Bazball has made the most of England's resources – but the system still needs fixing

Mark Wood – Bazball has made the most of England's resources – but the system still needs fixing

Mark Wood has hit speeds of up to 95mph to give Australia’s batsmen a shock – PA/Mike Egerton

Call the consultants: it is time for a review. That has often been the English response to Ashes failure. In 2007, it was the Schofield review, with its 19 recommendations. Last year, it was the High Performance Review, which contained 17 recommendations.

This time, of course, it will be very different. Against the world Test champions, England have played terrific cricket for vast swathes of the Ashes series. But for the rain at Old Trafford, England would almost certainly be arriving at the Oval with the score 2-2 and as favourites to win the series.

And yet England remain hampered by a wider structure that is not really set up for the Test team to thrive. Indeed, a central tenet of Bazball has been trusting talent rather than the system. This logic has been evident throughout the Ashes.

Exhibit A:

Joe Root’s declaration, on the eve of the series, that he learnt more playing – or rather, carrying the drinks – in this season’s Indian Premier League than playing in the County Championship. “Am I really going to be prepared better for an Ashes series facing lower pace bowling on some nibbly wickets, when hopefully we will play on good pitches against high pace and a high quality spinner? I don’t think so.”

Given Root’s sparkling batting against Australia, his judgement is hard to dispute. The awkward question remains why the Championship is not better preparation for Test cricket.

Exhibit B:

Selection of Moeen Ali. The swift move to summon him after Jack Leach’s injury was partly an endorsement of Moeen’s Test pedigree. But, almost two years after his Test retirement, it was also an indictment of the paucity of English spin bowling options.

Exhibit C:

Picking Josh Tongue. Based on his county record – in eight Division Two games since the start of 2022, he averages 33 – Tongue would not figure in England’s thinking. But the selectors recognised how the bowling skills needed to thrive in the Test game are often poorly rewarded in the Championship, and were vindicated with Tongue’s hostile bowling and five wickets at Lord’s.

Exhibit D:

Continued backing of Zak Crawley. As well as his aggression, Crawley is also valued as a rare batsman who performs better as the speed increases. So far in his Test career he averages just 25 against balls from seamers under 82mph, but 34 against balls 82-87mph and 47 when the speed is 87mph or more. These unusual skills underpinned his magnificent 189 at Old Trafford; they also double as an explanation of why Crawley only averages 32 in his County Championship career.

The best Test cricket will always be stronger than the County Championship. But Tongue and Crawley embody how different the type of cricket is between the domestic and international game. In the Championship, under one per cent of deliveries from pace bowlers are over 87mph, compared to 17 per cent in Tests. From 2014-22, just 22 per cent of overs in the English first-class game were bowled by spin, compared to 41 per cent in Test cricket.

Green-tinged county wickets, and the dearth of matches during the prime summer months, mean that there is seldom much need for high pace or spin bowling in the Championship; nagging right-arm seam bowling will generally suffice. Unsurprisingly, England perform strikingly better when conditions offer more lateral movement. Since 2005, England lead Australia 8-3 in the 14 home Ashes Tests when the ball has seamed and swung the most, but trail 6-4 in the 15 Tests when the ball has moved the least.

All of this explains England’s struggles with the ball at the start of the series. At Edgbaston, the four quickest bowlers on either side were all Australian; for all Mark Wood’s fire this series, it remains an uncomfortable truth that the only fit English Test bowler who can consistently approach 90mph is 33. Moeen has performed commendably for a man who had not played a first-class game for 21 months before the first Test; the question is why no county spinner had a stronger case to play.

Mark Wood – Bazball has made the most of England's resources – but the system still needs fixing

Wood’s pace has given England’s bowling welcome ferocity – AP/Rui Vieira

The impact of the county schedule, and pitches, is most obvious in the make-up of England’s bowling attack. And yet it is arguably as pronounced on English batsmen: they graduate from county cricket well-versed in dealing with seam but with little experience coping with short bowling at pace.

“It’s 20mph slower than what it will be at the end of the summer,” Ben Duckett said after he scored a century at Lord’s against Middlesex in April. “It can be more tricky facing someone more like [Middlesex seamer Ethan] Bamber, who’s around the knee-roll at 75mph.”

From 188-1 in their first innings at Lord’s, England’s collapse against the short ball was one of the defining passages of the series. While Ben Stokes has scored a remarkable 181 runs against short balls without being dismissed this Ashes, the rest of the side have only averaged 26, being dismissed 27 times.

For all their outstanding cricket in the last two Tests, in the last four Ashes series, stretching back to 2017-18, England have still won only three Tests to Australia’s 12. It attests to how Australia have consistently had an attack far better-suited to the flat pitches that are the norm in Test cricket.

Changing this unpalatable truth, and so giving England a consistent chance to win Down Under – they have not won a Test in Australia in 15 attempts – cannot be done by Stokes’s inspirational leadership alone. Instead, it requires deeper structural change to the English game: Championship matches played on conditions that better resemble Tests; a schedule that allows players more rest; condensing talent in the top division, narrowing the gap to Test cricket and giving batsmen more experience of facing pace.

Much of this, of course, sounds strikingly like the High Performance Review, whose recommendations last September were rejected by the countries. Aspects of the Review, like the lack of consideration of how the Hundred fits into the wider domestic ecosystem, were flawed. But, for all the transformation under Stokes, the Review’s central claim – that England need the Championship to better resemble Test cricket to be more successful, particularly away – remains as relevant as ever.

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