By George Willoughby
A superb, record-breaking whitewash victory in Sri Lanka had confidence levels in the England camp at an all-time high.
But, coach Trevor Bayliss and his team had a reality check when they were beaten 2-1 in an eye-opening series in the West Indies.
There has always been some areas of uncertainty around this England team, mainly concerns regarding the frailties of the top-order. A dependable opening pairing is paramount to success in Test Cricket, and since Andrew Strauss retired, and now Alastair Cook, the questions have re-surfaced once again.
The first two tests of the series are great examples of this. England’s batting was far short of the required level, and the West Indian bowlers exploited this very effectively. Granted, the onus doesn’t just fall on the opening batsman to score the bulk of the runs, but when the middle order are having to face a relatively new ball, that is where the problems occur.
Here are some of the England averages over the course of the series which summarises England’s top-order troubles;
Rory Burns: Avg. 21
Keaton Jennings: Avg. 12
Joe Denly: Avg. 28
Johnny Bairstow: Avg. 22
Even the usually reliable Joe Root underperformed recording only one score above 30, albeit that score being a century.
England’s tour of the Carribean was the last test series they will partake in before the Ashes come around in August, apart from a one off Test against Ireland in July. So, in terms of building some momentum, captain Joe Root will be slightly concerned with his teams performances, especially in the opening two matches where they were significantly the inferior opposition in all facets.
Partnerships are vital in building a formidable total, and when England only managed to score above 200 in one innings out of the first four, there was no surprise they ended up on the losing end of some comprehensive defeats.
Take nothing away from the West Indies though. Test cricket has seemingly taken a back seat in the Caribbean, with the shorter formats of the game making the headlines. However, skipper Jason Holder, and his cohort of exciting talent are creating a buzz factor around a West Indian team once again.
Young talents such as Roston Chase, Shai Hope, John Campbell and Alzarri Joseph really impressed. They should take pride in the fact that for the majority of the series, they dominated their English counter-parts who had no answer with both the bat and ball.
But, the West Indies weren’t able to secure a flawless test series victory as a resurgent England fought back to claim a consolatory 232 run win in Saint Lucia.
Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Joe Root all had timely knocks, but it was the England bowling attack that was the determining factor. Mark Wood, who has flirted with the International scene, was introduced back into the squad. This was an astute, and necessary alteration as the pace of Wood is unlike anything the rest of the bowling unit can offer.
Known for his short, yet rhythmic bowling action, the 29-year old dismissed the Windies batsmen at ease. It was a much needed injection of energy into the England squad that has looked flat off the back of two humbling defeats.
Wood took a total of six wickets on his return, which included a maiden international five-wicket haul in the first innings. This put the England batsmen in a commanding position to put the game out of reach.
On a personal note, talking about his performance, Mark Wood opened up about his challenges mentally. Wood has had a track-record with injuries that clearly have created some confidence issues, but he displayed his abundance of pace, power and accuracy in an electric return to International cricket.
Wood’s performance will ask questions of the England selectors, as the raw pace that he has is invaluable. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are two of the world’s best bowlers, but they don’t trouble batsmen with pace, more so their exquisite control.
This is when you need variation, and Mark Wood is a fantastic player to have. He can be used in short bursts which stops the opposition batters from becoming comfortable at the crease, which can sometimes be the case if the ball isn’t swinging.
Despite the significantly improved performance in the final match, there is no escaping the fact that England were outplayed and deserved to lose the series. Credit where credit is due, but I am sure a handful of individuals will be disappointed with their contributions across the three tests.
England now have one day series against the West Indies and Pakistan which should be entertaining viewing. As well, the ICC World Cup is approaching with England undoubtedly one of the pre-tournament favourites.
After all that, it’s the Ashes so England will be hoping to be at their best in the build-up to the biggest spectacle cricket has to offer.