India’s crushing win in the third Test match against England in Mohali hardly came as a surprise following a dreadful third day for England. After letting India take a significant lead into the second innings the patience, or lack thereof, in England’s innings was exploited by Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja as they ended up setting a meagre total for the Indians to chase and take a two-nil lead in the five match series.
It is no time for knee jerk decisions at the moment and playing the number one Test side in the world in their own conditions was always going to be tough. What has made it harder though, is some of the abject selection and this consistent desire to play players who can do a bit of everything.
The caveat to this is of course is Haseeb Hameed, who after only three games looks set to be England’s opener for a long time. His assured footwork and mental capacity to bat for long periods has immediately earmarked him as Alastair Cook’s long term successor and his knock in the second innings here in Mohali, whilst suffering from a broken hand, shows the guts and determination required to succeed at this level.
India are currently the number one side in the world. Their side is made up of five batsmen, four bowlers, a wicket keeper and Ashwin as an all-rounder. They veer towards specialists in their Test squad rather than trying to utilise players who can do a little of everything without being wonderful at batting or bowling. In contrast it seems England almost have a touch of the 1990s about them in the sense that they have three batsmen, two bowlers and then six players who bowl a bit, bat a bit and keep a bit.
Some of these ‘bits and pieces’ players are of course much better than this but there is an increasing tendency in English cricket at the moment for players to be competent in more than one facet of the game. Jonny Bairstow, for example, returned to the side as wicket keeper because it was thought his batting was not strong enough to get in the team purely as a batter. Following a superb 2016 his place in England’s top order is now in no doubt but the emphasis now appears on correcting his keeping errors.
With the events leading into the third Test with batting orders being re-jigged to accommodate Jos Buttler, the logical decision should surely have been to let Bairstow play as purely a batsman. Following a long time keeping during India’s first innings he then, batting at five, was out on the pitch again a mere 19.5 overs into the innings. In no way, shape or form is this providing England with the best platform to succeed.
Then there is also Moeen Ali. Mo has been outstanding in this setup for a few years now. He is learning to bowl at international level whilst on the job. Whilst this has been okay facing Australia on English pitches, the winter has exposed the fact that in Asia he lacks the control or the skill to seriously worry top class opponents. There seems to be a distinct lack of spinning options available on the county circuit but this must highlight that there needs to be a change.
The improvement of Adil Rashid is certainly a positive to take forward from this tour but it has taken a considerable amount of time. Having played in the UAE last winter it will now be a few years until England play test cricket in Asia again. Lessons that need to be learned will more than likely be ignored until they get into the same problem again in a few years’ time.
What this result has shown everyone is that England’s selectors are continually trying to put square pegs into round holes. The role of Andrew Strauss needs to be explained fully. He has certainly improved the fortunes of the white ball side but must now be considered a failure with the red ball. Someone more in touch with the game needs to come in at the end of this series and one who can start to build towards the tour of Australia next winter.
His colleague James Whitaker should certainly fall on his sword after this series. Both Strauss and Whitaker have been unable to identify suitable coverage for the team on a gruelling tour and this constant belief that bit part players will succeed in Test cricket is ridiculous. If Gary Ballance was dropped for performing poorly, then so too, should the selectors after this latest debacle.
The likes of Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell should be approached about their thoughts on the talent that lies in the County Championship. These are the guys with the relevant experience and knowhow to pick out who has the ability. They play against, train with and socialise with all of them and as such are the people best placed to select the squads.
It could be too soon for sweeping changes. England might improve in Mumbai but there is also a concern now that improvement might paper over the cracks and allow these mistakes to continue. The side has performed well for a significant period now but those final steps appear to elude them at every turn.
Test cricket is a place for specialists and not bit part players. India are the leading side in the game at the moment and that is how they set out their team. A wicket keeper, a number three or four and a spinner are all that is separating England from being a top side.
By Andy Hunter