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There is never a good time to panic. So when Joe Root sat down after chastening three-day (and one hour) defeat to a New Zealand side who had made six changes for the second Test of a two-match series and said now wasn’t the time for panicking, he was, technically, correct.
Here England are with a side purpose built over the last 18 months to take back the Ashes in Australia losing a first home series since 2014, to a New Zealand side who didn’t have to get out of third gear. With only two rounds of the County Championship scheduled between now and a five-match series against India, who by then might be crowned the best team in the world, any alternates will be chucked into an immediate sink-or-swim scenario. In that regard, ‘’panicking” isn’t really an option.
Nor, though, is the status quo. It’s hard not to look upon the last two weeks as anything more than a rude awakening for a batting line-up built on potential. And, to be fair, a degree of selectoral merit.
Rory Burns and Dom Sibley are two peerless openers on the domestic circuit who have shown themselves capable of stepping up at this level. Consistency is the next step. Ollie Pope is a talent, precocious no doubt, but Test cricket has always had room for at least one rough diamond to find their shine. Even in Dan Lawrence, whose up-and-down start to his career is typified by returning as many ducks as valuable half-centuries (three) across seven Tests so far, has shown enough to suggest a top-tier number five or six in this line-up going forward.
Except, “forward” needs to be as soon as possible. Because, well, Root is also wrong.
Panicking is a bit like that old phrase about experience: something you get right after you need it. Only with panic, there’s never a moment you look back on and wish you’d lost perspective and railed against all that you thought you knew at that point.
Yet at the same time, rarely will England have the chaotic clarity of right now. They find themselves in a moment, however scrambled it may be, where they have one last chance to reassess a batting group they have persisted with over the last few years and wonder if they are up to scratch.
Since the end of the 2019 summer, England have used 10 “full-time” batters (not including nightwatchman) in their top six. Three of those are Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, and four more of those are listed two paragraphs above . The remaining three provide some hint at the peculiarity of their current malaise.
Zak Crawley has now made it past 20 once in 12 innings. The first-class average of 32 was sold as a clerical error when he was selected. The ceiling was greater, and it felt as much when he peeled off 267 in a single Test innings against Pakistan last summer. At the other end of the spectrum is one Joe Denly, the great sacrifice of the Ed Smith era who was the “Moneyball pick” in every bastardised sense of the phrase. A blind punt dressed up as smart value when he really was anything but. Denly was essentially the stop-gap’s stop-gap: someone to stem the blood flow as English cricket happened upon its great reliable first-drop drought.
The irony is Denly and Crawley average 29 from 15 and 14 Tests respectively. The other in that group of 10, Jonny Bairstow, has an average of 34 from a mammoth 74 caps, but was trending towards that sub-30 level, which rounds off this bizarre a trois quite well. All three represent hope, expectation and comfort that England have flittered between that has led them to stasis and subsequent slide.
It is why England had coach Chris Silverwood said he would be “keeping my mind wide open”. That reverberated in the ears of county batters like a starter pistol. Dawid Malan, fresh from 199 for Yorkshire against Sussex a fortnight ago, is the most likely beneficiary. But it speaks volumes that a man who last played in August 2018 may be drafted in at short notice to face India, the same opposition that seemingly “finished” his Test career.
Another factor to consider is how domestic batsmanship seems to be in the midst of one of its great reckonings. The way things were done has never been further away from the way things are now. Off stump guards, too much trigger movement, not enough. It is never easy being a batter in English conditions, least of all an English one.
The counterpoints are in a Blackcaps replete with honed methods and relatively divine patience. Devon Conway, Henry Nicholls and Will Young are three in particular who showed their worth through excelling at the conventional alignment shoulders, straight swings and regular leaves. Basics that lead to success over here.
Much has been made of English cricketers and their previous social media utterings. But the real cultural debate is happening out in the middle.
Old school and new school are meeting head on, and a battle that started in the commentary box is filtering through into the upper echelons of the England set-up. The prevailing sense is that a change of tact when assessing domestic talent on “how many” rather than “how” is about to switch back.
As such, it feels a little harder to see the wood for the trees. Of what is right and wrong, and whether this immediate wrong needs be immediately righted. Is the talent actually out there? Does the system need a shake-up? All familiar questions after such a defeat.
As much as being bested by a New Zealand side who have a fraction of the resources and personnel stings, maybe this is just how it goes. And that, as Root says, now is not the time to panic. But maybe to accept that, really, this is the best England have.