Win masks problems
The little things that happen in the middle of a Test match are often the most telling. Two hours before the start of the third day's play at Old Trafford, Peter Moores, the head coach, held a long and animated discussion with his top six batsmen on the England team balcony. Once England had proved the futility of such a mid-innings debate by being bowled out cheaply, Daniel Vettori then had a protracted powwow with his team out in the middle, outlining the tactics for New Zealand's second innings.
There is a good chance that Vettori and Moores were asking their teams to do opposite things. We know what Vettori was saying because a roving camera microphone picked it up. Bat long, he emphasised, get a lead of more than 350 and England will be out of the game. We do not know what Moores said because, as yet, Big Brother does not exist in the England dressing-room. At a guess, I would say that he was discussing England's pedestrian batting on the second day and their lack of urgency in general. Vettori was asking for time and composure at the crease; Moores, in all probability, for tempo.
Up until the final day of play, when they at last found their stride, England have been outscored at every opportunity by New Zealand in this home-and-away set of matches. Even in Napier and Wellington, matches that England won in the winter, and at Lord's last week, in conditions more familiar to England, New Zealand's run-rate was comfortably superior. (At Old Trafford, in the first innings, England scored at 2.58 per over, New Zealand at 4.21.)
This presents two problems. One, it gives England less time to bowl out the opposition; two, and just as importantly, it is a good barometer of the balance of power between the teams.
England have won three games to their opponents' one in this six-match series, but much of it can be put down to New Zealand's inexperience at clutch moments. For long periods, as the run-rates suggest, they have more than matched England. Against better teams, the likes of which are shortly to arrive on these shores, such an imbalance in run-rates is a short cut to defeat.
Whatever was said to the teams clearly had little effect. England lost six wickets for 50 before lunch, and New Zealand were routed for 114. It is not that whatever was said proved to be so ineffective, but that such lengthy discussions were deemed necessary in the first place, that is so significant. Clearly, these are two batting line-ups that are still finding their way.
For New Zealand this is to be expected, since they could field an alternative Test-match team from those who are playing Twenty20 cricket in India. The panic that ran through their batsmen as Monty Panesar found his groove was unsurprising. They are callow and inexperienced and probably need as much guidance as they can get from Vettori and John Bracewell, their coach. For England, though, this is worrying. The top six have been together for what seems like an eternity and have scored more than 60 Test hundreds between them. They are all hardened, experienced international players who should be at the peak of their powers.
Moores gave a bullish press conference on Tuesday during which he gave a powerful endorsement of Paul Collingwood, in particular, and his battling qualities. He gave the clearest indication that there would be no changes for Trent Bridge. Fair enough, England are winning and consistency breeds confidence. There is no problem with the personnel as such. They are, as they are fond of telling us, all top-class players.
But there is a problem with how the constituent parts sometimes fit together. An innings cannot meander along aimlessly at one pace. Top-class teams play the situation, recognise which bowlers are vulnerable, when it is time to attack, and have the gears to exploit this “feel”.
It is the right tempo, then, that England must search for as they move forward and the right balance between those who offer, as Andrew Strauss does, calm and measured play, and those who can produce something more dynamic. That they can do it was more than proved in the second innings at Old Trafford, when urgent running, allied to a change of approach from Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen, brought a change in fortune.
If England continue to forget those lessons, though, and return to their static ways, Moores will find, as Steve McClaren did not so long ago with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, that the best players do not always make the best fit.
(Former England captain Michael Atherton wrote this article for Times Online website)