There are so many contenders for England’s most abject batting display in recent years – they’ve been bowled out in a session several times – that this performance may scarcely gain a podium place among them.
But as Joe Root steered a wide one to gully, as Ben Stokes chopped on to his stumps, as Jos Buttler left one that hit his off stump and Ollie Pope somehow stretched to reach a wide full toss and hit it to cover – truly, a contender for worst Test stroke since Shannon Gabriel’s “why did he do that?” dismissal against Pakistan in 2017 – the poverty of England’s batting was revealed anew. This was, by any standards, a museum-quality display of dim-witted batting.
Let’s be clear on the context. Going into this Test, the England management – including the captain and coach – made it clear that this England side was going to adopt a different approach. This side, they said, was going to pride itself in batting time. They were going to shelve the aggression they had demonstrated under Trevor Bayliss and show they had the ruthlessness to grind out match-defining scores.
But like a smoker crazing that cigarette, like a junkie needing a fix, those old habits couldn’t be resisted. So instead of leaving the wide ball, instead of offering only the straightest of bats and the most determined of defence, England were seduced into flirts and forcing and failure. Yes, the day-five surface offered some variable bounce and yes, with the foot holes outside the off stump, batting was tough for left-handers. But for right-handers there was, in Stuart Broad’s words to the BBC ahead of play “nothing to worry about” from the surface. “There’s nothing in that pitch that should frighten us,” he said. “Nothing to stress us out too much.” He was probably right.
‘Ahh, but you have to play your natural game’ they will cry. But if your natural game isn’t good enough, if it keeps seeing you fail, you have to improve it. That’s part of the discipline – or should be – inherent in the life of an international athlete. BJ Watling’s resistance should prove an inspiration to England’s batsmen. There is no individual stroke he can play that Root, for example, cannot. But he seems to prepared to concentrate harder and work for longer. Put simply, England weren’t greedy enough with the bat.
Let’s be fair: this is, we’re told, the start of a new era for England. And as such, perhaps we have to be patient to allow the words and methods of the new coach to bed in. It will, they say, take time for the team to implement the new, more patient approach expected of them.
“Joe Root has never completely been able to shake the image of the little boy who, if he is really good, will be allowed to stay up late and watch Doctor Who.”
But it was no aberration, either. It’s not just that it was New Zealand’s third victory in four Tests over England. It was also England’s fourth innings defeat in 14 overseas Tests under Root’s captaincy. When you add to that two 10-wicket defeats and losses of 381 runs (against West Indies) and 120 (against Australia), a pretty clear – if grim – picture emerges: England are very poor away from home. It was last winter’s victory over a Sri Lanka side in transition that was the aberration.
Perhaps only Joe Denly, of the top order, can be exonerated in this innings. Having resisted for 142 balls, he attempted to leave one – a sensible choice – from Neil Wagner only to see the ball rear and clip his glove as it scudded through to the keeper. It was, from Denly’s point of view, unfortunate. But it is the sort of dismissal that occurs on fifth-day pitches. Had England taken advantage of winning the toss and recorded the sort of commanding first-innings score they should have done, Denly might never have found himself in such a position.
One of the crucial moments in this Test came when Stokes, supremely well set on 91 in the first innings, advanced down the pitch and attempted to thrash a delivery from Tim Southee into the Pacific. It was an impetuous, impatient shot and it opened the door to New Zealand. England subsequently lost 4 for 18 and the chance to set that commanding first-innings total was gone. Broad subsequently told the BBC England were anything up to “150 short on a pitch like this” and they had been “disappointed not to get 500 in the first innings.” Stokes’ dropping of Watling on 31 was key, too.
All of this will only increase the volume of voices questioning Root’s continued position as captain. The main issue is simply his lack of runs: after this, his worst Test (in games where he has, as captain, batted in both innings), he is now averaging 27.40 in 10 Tests this calendar year and 39.70 in 34 Tests as captain. Those are not small sample sizes and they compare to his average of 52.80 in 53 Tests when not captain. Increasingly, the burden of captaincy appears to be compromising his ability to deliver his key skill: run-scoring.
But there are also question marks over his leadership. He wasn’t able to lead by example by making a success of the No. 3 position and he wasn’t able to stamp his character on the team by successfully enforcing the positive style of play that was preached for a couple of years.
Root’s use – or over-use – of Jofra Archer is a worry and there is little evidence that he has the tactical nous to conjure wickets on tough days. Most of all, he has – perhaps unfairly – never completely been able to shake the image of the little boy who, if he is really good, will be allowed to stay up late and watch Doctor Who. This England environment looks just a little soft; just a little safe and there have been several times when it wasn’t clear who was leading it: Bayliss? Ed Smith? Ashley Giles? Or Broad and James Anderson? Root is 34 Tests into his career as captain – more than David Gower, Mike Brearley and Ray Illingworth, to name but three – and still the talk is of learning.
But Root is, despite recent struggles, probably still England’s best batsman. And he is, despite the obvious unflattering comparison with Eoin Morgan as England’s white-ball leader, still hugely respected and popular within the dressing room. And with a new head coach having just started, the England management will argue this is a new start to his period as leader. There is every indication Root will be allowed to continue to learn in the role.
Besides, there isn’t an obvious alternative. Although you could probably make a case for Broad, Stokes, Buttler, Rory Burns or, at a push, even Morgan, there isn’t any compelling evidence to suggest they would perform any better.
And that’s because they would still have to wrestle with the same issues: the county schedule and knock-on consequences to county pitches; the disparity between the Duke’s and Kookaburra balls; the emphasis on white-ball cricket for several years and the problems with the development of fast bowlers and spinners. It might help, too, if counties stopped promoting their overseas or Kolpak players into the captaincy and instead invested in developing leadership skills in young, England-qualified players.
With those factors in mind, Root probably deserves time to improve this team. But this was a deeply disappointing performance. At some stage soon, Root really does need to start repaying the huge amount of faith invested in him.