England should have thrown off the safety blanket and played Leach
➤ The Ageas Bowl pitch has replicated conditions found on the sub-continent – why not hand left-armer a shot?
England look like they should go on to win this game comfortably, barring many hours lost to rain. But I still think they will be disappointed with their lack of penetration with the old ball yesterday. They went almost 40 overs without a wicket, and did not look particularly threatening.
You might say, “Oh well, they are going to win the series anyway”. But look at the bigger picture. Man for man, they are far superior to both the teams they have played this summer, and there are tougher challenges to come – particularly away from home.
This surface at the Ageas Bowl has been dry and has not offered much bounce or pace. In other words, it would not look out of place in India, which is where England are next due to play Test cricket. Covid-19 pandemic allowing, they have five Tests waiting for them in the New Year.
With that in mind, I would have chosen Jack Leach for this match. An attack built around four seamers – three of whom are similar in style – is what you want for Perth, in the old days when the Waca pitch resembled a trampoline. And then they have gone for Dom Bess – whom I like as a cricketer – as a twirler who bats a bit.
I can see what the selectors were thinking. England’s batting has been shaky for years. So they wanted a couple of jacks-of-all-trades – Bess and Chris Woakes – to add a bit of security.
For me, the time has come to let go of the safety blanket. England have four good batsmen now – in Joe Root, Ben Stokes (when available), Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley – while Jos Buttler as the batsman-wicketkeeper is having his best Test yet.
OK, so the two openers need to iron out some technical glitches. But the selectors should start leaving the batsmen to get on with it, and picking bowlers for wickets rather than runs.
There may also have been some sentiment in the decision to play Woakes, after his magnificent match-winning innings at Old Trafford.
Yesterday, though, he was too similar to James Anderson and Stuart Broad. And maybe he is slightly heavy in the legs after playing the past four Tests and sending down 150 overs along the way.
I still think Leach is the No 1 spinner for England, even though he hasn’t played since he became ill over the winter.
As for Bess, I like his potential, but I don’t think he bowls a consistent Test-match line. In England, our off-spinners tend to bowl fairly straight at off stump. Whereas I would rather see Bess bowling outside off stump with loop.
If you get batsmen playing towards the covers, it brings the gate into play, and then the one that does not turn threatens the outside edge. The Australian, Nathan Lyon, is the best in the world at that, using variations of flight, pace and spin.
Bess has a lot still to learn. In India, though, he could have an important part to play, probably in support of Leach’s left-arm orthodox. Those are the conditions which neuter England’s traditional strengths of swing and seam.
My other observation on the day’s play relates to Jofra Archer. I feel like yesterday was a big improvement. Even though he did not get a wicket, it was nice to see him bowling with genuine pace, and Root using him in short, hostile bursts. Much better than trying to bowl longer spells of fast-medium.
The only problem is that there were too many short balls. Even at high pace, the length ball – or sometimes the full-pitched ball – is the one that takes the wickets. The one that flies through to the wicketkeeper past the batsman’s nose looks great, but it gets very few good players out.
When you do bowl short, it is tempting to bang it in, so that it takes off and goes over the batsman’s head. But you never saw Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall wasting their energy like that. Get it into the ribs, under the heart, or in an armpit. Then station a man at bat-pad and maybe one at leg gully. That is very awkward for anyone to play, especially a tail-ender. It is how John Snow got a lot of his wickets.
As a man who faced the West Indian quicks at the peak of their powers, I know what it is like on the other end: highly unpleasant.