It would be fair to say that the 2019 season has been an incredible one for England, both in red ball and white ball cricket. Back in April there was so much anticipation, both for the World Cup and, more importantly, for the Ashes series that would see England with a real chance of defeating an Australian side only starting to recover from “Sandpaper gate” and the resulting fallout.
The final of the Cricket World Cup was as extraordinary a match as we’re ever likely to see, just when the tension rose to unbelievable levels, it was cranked up even further. And with the match being available to terrestrial viewers it arguably did more to attract new cricket fans far more than the much-publicised Hundred will ever manage.
But once the celebrations were over, it was time to get on to the serious business of test cricket – and what could be a gentler or more civilised introduction to it than welcoming Ireland to play their first ever test match at Lords? Within 24 overs a very different truth emerged. As wickets fell and the Irish felt they were in some kind of altered reality, it looked like the Ashes were already Australia’s. A first innings total of 85 for England and Ireland’s response of 207 did little to dispel that thought. So, it’s hard to recollect the exact relief which every English fan felt when Broad and Woakes stepped up in Ireland’s second innings to blow them away for just 38, saving England’s blushes if not inspiring much confidence in their batting line-up.
This remained brittle when we eventually reached the main event with only a few individual performances standing out, for example Rory Burns’ 133 in the First Test and Ben Stokes’ match winning heroics at Headingley. But these have to be balanced with other performances. Let’s not forget that it was England’s total of 67 in the first innings that set up the situation for Stokes to achieve his position as national saviour in the second.
And, although England did manage to eventually draw the series, it was generally agreed that here were two teams who had severe fault lines in their batting line-ups and a strong reliance on single players to get them out of trouble – yes, we’re talking about Steve Smith and Pat Cummins for the Australians and Stokes, Broad and, to a lesser extent, Archer for England.
But now the series has passed into cricketing history it’s time for English cricket to look to the future. The regime of Trevor Bayliss has gone and Chris Silverwood is in charge. Although his appointment may not have been universally applauded with some believing Gary Kirsten could have been a better choice, Silverwood has the advantage of knowing many of the squad through his role as bowing coach. So, as he heads off on the New Zealand tour consisting of five T20s and two tests, it gives him the chance to stamp his authority on the team in a series that, in theory, should be very winnable but which may still prove problematic.
On the plus side, conditions in New Zealand are far more similar to English ones than you’d experience in Colombo or Mumbai which will be good news for seam bowlers. On the minus side, New Zealand are two places above England in the ICC Test Team rankings and will be eager to avenge the agony of that World Cup defeat back in the Summer. These factors may contribute to the favourable sports odds England currently enjoys.
The one thing that is very easy to agree on is that it was the England batting line-up that was the true weak link throughout all six tests the team played in the summer. The opening partnerships failed to lay down the solid foundations needed to build match-winning scores and the tail began remarkably early. The fact that one of the batting heroes of the Summer was the bespectacled spinner Jack Leach, applauded for just sticking in there while Stokes wove his magic, speaks volumes.
The inclusion of the squad of debutants Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley could be critical and will put extra pressure on Rory Burns and Joe Denly to perform. Sibley has been chosen to tour based on the ten hundreds he’s scored for Warwickshire over the last couple of seasons while Crawley has been picked for style and flair that the powers that be consider show potential for success.
With Joe Root famously unhappy with having to come in at No. 3 and, wanting to resume his favoured No. 4 position, this could well offer the solution. By dropping down a place, the hope is that the captain will be able to recover some of the form that, while not completely lacking, was in short supply for him over the summer. The inclusion of Ollie Pope in the squad should also help to shore up the middle order, although he also has the a limited amount of international experience.
Turning to the bowling, the absence of Anderson has opened up an opportunity for Lancashire team-mate Saqib Mahmood to see if he can make the ball sing quite as well as he does on English pitches. Similarly, with Moeen Ali ruling himself out for selection it’s opened the door for Matthew Parkinson to come in as back-up spinner.
One of the biggest shocks when the squad was announced was the exclusion of Johnny Bairstow. But the keeping of Jos Buttler, along with his better batting record over the Summer gave this a certain inevitability.
We’ll just have to wait and see whether these changes will set up a winning formula for England and one which will be further tested when they go to South Africa in the new year. But, for now, it’s just a question of overcoming the Kiwis.
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