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England v India

As chaos engulfs the Silverwood era, a return to Total Cricket can offer only partial respite

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

It’s September 2019, and Chris Silverwood is a man with a plan.

Admittedly, it’s not a very complicated plan: ‘Bat long, bat big and bat once’ is a mantra akin to a football manager with a strategy of scoring one more goal than the opposition. But as the Trevor Bayliss era receded from view, as he leaned on the Lord’s balcony gazing into the middle distance after being announced as England’s new head coach, it felt quietly revolutionary. England had rarely managed to do those three things simultaneously; Silverwood’s arrival brought with it a feeling of calm and sense long since absent.

It didn’t start well. In his first Test in charge, New Zealand out-Silverwooded England, and Jofra Archer was bowled into the ground. After the third, as a stomach bug swept through the camp, Joe Root’s captaincy was on the line. But for a while after, it seemed as if he was on to something. Three games into the following winter, England put together the perfect game. Root made a double, Dom Sibley and Ben Stokes contributed contrasting 80-odds, and the greatest home team of the modern age had been flattened in their own backyard.


Then India prepared pitches that weren’t quite as batting-friendly, and everything fell apart. In six Tests since, England have lost four and drawn two, with the pair of stalemates heavily aided by the weather. They are set to play at Lord’s without four of their best five players in home conditions, with only Root – in the form of his life and having somehow rediscovered his smile amid the rubble – and some hastily assembled others standing in Virat Kohli’s way.

Much of this isn’t Silverwood’s fault. He was neither mastermind nor architect of the rest and rotation policy which has seen England without a full-strength Test team in over a year, while the pandemic which has necessitated such an extreme move is hardly his fault either. The injuries are either freakish or attributable to a schedule which has seen his bowlers with little first-class cricket prep in the lead-up to this series. The diminishing form of England’s youngsters, the likes of Sibley, Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope, should fall on him as head coach, though you suspect any hands-on work involves the bowlers.

Still, where the blame lies matters little now. Silverwood finds himself having to grapple with the cruelty that, as your plans fall apart, so too does your ability to plan effectively. All of a sudden, even amid all the talk of preparing for the Ashes against the sides ranked Nos.1 and 2 in the world, results matter. Lose 4-0 against India, and he might not make it to Australia.

And so, in the absence of alternatives, he has been forced, reluctantly, to embrace Bayliss Ball, or Total Cricket, if you prefer, once more. There is a logic, with the idea that if you pick 11 match-winners, the odds are that, on any given occasion, a couple of them will win you the match. While Silverwood prefers his top order to bat time, never mind the runs, Bayliss saw the top three as a place to squeeze in another white-ball superstar, whether that’s Jason Roy opening the batting, or all of Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes batting at No.3 in the space of three Tests.

And England have packed their squad with several of those, even if their call-ups feel rooted in hope than conviction: Moeen Ali, not part of England’s squad for the first Test, was sent an SOS in the aftermath of Trent Bridge and will now sit in the engine room, alongside Jonny Bairstow, whose last Test score above 52 came in 2018, with Jos Buttler and Sam Curran, two others without a County Championship appearance this year, on either side.

It may yet work. All are talented cricketers who have won games for England. Bairstow looked as good as he has in Test cricket for a long time in the first Test. Buttler was England’s best batsman last summer, and in 2018 when India were last here, Curran dominated that series with a succession of crucial interventions. The vagaries of Moeen’s form are a mystery to all, not least him, but that at least means a revival could always be right round the corner. But even if England do scrap their way to victory over India, it will leave them ill-prepared for the Ashes, and whether it should or not, the result of that series will define Silverwood’s reign.

Apart from Buttler, England’s plan does not involve any of those playing a significant role Down Under with Bairstow’s weakness against fast, straight bowling, Moeen’s horror show in 2017/18, and Curran’s reliance on swing reducing his impact with the Kookaburra. Meanwhile, the positions which should be filled by the players making their way in the longest format, Pope or Dan Lawrence, will be filled by players the other side of 30 who England have already worked out can’t bat any higher.

For Silverwood, big runs will have to wait and victory any which way will do. Australia doesn’t really bear thinking about.

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