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England's search for consistency

Joe Root (Getty) England have won two out of six overseas test series under Joe Root (Getty)

March 13, 2020

The Sydney Cricket Ground in 2011. England had the chance to win a test series in Australia for the first time since 1987. They had already retained the Ashes by winning the previous test in Melbourne, where they bowled the home side out for 98 on the first day. They delivered once more in Sydney and sealed a historic and memorable 3-1 series victory against their biggest rivals.

Not only was that the last time England won the Ashes away from home in Australia, but it is also the last time England won consecutive series away from home. In 2010, Bangladesh were beaten convincingly by England at home and England’s next away assignment was the Ashes, which they also won. Since then, England have played 16 test series away from home and won just four of them. None of them have been back to back.

Their away season this time started in New Zealand and once again it looked like England had not learned their lesson from away losses. Their dedication to bat time did not pay dividends as they lost the first test and eventually, the two-test series 1-0. They travelled to South Africa and made a poor start once more. Losing by 107 runs gave everyone ammunition to criticise Joe Root’s side as they pleased but they turned the tide around against a Proteas side also in development.

Now, coming off a 3-1 series victory in South Africa with so many young players delivering, England were favourites heading into the Sri Lanka series which has been called off due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the “scar tissue” of England not being successful in overseas conditions consistently may still remain. What have been some of the key issues England sides have faced over the years and is there anything they need to focus on during their next away test series, whenever that happens?

When looking for consistency, a key thing is to have an order to almost everything you do. We always like to put an order on things and would like things to remain how they were. For that reason, a good barometer to check for consistency when it comes to the England test team is to see the number of changes in personnel being made to team. Before 2011, the last time England won back to back series away from home was way back in 2005 in South Africa. I have looked at the England XI that have ended a test tour, and then comparing that to the team that starts the next tour since 2005, and it has shown some interesting things.

Back in that first test match in South Africa in 2004, when England won the series 2-1, England made just two changes to the side that drew the final test of the series in the West Indies earlier that year. Also in Brisbane, ahead of the first Ashes test in 2010, England made two changes to the team that won the second test in Bangladesh. In fact, in their eight overseas test series victories since 2004, only twice did England make more than three changes from the side that ended the previous test tour. Those two occurrences were in South Africa in 2015, where they made four changes, and in Sri Lanka in 2018 where they made seven changes.

The number of changes made in Sri Lanka 18 months ago can be put down to the subcontinent conditions because they wanted three spinners in their side. But usually, when they have been successful, England have made just two or three changes to their lineup. There is the obvious caveat that injuries have often played their part and that can be given as a reason why there have been matches with four or five changes to the side. During England’s most successful period in this century in test cricket, the changes made to the side were often with the bowling lineup. They had a settled batting lineup that dominated on many occasions.

Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell and Matt Prior were part of a top seven that struck fear into teams around the world. Only injuries separated these seven players in test match cricket during the early 2010s. They all went through periods of bad form and times when they suffered from a lack of confidence. But the management seemed to always believe that when they were available, they had to play in the side. The obvious thing to note is that many of these players were world class during their careers, and you cannot say any of the current players apart from Root and Stokes will end up as greats. But the batsmen should be given consistency, given that they performed so well in South Africa. The bowling lineup will likely see changes because of the conditions they face overseas, but England should look to keep the formula that won in South Africa.

Another thing England have struggled with often, in overseas conditions, is starting test tours with a positive result. Since 2004, England have played 27 test series away from home and only on five occasions have they started those test series with a victory. Of their last six test series away from home, apart from the Sri Lanka series in 2018, they have lost matches by 10 wickets, an innings and 49 runs, 381 runs, an innings and 65 runs and by 107 runs most recently.

These are all crushing defeats if taken in isolation but to start a test series in that fashion must be even more difficult. In the press conferences in the lead up to an overseas test series, we can expect Root and other players talk about the importance of starting the series well. All the cliches will come out in the interviews and media discussions but it really is crucial to England’s chances of success in overseas series.

Of course the last series was an example of England losing the first test and going on to win the series. But as the data has shown, England usually find it very difficult to win series after a crushing defeat in the opening test. They must ensure that they do not lose, and not lose heavily in the first test in their next away series. It may even need them to play safe cricket and not necessarily go for the win, because that will enable them to set up the foundation for the rest of the series and also keep progressing up the World Test Championship table.