On another frustrating day bowling at the tail, Ben Gardner tries to figure out why England are the worst side in the world at getting through the last four wickets.
There’s little more frustrating for a Test captain than a tail-end stand. Normally it’s borne out of a feeling of bad luck, of cursing the universe that it’s your turn to be on the end of players who know they can’t stick around, chancing their arm and getting a few away. You’re gearing up to bat, your mind drifts from the game at hand, and all of a sudden the opposition have 40 more runs and you have something else to think about.
But for England in recent times it’s taken on a rather different flavour. Instead of looking annoyed, they look helpless, and instead of thinking ‘Why us?’ they think ‘Why again?’ No team in the world are worse at getting through the tail than England, and it’s cost them hugely.
What makes the struggles all the more puzzling is that England are one of the best teams at bowling at batsmen in the top six; since the start of 2019, the first six wickets average just 31.49 against England, with only India and Australia, of teams who have played more than four Tests in that time, ahead of them. But their average against wickets seven to 10 – 23.07 – is the worst in the world in the same time period.
Indeed, it’s been a factor in almost all their recent defeats. Going back to the start of 2019, England have lost seven Tests. In the first of those, a 295-run seventh-wicket stand rescued West Indies from 120-6. In the third, Australia were 122-8 and eventually made 284. The fourth wasn’t quite as dramatic, but England still had Australia 369-6 before they finished up on 497-8dec.
Going down to New Zealand, Mitchell Santner and BJ Watling were allowed to put on 251 for the seventh wicket, and then in the first Test against South Africa, even with Quinton de Kock at No.6 and the tail lengthened, 96 runs were added by the last four wickets. In a low-scoring game, it proved crucial.
Here, the effect wasn’t quite so dramatic. Still, 65 runs have come from wickets seven to ten, with Mohammad Rizwan, unbeaten at stumps on 60, hopeful of adding more. And while some of the names who helped keep England at bay in the games mentioned before – the likes of Jason Holder, Santner, Pat Cummins, Vernon Philander – might have varyingly credible cases for being considered all-rounders, Pakistan’s Nos.9-11 average 15.23 combined. This is a tail England should be blasting away.
Planning and picking a team for bowling at the tail is something that, presumably, isn’t at the forefront of a captain and coach’s mind. There is increasingly strong evidence that, for England, it should be. The issue is one of tactics, but also of team selection, and the two go hand in hand.
England’s preferred method is to spread the field, keep the runs down, and target the weaker batsman when you can. But bowling four balls at the set batsman and then trying to blast out the bunny with the other two is a method that only really makes sense if you have bowlers who will make those two balls count. When England have Jofra Archer or Mark Wood in the side, you would back them to be simply too quick and demolish the stumps. It’s one of the strongest arguments why one of the two should always be in the XI.
The attack picked for this game, in contrast, features four bowlers all of whom are trained in taking the new ball, in making the most of any movement on offer, and in working out top-order batsmen. When the swing and seam on offer is as significant as it was here, the likes of Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, and James Anderson, you feel, are more likely to beat the outside edge of a hapless tail-ender twice in two balls than nick them off or clean them up. The same ball that takes the edge of an opener might well be too good for a No.11.
But it’s the bowling to the set batsman that will most worry England. Keep some fielders out to limit the damage if you must, but England surely still need to bowl at Rizwan as if you’re trying to get him out. England were impeccable against him for the first half of his innings, and scattergun for the last. If you have bowlers suited to bowling at top-order batsmen, then doesn’t it makes sense to keep them set on doing what they’re good at?
Broad admitted England felt largely clueless about how to solve the problem. “It’s a tough one,” he told the BBC. “I’ve not seen any of it really work over a long period of time. If you keep the field in with the batsman on 60 and they’ve got a licence then you can leak 30 or 40 runs really quickly. If you put everyone out then it’s very unlikely then a batsman on 60 will just chip it to the fielder on the boundary. So it’s a really tough tactical decision and I’ve seen it many a time. I don’t really know what the right way is to go.”
It’s too early to say how much today’s travails will hurt England. Pakistan are still a little way below a par score, and England will still feel confident of getting a significant lead. But a troubling trend has continued, and Joe Root’s side look no closer to finding an answer.