West Indies vs England: Yet another unexplainable batting collapse shows just how lost this middle order is

With an opening partnership whose quality remains up for debate and a middle order that is anything but in order, it is no surprise to see England reluctantly accept another woefully bad batting display

Jonathan Liew reports from day two between West Indies and England

They came, they saw, they departed. England’s first innings in Barbados lasted 182 balls and around two and a half hours, and for the vast majority of that time there was precious little doubt over what was about to happen, and few illusions that it might be arrested. Such is the ubiquity of the England batting collapse, the visual and sensory grammar with which we are all bleakly acquainted, that it long ago lost its capacity to shock, or even dismay. Anger does not feel like the correct response here. Nor bafflement. Rather, with the first Test against the West Indies disappearing over the horizon, we are at the stage where a macabre curiosity has begun to set in. What, exactly, is going on here?

This is, remember, a team that has won eight of its last nine Tests, home and away. And yet Joe Root’s side retains the strange predilection for Victorian-era totals that afflicted its predecessors. This was the fourth time in the last decade that they had been bowled out for under 80, more than anybody else in the same period. India, Sri Lanka and the West Indies have managed to avoid it altogether. Yet after Jamaica in 2009 (51 all out), Abu Dhabi in 2012 (72 all out), Auckland in 2018 (58 all out) and now Barbados in 2019 (77 all out), the pattern of behaviour is becoming impossible to ignore. Even England themselves sense it. The crash of wickets, the beige panic, the racing heartbeats, the ceaseless swing of the dressing room door. They, just like everyone else, know what’s happening.

Even so, it was surprising to hear Moeen Ali putting it into words. “Sometimes in the changing room, you know what’s going to happen,” he said after the close of play. “You just feel they have the momentum. But it’s very difficult to stop when guys are bowling well, their tails up. I just think there are times when you will get bowled out for not many. Every team has them.”

Just take a few moments to let the weight of those words sink in. For England, the batting collapse seems to unleash an invisible and yet irresistible force that over time, they have begun to internalise. Now, as Moeen explained, the process of rationalisation has begun. These things simply happen, like eczema or leaves on the line. A bad day at the office. Perhaps even, for a team reckoning with its imperfections, the price of doing business. What nobody has quite been able to explain yet is why England seem to pay it so much more often than anyone else.

As it happened, Moeen was perhaps the only England batsman to be dismissed playing a genuinely rash shot. The brilliance of the West Indies was clearly a major factor here, even if, as Kemar Roach admitted afterwards, the scale of the demolition still took them aback. But it is no mitigation to point out that the vast majority were out playing defence rather than attack. Test cricket awards no extra points for sobriety. What is worth analysing, in fact, is just why so many of England’s batsmen - skilled ball-strikers, one and all - defended their wicket so inexpertly, and more or less all at once.

This isn’t an issue of application. There’s no question they’re all trying. What they’re actually trying to do, on the other hand, is a rather tougher proposition. How is it possible that Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, two of the world’s most dangerous attacking batsmen, managed just a single scoring shot between them in a combined 53 minutes at the crease? How did Rory Burns score just two runs in an hour with singles available to virtually all parts of the ground? Why did Moeen decide the only way to show positive intent was to try and hook a six off his first ball? Where, ultimately, was the enterprise, the urgency, the desire to dictate terms? As Moeen said, all teams suffer clatters of wickets. What’s less forgivable, from England’s point of view, was the way they seemed unwittingly to acquiesce in their fate.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is the general feeling of impermanence. The idea of a batsman having a “natural game” is always a slight misconception: all batsmen tailor their approach to the game state, their position in the order and their security in the side. Burns and Keaton Jennings are both still fighting for their places. Jonny Bairstow is a No 5 batting at No 3. Stokes is a No 6 batting at No 5. Buttler is a No 7 batting at No 6. Ben Foakes is a No 6 batting at No 8. In an ideal world, Moeen would also bat at No 6 and bowl 15 overs a day. Instead, the powerful gravity exerted by Stokes has forced Moeen into orbit around him: up the order, down the order, shuffled more times than the four of diamonds.

Meanwhile, Sam Curran is a Test-class batsman being deployed in the lower order, and a handy backup seamer taking the new ball. Nobody has quite worked out what Adil Rashid is supposed to be doing yet. In fact, the only players with stable, defined roles are Root, Stokes (sort of) and James Anderson, who just so happen to be the three outstanding performers in the side. It’s no wonder England’s batsmen seem so confused at the crease. Nobody really knows how they’re supposed to be playing any more.

Only Moeen Ali could say that he got out by playing a rash shot

Root, to his credit, seems to have recognised this. It’s why we shouldn’t expect wholesale changes ahead of the Antigua Test, fitness permitting. With the exception of the opening pair, whose class remains negotiable, the rest are simply very good players still learning their roles, still learning when to push and when to hold. Until they do, England collapses will remain a simple fact of life, the sort that gives even the lowliest of oppositions a fighting chance.

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