England vs New Zealand: Top order must start delivering if long tail is not to be exposed

·4-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It was against New Zealand in 1999 that England unveiled the infamous, and now iconic, tail of Andy Caddick (Test average 10), Alan Mullally (5.5), Phil Tufnell (5) and Ed Giddins (2.5).

The move coincided with a low ebb for English cricket at the end of a fraught decade, with defeat in a decider at The Oval securing their status as the bottom-ranked Test side. Nasser Hussain, the captain, was booed by his own fans.

There will be at least one change for England's XI for this week's series decider at Edgbaston, and the early signs suggest that it will leave them with, arguably, their longest tail since the Diplodocus of '99.

Ollie Robinson has left the building after a remarkable debut which sees him with a Test average of 42 with the bat and 14 with the ball, yet an uncertain future. It is right that he sits out while an investigation takes place, but he will be back when he has proved that he is not the same man — and he was a man, albeit a young one — who sent those tweets.

It is early days, but the signs are promising; he has been contrite, publicly and privately. Chris Silverwood, England's coach and the man who broke the news to Robinson of what had been going on off the field during his first day as a Test cricketer, described him as "devastated, embarrassed and very remorseful". A period of reflection, considerable further education and some work with relevant cricket charities can see him resume what should be a fruitful international career, possibly even later this summer.

As a powerful seamer who can bat, Craig Overton is the natural like-for-like replacement for Robinson. He has been in spectacular form for Somerset and may yet play, but he comes with baggage in the form of a racism allegation.

England seem to think that at Edgbaston, like-for-like is not what is required. The absence of Ben Stokes's side-balancing qualities meant that at Lord's they went without Jack Leach, their first-choice spinner. They got away with this, because they lost the toss and a day to rain.

Leach should play at Edgbaston, where spin is expected to play a greater part. Leach had the sort of winter that should have earned him a long run in the side, only for others' absence to intervene, continuing the stop-start theme of his Test career. The call-up of Dom Bess as cover — for an injury before the game, or concussion or Covid-19 during it — suggests that England are planning to play Leach.

England will also want a genuine fast bowler, after Mark Wood provided a reminder of their value at Lord's. A rest for Wood seems sensible, to keep him fresh for looming challenges, because the time is right to give Olly Stone a game on his home ground.

The downside is the length of that tail. Leach has created iconic moments with the bat for England, but a No8 he is not. Stone has a first-class average of 15, while Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson belong at No10 and 11.

England should not fear this; the answer is for the top seven to do their job.

Yesterday's 'chase' — or block-out — has attracted attention because of its perceived lack of ambition. And while it would be lovely if England had the experience and dynamism in their top three to have made a good fist of it, they do not. A pragmatic approach served them much better; indeed, few of those criticising England would have spared them had they collapsed in a heap going for an unlikely victory after being dominated for much of the match. It was not a thing of beauty — it rarely is when Dom Sibley faces 200 balls — but it was pragmatic.

Far more worrying was the first innings when, besides Rory Burns and to a lesser extent Joe Root, the batters put in an extremely worrying performance that was only partially bailed out by Robinson's 42 from No8. Three of them made ducks, two got out to predictable lbws, two got out to predictable, impotent slashes outside off-stump (Zak Crawley repeated the trick in the second innings) and James Bracey, on debut, was bowled far too easily. As Silverwood said: "We showed a lack of discipline at times with shot management and we paid the price for that."

There is mitigation. Sibley is the oldest and most experienced, at 25 with 19 caps, of this young group.

"The only way we get experience is by playing," said Silverwood. "The one thing Covid has given me is time with them, living in the bubble, watching them, talking to them, seeing them train. I know there's a lot of talent there."

Two of the group will lose their places when Stokes and Jos Buttler return against India in August. With a long tail beneath them and a series on the line, Edgbaston is the perfect moment for England's talented tyros to stand up.

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