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Cricket news - Focus on Mark Ramprakash after yet another batting meltdown
In the last two years, Joe Root averages 42 in Test cricket. Ben Stokes averages 31, Jonny Bairstow 32. Moeen Ali? Just 23. All these batsmen have been near ever-presents in the England team, regarded as world-class talents yet since the start of 2017, none of them are averaging what many observers think they should be. Which raises the question: what impact is England's batting coach, Mark Ramprakash, having on these players?
There is context here, of course. The last two home summers - against South Africa and West Indies in 2017, and Pakistan and India last year - have been uncommonly difficult for batsmen. Sir Alastair Cook cannot remember any more difficult conditions than during these home seasons and he has seen a thing or two. Mind you, Virat Kohli averaged 59 last summer. Pitches in Sri Lanka before Christmas weren't easy either.
It is also understandable for new players in the Test team to struggle. The gap from county cricket to the top tier is a big one and some, like Keaton Jennings, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan, have been found wanting. That is the way of things at Test level - you never really know if a player can hack it until they try - and that's fair enough. It also raises the question of whether county cricket is doing enough to produce players with the game to thrive in the longest format.
But context only goes so far. England have also played on some flat surfaces in the last two years, in Australia last winter and in Barbados in the first Test of this tour to the Caribbean for example, and this is Test cricket, it's meant to be hard. Their batsmen have also been brought up in English conditions so, although things have been difficult at home of late, it would be reasonable to expect the likes of Root and Stokes to be able to handle it.
England's most acute problem is that their regular batsmen, those who have proven they have the game, the character and the talent to thrive, if sporadically, do not seem to be improving. Their performances and averages over the past two years would suggest they are actually going backwards.
The work ethic of this England squad and the coaching staff cannot be questioned. England are amongst the fittest teams in the world and their diligence to training is second to none. Stokes is an example, always bowling, always batting, taking extra catches, doing extra fitness work. This winter, that dedication has spread to his teammates. Their recent struggles are not for want of trying.
But something isn't working and the influence of Ramprakash as batting coach deserves scrutiny. The England players generally speak well of the former batsman and he certainly spends lots of time with his charges in the nets but it is difficult to name one top flight batsman who has improved under his guidance since he became a part of the coaching staff in 2014.
Some players, like Cook, have even used their own batting coaches to develop their games while others, like Bairstow in 2014-15 when dropped from the side, have benefited from time at their counties. The progress, or lack of it, of the Test batsmen is in stark contrast to that of the limited-overs players under the tutelage of Graham Thorpe.
The major job of a Test batting coach is not technical. Those arriving in England's team should have a robust technique - although that has not always been the case of late - and so the major part of Ramprakash's role is to instil confidence, organise a game plan for the conditions and opponents, get the mindset right and help the players prepare tactically for the challenges they will face.
Disregarding those like Jennings with technical issues to address, the deficiencies of England's established batsmen over the past two years have arguably been related to tactics, mindset or approach far more than anything else.
On the third day in Antigua, England seemed devoid of a plan, trying to manufacture run-scoring opportunities on a pitch which required diligent circumspection until a bad ball presented itself. Trying to force the issue was simply not the way to go but Joe Denly tried to pull a length ball from Shannon Gabriel after a handful of dot balls, Rory Burns was caught trying to guide a ball through gully in one-day mode and Bairstow was bowled, attempting to hit a ball on the up.
Was this England's plan, to disrupt the West Indies? If it was, it probably wasn't the right one given their collapse and particularly after the home side had proven in their first innings that crease occupation was the way to go. Or was it simply that England's batsmen didn't have a plan or were so frazzled that they played shots they shouldn't have? If so, why didn't one of the coaching staff drill a plan into them so they had clarity of purpose?
Why have England not been able to change the way they play over the past two seasons to avoid the regular collapses that this team has now become synonymous for? They lost ten wickets today in just 42 more balls than Darren Bravo faced when making a half-century for West Indies, following on from the 77 all out in Barbados and the 58 all out this time last year in New Zealand. As former England captain Michael Vaughan tweeted today: "I'm sure we will hear 'Well that's the way we play' over the next few days...!! Well it ain't working... change in mindset and approach needed."
Can Ramprakash, the man responsible for getting the best out of England's batting group, deliver that change in mindset and approach? There has been little indication over the past five years that he has. And therefore there has to be real doubt now that he can.
The constant shuffling of the batting order has not helped with players such as Moeen and Stokes moving up and down the order almost from game to game. This winter, Stokes has batted at three, five and six. Moeen has also batted at three and is now at seven. How can any player develop when they are constantly being asked to do different roles? There is a world of difference between batting three and batting seven.
But here, again, it is fair to ask why the coaches don't know where to bat these players. Perhaps it is because none of their batsmen are producing consistent runs anywhere in the order or perhaps it's because the lack of a solid top three is clouding every batting issue they have - all relevant context - but why haven't Ramprakash, Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace yet found the right batting spot for Stokes, Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Moeen? They've surely had enough time to work it out.
Of course, as Root said after the game in Antigua, the coaches don't go out and score the runs. And it is clear that England's batsmen don't learn quickly enough. It's clear that, for all their talent, they make the same mistakes over and over again. When faced with pace and bounce, they too often fall in a heap. They are too fast and loose on difficult pitches, they are constantly 30 for 3 and they have a problem converting half-centuries into hundreds. But it is also clear that Root, Stokes, Moeen, Buttler and Bairstow are fine players, the best in the country. They just aren't scoring the runs they should be.
And now, after yet another batting calamity, Ashley Giles, England's new cricket director, needs to look at why.
There will be a lot of soul searching after this series defeat. All the good work of Sri Lanka has been undone and, despite selection issues and difficult pitches and a lack of pace in the bowling attack, it has been a defeat for which the batsmen, and the batting coach, need to take the blame. England's batting has not been good enough for a long time yet it has had the same personnel - mostly - and the same batting coach throughout. That is a situation that surely cannot continue.
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