Thursday, 29 March 2012

How to make England win in the subcontinent

So England have lost yet another test match in the subcontinent. The number one ranked test side have now lost four in a row - unthinkable only a few short months ago. So what's going wrong - and how can things be changed so England can be good again?

Well to start off, it's obvious where the problem lies. England's batting in the subcontinent - against spin in particular, is horrific. While the batsmen were booking in for bed, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and another night against India last summer, there's been none of that determination to remain at the crease in the four tests of this tour. While there are obvious technical flaws in most of the batsmen, much of the issue is mental. How can Rangana Herath, who England destroyed back at home turn from a pie-chucker into a world-beater? Herath is the same bowler as he was 8 months ago, there's very little mystery to him, but England's fragile mental state to spinners in the subcontinent made him look like a cross between Hedley Verity, Jim Laker and Shane Warne. Any issues over facing Herath are solely between the batsmen's ears, which is making their previously adequate techniques fall to mush when a spinner is thrown the ball.

So what can be done? In between trolling Indian fans on Twitter and combing his new hair, Michael Vaughan made a good point about mental baggage. Before 2005 England hadn't won an Ashes series in 18 years, and had been consistently humped by the Aussies, so most of the team that he inherited came into games against Australia expecting to lose. Vaughan then got rid of the players with mental scars about playing Australia, and got in a new brand of Ashes newbies who promptly went on and won. Vaughan's point was that a similar approach may well work here, with seemingly all of England's current side paralysed by fear of spin, and waking up in cold sweats after dreaming of Suraj Randiv's teesra. Basically, Vaughan advocated getting rid of the batsmen and starting again with a fresh bunch, a group who may or may not be as good technically, but at least wouldn't fall into the trap of consistently getting themselves out.

Vaughan's argument does have it's merits, but it would be very difficult to just "bring in a new bunch". To start, who would they be? As strong as the county system is at the moment, it isn't brimming with test-ready players who'll be able to swim when they're thrown in at the deep end. Plus, who do you drop? Cook, Bell, Pietersen and Trott all made double-tons last summer, Prior is the best wicket-keeper batsman in the world, Patel has only just come into the team, and Strauss is the captain. (More on him here). These are all clearly very good batsmen (how else would England have got to that number one ranking?) but seemingly only Jonathan Trott has the mental stability to dig in on the subcontinent. When the players get back to England in a few months, chances are that all of the batsmen will fill their boots and make everyone eat their words.

So what can be done? Well, if teams sometimes play 'horses for courses' bowlers at certain grounds, why not horses for courses batsmen? Monty Panesar is purely playing in these tests because they expect it to spin, so why not a spin-specialist batsman? Having a James Taylor or an Owais Shah to only play if the ball's going to rag square may be quite unorthodox, but why should the batting order be set in stone? Dropping Pietersen for Joe Root for subcontinental games may seem unfair to KP, but isn't Panesar getting picked a little harsh on Steve Finn? As England and India's fluctuating fortunes have proved, cricket is a very different game depending on where in the world it's being played, so surely the smart thing to do is to pick different players depending on the different conditions? It's certainly something worth considering, as while England may well beat the West Indies and South Africa in the summer on green seamers in Durham, the four test series that follows in India could be a very long one for England fans unless something drastic changes.

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