Sanjay Manjrekar

An outsider asks: what's going on with English cricket?

Their selection policies in recent times have betrayed conservative, clouded thinking

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar
This is not an opportunistic critical piece on English cricket because they have just lost a Test to a low-ranked team in which they were all out for 77 in an innings.
Anyone who follows me on social media will know my latest bugbear is English cricket - its planning and decisions, and the discourse around it.
This is basically an outsider looking in at English cricket.
My heart melted the first time I toured England as a player, in 1990, and has done every time since then, watching their fans flock to the grounds to enjoy cricket, especially Test cricket: how they are glued to the action on the field, every ball of the day, applauding every maiden over. I wish you could clone them for Test matches all over the world.
India is the new powerhouse of cricket, but England still remains cricket's conscience, its soul. And that is why, for long, I have felt that England cricket fans deserve a champion team to support.
For a nation that played its first Test in 1877, and that has all the advantages that come from being a first-world country, it is a travesty that England have never ruled cricket like West Indies or Australia did, and that they have just one world title in men's cricket all these years. For this article to be relevant and meaningful, I am going to restrict myself to more recent cricket, though.
World cricket, as we know, is in a phase where the top teams are strong at home and weak overseas, but even among such teams, England are the exception.
Among the top five Test teams none have lost as much at home since the start of 2015 as England have done. West Indies beating them at Headingley in August 2017 was an absolute shocker to me. West Indies are a bit stronger now; two years ago, they weren't, but England found a way to lose to them at home.
Pakistan, a team that is hamstrung by having to play mostly in the UAE for the last 11 years, and tour very little, are possibly worst prepared to excel overseas, but they still managed to beat England in England twice in 2016. And Sri Lanka took a Test off England in Leeds in 2014.
If this had happened to India at home, there would have been a far greater hue and cry about it than we see emanating from England. In fact, a lot of wrath is directed towards the Indian team from Indian fans and media even when the team is thoroughly dominant at home but loses overseas. Indian players are often hurt by this; they feel their media is not being supportive. But they must realise this is a good thing. Indian fans and media hold their team to higher standards today than in the past.
When England beat Sri Lanka away recently, they seemed to take so much pride in it. There hasn't been a weaker Sri Lankan team than this one ever.
The other aspect that baffles me is England's player selection. This is an important "controllable" within a cricketing operation. There is not much you can do when there isn't any exciting talent coming through the ranks - that's an uncontrollable.
Let's take the selection of Adil Rashid. Last year England's newly appointed chief selector, Ed Smith, pulled a rabbit out of the hat by picking a legspinner who had given up on red-ball cricket, because he was making an impact in white-ball cricket. Nothing wrong with this logic; India used it when they selected Jasprit Bumrah for the Tests, but this was because while he was performing outstandingly in white-ball cricket, Bumrah showed that he had the temperament and the skills to translate that performance into Tests. Temperament being the key word here.
If you have watched Rashid, it's easy to see that he is not the same bowler when there are no fielders in the deep and he only has close-catching fielders around the bat. This was evident when he was in India last. Since that much talked-about "out-of-the-box" selection, Rashid has picked up only 16 wickets in 22 innings. He went wicketless in the last Test, against West Indies.
Reading interviews and reports during my time in England during the last India series there gave me a sense that every England batsman wanted to bat one position down the order. This smacks of insecurity and a lack of confidence
But one credible English writer suggested after that loss last week that Moeen Ali's place in the team could be on the line. I cannot believe people can think like this! Moeen has picked up 34 wickets in his last six Tests. That's nothing short of a brilliant performance as a spinner, but because he is failing with the bat, his position in the team is now vulnerable.
India, for instance, will never drop a Ravindra Jadeja if he is not getting runs, despite him having shown promise with the bat. England seem to have skewed perceptions of some of their players. India would chose Moeen the bowler any day of the year and enjoy his batting contributions as a bonus. England want him to do both simultaneously. You see the same mindset at play with regard to Ben Stokes.
Stokes' greatest value to England is as a third seamer in Tests and as a very talented, dangerous batsman down the order. He is certainly not a Test No. 5. His character is such that he will rise to the occasion every time the chips are down, and he will do this more with the ball than with the bat. Every time he bats ahead of the pure batsmen in the side, he will, like Moeen, not live up to England's expectations. I say, bat him down the order, push Jos Buttler up, put more responsibility on Stokes the Test bowler and then watch him flourish as a batsman and allrounder.
No country other than England, would have picked Keaton Jennings after his showing in the five Tests against India last year - 163 runs in nine innings at an average of 18.11. Yes, some believed that conditions were tough for batting and that he deserved another chance, but it wasn't that Jennings had set the stage on fire before that series. He had 323 runs in 13 innings at an average of 24.84
"Try, try till you succeed" finally came to apply in Jennings' case, when he came good with a 146 against Sri Lanka last year, but the runs have dried up again after that hundred. He has 72 runs in the last six innings at an average of 12.
You get a true sense of a player from how he bats after he has played the defining innings to get into form, for everyone plays badly when they are out of form, when their confidence is low. Jennings leaves me in no doubt about his ability.
Jonny Bairstow at No. 3 is another decision by England that is hard to understand. Most cricketers I talk to in my part of the world agree that in the current set-up, Joe Root is England's No. 3. If Root is unhappy batting at that position, well, you just tell him it suits the team better.
Mohammad Azharuddin played one of his greatest innings, a 77-ball 109 against South Africa at Eden Gardens when, after he was injured, he was coerced into batting against his wishes.
There seems to be too much weight given in England to what a players wants, rather than what the team wants from the player. Reading interviews and reports during my time in England during the last India series there gave me a sense that every England batsman wanted to bat one position down the order. This smacks of insecurity and a lack of confidence, and it must be nipped in the bud before it becomes the culture of the team - if it hasn't already.
I was watching all these dynamics play out as India lost 4-1 to England last summer. No Indian defeat has been as frustrating to watch, because England did not deserve to win 4-1, unlike how like they deserved to win 4-0 in 2011.
English pundits attributed the 2018 series win to the depth in the side's batting, and the frequent batting recoveries they made in the series. Now here's the thing: some kind of recovery is inevitable if you consciously pick players who can bat, even if they are primarily bowlers. But look what scores England have achieved with their deep batting line-up in the last 11 innings, since May 2018 - an average first-innings score of 274, which is about on par with first-innings scores of other top teams around the world in this period. And this comes at a vital cost - a weakened bowling attack.
You might say that if not for the extra depth, England would have got even less. Fair point. But the fact remains that when you are obsessed with trying to build a safety net for your batsmen, you place less responsibility on them. Batsmen must feel that it is only they who are in charge of getting runs on the board. If they fail, drop them, but don't pick lesser bowlers in an attempt to cover for the failures of the batsmen. Sam Curran in place of Stuart Broad is the latest example. This way, you stunt future excellence in both batting and bowling.
Safety in sport breeds mediocrity. Great teams and great players never think safety first; they think excellence.
The coverage of England cricket is highly impressive. I am a huge fan of the Sky commentary team and admire most of the writing that comes out of England, but the cricket community often seems to get too studious about the game and to intellectualise everything, which means common sense sometimes goes out of the window.
History and team results in cricket have shown us that picking six specialist batsmen, four specialist bowlers, and the best keeper in the country in the playing XI is a winning combination. When you select bits-and-pieces players, success also comes in bits and pieces.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. @sanjaymanjrekar