Joe Root and his England teammates lifted the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy on Monday afternoon, after some inspired bowling from Durham’s Mark Wood sealed a comfortable 3-1 series victory. They seemed, for once, a settled side; there were half-centuries for each of England’s top six across the series and four bowlers took ten or more wickets. With both Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley averaging over 30, top-order instability began to feel like a thing of the past. Ollie Pope was a joy to watch and Ben Stokes was, well, superhuman. ‘Root’s England’, Jonathan Agnew called them, afterwards. It was a well-deserved snippet of praise for a captain who has finally, three years into the job, started to take control of the side and make it feel like his own.
But with the sun setting over the Western Cape, one question remains unanswered: where next for this England side? Quite literally, Sri Lanka. The two-test series beginning in Galle on 19 March is their first trip to the subcontinent since Root’s men toured the same country in November 2018. England were 3-0 winners in that series, their first in Sri Lanka since 2012, but winning is by no means a certainty this time around. The series is worth the same amount of World Test Championship points (120) as the one England have just contested in South Africa. But with only two test matches to be played, each will have twice as much impact on England’s standings in the Championship table. There is so much more at stake for Root’s men this time around. Already 214 points behind table-topping India and only a third of the way into the competition, if they lose this series, it is unlikely they will reach the final scheduled to take place at Lord’s in June 2021. But this is not just about Sri Lanka; there’s a five-match series away to Kohli’s India on the horizon and so to lose this, their first of two critical encounters on the subcontinent, would be ominous indeed. The next two months are make-or-break for this England side.
Moving forward, their focus has to change. South Africa served Root’s men well; with the exception of the third test at St George’s Park, the wickets offered the bowlers bounce and good carry. They won the final test in Johannesburg with a five-man seam attack. The four-match series saw the resurgence of Mark Wood (12 wickets at 13.58) and continued reward for the dependable Stuart Broad (14 wickets at 19.42), while Sam ‘makes things happen’ Curran got the breakthrough for his skipper on more than one occasion. Root’s men did it all, for the most part, without their leading wicket taker Jimmy Anderson, who suffered a broken rib at Newlands, and the electrifying Jofra Archer, side-lined with a shoulder injury. All looks rosy in the seamers’ garden; England’s fast-bowling cartel is, you might say, in full bloom. The ECB has even been sowing seeds for the future; it was reported just this week that they have awarded the first Pace Bowling Development Contracts to Olly Stone (Warwickshire), Saqib Mahmood (Lancashire) and Craig Overton (Somerset).
This is all well and good. England is a ‘bowler’s paradise’ and there is no doubt that the home international summer will bring even more success for our crop of fast bowlers. Competition for places in the playing XI will be higher than ever and England’s attack will knock over the West Indies and Pakistan with ease. But the standard of opposition England will face on the subcontinent (India and Sri Lanka currently sit first and fifth in the World Test Championship table; Pakistan and the West Indies fourth and eighth) is far higher than that which they are due to face at home, in favourable conditions. And with the same number of Championship points up for grabs in every series, no matter its length, Root and his men simply can’t afford to rest on their fast-bowling laurels. After all, fast bowling won’t win you test matches in India and Sri Lanka.
With two of their remaining four series due to be played on the subcontinent, spin must be England’s focus from now on. It is the key to success in their World Test Championship campaign. The 3-1 series victory in South Africa proved that life will go on at the top of the order without Sir Alastair Cook and showed there’s ‘strength in depth’ in the fast-bowling department, but it didn’t solve the spin-bowling question. It is a question England have been trying to answer since Graeme Swann’s retirement in 2013. England’s first-choice option, Jack Leach, is known and loved among England fans for his heroic batting performances and glasses-cleaning antics, rather than his bowling. He has been a steady performer (34 wickets at 29.02 so far) but illness has kept him out of the side since the first test in New Zealand. In any case, England will need two or three spinners at the very least, if they are to win on the subcontinent. Leach alone will not be enough.
There are options aplenty; they could go back to Hampshire’s Mason Crane, who made his test debut in Australia, or there’s the young Lancashire leg spinner Matt Parkinson, selected in the touring party for South Africa. But, as was the case with Adil Rashid, Joe Root and the England management seem to have little confidence in either player. Crane hasn’t featured in an England squad since the Ashes defeat Down Under and Dom Bess, called up when illness swept through the England camp ahead of the first test at Centurion, leap-frogged Parkinson into the XI at Newlands. Bess went on to take 8 wickets at 25.75 in the series but is yet to really prove himself on the international stage. England would desperately love to have Moeen Ali back in the side, but there is a question-mark hanging over his future in test cricket, as he continues to take time out of the five-day game for personal reasons. He has also signed a deal with the Multan Sultans in the Pakistan Super League, which takes place during England’s two-test series in Sri Lanka. What that means is, right now, Moeen Ali isn’t an option. Joe Root and the England management must learn to trust the options they do have instead. But victory on the subcontinent is a tall order, and if Root is doubting his options, then I can’t say I blame him.