June 27, 2014

England's new era: a definitive analysis

Maybe it's a time for grand defeats. Whoever said a new era has to do with winning?

"Knackered? I've an idea - why don't you bowl some more?" © Getty Images

There has been much ridicule directed at the ECB for its recurrent pleas that this is a new era for the national side, but in my opinion this particular criticism has been entirely unjustified. After all, who says eras have to involve winning?

One definition of "era" is simply "a long and distinct period of history". With England's previous era having been one of the more successful in the team's history, it therefore makes perfect sense that the next one should involve an endless series of embarrassing defeats. That stark contrast simply provides us with the means to distinguish between the two.

What else defines this new England era? There was much talk after the Ashes of how England were going to move towards playing a positive, attacking brand of cricket. What was conspicuously lacking was any real detail as to what this actually meant. Fortunately we've had two Tests now, so we can see the changes for ourselves.

Firstly, great store has been put in watchful, patient top-order batting. This has been a huge change. Gone are obdurate, accumulative batsmen like Michael Carberry and Jonathan Trott, to be replaced by obdurate, accumulative batsmen like Sam Robson and Gary Ballance.

Then there's the bowling. Diversity and a balanced attack have been spurned in favour of relentless fast-medium. When the pitch and weather conditions are amenable to fast-medium, England are going to look unstoppable. At all other times, stopping won't be an option until the opposition captain declares.

This seems one of the most striking changes. Even in the previous era, it wasn't uncommon for the England side to go through spells where they couldn't take a wicket. Invariably, someone would question the captain's wisdom and the team would come up with a new plan. There's none of that insurrection any more. You question the captain, you get the sack. Everyone knows the rules.

The way it works in the new era is that England see Plan A through to its logical conclusion, even if that logical conclusion is the opposition adding a couple of hundred runs with their tailenders. Plan B is resorted to only when the seam bowlers are too tired to properly execute Plan A and preferably not even then.

Plan A will vary depending on the match situation. When England were pushing for a win in the second Test, we saw an intriguing and innovative approach while Angelo Mathews and Rangana Herath were at the crease. This particular attacking brand of cricket involved playing defensively for two-thirds of an over and then playing defensively in an entirely different way for the final third. For four balls, it was all about preventing boundaries and then for two balls it was all about preventing singles. Mathews did well to withstand England's aggressive onslaught of wide military-medium long hops with the field bearing down on the boundary boards.

Other than the results, perhaps the most striking difference between the new era and the preceding one relates to spin bowling. England are well aware that they no longer have a bowler of the calibre of Graeme Swann. Fortunately, their overwhelmingly fast-medium-centric approach makes up for that through allowing Moeen Ali to be kept nice and fresh at all times. Sometimes entire innings can pass by without his having to dip into his energy reserves even once - even when it's 600 for no loss and the four pace bowlers are on their knees.

This, presumably, is how he found the strength to play such a blinding innings this week. Perhaps the new era will be defined by a whole slew of valiant Moeen Ali hundreds in losing causes.

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket