Nasser Hussain looks forward to a packed 2021 schedule

NASSER HUSSAIN: Joe Root NEEDS big runs if he and England are to survive a relentless Test year – and they’ll have to find a balance between winning in the here and now and planning for the future

  • England’s Test year stars off in Sri Lanka – the most demanding place to play 
  • Root is a massive part of England’s hopes of getting big runs in the first innings
  • Burns, Sibley and Crawley will seek to build a platform for dynamic middle order
  • The absence of rested Stokes and Archer puts the focus on the England spinners

England are due to play 17 Tests this year, plus an 18th early in 2022 to conclude the Ashes, with nine against India and five in Australia. It will be a real examination of an England Test side that have shown a lot of improvement in the last year.

What I have particularly liked under Joe Root and Chris Silverwood is the overdue change in mentality towards a policy of scoring big first innings runs with an over-my-dead-body attitude from people who bat long and occupy the crease.

It is not always pretty to watch but it is good old-fashioned Test match cricket with people like Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley building a platform for the dynamic middle order of Root, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and now Jonny Bairstow to cash in. That has to continue.

England captain Joe Root arrives in Sri Lanka on Sunday ahead of the Test series

This is a big year for Root. His win percentage is up there with the best England captains and he arrives in Sri Lanka having won his last three Test series against South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan.

But Joe’s biggest value to the team is never going to be a Douglas Jardine or Mike Brearley approach to leadership. It is going to be the runs he scores.

As Stuart Broad has pointed out when people talk about the balance of England’s attack overseas, if you get 500 in your first innings — and England invariably made big runs to win the Ashes in 2010-11 — you put pressure on the opposition’s batsmen. 

It will be that way in these two upcoming Tests in Galle where pitches will start good and then spin. Root is a massive part of England’s hopes of getting those big runs and by his high standards he had a quiet 2020. The big thing is Joe’s conversion rate, and when he gets to 50 we have seen him wanting to entertain with that big smile on his face.

Root is a massive part of England’s hopes of getting big runs in the first innings

But I think he should go the other way then and become ruthless and selfish by saying: ‘You’re not getting me out today.’ He needs to focus on getting the really big scores that will win England Test matches.

Root does not have to look too far for an example of what is needed because Jonathan Trott, who always wanted to cash in when he got a start, has been part of the backroom staff and now South Africa’s Jacques Kallis, as long as his travel plans to Sri Lanka are unaffected, will be England’s batting consultant for this leg of the trip.

When we played against Kallis he would get himself into a bubble and never emerge from it and he was never going to get himself out. It was the same with Trott. Root needs to have that mind-set because he is that good. Root’s relative ‘problems’ — and we have to remember he is still averaging 47 — started in the last Ashes when Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood were all over him. But they are two world-class bowlers and Root made too much of a change to his technique after that one average series.

He started making big movements at the crease whereas his natural game and rhythm were exemplary before. So if I were to give Root one piece of advice it would be to go back to those natural methods.

An England captain can survive winning while not getting runs, or getting runs while not winning, but it is very hard to survive losing Tests while not making those big runs. Root has the ability to score big runs and set up those wins in this pivotal year.

Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley will seek to build a platform for dynamic middle order

The need for spin

Sri Lanka post- Muttiah Muralitharan and Rangana Herath have tried to get away from their policy of creating massively turning pitches but, with the injury problems they have experienced on tour in South Africa, it would not be a surprise to see a dust bowl again in Galle.

So the top of the order before the ball starts really turning will be a good time to bat and Sibley, and whoever opens with him in the absence of Burns, probably Crawley, have to make sure they are not 40 without loss after 20 overs. They have to be pro-active when conditions are at their friendliest.

However depleted the home side turn out to be, Sri Lanka is still perhaps the most demanding place for an English cricketer to play. The heat and humidity sap your energy more than anywhere else and there is nothing in the pitches for the seamers.

So England, without the rested Stokes and Jofra Archer, will have to produce a different type of wicket-taking threat to win this series, which puts focus on their spinners.

Absence of rested Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer puts the focus on the England spinners 

England’s spin attack is pretty much in its infancy, even though two of the spinners who did so well in Sri Lanka in 2018 when they won 3-0 — Jack Leach and Moeen Ali — will be there again.

Dom Bess is still in his formative years as a spinner while Leach has barely played and Moeen has struggled. With Adil Rashid virtually ruling himself out of red-ball cricket, England have to find a spinner who gets wickets when it is turning and still has a role when it is not, as Graeme Swann did.

Looking ahead, England have to find the balance between winning in the here and now and planning for the future. We always put so much focus on the Ashes — and I’ve already done it here — but it is on the horizon and history tells you if England turn up at The Gabba in November with four right-arm medium-fast bowlers and any finger spinner they will struggle to get wickets.

In Archer’s absence in Sri Lanka, Mark Wood and Olly Stone will have the chance to provide the extra pace that will be needed in Australia. What England need to avoid is having Stone, for instance, in the frame for Brisbane without any Test experience behind him.

Mark Wood (above) and Olly Stone will have the chance to provide the extra pace in Australia

England got it wrong in leaving Broad out of the first Test against West Indies last summer but I do not see the point in tearing out the backsides of him and Jimmy Anderson by playing them together in Galle if the pitches are not conducive.

I know Broad and Anderson never want a rest but England have to work out the best way to use them over the next 12 months. Generally speaking, if you arrive at a venue and pick the best attack for that particular pitch you will not go far wrong.

An incredible effort

Yes, there was a hiccup in South Africa but England have done incredibly well again to keep the cricketing show on the road.

You only have to look at the pictures from Sri Lanka to see how tough bubble life is going to be again — the scenes at the airport looked like something out of a disaster movie.

I applaud the move to take a clinical psychologist because you have to give the players a bit of leeway. People will think, ‘they’re off to Sri Lanka, what a great life’ but cricket in these times provides a surreal lifestyle.

They still need to score runs or take wickets to survive in the team and are under extra pressure in these circumstances. It is right that Burns has stayed at home to be at the birth of his child and if any other player needs to get out of that environment they will be backed, and rightly so. Remember, they are going straight from Sri Lanka into another bubble in India. The mental challenge will never be tougher.

Reaching for a different Sky

The moment air restrictions were put in place last month it became clear no English broadcasters nor media would be able to go to Sri Lanka. The good news is that we will still be providing pictures via the world feed but our work will need to be done from the studio at home.

That means scraping the ice off the car windscreen and heading to Isleworth to see Rob Key at 4am each day, while I am pleased to say Bumble will be contributing from home.

We will be commentating off the TV monitor and then appearing in the breaks and interviewing people from here — and we will have Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara at the ground for on-the-spot analysis.

So it will still be pretty normal coverage and it will be great to see England playing at one of the great venues in world cricket.

Reasons to be cheerful

I’m optimistic about England’s chances in Sri Lanka but India will be a different kettle of fish.

There was Alastair Cook’s successful tour in 2012 and David Gower’s before that but not many England teams have won there.

If they are going to win in India one of the spinners will have to do what Swann and Monty Panesar did. And if they are going to win in Australia they will need that extra pace of Archer, Wood or Stone.

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