It's been Joe Root or bust for most of 2021 for England, presenting a myriad of problems as they look to the remaining two games of another lost Ashes down under. Image: cricket.com.au

Culminating in their score of just 68 in the second innings of the Boxing day test, England capped off one of their worst years in Test cricket with the bat ever.

There is no sugar coating it, statistically, the 2021 English side has had one of their worst batting years in the history of test match cricket.

From ducks to incredibly low averages to numerous batting collapses, 2021 has been nothing short of a disappointment for the proud cricketing nation.

England has played more cricket than any other nation in the COVID-19 era, including upwards of 15 Test matches in 2021. From their first test of the year in Galle on January 14th all the way to the Boxing Day collapse. It’s time to take a deep dive into just how bad they were batting-wise in 2021.

Where it all started

January 18th, 2021. England was in Sri Lanka for their two-match series and had just come off a seven-wicket win in the first test. Their first innings score of 421 runs was enough for them to comfortably win early on the fifth morning.

For many English fans, those 421 runs would have symbolised a turn in fortune for an underperforming batting lineup, a promising sign for a team that would need to play India both home and away that year, as well as an Ashes series in Australia.

Instead, it should have been a warning sign for the trends that continued to plague the squad for the year to come.

Of those 421 runs that the English scored, Joe Root made 228 of them or just over 54 percent of the total.

Only Dan Lawrence, who is on the tour but hasn’t been selected for the first three tests of the Ashes, scored above fifty. A staggering seven players failed to get above ten runs, including both of their openers. Two players were sent back to the pavilion without troubling the scoresheet. The start of what would be a record-equalling 54 ducks in Test cricket this year.

In the second innings, it was much the same, with both openers out cheaply for a combined 10. In what would turn out to be an unusual event for the year Root would be dismissed cheaply, scoring just the one before being run out.

Whilst England would leave Sri Lanka with a 2-0 series win, yet again it was Root in the first innings of the second test who would steer the side to victory, scoring 186 of their 344 total runs.

Concerningly three of their top five batsmen scored under six runs in that same innings.

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The one shining star, some statistics and whole lot of ducks

From that tour onwards the English batting lineup would go on to be one of their worst in history. This isn’t just the sentiment and opinion of Australians who love to see the old enemy fail, rather one based solely on statistics.

With this in mind, it is still crucial to not underestimate the performances of their captain Joe Root over the year. It is not an understatement to say that Root in 2021 was one of the most valuable players for a team in the history of test match cricket. Without him, an already embarrassing year would have been far, far worse.

Root ended the year with 1708 runs at 61.0, just 80 runs short of the most in a calendar year and neatly in third on that list. He would score six hundreds and four fifties, with just one duck along the way.

When seeing these statistics it is hard to imagine that he could be a part of this batting line-up, and it is probably a more damning statistic for the English that he is.

After Root, the next highest average for the year goes to Dawid Malan with 34.22 and Chris Woakes with 28.33. Combined those players participated in just eight total test matches throughout the year.

Rory Burns and Dan Lawerence who rank fourth and fifth on that list didn’t even make the boxing day XI. To put the average of those players into perspective, Australian fast bowler Mitchell Starc has a batting average of 40.5 in 2021.

It isn’t just in the averages where the gulf between Root and his teammates is glaringly apparent. After Root’s 1708 runs in the calendar year, the next most from an Englishmen in test cricket is Rory Burns with 530.

This gap of 1178 between the pair is the largest run difference between the two highest scorers for a test side in a calendar year in the history of test cricket, beating the record set by a Viv Richards led 1976 West Indies squad by nearly 300 runs.

To make it even worse after Burns on the highest scorer list for 2021 would be extras, whilst Root’s August and January returning’s would rank him as the third and fourth highest batter in terms of runs respectively.

To prove their dependency on the skipper to score big this year, the English side has avoided defeat just once in 2021 when Root hasn’t scored a century. A draw against New Zealand at Lords in June.

Of the 25 players to pull on the English creams this year, 20 of them would get out for at least one duck. In total English batsmen failed to trouble the scorers on 54 occasions, equalling their own record set back in 1998.  

Ultimately, they ended 2021 with an average of 24.13 runs per wicket, their lowest in a calendar year since 1950.

The final innings a representation of the year

England would score just 68 runs in their second innings of the Boxing Day test match, with the side being bowled out just an hour and a half into day three.

Despite the disappointing score, their lowest in Australia since 1904, Root would still at least put up a challenge to an Australian bowling lineup who appeared to be taking wickets almost at will.

He would score 28 runs, 41 percent of their total. Even in an innings as poor as this one, it was still Root who did everything in his power to make it better than it could have been.

Four ducks, nine scores under 10, the openers combining for 12, and their four bowlers scoring just two.

It’s as if this innings was a miniature version of many of the matches they played throughout the year. Openers who often failed to get starts, a tendency for batters to not get past ten, Root scoring the bulk of England’s runs, and a tail that seems to not have the capacity to wag.

In what has been a dire year in terms of batting for England, that match capped it all off.

Where to next?

This question is the one ringing on the lips of everyone in English cricket, right from the man at the local pub all the way to coach Chris Silverwood to head of cricket Ashley Giles.

The truth is that there is not a simple or clear answer to this question, which is probably the most concerning thing.

Whilst there are a number of young cricketers performing well on the county scene, notably Sussex opener Tom Haines, many of their first-class averages do not even exceed 40.

14 batsmen or wicketkeepers played for England this year. They have tried alternatives upon alternatives. People who started the year are back for their second chance, and those who were recently dropped are likely in line for a call-up.

Unfortunately for England, they are currently in a position where as much as they want there to be one, there is no easy fix.

Apart from Root and Stokes they simply do not have the batters who have consistently proven that they belong on the test stage. Even Malan, who has had a reasonable Ashes series, has struggled to cement his spot in the past.

Unless some of their current players step up, or an unexpected prospect takes the test scene by storm, it could be a very long few years for England with the bat.

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