Joe Root, captain of the England cricket team, said his side had to “learn from the challenges” of playing in India after their chastening Test series defeat earlier this month. He put a brave face on a crushing disappointment. This should have been a wonderful series, but as with so much sport at the moment, Covid put paid to that. Being in a bubble and having to play four Tests in rapid succession are not conducive to proper sporting contests.
England were undone by a rather ham-fisted squad rotation system that saw key players coming and going at regular intervals. The idea is well-meaning – England have an impossibly demanding schedule this year and fear player burnout – but the policy was disrespectful to India, currently the world’s strongest cricketing nation. England have said that they might resort to rotation again during the series against Australia in the winter, but will they really? One feels that the series against India is seen as a rung below an Ashes tour: an outdated view now that India are so compelling.
Mr Root’s pleasingly counterintuitive big idea is to make English domestic cricket more boring by giving extra bonus points to teams that manage to eke out a draw. Forget the gung-ho, win-at-all-costs mentality long espoused by England; bat long and bowl tight is now Mr Root’s mantra. Geoffrey Boycott, that stubborn occupier of the crease, will be delighted. Mr Root reckons the pitches in the county championship are too helpful for the medium-pace trundlers who have always been the backbone of the English first-class game, and wants better wickets that encourage out-and-out fast bowlers and spinners. It was India’s spin supremacy that was the difference in the Test series.
Mr Root’s notions are eminently sensible. Traditionally, Test batsmen have learned to play big innings, and bowlers have developed a bit of mystery in the county championship – the long form of the game beloved of cricketing purists. The problem, though, is that those four-day games will henceforth be relegated to the beginning and end of the season: fresh spring and dewy autumn – when conditions favour the sort of English-style seam bowlers who would rarely do much damage on a benign Test match pitch. This summer will be given over largely to one-day cricket, in particular the launch of The Hundred, the controversial attempt to compete with the razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League.
English cricket needs a rethink and overhaul, not least when there appears to be a longstanding failure to address institutional racism. But it is also being pulled in two directions: between the playing needs of the Test team and the perceived financial needs of the game more widely. Long-form cricketers will not be developed amid the pyrotechnics of The Hundred. A quick 30 could win a match in the latter; in Test cricket batsmen need to be capable of scoring double-hundreds. England will resume their battle with India on Friday, with a fresh set of personnel and playing the Twenty20 format in which they currently lead the international rankings. They are unlikely to crumble as they did in the Test matches, but the conundrum for English cricket is that privileging this form of the game may be damaging the Test team. Twenty20 and the new-fangled Hundred may be delightful desserts, but what about the main course?