The England team in 2016 promised plenty – and, at Test level, delivered rather less. By the end of their 4–0 defeat in India in December, they were fifth in the Test rankings, precisely where they had been after winning in South Africa in January. From there, a gruelling schedule of 14 games in seven months had simply taken them back to the beginning. For one of the best-resourced sides in the world, it felt like money poorly spent.
Above all, England failed to build on the gains of 2015, when their fearlessness made them the most watchable team in the world. It was no coincidence that their best cricket had come against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, three sides cut from the same cultural cloth, full of bouncers, machismo and token spinners. But in 2016 England faced the subtler flavours of the east, of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, then Bangladesh and India.
This kind of menu used to be regarded as a trial, as if England’s players were obliged to grin and bear another prawn dhansak before returning to the comforts of meat and two veg. Yet weren’t countless expensive training camps in Asia for age-group teams and Lions squads supposed to have attuned the tastebuds?
Of those four series, England won only one – Sri Lanka at home, among the easiest assignments in the world game now their batting stars have retired. They drew with Pakistan – a result put into perspective when the Pakistanis were whitewashed in New Zealand and Australia. England became the first major side to lose a Test to Bangladesh; and, for the first time, they lost four in a series to India. Too often, they played as if they had failed to absorb the change in opponent, conditions or tempo.
In 2013, these pages were not alone in warning that England would struggle to win again in India if they failed to address their spin-bowling crisis, camouflaged for a while by Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. But the attack they took to South Asia was a reminder of the priorities of a county game that has taken far too long to accept the folly of preparing greentops for medium-pacers.
The forward-thinking experiment to allow visiting captains the chance to bowl first in the Championship has already helped flatten pitches and encourage spinners. But the benefits will not be immediate. In India, while Adil Rashid exceeded expectations with 23 wickets, four other frontline slow bowlers managed 15 between them at 67, and leaked almost 3.5 an over.
Confusion over England’s best spin-bowling line-up spread. Hell-bent on getting the most out of their quicker bowlers, they rested and rotated them into virtual irrelevance.
England’s brightest light came in the batting. At Rajkot, Haseeb Hameed brought to mind the debuts made by England’s three batting giants of the last ten years: Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook and Joe Root. He could end up with more Test runs than any of them. And he deserved better than to begin his career with England’s most hopeless performance since the 2013-14 Ashes. With one or two exceptions, the time for this team to be talking about potential is over.
Cook's time was up
On a cold, sunny February morning, Alastair Cook walked into a cramped hospitality box at Lord’s and cheerfully apologised for disturbing journalists on what he imagined was a day off. He didn’t look like a man relieved to have shed the burdens of office – not quite. Then again, he didn’t look especially devastated either. But of one thing he was certain: after 59 Tests in charge, more than any England captain, his time was up.
By his own admission, England’s Test cricket had stagnated. This was partly a result of being lumbered with seven matches in less than nine weeks in Bangladesh and India, a touring schedule that must never be repeated. But the two meltdowns during his reign – Australia 2013-14 and India 2016-17 – reflected an abiding weakness.
Lacking the tactical acumen to influence a game on its own, Cook was half the leader when he wasn’t scoring runs. That his team lost only four of his 17 Test series in charge was testament to a very English grit: understated, occasionally self-conscious, always bloody-minded. It proved an exhausting combination.
How the Championship was brought into disrepute
In St John’s Wood in late September, two of domestic cricket’s most celebrated sides took the County Championship title to the wire. It needed a hat-trick from Toby Roland-Jones for Middlesex to pip Yorkshire – and Somerset, watching helplessly in the West Country. Even the tabloids took an interest.
But what Lord’s giveth, it taketh away. Ten days after this good-news finale, it was announced that Durham – who had finished fourth – had been bailed out of financial strife by the ECB, but punished with relegation, a points deduction, and various other sanctions, not all suggesting even-handedness.
Up in the North-East, they may have wondered whether the historians had a point. Expecting flak, the ECB depicted their ruling as the saviour of cricket in the region, and as a warning to others. The truth was somewhere in the middle: Durham had been reckless, the board draconian.
Yet serious questions demanded answers. When, for instance, had Durham’s relegation been decided? A leak from a meeting suggested the board knew in May, though they deny this. But the possibility of relegation – and all involved must have known it was a possibility – was not conveyed to Durham’s players. They deserved to know.
In September, believing they were fighting for their first-division lives, Durham fielded fast bowler Mark Wood against Surrey; Wood aggravated an ankle injury, and was ruled out of England’s winter tours, when his skiddy pace might have come in handy.
Not only that, but other teams threw everything into avoiding a relegation which was 50% less likely than they realised. It would have been better to come clean about Durham’s fate at the time. Instead, with games taking place which some officials appeared to know would be meaningless, the County Championship was brought into disrepute.
Why cricket needs terrestrial TV
Channel 5’s bold decision to give Saturday-morning airtime to Australia’s 2016-17 Big Bash League made some resounding points, none of them a pat on the back for the English game. They ensured the presence of live cricket on one of the UK’s major free-to-air channels for the first time since the 2005 Ashes, when older readers may recall the sport felt like a national event.
British fans who couldn’t afford a satellite subscription thus had to rely on overseas matches for their fix. And, in the razzle-dazzle stakes, the Big Bash has left its English counterpart for dead. We knew this already, but live TV has a way of nailing the point.
While Colin Graves’s eve-of-tournament description in May of the NatWest T20 Blast as “mediocre” had hints of Gerald Ratner and his crap jewellery, he was also on to something. Would an Australian broadcaster have done a Channel 5 in reverse and pay for the privilege of televising it? The answer is an unambiguous no.
An English city-based 20-over tournament will probably be with us in 2020, but it would have been sooner had the counties not argued over the details. It is a delay our game can barely afford, not least because part of the new competition’s allure will be free-to-air coverage. The sport needs viewers as much as it needs cash and coaches. Why else are the ECB pushing for terrestrial coverage in 2020? It’s a nice idea. Here’s hoping it’s not too late.
This is an edited extract, see Wisden for the full article.
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2017 is edited by Lawrence Booth and published by Bloomsbury (£50). To order your copy for £44.99 with free p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk