Familiarity does indeed breed contempt. England’s defeat in the opening Test was due to yet another dismal batting display, a constant theme for the past decade. There is now and has been for a while, a deep sense of inevitability about England’s failings with the bat. Even when a partnership is going well, disaster is often just around the corner, as it was on the fourth morning in Brisbane. It is not proving an easy fix. In some ways, that is understandable. After all, England’s batters don’t just have one problem. They have every problem going.
The Gabba Test was a perfect illustration of the all-encompassing mediocrity that is this England batting line-up. In the first innings, six of England’s batters registered single-figure scores. Their issue was getting in, seeing off that first 20-minute period that is the most challenging for any player. The Australian bowling was high class and the conditions were very difficult but even so, to register four single-figure scores in the top five, beginning with Rory Burns’s golden duck, was a horrible showing.
Not that it is a new problem. England have amassed 46 ducks in this calendar year and there are bound to be a few more before 2021 is out. Burns has perhaps been the best example of the feast or famine nature of England’s batting. He has the second-most runs this year, behind Root, but has made six scores of nought in nine Tests.
The early vulnerability of most of England’s batters is why the line-up is prone to collapse. Far too often, one wicket leads to three or four, as it did in both innings at the Gabba, because a new batter at the crease has a very good chance of getting out early. That is an occupational hazard of Test batting of course. But England’s batters are so susceptible to getting out early, far more than they should be.
For a change, in the second innings in Brisbane, that early vulnerability wasn’t actually the issue. Seven of the top eight got into double figures and faced 27 deliveries or more. Those batters all got a start. They were all in. They had done the hard bit. They all had an opportunity to play significant innings that could have given England a chance in the game.
But yet again the opportunities slipped through their grasp. The highest score was Joe Root’s 89. Five of the seven batters were dismissed between scores of 13 and 27. Neither Root nor Dawid Malan, who both played excellently on the third day, could kick on and make a hundred. The rest of the order failed to build on the foundation they had given them.
The sort of profligacy that England’s batters showed in the second innings – both in failing to convert starts and in wasting an opportunity to put Australia under pressure – points to either a lack of concentration, ruthlessness, or determination. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three. Either way, batters should not be being dismissed in the 20s and 30s with the regularity that England’s are. It is far too easy bowling to them at the moment.
Again, the failure to convert starts is a perennial problem. In 13 completed Tests this year, England’s batters other than Root have made 21 half-centuries and converted just one of them, Burns against New Zealand at Lord’s, into a hundred. None of England’s batters aside from Root and Malan average more than 30 this year which is in large part a result of the failure to make significant, match-defining scores.
Nor is there a particular pattern to which bowlers are having success against England. There is not one particular mode of dismissal they are struggling with or one type of bowling. Instead, their problems lie everywhere. Spin, pace, seam or swing, you name it, this year England have capitulated against it.
The first Test once again highlighted the issue. In the first innings, Australia’s quicks did the damage, using the movement on offer, targeting the outside edge and stumps. In the second innings, Nathan Lyon took four wickets with his off-spin, including the key dismissal of Malan, and Cameron Green, the fifth bowler, picked up two important scalps. It has been a theme of the year. Every single Test match bowler in the world must be relishing the chance to play against this England team.
If those are the issues, what of the causes? It would be easy to fall into the trap of citing the tourists’ poor preparation as the reason for their abysmal performance at the Gabba. That would be fair enough if it was a one-off. England were only able to play two of their seven planned warm-up match days because of the weather. Through no fault of their own, their batters have had hardly any match practice and therefore are bound to be rusty. But to give England a pass for that reason would be wrong.
The issues on display against Australia have been prevalent for so long and the causes varied in nature. There have been individual drop offs in form and technical issues which have contributed particularly to the raft of cheap dismissals. Tactically England have often been found wanting, playing the wrong shots at the wrong times. There has also been a lack of determination, a lack of over-my-dead-body ruthlessness which has allowed opposition teams to run riot. At home, conditions for batting have been extremely tough, to be sure.
The ECB’s development programme doesn’t seem to be working either. England have tried numerous different young batters over recent years and yet have failed to produce a high-class, consistent top-order player since Root. The Lions – the next cabs off the rank – were bundled out by Australia ‘A’ for 103 in a four-day match this week. And there are structural issues at play as well, in terms of the scheduling of domestic first-class games and the ECB’s focus on limited-overs cricket.
Whatever the reasons, though, the solutions have so far eluded Root, Chris Silverwood, the rest of the coaches and the ECB. Despite so much talk from Root and Silverwood of gameplans and tactics and methods – barely does a press conference go by without someone talking about “big first-innings runs” and “taking opportunities” – and yet there has been no discernible improvement in England’s batting this year. In fact, it has arguably gone backwards from the signs of improved consistency that were evident in 2020. Players like Burns and Ollie Pope are stagnating at best.
The truth is, this England batting line-up remains mediocre, it remains inconsistent, it lacks courage and fight. It repeats the same mistakes over and over and over again. Opportunities are missed time after time. There can be one-off performances that might win a Test match here or there as Root has done this year but consistent success cannot be built on the batting line-up England currently possesses. It has too many holes, too many flaws, too many issues. There is not just one thing wrong with England’s batting. Right now, everything is wrong with it.