If the England coach’s mantra was intended to deceive, he was unable to fool Nigel Henderson, who finds him to blame for much, if not all, of the team’s poor Ashes showing.
Not so clever, Trevor: the England coach has something of the US president about him
Trevor Bayliss is an unlikely character to compare to Donald Trump but by the middle of the Ashes, when the urn had been all but surrendered, it was beginning to look as if he was operating the metaphorical England Twitter feed all on his own from a secluded corner of the dressing-room. “We’ve played some good cricket, just not for long enough,” had been his plea after losing in Brisbane and so good had it sounded to him – and so often was it then recycled in the mainstream media – that he decided to stick with it, rolling it out after the Adelaide defeat as well.
And he made sure his players were on message, too. By the time England had secured their only draw of the winter – in Melbourne – it had been repeated by Joe Root, Jimmy Anderson, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and probably Moeen Ali, although the latter was in such a pit of despond at his own form that it is unlikely that anything he babbled was truly coherent.
If Bayliss, a man for whom the phrase dress-down Friday might have been invented – although in his floppy hat and outsize tracksuit he seems to have extended it to all days of the week – thought there would be safety in numbers, he has instead come to resemble the kind of delusional fellow who takes refuge in bed from a cruel world at 6.30pm to comfort munch on a cheeseburger and rail at the world.
It’s doubtful however, whether Bayliss, whatever he says, can find comfort in these sort of figures: Root played enough good cricket long enough only to get fifties, sixties and eighties. Alastair Cook condensed all his good cricket into ten hours in Melbourne – even if that innings was very good, the best many had seen him play. Mark Stoneman played good cricket long enough to race to 20 or so in a flurry of boundaries before departing. James Vince played good cricket long enough for him to unfurl a couple of Michael Vaughan-copyrighted cover drives before nicking off. On the bowling front, different numbers were to the fore: the speeds – or lack of them – of England’s frontline pacemen and perhaps their ages. If, at 35, Anderson’s haul of 17 wickets was achieved with a better economy rate than the Australian pace trio and an average not far behind, Broad rarely simmered let alone reached the boil and disappointment in Woakes was only surpassed by that in Moeen. Despite Anderson’s efforts and the potential shown by Craig Overton and Tom Curran, they were never going to be able to bowl dry enough long enough to lure Australia to donate 20 wickets – the stated plan before the series started.
Really, the only England cricketer to play good cricket long enough was Dawid Malan. More of him later.
Unfortunately for Bayliss – and his charges – even if you take his pronouncement at face value, winning Test matches is all about playing good cricket long enough; apart from those matches that prove one-sided almost from the outset – Australia’s trouncing at Trent Bridge in 2015 springs readily to mind – most Tests have moments when the contest can be manoeuvred to one side’s advantage. The success or failure to grasp the nettle at those points is what determines the outcome.
Those are the points when the stronger teams – technically or mentally – step up; when the stronger players – technically or mentally – make their mark. And despite the brickbats, it was the left-field Australian selections of Shaun and Mitchell Marsh – less so Usman Khawaja, whose record in Australia was good anyway – who showed they could play good cricket long enough to make the decisive difference.
Perhaps they took their lead from their astonishing captain, Steve Smith. Despite fidgety ways that would suggest otherwise, he produced in spades a characteristic that England’s batsmen could rarely locate, let alone master: patience. If comparisons with Don Bradman are wide of the mark for a variety of reasons, he must surely rank at the top of the list of the greatest ever ‘ugly’ batsmen. Of those who might fall into the same category – Graeme Smith, Gary Kirsten, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Kepler Wessels – only Chanderpaul, who finished a 164-match Test career with an average of 51, and perhaps Smith, the former South Africa captain, can lay claim to being his equal.
England seem to have forgotten that for years patience served the game admirably – openers used to see off the new ball, allowing the middle order greater freedom to express themselves. Maybe we live in a more individualistic world now, where roles have become blurred, or maybe the decline of that trait was inevitable when England employed a white-ball specialist to coach their Test team. But Bayliss has hardly helped himself by mixing his messages.
First, as England flew into South Africa towards the end of 2015, he intimated that ideally he wanted two “flair” bastmen in the top three: what Nick Compton, restored to the squad after being dumped by the Andy Flower regime, made of that is unclear, especially when the coach also praised his adhesive qualities. Months later, as Compton struggled at the beginning of the 2016 summer, he reeled off a list of five batsmen who might replace the Middlesex player while once again suggesting that his defensive style was fine by him.
