England v South Africa, 2nd Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 4th day July 18, 2017

England struggle with naive approach in Tests

The side has had a few good wins during Trevor Bayliss' tenure, but the problems that harried the side when he took over, still remain, raising the possibility of a split coaching system
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Play 02:07
Why are England so inconsistent?

It was probably fitting that England lasted around 50 overs in both their first and second innings at Trent Bridge.

Fifty overs is, after all, the length of an ODI innings. And such is the obvious prioritisation of the white-ball formats in England these days - you don't send incumbent Test players to the IPL while the County Championship is in progress if it isn't - that seems appropriate.

The ECB hierarchy always tell you that Test cricket is their priority. But their actions and words differ sharply. For if Test cricket was really the priority, they wouldn't push the County Championship into the margins of the season. If Test cricket was really the priority, they wouldn't have cut the first-class fixtures or created a window for T20. If Test cricket was really the priority, they would create a schedule that gave spinners a decent chance of developing rather than making life almost impossible for them. There are decent reasons for prioritising white-ball cricket - cricket really does need to re-engage with its audience in England and Wales and T20 is surely the vehicle for that - but less us not talk falsely and pretend that red-ball cricket has not been compromised.

Anyway, on a pitch on which South Africa's first innings lasted 96.2 overs, England's two innings lasted a total of 96.1. They haven't been bowled out twice in fewer overs of a home Test this decade. They had, as their coach Trevor Bayliss put it, "a shocker."

But while the speed of the decline was unusual, other aspects of this defeat were not. It was their seventh in 10 Tests, after all. They are a team that has not won any of their most recent three series and have been bowled out for 250 or fewer in 10 of their most recent 16 completed innings. This isn't an aberration; it's just a little worse than normal.

There is a key piece of mitigation for England here. It would be grossly unfair on an outstanding South Africa performance to focus purely on England's shortcomings. Vernon Philander's skill and Chris Morris' hostility were the standout features on the final day - it is very rare to see Alastair Cook defeated by a short ball as emphatically as he was here - but there were hugely impressive contributions from Hashim Amla, Dean Elgar, Morne Morkel, Keshav Maharaj and others earlier in the game. It was, unquestionably, a case of them winning more than England losing. They are No. 2 in the Test rankings for a reason.

Under Trevor Bayliss, England's white-ball game has improved significantly but their struggles in the Test format are all too familiar © Getty Images

But so many of the faults in this England performance were familiar. England's top-order fragility - their inability to replace Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott - extends back several years. So, too, the absence of variation - be it left-arm or outright pace - and the lack of quality spinners.

The shot selection, too, was poor. While many of the top-order dismissals in this game were from defensive strokes, there were still some crucial errors from bizarrely reckless shots: Joe Root's or Moeen Ali's wild drives in the first innings, for example, or Jonny Bairstow's heave to mid-on in the second.

And while the majority of other dismissals were, this time, from less extravagant (or even defensive) strokes, there is a recurring theme of England batsmen not knowing how to pace red-ball innings on anything but the flattest of pitches. With all the talk from the management - extending right up to the ECB's chief executive - is about 'positive' cricket, several of the players have lost the art of building an innings or defying the moving ball. Even if they want to by inclination, their minds may be clouded by the underlying focus on aggression. Here Keaton Jennings left a gate so large in his defensive prod that you could have put stone lions on either side and parked a caravan in it. He need only look at the example of Amla to see how it should be done.

All of which raised the question: have England made any progress in Test cricket under Bayliss?

When he assumed command, just ahead of the Ashes of 2015, England were an inconsistent Test team containing three or four young players of real talent, three or four very good experienced hands and three or four holes.

Now? They're pretty much the same. There have been some great moments - not least the Ashes success and victory in South Africa - but the inconsistency remains and so do the holes. The experienced hands are older - we may well be in the final six months of James Anderson's Test career - and not one player blooded during the Bayliss period has established themselves in the Test side. They're still very good on their day and they could still win this series. But it's hard to be wildly optimistic about the Ashes.

The standard of recruits coming from county cricket is a legitimate gripe from some in the England set-up, but the fact that so few have improved in the environment does not flatter them. The coaches seem to have very little accountability for that

There are some fundamental problems with Bayliss. The first is that he has very little knowledge of county cricket. He hasn't played it, he doesn't have the depth of contacts from which to garner opinions and, because of that, he can have little informed view on selection. For that reason, if no other, he was an extraordinary choice as head coach by Andrew Strauss.

