England vs West Indies: First Test, Day 1

In the lead up to today, most of the discussion has been about anything but the actual game. Will spectators and TV audience enjoy a day/night game in England? How will the pink Dukes ball perform? Which players will secure their place for the Ashes? The result appeared to be foregone, even West Indies fans seemed to have given up before a ball was bowled.

At the toss it was confirmed that Roland-Jones would keep his place in the team, with Mason Crane and Chris Woakes missing out. Joe Root won the toss and chose to bat first, which came as no surprise to anyone. Certainly it feels like the bowlers appreciated the chance to see how the new pink balls performed from the pavilion rather than working it out on the field.

The conventional wisdom about pink cricket balls is that they tend to move in the air for a few overs, then become more batsman-friendly after that. All England’s top order had to do was survive the first hour and then they could cash in through the day. To no one’s surprise, this was not how things played out. Alastair Cook’s latest partner, debutant Mark Stoneman, was bowled through the gate in the third over. It was a very good delivery from Kemar Roach which both swung and seamed, but at the same time you’d probably hope that an opener would at least get something on the ball. Westley returned to the dressing room soon after, having being given out LBW via DRS after playing down the wrong line.

This brought together the familiar partnership of Alastair Cook and Joe Root, both of whom have had difficulties converting their good innings into centuries but are still a class apart from the other English batsmen at present. Helped by slow, wayward bowling and flawed, defensive tactics from the West Indies, Cook and Root dominated the visitors past the Lunch interval and through the whole second session. It wasn’t until almost an hour into the third session of the day that the West Indies managed a breakthrough, with Kemar Roach managing to bowl Joe Root, but not before England’s captain and former captain both managed to score their respective deserved centuries. For those keeping count (you know who you are), that means that Cook has scored 100+ ‘only’ 6 times in his last 99 innings. This is more than his respective partners, but still a marked decline from his prolific earlier years. It has also been noted that Cook has struggled against strong pace attacks in recent years, and the West Indies bowling unit is definitely not a strong pace attack.

Root’s wicket brought the third of England’s auditioning batsmen to the crease, Dawid Malan. He rode his luck early on, flashing an edge from Kraigg Brathwaite just past slip, but recovered to finish the day on 28. Having reach double digits, Malan will probably feel better than Stoneman or Westley overnight about his chances of playing the whole series. At the other end, Cook had managed to bat through the whole day scoring a somewhat impressive 153. At the end of play England are 348/3, and seem to be in a great position to put the West Indies out of contention.

As always, feel free to comment below!

England vs West Indies: 1st Test – Night and Day

In days past, a West Indies tour of England was one to cause a frisson of excitement among the fans, and a tremble of fear among the batsmen.  How times have changed.  The structure of international cricket; the concentration of power and money in the hands of the the three most powerful cricket boards; allied to the endless civil war in Caribbean cricket have weakened the game globally, and in the West Indies in particular.  If South Africa aren’t able to get their best team on to the park because of the financial considerations of the players, then it’s less surprising than ever to see the shadow team that will show up on Thursday afternoon.

The corollary of this depressing state of affairs is that from a ticketing perspective, the Windies aren’t the draw they were, and to that end the scheduling of a day/night Test match at Edgbaston makes sense – the curiosity value alone makes it worth doing from a financial perspective.  The popularity of day/night cricket has been well established in limited overs form, and the opportunity to see it in Test match mode has clearly piqued a lot of interest given the second day is already sold out, with days one and three possibly following. It’s certainly true that in other parts of the world they have proved popular, Adelaide in particular demonstrating that there is an appetite for starting later and making it a night out.

Where England have a particular problem is in the country’s latitude.  The summer evenings tend to be cool, and occasionally downright cold, apart from during the peak summer months of June and July.  But in June and July it doesn’t get dark until 10pm, meaning the night element would consist of slowly fading light and batsmen having nightmares about seeing the ball for more than the brief dusk that is prevalent in more equatorial climes.  With the timetable for this one, had it been played in June, floodlights wouldn’t be needed on a sunny day.

With that in mind, holding a day/night Test during the slightly shorter days of August makes sense, though from the spectator perspective the likelihood is that coats and blankets are more likely to be needed than shorts and T-shirts, particularly given the longer format.  That being said, the match isn’t scheduled to go especially late on each given day, meaning the night element will remain relatively short.  The problem of a longer dusk is still there though, and pink ball or not, it will be interesting to see just how challenging the batting is likely to prove – the experimental county championship matches earlier in the season were rather ruined by rain in many cases.

There have only been a handful of day/night Tests so far, too few to form any kind of judgement on how they will differ (if at all) from “normal” matches.  Certainly the first instance of it involved the ball hooping round corners and batting proving exceptionally difficult, but subsequent games didn’t continue that trend, as ball manufacturers constantly strived to ensure conditions would be as close to the default as possible.  Equally, the different locations in which the matches have been held make passing judgement impossible, and it is this more than anything that provides the intrigue as to how this one will unfold.

The West Indies have played under lights once before, in the UAE, but conditions there are totally different at the best of times, and this will be the first match where a pink Duke’s ball (rather than a Kookaburra) is used.  Given that tends to retain its shine longer, and offers a more pronounced seam, that could yet be interesting for the batsmen.  The possibility of dew in the evening has been mentioned, but this applies only so much as it does in the mornings of late season games, and the bulk of the day will be played during the same hours as a normal Test.  The question will be if conditions materially alter after tea.

Ah yes, tea.  The breaks will retain their traditional names of lunch and tea despite being much later.  Naturally this has attracted comment, but in truth it would have done had they changed it as well.  In Australia the breaks were changed to tea and dinner, which is barely any better, and probably provides amusement to non-cricket supporters who will wonder which other sports have a break for dinner.

To the surprise of few, Keaton Jennings was dropped from the squad, replaced by Mark Stoneman, as the revolving door of England openers not called Cook continues.  If luck in selection plays a part, then being called up to play the West Indies at home counts as being of the good variety, for it represents an opportunity to score rather easier runs than against South Africa or away in India.  What that doesn’t do is answer the question as to whether a player is good enough to play in Australia, but given the mess England have got themselves in over selection for opener, the reality is they are where they are.  It still wouldn’t be a surprise to see someone different opening in Brisbane.

