England's young guns learning on the job speaks to a systematic failing

Andy Bull
·5-min read

There was a weary inevitability about the last day of the series. England 10 for one, 10 for two, 20 for three, 30 for four, the wickets dropping like tired eyelids, loss washing over them like sleep falling on an exhausted man.

It leaves their winter split neatly in two: three handsome victories – two in Sri Lanka by seven wickets and then six wickets, and one in India by 227 runs – followed by three ugly defeats by 317 runs, 10 wickets and an innings and 25 runs.

Related: England fall apart again as spinners wrap up innings win and series for India

Joe Root argued insistently that the bad should not eclipse the good, like Sri Lanka’s Akila Dananjaya talking up the hat-trick he took in a T20 against the West Indies on Wednesday at the expense of Kieron Pollard hitting him for six sixes in his next over.

“We have to look at the winter as a whole,” Root said. “There have been three very good performances when the ball has spun and we’ve dealt with it better.” All of them are coloured by the three very poor performances when it spun more and they did not.

The watershed coincided with the turn in Root’s form, from 684 runs at an average of 114 in his first half-dozen innings to 110 at an average of 18 in the second. While he was quick to say he was disappointed he had not been able to carry on like in those first three matches, the real problem was that England’s fortunes were bound so tightly to him.

Without Root, there was not a lot left to fall back on. After he was dismissed in the first innings of the first Test, England’s batsmen made three fifties in 82 innings: one from Ben Stokes, one from Zak Crawley and one, at the very dog end, from Dan Lawrence, the last man out in this final innings.

None of them managed to press on past 55. Worse, the team did not manage a fifty partnership in those seven innings, the best being the 48 Stokes put on with Jonny Bairstow on the first day of this Test. In that same time, India made 10 fifty-plus scores, three of them hundreds and shared eight half-century stands.

The series turned into one long vivisection of England’s batting, their techniques clinically dissected by Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel, who took 59 wickets between them at a cost of 12 runs apiece.

Which brings us around to England’s other glaring weakness, the lack of a spinner to back up Jack Leach, who proved himself a tough, artful and cunning bowler. He finished the series with 18 wickets but he does not have a central contract or the voluble support of his captain. Root was asked whether Leach had earned the right to be considered the first-choice spinner and said instead that, as well as he had bowled, it was a question to ask again at the start of the summer.

England’s Jack Leach, left, finished the series with 18 wickets.
England’s Jack Leach, left, finished the series with 18 wickets. Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP

Leach played his part. So did a lot of the senior players. Root and Jimmy Anderson were superb. Stokes, not at his best with the bat, still gave everything and played a characteristically heroic turn in this match. Moeen Ali, who has drifted into the fringes of the squad, played well in his only game, which was more than Stuart Broad did in the one game they gave him this series.

Broad had bowled so very well in Sri Lanka, but the rotation policy England used in India did not benefit him, any more than the rest policy worked out for Bairstow. He left his form somewhere back in Yorkshire. It has been two and a half years since Bairstow made his last Test century and after the way he played in the last two Tests he may not get another chance.

Square them up with India’s senior players and they do not lose too much in the comparison. Ashwin and Rohit Sharma aside, India’s old hands did not get on so well themselves: Virat Kohli finished with 172 runs, Cheteshawar Pujara 133 and Ajinkya Rahane 112.

Related: 'Not a perfect scenario': Root regrets rotation but admits it may continue

That meant the sharpest contrast was between the young players. Kohli was able to talk in glowing terms about how pleased he was with Patel, Washington Sundar and Mohammed Siraj, who have played 12 Tests between them, as well as Rishabh Pant, who has played 20 and is just beginning to blossom into the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world.

Root, on the other hand, was left explaining how much his young players have to learn. There were signs that they are. Ollie Pope, who seems to have been given tenure at No 6, started to get his feet moving as the tour went on. Lawrence, given a second chance at No 7, showed plenty in his two innings in this Test that was hidden when he was at No 3 earlier in the series.

Dom Sibley made strides after having such a torrid time in Sri Lanka. But that they, and Bess and Crawley, are doing so much learning on the job speaks to a systemic failing in English cricket.

Root touched on that. He said the problem is we need to encourage more draws in the County Championship so that young batsmen have more experience playing long innings under scoreboard pressure.

That is an interesting theory, one the clever clogs at the ECB can mull over while they are enjoying the Hundred.