe Root talked about a new direction for the England side. No longer would they be aggressive, ignoring the surface in favour of aggressive batting and bowling. This new era would see a team who could bat long, grind out tough days in the field, and play test cricket the way it ‘should’ be played.
It would be bold of even the most critical commentator to think that England would suddenly be able to convert into a gritty test side from their previous incarnation
The two tests in New Zealand showed signs of this, despite the series being lost 1-0. Joe Root scored a fine double century when under pressure, Rory Burns cemented his spot at the top of the order, and a few young players showed promise. It would be bold of even the most critical commentator to think that England would suddenly be able to convert into a gritty test side from their previous incarnation.
However, problems persisted. The bowling was average, with only 21 wickets taken over the two tests. The pitches offered little and too often England slipped into damage control mode, especially during BJ Watling’s marathon occupation of the crease in the first test. The bowling attack received little help from the fielding, with dropped catches denting any chance England had to make inroads. Joe Denly (usually a steady pair of hands) exemplified this on the final day of the second test, dropping New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, one of the world’s great batsmen, as he made his way to a spirited century.
Everyone is likely in expecting too much from Archer, his Ashes performance was extraordinary, not something to be regularly demonstrated
The handling of England’s fast bowler Jofra Archer will cause the largest red flags. Archer bowled 42 overs in the first test and 40 in the second. A substantial workload for a fast bowler on his first overseas tour. This was the first series in which Archer would have used a Kookaburra ball, and perhaps should have been eased in a little more. Root’s plan seems to be to employ Archer as England’s enforcer, yet he rarely touched 90mph during the series. Everyone is likely in expecting too much from Archer, his Ashes performance was extraordinary, not something to be regularly demonstrated. England would do well not to focus too much on Archer’s pace, with Jimmy Anderson having suffered early in his career for not being thought to be fast enough.
All these culminated in the questioning of Joe Root’s suitability as captain. No doubt he is one of the most talented batsmen England have ever produced, despite his unusual inconsistency in converting 50s to 100s. However, as a captain he seems a little out of his depth. Despite being captain since 2017, I cannot really tell you how Root’s ideal England side would look. Whereas I can definitely tell you that Virat Kohli’s India (for example) is an aggressive one, very much ‘in your face’. There are no obvious candidates to take over from Root in the long term, and this may be as good a reason as any to keep him in the job.
England begin their four-test series against South Africa on Boxing Day, with many questions still to be answered. Rumours of Jonny Bairstow’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated as he appears likely to return to the side, with no new evidence that he is suited to test batting since the Ashes. One wonders what Foakes, England’s finest wicketkeeper and a proven test batsman, has to do to be considered for the tour. If Bairstow returns will England also stop experimenting with the likes of Sibley and Pope, both of whom deserve more test cricket.
South Africa will offer a more level challenge to England compared to New Zealand
Furthermore if Jimmy Anderson is fit, who are England’s three frontline seamers? Anderson is the world’s most talented swing bowler, and Archer is England’s mercurial talent, both will surely get a spot. Then you have to pick one out of Broad, Woakes, and Curran, all of whom have credit to their name. Whatever the decision over selection there will surely be criticism.
South Africa will offer a more level challenge to England compared to New Zealand, and should be a better barometer of how good this English team really is at the moment. The South Africans, fresh from their humiliation in India, will be keen to exploit their home conditions against England. However, they are a far less capable test side than New Zealand, who really deserve most credit for England’s loss. New Zealand are an excellent test-playing side, who demonstrated expertise that England would do well to learn from, perhaps instead of focusing on England’s shortcomings, it should be realised they were simply outplayed by a far better and more stable team.