England hope it will be all right on the night against India

August 03, 2021

You would never have known there was a Test scheduled for Trent Bridge as you walked to the ground from the station the day before the series. You would know there was a new tournament where 'every ball matters,' of course. And you might even spot there was a T20 tournament called The Blast. But there was almost no sign of an imminent Test against one of the best teams in the world.

To some extent, that is because tickets for this match sold long ago. Whatever Test cricket's issues in the rest of the world, in most parts of England it still sells very well. It accounts for the bulk of the broadcast deal, too, though you would never know it to see the proportion of advertising dedicated to other formats.

The problem for England as they approach the LV= Insurance Test series against India, however, is that the lack of visibility of this series extends to their own planning and preparation. That's not to say they have skimped in training this week. Far from it.

But successful Test sides probably don't just come together a few days before a major series and hope to adapt. They train and play in similar conditions so they are mentally, physically and technically attuned. England, by contrast, have pretty much turned up and hoped it will all be all right on the night.

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this. Several batters (Joe Root, Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence among them) haven't batted in a first-class match since the New Zealand series, which finished on June 13. Jos Buttler hasn't batted in a first-class match since the Chennai Test in the first week of February. Jonny Bairstow hasn't played a first-class match since March and Sam Curran hasn't played a first-class game since England were in Galle (January). They're not giving themselves the best chance, are they?

At the same time, that schedule - that inability to allow players to recover or rest or even grieve - has accounted for two of their most outstanding cricketers. There seems every chance that neither Jofra Archer nor Ben Stokes will play another match this summer. Increasingly it's hard to avoid the conclusion that none of India, Australia or New Zealand are England's greatest competitor; it's their own schedule - their own cricket board, even - which is thwarting them.

None of this is the fault of the players or the team management. Instead, it reflects on a global system that prioritises money-making at every opportunity. A system which gave the prime weeks of the summer over to white-ball cricket in the hope that broadcasters would pay a few dollars more. A system which squeezes in extra series to appease broadcasters. A system which demands so much of its protagonists - not just players, but its administrators, too - that we have been accustomed to reading reports of someone else taking time out to recover from some breakdown or another. It really shouldn't be this way. Covid has exacerbated the issues - not least in effectively inserting extra IPL windows every few months - but it hasn't invented them. We service cars to stop them breaking down; we really need to be equally attentive to people.

Spare a thought for Chris Silverwood, the England coach, walking into all this chaos. When he took the job, it looked as if he had the nucleus of a side - Stokes and Archer and Olly Stone and Mark Wood - who might really be able to threaten Australia in Australia. But it's no longer guaranteed any of them will make the trip and he is forced to wrestle with a domestic structure that is designed to do nothing but feed the parasite that is the Hundred. Until that structure is improved, England will always face an uphill struggle to produce top-order batters.

Silverwood had an interesting theory when he started in the role. He reasoned that, if England were going to be the best side in the world, they had to learn to perform on the sort of flat tracks which they generally anticipate in Australia and New Zealand. There's some logic in the thought, too. England have, remember, won just one of their most recent 26 Tests in India, New Zealand and Australia dating back to the start of 2013. That's not World Test Championship winning form, is it?

So, England are expected to abandon plans to exploit home advantage in this series. As a result, they will have to do without the sort of assistance which saw India swept aside at Lord's on the last tour. Yes, England's seamers will still have a Dukes ball to use. But this India attack may utilise it just as well.

And that's a key point here. This is an outstanding India side who are hungry for success. They have world-class seamers, outstanding spinners and a batting line-up with temperament and technique from which several England players could learn. They look well-placed to capitalise on England's problems. Silverwood's policy looks brave and well-intentioned. But it also looks a huge risk. Put simply: India will never have a better opportunity to win in England.

The bigger picture is that England were hoping to be fine-building for the Ashes by now. Whether it should be or not, it has been a priority since the World Cup success of 2019. But instead of fine-turning and putting together a side which could win in Australia, it feels as if the management - through little fault of their own - are fire-fighting on a daily basis. Really, it's hard to be wildly optimistic over their chances in Australia, isn't it?

The ECB management will be sorry if England lose in Australia. Just as they were when an under strength England side lost in India. They want to win these series. They really do. But they want the money that comes with stuffing the schedule to bursting point just a little bit more. And until poor results threaten to compromise the financial value of such series, they will cope with the defeats. They can win this series - they have talented individual players and a strong team environment - but it will be despite the system if they do.

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