England start a five-Test series against India in just over seven weeks. The return of Ben Stokes for the start and Jofra Archer, midway through, will help with balance. But, batting disaster aside, what England have been crying out for at both Lord’s and Edgbaston is a spinner. Joe Root has far too much on his plate to be expected to hold up one end and hope for a mistake. Chris Silverwood, who earned his coaching stripes with Essex, a team built around the success of Simon Harmer, knows the importance of a twirly man. Jack Leach has done nothing wrong, and others – Moeen Ali, Matt Parkinson, Amar Virdi, Jack Carson – are waiting in the wings.
England cricketers used to play nonstop, darting from a Test to a County Championship game with only an uncomfortable drive down the M4 and a fried breakfast chaser in between. But over the last year, huge red-ball gaps have appeared in the CVs of some of England’s premier Test players, with Moeen, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, and Chris Woakes even appearing in coloured clothing in the T20 Blast last week while Root was handed a Test team short of the full menu. The reasons for this are laudable, giving players time out of the Covid bubble, resting bowlers’ weary bones, but England have planned around getting their hands on those Ashes. The best Test players need to be playing the long game.
Where else would you look in a time of crisis? Hiding in that Headingley dressing room are two batsmen to bring gumption and experience. In his one championship innings of the year, Dawid Malan looked the real deal while scoring 199 against Sussex, rescuing what has been a collapse-happy batting lineup with what one journalist called a “triumph of technique”. Malan says he’s learned from his failures at Test level and “still has a hell of a lot to give”. The other – don’t all shout at once – is Bairstow, who has six Test centuries to his name. Since 2018, Bairstow has changed batting positions 14 times in 18 Tests. Time for a bit of consistency – and a bit of love.
If it is a series victory against India that England are after, the easiest way is to send out instruction to the groundsmen post-haste: greentops wanted, nice ’n’ juicy. It’s worked before. But as Michael Vaughan stressed as Edgbaston petered to a close, Root must forget about getting the press off his back and free his mind from any memories of the Ahmedabad dust bowl where England were defeated in two days back in February. After the series defeat in India, he sensibly called for good wickets to be prepared in England, pitches where the bowlers had to find ways of taking 20 wickets and his batsmen, “get used to scoring big runs consistently”. He must stick to his guns.
There are only a couple of rounds of the championship before the Test series starts, it is not a time to start squirrelling for shadows. England are going to have to make do with what they know. And what do they know? That no one pings 267 against a good Pakistan bowling attack in their ninth Test without any talent. The third youngest Englishman after Sir Len Hutton and David Gower to score a Test double ton even got a letter of recommendation from Ted Dexter in last month’s Cricketer. Crawley also scores quickly. He may be a cocky young blade, but if he plays a rash shot after an hour, he trudges off with fifty to his name. In the current climate, that’s gold dust.