Steven Smith celebrates the fall of Matt Prior.
If you were searching for Batting Nirvana, you could arguably have found it at Lord’s on Day 1 of the Second Ashes Test.
The temperature was pleasant, the sun was out, there were no clouds in the sky and the pitch was flat. Therefore England won the toss and elected to be subservient to logic by choosing to bat.
However, their close-of-play score of 289-7 is far from the score that the conditions warranted. The pitch might be turning more than some expected, but it’s a score which will almost certainly end up being under-par, and having won the first Test and the toss here at Lord's they may well look back on this innings as a missed opportunity.
Australia bowled well in patches but generally lacked penetration throughout the day, although Steven Smith’s late spell of 3-18 was excellent. But England, Ian Bell aside, batted poorly.
Alastair Cook, LBW, was perhaps deceived by movement down the slope. Joe Root missed a straight ball. Jonathan Trott, with a leg-side trap set, walked straight into it when he guided a short ball to a waiting fielder. Kevin Pietersen poked at a shaping delivery. Jonny Bairstow was out once off a no-ball, before drilling a juicy full toss straight back to the bowler. Matt Prior tried to hit a wide ball for four and failed, leaving only Ian Bell to be entirely exonerated from blame for his own dismissal, not simply because he had scored a century, but because it was a devilish leg-break from Smith that found his edge.
Cook’s men may well go on to win this Test match, and considering Australia’s batting weaknesses that would not be a surprise. However, England’s performance on Day 1 at Lord’s demonstrated more clearly and loudly than anything previously how England’s batting standards have dropped substantially in the last 18 months.
Ever since ascending to the top of the Test Rankings, be it in victory or defeat, Andy Flower’s batsmen have consistently performed well within their potential. Never have the words of Shakespeare’s Henry VI “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” seemed so appropriate.
Since beating India 4-0 at home in 2011 and officially becoming the world’s best Test nation, England have played seven series, winning three, losing two and drawing two. This was not the form of the No. 1 Test side in the world, and the subsequent slide down the rankings was nothing if not deserved.
More tellingly, in that same time frame, the only England player whose Test batting average has not fallen is Steven Finn; meaning that in a year-and-a-half of international cricket only one player has made improvements statistically. One.
Furthermore, although statistics don’t often tell the whole story, England’s Test run rate (2.88) being lower than every Test nation except Zimbabwe’s in the last year paints a sorry picture with regards to England’s receding authority and dominance at the crease. The bowlers for the most part have maintained their consistently high standards set during the ascent, but the batsmen’s standards have undoubtedly dropped substantially and alarmingly.
Even in victory England’s batting has been far from reassuring. In the five consecutive Test matches against New Zealand, frailties that many thought would disappear against a weaker opposition were still present, and events in the first Ashes Test and now on Day 1 at Lord’s have only served to further emphasize England’s struggles.
Were it not for Bairstow’s lucky reprieve, England’s position of weakness could well have been even weaker, not to mention the lone hand played by Bell, who like at Trent Bridge rescued England from calamity with an innings worthy of the player he has become.
Admittedly, England have faced some strong bowling attacks on difficult wickets in the past 18 months and have had to deal with the retirement of their captain and opening batsman, Andrew Strauss. Yet still, it is difficult to shake the notion that there are un-scored runs festering in the England batting order.
The players themselves must of course shoulder the majority of the blame. It is they, not the back-room staff, who are playing poor shots and batting in the way they are. There’s an argument to be made that the relative, and not undeserved, selection safety of Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell and Prior has led them to becoming complacent, even more so as the bowlers continue to bail them out of trouble.
However, the ghost of Paul Collingwood continues to haunt England at No. 6, and the fact that that very slot has changed hands (excluding nightwatchmen) 15 times since his retirement is a management error. So too is the fact that England only decided on Cook’s opening partner for the Ashes at the 11th hour, wasting months of preparation building up to the series and ensuring Root was opening for England the first time in his career on the first morning of the series. Bairstow’s dearth of first-class cricket prior to the series is also an error that can be laid at the feet of the management.
Yet the obvious falling batting standards are regularly masked by the fact that England are either finding a way to not lose and scraping to draws or are winning matches, and it is very difficult to criticize a team that isn’t losing. Nothing perhaps demonstrated this more clearly than the drawn series in New Zealand: Although it hinted at England’s vulnerability, the fact that it rained regularly, the pitches were flat and England didn’t actually lose a Test again helped cover up major failings.
However, winning matches can only legitimize a team playing within their potential to an extent. If England want to make greater strides than merely those immediately in front of them, then they must seek to dominate opponents in a manner befitting of the team they want to become, not merely do enough for the match in hand.
On Day 1 at Lord’s it was apt that when England’s batting frailties were again exposed, it was Bell who helped England regain a foothold in the match. Bell’s transformation from elegant assistant to domineering leader is something from which the entire team should draw inspiration.