More Questions than Answers: The Most Inconclusive of Draws

After five days of trying to dodge the rain, it was Mother Nature who had the final word on Day 5 as opposed to Virat Kohli or James Anderson. The day saw no play, and England and India left Nottingham with no option but to share the spoils. In an opening Test that many predicted may help England nail down their preferred team, it would be fair to say that many questions still loom large.

Top Order Talk

If one topic of conversation has stood above the parapet, it would be that of England’s top 3. In Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, and Zak Crawley, England have settled on a top order that draws the ire of many. Quite impressively, everyone seems to have their own unique gripe. This might be that Burns is too twitchy at the crease, that Sibley simply does not score at an acceptable rate, or that Crawley can’t stop having a flash at anything wide of off stump. The conversations to be had are limitless.

The First Test did not exactly change any of this. Crawley got a fast and flashy 27 in the first innings, and a loose 6 in the second. Sibley faced 203 balls over the two innings and scored an overall 46 runs. Burns fell nearly immediately on Day 1, and got a less than stellar 18 in the second innings. This was not the stuff to change minds.

In my limited view, I have no real issue with Rory Burns and Dom Sibley. Burns, in my view, is a highly competent opener who has a track record of scoring decent runs in England where it can often be a pain to open. He looked assured against New Zealand, and I wouldn’t readily bet against him getting some decent scores against India.

Similarly, I actually quite like Dom Sibley as a player. It would be grand if he had a cover drive or cut shot, but he does the job of soaking up deliveries quite well. I often see people say that bowlers must enjoy playing him because of his lack of scoring threat, but I think people underestimate the frustration of bowling at a man who just won’t fold easily. His presence demands that the opposition attack have to bowl more, and it’s quite frankly never bad to tire the other team out.

My other soft spot for Sibley comes in how he seems to make it feel easier for the man at the other end. Joe Root looked unbelievably assured when he had Sibley with him, as did Ben Stokes last summer against the West Indies. This should not be dismissed too quickly. Often it’s suggested that Sibley’s slow pace would make it more stressful for his partner, but he seems to have the opposite effect. When big runs are scored, don’t be surprised to see Dom Sibley at the other end.

Where I am admittedly less swayed is by Zak Crawley at 3. I love watching Crawley when he’s batting; the problem is that he’s often not batting for very long. Believe you me, I see what the vision is. Crawley at his best would be a counter-attacking player. Someone who comes in and puts pressure back on the bowlers after the loss of the first wicket. The problem is that this has not been the reality for much of the last year. The low scores are piling up, and the greater picture is less than flattering when you RootMaths out his 267.

The most likely alternative seems to be Haseeb Hameed, who I fear may face multiple forms of criticism unless he is an immediate success. If he gets out quickly, some will say he’s no different to Crawley. If he stays in, people may realise that he’s no different to Sibley in terms of scoring rate.

The top order is where change is most likely, but I do fear that change may not be enough to make people happy unless the change in question is the top 3 all scoring big.

Middle Order Melee

Somewhere below Joe Root, exists a similar problem to above him.

In this conversation, I will make the bold move of saying that I do not think that Jos Buttler is part of this problem. Whilst Buttler was poor against India, I have seen enough in the last year to view him as a valuable part of the batting line up. Buttler had a great 2020, and was solid enough in the subcontinent earlier this year. As a player who has not seen a red ball in months, I am willing to cut him some slack. Historically he grows into a Test series, and I see no reason why this will be any different.

Instead, I want to focus on Jonny Bairstow, Dan Lawrence, and the currently absent Ollie Pope.

A year ago, I thought that Jonny Bairstow was gone for good from the Test team. I was wrong. Bairstow is back, and this time he has gone for the cruellest outcome, in which he has the audacity to give us hope.

Bairstow at the crease seems to have remodelled some of his game. He has moved over to an off stump guard, and his high backlift trigger movement appears to be watered down. For the most part, he looked as if he had found some control again. His shots were assured, his defence robust, then he got out around 30, twice. This is indeed the most frustrating type of situation as it makes it impossible to figure out if any of these improvements are actually such.

One possibility is that Bairstow has just found a more clinical looking way to get out for 30. The other is that in the long-term, his new approach will actually yield more runs. The resulting conclusion is peak Bairstow, and is that he will probably need another game so we can figure something out.

Similarly tantalising is the unspoken shoot-out that looms between Dan Lawrence and Ollie Pope. The cricket bubble seems to view the town as not being big enough for the both of them, and whilst I don’t subscribe to pitting players against each other, I can see how it may be tricky to fit them both into a team.

Against India, Lawrence did what he often does. With a duck in the first innings, and 25 in the second, you’re left walking away knowing that there’s potential there but also that he’s not a finished product. This is very much the critique meted at Lawrence, he has moments but not without failures in between them.

What makes the debate here all the more interesting is that in the last year one could say the same about Ollie Pope. Pope arrived in the side with a quiet hope that he would fast become a superstar. Unfortunately this has been disrupted by both injury and form. Pope in the last year often makes a pretty 20 before departing.

As such, it makes for a pretty tame debate. ‘Your man only makes scores in every other innings’…’Your man only scores consistent 20s’.

In the theme of the piece, the India Test hasn’t exactly added much to the conversation. The Lawrence-Pope question is one that will loom as The Ashes approach, and is one that England must find an answer for.

My pick is Lawrence for total first name reasons.

Arranging the Attack

To conclude the theme of unanswered questions, England’s bowling attack has been dealt several blows.

Jofra Archer’s injury has taken away one of the best bowlers in the country for the foreseeable future, Chris Woakes’ nagging heel problem means that it will be over a full year between Test matches for him, and Ben Stokes’ break from cricket has left England with balance issues.

The first question relates to how England plan to ever field a spin bowler. This problem stems from Stokes’ absence. As someone capable of bowling a good number of overs, he allows England to play Jack Leach or Dom Bess in place of a dedicated seam bowler. In Stokes’ absence, England are reluctant to make this sacrifice.

This Test offered little help in judging this argument, given the totally peripheral role of spin in the game. Ravindra Jadeja bowled a bit, but not with enough threat to make England think they were missing something. It somewhat remains a problem that will only seem apparent when England are bowling on Day 5 and realise that the pitch offers a good amount of turn.

On the pace side of things, the Test raised questions about whether or not Sam Curran is quite good enough a bowler to be first change. Perhaps the most damning part of the match was when Curran, with new ball in hand, saw India’s usually fragile tail-end dispatch him for a healthy number of runs.

This is very much life without Chris Woakes. Whilst the two players are often compared, any comparison does a great disservice to Woakes who could easily open the bowling for England. Woakes is a top quality bowler, and Curran’s best moments have more often come with the bat.

The only option for England here may be to promote Curran into the middle order at the expense of a batter, and play an extra fast bowler. This is not an option that I see them readily taking.

 

So we go into the Second Test at Lord’s with just as many questions remaining as before the series started. All we can be sure of is the reassuring excellence of Messrs Root and Anderson for another year.

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