Mason Crane has been called up, which raises questions about Adil Rashid’s future.  England have developed a tendency in the specialist fields of seeking the finished article, discarding players for perceived failures rather than persevering with them.  Rashid hasn’t been exceptional, that is certainly true, but nor has he been a flop – his performance in India was in line with many England spinners there over the years.  Perhaps it might be that Crane is something special, but it’s hard to avoid the nagging doubt that whether or not he plays this time, his career will be one of high expectations and swift removal if he doesn’t win matches single handedly.  As has been observed all too often, it’s debatable whether England would have kept faith with Shane Warne had he been English.

One player returning to the ranks is Chris Woakes, and depending on fitness can be expected to play given how important he has been over the last 12 months.  That might be harsh on Toby Roland-Jones, but Woakes is clearly central to England’s first choice bowling line up.  As long as he is properly fit, and not ECB fit.

The disparity in resources, wealth and playing strength really should make this a foregone conclusion, but the day/night nature of it means that it is a little more uncertain than might be the case.  Whether it is a one off will depend on whether the game itself proceeds relatively normally.

Day/night Tests in England, in late August.  Who the hell knows?

 

 

Guest Post – Man In A Barrel Gives Us The Numbers

Just before this latest test match MiaB, before his metamorphosis into Shane Warne on steroids (and not his mum’s diuretics) when it comes to declarations :-), did some interesting, unsolicited analysis of batting trends for England’s key players of the past and present. I found it interesting anyway. Please note this was written before the last test, so if there are any amendments MiAB wants to make, I’m sure he’ll let you know.

I’ll let Man in a Barrel take it from here…many thanks for the time and effort sir. It’s fascinating stuff. As always, comments welcome, and be nice. Well, as nice as you can be!

A New Way….

For a while, I have been trying to think of a better way of assessing batsmen than their career average.  It has some very real disadvantages to counteract the fact that it is widely used and understood and that it does tend to winnow out who the best performers are – no one, for example, disputes that Bradman was the greatest ever and nor can anyone dispute the fact that WG Grace was much, much better than any of his contemporaries, at least when he was in his prime.  However, it does have its problems.  For example Victor Trumper has a Test average of 39.04 and yet most commentators who watched him state that he was the best of his era – 1899-1912.  His average for that period is in fact bettered by, among others, Clem Hill, Jack Hobbs, Ranjitsinhji, George Gunn, RE Foster, and Aubrey Faulkner of South Africa.  For me, though, the real problem is that it gives undue emphasis on a big innings – if you make a score such as 364 or 294, it certainly helps to boost your average although, of course, its impact is mitigated the longer your career extends.  The career average also gives little information on your value to the team at a particular point of time.  Is it better to make a lot of 50s and the occasional daddy hundred or to make a series of 30s and a lot of small hundreds?  Those questions cannot be answered by inspecting your career average because the information simply isn’t contained in that single figure.  Nor does it contain any information about the way your career is trending – are you in decline or on a rise?  To some extent, you can gauge that by common sense and watching how the career average is moving but those are fairly blunt instruments.

To overcome some of those problems, I have been investigating the use of a moving average, as widely used in the investment community to discern underlying trends in noisy data.  The question immediately arises as to how many innings should be included in the moving average.  I looked at a number of options.   An average over 30 innings seems to flatten out the data too much.  A 20 innings’ average looks about right.  Broadly it should cover 10 Test matches – essentially a year’s worth of data – and it is long enough to let a batsman move in and out of form, to show the impact of a major innings and yet not allow it to have too much effect on the new data as it arrives.  For convenience, I will call this measure the Twenty Innings Moving Average – TIMA.

To put it to the test, I put Geoff Boycott under the microscope – 8114 runs at 47.73 in 193 innings.  Obviously these are very distinguished figures especially when you consider that he played to the age of 42, in an era of uncovered pitches, no helmets for the most part and inadequate gloves – in the first part of his career he was often incapacitated by broken fingers.  If you graph it it makes for interesting viewing but I don’t think it will come out in WordPress.  So to present the results, I will use a histogram.  The moving average breaks a series of data into chunks of 20 innings, over which I calculate an average.  Each successive TIMA drops one innings from the start and adds a new innings.  This is repeated until you get to the end of Boycott’s career.  So I have calculated 174 averages.  These I have summarised into how many of these averages were between 10 and 20, 20 and 30, 30 and 40, etc.  And the results are very much as you might expect:

Boycott

10-20

0%

20-30

2%

30-40

24%

40-50

36%

50-60

18%

60-70

17%

70-80

3%

80-90

0%

I think this gives a sense of just how consistent he was.  His TIMA was below 40 for only 26% of his career.  However, if you could see the graph, you would also note that he was in decline towards the end.  His TIMA was above 40 in the Oval Test against Australia in 1981.  Then he went to India and it moved into the 30s apart from a blip up to 42 when he scored 105 in the third Test of that dismal series – does anyone remember Tavare’s 147?  The last time before this that his TIMA was below 40 was the Mumbai Test of 1980, when his figures still showed the effect of his dismal Ashes tour of 1978-79.  He ended up at 37.05, rather below his career average.

Given what I thought was a successful trial of the method, I then moved on to the current team, starting with the obvious comparison, Alastair Cook.

Boycott

Cook

10-20

0%

0%

20-30

2%

5%

30-40

24%

23%

40-50

36%

40%

50-60

18%

21%

60-70

17%

7%

70-80

3%

2%

80-90

0%

3%

A slightly higher percentage below 40 and more time averaging between 70 and 90 but pretty comparable to Boycott.  However, his early career was much more consistent.  After the Ashes tour of 2010-11 and his feats against India in 2011 the swings in his TIMA become very noticeable.  The last period of time his TIMA was above 60 was in the wake of his 263 at Abu Dhabi and only lasted until the Sharjah Test.  The last time it was above 50 was in the recent Mohali Test against India, after his last century to date.  It bears out the importance of LCL’s focus on the number of big scores he has made lately: there have not been many.  By the end of that tour his TIMA was at 41.68 and it has continued to go south.   TIMA also highlights the prolonged period when he averaged less than 40 between the 2nd innings of the Chester-Le-Street Test of 2013 and the 1st May 2015 match against West Indies when he got his first century since the 130 against New Zealand at Leeds in 2013.  After the recent Oval Test, he is hovering in the mid to low 30s.  It has dropped from 54.53 at the end of the first innings of the Mohali Test to 33.50 today, in the course of 11 innings.  The decline in comparison with his career average, which is still 46, is marked.

