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No Test team has met with a drop as steep in the span of a single year as England have. Even a cursory glance at the five Test series will tell you the story: a series win (2-1) in South Africa to regain the No. 1 spot; a 2-0 victory over Sri Lanka at home; a draw against Pakistan, again at home; another drawn series, this time against Bangladesh, albeit at their den; and a 0-4 drubbing in India. Breaking things down by matches, England had won 3 of their first 7 Tests and lost 1; in their last 11, they won 3 and lost 7.

In January they were sitting smugly at the top of the ICC ratings; by December they have slumped to fifth. They may well give lessons to bungee jumpers.

But what really went wrong for England? On paper everything seems right, for the top three run-scorers of the year are Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, and Alastair Cook, while Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes are at fifth and eighth respectively. While only Bairstow has an average in excess of 50 (Root has 49.23), the other four have all gone past the 40-mark. While 40 is not exactly a high average these days, five men who average over 40 can be a formidable line-up, more so if they are backed up by a gritty lower-order.

Stuart Broad is third on the wickets chart, while James Anderson and Chris Woakes are joint-eighth; three others, Moeen, Stokes, and Adil Rashid feature in the top 17. The four fast bowlers all average below 27; that is something even India cannot boast of. One must remember here that England have often fielded teams with minimal tail, six bowlers, and a wicketkeeper who is having the time of his life, with willow and gauntlets as well as vocal cord.

Stuart Broad's six-for at New Wanderers was one of the best spells of the year. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
Stuart Broad’s six-for at New Wanderers was one of the best spells of the year. (Courtesy: Getty Images)

One may argue that this had to do with the fact that England played more Tests this year (17) than any other side (12, India). In fact, England s tally has been bettered by only India, who had played 18 Tests in 1983. However, that argument falls flat when averages are taken into consideration: while no Englishman barring Stokes has really taken the world by storm this year, there have been several who have a competent job.

So what really went wrong? One must remember that 10 of England s 17 Tests have been away from home; only West Indies (13 in 1980), India (11 in 2002), and South Africa (11 in 2008) have had played more overseas Tests in a single calendar year.

Was it about the fact that they had seven debutants this year, something they have done only once since 2003? Given that England have fielded 23 men this year, 7 is a reasonably high count. The list of non-debutants includes Gareth Batty, who has missed enough years to be labelled a Test debutant; Nick Compton, coming back after 30 months; and Jos Buttler and Garry Ballance, both of whom have missed 13 months of Test cricket. That takes the count to 11.

In other words, England struggled to find a nucleus. While Cook, Root, Moeen, and Bairstow played all 17 Tests, Broad missed 3, and all others missed at least 5. Nine of the 23 men featured in 5 or less Tests, which speaks of the instability of the team.

Opening jigsaw complete? In Haseeb Hameed, England have found Cook's opening partner. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
Opening jigsaw complete? In Haseeb Hameed, England have found Cook’s opening partner. (Courtesy: IANS)

And then, there has been the curious case of Cook s openers. The search has probably stopped with the arrival of Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings, but 7 openers in 17 Tests does not speak too highly of a batting line-up that plays home Tests in conditions where openers play a role more crucial than probably anywhere else.

It has not been about the top spot, too. The following table may make things clear.

England s middle-order, 2016

Position

Innings

No. of batsmen

Most frequent

Count

Batsman

3

33

3

22

Joe Root

4

31

7

9

Joe Root

5

30

6

7

Moeen Ali, Gary Ballance

6

29

5

18

Ben Stokes

7

29

6

13

Jonny Bairstow

8

29

8

14

Chris Woakes

In other words, there has been no place in the batting line-up (barring Cook at the top) where England have had a permanent batsman. Root may have cemented the No. 3 spot for now, but he has also batted at 4 a significant number of times. Bairstow, England s most successful batsman of the year, has batted at five different positions. The team management could not have been more off-target.

