Sitting across from Monty Panesar in a busy Twickenham café, one thing was clear, Panesar’s love and enthusiasm for the game of cricket.
During a chat that lasted well over 30 minutes, barely once did he take a sip of his coffee, for his answers were so passionate and extensive, he forgot it was there.
Unfortunately for English fans Panesar’s passion and exuberance were not because of his pride for the current state of English cricket. But due to the dire nature it currently finds itself in.
“England are not the team they used to be in test cricket, where they would get themselves into winning positions and win games”, Panesar opened with.
So, if England have fallen to new lows, what can be done to turn the tide? Panesar believes there are two simple fixes that can get England on their way to making serious improvements.
“We should make the seams on the balls slightly less pronounced. We should try get the pitches to be more batting friendly, flatter pitches, so the batsman can actually learn how to play a longer innings”.
It’s hard to disagree with Panesar, the amount of time English batters are spending at the crease is decreasing year on year, with huge white ball commitments and other factors at play. This of course would have a huge impact on the English side.
“At the moment batters are more worried about getting done LBW or caught behind because the ball is doing so much. They actually not learning properly how to bat like you do in test match cricket.”
This was evident in the recent Ashes tour, where on a seemingly flat pitch on which Australia regularly posted over 400 runs, England would find themselves 3 or 4 wickets down almost immediately.
The red ball system in England needs amending. While Andrew Strauss was managing director of England, he proposed a new “red ball reset” and claimed that “anyone that’s coming into this Test team at the minute is doing it in spite of county cricket, not because of county cricket”.
Is Franchising the answer?
But what kind of “reset” would be best? Unlike his ex-England teammate Kevin Pietersen, Panesar is not a fan of franchising the red ball game in England.
“Franchising should increase the standards of red ball cricket in this country, but then the standard will only get better, if we use balls with less pronounced seams and monitor the state of pitches. So you can have a franchise system. But if the pitches are green and the ball is doing a lot, you may just produce the same results.”
Tough summer ahead
We saw in the winter how poorly the Test team performed against a team with the class of Australia, but just how far behind are we?
“Well, I think we’re going to probably find out against New Zealand” Panesar said. “They are going to be, a really strong side and it could be difficult for us”.
Although there is plenty of red ball cricket being played in these early summer months, in the later months the focus of the ECB switches to white ball. This will make winning the Test series against New Zealand a difficult task. Panesar understands this.
“In June, July and August, when England are going to play Test cricket, the ECB need to find a way of putting more red ball games into the schedules. So then if some players are out injured or not playing well, they can be replaced by someone who is fresh and in good red ball form”.
However, since 2015, the ECB have placed almost their entire focus on the white ball side of the game. Granted, they have seen great success, but at what cost?
There are now three white ball tournaments being played in the summer after last year’s addition of The Hundred. The red ball game has been left to rot and this now being reflected in the Test team.
White ball prioritisation
There have been many drawbacks to focusing so heavily on the white ball game. Panesar believes that one of those is players now exclusively wanting to play white ball cricket.
“My concern is some of the better batsman who are playing in white ball cricket, who are also good red ball cricketers probably think, ‘actually, I’m making more money just being a T20. Cricketer’.
An example of that is Ben Duckett. We were together at Northants, he was scoring runs, and he was brilliant. And we thought, ‘he’s going to be like the next Marcus Trescothick opening the batting for England’. But then he’s probably thinking, do I really want to play red ball?
Newly appointed Test captain Ben Stokes has much to ponder. But Panesar thinks there is an immediate fix for Stokes and new managing director Rob Key to make.
“If I was managing director, I would bring both Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson back in and play them, especially for the New Zealand series. Because I just think there is a massive difference in in skill level even now”.
So, it’s clear we will see both Broad and Anderson in the England team at some point this summer but there is another headache for Stokes and Key. Who to play as the spinner?
Having taken 167 test wickets for England as a spinner it is an area in which Panesar knows plenty about. England have persisted with Jack Leach in recent times but with very little success.
“Jack leach will still be given the opportunity to play at the start of the year, but there’s some other spinners coming through the system that I would like to see, like Matt Parkinson,” said Panesar.
Parkinson was taken on both the Ashes tour and tour of the West Indies but did not play a single minute.
“We still don’t know anything about Matt Parkinson for England. And I think that’s where the England management got it slightly wrong, they should have played him, we all want to see what he can do at international level”.
What does the future hold?
So, what should we expect from England this coming summer? Panesar thinks it may get worse before it gets better.
“This year maybe it could be a plodding process where we just plod along a few steps back and a few steps forward.”
“We may just have to accept that 300 is a good total for England now. We may constantly be three wickets down quickly”.
“Over the last 20 years England fans have been blessed with some of the greats of English cricket, maybe we have been spoilt. Maybe how we played in the 90s and early 2000s, that’s just our level, we have to be realistic”.
A somewhat dour end to our chat, but for all Panesar’s optimism on how England can improve he knows that things will get worse before they can get better. And with all that we have seen of late, its hard to disagree.
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