If a week’s a long time in you-know-what, then 14 months is an eternity for an England Test-match batting line-up that has been variously described as feeble/fragile/flawed/flimsy/frail (and anything else that may begin with an “f” – take your pick). So much so, in fact, that England haven’t recorded a first-innings total of 400 or more since December 2017 – and only one in the second innings.
In the intervening 15 Tests, England have averaged a distinctly underwhelming 260.80 runs in the first innings, including totals of 58 (v New Zealand), 184 (v Pakistan), 161 (v India) and now 77 and 187 against West Indies. And if you want to attach any blame to the pitches for those batting woes, then consider the fact that England conceded, on average, a first-innings deficit of 209.40 runs in those same five Tests. Altering inter-match conditions can clearly be an influential factor, and batting collapses can occasionally happen for no apparent reason, but for England to bat so supinely in five separate first innings in less than a year cannot be coincidental.
One can obviously take issue with the balance of the England side (exhibit A: too many all-rounders and not enough specialists) as well as an over-aggressive approach that has sometimes bordered on reckless (exhibit B: some genuinely dreadful shots played in both Barbados and Antigua).
But England’s batting travails run rather deeper than “reining it in a bit”, as they will almost certainly try and do in the St Lucia Test that starts today. The most conspicuous problem is that the county championship is gradually producing fewer and fewer England-qualified batsmen who are mentally and/or technically suited to Test cricket. Whither the next Strauss, Bell, Cook or Trott?
And why so? Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Until the championship is restored to being a season-long competition – rather than being largely confined to April, May and September, as has been the case in recent seasons – then the chances of it producing a regular supply of Test-quality batsmen, and particularly upper-order batsmen, are fanciful.
How are young batsmen supposed to learn their trade on green, seaming pitches when the next ball may very well be their last? It is so astonishingly sad that county cricket in high summer has, for the very most part, metamorphosed into instantly forgettable white-ball fare, rather than four-day cricket played on true, dry pitches?
Last summer, only six batsmen among those who played at least four games averaged over 50 in championship cricket while the average number of runs per wicket, at 26.70, was the lowest since 1974. Cheteshwar Pujara, who was India’s series-winning and much vaunted wall in his country’s recent maiden Test series triumph in Australia, averaged 14.33 in six matches for Yorkshire.
So, what’s the remedy? Oh, I’ve got an idea. Let’s introduce some utterly crap competition called The Hundred and play it in the high summer. That should improve the quality of England’s future Test batsmen. I despair. I truly do.