What Are England?
When I first started this collection of ramblings I describe as a blog, I wrote a post discussing the England mens teams and where they were as cricketing units. That was a mere 8 months ago but a lot has changed and I will warn you, a lot of the optimism that was in that post has subsequently vanished- mainly regarding the test team. Ahead of the biggest 4 months of recent memory, with a T20 world cup and Ashes on the horizon, now feels like a suitable time in which to revisit each format and see how the England mens teams are shaping up.
English cricket fans right now fear fewer sights than seeing the white tops and blue caps taking the field or marking guard. England are currently in a spiral of despair, desperation, systemic failures and also just not being very good at test cricket. No the analysis is not in depth but the analysis need not be in depth when the issue is so blatantly obvious that it is almost a parody. When England walk out to play the theme song to Curb Your Enthusiasm would feel more suitable than Jerusalem at this point. Though the failures of the test team aren’t really failures at all all things considered. The word failure implies underperforming your expected output and your natural skill level; all of these England players are operating to the best of their ability. Dom Sibley and Rory Burns are players who will average 30-35 in test match cricket. Zak Crawley is a young talent who has his struggles and was thrown in far too early. Ollie Pope is a golden talent and a beautiful stroke maker with a game designed to dominate county bowlers, which he quite obviously does. England are a team performing to the maximum of their abilities given the parts they have. And the parts they have/have lost cannot be a complaint either as they are a product of their environment. Jofra Archer isn’t playing test cricket due to a freak injury; Jofra was overworked by England and he may never be the same. Ben Stokes didn’t have a sudden breakdown, instead he was relied upon as the only member of Englands team who can deliver consistently for a long long time. Dom Sibley is a one dimensional player as he has learnt his cricket in a system in which players learn to be one dimensional. But how do England get out of this red ball mess?
As one fan wrote to Mike Brearely in 1981 “there is an old Italian proverb: if you want to know that a fish is bad look at its head” and Englands “head” is rotten to the core. The overlords of English cricket have almost singlehandedly destroyed the test game and after years of papering over the cracks the truth is finally being exposed with the everyday fan understanding that England are quite simply not good enough and the reasons for this becoming everclearer. Complaining about players is, for me at least, fundamentally useless as these are the best players England have available. Sibley Pope and Burns were all picked due to making mountains of county runs and all 3 have had limited success at test level after a sizeable amount of games. English players are not prepared for the challenges of test cricket, they aren’t taught the necessary skill sets to be players who can truly dominate or even deliver on a somewhat consistent basis. There is a solid argument to be made nowadays that County Cricket success is no guarantee for success in test match cricket and the aforementioned 3 are good examples of this. England are currently entrenched in a vicious cycle which is causing them to become stuck in the road and confused in their selection policy, leading to a never ending revolving door of red ball talent coming in, having some success, failing, being dropped, selecting white ball talent, having some success, failing, and by all accounts this will never stop. Sadly England fans must realise that maybe the players the setup is producing are just not good enough.
The solutions are, for most at least, glaringly simple. Changes to the calendar, more ‘England A’ tours, county cricket being more applicable to test cricket and fundamentally better coaching at England level. To surmise, England are a team who are quite comfortably the fourth best in the world and as of now this is their ceiling. Any prodigious batting talents are taking the white ball route- think of Nottinghamshires Joe Clarke, Kents Sam Billings or Lancashires Liam Livingstone, all of whom could well have forged out test careers but decided against it and with good reason- and the ones who don’t are being presented on a silver platter, chewed up then spat out again. Positives are of course available to the everyday England fan, Joe Root is in a run of form which is unmatched by any English player we may have seen, Ben Stokes is currently the best test cricketer in the world and seam bowling is the strongest it has ever been (injuries aside). Despite this, hope is in short supply among English test cricket fans and this is reflected by a vast majority of them: on a recent Twitter poll I asked “Do England have the raw materials to be regarded as one of the top two test teams in the next 5 years?” and after 350 votes over 70% of fans said no and cited many of the reasons i’ve already stated. England are no longer in a state of flux, instead their true level has been exposed and any basic review of the test team will let you know that quite simply: England are not very good.
At the start of the year optimism about Englands T20 side was almost overflowing and thankfully not a lot has changed. The batting unit is one of the strongest- if not the strongest, and the bowling unit is finally looking settled. Jofra Archer is a huge miss for England, as it would be for any and every side, but the resurgence of Mark Wood as a T20 bowler has been extraordinary and a pure delight to watch and ahead of the T20 world cup he is now Englands spearhead. Dawid Malan is the big judgement call for England after his downturn in form. When I started this blog, Malans T20i average was 53 and 8 months on it stands at 43 and has shown no signs of upturn, his strike rate has followed a similar trajectory. How England handle Malan will say a lot about them as a team and could be the deciding factor on how they go in this year's world cup. For the rest of the batting unit life is fairly comfortable ahead of the tournament. Jos Buttler is still the best T20 opener in the world, Johnny Bairstow continues to dominate in his brand new role at number 4. Liam Livingstone is the pot of gold England have stumbled across this year and after 18 months of everyone calling for his inclusion he has single handedly played himself into the Xi. The power hitter did the job against Sri Lanka but dominated vs Pakistan striking his maiden T20i hundred and quite possibly the biggest six in the history of the game. Eoin Morgan's form is somewhat of a worry but luckily Morgan's solution is more often than not to hit himself out of form and it would be prime Morgan to rediscover this form just before the world cup starts. England headed into the start of 2021 as firm favourites to win the thing but the downturn in form for some and the loss of Jofra means that they have dropped down a few pegs- regardless, a semi final place will be the minimum for England and they will be desperate to seal their legacy as the greatest white ball unit to ever play the game.
One day cricket was Englands format for so long that it feels strange even discussing it. Almost the parallel to the test team the analysis is fairly simple, England are just very good at one day cricket. The win against Sri Lanka was so monotonous and boring that most fans switched off. Against Pakistan we had the fun of a whole new squad being called up and Englands strength and depth being truly tested, and coming out firmly on top. England now fullfil the Pep Guardiola criteria of having 2 players of almost equal quality (the one who isn’t first choice is more often than not a bit worse) for each position. Opening batters? Roy and Bairstow + Salt and Banton. Middle order anchors? Morgan and Root + Crawley and Vince (to name a few). Gun opening bowlers? Jofra and Woakes + Mahmood and Gregory/Garton. England have every single position covered down to a tee and with the next world cup only 2 years away England will not have a single worry. Astonishingly, Englands talent pool in this format is somehow getting wider and wider despite the neglect the domestic 50 over competition is receiving. Sam Curran is, in my opinion, the future of English 50 over cricket and it could well be the format he dominates the most. Chris Woakes is one of Englands best ever whilst Joe Root is just ticking along nicely as he always does. Look England have this game on lock, it is their format and when they have everyone ready and everyone on song there's no one in the history of the game that can stop them. England are world champions for a reason.
Watching England right now is unlike everything we’ve ever seen. A day spent watching England play white ball cricket is a day spent watching the two best sides in the world whilst in the longest format it is a day spent watching, arguably, the worst side England have ever fielded. Dread is ever growing ahead of a huge winter and at long last the structure of the system is coming under question. Who knows this may be the year in which this all changes and the England hierarchy realise what they’ve done wrong. Maybe they’ll chop the head off the rotting fish and restore themselves as a force in test cricket. Until that time happens it’s hard to see a scenario in which England escape this roundabout of resets after every single winter. Yet we still tune in to watch them week in week out and that for me is the beauty of this sport. Every single delivery, every single innings is filled by the blind hope that maybe this time it will happen, maybe this time the magic will be there once again. England is a nation lost and divided, both in cricket and everyday life. No one quite knows what England are but one thing is for certain, it’ll be fun watching them find out.