In the build-up to the first Test at Edgbaston, Alastair Cook admitted England were going into the Test series against India “a fair bit” away from the standards that took them to No. 1 in the world earlier in the decade.
As a member of that England side that replaced India at the top of the Test rankings in 2011, Cook has a good idea of what is required to reach such heights. And he accepts the current team lack the consistency of their predecessors.
“We’re a side which has been inconsistent,” Cook said. “And to win a five-game series, you need to be consistently good.
“You go back to that side in 2011: it was probably the end of two or three years under Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower of playing really good cricket with the same 14 or 15 players. Everyone produced the goods over a period of time.
“How far away from that are we? A fair bit. To become the number one side in the world takes two or three years of really good results and we haven’t had that. The team has been changing as we’re finding out different things about different players and different combinations
“So we’re a little bit away from that. And that’s the challenge.”
It’s true that England’s record now bears no comparison to the side of 2011. Going into this series, England have won none of their last three series and only two of their last eight. They are ranked No. 5 in the world for good reason.
Going into the 2011 series, England were undefeated in eight series and had won seven of them including an away Ashes. They subsequently defeated India 4-0.
Just as importantly, England had a settled side in 2011. The batting line-up was predictable, the bowling changes were predictable and the team selections were predictable.
Those days are long gone. Not only are England still looking for an opening partner for Cook and a reliable spin option – they have attempted 12 players in each position since the retirements of Strauss and Graeme Swann respectively – but, twice this English summer, they have selected men who haven’t played any first-class cricket this year. Meanwhile they continue to rely upon two seamers with many miles on the clock. James Anderson, 36 on Monday, now has a shoulder held together by sellotape and the prayers of the England management team. Replacing him looks as difficult as ever.
Almost wherever you look at the England line-up there are questions. Can Cook still prosper on anything but the flattest wickets? Can Keaton Jennings finally end the search for an opening batsman? Can Joe Root start to convert his 50s into match-defining innings and can England’s talented and exciting middle-order add the fortitude to their flair to turn their promise into big scores. Do England possess a Test-quality spinner or express fast bowler and is there any sign of replacements for Anderson and Stuart Broad?
All this hints at a side in transition. But the worry is they’ve been in transition since 2013. And when transit takes that long it starts to look like limbo. For all the progress of their white-ball teams, it is hard to avoid the conclusion they have gone nowhere in Test cricket for several years.
It’s not going to get any easier, either. This India side, led by a vastly talented batsman who is hungry for success in the one nation where he has yet to taste it, has a well-balanced bowling attack including several who should be able to exploit England’s long-standing vulnerability against spin.
The worry for England is that their home performances have, to some extent, lent a veneer of respectability to their Test record. So beating Australia in 2015 and South Africa in 2017 offered a feel-good sense that, at least in part, helped ignore the drubbings they experienced in India and Australia.
But to lose a five-Test series at home to India would leave no hiding place. It really would expose the failings – the system that fails to develop spinners of fast bowlers and the lack of batsmen prepared to demonstrate patience and restraint – that have become apparent over recent years.
The selection of Adil Rashid has provoked much criticism but it is not as unreasonable as some have suggested. Anyone who saw Jack Leach bowl at New Road last week saw a man well below his best and in need of a great deal more bowling before he returns to Test cricket. To have selected him here would have been to risk his long-term future and, after the experiences of Simon Kerrigan, that is a mistake England are unwilling to make.
It is simply not true that Rashid retired from first-class cricket or that he cannot be bothered to play it. He has, instead, had a serious falling out with Yorkshire. While there may well be faults on both sides it was jarring to hear some at the club express “disappointment” in the selection of one of their players by England.
The problem is there were few other viable options. Only one England-qualified spinner – Surrey’s 20-year-old Amar Virdi – has managed 20 or more Championship wickets this season and with very little red-ball cricket scheduled in mid-summer, there will be little further opportunity to impress until this series is at least three Tests old.
So Cook is right. England really are a “fair bit” away from the standards they reached in 2011. Or, put simply, their red-ball cricket is in a fearful mess. And India are just the side to expose it.