Injuries to Anderson and Broad have not helped England s cause, either. England missed at least one of their two premier bowlers for 7 out of 17 Tests (they both missed one Test as well). They have won 1 and lost 7 of these Tests; when both men have played, they have won 5 and lost 3. England are yet to look beyond Anderson and Broad, who occupy two of the first three slots in England s all-time list of wicket-takers. Steven Finn, the next name on the list, is joint-34th in England history, and he is not even a regular.

The big guns have not done anything outstanding, either. Anderson has a burst of 3 five-wicket hauls in 4 innings, but all of them came against Sri Lanka at home. His home average of 15 has been in stark contrast with 47 overseas.

Broad has done a reasonably better job, averaging around the 26.5-mark both home and away. Even during England s horror tour of the subcontinent Broad returned, almost unnoticed, with his head held high: his 10 wickets came at 29, and his 4 for 33 at Visakhapatnam might have made a difference had the small matter of Virat Kohli not come in his way.

Of course, Broad s 6 for 17 at Johannesburg was England s finest bowling performance of 2016. Broad has rarely been as consistent as Anderson throughout his career, but he has delivered those devastating performances from time to time. It was almost an encore of Trent Bridge 2015, for it included a burst where he took 5 for 1 in 32 balls, as good as sealing the series in England s favour.

The astonishing batting partnership came from Stokes, who, along with Bairstow, pulled off probably the greatest partnership of the year. South Africa had reasons to be confident after they had reduced England to 223 for 5. Then the sixth wicket added 399 at a shade below 7 an over, putting even ODI cricket to shame. Stokes reached his double-hundred in 163 balls, 10 more than Nathan Astle s world record.

England s third outstanding performance of the year came in a Test they lost when push-upped by Misbah-ul-Haq and bamboozled by Yasir Shah at Lord s. Woakes had a match haul of 6 for 70, 35*, 5 for 32, and 23 to show, but they were not enough to prevent Pakistan s unstoppable brigade from taking a lead in the series.

Rashid can take heart from his Indian tour. His 23 wickets were expensive, but they amounted to 36% of all wickets England managed on the tour. He also had more wickets per innings than any of the Indian spinners, which speaks volumes of his contribution. He was nowhere in the same league as the Indians, but that was not for lack of trying: if Cook had insisted he might even have sent down a couple of overs from his grave.

Moeen continues to remain England s perpetual guinea-pig, one they use to plug in any hole in the batting-order. Moeen takes wickets in Test cricket (though this has been a bad year) and contains runs in limited-overs, and fields brilliantly.

Woakes has done well in bursts, while Hameed and Jennings have impressed in their mini-careers so far. England will probably want to pick both alongside Cook. Picking three openers have worked well for them in past: Geoff Boycott, John Edrich, and Brian Luckhurst had all played crucial roles when they had brought back the Ashes from Australian shores in 1970-71.

It was not a one-off, too. Barring Wally Hammond, Denis Compton, Ken Barrington, and perhaps Kevin Pietersen, England s greatest batsmen have traditionally been openers. The line-up will look more stable if the top four include the three openers along with Root provided the management does not tamper the line-up the way they have this year.

The question of Test captaincy looms large following Cook s failure to get the best out of his men in the long subcontinent tour. Root is the obvious option, provided he is willing. However, it is crucial that the sceptre is transferred now, long before the summer.

On the other hand, if Cook leads England this summer, he should ideally be persisted with for The Ashes as well, for it will be too much to ask of Root to make his captaincy debut against the traditional rivals.

All in all, it has been a downward slope for England this year. They play Test cricket again in summer, and South Africa will certainly not forget their defeat at home earlier this year. They may find West Indies easier to handle but when it comes to the battle for the urn next winter, every single man has to play out of his skin. Australia are not likely to relent.

New England

While England cricket have gone from riches to rags in five-day cricket, their post-World-Cup-2015 turnaround in limited-overs cricket continued. Their 18 ODIs have yielded 11 wins and 5 defeats.