Turning to Joe Root:

Boycott

Cook

Root

10-20

0%

0%

0%

20-30

2%

5%

0%

30-40

24%

23%

7%

40-50

36%

40%

30%

50-60

18%

21%

35%

60-70

17%

7%

8%

70-80

3%

2%

13%

80-90

0%

3%

6%

These are impressive figures by any criterion.  The only times his TIMA was below 30 was during the 2 Ashes series of 2013.  It hit a pinnacle of 84.75 in the Lords Test against New Zealand in 2015 – after innings of 98 and 84.  More recently, since the Sharjah Test of 2015, his TIMA has bounced around between 57.39 and 43.17.  More worrying is that his overall time series shows a declining trend but that is probably because he hit such a peak so early in his career.  He is just reverting to a more “normal” level.  Another point of interest is the really low amount of time he has spent below 30.

With these 3 batsmen, the results just confirm what we know already, I suggest.  Now let’s see what we learn about the more controversial selections.  Jonny Bairstow for example:

Boycott

Cook

Root

Bairstow

10-20

0%

0%

0%

0%

20-30

2%

5%

0%

30%

30-40

24%

23%

7%

14%

40-50

36%

40%

30%

16%

50-60

18%

21%

35%

22%

60-70

17%

7%

8%

14%

70-80

3%

2%

13%

4%

80-90

0%

3%

6%

0%

The sample size is smaller – only 50 data points.  But 44% is a lot of time to spend averaging under 40.  The point of concern is that since the Dhaka Test last year, his TIMA has gone into steep decline, from 71.24 down to 41.05.  I am sure that LCL will remind us that it is 25 innings since his last century.  However, it has stayed in the 40s for his last 6 innings, against his career average of 40.86, so I believe he justifies his position.  If your TIMA is above your career average, it does suggest that you are making a real contribution.

Boycott

Cook

Root

Bairstow

Stokes

Moeen

10-20

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

20-30

2%

5%

0%

30%

14%

45%

30-40

24%

23%

7%

14%

62%

17%

40-50

36%

40%

30%

16%

24%

28%

50-60

18%

21%

35%

22%

0%

11%

60-70

17%

7%

8%

14%

0%

0%

70-80

3%

2%

13%

4%

0%

0%

80-90

0%

3%

6%

0%

0%

0%

Stokes and Moeen have quite similar records.  Stokes has 2120 runs at 34.19 from 63 innings; Moeen has 2090 runs at 34.26 from 68 innings.  But the TIMA shows a very different picture.  Stokes has been below 40 for 76% of his career and has never climbed above 50.  Moeen’s figures are, in one sense, far superior in that he has spent more time above 40 but it must also be said that he has also been in the 20s more than Stokes.  If you look at Stokes, you would expect the 258 to have a massive impact on his TIMA.  In fact it raised it from 27.15 to 35.45, so poor had his record been over the previous 20 innings.  At the time it dropped out of the TIMA computation, it dropped from 46.37 to 34, which highlights his real lack of consistency.  This happened a mere 7 innings ago and he has stayed in the mid to low 30s. In his last 20 innings, he has been in the 40s nine times, ten times in the 30s and once in the 20s, with a highpoint of 46.47 after Mumbai.  These are disappointing figures for a #6.  In comparison, Moeen’s last 20 innings have shown TIMA in the 40s and 50s, with just one blip down to 35.17 when his 155 against Sri Lanka fell out of his moving average.   But it immediately went back above 40 when he scored 146 at Chennai.   As a result of the Oval Test, his TIMA has dropped to 33.  Moeen’s TIMA has dipped below his career average and Stokes has blipped above his: perhaps the selectors have the right batting order.

And just because I am a controversialist, guess this batsman:

Boycott

Cook

Root

Bairstow

Stokes

Moeen

?

10-20

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

0%

20-30

2%

5%

0%

30%

14%

45%

0%

30-40

24%

23%

7%

14%

62%

17%

14%

40-50

36%

40%

30%

16%

24%

28%

44%

50-60

18%

21%

35%

22%

0%

11%

37%

60-70

17%

7%

8%

14%

0%

0%

5%

70-80

3%

2%

13%

4%

0%

0%

0%

80-90

0%

3%

6%

0%

0%

0%

0%

Yes….KP

Thanks MiaB. Any excuse for a KP shot…

cropped-wp-1500506510756.jpg

 

 

England vs South Africa: 4th Test and Review

In common with the rest of the series, the fourth and last day of the final Test turned out to be a mopping up exercise, the outcome already beyond doubt, the uncertainty merely concerning the margin and how long it would take.  Early hopes for a spectacular Moeen century were dashed when Broad and Anderson were dismissed in short order, removing any argument about how long to bat on, perhaps fortuitously.  It made little difference to anything but a potential personal milestone, and by the end of the day it was hard to imagine Moeen would have been in any way disappointed with his lot.

South Africa fought hard, in a manner that has been in somewhat short supply this series, but a target of 380, on a surface that was deteriorating, was never feasible.  Both teams have been afflicted with top order fragility this series, the difference being that England’s middle and lower order are operating on a different level to their counterparts.  Moeen’s unbeaten 75 in the second innings probably wasn’t the difference between the sides, but it certainly gave a fair degree of breathing space.  The 90 runs added for the last three wickets turned a highly unlikely target into an impossible one, which given the tourists’ manful efforts with the ball to stay in the series was a case of hammering the final nail in the series coffin.

After a faltering start came a fine partnership between Amla and Du Plessis.  Neither have had outstanding series – that Vernon Philander is top of the batting averages makes that clear – though Amla has scored runs without ever going on to a match defining innings.  Broad and Anderson, particularly the latter, had bowled superbly early on, both swing and seam with the new ball making life exceptionally difficult.  For South Africa to reach 163-3 was a tribute to how well they had done, not that it was a time to worry about reaching the target.  Enter that man Moeen again, who must be feeling Test cricket is currently the easiest game in the world.  Three quick wickets and the game was just about done, as he finished with another five wicket haul, this time via the slightly less impressive manner of three wickets in four balls rather than three.  He was unsurprisingly named Man of the Series for England – Morne Morkel picking up the equivalent award for South Africa.

