Two things that worked for the English side in limited overs cricket were consistency in selection and the style of game.
On July 6, when Alistair Cook walked out to the crease, he was accompanied by his 11th opening partner since Andrew Strauss decided to hang his boots. This is something that one associates with a side like Pakistan, where a player after a lean patch is banished for years.
Some of these 11 men have either retired from International cricket (IJL Trott) or have established their batting positions in the order (Joe Root, Moeen Ali), while the packed limited over fixtures and the rise of domestic leagues might elude Test cricket from some (Hales).
That leaves us with Nick Compton, Michael Carberry, Sam Robson, Adam Lyth, Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed and the latest addition Keaton Jennings.
Let’s rewind a little and go back to 2015 World Cup.
England had a miserable outing Down Under during the World Cup 2015. Their newly appointed captain Eoin Morgan following the sacking of Alistair Cook just before the World Cup didn’t help the cause either. England’s only two wins came against Scotland and Afghanistan – with forgettable outings against Bangladesh and New Zealand.
But since then, England transformed themselves into a formidable team that were hot favourites for the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 – with England’s win/loss ratio being the highest among the top-eight teams.
Two things that worked for the English side in limited overs cricket were consistency in selection and the style of game – even if that meant dropping senior players. And it delivered.
Now, back to the Test team. England didn’t have much of a lean patch in the longest format per say either. But the winning results for England have come from the big guns including the likes of Root, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Anderson and Broad. The newcomers have failed to leave a mark. The opening spot and the players in the middle order have failed to deliver – with opening and number three spot especially coming under scrutiny now that the skipper Joe Root is likely to stay at 4.
Cook’s current partner got a go in India following the Haseeb Hameed was ruled out due to an injury. Jennings scored a century on debut but got out for nought in the second innings before scoring 1 and 54 in the next game. Both Hameed and Jennings have struggled in the county season, but Jennings edged out Hameed on the basis of his scores for England Lions.
Gary Balance, who has only crossed 50 mark twice in last 25 Test innings, was included in the squad due to his county form where he scored 815 runs at an average of 101 with three 100s and four half-centuries. But he failed to translate that form in the first two Tests of 2017 English summer, returning with 85 runs in 4 innings at 21.25.
All this culminates to one question: what is the selection policy? If it were the domestic form as justified with Ballance’s selection, then the likes of Rory Burns and Mark Stoneman were worthy candidates. And if it’s not, then Hameed deserved another go, leaving aside the current form.
The other aspect that has come under discussion is the lack of application emphasised by the former English players. While there needs to be a balanced aggression in Test cricket, getting into a hole in difficult situations – departing from normal approach – rarely delivers results. Moreover, with Root only two games under his belt as captain, the focus should be on tightening the loose ends in the lineup rather than altering the approach; when the same delivered a massive win in the first game. A radical change in strategy is the last thing a new captain would want for a smooth transition.
Although the selectors will be forced to announce Ballance’s replacement due to the finger injury, there needs to be a consistent approach for selection. Among those who have played the Test cricket alongside Cook in past five years, only Sam Robson and Ben Duckett merit a claim for selection for the opening spot with averages of 59.33 and 40.41 respectively. On the other hand, the likes of Rory Burns, Mark Stoneman, Alex Davies and Nick Browne are also the strongest candidates based on season’s numbers.
It is not about just one series. The selectors will need to think long term, with a consistent strategy. With a change in guard in the leadership, England needs a stabilising approach that gives Root the leverage to settle in without any expense of his form. While the ODI strategy may not apply to the Test cricket, castrating the approach towards the game will not either.
The writer tweets @khaledumair