Bayliss has clearly pushed an 'aggressive' mindset (remember his comments about wanting two "attacking-style batters in the top three"?) but, without knowing the red-ball ability of his options - he admits he has never seen Mark Stoneman, outstanding candidate for top-order promotion, bat in the flesh - he has instead tried to turn limited-overs talents into Test players. Jos Buttler was recalled to the Test team despite having played one first-class game in a year and, as a result, being given no chance to correct the faults that led to him being dropped; Alex Hales was promoted to Test opener and Liam Dawson has been selected largely on the grounds of being a 'good bloke'. By such criteria, Nelson Mandela would have opened the batting for South Africa for 50 years.

Bayliss isn't much of a technical coach, either. The players refer to him as "a man of few words" who leaves the technical work to others and is more interested in creating a positive, settled environment in which the players are able to perform to their optimum.

That's important, of course. But if he doesn't have much say in selection and he doesn't have much say in coaching, it does rather beg the question: what does he do? If he's just creating a relaxed environment, he could be replaced by a couple of scented candles, a yucca plant and a CD of ambient whale noises.

The standard of recruits coming from county cricket is a legitimate gripe from some in the England set-up, but the fact that so few have improved in the environment does not flatter them. The coaches seem to have very little accountability for that.

Under a split-coaching system, Paul Farbrace could scout players suitable for the longest format, while Bayliss would focus on building the aggressive approach in limited overs © Getty Images

It's worth reflecting on the context by which Bayliss came to be appointed. England had endured an awful World Cup and Strauss, the new managing director of the England team, had been unimpressed by Peter Moores' first spell as coach. His England set-up was seen, not entirely correctly, as preoccupied by minutiae and in love of a long and sometimes confusing team meeting. The players, it was alleged, were stifled by the over-analysis.

Bayliss was signed as the antidote to Moores. He wouldn't interfere too much. He wouldn't have baggage. He wouldn't inhibit the players or bog them down with technical details or psychological theories. They'd just play cricket with a smile.

And that's fine up to a point. England's white-ball form has improved sharply for the emphasis on trusting talent and instinct. England are looking ahead to the 2019 World Cup with cautious optimism.

But there's a reason Test cricket is often referred to as the ultimate form of the game. It requires more than raw talent. It requires thought and technique and resilience and patience as well as athleticism and skill. And England's approach to it looks just a bit naïve at the moment.

So might we have come to the point where the possibility of split coaches should be considered? That would leave the Test coach - perhaps Paul Farbrace - the opportunity to scout suitable players and preach a clear, undiluted message about the values required in the longest format. Bayliss, as limited-overs coach, would continue to preach the more aggressive approach that has brought about the improvement. Both would report to Strauss.

It's been tried before, of course. But on that occasion, perhaps the personalities involved were not right. Andy Flower, the Test coach, struggled to relinquish enough power to allow Ashley Giles, the limited-overs coach, the free reign he required to do his job and Paul Downton, the team's managing director at the time, was so out of his depth he should have been given arm bands. There's no reason it couldn't work now.

Either way, we're more than two years into the Bayliss era now. It doesn't seem unreasonable to hope for an improvement in results. It doesn't seem unreasonable to hope for the introduction of new players. We haven't had either and he isn't doing much to suggest he has the answers.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jose on July 20, 2017, 2:37 GMT

    As a coach for test cricket, I would prefer someone who can "-brace" the players , "Far-" enough for at least a 5-day stretch. than looking at the clock to see when they can go back to the dressing room from the middle, after entertaining the crowd for a while.

    .

    For the short formats, I can certainly "Bay-" for someone who can provide the "(b)liss' of strike-rate & the resultant fireworks, like dishing out bowl-full of spicy 'masala-falvoured' instant noodles.

    .

    So, why not we specifically & exclusively assign Farbrace for the former & quite blissfully, the good man Bayliss for the latter?

  • Alan on July 19, 2017, 22:28 GMT

    Some great in depth comments on the who, why and wherefore and what next with the players. Surely the suits must also be giving Bayliss some quiet scrutiny even though he has done some stellar work in the short format but it may also be time for some changes there. But back to the tests; Surely Gillespie with his great experience at Yorkshire, which was a success in producing players and results, plus his international career must be a consideration if a change is needed.

