George Dobell, in ESPNcricinfo, August 2019 where the title runs “Dobell: Four problems England must fix”
With the first Ashes Test delicately poised after three days and the in-form Steven Smith 46 not out in his second innings following his first-innings century, England have four issues requiring immediate attention. George Dobell delves into what the hosts need to do now.
Moeen Ali: Sunday feels like a big day for Moeen. On a pitch offering substantial assistance to spin bowlers, he is the man England will rely upon in the hope of bowling out Australia.
The evidence of Saturday was mixed. He claimed an early wicket – Cameron Bancroft turned one into the hands of short-leg – and should have had another had Jos Buttler held on to a low edge offered by Usman Khawaja in the slips. But the chance went down and Moeen subsequently struggled to maintain the right lines and lengths – a tough task against a batsman as good and as unorthodox as Steve Smith – and leaked more than five-an-over. Ominously for him, Joe Root bowled three overs himself and was about to turn to Joe Denly when bad light and then rain came to end play for the day. It felt as if he had lost a bit of confidence – and, perhaps, patience – in Moeen. The contrast with Nathan Lyon, who conceded 2.55 an over and beat the bat numerous times, was not flattering.
It seems, in many ways, incredible that Moeen should be under any pressure. He is the top wicket-taker in the world in Test cricket since August 1, 2018 – he has taken 47 wickets in that period at a cost of 24.04 apiece – after all and he was England’s leading wicket-taker on both their winter tours. His career strike-rate – a wicket every 60.2 balls in Test cricket – is better than Jim Laker’s (62.3) and almost identical to Graeme Swann’s (60.1).
But with his batting form having disintegrated – he has made four ducks in his last eight Test innings and is averaging 15.40 since December 10, 2017; his ‘shot’ on Sunday was ugly – he needs to deliver with the ball if he is see off the challenge of Jack Leach. And while Leach’s best deliveries may not fizz and dip quite as much as Moeen’s, he can, perhaps, be relied upon to build pressure more readily by maintaining a tight line and length.
It feels, at present, as if the spark of confidence has gone out in Moeen. And bowling to a batsman as good and as hungry as Smith in such a mind-set is fiendishly tough. But England need him to deliver on Sunday. And if his career is to be extended, he may need it, too.
Another man whose form with the bat, at least in Test cricket, has disintegrated. Bairstow now averages 23.68 in Tests since the start of the 2018 English season. He has passed 30 twice in his last 16 Test innings – a run that includes five ducks – and, having made it clear he would rather bat down the order, really needs to deliver to justify the faith shown in him. His dismissal here – a footless waft which resulted in an edge to slip – was not pretty.
To be fair to Bairstow, he has been shunted around the order in recent times – he has batted in four different positions in his last five Test innings – and even been left out of the side briefly in Sri Lanka. As a result, he may not feel quite as comfortable as might be the case. Technical faults magnified by batting up the order may have eaten away at his confidence, while changes made to improve his white-ball game – not least giving himself room to hit through the off-side – may also have become faults in a format of the game where the ball offers the bowlers more lateral movement.
Ultimately, though, there can be few excuses. Bairstow’s propensity to be bowled – 29 percent of his Test innings have ended in such a manner; the fifth highest ratio in history among regular players – suggests a technical fault, as does the fact that the percentage has risen to 40 percent over the last couple of years. The global average is 18 percent.
The encouraging thing, from England’s perspective, is that Bairstow seems to perform at his best when doubted and under pressure. With Ben Foakes – man of the series in Sri Lanka, remember – biting at his ankles, however, Bairstow can ill afford a prolonged run of poor form. Foakes is, without much doubt, the better keeper. And while he probably cannot match the peaks of form that Bairstow has managed at times with the bat – between December 2015 and October 2016, he averaged 71.23 in Test cricket with three centuries and six half-centuries in 20 innings – he does average over 40 in Test cricket and showed himself calm and capable enough to win player of the match awards on both his Test and ODI debuts.
In the longer-term, it may be worth reflecting on why the form of Bairstow and Moeen has deteriorated so badly in the England environment and why the coaching staff are apparently unable to arrest the decline. The reasons are probably multiple and complex – the predominance of white-ball cricket, a lack of red-ball cricket and a lack of time or interest in technical coaching – but they may need attention if England are to prosper in the World Test Championship.
Put simply, it seems England don’t have any idea how to dismiss Smith. From August 20, 2015, he averages 145.71 against them in seven Tests. Over a longer period – from August 20, 2013, he averages 77.37 against them in 17 Tests. The way things are progressing, he looks to be the difference between the sides.
There’s no faulting England’s efforts. They have experimented with their lines, their lengths and their fields going back to the Brisbane Test in the last Ashes. Smith seems to have an answer for everything. And while there are times England seem able to slow his progress, he is so determined he will endure long periods of slow scoring in the knowledge that he will eventually exhaust the bowlers and feast upon their decaying carcasses.
England had hoped the Dukes ball or seaming wickets would help them stop Smith. But the relatively slow nature of the Edgbaston surface has allowed Smith the time to adapt to the seam movement and, to date, the Dukes ball has not swung as anticipated. It is also possible that James Anderson or even Jofra Archer might have had more success against Smith. But England won’t want to play on much quicker surfaces as it may encourage the Australian seamers.
It was a point acknowledged by Chris Woakes after play on Saturday. “He’s obviously a world-class player and we’ve got to find a way to get him out,” Woakes said. “On this surface, in particular, it’s hard to force the issue as a bowler. The pace has gone out of the pitch so you almost have to build pressure maybe attack at the other end and hold at the other. But Steve doesn’t make too many mistakes.” All of which sounds ominously like ‘we’ll just try and get everyone else out and leave him stranded.’
Anderson’s loss is a body blow to England’s hopes. He has been, by a distance, England’s best seamer over much of the last decade and gave every indication of improving with age. The choice of the brand of Dukes ball in use in this series was made, in part, on the basis of what he could do with it and, for all the effort and ability of Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes, neither would claim to have the skills of the leading wicket-taker among seam bowlers in Test history.
While it would be premature to rule Anderson out of the entire series – he bowled both before play and at lunch on Saturday, after all – there does seem every chance he is set for a lay-off that could keep him out of much of the series. The results of the scan on his calf are expected in the next day or two, but Root would have loved to call upon him at Edgbaston on Saturday and Sunday. The fact that Mark Wood is already ruled out for the entire series compounds England’s problems.
There is, at least, help to hand in the shape of Archer. But for all his talent and potential, it is asking a huge amount of him to expect him to come straight into an Ashes series and replace England’s leading wicket-taker in Test history. As England were always sure to find out eventually, there is no replacing Anderson.