The hoopla around England’s selection, the omission of Stuart Broad, took away all the attention from what should have been the main topic of discussion post the Southampton test defeat is their batting.
Since 2018, England have been shot out for less than 100 in an innings four times - the most by any Test side. Irrespective of the conditions, they have thrown it away or crumbled upon the slightest demand for resilience. The trend is clear in their last five Test defeats, including the one in Southampton:
#1 5 for 39 vs West Indies, Second innings, Southampton
At tea on day four, England were crawling back into the game leading by 54 runs for the loss of three wickets. An hour into the session, Ben Stokes and Zak Crawley added 60 more runs further strengthening their position in the Test match. The pitch had little to offer for the bowlers. It looked like a West Indies victory would soon be out of contention.
Their partnership was on the verge of the three-figure mark when Stokes was dismissed against the run of play as a result of smart field placements by Jason Holder who bowled with two gullies in place. Crawley followed suit with a soft dismissal six balls later.
With two new batsmen at the crease, and a new ball as the weapon, West Indies gave three more blows to the hosts to turn the game drastically in the last hour of play. From an effective score of 114 for three, England were staring at defeat by stumps at 170 for eight.
On a flat pitch, all it required for West Indies was to target the stumps. Jos Buttler, Ollie Pope and the spin bowling all-rounder Dom Bess found their stumps pegged back to Shannon Gabriel’s appreciable pace.
England were all out for 204 in the first innings. Now, all the hard work done by Stokes and Crawley mattered little after a shoddy show to close out day four.
#2 7 for 40 vs South Africa. First innings, Centurion
After bundling South Africa out for 284, England themselves suffered a shaky start losing 3 wickets for 70. Joe Denly’s courageous 50 revived England’s innings.
The 34-year old failed to convert his start yet again. He got out soon after acknowledging the applause for his fifty. Jonny Bairstow, the new man in, stayed for only six minutes. Ben Stokes got out couple of overs later for 29. Buttler and Sam Curran tried to dig in but were dismissed at the score of 176 leaving England fans hoping for a miracle to avoid a first innings deficit.
England’s last six batsmen contributed only 38 runs. England were bowled out for 181 conceding a lead of 103, which proved to be decisive later in a defeat, by 107 runs.
Even in the second innings, Joe Root’s men had a chance when they required another 173 runs with seven wickets in hand. However, they lost three key wickets for 28 runs - Stokes, Bairstow and Root himself - leaving the visitors way behind the eight-ball.
#3 4 for 21 & 4 for 17 v New Zealand, Second Innings, Mount Maunganui
Another flat pitch and another inexplicable batting collapse. BJ Watling and Mitchell Santner batted together for 83 overs to show there were no demons in the pitch. Tasked to play out close to 120 overs, England openers instilled hope seeing out the first 20 overs without any fuss.
Both Dom Sibley and Rory Burns let it slip in the last half an hour, departing in avoidable circumstances. The night-watchman, Jack Leach’s wicket brought the end of the day. Root had also gone back before the first drinks break the next day leaving England at 69 for four.
Denly and Stokes razed off 26 overs between them but once the southpaw played a wide delivery from Southee on to his stumps, the writing was on the wall for the visitors. England’s lower-middle order failed to handle the pressure again. It was evident from Buttler’s departure who was bowled by a round the wicket delivery from Neil Wagner while shouldering arms. His wicket culminated in a second mini collapse of the innings with England losing four more wickets for only 17 runs in the space of 12 overs.
They lost the match by an innings and 65 runs to concede the match and eventually the series 1-0.
#4 6 for 90 v Australia, First innings, Manchester
Once again, England asserted themselves in the match with the bat only to let the grip loosen in a span of 30 overs of mediocrity. This time, the calamitous collapse spanned across two sessions, both side of stumps on day 3.
With the series level at 1-1 and the scoreboard reading 166 for two, England were finally making their presence felt in the Test match. Root and Burns were set for hundreds hoping to nullify Steve Smith’s 211 to say the least with their joint efforts. Those ambitions were crushed when they went one after another for 71 and 81 respectively. Jason Roy didn’t last long either with England ending the day at 200 for five.
Desperate for a big partnership the next day to form an apt reply to Australia’s 497, England lost Bairstow, Stokes and Jofra Archer for unfulfilled scores. From 166 for two in the 65th over, England handed control of the game to the Aussies falling to 256 for eight and eventually conceding a lead of 196 runs. The result of the game - a 185-run defeat - ensured England would not regain the Ashes.
#5 6 for 37 v Australia, Second innings, Birmingham
Although, England let this match slip at multiple junctures, their submission to Nathan Lyon’s orthodox off-breaks on the final day of the Test falls perfectly under the theme of this piece.
On the final day, batting out 90 overs made more sense than chasing down 398. However, Roy’s attempt to hit Lyon out of London suggested as if England were going for the chase. The opener was castled through an open gate setting up an early rhythm for the wily off-spinner. Bowling into the rough, Lyon soon hunted down two more top order players - Root and Denly.
Hoping for a wicket less second session, England lost Buttler in the first over post lunch to Pat Cummins. Within four overs, Stokes and Bairstow were back in the hut leaving England at 97 for six. It took Australia only 30 overs to run through England’s top seven. It was the same old story for England, although this time, they succumbed to a spinner.
All these collapses do raise question marks over the potential of England’s current batting unit to defend efficiently over a long period. Keeping in mind that a fulcrum of their middle order over the last two years was formed based on England’s success in white-ball cricket, it asks another important question - Is England’s ODI/T20I success having an adverse effect on their Test fortunes?