What next for England?

England finally win an overseas test. After disasters in Australia, India, and New Zealand, they storm to a well deserved test win in Sri Lanka. This test win was just as much because of England playing very well as it was Sri Lanka being awful in their home conditions.

Sri Lanka’s batting can’t get much worse in Kandy, with only Mathews the only one looking reassured. I said before the test that for the first time in a long time, Sri Lanka will have their first choice top 6 but it has to be said that none of Sri Lanka’s top 6 made starts count. Mathews and Mendis got starts in both innings, and the openers both got starts in the 2nd innings but nobody had the patience to play like Keaton Jennings or Ben Foakes. Chandimal and de Silva are doubts for the 2nd Test and with a Rangana Herath sized hole to fill in the bowling, it is looking more and more likely that England will win a series in the Asian subcontinent.

For England, it is a reward for actually looking at the County Championship and picking performers. For years, Taunton has been a spinners paradise yet Somerset players very rarely represent England in the Asian Subcontinent, even though half of Somerset players’ county matches are on pitches that assist spinners. The point here isn’t that England won because they picked Jack Leach, but because it part of a wider successful selection policy (intentional or not).

English cricket in recent years has been completely obsessed with all rounders. In ODI cricket, England even play all rounders until number 10 and 11, but in test cricket it simply does not work. It is a miracle that less than 10 years after England reached the World Number 1 Test Ranking, their selection policy went in the complete opposite direction. When England reached the summit of the test rankings, it was based of a team of specialists. You were either a batsman or a bowler. There was 1 all rounder : the keeper, and even he batted at 6 or 7, not at 4 or 5. Cook and Strauss opened, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Morgan, Prior. The bowling attack, 3 seamers and a spinner, Anderson, Broad, Bresnan, Swann. A simple, but very effective formula, and it saw England dominate world cricket for a good 2-3 years.

However, the team recently has looked jumbled, with the solution apparently being to simply throw all rounders at the problem. Curran, Woakes, Stokes, Moeen, Bairstow, Buttler, the list goes on (In my view, a definition of an all rounder is any player who bowls or keeps regularly and is good enough to bat at number 7, which Curran and Woakes both are. Players like Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Pat Cummins, while tidy batsmen, are not considered all rounders).

However in this test in Galle, Jack Leach, a specialist off spinner, Rory Burns, a specialist and very successful opener and Ben Foakes, a specialist keeper-batsman have all been picked, and all 3 look like proper test cricketers.

There is nothing against players of the calibre of Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jonny Bairstow, but it is incredibly difficult for someone to be batting in the top 6 or 7 and bowling 10-15 overs in every innings like Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes do. Over time, there will be massive inconsistency, that you simply will not get if you pick proper batsmen or proper bowlers. Recently, Trevor Bayliss has said that Stokes and Moeen are in the side for their batting. Stokes batted at 5, and averages 33 in test cricket. Moeen was at 3, and averaged 31. These aren’t numbers that are good enough for a top order batsman in test cricket. Jonny Bairstow is one of England’s best batsmen, but giving him the gloves, whatever he admits, has impacted his batting. Having played most of his career now in the wicket keeping position, he averages 59 when England bat first in a test match (i.e. when he hasn’t kept yet) but his averages in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th innings are 29.35, 33.48 and 20.67 respectively. It is very difficult to bat in the top 5 and keep wicket.

The nature of all rounders is that they will do something brilliant but then have quiet spells, and it is the reason they are sought after but picking so many in a side and therefore giving them so much responsibility inevitably means there will be irregularity. This lack of consistency for England comes out in collapses (this is, in my opinion, the main reason for England’s frequent collapses).

England have finally picked a proper spinner, wicket keeper and an opening batsman with serious potential. Let’s hope Foakes keeps the gloves and Leach can get in the side regularly. This English side has the potential to reach the top 2 in the rankings, especially as Australia look a little weaker than recent years, but for that they must find one more proper batsman and give less responsibility to Stokes and Moeen Ali so any unpredictability isn’t so ruthlessly exposed. Jonny Bairstow should come in for England, but as a batsman, and boy do England need Bairstow the batsman a lot more than Bairstow the keeper.

England’s strongest side for the 2nd Test : 1. Burns, 2. Jennings, 3. Root, 4. Bairstow, 5. Buttler, 6. Foakes (wk) , 7. Stokes , 8. Moeen , 9. Leach , 10. Curran / Stone / Broad , 11. Anderson