Bewildered batsmen lose sight of big score
England cannot go into tomorrow night's second Test in Wellington with the same team as that comprehensively beaten by New Zealand on Sunday. Changes must be made, if only to give those members of the side who may still feel invincible a reminder that everyone is expendable.
James Whitaker, England's travelling selector, was meant to return home yesterday but he will now stay in New Zealand until the start of the Test, attempting to make sense of what took place in Hamilton. His presence suggests important decisions need to be made.
Stephen Harmison has to be given a break. It would be cruel to throw Harmison back into the cauldron when he is so blatantly out of form and short of confidence. But who else will be made accountable for the team's humiliating 189-run defeat? England bowled poorly in Hamilton and Harmison is set to face the consequences, but will a batsman go the same way, given that England did not bat particularly well in the Test, being dismissed for a pathetic 110 in their second innings on a perfectly decent pitch? It is unlikely. History – or is it just a bitter and twisted former bowler? – suggests otherwise. However, even now it tends to be a bowler who makes way after a dreadful showing. In most cases batsmen are still the decision-makers and they stick pretty close together.
But it is time to have a look at how England's batsmen have performed recently because Sunday's capitulation was not the first. Indeed, one of the most disconcerting statistics to emerge this winter is that England's finest willow-wielders have posted just one Test hundred in the previous four Tests.
The last first-innings hundred, an innings that could potentially shape the course of the game, came eight Tests ago when Paul Collingwood helped himself to 136 against the West Indies at Chester-le-Street.
In the build-up to the first Test, when the strengths and weaknesses of both teams were being assessed, the batting averages of both sides were highlighted.
For England the figures made favourable reading, with each member of their top six averaging above 40. New Zealand do not have a batsman averaging over the benchmark figure. Statistics, however, can be misleading, as England's are. With the exception of Kevin Pietersen, who remains the team's best and most consistent performer, each of England's batsmen have averaged at least 12 runs fewer per innings than they did when they were at their peak, and no batsman's average has risen in the past 18 months.
In order for the statistics to be realistic, peak figures have been taken from a point when each was an established member of the side but since then four players are averaging in the mid-thirties.
So what is the reason for this downturn? Is it that Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell, Collingwood and Michael Vaughan are technically less capable than they once were? Has the quality of bowling in Test cricket improved? Have the pitches worsened? Or is it that the concentration, patience and drive required to post big scores have diminished?
The cause will vary from player to player. Bell seems obsessed with technique; Strauss is nervously trying to prove himself; Pietersen is attempting to play more responsibly, even though his strike rate and average were at their highest at the same point. But the standard of bowling has not gone up and the quality of pitches has improved, so runs should be easier to come by, and too much can be made of technical flaws.
England's batsmen seem to be battling with themselves as much as the opposition. Does an average of 40 and a shortage of young players vying for their place breed complacency, or is there a limit to their powers of concentration? There is certainly a weakness against spin, as John Bracewell, the New Zealand coach, intimated yesterday when explaining why the Black Caps were playing two spinners.
Whatever the problems are, they are having a huge impact on England's cricket. That no batsman has scored more than one hundred in his last 12 innings is a telling fact, but not as telling as the number of occasions each has reached 20. With the exception of Pietersen they have all reached this score in more than 50 per cent of their innings. Any batsman can get out early but these conversion rates are unacceptable. The first 20 runs are supposed to be the hardest.
England's batting in Hamilton suggests a state of confusion. They know that they should be doing better, but with every innings pressure and a fear of failure are growing. At the Basin Reserve, Vaughan will not care whether hundreds come at a run a ball or take six hours, as long as they come.
If they do not England will struggle to get back into this Test series and it could be a batsman who gets axed for the third Test.
On the back foot: The decline of England's top six
Career average 44.16
Average peaked during his ninth Test v Pakistan (the Oval 2006) 54.36
In 30 innings since 1,226 runs @ 40.87
One 100 in last 16 innings
More than 20 – eight times
Career average 43.42
Average peaked during 31st Test v South Africa (Edgbaston 2004) 51.57
In 82 innings since 2,901 runs @ 38.17
One 100 in last 18 innings
More than 20 – 11 times
Career average 40.35
Average peaked during 11th Test v South Africa (Wanderers 2005) 63.26
In 62 innings since 2,066 runs @ 33.32
No 100 in last 27 innings
More than 20 – 15 times
Career average 49.55
Average peaked during 13th Test v Sri Lanka (Edgbaston 2006) 51.74
In 41 innings since 1,882 runs @ 48.26
One 100 in last 12 innings
More than 20 – five times
Career average 43.18
Average peaked during 17th Test v Pakistan (Headingley 2006) 48.81
In 33 innings since 1,110 runs @ 35.81
No 100 in last 19 innings
More than 20 – 11 times
Career average 42.43
Average peaked during 17th Test v Australia (Adelaide 2006) 48.43
In 27 innings since 893 runs @ 35.72
No 100 in last 14 innings
More than 20 – nine times
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