“We know we’re not the finished article, we know we’ve got challenges and hurdles to overcome and things that we want to get better at if we are going to be that No. 1 team in the world.” Joe Root. August 20, 2020. Here we look at the progress England have made during the Test summer of 2020 and look at some of the “challenges and hurdles” that lie ahead.
Let’s not make a positive into a negative: England are incredibly fortunate to have depth in their seam attack. Most of all, they are fortunate to have two bowlers who have more than 1,100 Test wickets between them and remain remarkably potent in English conditions.
But while we know how potent James Anderson and Stuart Broad are in England, there is some doubt over their suitability, at this stage of their careers, for tours of India and Australia over the next 18-months. And while England have long acknowledged the needs for bowlers of extra pace in those conditions, they haven’t made as much progress towards settling on such an attack as they might have hoped when they picked both Jofra Archer and Mark Wood for the first Test of the summer.
England’s opportunities to experiment were frustrated for a number of reasons. For a start, they lost the first Test against West Indies providing no room for error in the remaining two games. Equally, the format of the World Test Championship values every game whether the series is won or not. There aren’t dead rubbers any more.
Most of all, though, there have been this summer’s Test pitches. They have, without exception, provided assistance to England’s fast-medium seamers. And on those wickets, the enduring excellence of Anderson and Broad, combined with the all-round excellence of Chris Woakes, have made it hard to look beyond them. They are, in the conditions that have prevailed, almost the perfect attack.
That has minimised the chances for those faster bowlers who might prove so useful in India and Australia. Take Wood, for example. He finished the winter with a nine-wicket haul in South Africa and looked to have cemented his place in the side. But there was a furore when he was selected ahead of Broad for the first Test of the summer and, while he bowled with impressive pace and consistency in that game, he hasn’t played since. Equally, Archer has not had the opportunity to take the new ball as much as he would have liked and Olly Stone hasn’t broken back into the team (and is currently injured).
The result? England haven’t learned as much as they would have liked. But that’s not the end of the world. And while Wood and Archer may be frustrated, they are fresh and injury free. If they arrive in Australia or India or anywhere else in the same shape, they can make a difference.
On the face of things, it would appear England have made decent progress with Dom Bess as their first-choice spinner this summer. He’s played all five Tests to date, after all. But Bess hasn’t bowled a single ball in two of those Tests and, in the others, has taken seven wickets at an underwhelming cost of 46 apiece and economy of 3.31 runs per over. Bess’ figures might look considerably prettier, however, if he had a more proficient keeper. He’s seen at least three chances go begging off his bowling and, in South Africa, he showed himself capable of performing both a holding and attacking role.
It’s not hard to understand why England like him: he contributes with the bat and he’s terrific in the field. And for all Jack Leach’s batting heroics in 2019, any line-up that includes Bess, Anderson, Broad and either Archer or Wood has a diplodocus-length tail.
More than that, though, Bess looks as if he has the character to relish the challenge of an Ashes tour. So while Leach might well be a better bowler right now, Bess has the all-round package of skills that could render him the best fit in all circumstances.
And remember: he celebrated his 23rd birthday less than a month ago and he’s not first-choice spinner for his county. England are asking a huge amount of him and he is very much learning on the job. We have to be realistic with our expectations.
There’s been some talk about Adil Rashid in recent days, too. Again, that’s understandable. But he will have to prove both his physical ability and his hunger for the format if he is to make a return. It’s almost three years since he played a County Championship match.
The sense persists, too, that England may have moved on from Moeen Ali a little prematurely. At his best, he could still stiffen that tail – he made two Test centuries on England’s last tour of India – and add some bite to the bowling. The nature of this summer’s schedule, with players allocated to specific red or white-ball bubbles, hasn’t allowed an opportunity to see how his red-ball game is going, though the evidence from the ODI series against Ireland suggested he has not recovered his best form with the bat.
The result? England haven’t learned as much as they would have liked. But Bess has had further time to acclimatise to the level and the environment and has found ways to contribute even in conditions that have reduced his impact with the ball. Some progress.
This is, perhaps, the area of greatest improvement for England this summer. In conditions that have proved desperately hard for top-order batting, Rory Burns and Dom Sibley posted the first century stand by England openers at home since 2016 during the West Indies series, while Sibley and Zak Crawley added 91 for the second-wicket against Pakistan.
In these conditions, some failures are inevitable. But between the ducks, Sibley has made a century, two half-centuries and two more scores in the 30s in averaging 37.75 this summer, while Crawley (averaging 30) followed a Test-best 76 against West Indies with a half-century against Pakistan. Burns will be frustrated at failing to convert a couple of his starts but he, too, has made two half-centuries and added some solidity to the top of the order. These are still early days, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if this is England’s top three in Brisbane.
England would have liked a few more runs from Root and Ollie Pope. But there are no serious doubts about their places and with Ben Stokes set to slot back into the middle-order, the top six is looking as settled as it has for several years.
The result? By reverting to specialist, top-order players, England look to have developed a sturdier line-up that could serve them well for years to come. Definite progress.
Having endured a tough winter with the bat, a different management regime might well have moved on from Jos Buttler. But the loyalty to him has been at least partially repaid with three decent innings – notably an outstanding 75 against Pakistan that helped secure victory in the opening Test – and a more-than-respectable average of 37.75 this summer.
His keeping has been less convincing. While he is generally reliable against pace, he had dropped two chances – one of them, when Jermaine Blackwood had 20 in the first Test of the West Indies series, went a long way towards defining the game – off seamers and looked really quite uncomfortable against spin. In all, he has missed three chances off Bess and has yet to complete a stumping in Test cricket.
For a team that are facing up to seven Tests in Asia this winter – the schedule could well end up with fewer – that is a weakness that could come back to bite.
It’s probably simplistic to judge Buttler – or any player, really – purely by the statistics. He is, by all accounts, an admirably positive, selfless presence in the team environment and remains hugely influential and popular as a result. But while England have a keeper – and a batsman – as good as Ben Foakes in reserve, Buttler will always have to deliver to justify his place. Maybe that depth and competition for places isn’t such a bad thing.
In the long term, decisions over Buttler’s Test future may depend on whether his struggles with the red ball in any way dilute his white-ball form. In the shorter term, England hope that hard work and expert coaching can help him improve his keeping.
England are pretty much all-in with Buttler at this stage. The thought persists, however, that the upturn in his run-scoring still isn’t quite compensating for the errors with the gloves. An area of concern.
England’s catching – not least their slip catching – has been an area of weakness for much of the summer. Perhaps due to an unsettled cordon, perhaps due to the habit of appearing to stand a little too close to one another, a series of catches have gone down. Some of them – notably the Blackwood example mentioned earlier, or Shan Masood, who was missed twice on 45 (on both occasions by Buttler) and went on to make 156 in Manchester – have proved costly.
The real worry is that, in conditions where it is harder for bowlers to create chances, any one of these errors could prove match defining. The likes of Virat Kohli and Steve Smith are likely to punish such slips.
The result? England will have to improve in this area if they are to win in India or Australia.