Sport

Ground rules for England to follow as Joe Root rebuilds his Test team

This weekend England’s cricketers, on tour far away, completed a whitewash. But you may have missed it, because England’s other cricketers had just gone down to a heavy defeat. A resounding success for the women in New Zealand couldn’t compete with another shocker from the men in India.

There are some sports-loving nations where people lose interest when their flagship sinks, but in Britain they’re more likely to revel in it. On the Guardian’s over-by-over coverage, the mailbag treats triumph and disaster just the same – with rueful ribaldry. You don’t have to be a masochist to support England, but it definitely helps. Inside many cricket lovers lurks an old scold, and some of them are only after one thing: nagging rights.

The most asked question in cricket is, of course: “Howzat?” The second most asked question may well be: “Where do England go from here?” For most of the players, the answer this time is home, thankfully: let’s not play down the burdens of the biosecure bubble. For others, it’s nowhere: on Friday, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow are due back in the Ahmedabad enormodome for the first of five Twenty20 matches.

The one thing that was novel in England’s approach to this series was rotation, which is being blamed in some quarters for their defeat (morning, Sir Geoffrey). But it wasn’t rotation wot lost it. On those dusty tracks, the wheels would surely have come off anyway. To bounce back from 1-0 down, India had to go to extremes. They prepared extreme pitches, making sure the endgame began on the first day (this is not a complaint: for entertainment, a dustbowl beats a shirtfront every time).

India also produced extreme performances. The award for player of the series, given to Ravichandran Ashwin, could just as well have gone to Rohit Sharma or Rishabh Pant, for their match-winning masterpieces, or to Axar Patel, whose debut-series haul – 27 wickets at 10 – felt like revenge at last for Fred Trueman taking 29 at 13 to torment India in 1952.

Joe Root has now captained England in 50 Tests, exactly half of them at home, which makes the percentages plain to see. At home he has won 16 Tests and lost six; on tour he has won 10 and lost 12. Of those 10 away wins, nine have come against teams below England in the ICC Test Championship. The victory at Chennai was Root’s first as captain in any of the top three nations in the Test world – India, New Zealand or Australia. It was a leap forward, even if it was followed by three steps back.

Captains are often judged by win percentage, which is hard on those who played in the age of the draw, up to and including Alastair Cook. A better yardstick, fiddly as it sounds, is wins divided by losses (W/L). For Root that figure is 1.44, which places him well below the four great England men’s Test captains since the 1970s – Mike Brearley, Ray Illingworth, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss, all on at least 2.18. Root is well above some other big names – Cook, Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton, Tony Greig, David Gower and Botham, who managed not a single victory.

In terms of results, the captain Root most resembles is the man he once impersonated on telly: Bob Willis. Root’s W/L is 2.67 at home and 0.83 away. It looks bad, but is actually typical of Test cricket today. Even before the pandemic, touring teams were arriving undercooked and leaving, a month later, overwhelmed. In India, England didn’t even have an intra-squad warm-up.

There has to be some rotation for all-format players, given the bubble and the packed programme. But England are new to it and, as Root said afterwards, they need to finesse it. In India they rotated a lot for the Tests and not at all for the T20s (the one-day international squad has still to be announced), which was patently unfair on Root. Eoin Morgan is a better captain, with a more settled side, and a place already booked in the pantheon. Of course England want to win the T20 World Cup in October, but not at all costs.

The rotation policy handled Stokes the right way, letting him skip Sri Lanka, the lesser of the Test series. That probably led the management to offer Jos Buttler, Root’s other lieutenant, a different “block of rest”, as they call it. In hindsight, it would have been better to leave Root with Jimmy Anderson as vice-captain in Sri Lanka than to leave him without Buttler for three Tests in India. In a low-scoring game, a counter-attack can make all the difference, as Pant gleefully showed.

Buttler’s strategic acumen could have saved England from picking too many seamers for one Test and too few for the next. Although he’s a better white-ball than red-ball player, Buttler’s brains are needed more in Tests. He might even have come up with a plan B, something Chris Silverwood seemed to lack once his bat-long mantra was spun to smithereens.

Out of the ashes of defeat, and before the Ashes of 2021-22, England could do with some rules of thumb. Here are The Spin’s:

1) Don’t leave big players out of big series.

2) Don’t fly anyone out and back and out again. Instead, commit to halving England’s air miles – cricket’s carbon footprint is a scandal.

3) Give the management some leeway, to hang on to a player in form (Bairstow, Moeen Ali) or excuse one who’s busy doing nothing.

4) Cut down on the backroom staff. To have one batting coach may be considered a necessity; to have four looks like confusion. Let’s have two: one for the batsmen, the other on a mission to find the all-rounder in Jofra Archer.

5) If you’re going to have travelling reserves, use them. What are three spare spinners for if they can’t get arrested when Dom Bess has lost his length?

6) Consider horses for courses. England badly missed Keaton Jennings, who averages 44 in Asia. They’re in danger of doing the same with someone who averages 42 in Australia: Dawid Malan.

7) Accept that Test cricket is now a game of two squads. India’s victories against Australia and England came about because their understudies stepped up. Washington Sundar has more runs in four Tests this winter than Virat Kohli has in five. Even sorcerers need apprentices.

8) If in doubt, turn to Samuel Beckett. Rotate again. Rotate better.

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If you had to pick a team now for the first Test against New Zealand on 2 June, what would it look like? Maybe not very different, if we want to offer a shot at redemption to all the young batsmen currently nursing bruised averages.

That’s assuming Root can’t be persuaded to go back to No 3 and Stokes, Buttler, Moeen and Archer don’t reach the IPL final on 30 May. If Buttler’s not there, the gloves go to James Bracey, a Test novice but already a bubble veteran. If Moeen is unavailable, Leach keeps his place and Woakes pips Broad on the strength of his batting. Against India in August, it’s the same XII but Leach squeezes out Broad in the unlikely event of a dry surface.

For Brisbane in December, Burns returns, edging out Sibley with his back-foot game and an Ashes hundred in the bank. Malan comes in at No 3, adding grit and leaving Pope and Lawrence to tussle for No 6. Pope, like Malan, is one of the few England players who do better abroad, a quality that Andrew Strauss earmarked as vital when he was running the show. England spinners barely register at the Gabba, so Leach can bide his time.