Burns Eye View
Can England cope without Alastair Cook?
England’s 3-0 ‘whitewash’ series win in Sri Lanka is a triumph for National Selector Ed Smith and the notion of a cricket team being ‘more than the team sheet’. Only twice before has the England cricket team secured an away ‘whitewash’ in a series of more than two Tests.
Can England cope without Alastair Cook?
Yes. But, let’s see how they go against pace, swing and seam bowling before the big plaudits are handed out.
A New Team Emerges:
The England performance was a real team effort. They produced some excellent cricket and major performances came from many people within the team and the squad. Full credit to Joe Root and his men. They look like ‘the captain’s team’ now - the chemistry between people seems to be very good with a genuine delight in each other’s success. And, with the impressive skill level and good temperament revealed by the emerging players in the team since Ed Smith took over as ‘El Supremo’ from James Whitaker and his panel of selectors, the immediate future seems bright.
Under Root’s early days as a leader, the ship seemed like it could not navigate its way out of ‘choppy waters’. They competed for large parts of a match, but too often lost ‘the big moments’. Good teams don’t do this. But, it seems the debacle of last winter’s tours to Australia and New Zealand now seems a world away.
A Balanced Perspective:
But, there will be tougher tests of Root’s capability as a captain over time. His team will need to combat Australia’s pacemen and their attacking batting next summer if they are to prove themselves as a serious force in world cricket home and away. The desire to become the number 1 rated Test-playing nation must become ‘more than words’ as time unfolds. To be regarded as ‘the best’, a team must succeed (consistently) home and away. Performing against the very best is fundamental.
A churlish observer of top-level cricket may not rush to praise England. They could point to the fact that Sri Lanka is not the force they once were. No legends: Murali, Chaminda Vaas, Aravinda De Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Mahaela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkkara, and their canny left-arm spinner Rangana Herath retired after the first Test too. Plus, their captain and best batsman Dinesh Chandimal received an injury that ruled him out for the rest of the series. His replacement as captain, Suranga Lakmal, looked ‘a fish out of water’ in the role. With Angelo Matthews clearly at odds with the Sri Lankan selectors and administration, the whole team resembled a dis-jointed and at times dysfunctional team.
Success in life is about being alive to opportunity, and then being suitably prepared to be able to make the most of it. Ben Foakes is testament to this. Jonny Bairstow’s untimely ankle injury let in Foakes, and despite a push for Jos Buttler to play as the England Test match ‘keeper' from some people in high-places, the team management clearly listened to the judgment of richly-experienced Surrey Director of Cricket Alec Stewart. Stewart, previously England’s most-capped Test cricketer until Alastair Cook surpassed his achievement, has often proclaimed that his county’s ‘keeper was “the best gloveman in the world”.
Foakes can establish himself as England’s Number One:
Former Essex player Foakes was made ‘Player of the Series’ after making his Test debut in the 1st Test match. Despite joining the tour late due to being selected as a ‘substitute player’ for the tour, Foakes is now the number one wicket-keeper in the England Test team, and one of the team’s most accomplished batsmen too.
My sense is that Foakes’ performance in Sri Lanka will make it impossible for him to be left out in the next series in the West Indies, and if he plays well on that tour, he will be ‘inked-in’ for the Ashes next summer. This journey would represent a remarkable 9 months for Foakes and highlights how fast top sport can move for people if they take small opportunities and perform superbly in testing climatic conditions and on difficult surfaces for keeping wicket. He looks a top-class performer behind the stumps at Test level, already.
The Playing of Spin: Sweepfest
England’s record on the sub-continent has been poor due to their inability to play spin with skill and confidence. When you factor in the context that, on their last tours of the subcontinent, England were held 1-1 by Bangladesh then lost 4-0 in India, it means this 3-0 win becomes an even more significant achievement.
The bold attempts to attack the bowling and turn the style of batting into ‘a sweep-fest’ was ‘the difference that made the difference’.
England’s success was largely due to their wise use of bowling resources.
Playing three spinners rarely seems a good idea. “If two can’t do the job, why play three?” This would be my logic.
It takes courage to do what Root and his fellow selectors decided to do. It worked! The spinners were nicknamed ‘the 3 musketeers’ by some, and in Moeen Ali, Jack Leach and Adil Rashid, England seem fortunate to have such variety available to them in such helpful conditions for spin bowling. They dovetailed well – superbly at times.
The Surrey all-rounder is emerging as one of the most exciting talents in world cricket. His match-changing performances reveal both a sense of ‘the moment’ and a high-level of skill. Whether Curran can perform to such a high standard if he were asked to bat in a top-order batting position, and not just be ‘a counter-attacker’ with the lower-order remains to be seen. I bet he can.
Anderson and Broad:
When England has won Test series in the past decade it has been likely that two of its’ all-time leading wicket-takers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad wil have spearhedad the victories. And Alastair Cook would most likely have been the team’s leading run-scorer. The fact that Cook is retired, and the fast-bowling pair were irrelevant to the wicket-taking says a great deal about the team’s all-round strength on this tour. Broad looks like he could still be a force with his new shortened run-up following his ‘consultation’ with the New Zealand legend Sir Richard Hadlee, and Anderson remains the best bowler in the world in English conditions and with a Duke ball in his hand. Australia will be worried. But, England need to prepare for life after Anderson and Broad, and this tour will help prepare the ground for that day when it eventually comes. However, two top-class opening bowlers need to be developed. Perhaps Olly Stone could be one of them? However, the jury remains out on his credentials - he has genuine pace to excite all interested observers of Test cricket. But, can he graft on the skill, the accuracy and variation(s), to ensure he matures into a bowler who excels on the biggest of stages in the most-respected format of the sport?
My Personal Highlight:
Joe Root’s century was brilliant! The captain really led from the front with his superb innings in Pallakele.
Buttler is Ed Smith’s Joker in the Pack:
Jos Buttler has scored 760 Test match runs this year – only Virat Kohli has scored more. Wow! Ed Smith backed his intuitive judgment that Buttler had the talent and temperament to excel in the longest format of the game - and his ’joker in the pack’ has certainly come up trumps for both the team and the national selector’s credibility as ‘a talent-spotter’.
Opening is Difficult:
Keaton Jennings’s century early in the series and his outstanding catching at short leg helped establish him in the team as a key player on this tour. He plays spin well, and is a popular man in the team too. But, like Rory Burns, he will need to score runs consistently at the top of the order to prevent himself being ‘the man walking the plank’ in the media’s mind as part of ‘the circus’ which surrounds an England team playing other than winning cricket. In the run-up to next summer’s Ashes series, Jennings and Burns need to quieten ‘the noise’ around their credentials as Test match opening batsmen for both their own good and that of the team.
The Lion-hearted All-rounder: Ben Stokes’ aggression
Seamers struggled on the spin-friendly, slow surfaces in Sri Lanka and with the heat and humidity but they ran in heroically to create some discomfort for the Sri Lankan batsmen and offer a perfect foil to the three spinners. Stokes is the team’s talisman.
Joe Root – An increasingly better leader of men:
Joe Root had imaginative fields at times, and led his team with authority. The key to developing greater authority is to win matches and series. Can he keep this up? I think so. He seems to be growing in confidence as a captain but clearly has some way to go still if he is to be regarded in the same vein as fellow Yorkshiremen Michael Vaughan (let alone Ray Illingworth and Sir Leonard Hutton) whose England teams won Ashes series in Australia.
Will the team cope without Alastair Cook? It seems so. For now.