Is England’s “dig-in” approach working?

When Chris Silverwood assumed the role of England’s head coach in October 2019, he and skipper Joe Root made no secret of their desire for the Test team to dig in and soak up deliveries. This would, it was planned, help to make big first-innings runs, a mantra that Silverwood hilariously declared as “not rocket science” in the match program that preceded England being bowled out for 183 in the first Test against India.

Indeed, England have not put on decisive first-innings totals anywhere near frequently enough since Silverwood’s arrival. Of course, the issue is far more complex than “digging in” versus “teeing off”, and every successful Test batsman requires the temperament to survive when the going gets tough, but this philosophy of absorption has become tantamount to negativity, an over-correction after the corruptive influence of white-ball freedom.

On Wednesday, England’s only partnership of worth was that between Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, who successfully met many a good ball with a dead bat, soaking up the overs. When this is going on, it is easy to see the rationale behind Silverwood’s vision. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that Joe Root is an exception in this team. He dug in seemingly obdurately, but finished on 64 off 108 balls, hardly Sibley-esque in his strike rate. He was the only one to find a balance between positivity and pragmatism.

Bairstow also succeeded in repelling the Indian attack, but the amount of work he was forced to put in for his eventual 29 runs seemed disproportionate. A mantra of hunkering down has also led to the favouring of Rory Burns and Dom Sibley at the top of the order. Burns found form against New Zealand, but Sibley offers so little in terms of run-scoring that his undoubted ability to survive becomes essentially useless. Making 18 runs by lunch, he managed the second lowest score batting through to the interval since Chris Smith accumulated 12 on a Karachi morning in 1984.

As you go down the order, players such as Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence look all at sea, grappling between their natural, positive game and the concept of seeing off bowlers that is being willed upon them. I am not exculpating them, by the way, and the problems of England’s batting clearly runs far deeper than the dichotomy of attack and defence.

But it just seems that players other than Joe Root and, to an extent, Jonny Bairstow, are not good enough to find a balance between the two. Their confusion as to whether to play or leave, commit or withdraw means that when the bad ball eventually comes, they are getting out to it, rather than putting it away. Root is the only one capable of finding a run-rate that can take control of a game without taking any risks. It goes back to that old English chestnut of the relative merits of favouring each individual’s natural game. Perhaps even those natural games, though, are not sufficient for international cricket.