It was hardly likely to buoy a seemingly intense character such as Compton. But that same summer, Michael Vaughan, in his column in the Telegraph, was telling us that a year into his stewardship, Bayliss had “brought a calm presence to the team”, another soundbite that was repeated ad infinitum. His “no raving, no ranting” way was the perfect method of getting the best out of his players, we were assured from many quarters.
Those of us who believe that a little ranting and raving at the right time may be a good thing when allied to an approach that is largely positive, were emasculated at a stroke. Maybe he should have ranted and raved long enough to convince Root to bat at No 3 – the England captain was usually out there so early he might as well have.
And surely those players who kept failing to play good cricket long enough could have benefited from an occasional restrained reading of the riot act. Too many seemed to believe it was their God-given right to play their natural games, yet, surprise surprise, it was the one who didn’t who prospered.
Dawid Malan has manifestly taken to Test cricket, but not quite like the proverbial duck to water. The Middlesex left-hander admitted that when he was first picked for England in the summer of 2017, he felt desperately out of touch and it was that which informed his often rather turgid crease occupation – a far cry from the strokemaker that had impressed Bayliss in a T20 versus South Africa in May.
Almost by default then, England inherited a player forced to rein in his attacking instincts, an approach that served him well down under.
That said, Malan was twice culpable in another area where England come up short: failing to keep the door closed when the opposition are knocking on it. Against less ruthless rivals it may be less significant; against Australia it is verging on fatal. They are like doorstepping tabloid hacks who won’t take no for an answer: open the door enough to get a look at who’s outside and they will thrust a foot in; allow them to persuade you to take off the chain and they will be as good as in; before you know it they will be probing you with questions, sipping your tea with their muddy boots up on the table.
It may be churlish to criticise a batsman who, with one hundred and three fifties, had by far the best series (if you accept that Root underperformed despite topping England’s averages) but it remains a fact that if Malan didn’t exactly single-handedly throw away very promising positions in the first innings at the Gabba and again as England sought to post a challenging total in Perth, he did play into Australia’s hands. Both times he was dismissed, continuing to pull Mitchell Starc who had started to feed him the shot from round the wicket in Brisbane, and dancing down the pitch to hit grotesquely against the spin of Nathan Lyon at the WACA, England lost their last six wickets for under 56 runs.
When Smith found himself in a much more awkward position in Australia’s reply in Brisbane, he pushed on to 141, although of course he did find a willing partner in Patrick Cummins – a very solid performer although, on paper at least, no real match for England’s lower middle order of Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes.
One has to wonder whether Moeen’s troubles with the bat were the result of another famous Bayliss brain-fade. With the bizarre reasoning that Bairstow batted well with the tail, the England coach swapped the pair’s positions in the batting order. When he reversed that flawed decision-making, in Perth, Bairstow responded with a century, one of only three for England in the series to Australia’s nine.
There is another highly-important factor to take into account, one that perhaps many English observers have steered clear of for fear of attracting Australian derision: the absence of Ben Stokes.
Almost as soon as footage of Stokes’ reaction outside that Bristol nightclub reached their mobile devices, England fans will have understood the strange knotted feeling that emerged from the pit of their stomachs. In contrast to his off-field behaviour, Stokes’ cricket had reached a new level of maturity last summer, particularly with the ball, and his potential all-round contributions cannot be disregarded. As a batsman, he can now stick or twist and he can go from passive to aggressive in the arc of a backlift. With the ball, he can hold a position – think of those figures of 20-4-34-2 he returned at Trent Bridge as South Africa sought to build on a sizeable first-innings lead last June – and he can draw on the type of deep reserves of combativeness that could have given Australia a taste of their own short-pitched medicine.
We can curse all we like at the structure of the county championship, limited as it is to the damper parts of the English season, argue over whether nationally-contracted players ought to take a larger role in it, and question if, because of these things, fast bowlers and attacking spinners will ever prosper in such an environment, but take one of the great modern talents out of a team, the ballast in the middle who gives everything balance, and to suggest Bayliss should carry the can on his own in such circumstances, would be fake news of the type favoured by a certain American president.