A batting collapse causes panic to run through a cricket side like nothing else. With each wicket that falls, the panic increases, permeating the dressing room and infecting the next player in. Judgement and poise go out the window. As batsmen trudge back to the pavilion, the team can only hope that someone, somehow, can get them out of trouble.
It is a feeling England have known all too well in the past twelve months.
At 116-6 on the final day of the second Test in Cape Town, England were in real danger of losing a Test after scoring 629 in their first innings. Only some calm batting from Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali and some inclement weather prevented an embarrassing mishap.
Since the opening Test in the West Indies in April 2015, England have suffered eleven batting collapses in fifteen Test matches. It has cost them Tests in Barbados, Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well as at Lord’s, Headingley and The Oval. It nearly cost them in Cape Town too.
The trouble with batting collapses is they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have a collapse or two, that makes another one more likely as confidence takes a knock and opponents sense vulnerability.
Collapses will always happen from time to time, but England are not getting blown away by stunning spells of bowling or one-off perfect storms. Some of the collapses, such as at Lord’s against Mitchell Johnson and in Dubai against Yasir Shah, can be forgiven as they came against top class bowling but others have not. Dane Piedt is a steady bowler but should not have caused panic on the final day in Cape Town by dismissing Nick Compton, James Taylor and Ben Stokes.
It is not a lack of talent or technique either. England’s batting line up has serious talent as was demonstrated by the partnership of 399 between Stokes and Jonny Bairstow on the second day at Newlands. Of England’s top eight, only Alex Hales and Taylor do not have at least one Test match hundred, and all are prominent run scorers in first class cricket. They clearly have the ability.
Neither can England’s stamina be questioned. They are one of the fittest teams in world cricket and many of the collapses in the past year have occurred in the first innings when the side should be relatively fresh. They lost six wickets for 44 runs in the first innings in Dubai which cost them the game.
The only conclusion then is that their inexperience is costing them. A certain amount of fragility should be expected from a batting line up that is short of Test experience. If you exclude Alastair Cook, the rest of England’s top seven have only 98 Test caps between them and several of the players are finding their feet in the Test match game.
Whilst their extensive first class experience helps to an extent, the pressure and intensity of Test match cricket, the quality of the bowling and the consequences of poor performance are so far above what they experience in the county game that it takes time to get acclimatised.
In county cricket, an attack may have only one or two bowlers able to maintain pressure. When the bowling is changed, runs flow more easily and the pressure is let off. In Test cricket, that does not happen, and England are not coping with the intensity.
Cape Town was a prime example, where England’s inexperience and the pressure combined to cause a collapse. Poor shots were to blame for the dismissals of Hales, Compton and Stokes. Would Stokes, the first innings double centurion, have holed out on the boundary in a less pressurised county game? Why did the usually unflappable Compton chip a regulation ball to midwicket off Piedt? Pressure and inexperience told.
If they find themselves in that situation again, they surely must do better.
In the last Ashes series in Australia, Brad Haddin at number seven rescued the home side on numerous occasions after top order collapses. He had seen it all before and could lead his side to safety. England are lacking that experience at the moment, especially without the dropped Ian Bell.
Inexperience also leads to inconsistency and only Joe Root and Cook have scored consistent runs in the past twelve months. At times, it has felt that if England’s captain and vice-captain don’t score runs, England don’t score runs.
England have tried and failed to get more consistency in to their line-up by changing personnel. Jonathan Trott was recalled but retired soon after; Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance were dropped during and after the Ashes; Jos Buttler has been relieved of the gloves and Bell has been dropped for the South Africa tour. That is a lot of change to a batting line-up in less than ten months.
Lack of experience can naturally only be overcome by playing. Players such as Taylor, Stokes and Bairstow have the ability to turn into fine international players, so England must persevere with them. In doing so, the odd collapse is inevitable. It is the job of Trevor Bayliss and his coaching staff to make sure they learn from their mistakes and do not repeat them.
The current line-up deserves a decent run of games and the selectors will hope that it will deliver consistent runs over time. If it does not and the collapses continue, England will have to try other options, because inexperience cannot be used as a reason forever. They are losing Test matches because of it.
The next two games in South Africa are as good a place as any to start.