As ever Kevin Pietersen has dominated the headlines in the last week and obscured the real issue at stake here – why more questions are not being asked of a team and captain who have failed abjectly this year. While the debate should revolve around whether Andrew Strauss should be continuing and if Alastair Cook is a suitable replacement instead we are treated to more and more coverage of the KP circus – what was in the texts? Will he play for England again?
What is actually needed at this point is an objective analysis of where England have gone wrong this year and what, if anything, can be done to fix it. An analysis that doesn’t mention KP again – not even once.
It is hard to believe that just 7 months ago players and pundits alike were talking about this as possibly the greatest England team ever. Batters who could grind down and destroy the best attacks in the world and bowlers who could take 20 wickets in all conditions. Undoubtedly some of the hubris has caught up with them but England didn’t become a bad team over-night. What the UAE tour did was destroy the confidence of the England top order, something they are yet to regain. At first we were assured it was just Ajmal and sub-continental conditions; once we got back to good old blighty things would be different yet the rabbit-in-the-headlights panic of facing Saaed Ajmal and Rangana Herath has spread throughout the team.
The batting unit have consistently and collectively failed this year. Cook, Strauss, Trott and Bell are all averaging under 35 and Strauss’s centuries against the West Indies masked his decline over the past two years. Their failure to chase 145 in the second test against Pakistan has helped exacerbate the them and us batter/bowler divide that seems to exist in the England team at present. Successful teams tend to have happy dressing rooms and the disjointed team spirit, which is not confined to KP v the rest, which has reared its head recently, is a manifestation of that.
The failures of the batting lineup have had a direct if sub-conscious effect on the bowlers. From operating as a unit and tearing sides apart the England bowlers have cut increasingly desolate and isolated figures as the year has gone on. Broad and Anderson, their body language never good at the best of times, have epitomised that. Too little was read into the final wicket stand between Best and Ramdin at Edgbaston. The unit and sense of hunting as a pack that characterised England 12 months ago seems to be gone. Uncertainty over who to play as the third seamer as well as Swann’s 10 wickets at 60 this summer seems part of it but more importantly is the fact that England just don’t have as many runs to play with. What was remarkable about then victories in 2011 was how many of them were by an innings or more. The narrower victories against a depleted Windies side were a warning shot heeded by too few.
The bowlers have almost been beyond criticism with the recent batting failures but evidence suggests that they are bowling too short and no longer executing the plans that are constructed for the opposition. Perhaps we can blame lack of time with their feet up in the pavilion but when the West Indies and South Africa came at them this summer the England bowlers suddenly looked short of ideas. Seeing Jonathan Trott amble in as England wait for the next new ball will never inspire much fear in the opposition.
Is has been observed, perhaps unkindly, that England have won tests in spite of rather than because of Andrew Strauss’s captaincy and he has longed been criticised for his negative fields, his failure to change the preset plans when things aren’t working and his tendency to be a reactive rather than pro-active captain. When the side are winning, all this can be glossed over, even if the captain is not scoring runs himself. Once they start losing it’s a different matter. The strange thing about Strauss’ batting is when he is getting out. Once thought highly of for his ability to stay in once set and convert 50s in 100s Strauss is now battling to 20 or 30 and then getting out. When given the choice of a player who scores 0, 100, 0, 0, 100 or one who scores 40, 40, 40, 40, 40 a coach will always opt for the former. Getting out once set is always a bigger problem that getting out early on.
The problem England face is that the vice captain is no longer such an obvious replacement. His ODI captaincy has shown him to be almost as tactically lacking as Strauss in the field and his own form with the bat this year has almost been worse than his captain’s. The best candidate to replace Strauss would actually be Graeme Swann but he has two important counts against him. Firstly he is a bit too much of a maverick for the ECB. He would be accepted as a temporary T20 captain but not as test captain. The second is England’s (and indeed many test nation’s) policy of only choosing batters for captaincy. All I’d say to that is go and ask Richie Benaud how much having the Australian captaincy affected his bowling.
With an India tour looming and another sub-continental spin examination this might well be the tour to experiment. Expectations will now be low and an exciting young side that jettisoned Strauss could not only make a big impression but gain invaluable experience for the future. A top 6 of Root, Cook, Trott, Bell, Taylor and Bairstow would be a bold selection. A fundamental change in the bowling personnel is not needed in my opinion although Panesar and Onions should certainly be in the squad.
Graeme Smith has seen off two England captains previously and there is a good reason why. When you measure yourself against the best and fall short it’s time to look in the mirror. Doubly so when you are captain of the number 1 ranked side.
I promised I wouldn’t mention KP again but I feel it’s pertinent just to recap on what happened when KP criticised Peter Moores. The ECB jettisoned both. KP was right about Moores, he is right about Strauss and the ECB would be right to jettison both again.