The eve of the first Test of an English summer is normally an exciting time. This year, with New Zealand and India the visitors, there is even more excitement than normal given those two teams are ranked numbers one and two in the world. It is set to be a blockbuster summer of Test cricket. For some of England’s batsmen, it could be a make or break one.
Clearly, conditions for the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s will be vastly different from those in Ahmedabad in March when England last played Test cricket. Then, in the fourth Test against India, Joe Root’s team were bundled out for 205 and 135, rounding off a hugely disappointing final three matches with the bat.
On wickets that spun sharply, England’s batsmen were found wanting. They were unable to deal with the conditions and the pressure exerted by R. Ashwin and Axar Patel. By the end of the tour, the Indian spinners had wormed their way into the heads of England’s batsmen. They were unsure whether to play for the spin or the straight one, to use their feet or stay in the crease, to attack or defend.
By Joe Root and Chris Silverwood’s own admission, the series highlighted deficiencies in their players’ individual games. The conditions were extreme and many of the English batsmen had never experienced that amount of turn before so there was mitigation. But as the series wore on, they failed to devise a method that could consistently cope with India’s bowlers. Worse, they looked more and more scrambled with each innings.
England’s management hope the batsmen learn from the series in India, not just technically but mentally. How to bounce back during a long, intense series. How to think clearly about what plans to use against what bowlers. How to take a step back and see the bigger picture. How to clear the mind and focus on the ball coming down. How to avoid getting caught up in the noise. All of those things England could have done better.
Silverwood has kept faith with more or less the same personnel for the first two Tests of the summer to allow them to prove that they have learnt from that experience. Five of the likely top six against New Zealand played in that final game in Ahmedabad. Rory Burns was the one to miss out having been dropped for the final two Indian Tests but he will resume his career this week.
Even though England have showed faith in their young batsmen, a number of the top order are under pressure. Statistics don’t always tell the full story but none of Burns, Dom Sibley or Ollie Pope average over 32 despite playing 23, 18 and 17 Tests respectively while each of them have technical issues to address. Zak Crawley has fared slightly better – he averages 34 overall – but in four Tests during the winter he mustered just 102 runs.
That is not to write these players off. Each of them have played significant innings at Test level and Sibley, Pope and Crawley are all 25 or under with room for growth. There has no doubt been a general improvement in the solidity of England’s batting in the past two years with these players involved as well. Their overall figures also need to be looked at in the context of batting in England, which has been incredibly challenging for top order players in recent summers.
Nevertheless, after a difficult winter, Burns, Sibley, Crawley and Pope all have questions to answer, the main ones being whether they can return to form and then take their consistency up a level. A top six of batsmen averaging in the early 30s is unlikely to propel England to the top of the world rankings, their stated ambition. To achieve that goal, the top six will need to average closer to 40. Whether the incumbents can do that remains to be seen.
Dan Lawrence and James Bracey are the newcomers and have an opportunity to put pressure on their teammates with a good showing against New Zealand. Lawrence made a decent impression in his first four matches during the winter, although he was not immune from his own difficulties against spin, while Bracey is set to make his debut at Lord’s. Both will want to take their chance, particularly given Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler will return for the India series in August.
At least all of England’s batsmen have had time in the middle during the early rounds of the County Championship although Sibley’s broken finger curtailed his gametime somewhat. They will certainly feel more comfortable in home conditions than they were in India. At least England’s batsmen have the tools for the job in English conditions. That never looked the case in Chennai and Ahmedabad.
Things will be far from easy, though. England will face a severe examination over the next two weeks against New Zealand’s stellar bowling line-up. In Test cricket, the challenges keep coming thick and fast.
While more runs from the top order would be welcome, Root also wants his bowlers to contribute more with the bat. In the last two years, England’s numbers eight to eleven average just a shade over 13 runs apiece which is eighth best of all Test nations. “One of the things we want moving forward is trying to improve those lower order runs,” he said. “If we’re going to grow as a team and become more consistent that’s something we want to add.
“That’s something we have struggled with in the past and we need to address now. We’re playing against the best two sides in the world this summer, it’s something I’m sure they’ll be looking to exploit and an area we want to keep looking to improve. With that in mind those guys have that responsibility to try and upskill themselves and when they get an opportunity to make some big contributions down there.”
Big contributions is what England’s top order is after as well. After a chastening winter for many of them, returning to the home comforts of Lord’s will be welcome relief. But the pressure of the winter has not disappeared. There is work for Burns, Sibley, Crawley and Pope to do to reconfirm their international credentials. They have done it before. Doing so again against a superb New Zealand attack would put the winter’s difficulties firmly behind them.