Few expected England to turn around this summer as they did. Least of all New Zealand, India and South Africa. The losses in the Ashes and the West Indies posed so many questions and cost a lot of people their jobs. However, a lot of these questions have thankfully now been answered – although some still linger. Thomas Rose looks at how things have changed below…
Are Broad and Anderson done?
Absolutely not! The first Test of the summer saw the recall of England’s two greats and it was marked by a sensational spell from Jimmy Anderson. He immediately showed his class and has continued to do so all this summer, taking 27 wickets at 18.
Oh, and for anyone who wants to talk about rotation, he played all seven Tests aged 40.
His partner Broad had a slower retry into the Test arena. But another Stokes and McCullum masterstroke brought out his best. Famously, Stuart has performed best when he has a point to prove, so Stokes gave him one. Robinson was given the new ball and it worked wonders for the other tall quick. I think the idea of a batter getting through the spells from Anderson and Robinson and then seeing Stuart Broad marking out his run-up is rather appealing.
What will we do when they’re gone?
I think we’ll be okay. The two other quicks that played with Jimmy and Broady this year have shown that they can handle Test Cricket.
Matt Potts took off early in the County Championship for Durham. And then he took to Test match cricket like he’d been there for years. He was fantastic against right-handers and reliably put the ball in the right area to Test batsmen. And he’s clearly learnt a lot, going back to his county and taking 13 wickets in a match. With a couple more years of learning from the two greats he’s been playing with, he will be very, very good.
Ollie Robinson came back into Test cricket following a spell out of the game due to injury. He’s a self-proclaimed gym freak now and that’s shown in his average speed: up 3mph since last season and the Ashes. This has had a clear effect on his bowling. He’s zipping the ball off the seam and batters have less time to react. At the Oval, it looked as if the only times he didn’t beat the bat, he took the edge or hit the stumps.
He’s a big moment player and takes the crucial wickets with the new ball and throughout the innings. But the most impressive part of his comeback has been his long spells. Jon Lewis commented on his fitness last year, so Robinson has fixed it. And 50 wickets in 11 Tests at 19.80 is a serious start to your Test career.
Can anyone else other than Joe score some runs?
The middle order has shone. One of the biggest questions posed before Stokes’s side took to the field against the Black Caps surrounded Ollie Pope at three. The new captain backed the young batter.
Though he has previously looked skittish in Test cricket, and there were some signs of this early in his innings this summer, he’s remained composed and scored freely at number three. He’s moved to a central guard, so he can access both sides of the ground without chasing wide deliveries and appears to have found a nice tempo to bat at.
Joe Root was prolific again in the NZ and India series. He was quieter against SA, but so were almost all the batters, so I’m sure he’ll score bulk runs in the winter. There should never be a question mark over him.
Bairstow was one of the few batsmen who had recently scored runs for England. A hundred in Australia and one in the Caribbean meant he kept his place in the side before the start of the season despite questions over his Test record.
Those questions have not just been answered but obliterated. The only thing that could stop Jonny this year was a walk to a tee box. He pouched on anything full, stroking the ball through extra cover on the top of the bounce and dominated the short ball, much to the misfortune of Matt Henry at Trent Bridge. His quick-fire, match-winning hundreds will get the headlines and be written about in the history books. However, in my opinion, his best innings was his 49 at Old Trafford against South Africa. He came in at 43-3 and played positively to put pressure back on the bowlers in typical ‘Bazball’ fashion.
Stokes calmed down his overly aggressive style from the start of the summer to score a lovely hundred with Ben Foakes, who nailed down the keeping spot in the side. He has scored a hundred, a fifty and a not out thirty in the victory at Lord’s. Pretty good from your number seven. And his keeping never gets talked about because he rarely makes mistakes.
Will Stokes handle captaincy?
Yes. He’ll thrive with it. Stokes’s brave captaincy has been part of this England side’s transformation. We are now seeing five slips regularly and the field doesn’t go out at any point in the innings. Jack Leach, a man who has blossomed under Stokes’s leadership, has spoken about his captain’s defiant reluctance to place men out.
One of the largest changes between Stokes and Root as captain has been Stokes’s willingness to bowl himself. Under Root, it felt like there was always a fear around bowling Ben, with his persistent injuries and important batting role in a faltering side. Now, he is undertaking long spells, often with multiple short balls, but more importantly, swinging the ball both ways. His performance at the Oval demonstrated how skilful a bowler he truly is – swinging the ball in and out from a good length. The ball that removed Jansen’s leg peg was the highlight.
Whilst England may have won 6 out of 7 this summer, they have done so in the same way as they always do in a home Test summer: our middle-order stars score runs and seamers take wickets. Therefore, we’re still far from a complete XI.
Are the openers good enough?
Oh, the England openers. These two are an enigma.
I genuinely applaud Crawley’s unique ability to just show enough of his flair to keep his fans interested. He’s probably played enough ‘good-looking innings’ to land himself a spot in the side that goes to Pakistan. He has his critics, but it’s also important to remember that openers have averaged 23 this summer. Crawley has also averaged 23.
There seems to be a trend of saying that Crawley gets a lot of good balls, exacerbating his struggles. My return would be that Joe Root seems to get very few good balls, because most deliveries (even the good ones) hit the middle of his bat. He also leaves the ball really well – a simple Test Match batting principle used for decades.
Sadly, Crawley’s defence makes balls look better than they are. He also plays when he doesn’t necessarily need to. We are taught to applaud bowlers when they square batters up and take the edge. With Crawley, this is a regular occurrence.
He’ll have an intriguing challenge in Pakistan, assuming that England continues to support him. He’ll have to get through a tricky opening spell. The left-armer Shaheen Shah Afridi will swing the ball back into him from over the wicket, as Trent Boult did masterfully in June. However, if he can get through that period, he’ll have a flat wicket and pace on the ball that should suit him. He’s got a good pull shot to combat the short ball too.
Alex Lees looked promising at the start of the summer against New Zealand, with a couple of twenties and a sixty at Trent Bridge, which is his highest Test score so far. But he has also looked out of his depth. His defence isn’t good enough to blunt good attacks and he doesn’t have enough of a counterpunch to put pressure back on the bowlers.
The worry with Lees is that there isn’t enough scoring potential. Looking at the recent Pakistan vs Australia series, a thirty won’t help England in Pakistan. You need your top order to score big runs.
Is the attack varied enough?
Again we’ve had a Test summer taking wickets with 85mph seamers. Broad, Anderson and Robinson were effective in Australia but I do think the current absence of a proper quick might mean that we struggle in Pakistan. Look at their attack: Shaheen Shah Afridi, Hassan Ali, Naseem Shah. All very quick, and Shaheen is left arm.
Jofra has been spotted bowling again, and Wood is in the T20 side. So hopefully, they can find some fitness in time. We only need one in each game, but I think we could struggle without them. Or Stokes will end up bowling a lot more overs.
Can England win batting first?
A new one. ‘Bazball’ works on a swashbuckling idea that we will bowl you out and chase anything you set us. However, I’m not sure how fruitful that approach will be in Pakistan.
When the Aussies toured, wickets were hard to come by. The best batters played long innings and didn’t give their wickets away, especially in the first Test in Rawalpindi where only 14 wickets fell in 5 days. It involved massive first innings scores on flat pitches and then hoping the opposition would crumble. This didn’t materialise very often.
Although England will look to chase anything, even 450+, they could find themselves batted out of the game with scoreboard pressure against them. They’ll also have to combat some quality spin bowling on 5th day pitches. Are they up to the challenge? It’s always tougher away from home.
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