The start of England’s opening Test match against the West Indies in Barbados on Wednesday was dominated by discussion around the tourists’ selection.
How would the pitch play? Did they really need two spinners? Should Stuart Broad be in the side?
By Saturday evening those debates seemed irrelevant and a lifetime away. A completely inept batting performance, spread across two innings and of a contrasting nature but with a shared wince-induing value, had ensured little else mattered for England.
A different bowling line-up might have reduced the margin down from a catastrophic 381 runs – the same as the hiding England received at Brisbane in the first Test of the 2013-14 Ashes series – to something a touch more respectable, but it would only have been akin to treating a gun-shot wound with paracetamol.
Misreading the pitch and going with what had worked so impressively just two months ago in Sri Lanka can be excused. Confused, aimless and frequently brainless batting cannot.
Looking at England’s team sheet we were reminded once again of the depth of their batting order. There may be problems up the top, but with eight wins from the last nine Test matches coming to the Kensington Oval, the focus was instead on the positives elsewhere.
Remember the positive intent captain Joe Root and coach Trevor Bayliss have so often banged on about? Remember Sam Curran’s belligerent match-turning lower-order runs which defined the summer of 2018? Remember the fact that Adil Rashid, batting at No10, has 10 first-class centuries?
If any of those thoughts had lingered from the outset on Wednesday, they were long-lost memories by Thursday as England’s brittle batting was snapped in half mercilessly by West Indies’ four fast bowlers.
The total of 77 will be filed the annals of embarrassing batting displays as No17 – less than 12 months after No6, a fevered dream of 58 all out in Auckland starring Trent Boult and Tim Southee.
But as disappointing as failing to deal with the pace and bounce of Kemar Roach and Jason Holder was, the second innings managed to be even worse, despite the 169 more runs scored.
Having been set a nominal 628 runs to win after Holder’s brilliant innings of 202, it was always likely to subside into a loss – but in sport the nature of defeats matters. Fans who travelled to Barbados would have accepted a reverse had the batsmen showed discipline and determination.
Barring Rory Burns, who scored a confidence-boosting 84 at the top of the innings, none did. Instead the off-spin of Roston Chase, which can euphemistically be termed as “gentle”, ran through the line-up to return scarcely believable figures of 8-60.
Chase came into the match with a Test bowling average of 47.61, which screams “part-time”, but left with figures better than all-time Test great Shane Warne’s best of 8-71.
Two batsmen guided his non-spinning off-spinners into the midriff of a grateful slip, two were caught in the leg-side, one on the mid-wicket boundary and finally, the last wicket came stumped down the leg-side as the last six wickets fell for just 31 runs.
“It was frustrating because there was a few very soft dismissals in there,” was how Root termed it. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s a rarity. It’s not something that’s happened consistently over the recent past. It is difficult to take. We’re still a good side.”
Lack of application
He’s right. But a good side with a propensity to collapse is a flawed one. As we have seen over the last year in series wins over India and Sri Lanka having a positive mindset can be beneficial.
However, it’s clear there is a lack of application in the batting. Opener Keaton Jennings has a serious weakness against fast bowling and averages 25.86 after 16 Tests. But even the supposed stars have clear issues.
Root has scored just four hundreds in 25 Tests as captain and following scores of four and 22 his average dipped under 50 for the first time since 2014.
Ben Stokes was excellent with the ball, bowling 50.3 overs to support James Anderson, but his batting has gone off the boil: the left-hander averages just 26 at a strike-rate of 45 in his last 11 Tests. Even more concerning, Moeen Ali, who failed to score a single run in two innings, is averaging just 17.56 with the bat since November 2017.
Both Root and Bayliss insist it’s not an ingrained problem. “It’s more of a mental thing,” said Bayliss. “We’ve got to say: ‘we’re not giving our wicket away’.” But of course, it’s not as easy as that.
And while England have Broad, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood and Jack Leach on the sidelines, there is only Joe Denly on the tour as a back-up batsman. That means there are not many options available for second Test, which starts in Antigua on Thursday. Denly could come in for the struggling Jennings, but that doesn’t feel like the definitive answer.
With such a chastening defeat behind them, the tourists are already fighting history: no England side has ever won an away series against West Indies after falling behind.
Thankfully, with plenty of experience in recent years of crushing failure Bayliss knows England have the ability to bounce back.
After losing by nine wickets to Pakistan at Lord’s last May, they won at Trent Bridge by an innings. While a 203-run defeat by India in Nottingham was followed by a win at the Ageas Bowl in August.
“Every time we’ve played like this the guys have come out and played pretty well in the next game,” he said.
If they are to make history they will need to repeat the trick a third time.