In cricket, an over can occasionally change the complexion of a test, or even a series. Sometimes, a match can also prove a decisive turning point. It is rarely the case, however, that a year can transform a team from the depths of failure to a feared and ferocious force. Whilst Virat Kohli’s batting has been the centre of attention this year with his exploits often making him appear unbeatable, Joe Root’s captaincy has proved to be the unexpected miracle of 2018, dragging England from an Ashes thrashing to beating the worlds best and securing a whitewash in Asia for the first time in years!
If we rewind to the first test match England played in 2018, the last test of the 2017-18 Ashes, England had badly lost the Ashes within just 3 tests and, despite a record-breaking 244* from Alastair Cook ensuring we didn’t have the embarrassment of a second successive whitewash in Australia, we still appeared many miles away from even competing with this Australian team. The fifth test against the Aussies was most notable for English people as it gave us the first glimpse of a young leg spinner and, for once, a leg spinner we wished to succeed. Mason Crane saw a fair amount of criticism prior to the test. The fact that England had called upon a twenty year old leg spinner with an average of over 46 in First Class cricket, as opposed to a more experienced spinner with a better average (such as Jack Leach) rifled a few people’s feathers. The doubters may argue that they were right as Crane picked up figures of 1/193, yet I don’t think his figures did him justice. While the rest of the England team found it difficult to even create chances against Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith and the Marsh brothers, Crane created chances throughout the Australian innings and showed enough promise in the test to suggest he has a future at the highest level. Unfortunately (and frustratingly), an injury in the warm up game in New Zealand ruled him out for the entire summer. It will be interesting to see England’s moves with Crane when he is fully fit, but, with the success of Leach, Ali and Rashid in Sri Lanka, it will be a tough task for Crane to force his way back to international level.
The first test against New Zealand saw the return of Ben Stokes after… well I’m sure none of us want to go over it again! James Vince lost his place to make up for Stokes and Craig Overton returned from injury. I remember waking up in the morning, checking the score and throwing my phone… England’s sixth lowest test score greeted me and four, yes FOUR, ducks from middle order players. With centuries from Williamson and Henry Nicholls putting New Zealand in the driving seat, the damage had been done and, despite a much improved second innings, England still lost by an innings and 49 runs. The second test proved to be much more promising. Firstly, the inevitable soon became a reality when, after a disastrous winter, Moeen Ali was dropped. Vince and Wood returned and Jack Leach made his test debut. Whilst the batting was a vast improvement on the first test, Colin de Grandhomme, Ish Sodhi and Neil Wagner survived 368 balls to force a draw and secure a New Zealand series win.
So, a winter to forget for English cricket. A record of 5 losses and two draws probably summed up England’s winter: they were far from beating anyone outside of England. The winter also saw the end of James Vince for the time being, although rumours emerged in the summer that a 4th test call up would be on the horizon.
The first test of the summer against Pakistan at Lord’s did little to raise the hopes of the nation. With an injury to Jack Leach, the ever problematic spot of first choice spinner opened once again. This time, Leach’s Somerset teammate Dom Bess made his test debut. With Bess, Crane, Tom Curran and Craig Overton’s selections over the year, Ed Smith was evidently investing in youth and preparing for the future of English cricket. Jos Buttler also made a return to the test arena, although solely as a batsman. England could only muster 184 in their first innings of the summer, with Alastair Cook providing the majority of the resistance with 70. As Pakistan amassed 363, England’s batsman failed again, with resistance only coming in the form of half centuries from Root, Buttler and the debutant Bess. Pakistan sealed the 9-wicket win and it seemed that the winter of woe would continue into a solemn summer for England. However, the story of the following 6 months would prove to be drastically different to the previous six months. Whether coincidence or not, this gap coincided with the debut of a teenaged all-rounder: Surrey’s Sam Curran. In his seven tests to date, England have won all seven of them and his left arm pace and counter-attacking approach to batting gives England a much needed variation in both departments. My blog has talked about Curran quite a lot in honesty, but that is simply because he’s been an unexpected superstar of English cricket in their recent success.
The second test was a must win test for England in order to tie the series with Pakistan and they got of to a flying start, dismissing Pakistan for 174 with only Shadab Khan providing proper resistance, scoring a brilliant 56. England’s quicks were exceptional in claiming all ten of the wickets to fall, with Anderson, Broad and Woakes all taking 3 wickets. Khan was the last wicket to fall though as he skied a ball to Jennings to give Curran his first test wicket. England then amassed 363 in an (almost) record breaking innings. Only Jos Buttler passed 50 in the innings (he scored a belligerent), whilst 8 of the top 9 surpassed 20. Pakistan proceeded to fail again, managing only a mere 134 with Bess taking his first test wicket and taking 3 in the innings. An England victory by an innings and 55 runs gave England there first test win in around nine months… but it soon proved to be the beginning of an exciting ride for English cricket, as they revolutionised under Root’s captaincy, surprising because the next visitors were the world number 1 ranked team: India.
