It has been an odd few weeks in cricket but considering how crazy the world has been over the last year perhaps this should be expected. India have come back from having been bowled out for 36 to win a Test series in Australia. West Indies chased 395 to beat Bangladesh with the majority of their first team sitting out the tour. And England, well England have won six overseas Tests in a row, the most recent of which was just about the complete Test performance against a team who have only lost two matches at home in the last five years.
India are formidable in India. They have a great core team and amazing strength in depth. England were not expected to win the series - many didn’t expect them to win a game. No one thought they would dominate a Test so completely. But England have been confounding expectations for a while now. The time has come to give them some credit, both on the field and off it.
Going into this series they rested Jonny Bairstow despite his excellent form and have been rotating their two most successful bowlers of all time. Many have been critical of giving players series off and having a heavy reliance on their squad. Yet this practice was coming into international cricket anyway, the pandemic has just rendered it essential. Endless cricket tours are tough on mental health and private lives, throw in bio-secure bubbles and it becomes unsustainable. The 2-0 series win in Sri Lanka and the first match of this series in India appears to be proving the England management right.
Then there are England’s on field tactics, specifically the decision to not rush to get India into bat for their second innings. England were accused of letting the game meander and of lacking “intent”. As it was, they got the declaration about perfect and won the game with plenty to spare. Root probably hasn’t had a better Test as captain despite this win drawing him level with Michael Vaughan’s England record for most wins as skipper. He may not have a better one in the rest of his career.
It is tempting to put the credit for England’s overseas success, and that of India and West Indies, down to bubble life. A close-knit team with a big squad having longer to acclimatise to foreign conditions and using this extra time to overcome home field advantage. It is a great narrative made even better by it being completely impossible to quantify. It could be that this has been the defining factor to these amazing overseas wins, but we will never know for sure. Instead, we have to focus on what we can see.
For England, the real cause of this overseas success has been threefold. First, there have been the runs scored by their top order, most specifically Root. The second has been wickets from their spinners, Jack Leach and Dom Bess. The third has been the meticulous planning that has seen them decide teams and squads not weeks but months ahead of time.
Root’s form has been remarkable by any metric, and his double hundred in Chennai to set up this England win was probably the best of his trio of great innings in the last month. First innings runs are what set up Test wins and this takes on even more importance in Asia. Root making 228, 186 and 218 in successive first innings is a career-defining run of scores, and with another 14 Tests scheduled for England in 2021 there is every chance he breaks the calendar year run record in the format that has been held by Mohammad Yousuf since he made 1788 Test runs in 2006. Root already has 684 runs after three matches in 2021.
There have been some excellent performances from England’s seamers, not least James Anderson who added 11 more wickets to his record tally in his two matches this year. But England have their two spinners to thank for the majority of their wickets in the three wins this year, with Leach and Bess taking 33 between them.
England in Sri Lanka 2021
Bess: 12 wickets @ 21.25
Leach: 10 wickets @ 35.50
England in India 2021 (after first Test)
Bess: 5 wickets @ 25.20
Leach: 6 wickets @ 30.16
This is perhaps the most surprising element to this series of results with neither spinner much fancied to do so well against Asian batsmen in conditions to which they are so accustomed. Neither are the finished article with both bowling more bad balls than you would want from your frontline bowlers, but they have shown they have the talent and heart to be excellent Test cricketers. The way Leach came back to play a match-winning role in the fourth innings having been spanked at 10 an over by Rishabh Pant earlier in the match was particularly impressive.
Then there is the planning, and for this Chris Silverwood deserves some credit. They have worked out what is the best team based on resting players when needed and on the conditions. It is by doing this that England have become greater than the sum of their parts, and for this they deserve far more credit than criticism. They have won plaudits in recent months, and many more in recent days, but they should be getting even more. It is difficult to think of another team who have made as many strides forward during this period of such uncertainty.