At the end of it, it was a comfortable enough series win.  England were the better side of the two, the depth in their batting and injuries, illness and voluntary absence hampering the visitors.  Yet the weaknesses identified in both sides at the start were no closer to being resolved by the end.  England’s new captain Joe Root did well enough, he was certainly more attacking than had been the case at any time during the Cook era, and if nothing else at no point where there obvious occasions where the tactics were utterly baffling, in itself a positive.  Where England tended to fall short, particularly but not solely at Trent Bridge, was in the top order batting, something not directly within the purview of the captain.   Ultimately England’s batting was slightly deeper and slightly less fragile than South Africa’s.

Cook had a reasonable series, like Amla not going on to make a really big score, but on one occasion for certain making a material difference to the match outcome with his fine 88 at the Oval.  Cook is without question England’s best opener, and can be expected to cash in against the West Indies later this month, but there are doubts beginning to surface about his ability to score big runs against potent pace attacks, particularly with the Ashes coming up.  He has always been a slightly odd opener, vulnerable to fast bowling but exceptional against spin, and with two series of highly contrasting outcomes down under, it really needs to be Good Cook for England to have a strong chance.  For this is the fundamental point: England are frail at the top, and overly reliant on their best players, of whom he is one, and the middle order as a collective.  Whether it be a matter of declining returns is an unknown, but the Ashes will likely provide a good answer to that question.

Who his next opening partner will be is up for debate, if not panic.  Jennings certainly didn’t show anything to suggest he’s the one, but it’s also true that whoever does the role next series has the opportunity to score heavily without answering the basic question as to whether they are good enough at the very top level.   Not being picked is becoming a useful means of advancing a cause, for Haseeb Hamed finally got runs today, which may be rather timely.  But it is all too easy to see the revolving door of England openers continuing for the foreseeable future.

Three and five are also still uncertain; Tom Westley did well enough to be persevered with, while Dawid Malan probably didn’t.  But England have got themselves in a pickle by running a lottery on three of the top five positions.  Dropping Malan after two Tests wouldn’t engender much confidence that the selectors know what they’re doing, because it implies the initial selection was a mistake.  There is a case for considering Alex Hales in that position, and his current bout of run scoring in that role might move things his way.

Further down is where England excel.  Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all got the same criticism for failing to knuckle down in the Trent Bridge Test as everyone else, but their strengths are elsewhere – and to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can (which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be more responsible on occasion) is to miss the point about the problems in the batting order.  They have bailed England out on many an occasion between them, but it is asking a lot for them to keep doing it from 120-4.  Have them coming in at 300-4 and it’s a different matter, for in those circumstances they will scare the living daylights out of any and every opposition.

Of the bowlers, Moeen of course has had an extraordinary series, on the back of a highly average one in India.  If there is a difference in his bowling, it appears less about the pace at which he is flighting the ball (though he is) and more about seeming to be bowling many fewer bad deliveries.   He’s always been a wicket taker, but this series he has also been much tighter.  It’s also true that India away is hard territory for an English spinner – few have been remotely as successful as Panesar and Swann – and although he wasn’t great, he’s certainly not the first to struggle there; something that should have been noted by those complaining about Adil Rashid too.  For the Ashes, expectations shouldn’t be too high either, even Swann has an average well north of 40 in that country.  If Moeen does the same, then he’ll have done extremely well, but after this series it’s rather likely it won’t be seen that way.  He’s a very useful performer who does takes wickets, but he’s not better than Swann and he’s not better than Panesar.  Which means his success should be celebrated, but with a proviso that it’s not going to be like this all the time.  Still, as things stand his bowling appears to have improved , and with his batting as well, he’s becoming one of this side’s key performers.

Toby Roland-Jones came in and did well, though as is so often the case he was hailed as the answer one match into his Test career.  It’s neither fair nor is it reasonable, but he can be pleased with his start, and once again the obsession with sheer pace (despite Philander clearly being a fine bowler anywhere at about 80mph) comes up against the reality that good bowlers can operate at any speed.  That being said, he was in the side because of the injury to Chris Woakes, who can be expected to return, and of course who strengthens the already absurdly powerful middle and lower order even further.

Stokes is Stokes, a player who is perhaps by the strictest of measures not someone who fully qualifies for the genuine all rounder role in that neither his batting nor his bowling alone are truly good enough in isolation.  But he tends to contribute in one discipline or the other (or by catching flies at slip) most matches these days.  It makes him a highly unusual cricketer, for in terms of raw numbers he could be termed one of those bits and pieces cricketers, but he clearly is far more than that.  It may be that in years to come he reaches even greater heights, but he’s the heartbeat of this team and he knows it.  And a matchwinner.

Broad and Anderson are now the old stagers in the side, and it’s probably worth appreciating seeing them in tandem, for it won’t last forever.  Broad bowled well enough without necessarily getting the rewards, while Anderson finished top of the bowling averages.  That in itself is interesting because there was a subtle shift in his role.  Root was quick to remove him from the attack whenever he wasn’t doing what he wanted him to, which clearly irked him, and he responded in the best possible way, by coming back and taking wickets.  Today was one of those where he had the ball on a piece of string, swinging it both ways and seaming it off the surface.  Some were quite simply unplayable by anyone.  Perhaps he is finally embracing his elder statesman role, in which case it is good news for England, for as he gets older and his workload necessarily needs easing, his sheer skill will remain.  He bowled beautifully, and it’s unlikely too many West Indies batsmen will be excited at facing him under lights in Birmingham.  Career wise, today was the day when his Test bowling average dipped into the 27s.  He’s been lowering it steadily for five years, and may well finish a point or two lower yet.

It was also striking how much time he spent at midoff, talking to the other bowlers, something that Joe Root was quick to say was no coincidence.  It’s distinctly possible Anderson might make a very good coach, not just because he’s been there and done it, but because he’s had his own career mangled at various points by those who follow technical strictures in preference to common sense.  Getting the best out of those already good enough to be picked could well be a future for him.

