Clap Along If You Feel Like A Room Without A Roof….. The Third Test Ends

The team who write this labour of love sometimes get together to set out the strategic direction this blog should take. They are painfully infrequent, we haven’t all attended one meeting at the same time, and they usually descend into reminiscing about our bad playing days (or in the case of Chris, slightly better). Strategic direction is determining who is purchasing the next round. But on one thing we all agree. We are, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, ’til death, boredom or editorial differences do us part, The BAD NEWS BLOG.

A test like Port Elizabeth isn’t our remit. It isn’t what we are read for. Whether we like it or not. When good things happen, and they have for England, there’s no sense looking for a dark cloud when there isn’t one there.

Like all of you out there, we know the problems with the way cricket is run, the future for counties, the idiotic pursuit of four day cricket, where the public is being gaslighted, should that be a word, by muppets still exist. It’s not gone away because England have summarily dismissed a team that beat them well three or so weeks ago. The fault lines haven’t disappeared due to hugely promising performances by Ollie Pope and Dom Bess, to name two. The rancour and bitterness can be put away for another day to recognise the skills of Ben Stokes, and the return of Mark Wood. Hell, we can even consider Ed Smith on another day when the team now looks like it has something to build upon.

England started the day needing four wickets, and got them before lunch. Sure, there was a breezy 99 run last wicket partnership to set off curmudgeons and bores on Twitter raving on about team over individual performances, but the result wasn’t in doubt unless it rained, and it didn’t until it was too late. Root did not get his five-for, which seemed to be upsetting people that he should actually go for it, but it was neither here nor there. It amazes me that people like Selvey could get that wound up about THIS, but on 2014 he was but a supportive flower, appealing to everyone’s better nature for the saker of England. Root trying to achieve something he will probably never do again… Hang him, flog him! The priorities and things that they get concerned about will never be understood by this mere blogger.

England won by an innings and whatever. They are 2-1 up in the series. They have turned around a difficult start to look very good in their last two outings. Much will be focused on the home side’s inadequacies, but inadequate teams have beaten England before, and will again. What we are seeing is development, and yes, I like it. I thought Sibley looked out of his depth, but I was massively impressed by that hundred in Cape Town, not least he didn’t get to a hundred and pack it in. I think Zak Crawley is growing into the game, he’s nowhere near there yet, but persevere with him, please. There is no need to call back Keaton Jennings. None. Joe Denly is now mentioned as someone to drop, when he continues to blunt attacks and occupy the crease. Sure he’s not someone who should be an automatic choice, but he’s hardly letting the side down at the moment. And a word of caution on Ollie Pope. This will, I hope, be the first of many, but he’s still a work in progress, and I would caution patience. He’s going to go through a trot of some very bad looking dismissals in his career.

Someone else can comment on bowling. As a former very bad batsman, I am now qualified. All I know is that there is healthy competition. You can’t help but want Mark Wood to do well (I loved that catch yesterday off Root, the sort all club cricketers can relate to, the climbing the ladder hamstrung by your own relationship with gravity….). Archer’s elbow is a cause for concern, so rest it some more if you aren’t 100% sure. But this is for another day.

From my angle this wicket was part of test match cricket’s rich tapestry. Wickets had to be earned, scoring wasn’t easy unless you were very well set. The bowlers got something out of it, half of the hosts wickets falling to spin speaks volumes. There were excellent hundreds, and yet wickets could fall. I think, sometimes, we react to quickly to this stuff, but also recognise that other opinions are available and valid.

So on to Johannesburg. There’s already talk of quicker pitches, not picking a spinner, playing the surface, not the opposition. Stuff that. I think for this England team it’s imperative we bat first – I have a lot more faith in them doing that than responding to any sort of total – and that we make runs. They are already talking about leaving out a spinner and playing five seam bowlers. I genuinely hope not.

But, in conclusion, it has to be said, I liked this win. I liked how the team played. I like a fair number of the players within it, and I am genuinely happy how they got this win in a rain-affected match on a slow wicket. It’s nice. But as always, let’s act like we’ve been there before, let’s know that a poor performance could be just around the corner, and let’s not poll this as “greatest away win ever” as the BBC did for something that happened very recently.

England won’t lose in South Africa again. That’s a good record dating back to the Leather Jacket tour. Away wins, however they come, are good. This one made me happy. So clap along….. and ask yourself, if your room didn’t have a roof, wouldn’t you be mad? Especially when it rained this afternoon in PE!

SA v England, 3rd Test: Day Four – Spiralling Down

There is a long standing tendency in some quarters to never give England any credit for their successes – it’s always that the opposition have been poor, or missing players, or some other conspiracy causing the freak outcome of England winning a game, or God help everyone, a tournament.  It’s not just a cricket thing either, it can be any sport at all, where any achievement can only be explained by a confluence of freak events to change the right and proper outcome that any team but England should win.  Naturally, the idea of England winning anything is an unpopular one around the world from their rivals, so it’s unsurprising enough, but no less tiresome in its repetitiveness.

Weather permitting, England will win this match and go into a 2-1 series lead with one to play.  Indeed, no-one should ever refrain from reminding those who wish to shorten the Test game that the rain over the last two days would have likely caused this match to end in a draw.  England have been much the superior side from the start, and have shown promising signs of understanding how to build a Test total and exploit that subsequently.  They have had the advantage of winning the toss (again), and the best of the conditions, but they have made use of their advantage well, both with bat and ball.

With that said, and paying all due respect to England’s display, it cannot be denied that South Africa have been poor all game, and utterly woeful today.  The truncated morning session saw the last 4 first innings wickets fall for a single run, with a succession of dreadful shots that re-defined the description “loose”, and a lack of application that in the circumstances astounded.  The pitch surface has remained slow, the bounce continues to be fairly even with relatively little sideways movement, and while South Africa have been outplayed, a draw was far from out of the question, particularly so given the poor weather forecast, which might still come to the hosts rescue despite a day as abject as even the worst South African pessimist might have feared.

The principal members of the England attack bowled well enough to be rewarded with wickets, that it was Joe Root who proved to be the nemesis for the South African order with his Test best bowling figures is a serious indictment on their own performance.  One or two batsmen can feel they were got out – the look of complete confusion on Dean Elgar’s face as his off stump cartwheeled out of the ground was a picture – but most dismissals were either soft or reckless, Quinton De Kock falling very much into the latter camp twice in the day.

It remains a curious truth that being out to a defensive shot is often forgiven more than when dismissed to an attacking one, but so many of the attempted defensive strokes were sufficiently poor in thinking and execution that in themselves they will have infuriated the supporters and coaching staff alike.  Which is unfortunate on two counts, firstly that it does take away somewhat from the praise England are due, but also that having adopted a thoroughly defensive approach to their second innings, to fail to manage the basics is extremely poor.  The collapse in the morning session ensured that any realistic prospect of batting long enough to overhaul England’s first innings and take time out of the game that way, but it remained a strange approach to saving the game all round, making De Kock’s dismissals in particular look even worse.

Saving the match isn’t out of the question if it rains heavily, but in truth South Africa just don’t deserve the kind of luck that would involve.  Had England played in the same way (and they have done on many occasions in recent years), the fury would have been palpable and justified.  England do deserve the credit coming their way and don’t always receive it when they should do.  But today was a dreadful, appalling performance from the home team, one that deserves the opprobrium they will locally receive.  To that extent, it’s a pity, because England have (whisper it) shown one or two signs of learning this series.  Yet it can’t be denied that today in particular was more about one side giving up than the other exerting its superiority.  One sided cricket is rarely engaging, and if England exhilarated in their catching at times – Pope in particular – all too often they merely had to wait for the error that invariably came.  Faf Du Plessis made no excuses afterwards for their performance, which is to his credit, and the wider problems of South African cricket are well known.  But it was a batting performance that fundamentally lacked pride, and for any observer, that is the one thing they won’t forgive.

 

South Africa vs. England, 3rd Test, Day 3 – The Conditions Strike Back

With South Africa 208-6 and still needing 91 runs to avoid the follow on, England can still win this Test; however as more time is taken out of the game with tomorrow’s forecast looking less than clever alongside a dud pitch, a draw is where the smart money now lies.

England started the day looking for quick wickets and indeed got them with Dom Bess taking 3 wickets to add to his 2 yesterday evening to leave South Africa 109-5 and in a bit of strife; however that’s when the weather gods intervened wiping out the whole of the afternoon session and reducing the momentum that England had created in the first session. South Africa then batted resolutely aided and abetted by some woeful English fielding including five dropped catches to end the day looking fairly comfortable on what is a stick dog of a wicket. Naturally praise should also be given to first De Kock and then Philander, with the former the beneficiary of England’s careless fielding and the latter looking in pretty good form against England’s full time and part time spin merchants after the umpires decided it was too dark for any of England’s quicks to bowl. The most praise however should go to Anrich Nortje who batted as determinedly as any front line batsmen and kept England at bay for well over a 100 balls. I haven’t seen as good a job done as a night-watchman since well Jack Leach, but that was in a very different situation. The fact that he looked as happy as Angus Fraser chewing a wasp in doing so was even better!

As for England, Dom Bess aside, they toiled in what were less than ideal conditions for bowling. Wood bowled with fire but was naturally held back by Root bearing in mind that he could break down at any moment, Broad bowled ok and Curran was again disappointing, showing that the latter needs a lot of work if he is going to be successful in the Test arena in unhelpful conditions. Stokes came on and immediately got the wicket of the tiring Nortje leading many to question why he hadn’t be bowled earlier with the simple answer that he is not a workhorse bowler and certainly not someone we can afford to injure by bowling him too much. England were always going to leave themselves in somewhat of a conundrum by picking both Wood alongside Stokes as you wouldn’t want either of them shouldering the brunt of the bowling for fear of injuring either of them.

England’s best performer was naturally Dom Bess, who bowled some good lines and with a few different variations to ensure that the South African batsmen could never relax when facing him. There is no doubt he deserved his first five wicket haul for England and could have had a couple more if it wasn’t for the butter fingered English slip corden. England though might have a conundrum approaching with Dom Bess in the near future mind, as Bess is most definitely 2ndchoice to the spin bowler who has had unfortunately been sent home due to a horrid illness – Jack Leach, who Joe Root clearly doesn’t fancy much. With Moeen’s self-selected exile and his ‘woe betide me’ PR campaign splitting many England supporters as much as his inclusion in the team, it is quite possible that England’s first choice spinner might not have played any first team cricket by the time the first series of the summer comes around. If I were Dom Bess, I would be on the phone with my agent trying to secure a new club over the winter and for England’s sake a move to somewhere like Yorkshire could be beneficial for all concerned.

A quick word on the pitch, which I will kindly refer to as substandard. I don’t like to give groundsmen a hard time as their job is a difficult one especially in changeable conditions; however this pitch is a sticky dog of a wicket and one that is totally unacceptable for Test Cricket. There is nothing there for the quick bowlers and whilst there is spin, it is generally slow spin which gives the batsmen plenty of time to play against the turning ball. It is also not an easy pitch to score runs, hence much of the play could be classed as turgid throughout these 3 opening days. Now of course the pitch could change in Day 4 or Day 5, which is the beauty of 5 day Test Cricket, but it does seem somewhat unlikely and instead we could be in for 2 more days of attritional cricket, weather permitting.

So if England are going to win this, then we’re going to have to hope that the weather forecast for Port Elizabeth is wrong tomorrow and that the new ball can conjure something a bit different from what we have seen recently; otherwise Day 5 could be nothing more than an irrelevance.

As always thoughts and opinions on the game much appreciated.

South Africa v England: 3rd Test, Day 2 – The New Pope

At the end of Day 1, this game was in the balance. 224-4 was a solid foundation, but one we England fans have seen the team collapse from several times in recent years. Instead, Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope both made impressive hundreds as England took charge of this game and potentially the series too.

The day began later than normal, after a rain shower delayed the start of play. The South Africans probably wish the rain lasted quite a bit longer though, as Stokes and Pope absolutely dominated the bowlers. The pitch seemed better to bat on than the previous day, as perhaps the rain had left the pitch a little quicker whilst still not generating any movement from the pace bowlers. Even so, it was a very impressive batting from the pair, and they made it all of the way past Lunch before Stokes eventually hit one in the air to point.

Stokes’ batting in the past year has been absolutely tremendous. Since the start of 2019, he is England’s top Test runscorer with 1060 at an average of 50.47. Not only that, he looks like a ‘proper’ Test batsman when he’s at the crease. Confident and assured, making smart decisions, and being able to play both a counter-attacking and dominating innings depending on the situation. His bowling is, at this point, basically a bonus. In this innings he passed 4000 Test runs, and you wouldn’t necessarily bet against him doubling that in his career.

If Stokes has had a great year in the Test team, the next batsman in has had an anus horribilis [sic]. Jos Buttler came in, scored one run and then chipped the ball tamely back to Maharaj for a simple caught and bowled. Since the start of 2019, Buttler has scored at an average of just 24.13, playing in 8 of those 12 Tests as a specialist batsman rather than wicketkeeper. This marks a huge drop off from his initial comeback in 2018, where he averaged 44.70 from 10 Tests. I have no idea what might have caused such a huge drop in form, but it’s increasingly difficult for him to justify his place in the side for the next series in Sri Lanka.

Fortunately for England, the tail weren’t as loose as Buttler with their batting. Helped by the tired bowling and older ball, not to mention Pope’s batting, Curran and Wood both added quickfire 40s which really crushed the hopes of a South African win. Wood’s innings in particular was a joy, with him being given out caught before being reprieved by Rabada being shown to have overstepped the bowling crease in the delivery.

What made this even more delightful for English fans and neutral observers is that Root declared on the fall of the wicket, before rescinding his declaration when the dismissal was reversed. As some have pointed out, this technically would be against the laws of the games which clearly state that: “A captain shall notify the opposing captain and the umpires of any decision to declare or to forfeit an innings.  Once notified, the decision cannot be changed.” Not for the first time in the past year, England have been fortunate with umpiring going in their favour.

Pope and Wood added another 31 runs before South Africa finally managed to dismiss Wood. On a day of milestones, perhaps the most important will end up being Ollie Pope’s 135*. His first Test century, this innings also pushes his career Test average to 51.85. This makes him the only English batsman with a Test average of over fifty since Ken Barrington’s last game in 1968. (Joe Root’s average fell below fifty in the West Indies last year, and sadly doesn’t look in danger of regaining that milestone on recent form) It’s obviously ridiculously early for such comparisons, but this innings by Pope was impressive for someone so young.

England’s spell in the field field did not start well. Stuart Broad and Sam Curran both failed to make any chances with the new ball, and it wasn’t until Dom Bess and Mark Wood came in that the South African batsmen seemed in any peril. Wood’s quick bowling caused real issues for the South African batsmen, causing edges and blows to the body, but Bess took the wickets. First a caught and bowled by Malan, followed by a bat and pad to short leg by Hamza.

The day ended a little early due to another shower, with South Africa still 439 runs behind on 60/2. It’s been a hugely impressive performance by the English batsmen, and now England have to hope that the rain stays away long enough to take the 18 remaining wickets they need.

As always, feel free to comment on the game or anything else below.

South Africa v England: 3rd Test, Day 1 – Flat

Pancakes. Flounders. Spare tyres. None of these things are as flat and soft as the pitch this Test is being played on in Port Elizabeth.

The bounce has been slow, restricting both scoring and wicket-taking opportunities, and there’s been virtually no sideways movement to trouble the batsmen. All of which made Joe Root’s decision to bat after winning the toss this morning a very simple one. You do have to feel sorry for du Plessis though, because this marks the sixth consecutive toss he has lost for South Africa. With the ability to bat first often being crucial in Test cricket, it’s no surprise that South Africa are on such a poor streak of form.

The first two sessions were a pretty turgid affair, like the pitch. South Africa were mainly ‘bowling dry’ *shudder* whilst England were slowly accumulating runs. Sibley and Crawley both eventually fell to mistimed clips which were caught by leg slip/gully, but losing just two wickets before Tea is still a welcome sign of progress for this England Test team. They are normally well into their tail by then.

Things livened up just after Tea, with Denly and Root falling in relatively quick succession. Root’s wicket in particular will interest England’s bowlers, because he was bowled by a ball which appeared to stay noticeably lower compared to other deliveries on a similar length. Stokes weathered a spell of strong bowling from Rabada and Maharaj, including several unsuccessful appeals, before settling down with Pope to see out the day with England finishing on 224-4.

One thing which has been enormously fun to see on Twitter is the suggestion (by idiots and trolls, mostly) that England’s top order have been scoring too slowly. This is very much a luxury problem, because English batsmen in recent times typically haven’t been at the crease long enough for people to worry about such things. To put this in context: This winter, England have lost their fifth wicket in their first inning for over 200 runs three times in the last five Tests. That’s the same number as they managed in the previous fifteen Tests over three seasons. This England top order, since the dropping of Roy and Bairstow, has been consistently scoring runs.

The key word here is ‘consistently’. Whilst it has been frustrating to see so many English batsmen fail to reach fifty, there have been far fewer collapses this winter than we England fans have become accustomed to. This has been especially important since England’s tail, particularly their non-Stokes allrounders, haven’t been scoring heavily with the bat recently. In 2019, England’s batsmen from 7-11 collectively averaged 13.96. That’s the first year since 2013 in which they’ve averaged less than 20, and their lowest average since 2006. England can no longer rely on their bowlers bailing them out with the bat, and so I think that this new-found cautious approach from the specialist batsmen is both warranted and welcome.

On our usual side note, South Africa actually managed to bowl all 90 overs in a day. With so few wickets and boundaries, and spin bowler Maharaj bowling a third of the overs, they actually managed to finish a few minutes early.

90 overs bowled, England comfortably batting out a full day. I could get used to this…

As always, comments on the game or anything else you fancy are welcome below.

Back to it, Once Again

A Test series of more than three matches – ideally five, but four will have to do here – allows the advantage to move back and forth without a single win appearing to be quite so decisive overall.  It’s an obvious truism, but no less acute for all that.  England’s levelling of the series with two to play kindled further interest in the outcome of a clash between two sides who have clear flaws, but are fairly well matched against each other.  Sometimes a lack of quality fails to affect the intrigue, for that is more a question of rational consideration than emotional response.

Thus the main consideration in terms of the outcome of the Port Elizabeth Test is which version of either side will turn up – the reasonably good or the very, very bad.  The batting of both teams is inordinately brittle, there are players within the line-ups who can turn the entire match in a session, and there are no guarantees about the fitness of the participants – albeit in that last instance England appear rather more vulnerable given the rate of sickness and injury they’ve incurred.

The loss of James Anderson for the rest of the tour (and that will raise some longer term questions as is always the way when a player is getting long in the tooth) limits England’s pace bowling decisions to either Mark Wood or Jofra Archer, with the whisper being that it will be the former who gets the nod, either because of doubts over Archer’s recovery from his elbow injury, or because Wood has impressed in the nets.  Which of those is the more accurate depends somewhat on whether you wish to see the choice as a positive or negative.  Wood was certainly outstanding in his last Test match, but that was a year ago and several injuries distant.  Wood is far from a rarity among England bowlers in struggling to stay fit for any length of time, and frequently has flattered to deceive in his Test career.  But few would begrudge him the chance to show what he can do, all the while keeping fingers crossed that he can stay fit, and do himself justice.  A fully fit Wood and a fully fit Archer is no bad selection decision to have to make, and in either case the thrill of watching a fast bowler remains ever present.

Dom Bess seems certain to keep his place given the return home of Jack Leach, and probably would have done even had there been a late recovery.  Nothing but sympathy and best wishes to Leach from all quarters, but even from the outside it looked a sensible decision to allow him to go back to England.

For South Africa, the only rumoured change is Dane Paterson for Dwaine Pretorius, a mooted selection that would suggest the pitch at Port Elizabeth will indeed have a bit more life in it than has been the case on previous occasions.  If so (and photos of the prepared pitch don’t suggest a batting paradise), then additional pace from both teams may make batting even more difficult than these two often manage to make it look.  A slow, low pitch is something that few want to see, for the cricket is turgid, but a contest between bat and ball is not an unreasonable expectation.

As for hopes for the game, if another one going to the wire on the final day is a little too much to ask for, some solid batting to take the game into the latter part of the game would be good to see, if only to prevent the four day Test brigade from starting up their campaign again.  On which subject it has been pleasing to note Test cricketers, player organisations and even the MCC come out firmly against shortening the format.  In normal circumstances this might be thought to be more than sufficient opposition, but in these times where the governing bodies care little for the integrity of the sport and everything for the currency exchange markets, nothing is certain.  A debate on equalising to at least some degree the game’s revenues would answer so many of the (true enough) concerns about the costs of hosting Tests,  but as ever with the avaricious Big Three, this is too much to ask.

Curiously, one justification for considering the move is that Tests haven’t always been five days in duration, ranging from timeless Tests at one extreme to three day matches at the other.  This is certainly true, but it is a bizarre rationale to suggest how the game was played in the first half of the last century is a template for the future direction, and not one that the likes of the ECB have ever made before.  It seems reasonable on the same basis to look out for other such returns to the past as valid matters for review.  Presumably fast leg theory is also up for a return, along with uncovered pitches and the banning of helmets.  There is nothing wrong with debate, there is everything wrong with mistaking moves over more than a century towards what the game itself felt the most suitable format with some kind of belief in the sanctity of the duration for its own sake.

The series is level, there are five days of Test cricket this week to enjoy in a match where either side can win.  Sport for sport’s sake is never a bad starting point.

 

 

Cape Town: The Five Day Test Strikes Back

Extraordinary finish.  If the advocates of four day Test cricket are feeling a bit stupid right now, it’s because their idea was stupid, is stupid, and they deserve calling out on it at every single opportunity.

Yes, England won this match, but that’s not remotely the point and never was.  Throughout this final day the twists and turns, the likelihood of South Africa heroically batting out a draw or England grabbing the needed wickets captured the attention, not because of hopes for one side or the other, but because it was the very essence of Test cricket.  There is simply nothing like the countdown of overs on the final day of a closely fought match, where the desperation of the batsmen to stay in or the bowlers to make the breakthrough turn the sometimes sluggish pace of Test cricket into a riveting gladiatorial contest.  England winning is irrelevant to the wider point – had South Africa clung on for another 8 overs, it would have been every bit as special.

It’s not that every game is like this, or even that it can be like this.  It’s that removing the possibility of the game reaching the extraordinary heights of which it’s capable is nothing short of epic vandalism from people who ought to know better.  Football has plenty of 0-0 draws, rugby has penalty-fests, but the value of extraordinary sport is in the mundane as much as the exceptional, for without the routine you cannot identify the special.

The memories of this day will be off Ben Stokes dragging England over the line through sheer force of will, ripping apart the tail in the final session.  Zak Crawley’s superb reaction catch to dismiss Anrich Nortje at the second attempt.  Quinton de Kock looking entirely at ease before a shockingly executed shot that opened the door for England to force their way through.  Vignettes of play linger, far more than the individual procession of what happened and when, and it requires the first four days in order to generate the circumstances whereby this can happen.  Stokes himself passionately defended the five day game in his interview afterwards to cheers from those present, and more cheers from those around the world watching.

If it sounds like a love letter to Test cricket, then it’s because it is.  There is nothing wrong with it that requires major surgery to the playing conditions.  It’s not to say there aren’t things that can be done to protect and nurture the game, nor that innovation shouldn’t be considered and implemented if it helps both the popularity and, most important of all, respects the way the game is played and any effect on it.  Day/night Test matches may not be something that appeals to everyone, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the sport itself in the way that amputating 20% of the play does, the way removing the drama of a pitch deteriorating on a daily basis over the full length of the game does.

Add in to that the pacing, whereby a match has space for Dom Sibley to score a patient, disciplined hundred, for Ben Stokes to tee off in pursuit of a declaration, or for Rassie Van Der Dussen to score a mere 17 runs, but over such a length of time and with such skill that so nearly got his team to a precious share of the spoils.

And let’s remember the crowd.  The Barmy Army, all too often the subject of criticism from those sat in front of their televisions, or watching in the ground and having got in for free, they play a part in ensuring the match is played in a lively, and ultimately raucous atmosphere.  They aren’t beyond reproach, they can be annoying to sit next to, but they also spend vast amounts of their own money supporting the team all around the world, and making a material difference to local economies wherever they go.  Those who travel in huge numbers who aren’t part of the Barmy Army, but who travel across the world to do the same thing.  England cricket fans who follow the team are a special breed, and they deserve days like these as much as anyone.

Cricket needs moments that raise it above and beyond the routine.  T20 has its place, and as a means of growing and developing the game it is the ideal vehicle.  But it cannot and must not be the only form viable to those who want to inhabit the game, who want to live the sport, get deep inside it and appreciate every facet of it.

South Africa played more than their part in making this a day of defence of the highest part of the game, they acted as ambassadors for the game of cricket.  The flaws in the international game, and in these two teams are evident, but today it doesn’t matter, for it was nothing more than a response by 22 cricketers to those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  The weaknesses of the two sides can be saved for another day, for right now what matters is the game, the sport, the very existence of and justification of Test cricket.

Test cricket is priceless.  It showed it yet again today.

Cape Town Test, Day Four: Hard Pounding, Gentlemen

There is a temptation to get bored with repeatedly pointing out to the ECB that if this was a four day Test, England would have had to pull out much earlier to try to force a win, and that we would probably be talking about a drawn game right now.  It is a temptation that should be resisted, for the fact that this match is going to go deep into the fifth day, or even finish as a draw is something they don’t want to hear, and will swiftly ignore in favour of their ludicrous plans to hamstring Test cricket once memories of this game have started to fade.  Technically, all results remain possible, and while a South African win appears to be the wildest of fantasies, that is hardly the point – this match is going to go more or less the distance, with the result uncertain.

There is not a single person currently uninterested in this game who would be more interested had there been one day fewer, and a hell of a lot of people who are interested who would be deeply frustrated this evening had this been the bastardised version of Test cricket the governing bodies, the guardians of the game, wish to see.  Never let them forget it, never stop reminding them how their plans have absolutely nothing to do with the health of the sport and everything to do with the health of their bank balances.  Banging on about the same subject is tiresome, but they are hoping for that ennui, that fatigue to be the predominant response.

Going into the fifth day tomorrow, England require 8 more wickets after a dominant first half of the play, and a fine rearguard from South Africa in the second.  If the abiding individual curiosity at the start of play was whether Dominic Sibley would reach his maiden Test century, no one told Ben Stokes, who launched a furious assault from the start, largely but not exclusively against Keshav Maharaj.  Three sixes, including one quite glorious punch back over Dwaine Pretorius’ head took all the pressure off Sibley, who was able to cruise fairly serenely to his century as Stokes smashed his way to 72 off 47 balls.  If his dismissal was a disappointment, the rest of the middle order attempted to maintain the impetus.  Buttler made only 23, but in the circumstances his score was less important than the rate of scoring, and Sibley himself began to up the ante as England closed in on a declaration.

One hundred doesn’t a Test player make, but nor should it be overlooked in a side where centuries have been somewhat rare in recent times.  Sibley might look awkward in his stance, but he played with discipline and to his strengths.  There have been enough players over the years with slightly awkward approaches who have been successful to not discount what he is trying to do, and if he maximises his returns through batting this way, then along with Rory Burns (this could be the crabbiest opening pair England have had in years) England might just have an opening partnership worthy of the name.  Certainly his innings of 133 in 313 balls represents one of the longest innings by anyone not called Cook in several years, and in a side crying out for permanence at the crease, this is welcome in itself.

England’s batting was placed slightly into context by the relative ease with which South Africa batted in their long haul to try and save the game.  While not totally discounting a freak outcome , a world record target of 438 is implausible to say the least, barring Stokes/Perrera levels of ridiculousness tomorrow.  It’s a world record for a reason.  The pitch didn’t remotely misbehave, with debate surrounding whether the ball did more in the sunshine than when cloudy, suggesting that general levels of utter cluelessness amongst absolutely everyone as to why the ball behaves as it does is just as strong in 2020 as all previous years.  Maybe there’s something in it, and if so, England will be pleased as the forecast for tomorrow is to be hot and sunny.

In trying to save a match, every team has at least one player felt to be the one needed to bat long in order to have a chance, and it’s not being too presumptuous to assume that South Africans would have felt that Dean Elgar was that man.  He looked entirely at ease against everyone except, surprisingly, Joe Denly, whose part-time legspin extracted some often vicious turn and bounce from outside the left hander’s off stump.  His dismissal was mildly controversial, England’s appeal for a catch behind being upheld, and on review the tiniest, less than conclusive squiggle appearing on snicko.  If Elgar had been given not out, you’d imagine there was insufficient grounds to overturn him, but he was and so the same principle applied, and realistically there was no other decision the third umpire could have made – which isn’t to say conclusively that he hit it.

It was Pieter Malan who instead became the wall England spent their day trying to breach, without success.  On debut, he batted beautifully, defensively, and rarely appeared troubled at all.  Only the late wicket of Zubayr Hamza gave England cause for celebration, and with 56 overs gone, but the ball just starting to reverse, they were fairly slim pickings in 56 overs.

England will have a second new ball to come, they certainly haven’t bowled poorly, and they continue to have a great chance of squaring the series.  But it hasn’t been easy, and as the man said, we will have to see who will pound longest.

South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Day 3

One of the things I’ve found when writing match reports here is that it can get pretty difficult not repeating yourself after a while. This has certainly been the main issue I’ve had, with the repetitive nature of England’s problems with the bat. All of which made it an incredibly pleasant surprise to watch a day’s play without England’s top order collapsing in a heap and leaving Stokes, Pope, or Buttler with the job of rescuing the game.

The day began with England needing two wickets to clean up the South African tail, and Anderson did so within a few overs. This efficiency is also uncharacteristic of England’s recent performance, with opposition teams scoring just over fifty runs on average against them fpr the last three wickets in the past two years. This was hugely important in the context of the game, because it allowed England a first innings lead and meant that England’s top order wasn’t stuck in the field through the morning session waiting for their chance to bat.

When England did come out to bat this morning, something truly incredible happened: A competent Test batting performance from an England batting unit. Honestly, it was simply a better version of the first innings performance. The batsmen all got starts, but Dom Sibley applied himself and got a well-deserved 85*. When Crawley and Denly did lose their wickets, an Englandbattingcollapse didn’t immediately follow. It was not the most hostile conditions for batting, and the bowling seemed quite tame at times, but England’s batting has been so chaotic in recent years that this seems like definite progress.

A particular point of improvement over England’s past batting has been their performance against South Africa’s spinner Maharaj. Whilst not hitting him out of the attack, England’s batsmen did manage to keep the scoreboard ticking over when they were facing him and have yet to gift him a wicket in this innings.

With the recent proposals by the ICC to change the default format of Tests to four days, I’ve seen the argument made that today’s play would support that idea. A day with few wickets and little drama does nothing to make Test cricket more attractive and profitable around the world, some people have suggested. There is certainly something to this point of view. We’ve all seen flat pitches leading to boring draws which sap the will to live of anyone unfortunate to be watching.

The thing I like most about Test cricket, when compared to ODIs and T20s, is the lack of artificiality. More often than not, the better team in the conditions wins a Test match. Great bowlers are allowed to bowl as many overs as they are able, and place their fielders with few restrictions. Batsmen can typically bat to the farthest limits of their abilities, both mental and physical, rather than swinging wildly at a few deliveries and calling it a day. Allrounders can demonstrate their skills in both phases of the game to the fullest extent. Everyone bats, in every game.

England have been by far the better side in this game, in particular with their bowling which has been able to extract bounce and movement from this pitch. Therefore, it seems absolutely fair to me that they should be able to put themselves in a virtually unassailable position with this innings if they are able to. If this Test were shortened to four days, then they would be not be able to fully establish a winning position due to time pressure and would either have to declare early on day 4 or risk gifting South Africa an undeserved draw. This would not seem fair to me.

On the topic of four day Tests, there were another 4 overs lost from today’s play due to the bowling teams’ lethargy. On a day where South Africa’s spinner bowled almost 30 overs. If you think international teams will be able and willing to consistently bowl 98 overs in a day, then I’ve got a Nigerian uncle who want to get in touch with you about an exciting business opportunity…

Comments on the game, four day Tests, or anything else are welcome below.

Cape Town, Day 2 – International Rescue

In as far as England have been competitive over the last few years, it’s generally been on the back of the bowling attack resurrecting hopes despite modest batting performances.  It is because of those mediocre batting displays that the bowling attack having an off day intensifies the outcome because of a lack of runs in the previous innings, or a lack of anticipated runs in the one to come.  The running joke has always been that England respond to batting failures by dropping a bowler, a gag that has more than some basis in truth.

England’s total of 269 was disappointing, again, but the response from the bowlers was enough to dig England out of the hole of their own making, and while some of the South African wickets were every bit as self-inflicted as in England’s innings, that shouldn’t mean the efforts of the attack need be overlooked or diminished.  There is a notable difference between the negative tactic of bowling dry that England revert to all too often, and one of pressurised containment adopted today.  All of the bowlers were tight, hard to score off, while carrying a threat throughout.  Stuart Broad was outstanding early on, threatening to rip through the top order in his customary way when it’s a Stuart Broad Day, ultimately denied when on a roll by a big overstep that cancelled out a cheap dismissal of Rassie Van Der Dussen who went on to score 68.  Umpires failing to call no balls has become a significant issue in Test cricket, and at least a dozen examples of unpunished breaching of the line were cited around the period in which the wicket was overturned.  Where responsibility lies for this is an open question – clearly the bowler is prime villain as he needs to keep some part of his foot behind the line, but failing to call them unless a wicket falls is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.  It is true that there is greater scrutiny by television, but it seems like umpires are more reluctant to call them in the first place.  The outcome is that no one benefits, which is why it’s hard to comprehend the lack of concern or action by the authorities for something that’s a fairly easy fix.

If asking the umpires to call the no balls is not going to happen, then divesting that responsibility to a third umpire seems the obvious solution.  Bowlers could help themselves by abiding by the line in training, rather than practicing no balls, something they appear to do despite pleadings from the Test arena to the village nets.  But the game too could ensure the law is enforced, and is failing to do so.  Watching a third umpire endlessly replaying whether a fielder has touched the boundary rope while utterly ignoring a simple facet of cricket is a wholly unnecessary frustration.

Of the other bowlers, James Anderson looked far more like himself in this innings than at Centurion, and perhaps his rustiness there should have been forgiven more than it was.  Either way, here was a threat, especially against the tail late on.  Both he and Broad were economical without being wasteful of the ball or negative in line, which forever makes it a puzzle that they don’t bowl like this all the time.  It is always churlish to criticise a pair with a thousand Test wickets between them, but the suspicion that they could have been even better with a greater willingness to go for runs is far from a fringe view.

Of the support bowlers, Stokes was relatively indifferent, but made up for that with four outstanding catches (and a couple of drops, difficult chances though they were) in the slip cordon.  The difference it makes to any team when the close fielders pull off the kinds of snaffles that he routinely does is immense, and something England have been lacking recently.  But it was Sam Curran and Dom Bess who were the relatively unsung heroes – in the former case because he appears to be one of those players who makes things happen.  His dismissal of Quinton De Kock was a superb change of pace that made the left hander look rather silly as he sliced it up in the air.  Many a batsman will have winced seeing someone be so thoroughly outwitted – it never looks good.

As for Bess, he bowled tightly and with discipline, and if he didn’t particularly turn the ball, then on a day two surface that shouldn’t be held against him.  What it did do though was allow the seamers to be rotated while he ensured control – a highly promising performance if he can maintain it.  He tied down Dean Elgar to the point that on 88, he had a horrendous swipe at one outside off stump and was caught at long off, departing the play distraught at his error.  In such cases it is a mix of a bowler earning the wicket and the batsman throwing it away, any observer can decide where they sit on that scale.  Berating the top scorer for getting out is a common pastime, but it did look the kind of mistake enough to cause hair to be torn out by team mates and supporters alike.

The match is relatively even after two days, with England perhaps slightly the ascendant; a tribute to England’s bowling today, and the often comedy batting of both sides.  Weak batting line ups can make for entertaining viewing, but the mooted suggestion of four day Tests isn’t going to be harmed by the inability of either of these sides to bat properly.  The suspicion that this series is going to be won by the least inept batting won’t go away.

South Africa will go into day three 54 behind with just two wickets remaining.  If the wickets fall quickly, that’s a decent lead for England, if the tail can close to within 20, it is of little relevance.  South Africa might have to bat last, but England have to bat next, knowing one more collapse will cost the series.  It is indicative of where we are that followers of both teams have sufficiently little faith in their batting that they all fear the worst.  But today was an enjoyable watch, in itself that is welcome.