We can shelve the boardroom enthusiasm for ‘excitement’ that exists within the corridors of power at the ECB and its lust for more money and more sixes with The Hundred. The ECB has, right now, the most exciting team in the world in the form of this England men’s cricket team.
The flaws in Joe Root’s Test team makes it a must-watch side. The despair of getting bowled out for 67 in one innings only heightened the euphoria of chasing down 359 for victory in the next. An improbable victory snatched from the jaws of defeat at England’s cricketing version of Lourdes, Headingley, will linger long in the memory. This is where the miracles happen, time and again.
Comparisons with 1981 are obvious and Nathan Lyon experienced his own Herschelle Gibbs moment – did he drop the Ashes at the same venue Gibbs dropped the World Cup in 1999? There is plenty to get carried away with and cricket has rightfully been revelling in one of the great Test victories and one of the great Test performances.
They say Test cricket is dying, but then Kusal Perera and Ben Stokes conjure innings of such significance as to make the whole world stand back and gawp in amazement. Which was the best? Who cares, we’ve been spoilt by two of the great knocks within six months of one another.
Were it not for England’s inherent batting weakness, this magical moment would not have been possible. England lack an opener of substance. Rory Burns has scored valuable runs but is still growing into the role and Jason Roy is not, and never will be, a Test opener.
Then there’s the middle order. Root’s move to three, a position he was reluctant to take, hasn’t really worked. Joe Denly at four is at least sticking to the task at hand, even if he lacks the quality of some of his predecessors in the role, not least Root himself. Stokes has been moved back to five as a result of Jos Buttler’s unsuitability to Test cricket. Jonny Bairstow is grimly clinging onto his own position as keeper but has batted everywhere from three to seven since the start of the 2018 English summer. Continuity has hardly been a byword of this England Test unit.
Ed Smith, since taking over has chief selector in 2018, has pursued an ODI line of approach in Test cricket. The ODI stuff has worked well for England – you may have heard that they won the World Cup this year. It has worked well in ODIs. In Test cricket, it has been something of a disaster, see Jason Roy for evidence.
The trouble is, the miracle of Headingley is in danger of papering over the huge cracks in this England Test side. After the elation of Sunday must now come the reality. Two of the top seven are unfit for purpose and the rest have been moved around almost at random. England were bowled out for 67. They’ve been bowled out for under 100 four times in the past two years. That’s nowhere near good enough or, even, acceptable.
A lot of this isn’t the fault of the players. Roy, for example, doesn’t open the batting for Surrey in First Class cricket. Buttler never plays First Cricket at all, outside of the Test arena. If you set people up to fail, that’s generally what will happen. Smith needs to change his selection policy. He needs to start picking players who are comfortable in the roles for which they are being selected. He made the same mistake last summer, too, with Ollie Pope, requiring the Surrey youngster to bat four when he hadn’t batted before the 25th over in any First Class fixture before his Test debut. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work out too well.
And yet… And yet… for all these flaws, all the confused thinking and all the stupidity off the field, this England side is addictive. Stokes is having a summer that athletes so rarely experience, on a par with Bradley Wiggins in 2012 (Tour de France and Olympic gold) for the enormity of what he’s achieving. Jofra Archer has ignited passion in the fanbase and fear in the opposition. The much maligned Joe Root has a win rate of 50.5% as captain. A side that can be bowled out for under 100 by New Zealand, West Indies, Ireland and Australia has still brushed aside India and won in Sri Lanka. There’s no denying it, they’re great to watch.
This isn’t a good side (at least from a batting perspective) but it is an exciting one. In an age when that seems to be all that matters, there’s no better team than England.
By Miles Reucroft