At the stroke of this year, England selectors convinced Jonny Bairstow to forsake his Big Bash League contract with the promise of reintegrating him into Test cricket after more than a year in the wilderness. They kept their word, installed him at the No. 3 spot in the two Tests in Sri Lanka, and Bairstow repaid their faith by showing assurance against spin bowling, even if he couldn’t convert his four starts to anything monumental. But even if he had, he would have missed the first two Tests against India.
For, he flew home as part of what is now England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB’s) much-debated rotation policy, whereby groups of players fly in and out of the squad so that they don’t end up spending a lengthy period in bio-bubbles, or get exhausted and weary in a frantic season. A measure borne out of pragmatism in a pandemic-altered world.
“If you keep people in a bubble unchanged for three months – January, February, March – and expect them to play every game in every format, they will not be able to perform at their best and England will be damaged as a result,” reasoned chief selector Ed Smith.
When the ECB first conceptualised the plan in January it seemed a masterstroke, intuitive and considerate, but in recent weeks, the rigidity and short-sightedness of the policy have been exposed. Two related but separate developments have all but ripped through the board’s conceit, betraying their priorities. They picked a full-strength T20 squad to tour India, and the ECB-contracted players are now free to feature in the Indian Premier League (IPL) as long as they want, even if the tournament encroaches into the home series against New Zealand. All these developments make no secret of England’s priorities, the precedence given to the T20 World Cup over the World Test Championship (WTC).
England cricket, it seems, is gripped by white-ball fever. A T20 triumph would further raise the temperature and make tournaments like The Hundred a massive hit. And some things have to be sacrificed, collateral damage for a bigger cause. The World Test Championship just happened to be the casualty. The trip to India was just an inconvenient errand.
There were other less subtle signs. The rotational group for instance. It’s not the Test specialists like Zak Crawley, Ollie Stone, Dom Sibley or Jack Leach who are being rotated, but all-format glitterati like Ben Stokes, Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Jofra Archer and Moeen Ali, those who have been identified as near-certainties for the T20 World Cup later this year in India. Among them, Buttler and Ali will fly back for the T20s, while Archer, Bairstow and Stokes would stay back after the Tests.
It has had some former England players puzzled. “Is Eoin Morgan getting all the power to decide what team he has for certain series rather than Joe Root getting the team he wants to win a Test series in India? If I was Joe Root, the captain, I would be absolutely livid,” wrote former pacer Darren Gough in his Talksport column.
If not for the T20Is, there was no compelling reason for England to rotate their personnel in as challenging a series as against India. To add to the stakes, their prospects of qualifying for the World Test Championship final in their own backyard hinged on the outcome of the series. To think that the director of men’s cricket in England, Ashley Giles, had promised to “prioritise Test cricket again” seems a joke. As was the pre-series narrative of this series as a knockout event for the WTC final. Only one side turned up. If anything, it’s turning out to be inconsiderate and inconvenient for the players too.
Imagine being Bairstow. After familiarising himself with Asian conditions, he had to fly back, and in two weeks, jet-set to India and without even the luxury of a warm-up game, combat a group of high-class spinners on a turning track. No wonder, he looked dazed after picking a pair. He staunchly defended the rotation policy, though, like most of his teammates. “The benefit is that you get to go home, sleep in your own bed, cook your own food, be with your family, and have a complete mental refresh.” Was it just diplomatic talk as Graeme Swann had said on air that “I know Bairstow didn’t want to go back”.
In that sense, resting James Anderson for the second Test, after his majestic bowling in the first, was bereft of logic too. Bairstow’s is not a solitary instance. Buttler looked comfortable in Sri Lanka as well as the first Test in Chennai, but thereafter flew home as it was his turn to hibernate. The Moeen Ali saga is most symbolic of England’s myopic foresight. Knowing fully well that an off-spinning all-rounder, one who has hurt India with both ball and bat, is a valuable asset in Asia, his itinerary was chalked in such a way that he would return home after the second Test. They would have as well not picked Moeen and handed out another Test to Dom Bess. Moeen was then asked to stay back, he didn’t, but it didn’t betray his disenchantment with red-ball cricket, rather highlighted the clumsiness of the board.
It’s not that England needs the trio (Anderson, Buttler, Moeen) less in red-ball cricket, but more in white-ball cricket. The priorities of the board have been as clear as daylight.
It’s a reversal of the ideals England had long embraced and emblazoned, the predominance of Test cricket over everything else. Long has it gone. Rather, England is still aglow, like a blushful bride, in the newfound sparkle of white-ball riches. The 50-over world conquered, the 100-ball tournament designed, they have set their eyes on the T20 trophy. Sandwiched between them, squeezed and crushed, is the World Test Championship. A barricade to be run over.