Ah, the refreshingly familiar sight of an England first innings collapse. As disappointing and as quick as one’s (my) first sexual encounter with a female, yet as predictable as Paul Gascoigne re-entering rehab (I could continue with more similes but that would be as tiresome as this weekend’s 6 nations matches). The first test against New Zealand was, for the opening two days, an unmitigated disaster as England failed (almost literally) to turn up. Batting first on a pitch that was fairly lifeless, England boldly and quite impressively managed to make it look like a veritable minefield as they contrived to get bowled out for 167 (on debut, New Zealand’s opener, Hamish Rutherford, alone scored more). Now the Kiwis’ bowling attack is about as fearsome as a sleeping goldfish, but they put the ball in the right areas to tempt England into making mistakes, and like the charitable guests they are, England duly obliged. They just about redeemed themselves in the second innings by avoiding defeat but that barely papers over the significant cracks in both the batting and bowling performances.
Many have questioned why England can’t perform in the first test of a test series abroad? A good question. Is it a lack of practice matches? Is it the failure to adapt to different pitches and conditions? Is it the complete lack of concentration and application? The answer is yes to all three but most resoundingly to the latter. In the current series, to play (and lose) one warm-up match where two of your premier fast bowlers don’t even feature is asking for trouble. England will argue that they played three T20s and three ODIs but a bit of crash, band, wallop is no preparation for the intricacies and graft of Test cricket (apologies for sounding like Boycott). On the other hand, England had ample preparation for the recent tour to India, yet still lost the first test, although that was mostly down to some team selection (a lack of Monty Panesar).
Theoretically, England should have no trouble in adapting to conditions in New Zealand as they are very similar to those in early-season England. The ball was hardly doing anything at all in England’s first innings; the only movement the Kiwis found was off the seam. In such conditions patience and technique are required by the batsmen to see off the new ball, but this was strangely lacking. To counter seam movement batsmen should resort to the fundamentals, such as playing the ball late and leaving the wide deliveries. These basics were conspicuous by their absence. In fact it was down to the tail to drag England to 167 in their first innings. England’s top order are more than capable of playing on these pitches and in these types of conditions so there is not a technical deficiency. The bowlers are equally talented and although the pitch was not exactly seam friendly, instead of restricting the batsmen, they decided the best option was to spray the ball around everywhere and bowled with a complete lack of control (the exception – James Anderson). For me both the batsmen and bowlers betrayed a lack of concentration and a certain naivety.
The manner of England’s first innings collapse and bowling performance bore the mark of complacency. England’s players are not good enough just to turn up and expect to win playing with a carefree attitude. Test cricket, especially away from home, is always an intense examination of not only a player’s technique but also his mental fortitude. If you are not prepared to apply yourself to an innings or a spell of bowling, the opposition will soon target your weakness – as happened in the first test. I am not trying to dampen the fluency of England’s batsmen; it is a fact that at the beginning of an innings, a batsman is always a bit vulnerable and needs to play himself in, be that for 10 balls or 100. With his century in the 2nd innings, Nick Compton showed that with some patience and concentration, there are runs aplenty to be made. In fact, Compton’s innings was all the more satisfying because it was made on the back of a run of poor form. It’s all very well scoring runs when your tail is up and the team is doing well, but it is doubly hard when the pressure’s on and you’re facing a sizeable deficit. This bodes well for his career and his 2nd innings performance has convinced me that he has what it takes to succeed at test level.
Going into the Thursday’s second test, I expect (and hope) that England will have learned their lessons. I think they have the right personnel in their team, so they just need their players to turn up and perform. It was slightly worrying that in India, England relied heavily on Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen for runs. Jonathan Trott showed glimpses of his potential in the second innings and he is due a big score. A return to form for Stuart Broad would also be very welcome. As would an England victory. They do have history on their side. On the last tour to New Zealand in 2008 England played equally as poorly but lost the first test, then went on to win the next two. Let’s hope history repeats itself.