Should we be surprised that New Zealand are ranked number two in the ICC’s Men’s Test rankings? Hardly. They have won ten successive series at home, and they are difficult to beat everywhere. Their shrewd and perceptive captain is one of the three best batsmen in the world. There are two other New Zealanders in the top ten ICC-ranked batsmen, Henry Nicholls and Tom Latham (England have one, Ben Stokes; the beleaguered captain Joe Root, has dropped out.) They have a proven and complementary pair of opening bowlers (Trent Boult and Tim Southee) and a tirelessly aggressive third seamer, Neil Wagner. All three are in the top twelve of the ICC rankings. Again, England have just one, James Anderson. New Zealand have surely the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world, B-J Watling. New Zealand are so good that Australia have actually allowed them to play in a Boxing Day Test for the first time since 1987.
Much more surprising – astonishing even – is that England are third in those rankings. They do frequently win at home; in 2018 they beat India, now ranked number one, 4-1. Actually, almost everyone wins at home; even Bangladesh are becoming invincible in their own backyard. (Three Tests have just been played; each resulted in an innings win for the home side.) But England are more susceptible at home to the dreaded banana skin. They could only draw 1-1 with Pakistan in 2018. In 2019 they had a real scare against Ireland at Lord’s and the drawn series against Australia, who had lost the last three Ashes series in England, was celebrated as though it were an unparalleled triumph. They had played well to beat an admittedly below par Sri Lanka away in 2018-19, but then lost to the West Indies in the Caribbean – and, let’s face it, these days nobody loses to the West Indies, anywhere.
It is more or less universally acknowledged that England took its eye off the red ball during the Trevor Bayliss period. If that was the price for a first Men’s World Cup victory, many would say, so be it. The Ashes series was Bayliss’s last hurrah. Somehow nothing exemplified his period in charge (aided and abetted of course by national selector Ed Smith) than the attempt to turn World Cup hero Jason Roy into a Test match opener. The England and Wales Cricket Board’s persistent efforts to destroy the first-class domestic structure, reaching their peak in 2020 with the introduction of The Hundred, haven’t helped.
Now, though, it was all going to be different as far as the five-day game was concerned. A new director of England Cricket, Ashley Giles, and a new coach, Chris Silverwood, meant a fresh direction. And what better way to get the new era going than a nice “friendly “series against New Zealand (for the series is mysteriously excluded from the new ICC World Test Championship)?
Well, if they wanted to find out how Test cricket is played, they received an object lesson from their hosts.
It does seem strange though. There has been a lot of talk about “old-fashione” Test cricket, and about England, particularly the batsmen, “learning” how to play the long game.
It is true that the approach to Test match batting has changed, in some ways quite fundamentally, over the last 25 years or so. T20 has obviously had a major impact but the seeds were sown before that; Steve Waugh re-wrote the manual. If you bat first go in with all guns blazing and intimidate the opposition.
But the basic principles of Test cricket haven’t changed. Most importantly, a match can last up to five days. What’s the rush?
So apparently England’s batsmen have to learn to bat long. It’s a “mentality thing”, explained Root after the disastrous first Test at the Bay Oval, Mount Maunganui, which New Zealand won by an innings and 65 runs. Why is it so difficult? England seem to be playing Test cricket almost round the clock, often in four or five match series. New Zealand get a two-match series every four months or so. Which is the better side?
In the game itself there were signs that an effort was being made to dig in. Too often though, a seemingly torpid innings ended with an indisciplined shot. New Zealand bowled well but remarkably few batsmen were “got out”. Joe Denly, who had a decent match and top scored in the second innings, received a snorter from Wagner. That’s about it. Nobody else was really unlucky.
When England were 277 for four on the second morning, with Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope apparently well set, 450 seemed gettable, even likely. Then Stokes leapt down the wicket to Tim Southee and was caught by Ross Taylor at slip. Four wickets went down for 18. In hindsight, that is when the match was lost. If they had made 450 it seems much less likely that New Zealand would have had time to win.
The game seemed very much in the balance at the end of the second day, when New Zealand were 144 for four. Williamson had been surprised by a lifting delivery from Sam Curran, and Nicholls had suffered a nasty blow on the side of the helmet from a Jofra Archer bouncer. Hmm, we thought; interesting.
Well it was, in a way. New Zealand’s utter dominance crept up on one. When Colin de Grandhomme was sixth out on the third afternoon the score was only 316 (England had made 353). By this time, however, another utterly critical event had occurred; in the morning session, Watling, who had started the day six not out, had been dropped by Stokes, of all people, when on 31.
If you are a fan of “old-fashioned” Test cricket, Watling should be your favourite player. He has only played professional cricket for two teams: New Zealand and Northern Districts. He is the antithesis of the modern, mercenary “star”, such as Dwayne “if it’s Tuesday it must be Delhi Daredevils” Bravo. He made 205, batting for over 11 hours, and facing 473 balls. (England faced 578 in their second innings). Watling said to England, if you want me out, you’re going to have to get me out. No fancy airy-fairy wafts outside the off stump for him. By the time he was putting on 261 for the seventh wicket with Mitchell Santner, England’s attack, so powerful at home with the Dukes ball, had run out of questions, let alone answers.
Perhaps defeat was inevitable after that. England really needed Root to stand up and lead but it was not to be. Santner had taken three quick wickets on the fourth evening
but Wagner turned out to be the main enforcer on a surface that had hitherto seemed largely docile.
“Don’t panic!” was the gist of Corporal Root’s predictable post-match message. Doubtless, Giles and Silverwood are continuing to plot England’s recovery of The Ashes on their next tour Down Under. Who knows? If they can find a captain with the nous of Ray Illingworth, a batsman with the tenacity of Geoffrey Boycott, a bowler with the spice of John Snow and a wicketkeeper with the flair of Alan Knott, they might be successful.
They’ve got two years.
Featured image: Wagner claims the final wicket of Stuart Broad.
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