England recently finished a four-match Test series against India, just after playing a two-match series against Sri Lanka. This was six matches in rapid succession in subcontinent conditions and as a result both tours can be analysed together to give an indication of just how well England performed. On one level, results do tell a story. The Sri Lanka series saw England complete a second straight away-whitewash in that country, with victories in both Tests relatively comfortable, first by seven wickets and then by six wickets. In India, however, the team was less successful. After a complete, all-round performance in the first Test, England soon crumbled. The next three games saw heavy margins of defeat: 317 runs, 10 wickets and an innings and 25 runs. England thus have some important things to consider going forward, with a big year of Test cricket ahead.
The main concern for the side is the batting. As previously mentioned, although Sri Lanka was a positive result, there were cracks in the team that were only fully exposed by India. Joe Root carried the team in the first innings in both two games, and his contribution was fundamental to England’s success. In the first Test, the skipper scored 228 out of the 421 runs in total, and in the second Test, he scored 186 out of the 344 runs in total, and this means that over half of England’s runs came from Root. Compared to him, the others struggled. Openers Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley especially had troubles against spin, most notably that of Lasith Embuldeniya, and this trend continued in the India series. It is concerning when there is an over-reliance on one player because if that player struggles, then the team does too. And in the First Test against India, although it was a great all-round display, Root again carried the batting. He bagged another double ton to help the team to an imposing first innings total of 578, which set England up for the win. Other batsmen including Dan Lawrence and Jos Buttler had shown glimpses of form but the main reason why England posted big totals in the first three games in the subcontinent was the captain.
As a result, when Root began to struggle, the batting unit failed consistently. From the second Test against India onwards, the totals do not make for good reading: 134, 164, 112, 81, 205, 135. To not pass 250 once in six innings has to be a concern for coach Chris Silverwood. On one level, these numbers somewhat reflect the poor pitches produced by India. The pitch for the third Test in particular was widely criticised, offering extreme turn and bounce on day one, and the Test ended in two days. It was the shortest Test since World War Two, and both teams found it challenging with the bat. This helps to explain why the aggregate of the two innings from England was under 200, but they also let themselves down with poor shot selection and decision making. The second Test pitch was also not the best with its inconsistent bounce, but India showed that it was possible to play well on it, with tailender Ashwin scoring a hundred. Overall, in these games, a combination of poor pitches as well as England making mistakes is the reason why India won, and England must recognise this going forward – the pitches cannot be used as complete justification for their failure. Subcontinent conditions are always going to be different from playing at home or anywhere else in the world, but almost all Test sides now pick at least one spinner as a break from the fast bowlers, and England need to work on playing against spin. Even with the Duke’s ball and in seam-suited conditions, Ashwin, Axar Patel, and potentially Jadeja, will be threatening when England face India again at home this summer. In the absence of Jadeja, Axar Patel stepped in to take 27 wickets at an average of just 10.59 and Ashwin himself was the leading wicket taker in the series with 32 scalps. They were often able to bowl England out just between themselves. England thus have work to do improving how they play the turning ball, not only for this summer but also beyond. For the Ashes in Australia, Nathan Lyon will be a challenge. And, whilst the next tours in India and Sri Lanka are a long way off, England are scheduled to tour Pakistan for a three-Test series late next year. Playing well against spin is therefore a must for England to progress up the world Test rankings. They also need to look at which batsmen they want to take forward. There was plenty of rotation in Sri Lanka and India, and this is understandable given the amount of cricket to be played this year, but this also meant there was a lack of consistency. It is unclear who will play in the middle order especially, with several options used with variable success.
In the bowling department, England also have important things to consider going forward. A notable concern has been Dom Bess. He was the leading wicket taker in Sri Lanka with 12 wickets, and then did reasonably well in the first Test against India, picking up a four-for in the first innings. Yet, he was then dropped for the next two games, with captain Root concerned over his economy rate. This must have been a blow to his confidence, and when he came back to the side in the final Test he went wicketless. Bess was dropped in favour of Moeen Ali, who only played one game before returning home, and then England picked three seamers for the Third Test despite the pitch being suited to spinners. Then they almost went back to Bess with no clear plan, having somewhat unfairly excluded him. It appears that they support Jack Leach, who was the leading wicket taker in India with 18 scalps, and feel that captain Root can function as a part-time, support spinner. England are unlikely to play two spinners outside of the subcontinent, but it is important to have options. Bess is a capable option, but it’s clear that his exclusion could have an impact on his performances and confidence going forward. If Leach fails, then it will be interesting to see what happens, or it is unclear whether England will follow rotation in any case. England also need to look at the seamers. Anderson and Broad are still closely involved in the side, yet the pair surely cannot lead the attack into an Ashes in Australia. At least one of Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, or Olly Stone, who have express pace, need to be given significant game time. This will be important in Australian conditions, given that the pitches are better suited to pace than swing and skill, which Anderson and Broad nowadays utilise more.
This is an important period for the England side, with a jam-packed year ahead. With the IPL and the Twenty Over World Cup in quick succession followed by Test matches against New Zealand and India in the summer, before a crucial Ashes campaign. The subcontinent tours should, hopefully, have provided some key lessons. The batting needs to improve; there are still issues to be resolved over the structure of the side, and England need to pick a bowling attack that is well-balanced. Rotation can be expected this year, but it is important that it is managed correctly, and in Sri Lanka and India it didn’t seem like that was the case. Arguably too much rotation disrupted the rhythm of certain players. Michael Vaughan recently said that “Test cricket is dead” if England rest and rotate throughout the Ashes. Whilst this is perhaps over-dramatic, it is clear that, if they want to win in Australia, England will need to have the best players available and can in turn pick the best team. It will be about balance, as England will want to do well in both white-ball and red-ball competitions, but there may have to be some prioritisation, and hopefully the Ashes will get the bulk of attention being the historic and significant rivalry that it is.