The sell-out crowds that packed Lord’s for the first three days of England vs. Pakistan offered no hint of the decline of test cricket in the sport’s birthplace.
The team’s performance in the middle provided plenty of evidence, however.
England’s humiliating nine-wicket loss — wrapped up 90 minutes into Day 4 — to one of the most inexperienced Pakistan teams of recent times further exposed the frailties of a side that seems to have forgotten the basics of test cricket and how apply itself to the longer form of the game.
Yet is it any surprise?
When former test captain Andrew Strauss was appointed in 2015 as the chief overseer of English cricket, he made it clear “the area that most needs attention in English cricket right now is our white-ball cricket.” Trevor Bayliss, a coach with a superb record in the limited-overs game, was hired to lead the national team.
Test cricket would not be ignored, Strauss was at pains to point out in an effort to appease the traditionalists, but it could not be seen “as being the only thing we’re interested in.”
It was, though, a pointer to the thoughts of those leading English cricket.
Fast forward three years and to Colin Graves, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who this month gave his reasons why he was setting up a 100-ball competition — a version 20 balls shorter than the Twenty20 game that has revolutionized cricket over the past decade.
“The younger generation, whether you like it or not, are just not attracted to cricket,” Graves told the BBC. “They want more excitement, they want it shorter and simpler to understand.”
Worrying words for supporters of test cricket in England.
These are worrying times, too.
England is without a win in its last eight test matches, losing the last six of them. A failure to beat Pakistan in the second and final test at Leeds starting Friday would make it three straight series losses. It is 13 away tests without a win. And under Bayliss, England has lost 20 of its 41 tests, having started its era under the Australian with a home Ashes series win and a series win in South Africa.
And where are the English in the ICC’s one-day rankings? No. 1.
Bayliss was a breath of fresh air when he came in, encouraging aggressive and attacking play from his test batsmen. It has meant the art of patience, discipline and grinding out innings has gradually disappeared, only really practiced now by opener Alastair Cook.
In the domestic county season, white-ball competitions are given the bigger platform and PR, pushing the longer-form county championship to the margins. After the Pakistan loss, Bayliss even questioned whether the current framework of the county championship was helping.
“Is playing on wickets where you’re not going to bat for too long, before you get one that does a heap, is that necessarily good in the long term for learning how to concentrate for long periods?” Bayliss asked.
Bayliss said he was “at a loss” to explain England’s current test problems, saying his recent advice to show care and patience — instead of aggression — if conditions dictated wasn’t getting through.
“In a way, you almost throw your hands up sometimes,” he said.
The Australian has said he is stepping down as England coach after next year’s home Ashes series, though the Daily Mail is reporting he could lose his job if England is defeated in Leeds.
Bayliss is under pressure. New captain Joe Root has lost eight of 15 tests and his decision-making is being scrutinized. There’s a new selector in Ed Smith.
English test cricket is in flux at a time when the powers-at-be seem to be focusing on the shorter forms of the game.
The series is there for the taking for Pakistan at Headingley.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80