England attack will need more variety for overseas tours
A successful summer at home should not disguise the fact that toiling on flatter tracks abroad has always been harder
After a summer in which they have been sustained by the brilliance of their seam bowling, it felt a little like the ghost of Chennai past. Four years ago, England toiled for 190 overs in the suffocating Chennai heat, as India reached 759 for seven; that Virat Kohli scored only 15 merely added to the ignominy.
Chennai was a nadir, but it was no one-off. Over the winters of 2016-17 and 2017-18, in India and Australia, England conceded more than 600 four times in 10 Tests. On three occasions, England won the toss, batted first, scored 400 – and still lost by an innings. Across the two series, each wicket cost them over 50 runs apiece.
The Dutch Disease is the idea that the rise of one area – like natural gas in Holland – can do damage to the economy by undermining other sectors. In Test cricket, there is the “English Disease”. The excellence of one aspect of the bowling attack – classical English seam – damages the rest of the attack by creating an over-reliance on seam at home, denying other types of bowlers opportunities to develop.
After the initial selection of only one classical English seamer in the opening Test against West Indies led to defeat, England reembraced their traditional strength. Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes have both played all five Tests since; James Anderson has also played five of the six summer Tests.
At home, the three deliver a remorseless attack. This summer, Anderson, Broad and Woakes have shared 61 wickets at a combined 18 apiece; Broad’s personal tally is 29 at an almost indecent 13. Little wonder England’s only Test defeat of the summer came when two of the trio were absent.
Yet their brilliance has come at a cost: denying the rest of the attack a chance to develop. And however long Anderson and Broad – who is still only 34 – continue their astounding careers, it is hard to imagine the two again lining up together in an away Test. It is almost inconceivable that the two and Woakes will again form a seam trio abroad.
On a slow, benign pitch offering little movement, the fourth day at the Ageas Bowl offered an unwelcome glimpse of what England could face when they return to India this winter.
England were never less than disciplined, as frugal as an accountant in yielding just 1.8 runs an over and not donating a single no-ball or wide. They were inventive, too. Dom Bess was afforded an extended bowl. Jofra Archer attacked in short spells and Broad tried wobble seam. There was just a scintilla of reverse swing.
But by the day’s end it had added up to only two wickets in 56 overs. If England’s attack were more disciplined than during those interminable days in India and Australia, it was scarcely more incisive.
There is some mitigation. The absence of Ben Stokes as a bowler is most keenly felt in situations like this. And after their exertions this summer, England’s bowlers could be excused some fatigue.
Yet it was hard to shake the feeling that, for all their progress, England’s greatest roadblock to mounting a serious claim to returning to being world No 1 remains. When pitches are flat and classical, English seam alone will not suffice, they are too often neutered.
It is easy to see the allure of Adil Rashid: England might seldom need him at home, but – shoulder and spirit willing – he could offer a new dimension on flatter tracks overseas.
And it is easy to see why England initially wanted to allow Archer and Wood an opportunity to bowl in tandem this summer.
Chris Silverwood termed the day “good practice” for the winter ahead. It was undoubtedly that – but it hardly felt propitious for England’s prospects when they return to Chennai.
Swing when you’re winning: Chris Woakes, who has a superb record in England, challenges the technique of Azhar Ali yesterday