If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, then you probably haven’t grasped the seriousness of the situation. In the wake of England’s 405-run steamrollering by Australia at Lord’s one thing is certain: Trevor Bayliss is calm.
We can be pretty sure of this as, according to pretty much everyone who knows him as a coach, Bayliss is always calm. This is not to say England’s head coach lacks passion. In among the talk of Zen-like silences there have been references to roastings handed out, riot acts read, and this may be no bad thing right now. Occasionally, when you’re being chased by a bear for example, or menaced by a vengeful Australia pace attack, a swift change of tack is the correct response.
The problem for England is that what was so attractive in Bayliss – a fresh start, a clean slate – is also a handicap when change is in the air. Bayliss admitted as much after Lord’s, pointing out he has little knowledge of the talent available in county cricket, in which his experience is limited to a brief spell at Kent 12 years ago.
There are two problems here, both of which will ease with time. First, one of Bayliss’s key skills is a kind of high-end coaching-by-reassurance, the ability to remind elite players in poor form what it was that got them there in the first place. As a skill this is diminished a little when you’ve only ever seen Adam Lyth nicking behind and Gary Ballance batting so deep in his crease the next logical step is to take guard behind his own stumps.
More pertinent, with three members of England’s top six struggling, is the fact Bayliss has less first-hand knowledge of possible replacements than the average casual spectator. Change may or may not come before Edgbaston but the process is hardly helped when England have a coach who could give you a list of the five most promising young Aussie top order batsmen, but who right now barely knows his Lees from his Leaning.
It must be said Bayliss is completely blameless in this respect. He never claimed to know much about English cricket. He didn’t pitch for the job.
With this in mind, perhaps he could even consider giving Peter Moores a call. Bayliss’s predecessor may have failed in other areas, but he excelled at picking players out of county cricket. Moores and Duncan Fletcher have been the best at this by some distance. In less than two years Moores brought Graeme Swann back, forged the James Anderson-Stuart Broad alliance, and picked out Matt Prior and Chris Tremlett.
In his time Fletcher oversaw the debuts of a complete playing eleven of some of England’s finest Test players, including the current top Test run scorer, top Test wicket taker and England’s two most successful Test captains. Bolstered by his time in charge of Glamorgan he knew enough about Marcus Trescothick – a medium pace-bowing all-rounder two years before – to back him as the aggressive all-surface Test opener England still haven’t ever really replaced.
No doubt in time he will get round to taking a whistle-stop survey of domestic cricket and to forging a set of useful opinions on the available talent. But right now it is perhaps time to look at this another way. If anyone is qualified to make a call on the best option for change it is Andrew Strauss.
The ECB management tier can look a little mob-handed at times, the exact lines of responsibility blurred. But Strauss is England’s man here. His job description demanded a recent international player, someone who understands the specific demands of elite cricket. Strauss is a selector. But unlike, say, James Whitaker, who rises or falls by his judgments on players, Strauss is freer to take a chance, to make a big ballsy call. Whatever his thoughts now, stick or twist, this would be the perfect moment to step in and take the lead.
Exactly what England will do from here is another matter. In the central contracts era there has been an unchecked retreat from the feckless chop-and-change of the 1990s. The tendency has been to opt for extreme stability instead, a new orthodoxy that states backing your man is a sign of strength and hair-trigger change leads only to confusion.
And yet at times like these perhaps there is something to be said for selecting the way football teams select, where points of weaknesses are ruthlessly culled, where an opponent’s key strength dictates your own instant decision on tactics and personnel.
There is no doubt Australia will be perfectly happy for England to show a steady hand, to keep selecting three left-handers at the top, and to keep thrusting Ballance and Lyth at them in the vague hope of some sudden shift in the balance of power with a bowling attack that right now has their number.
Alternatively, England can accept that few batsmen have ever successfully clawed their way back into a series from a standing start against rampant fast bowling. The most likely option for change involves dropping Ballance and shuffling the rest up one place, with Jonny Bairstow the obvious new man at No5, Alex Hales the outsider. It’s a sensible choice. Bairstow would surely score more runs at five than Ballance has at three.
The more interesting, more unlikely option would be a new opener, which would involve a hunch call on somebody like Nick Compton or Alex Lees.
In these circumstances the usual process of selection by committee is often not the best course. What is required is a gamble, a gut feeling by the man closest to the team. It is unlikely England will go down this road just yet. If there is a frustration here it is simply that they do not have a head coach capable of making the call in any case.
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