England have become an all-or-nothing team with no patience for Test cricket

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Jos Buttler walks off after giving his wicket away - REUTERS
Jos Buttler walks off after giving his wicket away - REUTERS

It was during an English cricket tour of Australia that the term ‘Test’ is thought to have first been used to describe a sporting contest between two nations. According to the late BBC Test Match Special scorer Bill Frindall, the phrase was coined in 1861 to describe the test of the many disciplines that multi-day cricket provides: of the technical, tactical and mental skills of each team. “It’s not called Test cricket for nothing,” many a veteran cricketer of the format will tell you.

Only this England men’s Test team seem to have forgotten about the ‘Test’ bit. They’ve no time for having their patience tested, nor their mental resolve. And the less talked about an examination of the relative techniques of England’s batters, the better. They are an all-or-nothing team which, in Australia so far, are more nothing than all.

Take Jos Buttler for example. He’s either facing over 200 balls for 26 and offering a staunch, dogged last-ditch defence, or he’s darting along in white-ball mode before holing out (very) early doors. On Boxing Day at the MCG it was three from 11 balls before launching it straight down the throat of deep mid-wicket. In the first innings at Adelaide, Buttler ended 15 balls of awkward anticipation with a wishful drive, the edge of which soon whisked its way to first slip. Buttler’s keeping is of a similar vein: he’s either taking stunners behind the stumps or dropping sitters.

Extrapolate this phenomenon to England’s selection, too. They’re either fiercely defending their incumbent selections to the hilt, with head coach Chris Silverwood stubbornly refusing to admit they’d got anything wrong in their choices for the first or second Tests, or ringing wholesale changes with four new introductions for the Boxing Day Test.

Then there’s England batting, notably the much-talked about contrast between Joe Root’s form and the rest of his England team. That the captain is in contention to break the record for the most Test runs in a calendar year, while the players who serve him have already broken another for the most ducks in the same period (a tidy half-century, thank you very much) is a contrast worthy of any Caravaggio painting. We may as well be adopting the moniker ‘Morse code England’ at this stage.

Pat Cummins claims the wicket of Haseeb Hameed for a duck - AP
Pat Cummins claims the wicket of Haseeb Hameed for a duck - AP

This is an England which has no time for nuance, for digging in and negotiating the difficult periods that Test cricket will bring, whether you’re on top of the game or not. Australia know this, and have navigated such periods well. In both the first two Tests, when Root and Dawid Malan partnered up to stave off 50 overs or so on each occasion, Australia held their lines, persevered with the good balls and eventually broke through.

Nathan Lyon, their sparky, frontline spinner, has had to wait for long periods of barren spells before making his breakthrough. But when he does, England’s wickets fall in quick succession. After picking off Buttler with the last ball before tea, it was soon three wickets in his next nine overs. So very England, so very predictable. Steven Finn, the former England bowler, made the astute observation on TMS that this is not so much a tactic of “mental disintegration” as much as it is “gentle disintegration”. It’s working.

Australia celebrate the wicket of Ben Stokes - PA
Australia celebrate the wicket of Ben Stokes - PA

All-or-nothing has served England perfectly well. Perfectly well, that is, if we’re describing their approach to white-ball cricket. In fact, it’s a tactic readily adopted by England’s limited-overs captain Eoin Morgan. He’s perfectly happy for his team to crash and burn in a ball of fire on occasion, and to chalk it off as a learning experience, to wipe the slate clean and start again. Only, that’s all very well when each match lasts 240 balls. But it’s an altogether different proposition when you’ve crossed the Rubicon halfway through the second session of day one and you still have another four-and-a-half days’ play to contend with.

And this, unfortunately, has been the trend throughout this series. Whether England bat or bowl first, we’ve known the way the Test was going to end before the close of play on each day one. The Barmy Army may be accustomed to playing the Great Escape while watching England abroad of late, but their increasing propensity to play it on day one? That’s a new, and alarming, trend.

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