It’s been seven years since England lost a Test series at home but, over the next few days in Birmingham, they face a real fight to retain their record.
England have been pushed a few times in recent years. But whether it’s been India or Australia or West Indies or Pakistan who have threatened that record, England have tended, when push came to shove, to revert to home advantage.
What does that mean? It’s tended to mean producing surfaces which encourage their strength in seam bowling and their experience in both using and facing the Dukes ball. Think, for examples, of the Lord’s Test against India in 2018 or the Trent Bridge and Edgbaston Tests against Australia in 2015.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Pretty much every team uses home advantage. You could argue it wouldn’t be particularly sensible to do anything else.
But, in an effort to develop from a side that is good at home to a side that can claim to be the best in the world, England are testing themselves in more benign conditions. They have requested good batting tracks for this series – for the entire summer, actually – in the hope their batters can gain the skills required to bat long and their bowlers can demonstrate the adaptability required to thrive when the going gets tough.
There’s nothing wrong with that, either. England have had some excellent wins both home and away in recent years. But, against the best three sides – India, Australia and New Zealand – they have won just one of the 26 away Tests they have played since the start of 2013. Chris Silverwood, the head coach, has admirable ambitions to improve that record.
On the evidence of this series to date they have some way to go. New Zealand had the best of the first Test at Lord’s and, going into the third day at Edgbaston, are again in the stronger position. Bearing in mind that they made six changes to their team for this game – most of those changes designed to keep first-choice players fresh for the World Test Championship final – then most of the evidence suggests they are the stronger side. It’s not hard to see how New Zealand have qualified for the World Test Championship final, especially now that Devon Conway has filled one of the few holes they had.
After a day (well, 76.3 overs) on which England’s bowlers claimed only three wickets, it’s probably natural that the focus will be on the attack. And it’s true, they struggled (at least until the ball was changed after 42 overs) to find the swing enjoyed by New Zealand. But the second day has been the best time to bat at Edgbaston for a long time and, in truth, you suspect England’s first innings was anything up to 100 runs short of par.
The bowlers were a bit unlucky, too. For a start, Joe Root put down a relatively straightforward chance at slip off Olly Stone to reprieve Will Young on 7. They were probably a little unfortunate with an umpiring decision which went Conway’s way when he had scored 22; the umpires uncertain whether an edge had carried to Zak Crawley in the slips. And maybe a more confident keeper than James Bracey would have been a yard closer to the bat and been able to take the edge offered by Young on 40. Stuart Broad was the unfortunate bowler on both the latter occasions.
It’s true that Jack Leach’s spin would have been useful. Even if he hadn’t gained much assistance, he would probably have provided more control than Stone (who has gone for 3.86 an over so far) and he would have helped ensure they avoided more over-rate fines. England, you may recall, lost 40 percent of their match fee because of their slow over-rate at Lord’s. Dan Lawrence’s maiden Test wicket right at the end of the day suggested spin could yet play a part of the final three days, too.
But the man England really missed was Ben Stokes. With Stokes in the side, England can play the spinner without compromising their seam depth. He strengthens their batting, too, and provides a sense of belief in the field which can drag his side through tough sessions. He’s been masking holes elsewhere in the side for some time.
“Yes, we want to play on good pitches; we want to challenge our fast bowlers to take wickets on good pitches,” Jon Lewis, the England bowling coach, agreed afterwards. “We have to find a way to be effective on these pitches, whether that’s using short balls to upset the batsmen or bowling tight lines and making it hard to score.
“We’ve got to find a way to get wickets on good pitches because that’s what we’re going to have to do throughout the summer and in the winter as well.”
It’s a brave policy. And an unusual one. Could Lewis think of another country which doesn’t utilise home advantage?
“Australia,” he replied. “They produce really good pitches. They have pace and bounce and they back their fast bowlers to get wickets on them.
“That’s the challenge that lies ahead of us. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
In retrospect, you wonder how wise it was to play Mark Wood in this match. It’s not that he didn’t deserve selection – he bowled really well at Lord’s – but, with just three empty days between games, you wonder if it was worth risking him. He still bowled quickly – though every bit of 10 percent slower than Lord’s – and his batting helped England recover from 175 for 6 to exceed 300. But he wasn’t quite as sharp as he had been at Lord’s. For all his qualities, you suspect he will rarely be at his best in the second of back-to-back Tests.
The pitch is, Lewis admitted, a little slower than England would have liked, too. But, after a cold early summer, there’s not a huge amount that could have been done about that and part of England’s development as a Test side has to be their ability to make inroads in conditions where they have little assistance.
Broad, at least, was excellent. We have become familiar with his full, probing length over the last couple of years. But what we do not always see is the lateral movement he generated here. He beat the bat often, took two edges that (apparently) didn’t carry and might, with just a little bit of luck, have had several wickets. He did, at least, have the satisfaction of surpassing Courtney Walsh’s Test wickets tally during the day; he did it in fewer overs, too. (We’ll gloss over the fact he’s closing in on his Test ducks record too.)
But while Stone bowled some fine deliveries, he wasn’t quite able to sustain the pressure of his senior colleagues. And, with Wood unable to offer the pace variation he had at Lord’s, England had four right-arm seamers separated by about six mph. On flat wickets, against batters who are prepared to put a high price on their wicket, they will have to be even more disciplined and tight if they are to build pressure.
And that’s the lesson here. England have come up against a really good side who have shown the standards required to go the extra step and become one of the best couple of teams in the world. This match isn’t over, but that home record looks in more jeopardy than it has for several years.