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West Indies v England

Joe Root needs to live a little – it’s time for Matt Parkinson

Joe Root Needs To Live A Little - It's Time For Matt Parkinson
Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 4 minute read

Phil Walker examines the spate of lifeless pitches Test cricket has witnessed the month, and wonders how England can navigate them better.

It’s funny how things turn around. You may remember that last week dead pitches were killing the game. Then the great Patrick Cummins and his sidekick Mitchell Starc tear it up for an hour at Lahore and we’re back to Test cricket being the finest creation known to humanity. Odds-on that next week we’ll be back on the scandalous collapse of proper technique.

This won’t be about pitches, tough though they’ve been. Those decks at Antigua and Barbados – and, yes, Pindi and Karachi – may well decry the memories of the spirit kings watching on, but this is nothing new. Pakistan is still adjusting to the very idea of putting on home Test matches, and thus, in classical fashion, they’re preparing tracks to last – and producing two excellent games in the process. As for the Windies, the awkward truth, especially when England’s parched provincials are in town, is that a long game is a lucrative game. Another awkward truth is if England had caught better, reviewed better and selected a more daring attack, they would have taken at least one of those matches.

Just because the Barbados match was a tough watch doesn’t make it invalid. We can’t have it all ways. We can’t on the one hand piously sanctify Test cricket with all its ‘layers’ and ‘complexities’ and then disdain the feats of a warrior like Kraigg Brathwaite when he bats for longer than any West Indian ever to save a Test match they were never going to win.

We can’t equivocate over the wondrous Babar Azam when he goes full-Athers to quell an Australian attack which had blown Pakistan away in 54 overs in their first innings. And yet, like fun-drunk fools who’ve forgotten what the game actually looks like, we’ll still find room for a graceless whinge that it’s basically all down to a lifeless track, as if all that eschewing and abstaining, drawing the fire, hour after hour, day after remorseless day, was just a case of turning up and taking guard.

If cricket has taught us anything, it’s that you can muck it up from anywhere. And they didn’t.

The return of the draw is a non-story. For context, England, those weird anarcho-conservatives, last played out successive stalemates nine years ago, when Matt Prior blocked at Auckland to smash a no-score draw. Considering what horrors they lived through in 2021, no one’s in any position to quibble with going a few days without defeat. At this stage, they’ll take the draws where they can.

They have had the upper hand in both matches – helped by winning a couple of tosses – and played some mildly useful cricket in the gaps. Dan Lawrence has had a decent fortnight. Saqib Mahmood had a good debut at Barbados. Jonny Bairstow’s re-emergence as a counter-punching No.6 makes more sense by the week and Ben Stokes looks in better fettle, while Root himself remains sublimely untouchable, removing any fuss over his entirely logical move to No.3.

The selections of Lawrence and Mahmood hint at a possible new boldness. Lawrence in particular, with his home-brewed style and steadfast adherence to his true nature, is just the kind of talent that English cricket tends to distrust. And if there’s a whiff of low-tar Pietersen in both his style and instincts, then any residual pungency is detoxified by his demonstrable selflessness. Those breezy day-five cameos to hasten both declarations leave a mark on a dressing room beyond a few boundaries. He can bowl, too; and can’t be arsed to hide his swagger. Likewise, Mahmood – charismatic, skilful, smart – is a chance. Add a few more clicks to offset his lack of height and he becomes a banker. These have been net-good selections for which Root deserves credit.

When it comes to slow bowling, however, English cricket’s imagination, and that of its Test captain, appears to run dry. In both games Root has gone in with a five-man attack featuring four right-arm fast-mediums and a plucky left-arm spinner whose accuracy goes some way to compensate for his lack of threat. Jack Leach is solid enough, cut from the vast plain tapestry of county cricket to do a useful containing job in unremitting conditions. One can understand why Root likes what he offers: dependability, security, areas. But what was striking about those last hours at Barbados was how untroubled the West Indians were against him, compared even to Lawrence’s ludicrous brand of right-arm Essex. On a pitch that was spitting, he was wrestled to the ground with relative ease.

And so, with a populist bounce, to the omission of Matthew Parkinson, who must feel like he was born in a yellow bib. The model of Leach nagging at one end and Parkinson ragging at the other – the one compensating for the limitations of the other – is surely a considerably more enticing path to 20 wickets on flat decks than falling back yet again to the peashoot battalion. If England are to change their fortunes on pitches that refuse to yield, they need real pace and serious turn. The upstanding values of Leach, Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson are of a piece with the rhythms of bowling in the shires. But this is not England. This is dry, brutish cricket under a relentless sun.

No one is saying that Parkinson (102 first-class wickets at 23) becomes England’s No.1 spinner overnight, or even at all. His loudest advocates can’t pretend to know if he has the minerals to perform the toughest gig in the game at the highest level. But if English cricket can’t unshackle itself from this cultural bias against leg-spin, we will never get to find out. There is a glaring point of difference in their squad, desperate for a shot. This week, should Grenada serve up another featherbed, is the time for Root to live a little.

This article is brought to you in association with Sportsbreaks.com who offer unforgettable sports travel experiences, including the Sportsbreaks.com Terrace for all England internationals and Vitality T20 Blast fixtures at Emirates Old Trafford. For more information click HERE

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