The first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord’s was a first sighting of the ‘new’ England. After the winter’s disastrous Ashes tour, this was a new beginning. A new beginning adorned with old traits.
If there was one thing that Alastair Cook could have learned from his Australian counterpart Michael Clarke, it should have been to strive for positive, proactive and aggressive cricket. Now, it is unfeasible that England would be so aggressive as the Australians as they simply do not have, nor want, the same individuals. The Australians have often over-stepped the mark in their own personal rise from the doldrums, but Clarke is always willing to gamble on defeat to try and snare victory.
It is the antithesis of English cricket. Ever since the earliest days of Andy Flower, the emphasis has always been on avoiding defeat first and foremost, then trying to gain victory latterly. Cook, at least as a leader, is a product of this system. In Flower’s very first series, when England lost a four (well, five if you count the Antiguan debacle) Test series in the West Indies, it was a cripplingly conservative – negative – approach to the declaration that saw them cling on to that one nil deficit when they were well past the post marked ‘safety’. Having been obliterated in Jamaica, they handed the series to their opponents through maddening stagnation and a complete lack of proactivity.
Too often they declared their second innings far too late, denying themselves sufficient time to bowl out the West Indies. This same vein of conservatism saw their run rate, at times, in Australia grind to near standstill, whereas the Aussies had David Warner throwing the bat at everything and laying the foundation for large innings totals.
Even at the Oval last summer, Clarke threw in a shock declaration to try and win at least one Test. He declared an innings behind in the early 2013 series in India, trying to get that important breakthrough late on the first day after his own side had collapsed.
Can you imagine Cook being so bold? Can you imagine Cook being bold at all? The only boldness he has shown as England captain has been to insist that he is the right man for the job in the wake of the Ashes.
This summer, under returning head coach Peter Moores, was supposed to be a fresh start. Sure, there were some new players, but the record is jammed. The same conservatism is the theme of this new order. Cook has been backed at all costs by the ECB on the thinnest of evidence. Merely jettisoning one player is insufficient – one swallow does not make a summer.
A truly fresh start has not been sought. England believed that they were right all along. Encouraging starts for Gary Ballance, Chris Jordan and Moeen Ali have been tempered by the philosophical rigidity of the team’s leadership.
Sri Lanka were never going to chase down 350 runs, let alone 390 in the second innings. So why did England not declare on the fourth evening to give them a few extra overs to bowl the Sri Lankans out? If they were waiting for Ballance to complete his century, it was a remarkable doff of the cap to the importance of the individual at a time when they have rid themselves of their best batsman for being too individual.
Some things just never change and England’s conservative philosophy is undoubtedly one of them.
By Miles Reucroft