@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read
England’s Test series defeat to New Zealand was chastening for many reasons, and at first glance there are few positives to take from the setback.
The reversal meant England’s proud record of having gone without defeat in a home series since 2014 was ended, and with their next two encounters against India and Australia, their task isn’t about to get any easier.
However, there are some reasons to not be totally doom and gloom about the prospects of England’s Test side.
Their recent record, beyond the last five Tests, is good
It’s not so long ago that England were flying high. A comprehensive victory in the first Test over India, arguably their greatest in the last 30 years, left them dreaming of becoming the first team to win a series there since they themselves did so in 2012. While India bounced back emphatically, even winning a single game is a result of sorts; there had been only one other India home defeat between 2012 and the start of that series.
At that point, England had won five away Tests in a row and four series on the bounce too. There have been comparisons to England’s defeat to New Zealand in 1999, the last time the Blackcaps triumphed on these shores. But really, the two situations are very different. That loss, against a flawed side, saw England plummet to the bottom of the world rankings, bringing about a significant shake-up, with the introduction of central contracts bringing about more positive times. This New Zealand team is their best ever, with their ascension to the top of the world rankings confirming that fact. England, meanwhile, sit fourth. They aren’t as good as New Zealand, but they are still better than most.
Their stars will be back for India
While there are plenty of reasons to feel England shouldn’t have been as weakened for New Zealand’s visit as they were, and questions to answer over where their priorities lie, at least for the India challenge England should be back to full strength. Ben Stokes should be back fit, Chris Woakes, arguably their most important player in home Tests, will be as rested as he’s ever been, while Jos Buttler will be back too, desperate to show his return to form in Test cricket is long-lasting. It will be a very different, and a better England side that take on India in August.
Crawley and Pope are talented, even though they are out of nick
With Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope enduring the worst troughs of their short careers so far, it’s tempting to wonder if we did all get ahead of ourselves in anointing the pair as the bedrock of England’s batting order for years to come. But, while their struggles are worrying and the expectations placed on them somewhat unrealistic, the hype existed for a reason. Pope’s record outside Test cricket stands up to the best there have ever been, and when on song his Ian Bell-esque technique looks the sort to bring him rewards all over the world. Crawley’s record is boosted by his 267 against Pakistan, but that was the knock of a truly exceptional talent, and there have been other flashes of brilliance. A drive-heavy half-century in the two-day Chennai Test was a high-class knock, and he dealt with South Africa’s formidable pace attack with aplomb too.
It might be that one or both spend some time out of the Test side in the near future, but that needn’t be terminal, and while both will hope their dip is nowhere near as deep or prolonged as that suffered by Haseeb Hameed, his return to England’s Test squad is testament to the fact that, more often than not, talent will come good, even if it takes its time.
The opening pair is promising
The averages of Rory Burns and Dom Sibley aren’t anything to shout about, and their respective styles might displease the aesthetes, but there is reason to believe England have found an opening pair with staying power. Burns was excellent against New Zealand, with his recent form only made more impressive by the struggles which came before it. Since being tipped as a captaincy candidate after the first Test against South Africa in late 2019, practically everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, with injury, loss of form, and questionable social media activity seeing him lose his place in the side and much of the good will he had built up dissipate.
To put together the best run of his career therefore, first in the County Championship and then in Tests, bodes well for his mental strength, and while we’ve been here before, with a ton in the first Test of the 2019 Ashes coming at the last possible moment, he might well be about to embark on a career-defining run.
Sibley doesn’t look in the same sort of nick, but the thing with him is, he never does, and he still manages to contribute anyway. He might never dominate Test cricket, and it could always look a struggle, but he also clearly has the stomach for the fight. While it’s a low bar, averaging low thirties but blunting the new ball is something that will benefit this England team.
In Ollie Robinson, England have found another one
While his Test debut will be remembered for reasons other than his on-field exploits, Ollie Robinson looked excellent with both ball and bat at Lord’s. He talked a big game as a bowler capable of working out and then preying on a batsman’s weaknesses, and he walked the walk too, with his seven wickets the result of precise, calculated bowling. It’s only one game, but given his record, again only in one game, in Australia, and his dominance of the County Championship, Robinson could conceivably push himself up the pecking order significantly in the months to come.
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