ICC World Test Championship: England and their chastening run-in with cricket's perennial double-edged sword
On the 25th of August, 2019, England stared down the barrel of a shattering defeat in the 3rd Ashes Test at Headingley. Despite bundling out Australia for 179 in the first innings, the Three Lions found themselves facing the unenviable prospect of scaling down a 359-run peak in their second essay.
Yet, on that afternoon, a certain Ben Stokes, akin to his recent heroics, stood up to be counted, meaning that he conjured perhaps the greatest Test knock ever. Consequently, England emerged from that rubble with their pride intact and a realistic chance of reclaiming the coveted urn, an opportunity many felt they’d passed up through the course of the first couple of matches.
And, though the all-rounder’s scintillating innings enabled the Three Lions to venture into the fantasy world that comprised a World Cup triumph and Ashes conquest in the same cricketing season, it also ended up masking a rather worrying trend regarding their fortunes in red-ball cricket.
To put things into perspective, the only reason Stokes had to indulge in that sort of pyrotechnics was because England had been shot out for 67, in reply to the Aussies’ tally of 179. And, while the general consensus would be to term it as an anomaly ultimately redeemed by an act of extreme valour, evidence points towards a vicious downward spiral engulfing English Test cricket, a trajectory that looks alarmingly steep with each passing game.
Since the rubber against India in 2018, England have played 6 series against the likes of Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, West Indies and of course, the Indians. During that period though, they’ve managed to remain unbeaten as a team on only 6 occasions in 19 Tests, meaning that they’ve been bowled out by the opposition on others.
Subsequently, the pressure has been transferred onto their bowlers with them tasked with doing the heavy lifting more often than not. Although bowlers of the ilk of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and more recently, Jofra Archer have risen to the plate, it has regularly painted a picture of England being behind the eight-ball in contests.
During the same spell, India, the nation widely considered the gold standard for Test cricket currently, have remained undefeated an impressive 14 times in 18 matches. Unsurprisingly, they’ve carved out numerous opportunities to post victories, thereby finding themselves at the perch of the ICC World Test Championship table.
Additionally, of the 6 times England have not been dismissed, only one has occurred in their first innings of an encounter. In the process, the Three Lions haven’t been able to set games up with them rather relying on moments of brilliance further down the contest.
In contrast, India have remained unscathed 8 times out of 14, meaning that they’ve enabled their bowlers to dominate on the back of a stronger effort early in the game. Consequently, there have been countless instances when the Asian side has been able to dictate the tempo of the game, as opposed to waiting for the opposition to set it up and then hope for a counter punch.
And, though sides understandably remain unbeaten more frequently in their second innings, considering run-chases and potential declarations, the fact that England have done so in their first innings only once in the past eighteen months certainly causes more than a furrowed brow or two.
Inevitably, one is drawn into the speculation of what might have triggered the Three Lions’ sudden demise in the Test arena, especially in light of the value they place on the longest version of the sport. Yet, one can’t help but underline the change in approach adopted by English cricket since 2015, a tweak that eventually helped them quench their World Cup thirst.
Quite often, countries undergo transitional phases wherein they prioritise one particular format over the others. To further that claim, only a handful of sides in the 21st century have been able to juggle efficiently between red-ball cricket and white-ball cricket.
The Australian side in the 2000s and the Indian outfit at the turn of the decade represent the only teams to have stumbled upon the requisite balance, having achieved numero uno status in Tests while also adorning their journey with a World Cup crown.
England, meanwhile, after that debacle in the 2015 World Cup, have seemed hell-bent on throwing their cautious modus operandi out of the window, instead preferring something a tad more flamboyant, something that would allow them to not just win, but also achieve it with panache.
And, though that particular facet has worked a charm in the thrill-a-minute versions of the sport, it has left an awful lot to be desired in the challenging confines of Test cricket.
Over the years, the English batsmen have prided themselves on their ability to leave the ball. However, that particular trait has also come unstuck lately, especially considering the gung-ho approach they preach in ODIs and T20Is.
Even the statistic of the Three Lions getting dismissed too repeatedly is largely down to their propensity to keep playing their shots, irrespective of the circumstance. On occasions, they’ve reaped the rewards, as Stokes portrayed at Headingley. Yet, rather recurrently, they’ve been left ruing it, meaning that they’ve fallen like a pack of cards.
Thus, there have been a plethora of reasons for England seemingly falling off a cliff in Test cricket, although they’ve distinguished themselves as a cricketing outfit elsewhere.
Rather ironically though, the side that was once ridiculed for its archaic outlook to its game now probably has to delve deeper into memory lane to unfurl a combination of grit, determination, perseverance and above all, patience, if they are to reach the summit of Test cricket.
Yet, history suggests that that particular endeavour might present its fair share of caveats; obstacles that would threaten to undo the bravery and courage that has redefined English cricket, to an extent.
And, inevitably, England might feel the chastening double-edged nature of cricket’s different formats, provided they haven’t been bruised by it already.
Published 30 Dec 2019, 15:43 IST