England’s orgy of World Cup backslapping distracts from Test malaise

Maybe the timing was simply unfortunate, but supporters of England’s Test team could have been forgiven for scratching their heads in bewilderment earlier this week.

For just around the time that England were being bowled out for 181 in their first innings in Centurion – the fifth time in 12 first innings they have failed to reach 200 this year – news came through that Colin Graves, the ECB chairman, had been awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours.

Graves, to be fair, deserves some credit for the World Cup triumph. He was involved in the decision to prioritise white-ball cricket and the decision to shake up the coaching set-up. It’s completely reasonable to recognise and reward that.

But if he deserves credit for that, he also needs to take some responsibility for the decline in England’s first-class system. And as England slipped to another Test defeat – their sixth in a year that has included just four victories – the poverty of their red-ball game was betrayed once more. It is increasingly hard to deny the assertion that England’s limited-overs progress has been made at the expense of their Test form.

This is, you may recall, the first time this century that England have finished a year without a Test series victory. And as the Test year ends just as it started, with a resounding defeat at the hands of a rival who would dearly love the resources England enjoy, it becomes ever harder to sustain the argument that England are a good team on a tough run. If something keeps happening, it’s not an aberration. It’s reality.

The truth is, England are a modest Test team in decline. Players who should have reaching their peak around now – Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Jos Buttler to name but three – are in danger of being washed away. The generation who might have been pushing for their places – Haseeb Hameed, Ben Duckett and James Vince – have not progressed as anticipated, and there is such a dearth of spin-bowling talent, that England are about to take a punt on one of two men who is far from sure of selection in their first-choice county side. It really is quite a mess.

There is a bright side to all this. Just as it took the rock bottom of the 2015 World Cup to realise that change was necessary in England’s limited-overs cricket, so we are coming to a time when England may be humiliated into acknowledging the extent of their problems in Test cricket. They’re really not very good at it. The sooner that is realised, the sooner change will be embraced. A lowly finish in the World Test Championship might provide just such a wake-up call.

And what will that change look like? It will see Championship cricket – two- or three-division Championship cricket involving promotion and relegation – played throughout the season. It will see the white-ball window closed and red-ball cricket played in conditions where fast bowlers and spinners are necessary.

It will see wickets prepared which better reflect the Test game – hybrid wickets prepared by centrally contracted groundsmen, if necessary – and it will see, in general terms, the domestic first-class competition nurtured and valued and protected. If the Championship is strong, with intense, high-quality, consequence-laden cricket, the strength of the Test team will follow.

We should know this already. The England side that rose to No. 1 in the world rankings included four men who scored centuries on Test debut (Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior), two more (Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell) who made half-centuries, one who claimed a five-wicket haul (James Anderson) and one who claimed two wickets in his first over (Graeme Swann). All of them were developed in a county system described by Justin Langer as every bit as tough as any in which he played.

“If England, Australia and India allow Test cricket to wither in other regions, the format will follow”

Somewhere along the way – perhaps when it was decided broadcasters wanted a white-ball window; perhaps when it was decided the Championship was the competition that could be compromised to provide the best pitches for white-ball cricket; perhaps when we started to allow players to disappear to other leagues when they should be involved in domestic cricket – we diluted that system. And Graves and co. are as responsible for those incremental steps just as much as they are responsible for the World Cup success.

Not all the blame for such performances can be put at the door of administrators, though. While captain and coach defended the decision to insert South Africa on the first day, the fact is that batting became substantially more difficult on the fourth day as the bounce became increasingly uneven. So while it’s true that England’s bowlers – who were, you will recall, returning from illness and injury – didn’t take full advantage of conditions, it was always a high-risk policy to bat last on a surface with a reputation for deterioration.

So while England’s bowlers will reflect that there were periods – particularly on the third morning – where they could have retained their lengths and composure somewhat better, they did, for only the second time in six away Tests, claim 20 wickets.

England’s batting is probably even more of a concern. In the first innings they suffered a collapse in which they lost seven wickets for 39 runs; in the second a collapse of six for 46 runs. On nine occasions in 23 innings this year they have failed to make 200, and in three they have failed to make 90. Only once have they made 400 and only four times have they managed to score 300 in their first innings.

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It could have been worse, too. The only two men to make half-centuries in the match for England were both dropped early in their innings (Joe Denly on 0 and Rory Burns on 20; both, to be fair, went on to play admirably). Had either chance been taken, England may well not have made 150 in either innings.

There’s a wider context here. In the last few months it has emerged that, as other nations plead for another ICC global tournament in the four-year cycle to help them with their funding issues (funding issues that render it almost impossible for them to retain the services of their best players) the ‘big three’ (India, England and Australia) are resisting on the basis that they may arrange an annual – yes, annual – tri-tournament just for their own benefit.

It’s not especially easy to argue the morality of that approach. Or the long-term practicality. For if England, Australia and India allow Test cricket to wither in other regions – and you only have to see what has happened with the Test schedule involving Ireland in recent days to see how pertinent this is – the format will follow. Few will pay to see the same fixtures in repetition. And all the while, the drain of Kolpak talent continues. It’s incredible that South Africa are able to put out a competitive side despite all the players they have lost in recent times, let alone a victorious one.

The point of all this? English cricket needs to take a good, hard look at itself. In the orgy of backslapping that has followed the World Cup win – and yes, it was a terrific performance – there is a danger that an eye has been taken off the wretched job that the ECB are doing to protect the Test game at home and abroad. They had this slap in the face coming.