Alarms, but no surprises as England sleepwalk to a familiar defeat

You’re not surprised, are you?

You’re not surprised that an attack that couldn’t dismiss Steve Smith in the last Ashes can’t dismiss him now. And you’re not surprised that a side that has now failed to make 250 seven times in 11 innings cannot bat through an entire day. You’re not surprised that a man chosen to open in Test cricket on the basis of his aggressive batting in one-day cricket was dismissed trying to hit his way out of trouble. And you’re not surprised that a man who averages 64.65 with the ball against this opposition could not bowl them out.

The most depressing aspect of this performance, from an England perspective, is that so little of it was surprising. From their batsmen struggling against spin to their bowlers struggling against Smith, the fact is an Australia side with a flawed top-order defeated them at their ‘fortress’ by a crushing margin. Apart from the noise of Australian supporters crowing at Edgbaston at the end of the match – and why wouldn’t they; they’d been goaded for several days – the other noise, figuratively at least, was the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

For England were punished here for their prioritisation of limited-overs cricket, their over-emphasis on aggression as the preferred method with the bat and a long-standing weakness in both bowling and playing spin. And if you don’t produce such bowling at domestic level, you hardly give your developing batsmen a chance to learn to play it. But you know this already. Everyone knows it.

England were, to some extent, unfortunate at Edgbaston. Losing James Anderson within the first half-hour of the game was a significant blow. Had he been available it would, at least, have been more difficult for Australia to recover from 122 for 8 on the first day.

But Anderson’s injury doesn’t excuse their batsmen. And the fact is England now have a long and grim record of struggling with the bat. This is a team that, this year, has been bowled out for 77 by West Indies, for 85 by Ireland and for 132, 187 and now 146 at other times. There should be nothing surprising in another failure with the bat.

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It is a long time since a batsman – a specialist batsman, anyway – has come into the England Test side and shone. Gary Ballance promised to do so for a while but then fell away. Meaning that Joe Root, who made his debut in 2012, is the last to do so. While such a judgement may seem harsh on Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes, the reality is they average 34.56, 35.70 and 33.76 respectively. By the high standards of Test cricket, that is modest. And it doesn’t reflect at all well on the coaching systems or pathways.

The mentality and vocabulary of English cricket has been lacking for several years. So while Smith has shown the value of grafting and determination, England continue to talk of “putting the pressure” back on the bowler by hitting them off their lengths or out of the attack. So Jason Roy deserves little criticism for his dismissal, as ugly as it looked, as he was batting in the style for which he was selected. Asking him to fulfil such a specialist position as opening batsman is recklessly optimistic.

Consider Joe Denly‘s innings here. He was beaten by his first two balls from Nathan Lyon; the first resulting in an appeal for a caught behind down the leg-side and the second seeing the ball squeeze between bat and pad and just miss the stumps.

And how did Denly respond? He swept the next two balls for four. They were fine shots, too, and Edgbaston applauded them. But Australia knew they had their man. They knew he was sweeping because he couldn’t defend and, within a few minutes, he was gone. For the grim truth is that England have produced a generation of batsmen that don’t appear to trust their defensive techniques. Think of Ben Duckett struggling against spin or Keaton Jennings reverse-sweeping because he reasoned it was safer than defending. None of this is new; none of it is a surprise.

But it’s not just technical. Smith is probably not – at least in terms of hand-eye coordination – any more talented than Buttler or Root. But he seems to value his wicket more dearly. He seems to understand that pressure can be put on the opposition simply by keeping them in the field for session after session. And he seems to find a little more determination as a result. It looked here, as it did in Brisbane, as if Smith wanted it more than anyone else on either side. That, combined with his talent, is a strong combination.

England had hoped that the usage of a specific Dukes ball – the 2018 version utilised with such success in last summer’s Test series against India – would act as a leveller. In particular, they hoped it would assist their fast-medium bowlers on easy-paced pitches.

The evidence to date suggests it will not do so. While there was seam movement for both attacks, there was little swing. And if England cannot get the ball to swing, their attack – at least the attack that played here – is out-gunned by their Australian counterparts. For the uncomfortable reality of the situation is that on quick, on flat, or on turning surfaces, Australia appear to have the stronger game. Hoping to utilise a specific ball tailored to their strengths was a reasonable ploy from England, but it was only ever going to mask the inherent weaknesses within their game.

If they really want to improve, they have to mend the domestic structure that has hindered the development of fast and spin bowlers and, as a consequence, hindered the development of batsmen. It is telling that the two leading wicket-takers in Division One of the County Championship are overseas (or Kolpak) spinners. In all, six of the top 10 leading wicket-takers in that division are overseas (or Kolpak) players; it does not reflect well on a domestic system that has been allowed to suffer for short-term commercial interests.

Two changes seem likely ahead of Lord’s. Jofra Archer will, fitness permitting, come into the side for the injured James Anderson and Jack Leach will, almost certainly, come into the side in place of Moeen Ali. If Archer is unfit, Olly Stone may be the replacement instead.

But it would be a surprise if England made more than two changes. Not because they shouldn’t, but because they will be concerned it would hint at panic. And panic won’t help anything.

But some sense of urgency might. And the selectors need to reflect on Denly’s performance here and ask whether he is really likely to score the weight of runs required to shape a series at No. 4. Equally, they may reflect on Roy’s performance as an opener and ask themselves whether that is the best place for him to bat. And they may ask themselves how they can find a place for Sam Curran in this side.

There may also be some concern about Bairstow, who has now scored 30 runs in his last six Test innings, and Buttler, who has one century from 32 Tests. But Bairstow has earned some leeway with previous performances and Buttler scored two half-centuries in the previous Test. Nobody will admit it, either – there is no mileage in looking for excuses – but a few of this team are still coming to terms with the emotional hangover from their World Cup exertions. It may well pay to be patient with them.

And there is hope. Archer will add an edge to England’s attack and, in Buttler and Stokes and Root et al., there is enough talent to damage most attacks. But cracks are appearing up and down this England side and it feels, for perhaps the first time, as if instead of building toward something, they are starting to crumble and fall apart. Nothing that happened at Edgbaston was a surprise. And that should worry England.

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