England started the year on a remarkable high. In their first match at Bloemfontein they amassed 399, every single of their top eight men reaching double-figures, seven of them at strike rates above 100. They won the second match too before they failed to contain South Africa thrice in a row.

Sri Lanka were wiped out 3-0. When they were set 308 in 42 overs at The Oval, Jason Roy slammed 162 and they reached home with time to spare. However, the most spectacular chase came at Trent Bridge. Requiring 49 from the last 4 overs (40 from 3, 30 from 2, 14 from 1) with 2 wickets in hand, England pulled off a near-miraculous tie, the climax coming when Liam Plunkett hit Nuwan Pradeep for six over his head into the stands when they needed 7 off the last ball.

Pakistan managed a dead-rubber win but lost the series 1-4. The most astonishing of the victories came, once again, at Trent Bridge, where Alex Hales, Root, Buttler, and Eoin Morgan helped England set a new world record team aggregate of 444 for 3. And at Mirpur, when Bangladesh needed 39 from 52 balls with 6 wickets in hand, stand-in skipper Buttler kept the pressure on, and the hosts could another 17, losing their wickets in 39 balls. Jake Ball and Rashid shared 9 of the 10 wickets.

In Alex Hales and Jason Roy, England have found a destructive opening pair in limited-overs cricket. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
In Alex Hales and Jason Roy, England have found a destructive opening pair in limited-overs cricket. (Courtesy: Getty Images)

With 29 wickets at 28.34 and an economy rate of 5.19, Rashid has finished 2016 behind only Adam Zampa (30 wickets) and at par with John Hastings (29). Of England s top ten wicket-takers, Reece Topley (6.08) has been the only one to at over 6 an over. That is probably indicative of England s potent reserve bench.

Hales, Root, Buttler, Stokes, and Roy have all averaged over 40 at strike rates over 100, and barring Stokes (490) all of them have scored 400 runs. One must remember that England have played a mere 18 ODIs compared to Australia s 29. England s average of 41.50 has been next to only India s 46.22, while their strike rate of 99 has been the highest.

England s home numbers read 7-1 this year while their overseas numbers read 4-4, but they will play Champions Trophy at home this summer, which is likely to make a difference.

The invisible bludgeoners

England s T20I record read 5 wins and 5 defeats, but their 5 wins came in 6 consecutive matches. As in the ODIs, Chris Morris turned the series around with a cameo before AB de Villiers sealed things off. Their World T20 campaign had started on a low as well: they ran into a rampant Chris Gayle, and lost with 11 balls in hand.

Things changed when they chased down 230 against South Africa at Mumbai. It was as outrageous a chase as any. Roy and Hales clobbered Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn for 44 from the first 2 overs. The 6 Powerplay overs fetched them 89. And Root masterminded the chase with a 44-ball 83.

Then came another turnaround, against Afghanistan, where England recovered from 57 for 6 to 142 for 7 and won comfortably in the end. Sri Lanka collapsed against the seamers.

New Zealand were firm favourites in the semi-final after their spinners had strangled India in a league match. England s victory was a resounding one, by 7 wickets and with 17 balls to spare.

Root did more than his bit in the final, top-scoring with a 36-ball 54 and taking 2 wickets with his first 3 balls. The bowlers did an excellent job, and the coveted trophy was almost England s when Stokes had to defend 19 in the last over of the match.

19 required off the final over. from Ben Stokes. Four sixes from Carlos Brathwaite's blade. Heartbreak for England as they end runners-up in ICC World T20 2016. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
19 required off the final over. from Ben Stokes. Four sixes from Carlos Brathwaite’s blade. Heartbreak for England as they end runners-up in ICC World T20 2016. (Courtesy: Getty Images)

Carlos Brathwaite ruined England s party in the end; Rashid consoling a dejected Stokes remained England s most prominent memory of the tournament; but there was no doubt that Morgan s men have come a long way since their ridiculous World Cup campaign of 2015 despite their IPL participation. That tournament seems from another era.