Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Sting in the tail

England were beaten by 189 runs in the first Test. After losing their sixth wicket, New Zealand scored 185 runs more than England in the game. England’s loss was not just the result of this, clearly: negativity and a total lack of assertion amongst the batsmen and a lack of incision from three-quarters of the bowling attack are equally significant reasons. Nonetheless, why is England’s tail still so inadequate?

The infamous defeat to New Zealand at The Oval in August 1999, when England’s bottom three compromised a Test match number 10 (Andy Caddick), two 11s (Messrs Mullaly and Tufnell) and a number 12 (Ed Giddings) seemingly signalled the end of the ‘six out, all out’ days. Duncan Fletcher’s reign began with the next Test and he placed tremendous influence on developing a tail of tenacity and technique, who would cling dearly onto their wickets.

His policy was a considerable success. Ashley Giles developed into a very good number eight, while others made the odd vital contribution bashing (Steve Harmison and Simon Jones) or blocking (Matthew Hoggard).

Now England’s tail, once more, consistently falls abjectly. Hoggard’s batting has regressed, with his use as a nightwatchman increasingly absurd. Harmison has had moments when his batting appeared set to make good progress, but even fluky 15s are increasingly rare. Monty Panesar plays the odd delightful stroke but a Test average of under 7 (about the same as Hoggard’s) is frankly hopeless. That leaves Ryan Sidebottom who, as in everything he does, has been wholehearted and single-minded in his quest to fill England’s berth at number eight. His defence was admirable in Sri Lanka, but a first-class average of 12 – less than that of Stuart Clark, 11 in Australia’s last Test - shows he is probably ultimately just a willing number ten.

If England are going to improve they clearly need to squeeze every run out of their tail. Batting coach Andy Flower may be partly at fault because, as Glenn McGrath showed, even walking wickets can improve to the point of playing a part in invaluable partnerships, Chris Martin excepted. Given all the attack, except Sidebottom, are failing to deliver with the ball either – England have not taken 20 wickets in their last seven Tests - there would be considerable logic merit in selecting men like Stuart Broad as Graeme Swann, who could hardly bowl worse and would add much-needed sturdiness to the lower-order. It would be a largely defensive move, yes, but pragmatism is needed if England are to get out of their rut.

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