England still in limbo as New Zealand series provides inconclusive Test reboot


What, in all honesty, have England learnt from their two-Test stopover in New Zealand? In one sense, it was a trip that lived down to its pre-series expectations, as a superbly well-drilled home team handed out a succession of lessons to a side that has neglected the longer format for several years now, and was unsurprisingly found wanting when those rusty attributes were suddenly called upon.

But on the other hand, it was a missed opportunity, not so much in terms of the scoreline – England haven’t won a single Test match in New Zealand since 2008, let alone an entire series – but in terms of how, and to whom, those lessons were handed out. With an arduous series in South Africa looming, the past month has served more as an exercise in confirmation bias rather than a Test reboot, leaving England no closer to answering their eternal selection issues than they were at the end of the home summer.

With the possible exceptions of Ollie Pope with the bat and Chris Woakes with the ball, no player in the course of the two Tests performed much better than the baseline of their pre-series expectations – a state of affairs which arguably reflects well on the three batsmen, Joe Root, Rory Burns and Ben Stokes, who arrived in the country with their places in the side secure and who duly topped the averages.

Unfortunately, the steady returns of those three (or in Root’s case, his dramatic upturn in form from first Test to second) were offset by the fact that more than a few of England’s squad members performed distinctly worse than anticipated. With the South Africa Test squad being announced on Saturday, we take a look at the movers and shakers in England’s brave new Test world.

Genuine progress

Ollie Pope (110 runs at 36.66)

Forget his absurd dalliance with the wicketkeeping gloves (honestly, of all the cupboards that England should find bare, when did that one get emptied?), Pope’s display of doughtiness in the second innings at Hamilton was the single biggest discovery of the series. Admittedly, it came on the flattest deck in humanity, so it would be advisable to curb the enthusiasm just a touch. Nevertheless, it was the performance that England needed to revive any hope of a series-squaring win, and the chance to spend the best part of two sessions watching and learning from England’s modern master, Joe Root, will have been invaluable.

Chris Woakes (4 wkts at 23.75)

There were some seriously slim pickings on the bowling front for England, as their haul of 20 wickets across two Tests amounted to their worst collective strike-rate in Test history. But Woakes was a relative revelation, albeit from a similarly low base. His self-confessed “surprise” at earning a recall in Hamilton was reflective of a pretty terrible overseas record – just 18 wickets at 61.77 in 12 previous Tests. But, by focusing on a relentless line and length and accepting any lateral movement as a bonus, Woakes was able to emulate the “bowling dry” tactics that James Anderson and, before him, Matthew Hoggard espoused when out of their comfort zones. And when he did finally nip one off the seam, he was already in the right areas for Tom Latham to nick to slip.

Marginal gains

Sam Curran (6 wkts at 39.66, 40 runs at 40.00)

The jury is still out on what, exactly, Curran brings to this England team, besides bucket-loads of competitive spirit (which is not a trait to be under-valued) and an unconventional line of attack. His pace is pop-gun, and his bouncer brings to mind Dominic Cork’s, in that it looks innocuous but is often well-enough directed to trouble batsmen who ought to know better. But when armed with the new ball, he extracted as much movement as any player on either side, and thanks to a brace of not-outs with the bat, his allround attributes had been enhanced by the end of the tour too. Vernon Philander is living proof that there is a place for medium-pace in South Africa. But Curran’s yo-yo selection record shows no sign of an early end.

Joe Denly (113 runs at 37.66)

The less said about that catch, the better – or about the second Test as a whole, really, where Denly succumbed cheaply to one of the better balls of the series. However, his efforts in the innings defeat at Mount Maunganui are worthy of recognition, in that he came about as close as any England batsman to meeting the cautious, crease-occupational demands of England’s new era. No-one truly believes that Denly is the answer to all of England’s problems, but he’s a senior player in this side by dint of his long county experience, and with five fifties in his last five Tests, he’s giving himself a chance to be the stop-gap that they so desperately need.

Joe Root (239 runs at 79.66)

No-one should doubt the value of Root’s extended net at Hamilton. Ten-and-a-half hours of crease occupation on the deadest of decks may not be definitive proof of an overdue return to form, but it gave him the in-game opportunity to iron out the flaws that have dogged his game all year long, particularly his balance at the crease which was notably more fluent by the end. And by then he had answered his critics in emphatic style at precisely the moment when the doubts about his captaincy were at their loudest. Arguably, his leadership from the front merely deferred that issue rather than quashing it – Root remains a grimly reactive leader whose win-loss ratio resembles a coin toss. But with the mounting exception of Rory Burns, there’s really no-one else in the squad remotely qualified for the role.

Rory Burns (184 runs at 61.33)

For the first time since Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook were bankers at the top of the order, England are set to start and finish a calendar year with the same opening batsman in situ. It’s a fact that both underlines Burns’ achievement in bucking a trend that has devoured previously likely lads such as Adam Lyth, Mark Stoneman and (in seaming conditions at least…) Keaton Jennings, but also emphasises how small his sample size still remains. Nevertheless, it’s hard to quibble with a fifty and a century in consecutive Tests, even if he was monstrously fortunate to survive a messy third evening at Hamilton.

