There are many reasons for this: the young players England are picking, and the more experienced ones sitting out; the quality of New Zealand’s bowling; the structural deficiencies of the county game and the unorthodox players it is producing.
If there is one striking stat that epitomises England’s batting at the moment, it is the sheer number of ducks they are accruing.
It is self-explanatory that ducks are bad things (in a cricket context, that is). Not only do they add nothing to the total, but they almost always do not last long either, meaning one wicket has become two, or three, and the complexion of the game has been shifted dramatically.
England have not had a Year of the Duck like this since the absolute Gressingham: 1998.
Then, England played 16 matches (using 28 players!), and recorded a whopping 54 ducks, a global Test record and 21 more than England have ever managed in a year. Of those 54, exactly half came from the top seven. 27 is the most ducks recorded by a team’s top seven in a calendar year. Only two other teams have ever made it to 40 ducks in a year, West Indies in 2000 and Australia in 1999.
This year, England have played eight matches, and have eight more to come (five against India and three in Australia, with the series concluding in Sydney and Perth in the New Year). Halfway through their programme, they are halfway to this unwanted target.
England have recorded 27 ducks so far this year against Sri Lanka, India and New Zealand. Of those 27, 18 have come from the top seven. As Test Match Special’s stats wizard Andy Zaltzman pointed out on air this weekend, only in 1998 have England’s top seven made more ducks – and there are eight matches left to run.
Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Dan Lawrence and Jonny Bairstow all have three ducks. Five more players, including Zak Crawley and James Bracey, have two. With a fair wind, we may see a player top the record for an England (specialist) batter of five ducks in a year, set by Bairstow in 2018 and Michael Atherton and Mark Butcher (both, you guessed it, in 1998).
Against New Zealand, England made nine ducks out of 33 dismissals. Seven of England’s ducks came in their two first innings, when the game needs shaping, and seven came from their top seven, the men who are supposed to be doing that shaping of the game.
By contrast, New Zealand lost 28 wickets in the series, and just three of them were ducks. One duck came from No7, and the other two from No8. New Zealand’s top order was doing its job.
It is little surprise that New Zealand made so many fewer ducks. Only once in the series, on the second morning at Lord’s (when Colin de Grandhomme and Mitchell Santner made, you guessed it, ducks) did they lose wickets in a hurry. Generally, a wicket fell, and the new batter would unobtrusively build an innings. Henry Nicholls is a master of this, but Will Young, Ross Taylor and even Tom Blundell did so at Edgbaston, too.
It is worth noting that England’s fielders do not help; Blundell was dropped on 0 off Olly Stone at Edgbaston after Taylor was dismissed.
England have more skittish starters, with young strokemakers looking to feel bat on ball, rather than gently feel their way into an innings. And perhaps the unorthodox techniques employed by certain batters makes them easier to bowl to. There is also a domino effect here; one duck can easily bring another, as we saw with Lawrence and Bracey at Lord’s.
England need to stop this unwanted raft of ducks. Not only will it save them some unwelcome records, but it might help them get back to winning ways, too.