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Burnout worries after deathly slog

George Dobell
July 14, 2014
Moeen Ali picked up three second-innings wickets but England may look to Simon Kerrigan for spin at Lord's © Getty Images
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A few years ago, a Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium was abandoned and the game re-scheduled for the Recreation Ground a few miles down the road. Despite the ground having fallen into partial disuse - football was played there and goats grazed upon the grass - it still produced a passable Test wicket and an exciting finish.

So a herd of hungry goats produced a better wicket than the monstrosity on which England and India played the first Test at Trent Bridge. The sight of Gary Ballance and Alastair Cook bowling in tandem as five days of cricket proved inadequate to finish even the third innings underlined the futility of this game. The pitch was unbeatable; cricket was the loser.

The match ended in light-hearted manner as Cook indulged himself with a spell of bowling and took the wicket of Ishant Sharma while doing an impression of Bob Willis.

But amid the smiles, there is growing frustration at the obstacles the home team have to endure.

Cook backs 'tough' Kerrigan

Time for a second chance? © PA Photos
  • Alastair Cook has backed left-arm spinner Simon Kerrigan to bounce back from his chastening Test debut.
  • Kerrigan has been recalled to the England squad for the second Test at Lord's having only played one previous game at that level. In the final Test of the 2013 Ashes series, he was thrashed for 53 in eight overs and seemed overawed.
  • But, having played for England Lions in the winter and bowled at the senior side recently, he is said to be ready for the international stage again.
  • "Simon is a very tough kid," Cook said. "He has fought his way back. We didn't see the best of him at The Oval in that one game.
  • "Until you make a contribution for England you never quite know if you belong in international cricket. But from what I've seen of his character and his talent with the ball, he'll be fine.
  • Click here to see the England squad for the second Test

The system is broken. Instead of all facets of the English game pulling in the same direction, the counties are forced to compete to hosts Tests and, having won the right to do so at great expense, are obliged to make the matches last as long as possible in order to maximise tickets and concessionary sales.

Meanwhile, instead of the ECB helping the England team with a manageable schedule and sympathetic pitches, they are instead hampering their ability to perform at their optimum with a relentless schedule designed only to exploit every last pound from broadcast revenue. When you add in the drainage issue, you have a recipe for little other than tedium.

Cricket should not be this way. It is not meant to be primarily a test of perseverance and endurance. Eventually, spectators and players will tire of being fleeced for such poor entertainment. Just as Elvis Presley, who allegedly shot his television after paying for every possible channel and finding there was still "nothing on," found, more does not always equate to better.

And the pitches will go on being awful until someone at the ECB is strong enough to bring the counties and the groundsmen to heel. A better system of allocation and centrally contracted groundsmen would solve many of these problems in an instant.

"That pitch was unique," Cook said diplomatically afterwards. "The only one I can remember that was similar was that Nagpur pitch where we batted out for the draw in 2012.

"Both sides will say you can't read too much into it until we get back to some English conditions where it bounces above knee height. The lads were brilliant. They never once got angry or frustrated about playing India in these conditions.

"The groundsman has put his hand up and said he got it wrong. We asked him a-week-and-a-half ago for a pitch with some pace in it. You're not asking for excessive movement. You just want some pace in it like a good Trent Bridge wicket."

The result stretches England's winless run to nine Tests in succession. While it is nowhere near as long as the bad old days of the 1980s - England went an eye-watering 18 Tests in succession without a win between January 1987 and August 1988 - it is their worst run since 1992-93 when they went 10 Tests in a row without a win.

Yet, between the obvious concerns about the captain's form, another batting collapse, the wicketkeeper's fitness and the ability of Moeen Ali to fulfil the role of lone spinner, there were some encouraging signs in this game for England.

Stuart Broad was impeccable with the ball and impressive with the bat, while James Anderson showed that, given even a hint of assistance from the conditions, he can test a batting line-up that, on the final day at least, appeared timid against the moving ball and under cloudy skies.

Most of all, Cook enjoyed arguably his best game as captain. While his batting form remains a concern - not since May 2013 has he registered a Test score as high as Anderson's here - he fiddled with his field and managed his bowlers impressively in difficult conditions. Many of his problems will melt away once the runs return and, aged 29 and with 25 Test centuries behind him, they surely will.

"I know I need to start scoring runs," Cook admitted. "I haven't done it for a year now and I need to do it. I have to believe that the wheel will turn at some stage. If you suddenly change everything, you are not being true to yourself.

"I've had a couple of chop-ons and been bowled off the thigh pad. It is a testing game and these things happen when you're not in the best of form."

After three Tests on low, slow wickets, England will have only three days to rest and prepare before the next Test starts at Lord's. Anderson and Broad contributed 113 overs in this game and Broad, who left the field an hour before the end, has a long-standing knee problem. Chris Woakes, who was omitted from Warwickshire's Championship team to play Durham on the ECB's order, and Chris Jordan stand by.

Simon Kerrigan will also be withdrawn from Lancashire's game at some stage to ensure he is relatively fresh and could play at Lord's. Moeen has bowled in desperately tough conditions and shown, at times, that he can be a dangerous spinner. But he continues to concede around four-an-over and England may be tempted to trust Kerrigan to give them more control in the field. He is certainly a far better bowler than he showed on his Test debut at The Oval though the pitch at Lord's in unlikely to offer much assistance.

In the longer run, the ECB must look at the conditions in county cricket which are hampering the development of young spinners. Squeezing the first half of the County Championship season into April and May is the most obvious problem, as it allows sides to operate seam-heavy attacks and exploit green pitches.

They may also reflect on the policy of providing new balls to sides after 80 overs, another rule that makes spin increasingly superfluous, and the preponderance of specialist limited-overs 'spinners' who will never threaten in the longer formats.

As with the scheduling and the pitches, the system that is meant to help build a successful England team, is often its greatest impediment. Whoever becomes the ECB's next chief executive - and the likes of Gordon Hollins, Wasim Khan, Steve Elworthy and Richard Gould will be among the most attractive candidates - will have plenty of work ahead of them.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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