The first test against India saw Adil Rashid make his return to the test side after showing good form in the ODI series, including an absolute gem to dismiss the great Virat Kohli. I’m still unsure about Rashid’s place in the side, however, and personally, I would rather play Leach, Ali or both of them instead of Rashid. This is because Rashid is capable of the odd ‘magic ball’ but he is more likely to throw down more bad balls than many other successful spin bowlers in test cricket. Therefore, I would play Leach as a left arm spin option (similar to Keshav Maharaj) to accompany Ali or make the spin position his own. It would be a weight off England’s shoulders if he performs in 2019 and confirms his place as our leading spinner!
Nevertheless, Jennings led the way with a gritty 42, before Bairstow and Root (off the back of some good ODI form) both made 50s. I’m sure Root would have gone on to make his first century of 2018 had it not been for Kohli’s brilliance in the field, running the England skipper out and mimicking his mike-drop celebration. Ashwin did most of the damage, picking up 4-fer as England accumulated 287. The Indian openers then shared an almost effortless fifty partnership, before Sam Curran made his first significant contribution in an England shirt, dismissing India’s top three within nine runs. He would go on to take 4-fer, but Kohli’s brilliant 149 dragged India to within touching istance of England’s score. When Kohli is on song (as he usually is) it often seems almost impossible to dismiss him. Then, a familiar sight befell the eyes of the England fans as the top order failed again and England were stranded on 87-7. That was before Curran led a Masterclass in how to bat with the tail, scoring 63 off 65 balls and adding 93 crucial runs. This only managed to scrape England to 180, but it proved enough as Ben Stokes showed us why he’s the best all-rounder in the world, ripping the heart out of the Indian batting line up, including the dismissal of Kohli after he seemed set on 51. India ended on 162 and, although for a while on the fifth day the England supporters were on the edge of their seats, the victory set up a competitive series.
After the thrill of the Edgbaston test, the Lords test proved to be remarkably one-sided with rain affecting much of play over the first few days. With Stokes missing out due to his court hearing and Malan failing in England after such a promising winter away, Ollie Pope came in to make his debut and Woakes took up the empty all-rounder slot. When overcast in England, however, only one thing is a certainty… and as we could have guessed before the days play, Jimmy led the way, picking up 5 Indian wickets. None of the Indian batsman really got going and so India crumbled to 107. If you track back to my first blog post, you will know what happened next. Despite the top three failing again and Pope making a promising, although not game changing 28, Chris Woakes (accompanied by Jonny Bairstow) smashed the Indian bowling attack to all parts in scoring his first test century and surpassing 1,000 test runs. Bairstow’s 93 and a quick-fire 40 by Curran to set up a declaration supported Woakes’ brilliance and England declared 7 down on 396. India then failed to adapt to the swinging Dukes ball again and limped to 130, giving England the victory by an innings. In the meantime, Anderson became the first bowler to take 100 wickets at the Home of Cricket and the second player in the history of the game behind Murali.
2-0 up in the series, England then suffered a very hard selection decision. Curran, Woakes and Stokes had all made match-winning contributions to the series thus far, yet one of them seemed doomed to miss out. The unfortunate news befell Sam Curran who, just 2 tests after his man of the match display, became (some would argue) the scape-goat to the problem at hand. So, a seam attack bolstering Anderson, Broad, Woakes and Stokes faced up to an Indian batting line up including the returning Pujara. With notable scores of 80+ from Kohli and Rahane, India scored 329 with Anderson, Broad and Woakes all taking 3 wickets. England’s middle-lower order then (for once) couldn’t get them out of a precarious situation and England slumped to 161, after a promising opening stand of 54 between Jennings and Cook. India then piled on 352 and declared 7 wickets down with 72 from Pujara, 52* from Hardik Pandya and 103 from Kohli, giving him 200 runs in the match. Despite a 169 run partnership between Stokes and Buttler, who hit his 1st test century, England couldn’t make the runs required and, although the tail wagged in the form of Rashid and Broad, England could only make 317. India took one back, leaving the series at 2-1.
