England fell to yet another embarrassing away defeat last week, losing by a whopping 381 runs to the West Indies. The performance was once again marked by weak, ill-disciplined batting as Joe Root’s side collapsed to a measly 77 all out at the first sign of difficulty in a routine that is becoming as familiar as it is frustrating.
England’s first mistake came before the toss, with the surprise omission of Stuart Broad, in form after a warm-up game hat trick. Whether the omission was due to a desire to include bowlers who can bat, a gamble on winning the toss, batting second, and allowing the spinners to come into the game late on, or even, as Jonathan Agnew suggested, a result of Broad suffering bedbug bites, it was a mistake. The pitch would’ve suited Broad’s pace and bounce whilst the two players who might’ve made way for him, Curran and Rashid, were unsuited to it, taking only 1 wicket for 240 runs between them.
But England didn’t lose because of their bowling, the blame for the loss should be put firmly onto the batsmen. They once again demonstrated their inability to dig in and deal with hostile bowling in unfamiliar conditions, falling to their 17th lowest Test score of all time in a blaze of brainless, overly aggressive shots. England have struggled for a top three since the days of Strauss and Trott, and Sir Alastair Cook’s retirement has meant none of England’s top three look to be of test quality. Poor performances from them mean the team’s middle order is forced to come in earlier, facing a harder task against a newer ball and better rested bowlers. But even taking this into account England should have done better. They gave away their wickets with silly, unnecessary shots, showing none of the patience, grit or determination that underlies great test innings. Joe Root has encouraged his team to bat aggressively and in familiar or toothless conditions this works well, but at the first sign of difficulty, a decent spell of bowling or unfamiliar conditions, it invariably results in batting collapses.
The fact that this aggressive style of play is successful at home whilst poor on tour suggests a lack of adequate preparation. England played only 2 two-day warm-up matches, preparation that Jimmy Anderson and Moeen Ali admitted was not ideal. The cricket ball behaves very differently in different conditions, the bounce of West Indian wickets is rarely seen elsewhere whilst the swing movement that characterises cricket in England is all but non-existent in the West Indies. Of the current team only Jimmy Anderson has ever played test cricket in the West Indies before, and so England’s batsmen may have looked like fish out of water because that is precisely what they were, a team thrown into new conditions against the best players the country has to offer, given no time to adapt to conditions completely different to anything they’ve faced before.
So we are left saying that lessons must be learnt from a chastening away defeat once again. England need to learn to show discipline and patience in their batting, unlikely given Root’s continued references to aggression, and the ECB need to learn the importance of preparation, unlikely given the schedule for next year’s tour of New Zealand again features no real preparatory matches. In reality we will likely follow the same old routine, papering over the cracks with summer victories in home conditions, before once again failing embarrassingly as soon as we encounter decent bowling in unfamiliar conditions.