It’s not difficult to see why New Zealand are in the World Test Championship (WTC) final and England aren’t, on the evidence of the two-match series just concluded.
Pausing there, it’s only fair to add a few caveats.
The series itself is not only not part of the WTC; it was a very late entry to the fixture list, and that does have to be taken into account when considering the various issues raised about selection, rotation, respect for Test cricket and all the rest of it.
Secondly, New Zealand, through no fault of their own, play less – much less – Test cricket than England in particular but also India and until the last 12 months Australia. Their WTC campaign has, in a sense, benefited from the pandemic in that they have played a high proportion of their matches at home. When they toured Australia in 2019-20, just before the onset of COVID, they lost the three Tests by 296 runs, 247 runs and 279 run respectively.
Home advantage is becoming an increasingly apparent feature of modern Test cricket – not that it was irrelevant before. This is one of the things that makes this series victory of New Zealand’s so admirable. This was Joe Root’s first home series defeat as captain.
England can say that they did not have their best team. This was due in part to injuries to Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer (and Ben Foakes) but also to the decision to “rest” their IPL players (some of whom were playing for their counties in the T20 Vitality Blast competition by the time of the second Test. If this was relevant at all it was probably most relevant on the final day of the first Test at Lord’s when England fairly transparently declined to chase a not unreasonable target to win the match. Most commentators thought that Kane Williamson would not have been so generous had Stokes and Jos Buttler been playing. I remember thinking when I saw that Williamson had declared, that there was only one side that could win, and it wasn’t England. The problem was that Root had said at the start of the summer that England were aiming to win all seven Tests. Ah well, he probably tweeted worse as a fifteen-year old.
New Zealand’s IPL players are playing in the series. This is hardly surprising. Obviously they need the very best for the WTC final against India which starts on 18 June. Trent Boult, one of their best bowlers in all formats, was expected to miss the England series, and arrived in the country after everyone else, and did indeed miss the first Test. Apparently he argued strongly to be included in the second Test so he could get some overs under his belt before the WTC final. For that second Test New Zealand were without, for various reasons, their captain Kane Williamson, one of the best batsmen in the world, Tim Southee, who took six wickets in England’s first innings at Lord’s, wicketkeeper B-J Watling, who scored a double century against England on their last tour of New Zealand, and the highly promising paceman Kyle Jamieson. New Zealand had no practice matches before the first Test. Several England players, notably Rory Burns and Stuart Broad, have had successful stints in county cricket this season. But which side looks better?
England’s pace bowling is as good as New Zealand’s. It is England’s batting that is the problem. (By the way we have now found a way of watching in Singapore so I was able to watch England’s embarrassing second innings at Edgbaston.) Several commentators have noted that, although the England batsmen – some of them anyway, not Dom Sibley of course – have plenty of strokes (Ollie Pope scored 23 of 20 balls on Saturday) there is one shot none of them have in the locker: the leave.
It’s so important and so obvious, albeit not very exciting. Just watch Henry Nicholls or Will Young, or Devon Conway for Heaven’s sake who only made his Test debut 10 days ago. England’s younger batsmen don’t seem to have worked it out yet. You don’t actually have to hit every ball that is teasingly deployed outside off stump. And not just the younger ones, as demonstrated by Burns’ witless shot to the second ball of England’s second innings. Zak Crawley looks totally demoralised. Dan Lawrence played well at Edgbaston but he had had a poor game at Lord’s. It’s strange. As an impassioned Steve Harmison said on the Following On podcast, England have an entire army of coaches and backroom staff. Why are her batsmen, with the honourable exception of Root, so, well, odd? It doesn’t seem to work that way in New Zealand.
Are things going to get better for England in the demanding months ahead? Well, Stokes and Buttler will come back of course. By the time the Test series against India starts they won’t have played any red ball cricket since England were in India earlier this year. The absence of Stokes in particular makes such a difference to the balance of the side. Chris Woakes, who doesn’t seem to have played any cricket for anyone since his triumph against Pakistan in 2020, would surely have made a difference at Edgbaston.There was no shortage of tall right-arm fast-medium bowlers but he is as likely to make runs as any of the top seven apart from Root. The fact is that if England can’t make 400 plus in the first innings of a Test match regularly their chances of regaining The Ashes are close to zero.
And then there’s Ollie Robinson. The England and Wales Cricket Board (“ECB”) really was in quite a difficult place when news broke of his Twitter activity around lunch time on the first day of his debut Test at Lord’s. They are desperate to show how important inclusiveness and diversity are to the modern game. The Black Lives Matter movement had a considerable impact on cricket. The ECB have recently been dealing with complaints of discrimination from former umpires Ismail Dawood and John Holder, and Yorkshire are about to face a race-related employment tribunal claim from former player Azeem Rafiq. Concerns about the culture of the county game were also expressed after the trial and conviction for rape of former Worcestershire player Alex Hepburn.
The tweets themselves were nasty. Yes, they were done a good few years ago. In the circumstances the ECB got it about right. Robinson will be back later this summer, or certainly for The Ashes. The whole thing quickly got hijacked though. Once a) the Culture Secretary and the Prime Minister got involved, saying Robinson had “suffered enough” and b) the website wisden.com – not directly linked to The Almanack you’ll be relieved to know – revealed that it had found “historical” (like a Jane Austen manuscript?) tweets from an England player uploaded when he was fifteen – it was obvious where this thing was headed.
Robinson himself has said he is not only embarrassed and ashamed, but also a changed person. Before the Test he had spoken about disciplinary issues when he was playing for Yorkshire Seconds. I am sure I heard Steve Harmison on the radio talking him up as a sensible Yorkshire lad. In fact he was born in Margate and went to King’s School Canterbury. If he learned no decent values there or from his presumably well-to-do parents, it might be doubted whether he has learned any better ones in the cloistered world of professional cricket, which, if anything, is arguably less inclusive and diverse than King’s Canterbury (which at least accepts girls). But, as with everything else, one can live in hope.
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