For South Africa the next Tests on the agenda are home ones against Bangladesh, which should at least provide the opportunity to make some changes in favourable circumstances.  Heino Kuhn has likely played his last Test but the brittleness has affected the team throughout the top order, in a side that relies on it far more than England do (not that England should, but that’s how it has transpired).  Elgar had a decent series, undone twice here by two balls that would trouble anyone, but Bavuma flattered to deceive too often, as he has done in much of his Test career, while the core middle order of Du Plessis and De Kock struggled.  The loss of De Villiers undoubtedly hurts them, and that is a symptom of a wider malaise in the game where players are paid little to turn out for their national team, and fortunes to play for a franchise.  But even without him, the returns from the batting will have been a serious disappointment.

Losing Steyn before the series was a blow, losing Philander during it may have been pivotal. But all of the seamers did reasonably well at different times, and Maharaj too looked a cut above the normal South African spinner.  Lamenting the losses in the bowling department may ease the irritation at the result, but it was the batting that ultimately cost them, along with too many dropped catches.

This hasn’t been a great series, despite the wishful thinking of the broadcasters.  Each match has been one sided, and the interest in the outcome has dissipated often within two days.  It is a problem for Test cricket without question, but there have been highlights such as Root’s 190, Stokes brilliant 112 and Moeen’s hat-trick.  Perhaps it’s not enough, but at the moment it’s all there is to hang on to.

 

England vs. South Africa, 4th Test, Day 3

Today was the sort of day that many of us Test enthusiasts love, a day where bowlers had the sort of conditions that actually gave them the upper hand and where the batsmen had to fight for every single run. Yes today was a bit of a grind and I must admit that the Old Trafford surface hasn’t been great, but I would rather see a proper fight between bat and ball than 600 play 650 on a flat, bowlers graveyard of a pitch. The day ebbed and flowed, with South Africa battling to stay in the match and England trying to eek out enough runs to feel comfortable in defending on a deteriorating pitch. By the end of the day, England managed to emerge on top; however it was tough going, which Test cricket is absolutely meant to be.

England’s batting was a tale of the downright poor and one absolutely superb innings. I think it’s safe to say that England’s top order still has more holes than a watering can, with the top 3 all getting out to woeful shots and Malan, although 2 Test’s into his England career, looking nervous and out of place in the Test arena. It would be harsh to drop Malan after only 2 games, but sometimes a player just doesn’t look international class I’m afraid. As for the Top 3, I’m afraid it looks like game, set and match for Keaton Jennings. He came out with some credit from his performance in the 2nd innings of the Oval Test, but has looked woefully short of form all summer. This is absolutely not helped by the fact that his feet look stuck to the crease, his head position is too upright on connection with the ball, which means that he doesn’t seem in control of the ball when it hits the bat and of course he genuinely doesn’t seem to know where his off stump is at the moment in the face of good, patient bowling. I think his reaction to his dismissal said a 1,000 words, he realises that its now back to Durham to try and work on his technique and to score some big runs. The opener cab rank is starting to look extremely bare.

Westley and Cook also both got out in the same way, launching ill advised flashes outside the off stump in what were very bowler friendly conditions. Westley is still learning the international game and whilst I worry about his ability against deliveries pitching outside off stump, I’ve seen enough of him in the last couple of Tests to give him the benefit of the doubt. The same can’t be said for Cook. I’m afraid that Cook looks to be in terminal decline, unable to fathom out how to score big runs now international bowlers have truly found out his weaknesses. A number of us have pointed out that he is now 50 not out since he last scored a century against either Australia or South Africa and indeed having done a little bit of digging (Nonoxcol had the same idea) it now reads that Cook has an average below 30 against these teams going all the way back to 2012 (some 26 Test matches). These cold hard facts may be difficult to swallow for those that have chosen deify Cook, but it is a fact that Cook really has been a flat track bully over the past 5 years. I will again reiterate again that I’m not advocating that Cook should be dropped, far from it, we can’t find one opener let alone two at the moment, but the fact that Cook is still easily the best opener in England is more a terrible reflection on county cricket, than it is a reflection on how good Cook actually is at the moment. Oh and just to annoy the Cook straw men on Twitter that’s 5 in 98 now.

With the dismissal of Malan and with England 77-4, with only a lead of around 200 ahead, there seemed to still be life in this Test, as whilst the pitch was doing a fair bit, if South Africa could limit the chase to fewer than 275, they still had a chance. Root played very well before getting a ball that kept low. One may be nitpicking and argue that he should have got forward to it; however equally you don’t generally expect the pitch to have demons in it on Day 3. Stokes and Bairstow both came and went, with the former getting a good delivery, which he nicked off to slip and the latter looking uncharacteristically out of touch. So enter the hour and enter the man. I admit that I’ve been particularly harsh on Moeen in the past winter, as I could see all the talent in the world, but couldn’t see any growth in his game. He has proved to be excellent with the ball in this series with 20 wickets and an innings to come and today he showed his class with the bat. England were still in a little bit of strife when Moeen came in, but boy did he play this innings to perfection. He was positive rather than being reckless, something that hasn’t always been the case, didn’t allow the South African bowlers to settle into their line and lengths and then launched a perfect counter attack with the bowlers tiring. Moeen’s counter hitting was truly a sight to behold, though Elgar will be kicking himself for dropping him on 15; however this cameo has firmly turned the dial in England’s favour. I would be amazed if South Africa can muster a batting performance on this pitch to win it from here. It is also worth noting that Moeen’s tally of 20 wickets and over 200 runs is the first time that this has been achieved since a certain Freddie Flintoff achieved it in a rather special Ashes series. Now I’m not going to try and compare apples and pears, but if Moeen can keep this level of play up in the next couple of series and beyond, then England have another true all rounder.

As for the South African bowlers, they can hold their heads up high. Morkel, Rabada and even Olivier, who looked a club bowler in the 2nd Test, bowled extremely well in conditions that suited them. They consistently made England’s batsmen play and miss and on another occasion could have easily wrapped up the England innings for under 150. The only bowler who will be slightly disappointed will be Maharaj, though whilst he looked dangerous bowling into the rough, especially against the left handers, he will be disappointed that he only took 1-92 in pretty helpful conditions, although he could do little whilst he was being smashed round the park by Moeen.

So onto Day 4 and barring a miracle or persistent rain, England should wrap up this game and the series 3-1 in the next day or so. Whether we have learnt anything more about the England line up however, is an extremely moot point.

Thoughts and comments on Day 4 below.

England vs South Africa: Fourth Test, Day Two

For a time during the afternoon, it looked as though at long last there might be a genuinely competitive Test match on the cards.  Sure, England had played well in the morning session, thanks to Jonny Bairstow’s masterclass in farming the strike with the tail, but with the tourists 141-3, and looking in reasonable shape to challenge the England total, the prospect of not knowing where the match was going after two days was a definite possibility.

That it didn’t happen was partly down to some excellent bowling – from James Anderson and Moeen Ali in particular – but also some woeful batting.  England received plenty of (justified) criticism for the way they rolled over at Trent Bridge, but with the series now likely to finish 3-1, South Africa have clearly demonstrated that however fragile England might wish to be, they can exceed it.

Both teams had faltered in the top order, and the difference in position wasn’t especially marked, but whereas England’s middle order had rescued the situation, first through Stokes, then through Bairstow, South Africa’s fell apart.  It doesn’t tell us that much about England, for the trio of Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen have rescued the team from calamity on a few occasions, but in this series at least, the same can’t be said about their opposite numbers.

Although England had lost a couple of early wickets, 312-9 in the context of the batting line ups didn’t look a bad score.  A rollicking last wicket stand with Bairstow turning a useful fifty into what appeared certain to be a remarkable century moved England into a position of likely dominance.  In itself that says a fair bit about these two sides.  There is some movement off the pitch and in the air, but this is a decent Test match wicket.  400, once the minimum expectation for the side batting first appears to be right at the top of the aspirations of these batting line ups.

Bairstow of course fell for 99, joining a substantial group who have managed to get themselves out in often peculiar circumstances in pursuit of that single extra run.  If ever there was an illustration needed that batting is done in the head, it is right there.  He was perhaps a trifle unlucky of course – not in the sense that it wasn’t out, but because it was a marginal call. In the world of DRS such calls are automatically considered “good” decisions as they are backed up by the technology, and perhaps the game is better for that.  But he may feel some chagrin for not getting that nebulous unwritten rule concerning the benefit of the doubt.  It’s the same for all.

If Bairstow had left England content at the change of innings, Anderson ensured that lunch was to be a happy place in the England dressing room, removing the obdurate Dean Elgar third ball to christen his newly named bowling end with a classical Anderson delivery, swinging into the left hander’s pads.

For the next couple of hours it was good Test cricket.  The loss of Amla to Toby Roland-Jones for the third time in succession cut short an innings where he looked in decent touch, an all too rare occurrence recently.  If he was fluent, Heino Kuhn was anything but.  Battling dreadful form and injury, he was eventually put out of his misery by Moeen Ali, but it should be said that if his team mates had batted with the same tenacity and determination as the under pressure opener, they might not be in the mess they are this evening.

Bavuma and Du Plessis then took over, not without alarms, but the match was fairly even.  And then it all fell apart.  Anderson removed both within three balls, and while they were decent enough deliveries, Bavuma’s decision to join his team mates this series in regarding the bat as an optional extra, and Du Plessis’ dreadful defensive shot that dragged the ball on to the stumps through the widest of gates was symptomatic of the difference between the teams – namely that brittle as England might be, they are tempered by comparison with their opponents.

With the exception of Elgar, every South African batsman this innings has got into double figures, yet none has made a fifty.  The tail did well, Maharaj, Rabada and Morkel being responsible for ensuring the 142 run deficit (with one wicket remaining) wasn’t even higher.  Yet De Kock was subdued, seemingly unsure how to play the deteriorating situation, and the procession of batsmen coming in and going out was of no surprise at all.

All of which means this match is following an identical pattern to the third Test (and similar to all the others this series).  England will have a huge lead, and with no rain to date the luxury of no time pressure whatever in setting a vast target – though doubtless some will be calling for them to push on and declare tomorrow night.

It’s not entirely clear why it is that matches, in England at the very least, have become so one sided in recent years, and the old truth that correlation doesn’t equal causation should make anyone wary of the easy blaming of T20 cricket.  But it doesn’t make for good viewing and it isn’t healthy for Test cricket.  The very concept of a battle unfolding over five days is undermined when the outcome is pretty much clear after two, every time.  This has happened in Tests since they began, but it is now sufficiently consistently the case as to cause even more worry about the health of the game than was already the case.  All sport thrives on uncertainty, for without it there is little point watching.  The up and down results England have had in the last couple of years is indeed quite uncertain, that is true, but the matches themselves are anything but.

Barring something preposterous, England will win this match, and with it the series.  But the feeling that the next two (probably not three) days are merely playing out the inevitable (yet again) is both frustrating and fundamentally lowers interest.  It’s to be hoped it is a phase, as can happen in sport, for if not the problems are even greater than has been supposed up to now.

England vs. South Africa, 4th Test, Day 1

The game started as most games seem to nowadays for England; with many people having no idea which players would be selected. Bayliss had again expressed his belief that England didn’t need to play 8 batsmen, which seemed to suggest Dawson or Finn would be coming in to replace Dawid Malan. Malan’s performance certainly didn’t fill watchers with confidence in the last game, but then again neither did Dawson. It eventually became apparent that despite the coach’s musings, England would announce an unchanged team. The same was not true of South Africa, who were forced to replace bowlers Philander and Morris with allrounders Olivier and de Bruyn due to injury.

In a shock to many, it was dry and the game started on time. In Manchester. England won the toss, which given the rest of the series virtually guarantees that they will win, but apparently they still had to play a game of cricket first and so they elected to bat. Keaton Jennings fell quickly after edging a delivery from Olivier to the keeper for 17. It feels like this might be the last game for Jennings if he can’t make a score in the next innings, particularly if Trevor Bayliss can see Mark Stoneman play in the next week or two.

Westley came in to partner Cook, and the pair made slow and steady (emphasis on slow) progress to the lunch break and beyond.  The partnership came to a sudden end when Cook got a thin edge on a straight ball from Maharaj after playing a loose drive to a wide ball. As people who read below the line on the preview post will already know, this means that Cook now has 49 innings against South Africa and Australia since his last century.

