@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
England are not very good at Test cricket right now, because lots of the things that are true about them right now are not true about teams which are good at Test cricket.
They are over-reliant on two players, one of whom is 39 years old and has begun to lose effectiveness alarmingly in the second half of games, and the other of whom is asked to be not just their best batsman, but captain, spokesperson, figurehead and punching bag. After those two, their next three most experienced available batsmen all average between 32 and 34, while their next best bowler has played just five Tests. They have won one Test in their last nine, and stand on the verge of losing both home Test series in a summer for the first time since 1986.
And yet, it’s hard to shake the sense that they aren’t that bad either. Those two home series have come against the best two teams in the world by a distance, and beyond them, you would arguably make England favourites at home against every other side in the world. Australia excepted, they would give the rest a decent go away from home too; those three teams apart, England have lost just one of their last six away series. Before this year, England went six seasons without a series defeat at home. You can view this summer as an aberration after a decade of decent results, or a disaster waiting to happen. The truth is, it’s probably somewhere in the middle.
If you’re feeling generous, you can even see this series as a natural levelling out after England’s 4-1 win against India in 2018. Then, a closely contested series fell England’s way, with the hosts defending less than 200 in the first game, and less than 250 in the fourth. This time, were it not for an hour of madness on the final morning at Lord’s, it’s conceivable that England could be 2-1 up right now. And that’s without the services of the best player in the world, and with a full-strength pace attack always a distance from being feasible.
Comparisons have been made to the nadir of the Nineties, when, following defeat to New Zealand at home in 1999, England slipped to the bottom of the world rankings. But while some of the mood music is similar, the reality is different, and England might never again slip out of the top four or five in the world. The reasons for this aren’t all good, with the widening of the gap in resources among the top teams and the rest and the declining popularity of Test cricket in places that aren’t England playing their part, but that doesn’t make them any less real. In South Africa and West Indies, administrative machinations and the attractions of opportunities elsewhere sees players in their primes unavailable. Sri Lanka are, to put it kindly, a mess, with their golden generation a distance in the past. Pakistan look the closest to making a push into the top four, while New Zealand’s success is a sign of what can be achieved on limited resources. But it would take something extreme for England to slip too far further from where they are.
England fans might expect more. Whatever Arsene Wenger might say, fourth place isn’t much of a trophy. But this is still a team that can compete with any at home, and most away.
What’s not clear is where England stand in relation to Australia. A 2-2 series draw in England in 2019 suggests it’s the Aussies who have the edge, but England were hampered in that series by an early injury to James Anderson, and by a general sense of fatigue following the elation and exhaustion of the 2019 World Cup campaign. While Ben Stokes, able to ride the wave through the summer, and Jofra Archer, mostly unflappable and free of the baggage of much of the build-up to that tournament, were able to contribute in both, the likes of Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes were all diminished players through the series.
History dictates that Australia should win comfortably this winter, and yet, by much of the criteria above, they are also not a very good Test side. They have, at home, three established batsman, with a sharp drop-off after their first-choice pace attack, and with India having shown twice that they can be worn down and beaten in their own backyard. This winter, then, promises to be fascinating, a contest between two flawed sides, and yet neither as bad as their own fans sometimes make them out to be. Still, whoever wins will only be confirmed as the third-best team in the world, and whoever loses as fourth. The gap between those above and below is a distance from being bridged.