Steady as she goes

Ben Stokes (145 runs at 48.33; 2 wkts at 84.00)

Expectations are heightened for this year’s BBC Sports Personality-elect, and so the fact that he did not exceed them doesn’t mean that Stokes had an especially poor series. Nevertheless, he seemed in a bit of a bind as England’s new era began – he was seeing the ball so well at Mount Maunganui until a single mistake derailed England’s first innings, and thereafter he seemed reluctant to trust his fluency, as if uncomfortably aware of what would happen if he gave his wicket away again. His bowling was typically wholehearted but England’s attitude to his dodgy knee is terrifying.

Stuart Broad (4 wkts at 41.25)

We learnt nothing about Broad that we didn’t already know – which on the one hand is reassuring, for his four-wicket haul in the first innings at Hamilton was a real old pro’s performance: canny, patient and resilient, and evidence that he’s still got it as England embark on a new Test cycle. But he has started to become the fall guy for England overseas – he missed three of England’s six Tests in Sri Lanka and West Indies last winter – and if James Anderson and Mark Wood are fit for South Africa, there are no guarantees he won’t be squeezed again. It is, you could argue, a better problem to have than most.

Jos Buttler (43 runs at 21.50)

Caught in two minds like Stokes, but with extra jeopardy, given that there’s only room for one wicketkeeper, and Jonny Bairstow will be gunning for his gloves in South Africa. Buttler’s back injury in Hamilton was terrible timing in so many ways, for the suspicion is growing that No.7 is his only viable berth now that the Test team has pivoted towards old-school values – and if Bairstow finds form in South Africa, it’s hard to see how England make room for them both. Served up a handy rearguard in the first innings at Bay Oval, but his indecisive leave on the final day epitomised a team that is no longer sure whether to stick or twist.

Slipping off the pace

Jofra Archer (2 wkts at 104.50)

He’s not the messiah! But that might actually prove to be a blessing in the long term, given the unreasonable expectations that had been placed on Archer before the tour. He looked, more than anything, like a man in need of a rest – who can imagine how drained he was by that meteoric rise in England’s summer to end all summers. But he’ll have learnt a huge amount on this brief trip – about the Kookaburra ball, about overseas pitches, overseas crowds, and workload management. On the plus side, his variations were in full working order … even if his fielders weren’t.

Jack Leach (2 wkts at 76.50)

Irrespective of a bout of gastroenteritis that made his non-selection a moot point, Leach’s omission at Hamilton was a huge vote of no-confidence for the only specialist spinner since Graeme Swann to even remotely look the part. England missed him by the end of the match too – in his short Test career, he’s claimed 23 wickets at 20.26 in the third and fourth innings, so it’s not as if he’s been an abject failure in his primary role. But for whatever reason, England have seen fit to send a message that he’s not quite what they are looking for.

Dominic Sibley (38 runs at 12.66)

He’ll surely get another go in South Africa, because England prefer to give too many chances, not too few, but there wasn’t a whole lot of encouragement to be taken from Sibley’s initial forays in New Zealand. Granted, his first act in Test cricket was to play a part in a fifty-run opening stand, and England haven’t produced too many of those in recent times. But the manner in which he was twice clocked on the helmet – once in the Whangarei warm-up, once in the Hamilton Test – was a concern, especially on pitches this slow. Kagiso Rabada will doubtless have taken note, let alone Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Co.

Zak Crawley (1 run at 1.00)

One innings, six balls, one run, one nick-off to the keeper. What can you read into that? Next to nothing, especially as he’s surely going to be squeezed out for the South Africa tour, but at least he’s been blooded at Test level now. His fielding lacked a touch of co-ordination too, but at least he wore a smile in adversity (not least when his Kent team-mate Denly dropped that clanger).

Rising in absentia

Jonny Bairstow

His absence was felt when Buttler went lame, but to give the selectors their due, they were right to stick to their guns having chosen to drop Bairstow for the New Zealand Tests. It would have been easy to keep him on as cover when Denly rolled his ankle in the warm-ups, but that would have amounted to a pretty lame kick up the backside. After all, Bairstow has averaged 20.25 in his last nine Tests – a woeful return for a player of his talent. On the plus side, everyone knows what Jonny can do when he feels he’s got a point to prove.

James Anderson

Will his calf hold up? That’s the only concern as England prepare to welcome back their all-time leading wicket-taker. The ultimate takeaway from those dead-deck drubbings in New Zealand is that the attack sorely misses Anderson’s mastery of his craft – his relentless accuracy as much as his ability to make the new ball talk.

Mark Wood

He bowled like the wind in his last Test appearance, against West Indies in St Lucia in February, and having missed the Ashes with a side strain, he’ll be gagging to make up for lost time on the eve of what will be his 30th birthday in January. Injury management comes as part of the package where Wood is concerned, but like an over-eager spaniel, he rarely holds back in anticipation of another breakdown.

Moeen Ali

Is he ready to get back on the Test treadmill yet? Moeen sounded pretty ambivalent during the Abu Dhabi T10s last month, but Joe Root’s sweet-talking could hardly have been more earnest in the wake of the New Zealand Tests. He’s a team man, ultimately, and that will probably tip the balance.

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