10th December, 2021, England, akin to recent trends, find themselves encapsulated by a strong Australian tempest. They begin the day behind the eight-ball, with Travis Head having notched up the third fastest Ashes hundred just few hours ago. The left-handed batter piles further misery and swells Australia’s lead to more than 275 at the Gabba.
So when Haseeb Hameed and Rory Burns walk out, they have an almighty mountain to climb. Not only do they have to erase the deficit, they also have to stitch together a showing that doesn’t resemble the embarrassing batting displays England have put up lately.
The opening pair handles itself well before Lunch – surviving through a combination of dumb luck and a bit of tenacity. Burns then flirts with a delivery outside off stump and Hameed gets strangled down the leg side.
All of a sudden, England are exactly where they don’t want to be. But in a place that they’ve begun calling home over the past few years – in the middle of another batting capitulation.
Fortunately, Dawid Malan and Joe Root set out their stall and portray the undeniable ability they possess. Both hardly put a foot wrong and bat through the rest of the day, meaning that England, who were staring down the barrel before Lunch, have a slight glimmer of hope.
Not a lot. But just enough to ensure that their faithful kept dreaming and kept drawing up coincidences to the 2010/11 Gabba Test. Some even went as far as suggesting that England could make a match out of this.
They weren’t many behind at Stumps and if Malan and Root showcased similar application on Day 4, they could still be in with a shout. There were also people muttering under the disguise of deep and relieved sighs – “Root didn’t do wrong at the toss, did he?”
A majority of the cricket-watching community, though, was a little circumspect. Understandably so too. Not just because England were, despite what their supporters hinted, still lagging behind Australia. But also because England have been one of the worst Test batting outfits in the past couple of years.
So much so that when Malan and Root drew in the applause at Stumps on Day 3 and walked into the Brisbane shadow, countless English fans didn’t celebrate. This was, lest we forget, the stuff of dreams. They kept an excellent Australian attack at bay and showed the kind of fight they’ve often lacked.
Thousands of England fans, however, felt that this dream was on the verge of transforming into a nightmare. They had been here before. False dawns, truer and drearier sunsets, and patches of magnificence followed by equal amounts of mediocrity.
For any ordinary cricket-watcher, that was an indictment damning enough. England, though, ensured that they lent further weight to that argument by producing another collapse, meaning that a game which England were meant to stretch to Day 5, meandered into a damp squib post Lunch on Day 4.
Since the start of 2019, England have been pretty woeful with the bat. They have struggled in different conditions and have hardly looked capable of putting the opposition under pressure. While there have been a few remarkable batting displays, those have been an aberration rather than the underlying theme.
England's batting average in this period is, rather astonishingly, only 26.8. If a list of all Test-playing nations is collated, the Three Lions sit 8th – only ahead of Ireland, South Africa, West Indies and Zimbabwe.
During this phase, England have played a few tough rubbers – against Australia (home and away), India (away), New Zealand (home), Pakistan (home). The average, however, is still pretty dire. In a nutshell, it means that England often hover around the 268-mark in a particular innings – a tally that simply isn’t enough to win Test matches.
Root, who has single-handedly carried England’s batting since Sir Alastair Cook’s retirement, averages 49.29 since the start of 2019. If his numbers are excluded, the situation for the Three Lions seems even more dismal.
England have the most number of ducks in Tests since 2019
Another astonishing statistic is that England have produced the most number of ducks during this period – 81. The next best is India, who have 51 ducks in 25 matches. England, meanwhile, have had 81 ducks in just 34 matches, which roughly translates to 2.44 ducks per game.
Burns is one of those who has trying his utmost to keep the Three Lions ahead in that race. He already has six this year. Dan Lawrence, Dom Sibley and Jonny Bairstow have four each as well.
Thus, it isn’t as much of a surprise that when England start spiraling, they hit nadir pretty swiftly. Not only are they unable to withstand whatever the opposition is throwing at them, they also find ways to get marooned in such circumstances.
In fact, that is perhaps the biggest problem in England’s batting unit currently. Each one of them knows that they are prone to the odd (or maybe two or maybe three) collapses a series. Yet, they don’t do enough to avoid that situation.
They still play like millionaires and trust a defensive technique that is, well, not watertight. And, for some reason (hello T20 cricket and The Hundred), they keep falling back on individuals who continue to make mistakes, hoping that they will turn a corner.
So far, though, evidence of that ilk has been in very short supply. England keep wilting under the slightest bit of pressure and unless Ben Stokes or Root are able to pull off something special, it feels this trend could scale greater depths than it has already done. That, in itself, is saying quite a bit, considering how they’ve fared in the recent past.
England rocked up Down Under, longing to prove that they remain a premier red-ball outfit. What they forgot, though, is that they have been nowhere near that kind of a conversation since the start of 2019.
Half-way around the world or in the comforts of their home, batting continues to be a massive issue for England. No wonder people, rather than appreciating Malan and Root, were in trepidation of what was to come.
The delirium of the present was overshadowed by the ghosts of the past and the future. Cricket, or for that matter any sport, should ideally not be played that way. England, though, have specialized in it. That should be enough to tell you where they stand in the longest format at present.