200 is an important milestone for a team to reach in the first innings of a Test match, and not just for symbolic reasons. Such a mark is a useful starting point because of what might be called the Bangladesh and Zimbabwe rule: both teams have the same number of wins when they have batted first and scored 200+ as they do when they score 175+ and 150+, with the number of losses increasing with each drop of 25 runs (such a 25-run drop has been employed in an effort to find the right balance of generality and specificity in trying to identify statistical trends):
It’s not an ideal metric, to be sure. First, the rule is in danger of becoming obsolescent as soon as either team’s next Test, or at least in need of an amendment. Second, those two teams have (excepting Ireland and Afghanistan) played the least amount of Test cricket, with an unavoidably smaller sample size as a result, meaning that there was more chance of such an occurrence even though it falls short of being a coincidence. Thirdly, there is not necessarily a direct drop-in win/loss ratio with each drop of 25 runs, even if that is the overall pattern, because of the existence of other factors which affect a score’s size and its effect on the eventual result. For example, Zimbabwe’s win/loss ratio when they score at least 225 batting first is slightly worse than when they score 200+:
It is, however, a justifiable metric, albeit one that can be improved upon. It also shows that for a team to systematically win Tests after bowling first and conceding 200+ runs in the first innings, they must have good batting quality. The last time that England won a home Test from such a position, every member of the Strauss Sextet (Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and, Matt Prior) were still around. The seventh man in the top seven was Jonny Bairstow. Actually, he batted at No. 6. But you get what I mean.
England faced that challenge in every match of that series against West Indies in 2012. They won twice and never had a chance to win the third game because of rain. Something a lot less pleasant than water poured down on English cricket after they next had to face such a preponderance of runs on the board, and Pietersen and Strauss never played together in Test cricket again.
The Cook Quintet (Pietersen instead of Strauss) were more successful than the Strauss Quintet (Strauss instead of Pietersen) at avoiding defeat in such a scenario – two draws (here and here) compared to a loss (here). But that quintet wasn’t to last: Pietersen never played Test cricket again after England’s tour of Australia in 2013-14 and Trott never played another Test in England. Only Cook, Bell and Prior remained from the original sextet. Sam Robson, Gary Ballance, Joe Root and Moeen Ali were their companions in the top seven when Sri Lanka and India came to English shores in 2014, and they were the ones who scored centuries in the opening four Tests of the summer. After the first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord’s, England fielded first in the next three Tests, twice by choice. On both occasions (here and here), they conceded more than 200 in the first innings and went onto lose the game. The other match was the last time that England has not lost after fielding first and conceding more than 200 in a home Test, and the flatness of the pitch was a disproportionately important factor in that result.
After the second of those two matches at Lord’s, Matt Prior bowed out. England recovered to beat India, who scored 330 in their next innings after having already given up 569 runs, and then India didn’t score 200 again in the series. The challenge didn’t come up for England in a home Test again until next summer. Even when it did, and it did on three occasions in 2015, it never came until England was already leading in series against New Zealand and then Australia (here and here). They could afford losses in those games and wins in other games meant the focus was not on those failures as much as it might have ordinarily been if that had not been the case.
Bell was dropped between winter tours later that year, meaning that Cook was the one batsman out of the Strauss Sextet still playing Test cricket when Pakistan posted 339 at Lord’s in 2016. He could find neither a century nor another batsman who could score a half-century, his team falling 67 runs behind the tourists and never managing to make up the deficit in the third and fourth innings of the match. It was the only time that England was in that situation in seven Tests that summer, and it was the last time that he experienced it in a home Test as captain. He experienced it as a player in two more home Tests, both at Trent Bridge (against South Africa in 2017 and India in 2018), before retirement. By the start of the World Test Championship, no member of the Strauss Sextet was still in the English side.
So, apart from the overall decline in England’s batting quality, are there other reasons as to why they have been unable to win or draw games when their opposition has scored at least 200 runs before they have had a chance to score one? Sure. There are good reasons to think that batting in Tests in England in the last few years has become harder, particularly in the first innings. For one thing, their opponents aren’t managing the feat that regularly against them either, at least in England: it has only happened four times since the last time that the hosts managed it.
For another thing, the scarcity of this feat being achieved in England, particularly from 2014 on, is not matched elsewhere, even by the English themselves. Drawing too many firm conclusions from such limited data is unwise, but it may be worth noting that Root scored a hundred in both wins. It doesn’t follow that it is necessary for him to do so on every occasion – indeed, it simply isn’t possible for him to do so – but it is symbolic of England’s reliance upon him.
It should be an interesting series, which is more than what can be said of the series in 2017-18. England would be extremely unlucky to suffer an early injury again, so that alone should help – Anderson’s injury had a major impact on the game at Edgbaston. The pitch may suit England’s strengths more – Edgbaston got progressively more spinner friendly to a surprising extent, with Australia having the advantage with Nathan Lyon over Moeen Ali, who England have now replaced with Jack Leach. Australia may yet make Rory Burns to this series what Paul Collingwood was to the 2006-07 Ashes – someone who struggled to back up big runs at the start of the series as the series went on because of a tactical adjustment by their quicks. In ’06, it was a readjustment of line, from the stumps to outside off. In this instance, it would be a change of angle from round the wicket to over the wicket. They may also, considering the coaching staff includes Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting, be able to follow the example of the Australians who went to Sri Lanka in 2004, and use a combination of patient bowling and positive batting in the second half of matches to regularly overcome first innings deficits, as they did at Edgbaston.
Or Australia might bowl first. But that’s for another article.