“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
In many ways, the Headingley victory could just be the worst thing to have happened to this English team; the players were walking on eggshells - some already living on borrowed time - and all it took was one knock - and 1* run - to put behind and forget all the shortcomings and flaws within the team. While some bought themselves extra time by scoring runs, the others continued to live on their white-ball reputation on the hope that they’d someday bring their ODI prowess to Test cricket. Words like “talent” and “dangerous” were thrown around in reference to the potential damage they could inflict should they get going. The selectors turned their best to turn the tide - so much so that batting positions were swapped to hide radical technical flaws - but it didn’t.
Is this surprising, though? Expecting batsmen averaging in the high 20s and mid 30s to grind out and play gallant and gutsy knocks to save - and win - Test matches is no different than expecting Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott to score at a SR of more than 125 and help you win ODIs; it doesn’t add up, it won’t work out. There was always a fear that Headingley might turn out to be a false dawn, for it was a one-man show which ended up hiding the frailties of a team that was falling apart. But then again, with the series 1-1, it was the perfect opportunity to fix the flaws, fine-tune the team and send out a statement. But then, both the selectors and the players instead chose to dwell on the miracle for one too many days, almost showing utter disdain to the fact that the series was still alive.
Heading into Old Trafford, England made a solitary change; they dropped Chris Woakes - the man who’d taken the wicket of Steve Smith twice in the series - to accommodate Craig Overton, who was brought in to trouble batsmen with his bounce and seam movement. In all fairness, Overton’s batting on Day 5 overshadowed his bowling and whilst he did manage to knock over Marnus Labuchagne on Day 1, for Smith, facing him looked easier than the throwdowns he’d received from Sridharan Sriram and Graeme Hick the morning before the match.
The other change was of course the batting position swap between Joe Denly and Jason Roy. The less spoken about it the better, but then again, is it fair to blame those two poor souls? One makeshift opener was replaced by another and both were thrown in the line of fire under the worst of circumstances.
With Smith back and with Australia having fine-tuned their problems - both gameplan and personnel - it was always going to be a colossal task for England to win in Manchester - despite all the talk and the momentum - sans a miracle. Unsurprisingly, they ended up on the losing side. But with the Ashes gone, The Oval, despite being all but a dead rubber, looked like the perfect opportunity for England to blood in new faces and finally let go of their obsession to field the same team and stick to the same tactics. But now, the selectors’ decision to name an unchanged squad yet again, is nothing but flabbergasting.
Just like Headingley, The Oval - irrespective of the result of the match - could end up doing more harm than good to England, for it could have serious consequences. Another crushing defeat would see the morale, confidence and self-belief of several players run to the ground whilst a successful outing might give birth to yet another false dawn, which at this point seems exactly what the selectors want to ratify their agenda and justify their decisions.
Perhaps it’s time for the selectors to take a step back, put the glasses on and scrutinize the situation. Ifs and buts apart, do they realistically feel that Buttler and Bairstow, who have found it impossible to counter Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins throughout the series, turn things around in the span of three days? What benefits do they reap by continuing to play Denly - who is 33 and not a natural opener - out of position, when instead a specialist opener can be tried and tested with?
While making wholesale changes is often likened to pressing the panic button, it is to be noted that England, post the appointment of Andrew Strauss, got their hands on the coveted World Cup trophy by indeed doing the same: not being afraid to take harsh decisions and be willing to experiment, albeit not by switching batting positions. Acceptance is the first step towards improvement, but thus far, the selectors and the team management seem to be happy to be floating in their very own bubble of denial, a bubble which hasn’t burst even after relinquishing the urn.
It is ironic that one day after the main team - who are in desperate need of an opener and a No.4 - shunned out the possibility of drafting in new batters, Dominic Sibley and Ollie Pope scored fifties on green pitches which were tailor-made for pacers. The treasure is hidden in plain sight, but sadly, the selectors and the team management are too naive to see it. Perhaps, they could do with a new pair of glasses from Specsavers.
As the lyrics of “The Moth & The Flame” by Les Deux Love Orchestra goes
“The moth don't care when he sees the flame
He might get burned, but he's in the game
And once he's in, he can't go back
He'll beat his wings till he burns them black.”
Whilst England, like the moth, will always be in the game, there seems to be only one outcome, which is them burning their wings till it goes black.
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