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Match Analysis

BJ Watling innings re-ignites questions about England's game

During the 201 overs England spent in the field, their lack of penetration with the Kookaburra ball and on flat pitches was brutally exposed

BJ Watling slugs one through the leg side, New Zealand v England, 1st Test, Mount Maunganui, 4th day, November 24, 2019

BJ Watling slugs one through the leg side  •  AFP

There must have been a time - a simpler, more optimistic time when all things seemed possible - before BJ Watling scudded in to bat but, for a long time at the Bay Oval, it was hard to remember it.
Some say that, when Watling's innings began, the lava dome that is Mount Maunganui had not yet been formed and moa still grazed happily around the boundary edge. Whether strictly accurate or not, the fact is that when Watling came in to bat, New Zealand were slightly precariously placed at 127 for 4. And by the time he departed, more than 11 hours later, he had not only given his side an opportunity to press for what would be a really impressive victory but crushed any hopes England had into the dust. He had also raised - perhaps reprised would be a more appropriate word - some serious questions about England's game in such conditions.
Let's start with the basics. Only twice this century - at Cape Town in 2016 (when England bowled 211 overs as Hashim Amla compiled a double-hundred) and Antigua in 2004 (when they bowled 202 and Brian Lara scored an unbeaten 400) have they spent longer - in terms of overs bowled - in the field in a single innings. And during the course of the 201 overs England spent in the field here, their lack of penetration with the Kookaburra ball and on flat pitches was brutally exposed. Truly, there have been more competitive seal clubbings.
It was not a display without merit from an England perspective. In the morning session, for example, Jofra Archer bowled 60 balls and conceded runs from just two of them and, in tandem with the frugal Stuart Broad helped England deliver six successive maidens. Archer's final two balls of the session - balls at the end of his 38th over - were both timed at 90 mph. England conceded just 19 runs in the first 16 overs of the day.
There was no lack of effort. After a couple of fielding errors on day three, the standards were tightened on day four. At one stage, with the score beyond 500 and the situation desperate, Ollie Pope sprinted and dived to save two on the mid-wicket boundary. The bowling figures may be ugly, but the performances weren't.
Eventually, though, the dam broke. Even Broad, who conceded his runs at a rate of under two-an-over across the whole innings, was taken for three fours in an over, and over the last hour or so of the New Zealand innings, this was something of a massacre. Not knowing where to bowl, England eventually conceded a Test record 22 wides. They looked exhausted and out of ideas.
There will be those who point the finger at Joe Root for this lack of success. And it is true, there were times when he looked out of ideas. But it does bear reiterating, this was a very slow wicket. Even when England began their reply, a couple of edges from Rory Burns' bat off the seamers and the new ball failed to carry to the cordon; that's not the sign of a good pitch. Besides, it is not immediately obvious who would have done a better job for England. Still, Root could do with leading from the front with the bat on day five. For if he is not scoring runs or producing miracles as a captain, his position will become vulnerable.
Now, you might have thought that New Zealand's example had provided England's batsmen with the insight of how to prosper in such conditions. But no. While New Zealand were content to play out the tight bowling and wait, England went searching for scoring opportunities and perished in the process. Burns top-edged an oddly aggressive sweep - a poor selection of shot on a worn wicket showing signs of uneven bounce - and Dom Sibley was drawn into poking at a wide one. It was a clever piece of bowling - Mitchell Santner had set him up with balls angled in from wide on the crease - but a naive piece of batting. It may well be the bowlers who take the flak for this performance, but it should probably be the batsmen. Their failure to post a match-defining first-innings total squandered winning a valuable toss and gave New Zealand a foothold in the game.
But let's focus on the bowling today. For all that time in the field exposed serious issues within the England set-up. For one thing, it saw Archer, England's jewel of a fast bowler, obliged to deliver an eye-watering 42 overs. It would be an onerous requirement for a spinner but for a once-in-a-generation fast bowler (from an England perspective, anyway) it was a worryingly heavy workload. Only Jack Leach was required to bowl more. To put that figure in perspective, in his 133 Test career, Broad has never bowled more than 36 in an innings.
Leach by no means had a shocker. But while his final figures were just a little expensive - he conceded 3.25 an over - it was more the comparison with Santner which was most unflattering. Santner, who came into this game with a Test bowling average of 39.08, gained turn and bounce from the surface that was absent for Leach. It was enough to make you reflect just how extreme some of those surfaces at Taunton may have been.
But while the length of this innings was extreme, it wasn't a complete aberration. Since the start of the tour to India in 2016, England have bowled in excess of 100 overs in the opposition's first innings 15 times out of 19. In that period, they have, on average, taken 132 overs to bowl out the opposition. They have also now conceded more than 600 on five occasions in 16 first innings. You don't have to be a genius to work out teams spending that long in the field don't win many matches. Ahead of this game, England had won four (including three in a row in Sri Lanka and one, in the Caribbean when using a Dukes ball), drawn three and lost 11 of their last overseas Tests.
The unavoidable conclusion of all that is that England simply don't have the potency of bowlers to contest regularly on flat pitches and when using anything other than the Dukes ball. England can't keep saying they are encountering impossibly flat pitches any more than a batsman can keep saying they are encountering unplayable balls. If these things keep happening, it's a sign that something is wrong.
So, what is to be done? Well, there will be some that suggest England should adopt the Kookaburra ball on County Championship pitches. By doing so, county bowlers may learn some of the skills demonstrated by England's opponents. At present, on seaming wickets and with a ball that darts round corners, a lot of English seamers are flattered by their returns. Such cricket is doing little to prepare the England team for cricket in conditions like this. Or indeed, in Asia, Australia or South Africa.
That would be a shame, though. Test cricket in England is both entertaining and popular in terms of ticket sales and the use of the Dukes ball is a factor. So it may be that improving county pitches is a more appropriate method to help the development of potential Test players.
That won't be easy. With the Championship programme pressed up against autumn and spring, pitches offer too much assistance to seam bowlers at present. And with groundsmen employed by their counties, there will always be a temptation to produce surfaces to suit the home attack.
So if the new England management want to improve matters, they may have to fight for a better schedule - a huge issue with The Hundred squatting in the prime weeks of summer - and centrally contracted groundsmen. Ashley Giles, the new ECB director of England cricket, is keen to see Championship cricket played in the window provided for The Hundred which would, at least, make it easier for groundsmen to produce better surfaces. But if the best 90 or so players are absent, you wonder how high the standard will be.
None of this should come as a huge surprise. England keep getting exposed on flat surfaces and they will keep getting exposed until things change. The ECB say they value Test cricket. Well, now is the time to prove it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo