England coach Trevor Bayliss has some thinking to do © Getty Images
The positive spin on England’s challenge in India in the coming weeks is to accept they go into it unburdened – wonderfully unburdened – by expectation.
They are second favourites for the Test series in the way an antelope is second favourite in an encounter with a lion. The team psychologist is most unlikely to be spend much time warning of the dangers of complacency.
Already, comparisons with 1993 are becoming apparent. On that tour, a tour that resulted in a whitewash series win for India, England attempted to play to their strengths and went into the first Test with an attack containing four seamers while the hosts selected three spinners. On that tour, England put their trust in a leg-spinner (Ian Salisbury) in the forlorn hope that his wicket-taking deliveries would compensate for a relative lack of control against batsmen well accustomed to playing spin bowling. On that tour, England recalled a veteran off-spinner (40-year-old John Emburey) and thrust their reserve wicket-keeper (Richard Blakey) into the Test team and found he struggled to compensate for the lack of experience in such conditions. Their best keeper, Jack Russell, failed to make the tour party on the grounds that his batting wasn’t up to scratch. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The comparisons do not end there. In 1993, security concerns were such that the first ODI, scheduled to be held in Ahmedabad, was abandoned which led to some players growing reluctant to leave their hotels.
Let us not dwell upon the non-selection of a senior player (35-year-old David Gower on that occasion) with a fine record in such conditions. Maybe no England batsman has played a better Test innings in India than Kevin Pietersen’s in Mumbai in 2012; whatever the rights and wrongs of the episode, it seems a shame such a talent (now aged 36) is no longer on the biggest stage. Equally, it is a shame that Monty Panesar is nowhere near selection these days. Aged 34, he should be at his peak.
England are missing James Taylor, too. There is no-one to blame for his illness, of course, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that he had nailed his Test career at the time it was abruptly curtailed. But, with his ability to manoeuvre spin bowling, the suspicion remains he would have been a vital part of England’s middle-order on this tour.
The Pietersen debacle is an example of how decisions made long ago can colour the present. So, just as the perfectly reasonable – admirable, even, in its consistency and patience – decision to persist with James Vince and Alex Hales throughout the English summer has left the team once again looking to fill holes in the batting line-up, so the decision to agree to this tour schedule has left England facing an imperfect cocktail of weariness and unpreparedness.
It would be simplistic to point the finger of blame at anyone for the schedule of five Tests in seven weeks without a warm-up game. While the current ECB chairman seems to have suggested it was the fault of the previous regime – forgetting, perhaps, that he was vice-chairman before his promotion – it is a systematic problem not the fault of an individual.
There is simply no time: this England squad left the UK almost the moment the season was over – several of them were rested from key end of season matches with the tour schedule in mind – and they return only four days before Christmas. If they want – perfectly reasonably – time off with their families on tour and to be home for Christmas, something has to give.
Remember, the limited-overs squad returns to India almost as soon as the new year has started and England will then play the longest home season in the history of international cricket in 2017. The business model is broken and, until it is mended, the fortunes of the team will always be compromised.
Equally, by arresting the disparity in priority between red and white ball cricket that has always pervaded in England, the last 18-months or so have witnessed a rapid improvement in their limited-overs cricket. If they go on to win that long-awaited first global ODI event over the next few years, it may well all seem worth it.
But it comes at a cost. So, encouraging Jos Buttler to play in the IPL – again, a perfectly legitimate decision – meant that he was unable to benefit from playing in the County Championship. He comes into this series having played just one first-class match since he was dropped about a year ago and has had little chance to resurrect the faults that led to his previous struggles. He is, for sure, a special talent. But has he been given the best chance to succeed? Clearly, he has not.
Those shifting priorities could become more of an issue in future years. There can be little serious doubt that the ECB hierarchy is prepared to dilute the quality of the county championship in order to establish a new-look domestic T20 competition. The best players will rarely, if ever, play red ball county cricket in the late-summer weeks when spin bowling would normally be at its most prevalent in England and, as a consequence, their ability to bowl it or play it in such conditions will be compromised. The ECB’s vision of the future – with the value and volume of Tests diminishing fast – may be accurate. Or they may be accomplices in the act.
England’s players face another long stretch © Getty Images
The standard of spin bowling in England has probably never been lower. Young players are provided so few opportunities to play in spin-friendly conditions and, with white ball cricket ever more important, it is hard to see how the situation will improve. Maybe, not so long from now, skills likely to be crucial in this series will be all but obsolete.
England are not going to get better at playing or delivering spin until it becomes a priority and the truth is that it isn’t. Defeat in India would hurt England but, if they go on to beat South Africa, win the Champions Trophy, and win the Ashes, it’s a pain with which they will cope.
None of this constitutes an excuse for England. They are not the only team with a hectic schedule – India’s is equally daunting – and they are not the only team which struggles in foreign conditions. It is just an explanation and an observation.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We are conducting the autopsy into England’s failure while the patient is still in decent health. England have proven, with victories in South Africa, with success in the 2015 Ashes and with their remarkable win here in 2012, that they deserve more respect than that.
They have more enlightened management, more positive outlooks and more unity than many previous England touring parties. Certainly far more than the 1993 squad. They have at least a couple of men who have already established themselves as greats of English cricket (Alastair Cook, James Anderson and arguably Stuart Broad) and a couple more (Joe Root and Ben Stokes) who may well do so.
And the pressure of expectation is all on India. If England can put together a decent start, perhaps the weight of a billion hopes will start to weigh heavy. Or if India try to destroy England rather than just trying to beat them – if they look for revenge for 2012 and 2014, if they prepare vicious turners or attempt to hit Moeen Ali and James Anderson into oblivion – it may let them in. That old line about revenge being best served cold remains true.
So of course England have a chance. But success in series like this will always come against the odds as long as the value of spin in England is so low and while the importance of the County Championship is being eroded. And while the ECB talk a good game about the pre-eminence of Test cricket, their actions don’t match their words. As Meat Loaf almost put it in the best-selling song of 1993: they’ll do anything for Test cricket, but they won’t do that.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo