Babar So Really: England v Pakistan, Day one

The weather forecast for this Test is quite reasonable, so today’s curtailed play should hopefully be the exception rather than the rule for the remainder of the game.

What play did take place was something of a throw-back, at least in the first session.  England bowled well, Pakistan repelled all that was thrown at them.  The importance of opening batsmen who can soak up the pressure has been ignored all too often over the last few years in favour of assuming that Test cricket is the same as one day cricket, full of blazing strokes and where batting time is of lesser importance.  Shan Masood demonstrated the value of occupation of the crease.  He may be a relatively limited player, but that’s been of little consequence for many an opener who has gone on to a successful career.  Although Pakistan did lose a couple of early wickets he, in consort with Babar Azam saw Pakistan through to lunch at 53-2.  Barely over 2 runs an over, but unquestionably a fairly successful first morning in challenging batting conditions.

After lunch, things became easier.  England bowled poorly, Babar began to cut loose.  It’s intriguing to see articles written about how he should be considered the fifth member of the Test batting exceptionals, not because he isn’t worthy of being bracketed with those, but because the list invariably includes Joe Root, who hasn’t been performing at that kind of level for a couple of years now, and to many observers, isn’t even currently the best batsman in the England side.  Still, it might be nit-picking to make that observation instead of accepting Babar’s right to be considered in the upper echelons of Test batsmen at present, and he certainly looked the part today.

England did have chances to take a third wicket, firstly when Jos Buttler dropped Shan Masood off Dom Bess’s bowling.  For all the debate around Buttler’s place, his wicketkeeping has been perfectly acceptable for most of his time in the England team, and it is his batting that has been most under scrutiny.  The dropped catch can be put down to just one of those things – any keeper is disappointed when a fine edge goes down, but always for different reasons to those the non-wicketkeeping commentators state:  It’s a question of technique, not reactions, for no keeper reacts to edges when standing up, the ball hits the gloves before the brain is aware an edge has been taken.   The missed stumping he will be more annoyed with, for being hit on the shoulder with the batsman that far down the pitch tends to suggest he was caught watching the batsman rather than the ball – something he will work long and hard on avoiding at all costs.

Standing up to the spinners might be something we see a fair bit of this Test if day one is anything to go by.  Bess got reasonable turn and significant bounce from the start, which may well be of concern to an England team likely to be batting last, against a team who have selected two leg-spinners.  Whether the pitch quickens or dies over the coming days will define their effectiveness, but, forced to bowl spin by bad light, both Bess and Root looked mildly threatening on occasion in the short evening session.

Whether the light was poor enough for the umpires to have forced England to bowl spin in the first place is an open question and goes to the heart of the competing demands of professional sport – the potentially litigious nature of the modern world and the importance of duty of care, versus the requirement that play happens.  Cricket always seems to struggle with this – and too often gives the impression that being on the field is considered a nice to have rather than an imperative of the game.  All too often resumptions are leisurely rather than urgent, meaning there is scepticism in those circumstances there ought to be trust.  It appears to be a congenital problem afflicting the game in too many areas.  Yet the commentators by the end did state that even with floodlights it was rather dark, but going off for bad light on safety grounds when the fast bowlers are operating is one thing; doing so when the spinners are on is another matter altogether.  The defence is usually on the grounds of fairness, but it’s hard to see how that is any different to being put into bat on a green seamer or having to bowl in baking heat.  Unless the fielders are in danger, there’s little excuse for it.

With an unbroken third wicket partnership of 96, Pakistan are in decent shape going in to day two, and any total in excess of 300 has put the England of the last few years under significant pressure.  Choosing to bat may or may not have been a marginal call, but there enough observers urging the captain who won the toss to bowl to make it clear it can’t have been entirely clear cut.  As ever, day two gives a greater indication of where this game is going.

Don’t Like It But I Think I’m Learning – A Series Preview That Isn’t

Hello everyone. I haven’t even told the fab three that I’m doing this, so please forgive me.

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Because I love this picture….

 

I’ve been in a bad place for a month. It’s getting better, but there are bad days still. People are going through much worse than I am, but it pays to remember that we are all individuals and cope with things differently. Look after yourselves, and, wait for this coming from me, don’t get too angry with life. Mental wellbeing is a crucial thing, and frankly, I’ve not been looking after myself. For a lot of late June and early July, it was a dark place to be in, and nothing was worth it. I certainly had no time for the West Indies series.

That said, I am sort of coming around to cricket being played in this time, having first been violently opposed to it. I’m still the good boy who when working from home does not have the TV on, so I don’t get to watch much other than at weekends (and then I am out and about), the last series was interesting probably only because West Indies took a 1-0 lead. The real tensions around the last two, certainly as the games wore on, were weather induced and England got their bowling on track.

Pakistan are going to pose a significant test, certainly on paper they look as though they will be up for this, but it is going to take runs from the batsmen to do so, and yet again, there’s not a massive track record in England. I actually just remembered they played a couple of tests here two years ago, but then I should have, because it brought a fan favourite of mine from a NorthWest regional paper out to have a pop and tell us he was the font of all knowledge! But I must be kind. Let it never be said I don’t hold a grudge.

The guys kept the site going through my issues, for which I am grateful, but I am sincere in saying that I think my voice, and my views, are only really for the rear view mirror now. A different kind of influence is out there now, and it isn’t my belligerence and anger any more, even if it was only limited in its impact at the time. Am I happy about that? No. There’s too much wanting to get along with people who don’t share our interests at all, as if that works. Cricket boards are going to be financially stressed and playing domestic first class cricket just isn’t going to work any more. We will be seeing multitudinous T20 competitions (and less) to make up for the gaps. India, Australia and our Bastard Hundred will hog the lions share of the proper money. Test cricket will fade. I hope I am wrong. If it does, I’ll be long gone.

Some observations from the early coverage:

  • Bumble needs to be put out to pasture. Some of his sessions are embarrassing. The Tea break where he was eating sandwiches and drinking tea while Athers gave serious analysis seemed to this grump as an eff you to cricket fans. We aren’t here to be his audience for a comedy routine.
  • BBC highlights. Oh my god. The advantage of an hour to have your highlights is to show more than Sky’s hour show that has two advert breaks. Instead we start with up to 8 minutes of chat before you see a ball bowled, a review at lunch in a highlights show, and about 10 minutes of chat it seems at the end. Now, this might be masterful given the commentary line-up can consist of Send You To Sleep BBC Idol Cook, Tuffers, who, frankly, is stealing a living, and Vaughan. Now you all know how much I love dear Shiny, but he’s not the worst here. He’s not good, he’s still rent a view, but he’s got more to him than some. Yes, Carlos Brathwaite was surprisingly decent, and Isa Guha has to be eyeing some wider sports roles to take this job, but whoever put that highlights show together, start again. More cricket, a lot less bunny. Does anyone tune in to highlights programmes to watch the presenters babble on?
  • Fake crowd noise doesn’t bother me at all.
  • Rob Key is the most frustrating commentator out there. I’m not humourless, honestly I am not, but when he’s actually commentating he’s not bad. He’s got the hyperbole thing, but he also seems to spark off others in the team. You get that he’s a good colleague. Turn the blokey, chirpy stuff down a notch, Rob. You are good enough, you don’t need to be a comedian. More like Athers, less like Bumble.
  • Cricket twitter is busted beyond redemption. I just don’t understand what’s going on out there. I really don’t. I wouldn’t read another blog on cricket these days. What I think we have that others don’t, and it is certainly my ethos, is that I never wanted to be loved by the cricket establishment, I never wanted to tone down views because it might get me more clicks or “respect”, and while I had some decent drinks with some journos at times, I never felt they thought I wanted to be them, whereas too many out there do. I also never faked my anger. I still won’t. I’m not that angry any more, believe it or not, because there’s too much to be angry about, there’s not enough time. There are too many out there looking for praise, looking to be loved, and not enough out there willing to provoke or provide alternatives. Too many who write for their audience, and not for themselves. As I said, I’m yesterday’s man, my stuff was for a time, and for a purpose. It might be that style comes en vogue in the future. I doubt it. But today’s stuff tires me out. Are you cricket fans, or do you just want to be noticed?
  • I don’t get the love for Barney Ronay. I just don’t. But it might be he’s just doing football at the moment. I’m confused. I have been for six weeks.

OK. Three test series v Pakistan. Enjoy it those who love it. I hope you get out of it what you want. Thanks so much to West Indies and Pakistan for playing in it, and for the England players who are taking a lot on, regardless of how much they get paid, to do this. I respect them enormously for doing so, thus I can’t get rattled too much about Buttler being picked regardless, Stokes worship, who bats three, why Jimmy is playing, why Broad isn’t. It doesn’t really matter. For those who miss cricket, and want it, this is great and who am I to say it shouldn’t happen.

My Irish friend has just whatsapped to claim they are now World Champions. I won’t bite.

I hope the next few days are entertaining, the weather looks great down here, so hope it is up North, and I can leave you again in the capable hands of Sean, Danny and Chris who have not missed my output one bit. In fact, I feel quite cheeky writing this!

All the best.

And I forgot. The Test starts today, comments below.

Peter

Interview with a Vampire II: The Corona Wars

A little while ago, and due to a complete absence of knowledge on the subject, we posted an interview with noted Twitter user and professional gambler Innocent Bystander about gambling in cricket, and more widely across sport. Given all that has gone on over the last four months, it seemed a good time to revisit some of those issues and find out how life is for someone who doesn’t just watch live sport, but relies on it for his living. So inbetween the usual words of abuse that pass between us, he agreed to be asked some more questions about cricket, gambling and the future of both.

I began by asking him about the last few months, and how it has affected him, especially given his job:

“Well it pretty much shut down everything. No sport means no trading, and no trading means no income. It’s alright for those who get all that Rishi [Sunak – UK Chancellor of the Exchequer] money, but for the rest of us who got nothing, not so much. Fortunately I had some money saved to fall back on, but it was a long 3 months to say the least”.

Yep, this is sounding all too familiar to me as well. There has been an assumption in too many places that no-one has been left out, but it’s far from the truth. Normal life is one thing, but the nature of gambling being addictive on the one hand, and also offering the dream of a way out for those who are in financial distress led to troubling thoughts on several levels. It hasn’t been greatly discussed in the mainstream, but it must have been noticeable when sport returned that there was a rush to place bets, with a spike in income for the bookmakers. Problem gambling too hasn’t been highlighted in the lockdown period, but it is impossible to imagine that it all stopped in that period, so what happened and where did they all go?

“I probably chat about it most on Twitter, and the one thing about gamblers (professional or otherwise) there is that apparently no-one ever loses! It is always interesting how gambling gets put in with obesity, drinking and smoking as the vices that the government has to clamp down on. Roll all those in with the pandemic and the only headline that I was surprised not to see was gambling gives you coronavirus. Everything else seems to”

If the shutdown had a direct effect on gamblers, it clearly had just as big an effect on the gambling companies, and on the sports that are supported by, or even rely on them. Many governing bodies detailed the scale of their potential losses, and if in some instances the figures were inflated by counting all revenue sources to all levels of sport, it clearly had and is having an enormous impact. Sport has started to return, but behind closed doors, and the postponement of the test events with spectators present has removed that potential revenue stream for the time being at least. There has to be the suspicion that the relationship with gambling was behind the rapidity with which certain events were scheduled as soon as they were permitted:

“Well it’s been pretty obvious that a lot of sports were rushed back. Something like horse racing has always been primarily about gambling, and 10 over cricket was created pretty much entirely for the benefit of the betting industry – there was only so much virtual sports they could show to give people their fix! Remember that when the Cricketer ran their virtual cricket tournament, people were even trying to bet on that as well”

Ah yes, the 10 over cricket leagues. Last time we spoke Innocent Bystander predicted that these would grow in popularity around the world, and while no one could have imagined a global pandemic coming along to give that change a particular turbocharge, It’s interesting to see that among the first returning cricket has been the likes of the European Cricket League – amateur sport, televised and promoted. In a pure sporting sense, it’s been intriguing to watch a highly variable standard, but from a betting perspective, no one knew anything about the teams or players in advance. Given the sheer volume of money that has been wagered on the outcome, there must have been some serious research needed into who was playing and how they were likely to get on?

“It was certainly very surprising to see the volume of money traded on essentially amateur sport, but then it was the only show in town at the time, so with hindsight it probably wasnt a shock. I actually found assessing the quality of the participants relatively easy. The teams, players and tournaments had quite a lot of previous seasons statistics available online to review. So, with a little bit of work it produced a good return. Without giving too much away I tried to assess the strengths and weakness in each side, and rank each of them based on that. But you’d be surprised how much a teams odds could shorten just because they had a name that appealed to be people such as Zalmi or the Super Kings”.

Obviously there has been a great deal of controversy about the Cyprus event, did that surprise you (here I put in a note to be careful about what he said, on the grounds of not particularly wanting to receive a nasty letter from a lawyer)?

“What did surprise me was how blatant everything was. Nothing was subtle, and it’s been swept under the carpet pretty quickly by the league – the very next day they expelled the side involved and expunged their record from their website; then reforming with the remaining teams and a new schedule. The shocking thing for me was the lack of any kind of statement from the league – it doesnt exactly send out a message about the integrity of their competition, if anything it says the opposite.”

Everyone is wondering at what point things will return to normal, but the disruption across myriad industries raises questions as to whether change is transitory for the period of the pandemic, or whether long term changes are likely. Sport is perhaps one of the most visible industries there is, and given gambling is ancillary to that, I wondered how the longer term would look?

“The only real differences are the changes to the calendar and the behind closed doors nature of pretty much all of them for the immediate future. The fake crowd noise makes football watchable but in cricket the lack of variance in the level of the hum means it can be more irritating than helpful. As for things returning to normal, nothing gets there until the virus is suppressed and under control. I certainly wont be travelling to watch cricket anywhere else in the world for a while now”

As someone who works in the travel industry, this is the last thing I wanted to hear, albeit it’s not so surprising for many, but when it is said from someone who travels to watch England so frequently, it’s pretty depressing. It would also signal that supporters are likely to become even less important in the future, and the mere lip service they are paid at present will become even more the exception, in favour of the broadcasters.

“I probably need to flesh that out a bit – when I go to events I always book well in advance, get the best seats I can and stay at nice hotels. Now with all the uncertainty I cannot be sure that what I’m booking will end up happening. It might be postponed, or rearranged, even late on when there is a major financial penalty for any changes. I have been caught up in disruption in the past – the Mumbai bombings when I was booked into the Mumabi Taj Hotel meaning I had to rearrange to Mohali, and the 2010 T20 World Cup in the Caribbean where an Icelandic volcano decided to mess with all the flights. I had no family back then so it didn’t really matter that much being messed around – but with a 2 year old now I am less keen with last minute changes.

“I always used to joke that fans were an inconvenience to cricket authorities what with having to schedule events well in advance and stick to them – they would prefer it without those pesky fans getting in the way in grounds….”

I suspect that’s right, but if we move to a situation where fans won’t travel because of uncertainty, and governing bodies feel the freedom to change because fans aren’t travelling, it would likely signal the end of the kinds of mass following we have become used to seeing. The needs of travelling supporters have rarely been a priority, but they badly need to be now. Moving on, when last we talked, we discussed the whole matter of TV advertising, and since then there have been moves to remove pre-watershed live sports gambling commercials. Yet it doesn’t seem to have happened, so I asked what what was his understanding of the position there:

“To be honest I’m not too sure. I thought that football was banning adverts during matches but that doesnt seem to have taken place. In fact, it does seem to be wall to wall betting adverts again – only now they seem to have lost Ray Winstone’s large head…maybe that was the trade off! Either way, not much has happened, maybe there are only so many pressure groups headlines to go round”

As ever, my thanks to Innocent Bystander for being patient with my silly questions, and still not objecting to the titles I give these pieces – you can find him and follow him on Twitter @InnoBystander

It’s Chris Woakes Day. Oh Alright, Stuart.

As it turned out, the weather held off just long enough for England to take the last of the 8 wickets they needed to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 series win.  Only just, for mere moments after the final celebrations, the heavens opened.  Whether that downpour would have been enough to curtail play for sufficiently long to cause West Indian chagrin is a moot point, for there was a sense of inevitability about the steady procession of wickets and little in the way of meaningful resistance.  Jermaine Blackwood had a hint of permanence about him, but he too was swept away in a tide of wickets as Chris Woakes destroyed the middle order to finish with 5-50.  If ever there was a day to come up with a Michelle and still play second fiddle, this was it, for Broad took all of the others to fall to a bowler, including both his 500th Test victim and also the match-winning one.  The boy sure knows how to seize the limelight.

Much will be written about how this series was more about cricket being played at all, and the generosity of spirit in the West Indies team to come at all; they deserve the plaudits coming their way.  Despite local outbreaks, the Covid-19 situation is much improved from where it was when they agreed to tour, and while at present playing cricket seems an entirely reasonable activity, it was far from the case when they first accepted the invitation.  Cricket boards may have many reasons for acting the way they do, but individual players are the ones who walk the walk.  It isn’t just England who should be expressing their gratitude, it is all of sport, both here and abroad.  It may not be easy, and without spectators it may only be a facsimile of Test cricket, but all journeys begin with a single step.  That it was the West Indies players who took that first step should always be appreciated.

For the players involved, there were the usual winners and losers.  Stuart Broad himself performed the admirable feat of not only being highly vocal in his disappointment at being left out of the first Test, but of backing up his words to the point he was duly anointed Player of the Series despite missing a third of it.  He’s been a peculiarly under-appreciated player throughout much of his career, his exceptional spells where he can destroy any batting line up often seeming to lead to irritation about his performances the rest of the time rather than appreciation of the box office displays themselves.  Yet his record is a fine one, and more intriguingly, he appears, at 34, to be getting better.  The lengths are fuller, the line straighter, and the sense of danger when he’s bowling is palpable.  Perhaps now he is being accepted for what he has become, and with a career much nearer the end than the beginning, taken to heart as someone to be enjoyed while he’s still around.

For much of his career he has been the foil to James Anderson.  At last, it appears to now be the other way around.  He’s the main man in the England bowling attack, and revelling in the adulation.  And why the hell not?  The stratified heights of the 500 Test wicket bowling club is analysed in terms of bowling averages and strike rate, but in Broad’s case both are continuining to fall.   In the last two years his average has been under 21, and his strike rate a quite exceptional 41 balls per wicket.  At his age, it cannot continue forever, but it is something to be thoroughly admired for as long as it does.  Nor is it any kind of accident, for his awareness of his age led him to make adjustments to his run up and action in the hope of extending his career.  It seems to be working.

Ben Stokes topped the batting averages, a Test series coming of age in many ways, for although his performances had become notable over the last few years, this was the one where few could argue with the statement that he’s now England’s best batsman.  And not a bad bowler either.

He wasn’t alone in having a series to look back on with some pleasure.  The opening pair of Sibley and Burns both made consistent contributions, lending the first wicket partnership a sense of permanence that has been absent from England for quite some time.  Those who complained about the scoring rate missed the point spectacularly; there are plenty in the England batting line up who can score quickly, but their repeated exposure to the new ball in a side all too often reduced to 30-3 suppressed their own ability to score, and laid too much pressure on Root.  It would not be in the least surprising to see his performances with the bat pick up as a result.

Neither Burns nor Sibley are the finished product, nor are either likely at this stage to scare bowling attacks around the world.  Indeed, their struggles to find scoring areas against spin made it clear there is work to be done. That isn’t the point, stability is sufficient in this England side after a period of anything but.  And a word here for Joe Denly, who has likely played his last Test innings: his scores were ultimately insufficient to maintain a Test career, particularly at his age.  Nevertheless, against Australia last year and South Africa in the winter, he did at least set a template for occupation of the crease that seemed entirely out of keeping with the helter-skelter (and markedly unsuccessful) England approach of recent times.  He brought a sense of calmness to an innings that was refreshing in its rarity in the current age.  There is no disgrace at all in not being quite good enough to make it in Test cricket, for very few do.  To have been moved on having at least made some kind of mark is to have some satisfaction.

The jury remains well and truly out on Jos Buttler’s place in the side.  His score of 67 in the first innings of the Third Test may be sufficient to keep him involved for the time being in the series against Pakistan, but he must surely be running out of time to be the man in possession.  It’s all been so predictable, for his batting career in Tests is more or less what would be exprected from his batting career in all red ball cricket.  Bairstow (if he can sort out his technical flaws) and Foakes are too good to be left on the sidelines by an under-contributing rival.

For the bowlers, England have something of an embarrassment of riches, at least on paper.  Anderson is no longer the attack leader in anything but name, but he remains a highly potent weapon, even if one used more sparingly than in the past.  Archer, Wood, Curran and Stone offer variety and potency – it is a greater selection from which to choose than appeared likely a couple of years ago when the bowling stocks post-Broad and Anderson looked frighteningly bare.

And then there’s Chris Woakes.  It is always a temptation to note the weaknesses of a player rather than their strengths, and while his overseas record isn’t too special, his one at home is quite exceptional.  There’s nothing particularly wrong in noting that as part of an overall strategy.

For the West Indies, there were few batting pluses, and those there were are couched in a sense of frustration they weren’t greater.  Jermaine Blackwood, Shamarh Brooks, Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase, Shai Hope – all flattered to deceive, all looked like they could bat, all got themselves out when set.  Some are young and can improve, for some it’s likely this is just who they are.  For the West Indies to turn from being a competitive side into series winning one (overseas, in particular), they need to find a couple of batsmen who can suggest they will be around for more than a session.  It isn’t a plea for a world class one to come along – although they would doubtless be appreciative of that – but one who the others can learn from and bat around.  Ironic it may be, but perhaps they need a Joe Denly to set the tone.

They have the bowling.  If they ran out of steam by the third Test in quick succession with no rotation, it’s not too surprising, but they are a decent unit and complement each other well.  There is enough with which to work, and their team ultimately falling short this tour wasn’t down to the bowlers failing to perform, but the batsmen.

There is a danger of being patronising in approach when lauding the improvement of the West Indies, and they remain some distance from being good enough to be regular (or even semi-regular) victors abroad, but the difference now is that it does at least look like there is a plan and a strategy for getting there.  They may not succeed, but if now at the point where Caribbean cricket is making the most of the talent at its disposal, that is something.  There is not the sense of desperation at watching a West Indies team losing that has been present for all too many years.

The West Indies leave for home tomorrow, with gratitude and thanks, and doubtless with some relief on their part to be in a warmer environment than Manchester.  For England, an ODI series against Ireland follows before the Pakistan Test matches begin.  Some more cricket to watch, and a perhaps a better sense of where this England Test team are going and how they’re developing.  In April, this seemed like a pipe dream on so many levels.

 

England vs West Indies, 3rd Test, Day 3 – Is Broad Bowling?

England are in a dominant position overnight, and it seems like only the English weather can rescue the West Indies from an inevitable defeat. One man is essentially responsible for England’s ascendancy in this game: Stuart Broad.

The West Indies’ first innings ended pretty quickly, at least once Broad started bowling. He had been held back for the first few overs of the morning, perhaps being saved for the start of the next innings if England had managed to enforce the follow-on. Whilst Jason Holder and Shane Dowrich had a few scares, including Holder being given out before being recalled due to Chris Woakes’ second ever Test no ball, they looked set when Stuart Broad started. Four overs later, Broad had taken four wickets and the West Indies innings was over.

England’s second innings began with two injuries to the tourists. First was captain Jason Holder, who stopped a bouncing ball through the slips with his left thumb and had to leave the field briefly for treatment. The second, and significantly more serious injury, was to wicketkeeper Shane Dowrich. Some late swing after it passed the batsman meant that a quick, short delivery from Shannon Gabriel barely glanced the keeper’s gloves and was instead stopped by his unprotected face. A painful one to watch, and he immediately left the field for medical attention and didn’t return.

Fortunately for the West Indies, ICC changed the rules in 2018 to allow teams to bring in substitute wicketkeepers. Shai Hope stood in for a few overs before reserve keeper Joshua Da Silva came on the field for the rest of the day. He almost made an immediate impact, just failing to stump Rory Burns. Just on the evidence of today, I would say that he looks much more confident in terms of his glovework compared to Shane Dowrich. It’s unclear whhether Dowrich will be available to bat for the tourists in the next innings. One possibility, seeing as it was a head injury, is that he can be replaced in the batting lineup by Da Silva if Dowrich is exhibiting concussion symptoms. Otherwise, Dowrich will either have to face England’s bowling attack or the West Indies will forfeit his wicket.

This England innings represents the tenth of Rory Burns and Dom Sibley’s opening partnerships. When they are batting together at the start of an innings, they score an average of 43.00 runs for the first wicket. This is fantastic. To put this in context, the last England opening partnership of at least ten innings to average more than this was the Compton/Cook pairing in 2012-13. The one before that was Cook/Vaughan in 2007-08. The Cook/Strauss opening partnership of 2006-12 averaged ‘just’ 40.96. There are many people, including journalists and commentators, who are decrying their slow scoring rate. It is certainly slow, only Joe Root’s opening partnership with Alastair Cook in the 2013 Ashes has a lower run rate in recent times, but it is also working. Just last summer, England were averaging 16.66 for their first wicket at home. Since then, England are scoring an average of 43.75 runs before their first dismissal. Good starts are a rare and precious commodity for England Test teams in recent years, and they should not be sacrificed on the altar of playing attacking or attractive cricket.

When Dom Sibley did eventually lose his wicket for 56 (bringing his 2020 batting average to 57.44 from six Tests), the scoring tempo rose dramatically. Perhaps taking his cue from Stuart Broad yesterday, Joe Root went into white ball mode and managed to reach his half-century quicker than a run per ball. Eventually Rory Burns sacrificed his wicket on 90 trying a slog sweep in order to score more quickly, which led Joe Root to declare with England 398 runs ahead.

With Broad taking a six-fer in the first innings, all eyes were on him at the start of the second. He didn’t disappoint, taking John Campbell’s wicket in his first over drawing an edge to first slip. Nightwatchman Kemar Roach followed soon after. Between the end of the West Indies’ first innings and the beginning of their second, Broad took six wickets in seven overs today. It has been a truly remarkable Test for Broad, and he has the opportunity to cap it with a historic milestone as he currently sits on 499 career Test wickets.

Stuart Broad is also the top wicket-taker in this series so far with fourteen wickets so far. An impressive feat, considering the entire West Indies attack (and Dom Bess) have played an extra Test compared to Broad. Of those fourteen wickets, eight have been bowled or lbw. There is often consternation amongst England fans when England’s bowlers bowl short and wide, particularly at home or with the new ball. This series demonstrates why. Whilst some world-class batsmen would punish such a line and length, the vast majority of Test cricketers struggle against a seaming or swinging ball and deliveries going on to hit the stumps bring at least two forms of dismissal into play.

All eyes are on the weather forecast for tomorrow, with many people expecting a washout. In the form Broad is in right now, maybe he can even do something about that.

As always, please comment below.

England vs. West Indies, 3rd Test, Day 2 – Is Broad Batting

The rain did us all a favour today by deciding to head South rather than sit at its normal location which normally is right above Manchester and to be fair we’ve had a bonus day of good cricket, even if it was cut short abruptly by the Umpires.

England will naturally be the happier team right now even if they were hoping for a bigger score than 369 all out, though they would have bitten your hand off for that score at 280-8 after a significant collapse against the new ball. It is always hard starting again when the bowlers are fresh and have a new ball in their hand and it has to be said that the West Indies bowled superbly for the first half hour; however that being said it was a real shame that neither Buttler or Pope could go on and make a match winning hundred after the graft they put it yesterday. When Woakes and then Archer also went cheaply, the former is really struggling for form with the bat and the latter looks more and more like a number 11, the hearts of most England fans would have sunk. Enter Sir Stuart Broad.

This was not an innings for the purists to say the least and the time when Stuart Broad could be potentially viewed as an allrounder are long gone, but on my was it effective. Whilst Dom Bess played patiently as a proper batsman, Broad was given licence to have a swipe and swipe was exactly what he did with some great and then some fairly fortuitous shots to the boundary. It’s a real shame that Broad is unable to replicate the batting talent he had as a young cricketer, after all he has a higher Test score than a certain Mark Waugh; however when he bats, people watch. He may come off only once a series, but when he does, it certainly is compulsive viewing. England are just mighty glad that it was in this game that Broad managed to come off with the bat otherwise they’d be rueing another costly collapse.

So the West Indies, who had originally thought they’d be chasing under 300, looked pretty deflated when they came off the field and it showed in their batting. The sad thing is that I don’t England bowled all that well, except for Broad’s and Anderson’s spells after tea, which is a weird thing to say when they have a side 137-6. After getting the dangerous Brathwaite out early, England bowled far too short allowing the woefully out of form duo of Hope and Campbell to settle in nicely. Ironically it was a nasty bouncer by Jofra Archer that finally got rid of Campbell and allowed England to open the door. Anderson and Broad then took charge straight after tea, with the former bowling 2 unplayable deliveries that the batsmen did well to nick and the latter celebrating an LBW with an outrageous celebrappeal and probably a trip to the Match referees office too. Blackwood and Holder then looked to gain some semblance of momentum back for the West Indies before the former decided to go for an overambitious drive from a good ball from Chris Woakes that nipped back off the seam.

So we head onto Day 3 with a decent forecast and already talk of declaration speculation, especially as Monday could well be a total write off with the weather. I suspect England will bat again even if they do bowl the West Indies out short of the follow on target, but they probably won’t be hanging about knowing the forecast for Monday and wanting at least a day to bowl at the West Indian batsmen a second time.

One major moan though has to be the continued insistence of the umpires coming off for bad light at around 6pm each night. I even joked that they must have room service booked for 6:15pm every night. The light was murky but no way was it dangerous and we have also invented these crazy new things called floodlights to keep the game going. It’s crazy that in this day and age that we allow cricket to keep shooting itself in the dick and if the light is going to be a problem, start the damn Test half an hour earlier! The umpires are probably grateful that there aren’t any fans in the ground, because if you’d have paid the best part of £70 for the day, you’d be mighty pissed off at seeing the players trudge off the ground with the floodlights standing there. Anyway, slight rant over.

As ever do feel free to share your thoughts on the game or anything else below:

Add the Buttler to the Popery

A pretty good opening day from England, and one that seemed unlikely mid-way through the afternoon when Rory Burns was (superbly) caught by Rahkeem Cornwall to leave England 122-4.  Not tottering as such, but having left out a batsman to account for Ben Stokes’ questionable bowling fitness, certainly vulnerable to subsiding to an inadequate score.  Having put England into bat, four wickets in the day is a mean return for the tourists, who looked somewhat jaded with the ball with the notable exception of Kemar Roach, a threat throughout.  Indeed, Shannon Gabriel left the field in the morning, causing considerable alarm bells to ring.  He returned, and bowled, but without real fire or penetration, though nominally up to his normal pace.  Three back to back Tests is a real ask for any bowler, and while the first day tells little about the remainder of the game, it could be that the lack of rotation will cost them dear.

If there’s a certainty about cricket, it is its ability to level players, and thus it was that Dom Sibley, after his century heroics at Old Trafford, found himself plumb in front at Old Trafford, for a duck.  A rather lazy run out accounted for Joe Root and Ben Stokes was removed in spectacular style by a superb delivery from Roach, swinging in, seaming further and bowling him through the gate.  It’s too trite to suggest that it required something of that order to get rid of Stokes, exceptional though he has been, but it hasn’t been a feature of his game in a while to be so thoroughly beaten playing a defensive shot.

That wicket was the high point of the West Indies day.  Ollie Pope joined Burns and after the latter’s dismissal it was Jos Buttler, under serious pressure for his place, who came to the middle.  When bad light caused an early end to play, the pair had added 135 runs for the 5th wicket and were looking increasingly at home.  Buttler is the intriguing one – his performances have been sub-par not just in Test cricket, but in all red ball cricket, with few signs he was coming to grip with it.  The English game has changed to the point where a strong county record isn’t necessarily required in order to develop into a Test cricketer, albeit it’s a significant help to have a decent record to fall back on.  No, in Buttler’s case it isn’t just that his county record doesn’t suggest he’ll make himself into a Test batsman, it’s that his Test career hasn’t suggested he’ll make himself into a Test batsman.  It’s not unreasonable to suspect that this match was his last chance, Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow are too good to be ignored forever.

56 not out isn’t a career saver by any stretch of the imagination – or shouldn’t be, but it is a solid foundation on which to build.  When his notable scores have been so few and far between, there’s no reason to think either that he’s suddenly cracked it, but credit needs to be given where it is due; he started carefully before unleashing a few shots as his confidence increased.  His technique did look tighter than normal, and his judgement outside off-stump much improved.  Who is to say what will happen tomorrow or beyond, but he batted well.

Ollie Pope has had a fairly dry series so far, but today he looked outstanding.  His supposed similarity to Ian Bell seems to be based on his stature as much as anything, but his cover drive is also an attractive shot, and he is busy at the crease, turning over the strike and scoring at a comfortable pace.  In his interview after play he didn’t sound like a man struggling at being left in the nervous nineties overnight, his entire demeanour is one of confidence, boding well for the future.

Rakheem Cornwall’s selection excited much comment before play.  There are a few issues here, his size certainly is going to be noticed, but what was less talked about was his ability.  His record is an impressive one, and while he doesn’t have a particularly active action, he also managed to turn the ball before lunch on day one.  He wasn’t overly threatening, but not many spinners are at the start of a match on a fresh pitch, but he was controlled, and at 6’6″ clearly has the added weapon of getting significant bounce.  We will have to wait and see how he performs in the second innings on a more worn surface, but the dismissiveness in some quarters before seeing him was neither fair nor reasonable.

What can be said is that it’s very hard to imagine England selecting a player with his physique, irrespective of ability.  Cricket is certainly a game of fitness, but it is more a game of skill.  The immediate suggestions on commentary that he would be improved as a player by losing weight were troubling, partly because it ignores the person, partly because it is faintly patronising about his talent, and partly because it implies that fitness is an aim in itself for a spinner rather than one factor of many.  It is perhaps true, but it is not so self-evident it can pass unchallenged.

England are by no means out of sight, and the thin batting order means that falling in a heap in the morning is far from out of the question.  But today was a good day, one player continuing to the look very much the part as a Test cricketer, and one hoping to remain one.  The West Indies haven’t had a great last couple of sessions, and do look flat, but day two is usually the day to define the rest of the Test, and both teams are in this one.

England vs West Indies, 3rd Test – Preview

Just a few days ago, England looked like they would fail to win the series and regain the Wisden Trophy. Now, you’d have to say they must be considered clear favourites to overcome their loss in the first Test and come out victorious again at Old Trafford.

The key difference between the two teams in this game is their bowling attacks. England have a choice from six pace bowlers for three available slots, assuming Stokes and Bess both play. None of the six have played in back-to-back Tests in this series and so should be fit and raring to go. If anything, there is too much choice for the England camp. Woakes and Broad both bowled superbly in the last game, and so it would be incredibly harsh to leave either of them out, but selecting both would mean only picking one of Anderson (at his home ground) and Archer. The suggestion has been floated that England might forgo playing with a specialist spinner altogether, instead opting for an all-pace attack with Root as a stand-in spin option. I personally can’t see it happening, but it would certainly be interesting to watch.

For what it’s worth, I would pick Archer, Bess, Broad, Stokes and Woakes for this Test, from the announced matchday squad. Broad and Woakes demonstrated their ability in Mancunian conditions last week, taking 11 wickets at a combined average of 16.73. Archer and Stokes are, for me, the most challenging two English bowlers with the older ball. That would mean leaving out Jimmy Anderson (587 career Test wickets, has a stand at Old Trafford named after him), Sam Curran (Makes Things Happen) and Mark Wood (By far the least effective England bowler so far in this series).

England’s batting lineup will continue unchanged from the second Test. This is unsurprising, as they have been very effective so far in 2020. Their top six of Sibley, Crawley, Stokes, Pope and at least two of Root, Burns and Denly have combined to lead England to innings totals over 400 four times in the last eight Tests, plus 391/8 declared in Cape Town. To put this achievement into context: From the 2017/18 Ashes to the 2019 Ashes, in twenty-six Test matches, England managed to reach 400 runs only three times.

For the tourists, the picture is somewhat less rosy. Having chosen to play an unchanged side in the second Test, the West Indies must now either pick a bowling attack which must feel dead on their feet or select their less experienced or skillful backup bowlers. As for their batting, opener John Campbell and scourge of Headingley Shai Hope have failed to impress so far in this series with averages below twenty.

All of which is to say that I think the West Indies have a mountain to climb in this game. That said, England have shown themselves fully capable of shooting themselves in the foot in the past and it would be a fool to underestimate (or call mediocre) any Test team who faces them.  The previous two Tests have developed into last-day thrillers, and it would be wonderful if tomorrow’s game completes that set, whoever wins.

As always, please comment below.

The Fifth Day Element

Well, that wasn’t a bad old day, was it?

There are some things that are tiresome to keep repeating, yet repeat them we must.  For yet again, a Test match went deep into the final session of the final, fifth day,  and those who continually lobby for four day Tests should again be hiding their faces.  They won’t of course – they stay completely silent on these occasions where their chosen affectation looks absurd. And nor is it any excuse to say the same applies in reverse to those who oppose shortening the game when it doesn’t go that far.  It’s not remotely the same, for we all know that Tests can finish in short order sometimes, it’s that it removes the option when they don’t that is the objection.

Losing a day’s play to rain, as happened here, would have killed off a four day Test completely.  All that we saw over the last two days wouldn’t have happened; Stuart Broad rattling through the West Indies batting, Ben Stokes launching himself into the role of opener in a way that Ed Smith dreamed  of Jason Roy achieving.  It wasn’t normal, no, but it was fun.

From the latter part of day four, it seemed inevitable that England would win the game, one way or another, not because of the overwhelming dominance of their position as much as the feeling that the West Indies were swimming against the tide.  They were ragged in the field this morning, faced with a Stokes assault, but they’re not the first team to fall apart when being pummelled to all parts of the ground by a fully liberated batting order.  If England’s plan was to leave themselves 85 overs to take ten wickets and dangle a slight carrot in front of the West Indies batsmen, it was slightly undermined by the pace of scoring that meant instead of a challenging but gettable 280 to win, it had become an extremely steep 312.

For a brief period in the West Indies 2nd innings when Brooks and Blackwood were together for a partnership of 120, there may have been thoughts of a truly special run-chase, but unless a team falls over completely, there’s usually a partnership in all doomed pursuits that raises hopes, only for them to be extinguished.  It was little more than a mild consideration to note it needed to continue for another couple of hours for there to be any genuine prospect of an upset.

It’s not to say the West Indies batted especially badly, but England unquestionably bowled well enough when it mattered.  It’s easy enough to fall into the trap of criticising England’s opponents as the justification for England’s victories, but it shouldn’t be a reason to forego the credit due to the likes of Stuart Broad – who had a point to prove, and did so – and Sam Curran, forever damned with faint praise by those who would focus more on what he can’t do than what he can.  As for Stokes, he chimed in with key wickets to add to his runs in both innings.  He’s England’s best batsman over the last year, England’s key slip catcher, and the bowler to whom they turn when nothing is going right.  Inevitable comparisons to other all rounders in the global game can be ignored for the time being; for this England team he’s a special player, and possibly the only one who is truly feared for what he can do.

The teams will stay at Old Trafford for the Third Test beginning on Friday, which leaves some interesting selection decisions.  Jason Holder’s post-match comments indicated that, if possible, the tourists would retain the same bowling attack, but England’s policy of rotation is going to come under considerable scrutiny.  Stokes appeared to tweak a muscle at the conclusion of the Test, and while he’ll surely play purely as a batsman if not fit to bowl, it does change the team balance somewhat.  If Bess as spinner is retained and England play with four rather than five bowlers, then Anderson, Archer, Wood, Broad, Woakes and Curran are all pushing for the three seam bowling places.  Dropping Broad might add comedy value, given the likely explosion of rage following his performances this week, but it seems he is the one bowler who ought to be confident of retaining his place.  Beyond that, there will be some extremely nervous bowlers.

We’ve had two fairly decent Tests, and we’re lucky enough to have a decider.  There are flaws in both of these teams, but whatever the outcome of the series, the West Indies are in better shape on the field than they have been for some years.  That it is a shadow of the great teams of yore is to ignore the progress they have made in terms of personnel and leadership.  Their record overseas may be a poor one, but they’re being competitive in England.  That is pleasing to see.  Perhaps it is true that we are so delighted to see cricket, and Test cricket in particular, return that we may make allowances that in other circumstances wouldn’t be granted.  So be it if that’s the case, there is time enough for that to revert to normal.

 

England vs. West Indies – 2nd Test, Day 4 – “One Of Those Spells”

There is a serious danger of this blog becoming a Stuart Broad fan site. For essentially the first five hours of play, this Test match was seemingly drifting towards an inevitable draw. Then Broad took the second new ball and ripped through the West Indian middle order and the game was not wide open, but at least still in play.

The first hour seemed promising for England fans, with at least two clear wicket-taking opportunities going to (and through) the slip cordon. Eventually, it was Bess who managed to dislodge yesterday’s nightwatchman with a sharp catch from Ollie Pope at short leg. England fans hoped that this would start an avalanche of wickets, but that didn’t come to pass. The flow of chances seemingly dried up, with wickets falling sporadically but without the  tourists looking overly troubled as they meandered towards avoiding the follow-on.

England took the new ball with the West Indies on 235/4, apparently set to comfortably bat out the rest of the day. What happened instead was Stuart Broad dragging England back into contention with three wickets in four overs. Two lbws and a bowled show the importance (as ever) of bowling at the stumps, although Broad was certainly helped by the new ball eliciting variable bounce which left the tourists unsure whether to go forwards or back to his deliiveries.

Woakes continued Broad’s good work, taking the final two wickets of the innings, but it was too late for England as perennial thorn-in-England’s-side Roston Chase scored the runs which took the West Indies past their follow-on target, forcing England to bat again.

Ben Stokes left the field apparently holding his side early in the evening session. Given that he bowled an 11-over spell, largely consisting of bouncers, it wasn’t much of a surprise, but fortunately for England it was apparently just indigestion. He returned to the field not long later, and was called upon to serve as a pinchhitting opener when England’s second innings began.

Stokes’s opening partner was Jos Buttler. He was bowled for a duck, getting an inside edge on a short and wide delivery which cannoned into his stumps. Whilst it may be unfair to read anything at all into a Test batsman’s performance in such circumstances, it does bear mentioning that the two situations he faced in this Test are supposed to be his strengths. In the first innings, he came in with England on 352/5. In that scenario, Buttler is supposed to score runs quickly (using his undoubted white ball prowess) and put pressure on the opposition without taking time out of the game. Instead, he scored 40 from 79 balls. Understandable restraint, given that his continued selection has been questionable for a while now and he needs a big score to secure his place in the side, but arguably not what was needed by his team. In the second innings, when he could essentially treat the game like the shorter formats in which he thrives, he simply mishit a short, wide ball from Kemar Roach which was there for the taking. It may beg the question: If Jos Buttler won’t deliver for England in the exact circumstances that he is supposed to thrive in, what is the point of picking him at all?

England’s batting order reset after the experimental opening duo of Stokes and Buttler, with regular number three Zak Crawley scoring a quickfire 11 before being bowled by Kemar Roach. Regular number 4 Joe Root then came to the crease, in the too-familiar situation of England being 17/2. He and Stokes managed to see out the day, with England finishing on 37/2.

This all means that England are currently 219 runs ahead, with 98 overs scheduled for tomorrow because of yesterday’s rain. England need to win the game in order to regain the Wisden Trophy and avoid drawing their second consecutive home Test series and so, if that is a priority, we might expect a fairly early declaration tomorrow. If England managed to score 50 runs in the first 40 minutes, for example, that would leave the West Indies chasing 270 runs in 86 overs at a minimum of 3.14 runs per over. The later England leave it, and the more the West Indies can restrict the scoring rate, the greater the chance of the tourists rescuing (or even winning) this game.

After a rather dull first couple of sessions, Stuart Broad really rescued England and leaves us going into tomorrow’s play with all three results still on the table. Test cricket is great.

As always, please leave your comments below.