England's Test Tour of the West Indies
England recently completed a three match Test series in the Caribbean, which ended in a 1-0 defeat. The first two Tests were hard fought draws. In Antigua, the team recovered from another poor start with the bat through a century from Jonny Bairstow to post a decent first innings score. The small lead that the Windies had going into the second innings was taken away fast by a great partnership between Root and Crawley, and in the end the team ended the Test on top despite a comfortable draw. In Barbados, the first innings batting was much better than it has been in recent months: England posted a score above 500 for only the second time in over a year. However, the flat pitch and a dogged performance from Windies captain Kraigg Braithwaite, who faced 489 balls in his century, blunted England's new-look attack in another stalemate. All was set up nicely for the final game in Grenada. Yet England's batting collapsed under pressure again, and they were thrashed by 10 wickets. This meant they left the Caribbean empty handed, with fans and pundits once again questioning the abilities of this side. There are definitely many issues that have to be considered going forward if this team wants to win more games than it is at present.
The batting continues to be a concern, mainly the top order. Since Andrew Strauss retired ten years ago, England have had a revolving door when it comes to the top three, with debutants unable to find any rhythm. For this tour, Rory Burns was replaced by Alex Lees whilst Crawley kept his place. Lees has done reasonably well in the County Championship for Durham and previously Yorkshire and showed some promise against this Windies attack. He looks to have the patience required to succeed at this level: the first Test was not his best but his opening knock in the second Test was crucial in setting up the batting, with 138 balls faced and seeing off the new ball. This patience was then shown again in the final match, with over 220 balls faced in both innings, and he was comfortably the best batsman in England's top six. As we have seen though, whether he can continue to be consistent is the big thing for all of England's openers in recent times. His partner, Zak Crawley, has huge potential. His century in the opening Test was solid, but he has been plagued by inconsistency. His other scores in the series do not make for good reading: four times out of six he failed to pass 10 runs. The talent is there but the application on the international circuit at Test level is the real concern. Elsewhere in the top order, Dan Lawrence was given another go after Malan was dropped, yet struggled for the most part: Barbados was solid with 130 plus runs in two innings, but his performances at Antigua and Grenada were underwhelming. The issue, however, is who can come in to replace him: Ollie Pope is yet to really make his mark in the Test arena, and whilst Lawrence has occasionally been found out like Crawley, there is some potential in him.
In the middle order, Stokes and Bairstow did reasonably well with a century each respectively, yet apart from those innings both failed to pass 50 once. They are experienced Test match cricketers and are important for this side; yes, they can make mistakes, but arguably there are bigger issues for England to worry about currently, one of which is the wicket keeper. Ben Foakes was brought in after the Jos Buttler experiment in Tests appears to be over. Foakes, however, was poor with the bat despite his solid glove work. He made around 100 runs in six innings: the keeper is crucial for any batting line up nowadays and this has to improve if he can continue in that position. The bowling attack was also a major issue on the trip since England failed to bowl out the Windies twice in any game. Anderson and Broad were left at home, supposedly a tactical decision, but this selection has since been questioned. In their places came Overton and Woakes as well as debutants Fisher and Mahmood. Some showed great skill at certain points, but none were able to take a five wicket haul against a relatively weak batting line up. The pitches in the first and second Tests were also a factor, but you would expect more from any England attack. Meanwhile, the spinner, Leach, had a mixed tour. He was the leading wicket taker with 11 in total, but considering the amount of overs bowled, this was not the best return. At times he looks ineffective, being one to tie up an end as opposed to being an aggressive wicket taker. Yet, with that said, he is arguably the best option England have for now. Parkinson was the only other spinner in the squad, and is primarily suited to limited over formats as a cricketer: whether he can succeed at Test level is a big if.
The biggest concern from the tour is Root and his captaincy. He was England's leading run scorer with 289 runs, and his back to back centuries were impressive. Yet in the last Test he was unable to make an impact with the bat, and in the end his team slumped to a humiliating defeat. His captaincy has rightly been called into question as a result. It looks to be affecting his batting too often, and given that he needs to help this inexperienced line up, perhaps he is being asked to do too much. Five years at the helm appears to have taken its toll on him. Since England are also looking for a new coach, the time might be right for a change of captaincy too. But the real question is who would be willing to take it on. There are no obvious contenders: Stokes already has a lot on his plate as an all-rounder, all of the top order batters are fighting for their places, and Anderson and Broad are nearing the end of their careers. It might be possible, however, to have an interim captain in the meantime until an ideal contender emerges. Getting this decision and the new coach right is crucial given what the team has to deal with in the months ahead. They play a three match series against reigning world champions New Zealand at home in June in what will be favourable conditions for Southee, Boult and Jamieson, before further tough assignments against South Africa and Pakistan. At the moment, you would not have them as favourites for any of those series which reflects the size of the task at hand.
In summary, this was another difficult tour for England. There were some positives: the batting in the first two games was respectable and an improvement from the Ashes, but the bad habits are still there. These were most apparent in the final Test, where the pressure got to the team again and they failed to cope. Statistics do tell a story. They have now won one out of their last 17 matches: they last had a run this poor four decades ago. The structure of the side is an ongoing concern, and there are several gaps. Anderson and Broad will be back for New Zealand, and maybe there will be a new captain alongside the new coach, yet England still have plenty of issues to resolve. The top order is fragile in tough conditions, and the bowling attack proved on this tour that it is over reliant on two seamers now nearing the end of their careers. The team getting its house in order by the time of the next game in June is unlikely, but hopefully by the end of that series there will be something to build on and some signs of progression.
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