Alex Massie

What is wrong with England?

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A dismal day at Edgbaston that took one back to the grim, hapless days of the late 1980s and almost the entire 1990s. Yes, England really were that bad. Batting first on a calm track they subsided to 231 all out. In reply, South Africa have ambled to 38-1. Now you may say that this is only the first day of five and, for sure, the situation is far from irretrievable. But unless England can bat and bowl with greater discipline than they have shown thus far this summer, then they look more likely to head to the Oval 2-0 down than with a chance to square, let alone actually win the series.

For once David Lloyd is right. This has been, as he says, an "absolutely woeful" day. Ian Botham also gets it right: "We keep on hearing how great this top five are, well, it hasn't been for some time". Indeed so. The suspicion has been there for some time that England aren't quite as good as they think they are; that suspicion is hardening into certainty with each passing disappointment.

Test sides have often persevered with players out of form. But it is only possible to carry an out of form batsman - as Australia have done with, at different times, Mark Taylor, Mark Waugh and Matthew Hayden, if a) you can be confident that your bowlers will take 20 wickets and b) your other batsmen score enough runs to compensate for your out of form batsman. Neither of these conditions applies to this England side in its current incarnation and form.

That being so, it is the height of folly to select not one, but two, batsmen who are plainly out of touch. It does Paul Collingwood no favours to bring him back into the side when he's scarcely scratched 100 runs all season. If the rest were in great nick, this might not be a grievous error, but it is, as I say, folly when Michael Vaughan is also palpably struggling for form, averaging just 27 this summer. In other words, England have only picked four real batsmen for this match. That's eccentric.

Then again, the batting order isn't as good as they think it is. Yes, they all average over 40. But 40 isn't the number it once was. The level of test match bowling is, generally speaking, not what it was 20 years ago, while pitches, especially in England, are flatter and friendlier to batsmen than they once were. In other words, you can make a case for 45 being the new 40 and 55 being the new 50 (that latter being the traditional yardstick for greatness).

If one accepts this and then looks at the numbers then it's clear that England are a decent batting side but hardly anything more than that. Here are the England batting line-up's recent averages, taking in two home seasons and two away from home. Over England's last 24 tests they have averaged:

Alastair Cook: 2006/07: 27; 2007: 47; 2007/08: 39; 2008:41

Andrew Strauss: 2006/07: 24; 2007:  29; 2007/08: 45; 2008: 44

Michael Vaughan: 2007: 54; 2007/08: 28; 2008: 27

Kevin Pietersen: 2006/07: 54; 2007: 62; 2007/08: 35; 2008: 50

Ian Bell: 2006/07: 33; 2007: 37; 2007/08: 46; 2008: 47

Paul Collingwood: 2006/07: 48; 2007: 46; 2007/08: 37; 2008: 8

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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