Three overs later, Westley lost his wicket after hanging his bat well outside the line to a short and wide delivery from Rabada. This meant the fluent Root was joined by Dawid Malan, another batsman playing for a place in the next series. Malan seemed to be in better shape than in the previous game, or perhaps the conditions being less conducive to swing helped him somewhat. Either way, it was an improved but still unconvincing second game with a few loose shots and near-misses before he eventually fell edging a wide drive to second slip just before Tea.

Root and Stokes piled on the runs fairly quickly, but not without some risk. Root in particular was lucky to survive an edge which South African wicketkeeper de Kock watched go past. Fortunately for the tourists, Root only added another 12 runs as he fell for 52 runs to an LBW appeal. Root unsuccessfully appealed the decision, which suggests his judgment of such things is just as poor in front of the stumps as it is behind them. This put England in the familiar situation of having lost their last specialist batsmen for less than 200 runs, relying on their lower order to build an imposing total. Stokes and Bairstow obliged, putting on another 65 runs before Rabada bowled Stokes in the penultimate over of the day. Toby Roland-Jones came in ahead of Moeen Ali as nightwatchman but amusingly didn’t face a ball, leaving England on 260/6 at the end of the day.

All of which leaves the game fairly evenly poised going into the second day. A quick collapse tomorrow and South Africa will be well ahead, if England’s tail can add another 100 runs or more then they will be happy. Either way, perhaps there will finally be a closely contested game in this series. Comments as always welcomed below.

England vs. South Africa, 4th Test, Preview

So we go into the last Test at Old Trafford with all to play for and though the scoreline on paper at 2-1 looks like it has been a closely fought series, it actually feels that it has been a slightly anti-climatic series with both teams clearly looking like they are in transition. Chris alluded to this in his wrap up of the third Test, that although the series is hanging on a knife-edge, especially without Director Comma’s ‘super series’, that none of the games have been particularly close. As I thought about it a little more, it has been a long while since England have been involved in a series where both they and the opposition have played consistently good cricket in each game of the series. The Ashes in 2015 was an example of a number of wide margin victories as was the Pakistan Test series last summer, where whoever gets on top after Day 2, normally ends up dishing out a bit of thrashing. Now whether this is particularly true just of England (I don’t think it is) or whether the fact that the T20 batting style has crept into the game, resulting in the batsmen failing to put a high price on their wicket, I’m not sure; however most Test enthusiasts amongst us yearn to see another up and down series like the New Zealand Tests in 2015. Whether or not that happens in the near future, I do have my doubts.

From an England point of view, the best thing that they can do is not to think about the dreaded word ‘momentum’. This seems to lull them into a false sense of security as the 2nd Test of the summer showed and instead concentrate on doing the basics right as they did at the Oval. Cook and Stokes played wonderfully contrasting innings in England’s first knock, which resulted in them being around 75 runs above par in tricky batting conditions and all of the bowlers (perhaps with Jimmy excepted) all bowled magnificently. From then, the game was won. It has been particularly interesting to see the reaction of the Media to Toby Roland-Jones’ performance with one or two high profile names already clamoring that he doesn’t have the pace to threaten the Australian batsmen in their home conditions. I find this particularly strange when they have quite rightly been gushing in their praise for Vernon Philander, especially as TRJ bowls around the same speed as Philander and relies on accuracy and a bit of movement to eek good batsmen out (for the record Philanders’ average in Australia is a touch under 30). Now I’m fully aware that most of the media and written press don’t sully themselves with watching county cricket, but if they had, then they might have realised that TRJ has consistently been getting wickets at an average of circa 27 on what is the flattest deck in the country, still I guess that this either doesn’t fit their rhetoric or that they are too lazy to do any research! For me, TRJ has to stay in the team for the rest of the summer at least.

It was also interesting to see Bayliss say that England don’t need 8 batsmen, especially when the English batting line up has a regular habit of falling in heap. Now it is clear to most that Malan hardly had a stellar debut (it happens), but using this as a logic to try and shoehorn Dawson, the very essence of a bits and pieces player, back into the team is just crazy in my opinion and smacks of a certain ‘mood hoover’ having a little word in his ear. For me, England should name exactly the same team for Old Trafford unless the pitch resembles something a bit like the Wankhede! I was also surprised and a little disappointed to see Finn called up as cover for Mark Wood. Now as most on here know, I am a great Finn supporter; however his performances over the past 2 years haven’t backed the selectors faith in having him around the squad; indeed he has been pretty mediocre even in county cricket, which pains me to say. I personally think that Craig Overton or even Jake Ball would have been a better choice as cover; however unless one of England’s main fast bowlers suddenly breaks down tomorrow (I’m writing this on Wednesday evening), then I would simply be amazed if they don’t go with the same seam attack as they did at the Oval.

As for South Africa, they do seem to have some standout players, some players who are probably not up to Test Cricket (yes Heino Kuhn I’m looking at you) and some players with talent who are absolutely frustratingly inconsistent. As for the batting attack, Dean Elgar has to be one of the best openers in the world at the moment, sure you wouldn’t pay the entrance fee just to watch him, but he is someone who has true grit and is able to get the most out of what is a somewhat limited technique. If I was the England batting coach, I’d be making Cook watch his innings at the Oval on repeat, as that was the sort of inning that Cook made his name from in the past. It would also be surprising if both Du Plessis and Amla bat as badly as they did in the 3rd Test, so it would not be a shock to see their batting line up roar back in the 4th Test, England certainly can’t approach it as if the job is done. The seam bowling line up on paper is also one of the best line-ups in the world with Philander (if you can keep him on the pitch), Rabada and Morkel all capable of running through the side. Morris for me, is the wildcard of the South African attack, capable of bowling brilliant spells followed by a spell of utter trash; he sort of reminds me of Andy Caddick, not through looks or bowling action, but that both could be a match winner when they were fully switched on, yet on other days when they simply didn’t fancy it they’re prone to send down a succession of floaty half volleys asking to be hit. South Africa will certainly hope the focused Morris turns up on Friday.

Dmitri, Chris and myself are at the Oval on Friday night getting down with the beered up T20 massive (do say hello if you plan to be there yourselves), so Danny will be on the decks on Friday for the Day 1 report.

As ever thoughts and comments below are always appreciated.