With injury forcing Woakes back out of the side, Curran rightfully regained his place and with Pope not cementing the number 4 role, Bairstow was promoted up the order and Moeen Ali finally returned as the number 7 and second spinner. Before accumulating 246, you’d be surprised if I told you that, at one stage, we were 86-6 with Moeen Ali and Sam Curran at the crease. A partnership of 81 ensued as Moeen Ali scored a patient 40 on return, before Curran showed his talent in batting with the tail again, scoring 78 and putting on a further 79 with the help of Rashid, Broad and Anderson. A century from Pujara proved he was back in form after being short of runs for Yorkshire in the county championship and led India to a total of 273. In response, England scored 271, Joe Root scoring 48 (again a run out stopping him from reaching a half century or further) and Buttler continuing his good form in scoring 69. A 4-fer from Ali, proving the bad form he suffered in the Ashes was only temporary, then led the way for an England win as India could only muster 184 with 50s from Kohli and Rahane.
The aftermath of the 4th test, firstly, saw serious questions being asked of the Indian batting line up and their capability against the swinging ball as Kohli, more often than not, was largely the reason why India managed to reach respectable scores. England had won the series in just 4 tests against the number 1 ranked side in the world, some 8 months after an ashes loss and failure in New Zealand. I’m sure every England fan remembers where they were (I was at the barbers) when they heard the next bit of breaking news… Alastair Cook, after playing 157 tests for England, was going to call it a day after his 158th and record 156th consecutive test match! Despite his form being inconsistent over the past year or so, I (and many other England fans) still felt somewhat shocked and downcast as the record breaking English opener prepared to walk out for England for one final time… at the oval with the series already in the bag, a full and expectant crowd awaiting him. He didn’t disappoint…
Winning the toss, a rare opening partnership of 60 greeted the expectant fans as Alastair Cook showed us why he was one of England’s best openers, grinding out a gritty 71, before a gem from Bumrah left Chef with only one test innings left to play. Fifties also came from Moeen Ali (scoring his in attempt to cement the number 3 position as his own) and Jos Buttler, whilst Broad played a useful cameo down the order. England piled on 332 with Jadeja, returning to the Indian side, picking up 4. India debutant Hanuma Vihari then scored a promising 56 after grafting hard early on his innings and, along with Jadeja’s 86 not out, helped India to 292. The wickets were shared amongst all the English bowlers as we prepared to watch the rewriter of many English cricket record books bat for the last time for England… in another record breaking innings. In a score of 423/8 declared, a welcome, yet fairly rare sight for England fans over the year, England’s two most experienced buccaneers scored swashbuckling centuries and Cook bowed out of test cricket the same we he began. Other notable batsmen who scored 100s in there final test match include: Jacques Kallis, Greg Chappell and Brendon McCullum and Cook firmly deserves a place amongst such great names. Whilst the last few years saw inconsistency and frustration, Cook has been one of the best opening batsman the game has seen. Opening in England is arguably the hardest place to open in the world with the ball swinging around corners, and Cook has proved to be a true soldier, grinding down the opposition attack whilst scoring at his own pace. I would argue, however, that Cook is probably the ideal idol for any aspiring young batsman, showing outstanding focus, patience and character whenever he played. Forgive me for prolonging this praise of Cook, but I’m not going to be able to do it again and I think Cook often gets more stick than he deserves after an undoubtedly brilliant career. Anyway, Cook and Root’s centuries gave England a mammoth lead, yet centuries from the struggling Lokesh Rahul and the promising Rishabh Pant stalled the victory celebrations. But, with the last ball of the series, Anderson rearranged Shami’s stumps and thus surpassed Glenn McGrath’s record wicket tally for fast bowlers, a fitting way to end the series, especially with Jimmy’s fellow talisman retiring. After 12 years of playing together, the special relationship they had was evident as Jimmy couldn’t stop the tears from flowing during his interview.
Nonetheless, a remarkable series win for England against Kohli’s number 1 test team! Sam Curran deservedly scooped up the man of the match award, for both his counter-attacking batting and his important wickets that frustrated the Indians throughout the series.