  • Bryce on July 19, 2017, 22:10 GMT

    It is ironic that this is the same thing that happened to New Zealand when South Africa visited a few months ago. New Zealand Zealand had crushed Pakistan and Bangladesh at home before South Africa came to visit. They shook up the top order and all of a sudden people are calling for heads to roll. Tom Latham, a previously classy and proven Test performer both home and away, endured a particularly lean run against the menacing South African attack. He had scored runs before that series and has since scored runs after. People easily overlook just how good the South African bowling attack is. New Zealand found that if they played out the seamers then they would lose wickets trying to score off Maharaj. When they tried to score off the seamers they would also lose their wickets. This bowling attack is so tough and build up so much pressure on batsman. To put it in perspective Morne Morkel has 298 wickets@29 in Tests. The other five bowlers have combined 298@23.34. This is what they do.

  • Pete on July 19, 2017, 11:05 GMT

    Du Plessis is a proven international player in all formats Nicholas. The players naturally want to maximise their earning potential, so when new players come into the Test squad, they want to show they're capable of playing all formats. If included in the England squad for the whole Test Match summer, they can't show off their T20 talents as they're not even playing that format for their Counties.

  • adrian9014332 on July 19, 2017, 10:18 GMT

    @CRICINFOUSER to be fair Vince is averaging under 40 this season, I do agree with Robson though. I find that central contracts make it almost impossible to drop a player. Stokes averaged 27 in his first 20 tests, scored 258 (and 26) in his 21st test and has averaged 31 since (in a period where Root, Bairstow, Cook and Ali have all averaged over 42). My point being that if they genuinely believed Stokes was a top 6 batsmen then Ali previously and Dawson now would not have been selected as we wouldn't have needed runs. Would a front line spinner have won us more matches?

  • kpcexa3121977 on July 19, 2017, 8:46 GMT

    A first rate article. I agree with overdue scrutiny of what the coach is actually achieving. The ECB have outsourced test cricket to an Australian resident, not really interested in county cricket who refers to the players performance as if its not his responsibility! His record is poor with England, particularly in tests. Yes, we have improved at one day cricket, but have not won anything during his tenure and self implode from time to time. And suddenly county cricket can not produce quality players for England, having done so for years.

  • Nicholas on July 19, 2017, 8:09 GMT

    We talk as though Test and short-form cricket, are mutually exclusive. In the recent Test, SA were captained by a man who has no trouble getting picked for the IPL, when available!

  • Pete on July 19, 2017, 7:04 GMT

    Even as a Hampshire supporter the selection of Dawson was quite baffling to me. All the nice things said about him from the England camp, I believe to be accurate, sadly that doesn't make him a Test Match player in either facets. There seems to be a shortage of batsman willing to guts it out in tough situations. The Bayliss role appears to be quite confusing. I'm not quite as self righteous as many who post on here, I don't know who would "definitely" score Test runs for England. The selectors and coaching staff should by now have a reasonable idea though. A big problem for me is T20 for sure. If you can smash 80 off 40 balls every 8/10 innings, the riches are there for all to see.

  • jandjg9825462 on July 19, 2017, 6:06 GMT

    I have a feeling that we are going to look back soon, especially after the predictable 5-0 whitewash this winter in the Ashes, that the appointment of Strauss and his knee jerk reaction to the set up was a huge mistake. As you have indicated George we had an excellent English coach in place who knew, and still does know, the county game inside out and replaced him with an uninspiring Australian coach who hasn't a clue about the English game, who seems to treat it with contempt, shifts his responsibilities onto his management team and disappears back to Australia at every opportunity.

  • aapilt4266103 on July 19, 2017, 5:17 GMT

    Let's face it. England no longer care about the long (4-5 day) form. Maybe Test cricket is 'dead in the water' as being a last-century sport.

    It's now all about fast-paced 'entertainment', i.e. T20. Even ODIs take 'too long' for the new fans.

    T20 is like an American baseball game: 3-4 hours max, game over, no draws. People spend an evening 7-10 pm out, munching on a hot dog, drinking a Coor's out of a can, and going home.

    Is Test cricket done with? In England, maybe so? Discuss!

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