Why are we even surprised that the England cricket test team is a mess? The debacle of the Ashes, a lack of tough action, and now the test side looks toothless and a last resort of England. Only now are we suffering a delayed reaction to the huge mistakes made by Peter Moores in 2014, England's annus horriblis, to the stage where almost every England player bar two (Root and Anderson) should be under threat and looking at the competition. What competition, though? It's a fair comment made by Bob Willis on Sky Sports this week. The England Lions have just lost 3-0 in the West Indies, and such is England's obsession with white ball cricket after their embarrassing performance at the 2015 World Cup that the County Championship has been relegated to a sideshow.
It is probably, on balance, a good idea to stop players changing formats so often, but to only have one Championship match between the last week of June and the third week of August is not ideal. The sheer amount of draws in 2017 (66 draws in 126 matches) indicates how fickle the English weather can be in April, May, and September. The spin bowlers in particular are going to find it ridiculously tough. England have a tour to Sri Lanka in October; we're just going to see another repeat of the disasters of India in 2016. Only SIX - SIX - English spin bowlers took 20 wickets in the 2017 Championship, and two of those played on the infamous dust bowls of Taunton.
So, with the help of our computer graphics, let's dissect all 16 players in the current England squad.
I have never been Moeen Ali's biggest fan, but this winter he's been even worse than he was in 2016-17. Throwing him in at the deep in in 2014 can't have been good for his development, and we can't turn back time now. With Ali, England are paying the price for mismanaging him. In 2014, I agree with Michael Vaughan's view that we required Gareth Batty as a stop-gap, and two spinners in the team, the second being Ali. This allows Ali to develop at international level whilst relying on Gareth Batty for the team's #1. That was four years ago. Ali looks nowhere near like a test match spin bowler. His batting's gone down the drain too. What does this man have to do to get dropped!?
Verdict: Get rid. U.
With Adil Rashid having dropped out, Gareth Batty celebrating his 40th birthday, and Zafar Ansari and Liam Dawson ostracised (and Ansari retiring), we've simply run out of options in the spin department, apart from Mason Crane and one other. Crane, I have written about before, but if you can't get a game for your county how on earth are you meant to get one for England? And if he's being hailed as the "second coming" of Shane Warne after his... mediocre performance at Sydney, that's an insult to Shane Warne. So the only one left is...
Two years' worth of Taunton dust bowls have given him a spot in the England side, although I personally prefer his spin partner, Dom Bess. He had some very poor performances for the England Lions and went at 10 per over in a tour game in December. I'm not hopeful, but either he plays, or we use Root as the main spinner. Don't use Ali, for Christ's sake.
Verdict: Too early to tell.
It's not as though England are home-track bullies, for 2017 was the first time since 2013 they had won both of their home series (having lost 1-0 to Sri Lanka in 2014, drawn 1-1 against New Zealand in 2015, and drawn 2-2 against Pakistan in 2016). England aren't dominating at home, and aren't winning away. Why is everyone shocked at England's atrocious performance in being bowled out for 58? England have been 3 down for under 100 in over 60% of innings since the 2013-14 Ashes, and this time Bairstow, Stokes, and Ali couldn't save them - and to be fair, we should not be relying on 6, 7, and 8 every time.
Feast or famine? Cook scored two double hundreds in 2017 but there is one major problem in that he seems to be getting better coaching at Essex than he is at England. You can see this in his trigger movements. When he is in form, his back leg moves across the stumps, followed by the front leg, followed by a solid forward stride, the bat in line with the pad, and block. When he is not in form, his back leg doesn't move across, it lands in exactly the same place. This puts him out of position and not with enough forward motion, resulting in one of two things: either he doesn't know where his off stump is, or he feels as though he's doing everything right when he isn't. Cook's problems are the really the fault of the batting coach, Mark Ramprakash. Even when a poor shot hits the middle of the bat and goes through the covers for four, I begin to fear for Cook's innings. He really has one more chance in Hamilton before England have to get firm with him.
Verdict: Last chance: B.
has found various ways of getting out. Nine tests in, and the jury is still out on him. He is yet another player who England have picked as a one-season wonder because they want form players rather than consistently good ones, a policy I have always disagreed with. England selectors, for me, should look at the aggregates of players over the last two or three years. Yes, occasionally this method will give us some duds such as Gary Ballance, but it won't give us one-hit wonders like Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed, and Keaton Jennings. Where on earth are the likes of Ned Gubbins and Rory Burns, scoring runs year in, year out? In my opinion, England should have stuck with the promising Alex Hales at 2, but it's too late now as he's effectively retired from red-ball cricket.
Verdict: Last chance: B-.
is one of only two players whose spot is not up for debate. His conversion rate has been criticised, but I'd much rather have a player who scored 50 in each innings rather than a player who scores 250 followed by 4 ducks.