So, for the first time in around 12 years, England were going to be Alastair Cookless for a test match. His replacement was the County Championship winning captain Rory Burns, the most consistent opener in the England First Class competition. Ben Foakes was the other Surrey debutant, replacing Jonny Bairstow in the team, and was actually a late addition to the test squad. But, experience or no experience, he certainly arrived with a bang. With the previous test seeing a batsman at the end of his career scoring a farewell 100, this test saw a fresh face scoring a debut 100 and another Wicket Keeper batsman amongst the English ranks. His century was accompanied by 40s from Curran and Jennings as England piled on 342. Dilruwan Perera took 5 and Herath began his final test match with just the one wicket. In response, Sri Lanka managed 203, with only Angelo Mathews really troubling the England bowlers. Moeen Ali took 4, showing that his away game curse is just a myth and Curran and Anderson took one wicket a piece, the only wickets they’d take in the entire series! This isn’t saying that they bowled badly, but just that the conditions didn’t suit them and our spinners bowled fantastically! The second test then saw Jennings score just his 2nd test ton, an unbeaten 146* and Stokes passing 50. Rangana Herath took 2, his last wickets in test cricket, ending on 433 test wickets. Another 50 from Mathews and 45 from Mendis couldn’t stop the spin triplets of England as Leach, Ali and Rashid took 9 of the 2nd innings wickets as England won comfortably.
The second test saw the second of three number 3 batsman given a chance at first drop: Stokes. Batting first, a quick 50 from Buttler and a more patient 50 from Curran took England to 290 as Perera continued his good form and took 4. In response, the ever reliable Karunaratne scored 63, accompanied by 59 from Dhananjaya de Silva and 85 from Roshen Silva as Sri Lanka compiled 336, taking a first innings lead as the tail frustrated England for over 25 overs! A first test 50 from Rory Burns and another selfless knock of 65* from Foakes helped England to 346, but it was the skipper who was the star of the show as he scored 124, arguably his best ever and most important century for England. Again, 50s from Karunaratne and Mathews were good, but not enough to prevent England from taking the series, with Leach picking up his first 5-fer. Looking at this scorecard, claiming England had problems in picking a spinner was laughable as they took 19 out of the 20 wickets in the test. Two convincing wins reflected England’s dominance in the series thus far and problems were seeming to evaporate rather than appear during them.
A further problem was also (touch-wood) solved in the third test as Bairstow came back from injury to be the 3rd English batsman to bat at number 3 in the series (not including Jennings when Leach opened as night watchman!) 110 from Bairstow gave the England fans hope that they have found a long tem number 3 and 57 from Stokes led England to 336. Sri Lanka then came up around 100 short with Karunaratne and de Silva again scoring 50s. This time Rashid took the 5-fer, whilst Stokes took 3 with his out-right pace bowling, the only effective pace bowler from either side throughout the series. Another 50 from the ever consistent Buttler set England on course for a score of 230. Ed Smith was definitely rewarded by keeping his faith in Buttler as he scored 760 runs in 2018 at around 44. Despite a better score from Sri Lanka in the second innings, with the promising Mendis scoring 86, they couldn’t stop Ali and Leach taking 4 a piece again and England from achieving a historic series whitewash.
So, after a torrid start to the year, where Australia and New Zealand in particular exposed the large errors in the England team, series wins against India and Sri Lanka and 8 wins in 9 tests have put England second in the ICC Test rankings, just behind Virat Kohli’s India. Questions have been answered greatly this year, with England now possessing quality spinners, a promising opening batting duo and (touch-wood) a number three batsman. It will be interesting, however, how England do treat the younger players who got a taste of test cricket this year, without cementing their place in the team. Players like Tom Curran, Craig (and potentially Jamie) Overton, Mason Crane, Dom Bess and Ollie Pope have all got promising futures ahead of them and they may well be in the test team before too long. With Jimmy and Broady in the latter stages of their careers, spaces for pace bowlers might soon be opening up, with the likes of Tom Curran, the Overton twins and Josh Tongue (to name a few) all in contention to take these spaces.
Looking forward to the West Indies test series, I would prefer to play 1 or 2 spinners on there tracks and, personally, the spinner to miss out for me would be Rashid. I am unsure, however, whether Leach or Ali should be first choice spinner. Also, if Olly Stone is seen as a future pace bowler for England, I think he should be given a chance in the West Indies where the pitches will no doubt help his style of bowling. Bar that, I wouldn’t change the batting line up much after the 3-0 win in Sri Lanka. Therefore, my XI for the first test against the West Indies would be:
- Rory Burns
2. Keaton Jennings
3. Jonny Bairstow
4. Joe Root
5. Jos Buttler
6. Ben Stokes
7. Ben Foakes
8. Moeen Ali / Jack Leach
9. Sam Curran
10. Stuart Broad
11. James Anderson
(If Leach was picked instead of Ali, Curran would bat 8!)
Again, this is my personal opinion regarding the year for England test cricket and the upcoming test series. Apologies for it being longer than my recent posts and apologies for the inconsistent uploading of my posts, but I have to factor it around other work. Please feel free to leave your thoughts below. I’m open to criticism!