Cow Corner

Seven slow England starts abroad under Andy Flower (and one good one)

Cow Corner

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England players look on frustrated in West Indies, 2009 - not much has changed in tour openers

Somewhere through the middle of day three, the current Test series with New Zealand appeared to begin in earnest for England.

James Anderson, several shades angrier than the Bruce Banner would need to be to turn green and crush things, made the second new ball talk and scored England some precious wickets. The only problem, of course, was that by the time he did England had sleepwalked their way into a Hamish Rutherford-sized hole, dismissed cheaply and staring down the barrel of a huge lead.

Anderson’s persistent sledging and chirp – his send-offs to dismissed batsmen could yet land him in hot water with the match officials – were pushing the limits of what might be considered part of the game. But his frustration was understandable. Time and again England’s batsmen have left him and the bowlers needing to conjure miracles to get out of trouble in the first Tests of away series.

If you look at England in the first Tests of the eight tours in the Andy Flower era, it makes wretched reading, and it puts the 160 in this match into stark, desperate context:

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February 2009, West Indies

Sabina Park, Jamaica: England (318 & 51) lost to West Indies (392) by an innings and 23 runs.

On this occasion the bowlers could do nothing – 51 all out tends to leave you with nowhere to go. Widely considered the nadir of England’s slump as the team rebounded from the acrimonious axing of coach Peter Moores and the sacking of captain Kevin Pietersen.

England dominated the remaining Tests but could not force a victory in any of them, losing the series 1-0.

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December 2009, South Africa

Centurion, Johannesburg: South Africa (418 and 301-7dec.) drew with England 356 and 228-9)

It ended up being a famous escape act, Graeme Onions surviving the last balls of the day when it looked for all the world as if England were beaten. But the first innings from England was poor, and only saved by Graeme Swann’s freewheeling 85 and James Anderson’s 29. Until then England were 242-8 with all the top five getting starts and failing to convert them.

England went on grab a 1-1 draw in a four-Test series South Africa dominated.

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March 2010, Bangladesh

Chittagong: England (599-6dec.and 209-7dec.) beat Bangladesh 296 and 331) by 181 runs

The exception to the rule. Alastair Cook struck 173, Paul Collingwood 145, and Kevin Pietersen 99 in a massive first-innings score, and England won the match handsomely. That said, there’s a reason that many feel that averages and statistics in the modern game should exclude results against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

England duly won the second match by an equally convincing margin.

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November 2010, Australia

The Gabba, Brisbane: England (260 and 517-1dec.) drew with Australia (481 and 107-1)

260 in the first innings doesn’t sound like a disaster, but it only takes a look at the size of the scores which followed it to see how under-par it was, leaving them 221 runs in arrears after the first innings. Fortunately for the tourists, a second-innings rally meant that they escaped with a draw which set them up for the rest of the series.

England sealed a famous 3-1 series win, Cook’s unbeaten 235 in the first Test a precursor to an unforgettable winter tour.

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January 2012, Pakistan

Dubai: England (192 and 160) lost to Pakistan (338 and 15-0) by 10 wickets

This was perhaps England’s most chastening defeat of the Andy Flower era. The side had just been crowned number one in Test cricket after winning the Ashes Down Under and thumping India 4-0 at home – and were then bundled out for 192 in 72 lacklustre overs in their next match, which would have been far worse had Matt Prior not added 70. Their second effort in which they found themselves 87-7, was arguably worse.

Pakistan went on to sweep the series 3-0 – England bowled admirably, but lost the second Test when they were all out for 72 chasing 145 for victory, and the third despite first bundling out Pakistan for just 99.

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March 2012, Sri Lanka

Galle: Sri Lanka (318 and 214) beat England (193 and 264) by 75 runs

It started so well, with James Anderson leaving Sri Lanka at 67-4 on the first morning, a bowling display only ever challenged by Mahela Jayawardene who with a 180 mustered more than half of his team’s runs. That valiant bowling effort against the toss was undone in the 46.4 overs it took England to be dismissed for 193, and the side did not recover.

Having been on the end of four straight defeats away to subcontinental sides, however, they did respond by winning the second Test and squaring the series, fired by Kevin Pietersen’s quite brilliant 151.

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November 2012, India

Ahmedabad: India (521 and 80-1) beat England (191 and 406) by nine wickets

The chatter coming into the series was that England had learned their lessons against spin the previous winter. A 74-over disaster later, and that seemed up for debate again. The only consolation for England was that at 97-7 it could have been still worse. But given England’s defiant, 154-over effort to add 406 the second time around was still insufficient to hold up India’s victory charge, it speaks volumes about the first-innings failures.

England had learned some lessons on the subcontinent, however, and to the surprise of many they turned the series on its head with two wins and a draw to claim a series victory on Indian soil for the first time in 28 years.

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So what’s the problem? Being undercooked? Certainly in New Zealand, where the players managed one four-day warm-up, that looks like the case – but then it doesn’t explain the slow start in Australia, for which England prepared meticulously and spent several weeks acclimatising. Nor is it a case of being vulnerable to a particular kind of track – they have struggled with equal assurance in and outside the subcontinent, in familiar conditions like New Zealand and unfamiliar ones alike.

The reasons behind the failure have varied from series to series and from one set of personnel to the next, but one thing is for certain – a side with designs on being the world’s best cannot continue giving such generous headstarts to their opponents.

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