It’s not yet a fortnight since Joe Root spoke boldly about his plan for the summer: win all seven Tests against New Zealand and India, and hit the Australian tarmac running in November. As Mahatma Gandhi once said when asked what he thought of western civilisation, it sounded like a good idea.
Their second-innings performance on Saturday was among the worst of Root’s 52 Tests in charge, and capped a dismal fortnight for English cricket, in which a battering off the field has been followed by humiliation on it.
New Zealand, let it be said, are a very good side. On Friday in Southampton they will contest the first World Test Championship final against India. But the team now on the brink of their first series victory in England since the 20th century are without six first-choice players.
Joe Root’s England side endured a disastrous day at the crease and are on the brink of defeat
Ajaz Patel claimed four wickets on Saturday as England finished the day 122 for nine
Losing to them is no disgrace. Losing to half a 2nd XI, at home, by what will be a crushing margin, is pathetic — even with Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler missing. This is a moment of reckoning for Root’s England, and not everyone will survive the scrutiny. Nothing could have made up for the damage done to English cricket’s new anti-discrimination push by the discovery of racist and sexist tweets by Ollie Robinson, followed by a slew of other unedifying examples from the distant and recent past.
But England, who invited further criticism when they declined to chase 273 in 75 overs in the first Test at Lord’s, might at least have shifted the conversation. On a sunny day in Birmingham, a crowd of 18,000 would probably have convened to watch paint dry, but were hoping for something rather more entertaining.
Instead, after the bowlers gamely turned New Zealand’s 292 for three into 388 all out, the batsmen confirmed the worst fears about a line-up that is as uninspiring as any England can have fielded. And there has been plenty of competition down the years.
Faced with a deficit of 85 — useful but not insurmountable — their top three were swiftly taken care of by Matt Henry, who began this game with a Test bowling average of 51, but was made to look like Richard Hadlee.
Ollie Pope fell to Neil Wagner for 23, the kind of indeterminate score in which he now specialises, and Dan Lawrence — hero of the first innings — for a golden duck. When Ajaz Patel, whose brief stint as Yorkshire’s overseas player in 2019 produced championship figures of 35-0-231-2, bowled the hapless James Bracey round his legs, then had Root edging a cut, England were 76 for seven, and staring at a three-day rout.
Moments earlier, Bracey had scored his first Test run at the third attempt, a hurried single to wide mid-on, and earned a standing ovation. Suddenly, we were back in the bad old days, when gallows humour was the English game’s default emotion.
James Bracey was clean bowled by the spinner as England’s batsman struggled to score
Earlier in the day New Zealand took the lead as they ended their first innings on 388 all out
Bracey allowed himself a smile. It may be his last act in international cricket for some time.
Olly Stone and Mark Wood averted an innings defeat, but at 122 for nine, a lead of 37, England are still four runs short of their previous lowest total at home to New Zealand, also at Edgbaston, in 1999.
And whether or not they avoid one statistical horror, another awaits: some time this morning, they will succumb to their first series loss at home since Sri Lanka stunned them in 2014. Back then, Alastair Cook’s side were still reeling from an Ashes whitewash and the Kevin Pietersen Affair. This time, the truth is less complex: they are short on Test-class batsmen, even shorter on confidence. As England fell apart in their second innings, starting with a careless drive second ball by Rory Burns, it was as if the hope placed in this frail unit was exposed as a fantasy. Each of these batsmen has had his moments, but — with the exception of Root — rarely at the same time, and rarely for long.
Should we be surprised? After this debacle, the Test averages of the other members of the top six told their own story: Burns 33, Pope 32, Dom Sibley 30, Zak Crawley and Lawrence 29 apiece. England can tout their promise as much as they like, but those numbers add up to a collapse waiting to happen.
The hosts dropped two catches and endured a torrid time in the field at Edgbaston
Wicket keeper James Bracey cut a forlorn figure for most of the session after missing chances
Crawley and Bracey have surely played their last Test of the summer, while there are question marks over Pope. Stokes, Buttler and even Ben Foakes cannot return quickly enough. Chris Woakes, Moeen Ali and Sam Curran might think about dusting off their Test whites, too.
The bowlers deserved better. On a flat surface, Stone and Wood brought England back into the game, before Broad wrapped things up to finish with four for 48 from 23.1 top-notch overs.
But England’s fielding was poor once more. Sam Billings, on as a substitute, spilled Ross Taylor on 69 at long leg off Broad, before Bracey, diving low to his right, grassed Tom Blundell on nought off Stone. The sight of the ball hitting his wrist underlined what has been clear since Lord’s: he should never have been asked to keep wicket in his first Test series.
Three drops in the New Zealand innings cost England 121 runs — the difference between a lead and a deficit. And while they may argue that Devon Conway should have been given out caught on Friday afternoon 22 runs into his eventual 80, the best sides are able to overcome misfortune. This team are far from that.
Olly Stone and Mark Wood took some of the last wickets to end New Zealand’s innings
It didn’t help either that, for the second game in a row, they had gone in without a frontline spinner, leaving Jack Leach — the pick of their attack in Sri Lanka and India — to contemplate another soul-destroying spell in the bubble.
Relishing their misery, Shane Warne took to Twitter to select the two best venues in Test cricket to bowl spin: Brisbane and, you guessed it, Birmingham. On Saturday, the world was laughing at England. Usually, they need little excuse.
On this occasion, derision was all they deserved.