1) Are England a force again?
The signs are good but we can’t yet be sure, because the South Africa and Sri Lanka sides England have beaten are not, to borrow a footballing phrase , “in a good moment”. Still, winning five straight Tests away from home cannot happen by mistake and, along with the home victories over West Indies and Pakistan, give reason to believe that something is building.
In two of these series and various of these matches, England have had to come from behind, so there are obvious areas for improvement. But Test matches last five days with undulations and fluctuations part of their nature – while getting repeatedly battered by 80s West Indies and 90s Australia, England still had their moments. So what is telling is not that they have had to reverse the flow but that they are able to reverse the flow, no longer hoping to win but expecting to win – even when missing players as important as Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Rory Burns.
There now exists the expectation that when things need dealing with, someone will assume the responsibility mentality which bespeaks a happy, balanced team that believes in what it is doing. There is plenty of improving still to be done, but the direction of travel is clear.
2) Is Joe Root good again?
Of course he is, because of course he always was. But not that long ago, Root was routinely discussed alongside Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson as a prospective great, only to be left behind. There is no shame in not being as good as such epochal geniuses but there is frustration, because the distinguishing factor is not one of skill – you do not fail to convert half-centuries into centuries because the bowling side suddenly find you out when you pass 50. Rather, there are other factors at play, particularly the ravages of leading a losing side.
A team constantly fielding for long periods and batting for short periods will inevitably take a mental and physical toll on a captain who comes in at four, all the more so if he is forced up the order to three behind a sketchy opening partnership. Now, though, things have changed – the top order is better, the bowling is threatening, and the stress of selection concerns which quality players to leave out, so it is no surprise to see Root in such fine form, especially after time at home.
Batting is an art best performed when calm, and Root sounds like someone who has rediscovered himself, finding equilibrium in the process. When at his best, there is a destructive serenity about his work that is equal parts relaxing and exhilarating, and it was moving to hear how reverentially his teammates discussed the inspirational, educational joy of watching him thrive.
The most important aspect of leadership is performance, and in that aspect Kohli, Smith and Williamson are touchstones, who all boast significantly better averages when in charge than when in the ranks. For the first time in a long time, Root looks ready to join them.
3) Do England have reliable spinners?
Who knows? Sri Lanka did not fold in the first innings of the first Test and third innings of the second Test because they were bamboozled by the devastating origami of Dom Bess and Jack Leach, but the pair certainly accentuated the creases, so it is possible to be cautiously positive; both came on tour already under pressure, and when their team needed them to deliver, they did.
Without the former’s Sunday Bess batting, England would have conceded a substantial first-innings lead that would likely have settled the match while tying the series, and no less a maven than Kumar Sangakkara surmised that he and Leach “bowled enough balls in the areas that matter” to turn the contest. Unless they also bowl few enough balls in the areas that don’t matter, that won’t be enough to challenge India, but theyhave played just 12 Tests each, are still improving, and will be competing for selection with Moeen Ali. It’s not a perfect state of affairs, but it’s a slightly better one than it was.
4) Can England pick Broad and Anderson together?
When I moved in with my girlfriend, now wife, I was faced with a smorgasbord of new Indian takeaways. Naturally, she directed me to the best dish at the best place – lamb dhansak, madras hot, at the late lamented Neyas now that you ask – but I still couldn’t help myself, trying all the things I thought I might like more in all the places I thought I might like them more, before slinking back to where I started.
So it is with England quicks. It’s easy to think particular conditions demand particular styles, but there is no style more effective than ludicrous, hilarious and enduring brilliance. As such, England’s starting point should not be Broad or Anderson but Broad and Anderson, and though there may be reasons to deviate from them, the burden of proof should be upon those reasons rather than upon players who are not just in the form of their lives but in the form of English cricket’s life.
5) Will England beat India in India?
After their rabid and affirming win in Australia, the hosts will be feeling invincible and with good reason. But they are not and England, nicely settled into subcontinental conditions, have momentum, too. They’ve already had some luck with Ravindra Jadeja’s injury and need more from the four tosses, amusing though it would be to watch them take last dig on a raging Bunsen. Most likely, India in India are too much at this point, but if England can bat first and score heavily – a task that ought not to be beyond them – the introduction to their attack of SB Pressure might just compensate for the absent WC Spinner.