When Geoff Miller talks of players going through the motions and the need for matters to be rectified you can be sure that you are on the naughty stool. Miller has made it his business as the national selector to be emollient to the point of blandness.
He has rarely, if ever, publicly criticised his players. Since his time as national selector has coincided with a fruitful period for English cricket – he could justifiably claim to be one of its architects – it has been a largely unimpeded route to the anodyne.
But Miller was plainly disturbed by events in New Zealand earlier this year when, against odds, rankings and sporting sense, the team that he picked was held to a 0-0 draw in a series of three Tests. There was no surprise at all in Leicester when Miller announced a squad of familiar names for the first of two home Tests against the same opponents which begins at Lord’s on Thursday. Six of the squad of 12 have played 50 or more Tests, with Joe Root, Nick Compton and Jonny Bairstow still all in single figures. Perhaps that makes it a well-balanced, evolving team, one blending gnarled experience, wisdom and huge success with callowness and optimism.
But Miller made it clear in his understated way that the performances against New Zealand were not good enough. He said: “ New Zealand are a good side, they have shown what they are capable of doing. Maybe we were forced to under-perform but we didn’t play to the capabilities we have shown in the past so that has got to be rectified.
“It keeps your feet on the ground. It makes you realise you can’t just go into a game and go through the motions and win the game because, on paper, you are supposedly superior.”
This was Miller’s version of the hair-dryer treatment. The players let him down and, with two Ashes series later this year, they have to atone quickly.
The signs are promising. England Lions had much the better of the match against New Zealand which petered out amid more showers yesterday.
The seam bowling was nothing to write home about, although Graham Onions and Chris Woakes settled into better rhythm as the tourists’ innings went on.
There continues to be a niggling concern that England’s support bowling, which may be needed in the full international arena before the year is out, is lacking both in potency and expertise.
Much more encouraging was the form of Root, Bairstow and to a lesser extent, Ravi Bopara. It is intended that Root and Bairstow will be the bulwarks of the England middle order shortly.
The big shock yesterday was that Root, the team’s captain, did not convert his third century of the summer into his second double. His innings was ended on 179 after a couple more rasping shots during a determined spell by Doug Bracewell on the fourth morning. Root has 646 runs this summer at an average of 161 and such is his present authority that 1000 runs in May with four innings to play is not entirely in the realms of the fanciful. His average puts that of Bairstow (363 runs at 51) into the shade but the elder of the two Yorkshiremen showed some neat flourishes in his half century.
Ashley Giles, coach of the Lions for the match, noted the disappointing bowling on the first day. “They were really difficult conditions,” he said. “That gale was tough, but that’s what you’re going to have to put up with in Test cricket at times.”
But he was delighted with Root: “It’s great. He works very hard, and very specifically as well, and he’s worked his game out. We still need to be guarded on how much we build the lad up – he’s only played a couple of Tests – but so far so good.”
New Zealand may feel they simply did not get enough cricket in the match with long interruptions for rain on the first, third and fourth days. At least three of their batsmen, Peter Fulton, Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum, would have preferred much more time at the crease before a Test match.
Trent Boult and Bracewell increasingly looked the part, however, though the left-arm spin of Bruce Martin was treated disdainfully. They will reveal the extent of Tim Southee’s foot injury today.
England squad: first test
A N Cook (Essex; c) Age 28 Caps 90
J M Anderson (Lancs) 30 80
J M Bairstow (Yorks) 23 6
I R Bell (Warks) 31 86
T T Bresnan (Yorks) 28 18
S C J Broad (Notts) 26 55
N R D Compton (Som) 29 7
S T Finn (Midds) 24 20
M J Prior (Sussex) 31 65
J E Root (Yorks) 22 4
G P Swann (Notts) 34 50
I J L Trott (Warks) 32 41