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Six questions for England after their mauling by India

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

Ben Gardner looks at six things for England to consider after their 3-1 Test series defeat to India.

It’s easy to forget, in the aftermath of three Test defeats that were each more comprehensive than the last, that England have outperformed expectations this winter. Given their weakened squad, there were those who wondered whether they would be able to beat Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. For most observers, drawing even one Test out of four in India would have counted as a triumph.

And yet the perspective has now shifted. Hope sprung anew only to be quashed just as quickly, and it has left England with plenty of questions, both in the immediate term over their best XI, and more generally over how they can avoid a similar thrashing in the future.

Who bats three?

This, of course, is not a new question. Since Jonathan Trott flew home during the 2013/14 Ashes, only Joe Root and Gary Ballance have scored 500 or more runs for England at first drop. This winter, England employed Jonny Bairstow and Dan Lawrence in the position, with the pair managing an average of 22 and no half-centuries between them.

Last summer, Zak Crawley filled in there, with his 267 in the final Test of the summer confirming him as one of England’s most exciting batsmen. Shifting him back down from opener is an option, though it would likely bring with it a recall for Rory Burns, who averages just over 30 in Test cricket. Or England could promote one of their middle-order options, with all of Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, and Lawrence put forward as candidates.

There’s a place to be nailed down, and there will be plenty of county top-order bats who feel the right run of form at the right time could see them get a go.

Ollie Pope or Dan Lawrence?

In Pope and Lawrence, England have two hugely promising young batsmen, each of whom have been prolific in the County Championship at various points, with both showing flashes of being able to make the step up to Test level. However, neither has done enough to demand selection, and both are competing for the No.6 spot, unless England get funky with their batting order.

Lawrence had the better winter, bookending his tour with half-centuries, but struggled when prematurely promoted to No.3. His strength is more against spin than pace, which could work against him on return to England.

A year ago, Pope looked like he was coming good on his plentiful promise, having made his maiden Test hundred against a strong, quick South Africa attack. But he has struggled since, both for form and with injury, and now averages just 31.92 in Test cricket. Early-season county form could be crucial in deciding who sits above whom in the pecking order.

Ben Foakes or Jos Buttler?

This is a debate that Jos Buttler has a significant upper hand in, having shown significant improvement both with bat and gloves since the first Test against Pakistan last summer, when he admitted that he felt his Test career was on the line.

Ben Foakes looked like he might make a significant claim for a full-time spot in his first Test in Buttler’s absence, but his runs have tailed off since his unbeaten 42 in the first innings of the second Test, and the added value with the gloves is less significant both outside Asia and with Buttler’s keeping work now less of a concern.

However, with Buttler to miss the start of the county season, and possibly England’s Tests against New Zealand, due to playing in the IPL, Foakes could yet make an argument. Foakes taking the gloves and Buttler playing as a specialist No.6 is also an option.

Can Jofra Archer become a Test No.8?

By the end of the series, England had rather tied themselves in knots when it came to selecting their XI. Their batting woes led them to stack their side with batsmen, meaning Foakes came in at No.8, and Stokes, battling illness, was forced to shoulder much of the bowling load.

That lineup was at least partly a reaction to the team picked for the third Test, when Jofra Archer came in at No.8, with England’s lengthy tail contributing to dramatic collapses in both innings: from 74-2 to 112 all out in the first, and 50-3 to 81 all out in the second. Before he made his Test debut, his first-class record was excellent, and evidence of his incendiary hitting ability was on show in last year’s IPL. But, after 13 Tests, he averages just 7.75.

The evidence of this winter is that, despite Chris Woakes’ improvement, Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Archer make up England’s preferred seam attack. But with Jack Leach now first-choice spinner, it’s a gamble to pick all three in the same team.

How can England deal with spin better, and do they need to?

This is the biggest question of all, with England’s bowling and playing of spin both coming up short against India. If they are serious about building a team that can dominate in all countries for a significant period, England will have to get funky; they have never had a sustained era of supremacy in Asian conditions, so simply reverting to some previous county structure and playing a few more games in August won’t solve their ills. Spin substitutes, to give twirlers a chance to have an impact in the fourth innings, designated ‘spin-friendly’ county venues, or even holding the season openers overseas in conditions favourable for slow bowling are all solutions worth looking into.

Equally, England would do well to remember that, despite the nature of their three previous defeats, before that they had won six Tests on the bounce in Asia, and half a dozen in a row overseas too, something they hadn’t done since 1914. It’s possible to be the best team in the world just by only being competitive overseas, if you’re dominant at home. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is to embrace India’s ruthlessness; after a rare reversal, they made sure the conditions were stacked in their favour to ensure their streak of home series wins continued.

England, generally, don’t smash teams at home. The last time they whitewashed a team in a series of three or more matches in England was against India in 2011. It’s giving other teams a chance at home, rather than struggling to win away, that is holding them back as it stands.

Was England’s rotation policy the right call?

There’s little debate to be had with England’s rotation policy in theory. There is so much cricket to be played that it would be impossible for England to field their first XI for all the games they would want to. However, there is a balancing of priorities that it’s fair to discuss. England’s targets are the Ashes in Australia and the T20 World Cup in November, hence why they will have a first-choice squad for five T20Is against India, and why no one of note is sitting out the IPL. Is a warm-up series or a franchise competition ahead of a global tournament more important than a Test series among there with the most prestigious going?

It’s at least arguable that England’s absences had an impact on the series result, especially in the third Test, when they were forced to field an attack dominated by seam in a match dominated by spin. But maybe it’s too early to judge right now. If England do win the T20 World Cup and regain the urn down under, they might be right to feel vindicated. Anything less, and questions could be asked again.

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