Verdict: Keep: A-.
The way he came into the England side is ridiculous (scoring 77 in a T20 match) but after playing so well in Australia he looked like a walking wicket in Auckland. Even in the second innings, his feet were catching on the crease and it was almost a question of when, not if, he was dismissed. I've said it before, but if he gets in the England test side based on white ball performances, why hasn't Jason Roy? Malan's performances in the Ashes save him for now, but in Hamilton, if he has another shocker, he has to go. England need to be more ruthless, as per their successful 50-over side.
Verdict: Last chance: B.
The day this bloke does not edge behind off a wide half-volley with no feet is a day we can celebrate. For now, even when he scores runs, Vince's shots look incredibly wayward, just as I said with Alastair Cook. He should not be anywhere near the test team. Full stop.
Verdict: Get rid: D.
The obsession with "play your natural game" must end. Too often Bairstow has played stupid shots when the match situation requires a more defensive mindset. If Bairstow is unwilling to change then he needs a severe telling-off, or to be moved around in the order depending on the match situation. If England are trying to save a game, don't, for the love of God, put him in during a collapse.
Verdict: Keep, but must try harder: B+.
Worth a go, perhaps? Wasn't really a standout performer in the County Championship over the last few years (James Hildreth, Steven Davies to name but two) but he has his chance because of England's somewhat eyebrow-raising pre-disposition to Lancashire and Yorkshire players (Jos Buttler, Gary Ballance, Adam Lyth, and Simon Kerrigan, need I say more?). Needs to play in Hamilton, merely because there's no one else. He shouldn't be in the squad at all, though, with only 33 first class matches under his belt. It's therefore impossible to say whether he's in form or he's class. As we all know, form is temporary, class is permanent...
Verdict: Too early to tell.
England see this man as a specialist gloveman, and his wicket keeping is certainly impressive, but his batting is no slouch either. He averages 41.34 in First Class cricket. And that's from quite a large sample size of 78 first class matches. That average is higher than everyone bar Livingstone, Bairstow, Cook, and Root. The only problem is picking him and Bairstow will inevitably give Foakes the gloves, and whilst Bairstow's not been bad behind the stumps, surely if we are in such a position we go for the best gloveman on the day? He simply must play in Hamilton.
Verdict: Keep: B.
Ben Stokes is, or should be, at least, England's third seam bowler. His performances are very good with the ball and he is a genuine all-rounder in the likes of Flintoff or Botham. If England can find an answer to their spin issues, then we need only use Stokes, Broad, Anderson, and one spinner; allowing for seven specialist batsmen. Is Stokes good enough to be a specialist batsman? Probably not. If he's not fit for Hamilton, I would have said not to pick him, but he performed fairly well in Auckland, except for a very tardy shot to get out in the second innings and a poor back lift which contributed to his first-innings dismissal (he was the only one of the top order who thought to get down the pitch to counteract the swing).
Verdict (specialist batsman): Last chance: B.
Verdict (all-rounder): Keep: A-.
That 2-2 series against Pakistan in 2016 is a watershed moment for many of England's players, for many bowlers haven't performed since then despite appearances in all conditions - Bangladesh, India, England, Australia, and New Zealand.
Since 1 October 2016, averages 57.61 with the ball. That is simply not good enough for 11 games. Get rid of him. Toby Roland-Jones should be fit by now, bring him in for Woakes as the "dry seamer" option.
Verdict: Get rid: D-.
Verdict: Get rid: D-.
I have talked about Mark Wood before. England's obsession with him because he can bowl slightly quicker (never mind the fact he bowls absolute pies) is ridiculous. If we want someone who "offers something different", etc, etc, why not Stuart Meaker, the fastest ever bowler at the England performance academy? Because he's utter crap.
Verdict: Last chance: C.
One of only two members of the team whose spots are safe. Bowling very well both at home and away. He did his job in the Ashes, taking 17 wickets out of a possible 80, but no one else did.
Verdict: Keep: A.
Looked better in New Zealand, but his performances in 2017 are very questionable with an average of 36.23. Overall, I think he's done enough, not helped by the lack of competition, but for now...
Verdict: Keep: B+.
Another "military medium pacer" who, like Darren Stevens, can get you a bundle of wickets in English conditions but is absolutely useless away from home. Worth trying at home at some point, but not in place of Toby Roland-Jones, who appears to have been forgotten about entirely.
Verdict: Get rid, but revisit in the future. C.
On that basis, the England XI for the second test match should be bold, daring, and brutal: Cook, Stoneman, Root, Malan, Bairstow, Stokes, Foakes, Broad, Wood, Leach, Anderson.
Liam Livingstone could play in place of Leach if we want no spinners.