In life, one of the hardest things to be is consistent. Certainly, in the sporting world, the very best are defined by their ability to stay at the top for long periods of time. It requires pragmatism, boldness but, most of all, versatility. A team needs to be able to adapt their game to different situations against all opponents.
So while England’s prime ambition is, without a doubt, to be the number one side in the world, their display at Trent Bridge not only left a lot to be desired, it also told us that there is still a very long road ahead. Their two batting displays were insipid and lacked intelligence. And boy did Joe Root’s men pay the price, losing the match by 340 runs.
True, an attack featuring the superb pair of Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel will cause many sides problems – something Australia and New Zealand have painfully found out in recent times. Yet this is a South African side that are not the fearsome outfit they were in previous tours in 2008 and 2012 as a result of the departures of Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher, along with a continuing set of injuries to leading paceman Dale Steyn in recent years. Consequently, England finally have a realistic chance of beating South Africa in a Test series at home for the first time since 1998.
But England are making things extremely difficult for themselves and it could well be as a result of their approach. Since taking over as England head coach, it is well known that Trevor Bayliss has wanted to instil a positive, attacking way of playing Test cricket in order to take the game to the opposition. Indeed, in March, ECB chief executive Tom Harrison said that he wanted England to play ‘bold and brave cricket’ under new captain Joe Root.
The insistence on playing this way can, of course, draw positives. It means plenty of entertainment for the crowd and excites thousands of others watching on TV. In addition, when it comes off, as it did in the first Test at Lord’s, England look like one of the most thrilling sides around to watch and the world all seems rosy.
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the drawbacks are outweighing those positives. Firstly, England now seem to be a one-dimensional side when it comes to their batting. While the approach of playing in an attacking way seems the right way to go on some occasions, there are other times when pragmatism has to be the order of the day. Bowling South Africa out for 335 was a good effort by the bowlers, but it needed a steady, sensible batting display to back it up. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
England were guilty of playing too many attacking strokes and were bowled out for just 205. It was a golden opportunity missed. So when a second chance came around on the fourth day, albeit facing a daunting target of 474, you would have been forgiven for failing to find an England fan who thought that their side were capable of at least batting time to give the inevitable defeat some respectability.
This was not a one off either. In India, England were found victim of playing high risk shots instead of working the ball around and grinding the bowling down. Their impatience was especially apparent in the third Test at Mohali. The then captain Alastair Cook won the toss on a flat looking wicket and chose to bat. And England had the perfect opportunity to put India on the back foot by scoring big, much like they did in Rajkot, and stop the home side’s increasing momentum. The situation needed disciplined batting.
What followed were profligate dismissals as England, for some reason, took the option of aiming to beat the Indian bowlers into submission. The likes of Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler all perished in a reckless manner as England let a golden chance slip away, with the series in the balance. And for all the talk of the excellence of spin duo Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, it was England’s recklessness with the bat that was the real reason why that particular series was thrown away.
So the fact that the same issues are proving England’s undoing again is a major concern. And consequently, it has meant that they have failed to match their undoubted potential with much-needed consistency in the Test arena. England have won two Tests on the bounce only three times since the start of the 2015 season and, to underline their inability to bat long periods, of their last 14 Tests at home since July 2015, only two have gone into the fifth day.
The point is clear. To be the best side in the world, consistency is paramount, yet England’s high-risk approach to Tests means that it is almost impossible to sustain a period of favourable results. Their latest setback at Trent Bridge proved that, without a change in mindset, the goal of being number one again will be far more difficult than they may have imagined.