In times of crisis for the national team, and what could qualify more for that than being twice thrashed by a West Indies team near the bottom of the rankings, it is traditional to blame county cricket for any faults. And right on cue, Trevor Bayliss, England’s head coach, has done just that.
In trying to explain why England’s batsmen have been so uniformly awful in the Caribbean, Bayliss accused the county game of not producing enough good batsmen to push those currently on the frontline with their worrying paucities of technique and character.
To be fair, Bayliss did not shy away from criticising his charges directly, following their successive slides to defeat. In any case, he probably has a point about county cricket though he did not go into the detail as to how it undermines the Test team, something now proposed here.
We’ll start by acknowledging that the two pitches which greeted England in Barbados and Antigua were not flat belters. As such they demanded of batsmen a judicious shot selection, a good judgment of length and line and a patient defence. In the event, only one side managed to achieve any of those and it wasn’t England.
Instead, and this was highlighted in Antigua, especially, England’s batsmen adopted a fatalistic attitude which smacked of the chancer not confident that either his technique or patience would hold up. Certainly, they appeared to believe that they were better off being gung-ho and adopting the ‘play without fear’ mantra adopted by England’s white-ball teams, of which several of the Test side are members.
One widespread habit this has induced is for batsmen to throw their bat at good length balls wide of off-stump, balls a more watchful batsman would leave well alone. In one-day cricket, having a flash, as it is called, is more or less justified on the risk/reward spectrum as there are unlikely to be any catchers between the wicketkeeper and backward point.
Any edges, save for very thin ones to the keeper, were safe shots which brought runs. Not so in Test cricket, where anything up to four slips and two gullies await to catch out the impatient and foolhardy.
While some of the finger of blame for this can be pointed to the ‘play without fear’ epithet, the rest can be directed at county cricket and near ubiquity of seaming pitches now found in the County Championship, the sole nursery for Test cricketers in England and Wales.
I wondered, initially, if this was because the Championship, a competition that used to run without interruption from April to September, had been pushed to the margins of the season where the weather is wetter and the pitches naturally damper as a result. But no. A coach of my acquaintance tells me that the preparation of damp seaming pitches has been happening for a while irrespective of the time of year matches are scheduled.
Even the dispensing of the toss, unless both teams wish to bat first, and which had an improving effect on pitches for a season, has not prevented teams from producing result pitches that favour seam bowling. As my source reveals, “counties just think, ‘blow the toss’, we’ll make the pitch seam throughout and back ourselves to win the ensuing dogfight.”
As a result it has been a disaster for producing top order batsmen and spin bowlers, the first because they feel the need to take risks in the belief that there is a ball with their name on it; the latter because seam bowling tends to take the lion’s share of the wickets and they don’t get much of a look in, either in selection or during the match.
If pitches are deliberately prepared to turn, as Somerset did with theirs at Taunton recently, they are criticised and then penalised. To monitor such things, the England and Wales Cricket Board have a network of Cricket Liaison Officers (CLOs) at every game to report on the standard of pitches, umpires and player behaviour.
All CLOs are former cricketers and therefore likely to be more lenient towards a seaming pitch in their reports than a rank turner, because that’s the way it has always been. Yet my source, a former player himself, reckons that pitches are skewed towards seam bowling far more than they used to be.
“Just about everyone does it,” he says, “and it’s affecting the quality of our batsmen and spin bowlers.” He also says it is not the early scheduling of matches in April and May that is necessarily at fault though that doesn’t help. “Pitches have seamed about whatever time of year the match has been played.”
Stricter policing might help. The traditional toss was dispensed with after 2015, a season in which 21 batsmen passed 1,000 runs across both divisions of the Championship. It certainly made an impact in its first year, with 29 batsmen passing 1,000 runs during the 2016 season. Then, perhaps as teams found ways of pushing that particular envelope, a steep drop to 10 batsmen reaching 1,000 runs in 2017 and then a further reduction to just five doing so in 2018.
Those fabulous five by the way were: Rory Burns of Surrey, Ian Bell of Warwickshire, James Hildreth of Somerset, Ben Slater of Derbyshire and Notts and Wayne Madsen, also of Derbyshire.
One slight mitigation for batsmen in those last two years is that they played two games fewer than those in the more recent years under consideration. Yet even so, the reduction in the numbers of those notching 1,000 runs in the Championship is stark.
Of course it would be unfair to blame it all on seaming pitches. A shift in the zeitgeist, generally, among batsmen into adopting the aggressive strokes of white-ball cricket at the expense of defensive technique, has not helped consistency. But then, when you marginalise the red-ball game to highlight the white, as the ECB have done, what do you expect?
As more than one person has pointed out in the wake of England’s defeats to West Indies, the ‘leave’ has more or less gone out for the game with shouldering arms rarer than a smiling Jimmy Anderson. Of course, Joe Denly got the leave out during the second Test though he badly misjudged the line after the ball from Alzarri Joseph plucked out his off-stump.
Without the leave a bowler’s job becomes much easier, knowing that however many balls he sends down outside off-stump most have a chance of being nibbled at and that he’s not just wasting energy. Maybe County Cricket should shoulder some of the blame for the batsman’s role in that. But mostly, the responsibility for doing something and then changing it has to come from within.
DEREK PRINGLE | GETTY IMAGES