It was 5C in London last Sunday, unless you had Test Match Special on the radio. Then January felt a few degrees warmer than it really was. Saturday’s hangover was easier too, the morning’s chores more agreeable, the first sip of tea that little bit sweeter. Because for once this winter, England were winning. And half a world away, Jason Roy and Joe Root were walloping Australia’s bowlers all around the MCG. Roy made 180, each six a sorely needed pick-me-up after a month of blue Mondays, when the first sight of England’s latest overnight score felt like such a sorry way to start a winter’s day.
Three years ago Australia thrashed England by 111 runs in a match at that same ground. And now here was Steve Smith, singing England’s praises.
They’re “up there as one of the best teams in the world in one-day cricket at the moment”. In the 2015 World Cup the only lessons anyone learned from watching England were in what not to do. Now “they’re playing with such freedom”, Smith said, “which works for them and it’s something we might have to think about as well”. Everything’s upside down Down Under.
In the fallout from that World Cup the England and Wales Cricket Board revamped its contract system so one-day players were better rewarded, hired a coach who had a strong record in the short formats, cleared out stretches of the calendar so the team would have time to prepare for their major one-day tournaments and encouraged their players to enter the Indian Premier League, where they could pick up experience in high stakes T20 cricket. Thus nourished, the limited overs team have flourished. Thus neglected, the Test team look a mess.
Moeen Ali has just been speaking about the difference between the two Englands. The one-day side, he said, “know we can beat anybody anywhere, whereas in Test cricket …” In the Ashes Australia had just been “too good for us whereas in the one-day stuff we have players who can break records”. Not just Roy. “We have players like that right through the lineup.”
England can barely cobble together a top six in Test cricket. They have spent five years combing the county circuit for an opener and are still looking. The one-day side, though, are stacked with batsmen.
The Test team’s bright new find, Dawid Malan, cannot even get in the ODI side. And the only reason Roy and Alex Hales can both play is because Ben Stokes is otherwise engaged and up for affray. Between Roy, Hales, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, and Jos Buttler, England’s ODI side are overflowing with brilliant batsmen. And if the bowling attack does not rate quite so high, it still has three things the Test team needed: two quicks and a capable wrist spinner, in Mark Wood, Liam Plunkett, and Adil Rashid.
The brightest English talents of this generation are specialising in limited overs cricket. Time was when there would have been an irresistible urge to bring them into the Test team. But not any more. Morgan has quit Test cricket. Hales and Buttler have both dabbled in it, Roy says he would like to try, while Rashid, Plunkett and Wood were all purposely held back for the one-day side.
Instead, the best of the Test players, Joe Root, is making sacrifices just so he can stay in the limited-overs setup. Trevor Bayliss wanted Root to skip this one-day series so he could rest but Root is worried about “missing white-ball cricket and falling behind”. He does not just want to play in all England’s one-day games but in the IPL, too.
Earlier last week, the MCC’s world cricket committee met in Sydney. The key speech was given by their new member, the Bangladeshi all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan. He spoke about how many younger players simply did not want to play Test cricket any more because the rewards were so much greater in the T20 leagues.
According to the Federation of International Cricket Associations (Fica), this is in line with a broader trend that has been developing for the last five years. A young batsman today does not want to learn to bat all day but how to hit scoops, sweeps and switch hits.
There was another relevant development in the Unite Arab Emirates, too, where the Afghan Cricket Board announced the launch of its new T20 league, the APL. It will run in October for the simple reason that it’s one of only two months of the year when there is not another franchise competition already going on. Which means a modern cricketer can make a year-round living in the various T20 leagues. Fica’s last survey of professional players showed 49% would consider giving up a national contract to play as a free agent in the T20 game. At the same time, 57% felt the standard of Test cricket was in decline.
The formats of the sport are pulling apart from each other. Morgan, who has always been a pioneer, warned last year that this shift in the players’ priorities, the drift from the Test game to limited overs, was coming to English cricket too. “The impact of T20 cricket, its influence around the world, that’s already happened,” he said. “We’re a way behind it in England but when it comes it shouldn’t come as a shock.” Watch what is happening in Australia and you can see it taking place right before your eyes.
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