The Auckland rain has given England a lifeline they do not deserve. It is not impossible that they could escape with a draw, though New Zealand can dictate the pace of the game with a better forecast over the remaining two days.
Even a draw in Auckland, however, would equal England’s longest winless run overseas – 12 matches. A defeat would mean they would have lost 10 of those. Various horrid-looking numbers can be softened by looking at their home performances, but that isn’t going to do anyone any good. Many sides find it tough away from home these days, but England’s problems are becoming particularly acute.
There can be no greater contrast than the verve and confidence of England’s one-day team, which just completed victories in Australia and New Zealand, and the insipidness of the Test side, especially away from home. Both can collapse as has been seen of late – 8 for 5 and 46 for 8 in Adelaide and Dunedin recently for the ODI side – but Eoin Morgan’s team has belief in what they are trying to achieve. The Test team looks bereft.
“If we keep doing things exactly the same way, then we might get exactly the same results,” Test captain Joe Root said before the pink-ball Test in Auckland.
They changed the batting line-up, though that was out of necessity when Ben Stokes was unable to be a fifth bowler. If that hadn’t been the case, James Vince would played at No. 3. There was much talk before the match of mixing up the new-ball attack, but whether it was bluff or not after being skittled for 58, it was handed to Stuart Broad.
On the face of it, England’s bowling figures look respectable. No one has conceded more than Moeen Ali’s 2.91 an over and Broad has pushed up to 140kph (87mph). There remains, however, a lack of spark that has been so evident in the attack overseas since the 2016 tour of South Africa, when they emerged victorious. It was a topic extensively discussed during and after the Ashes, and many a bowler will chunter at the thought of the bowling being dissected when the batsmen made 58 between them, but is worth revisiting.
“We are extremely different as bowlers,” Anderson insisted. “Two tall guys – Broady is getting back towards 140ks, which is useful having that pace – we know Woakes can bowl similar pace. We’ve had brilliant bowling attacks in the past which are very similar, but each bring their own different subtleties. It’s about gelling, creating pressure in your own way. We’ve got plenty of variation there to take 20 wickets.”
They have taken 20 wickets only once in their last 11 away Tests. Since the start of the series against India in 2016, England’s attack is averaging an eye-watering 51.27 away from home. Only Bangladesh are worse. The difference between England and the teams they are chasing – India, Australia, South Africa – is massive (New Zealand, it should be noted, haven’t played overseas in that period, but that’s another debate).
So far in this Test, Woakes and Craig Overton are wicketless after 41 overs. They have gone for 98 runs. But economy is not going to win Tests.
The difference between Woakes’ home and away average is huge: 24.28 to 58.88, and his numbers in England are because of that one outstanding season in 2016. In the one-day side he is growing into the leader of the attack, but the heir apparent to James Anderson with the red ball has hit the buffers.
Without Overton, England may have registered the lowest Test total ever and his 33 showed his batting credentials as his debut innings in Adelaide had done. He also bowled with heart and skill against Australia, but another fast-medium bowler is not really the answer – regardless of how well they can hold a bat. Stokes would make a difference with the ball, but England’s solution to him not being ready as a fifth bowler was, again, cautious.
Mark Wood is in this squad, and he is currently the one pace bowler England have who could offer a point of difference. Meanwhile, another who might have done – given a fair wind – is Steven Finn, but he is playing the Pakistan Super League. Finn was called into the Ashes squad, got injured on his first day, and flew home.
That is not to say either would provide a magic solution – or any of the names picked out from the domestic game – yet Root acknowledged that things need to change. The desire to make those changes has to be serious. And that’s regardless of whether England escape Auckland with a draw.