England’s chastening 4-0 Ashes defeat in Australia gleaned precious few positives and followed an all too familiar script of meek defeats away from home. However symptomatic this may be of England’s problems, no side in world cricket have truly shown themselves capable of winning consistently in recent years when deprived of home comforts.
Devoid of the kind of pace that gets wickets on flat pitches, England look rudderless when the ball does not swing. A low-80s mph pace attack will rarely trouble batsmen, nor will they generate the kind of devastating bounce that has wreaked havoc with England’s own batting cards in previous Ashes tours.
‘England are scared to produce fast bowlers’ went the verdict from West Indian great Michael Holding last week. Rather the much-maligned absence of true quicks is due to the precious little incentive there is to develop 90 mph pacemen when medium-fast bowlers take wickets on English pitches. In Australia with the softer Kookaburra, or on the sub-continent where the pitches are also flatter and drier, pace is everything.
These struggles contrast greatly with England’s home record. With the Dukes ball the side are a completely different proposition. As the ECB produce pitches that complement the overhead conditions, they blow opponents away with devastating regularity.
Compounding this problem in Australia was the way captain Joe Root was hamstrung by a lack of a threatening spin option. Moeen Ali finished the series with an abysmal average of 115 with the ball, a few months removed from a man-of-the-series display at home against South Africa where he claimed 25 wickets.
This series laid bare the reality that England do not have a viable alternative to Ali. He is not a bowler who is handy with bat in hand, he is a batsman who has been asked to bowl off-spin and to tie up an end in the same way that Nathan Lyon, his opposite number, did so astutely.
While Ali, for the most part, has done a credible job it is glaringly obvious that he is performing a role he is not comfortable with. He is praised because his batting provides the side with greater depth and counter-attacking qualities lower down the order, but the truth is Ali is wasted at number seven or eight. One bad series does not, and should not, define a player, but his role is likely to change for him to remain in the team.
To their credit the ECB have taken steps at their facility in Loughborough to address the dearth of spin bowling options. They have also done away with the toss domestically by offering away sides in the County Championship the opportunity to bowl first, all in the hope that spinners bowl more on pitches that offer them something.
And yet those who need game time to aid their development are often not afforded the chance. Take 20-year-old England leg-spin prospect Mason Crane, a debutant at the SCG, who rarely plays the four-day game for Hampshire. Other players, like Crane, tend to be deployed in the shorter formats only.
The powers that be rightfully defend county cricket as the best place for would-be England players to stake a claim for selection, but continue to undermine it with a packed domestic schedule that places precedence on the shorter formats. Is it any wonder then that, with the jury very much still out on Mark Stoneman and James Vince, England have also been beset by an inability to fix the troublesome opener and number three positions?
The ECB though must show patience with this current crop of players in the uncomfortable knowledge that there are few available alternatives. However, with the likes of James Anderson and Alastair Cook entering the twilight of their record breaking careers, change is certain to arrive sooner rather than later.
Forward planning will be vital if England hope to return to the halcyon days that once saw them top the world rankings in all formats. With Trevor Bayliss confirming he will step aside after the 2019 Ashes, England’s more immediate task must be to cure their proverbial homesickness.
Image courtesy of Airwolfhound