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Fifth Day

Another Test, another one sided result.  England go 2-1 up in the series with the expected thumping win, even if they had to work for it just a little bit today.  Each match in this series has been competitive only for the first couple of days, before playing out with one team dominating the other completely.  To date it’s been reminiscent of the last Ashes series, where despite some rather hopeful comment about how good it had been, the reality was that it was frustratingly predictable after the opening exchanges in each match.  It was topsy-turvy as a series for sure, but the individual games simply weren’t close.  Since that point the pattern has continued, and even the Guardian noticed this morning how few England matches of recent vintage have been remotely close.  It’s something that is begining to become prevalent in the Test game these days, and something to note when singling England out for not showing fight in the fourth innings – they aren’t alone.  Certainly as far as this series is concerned, much the same can be levelled at South Africa at times, albeit Dean Elgar has shown everyone how to do it over the last couple of days.

That this match got as far as it did was down to him.  Despite repeated blows to a damaged finger, he showed character, fought hard and took the runs when on offer with attacking fields.  In short, he played a proper Test innings of the kind that appears to be going out of fashion.  His clear disappointment when walking off the field to a standing ovation for a determined 136 was evidence if it were needed that he’d been intent on batting the day, if only anyone could have stayed with him.

For South Africa to have had any chance at all, they needed Elgar and Temba Bavuma to bat deep into the day, and the dismissal of the latter, and the exposing of the bowlers in the South African line up rather signalled the beginning of the end.  Joe Root has had difficulties with the Decision Review System this series – too keen to send it upstairs for speculative appeals (or too prepared to listen to Jonny Bairstow according to one reading of it), but that’s the nature of a new captain learning who to trust and when to take the review option.  Here was an example of using it supremely well, a straight ball jammed between bat and pad, but looking rather straight.  Aleem Dar made the correct decision in giving it not out, for there was no way he could be sure whether it was bat or pad first (the temptation with the arrival of DRS must be to give those not out routinely anyway), but with it clear it was pad first on replay, it was no surprise to see it overturned.

If Bavuma’s lbw was tight, Vernon Philander’s was an omnishambles.  A ball that didn’t swing or seam in, but was gunbarrel straight from the start, was unaccountably left alone.  One of the easier decisions any umpire will ever have to make, and Toby Roland-Jones was on a hat-trick.   He nearly got it too, the ball flying off the outside edge to a slip cordon diving in all directions to try and get a hand under it.  Roland-Jones has had a fine match – not just with the ball either – and the eight wickets  he took were good reward for the virtues of bowling line and length and nibbling it about a bit.  Maybe it’ll catch on.  Whether he will make a successful Test career or not is open to debate, but the England hierarchy often appear thoroughly obsessed with all seam bowlers being capable of high pace.  It is a curiosity when in the opposite ranks this series there is someone who rarely gets above 80mph but causes teams everywhere no end of difficulty.  That’s not to say for a moment that Roland-Jones can reach those kinds of levels, but it is peculiar that England don’t seem to notice when opposition players who don’t fit the established template succeed.

Elgar’s dismissal came just three balls from the end of the match, given he was the first of a hat-trick taken by Moeen Ali to finish proceedings in a rush.  It was a fine delivery too, slower, loopy and angled into off stump before turning away to take the edge and be caught by Stokes at slip.  The second to Rabada appeared almost a carbon copy, but the ball wasn’t quite as good, though given the difference in batting skill perhaps it didn’t need to be.  Moeen then had to wait for Stokes to complete an over before being the third bowler to bowl a hat-trick ball in the match.  This time, it came off, a straight ball to Morkel defeating the half lunge forward and crashing into the pad.  It looked out live too, though the verdict was in the negative.  The review was clear cut and with that he became the first England off spinner since 1938 to take three in three.  It was also the first ever Test hat-trick at the Oval, only the third time a hat-trick has been taken to win a match (the last example being in 1902), and perhaps most remarkably of all this was the first instance in Test history of four batsmen being dismissed first ball in an innings.  Finally, in the cricketing world of esoteric stat mining, a favourite has to be that it was also the first Test hat-trick where all three victims were left handed.  If the outcome of the match had been beyond doubt for quite a while, it remained an astonishing way for it to finish.

With hindsight the difference in the match was probably England’s first innings.  What appeared to be a reasonable total turned out to be a good one, and South Africa’s bowling not as consistent as perhaps it had seemed to be at the time.  The loss of Philander to illness may well have been critical, for the others didn’t quite manage to fill the gap he left.  South Africa may well have had the worst of the batting conditions under heavy cloud and floodlights, but the alternative to that is to go off the field when there is artificial light.  If it’s not dangerous, then play should go on, and being on the receiving end of that is just bad luck of the same nature as being put into bat on a green seamer.

With such huge swings in fortunes both in this series and recently, especially involving England, it would be a brave pundit who would predict the outcome of the final match in the series at Old Trafford starting Friday.  There is no reason to assume the frailties of the England side on show at Trent Bridge have been solved, indeed South Africa’s fourth innings resistance here was several order higher than England’s capitulation last time out.  Judging by current patterns, it would seem mostly likely one team will thrash the other, with no real reason to be sure which way around that will be.

The England debutants had a mixed time of it – Roland-Jones was excellent, Tom Westley promising, while Dawid Malan didn’t get to make much of a contribution.  In all three cases a single Test match explains nothing.  Roland-Jones’ eight wickets in the match equalled the debut performance of Neil Mallender for example, not necessarily the career trajectory he would hope to duplicate, while plenty of batsmen who have had good careers didn’t do so well first time out.  Whether Keaton Jennings did enough with his second innings 48 to retain his spot is more open to question, but the increasing frustration at the revolving door of England openers means that at some point they have to make a decision and keep to it for a time.  Mark Stoneman is talked about as the next option, mostly because Haseeb Hameed has had a poor first class summer – but with little first class cricket to change that, it will still end up being about having an opener against the much weaker West Indies who has the chance to cash in and earn a place on the Ashes tour, with no one any the wiser as to whether it’s the right call.  England are in the same position with uncertainty over an opening batsman that they were three years ago following the premature discarding of Michael Carberry.

For South Africa, and given the usual nature of the Old Trafford surface, they will be confident they have the bowling weapons to bowl England out cheaply twice.  Morris was less effective (and more expensive) here than in Nottingham, but a fit and healthy Vernon Philander could make the difference.  What they do with the batting order is perhaps of more interest.  Quinton de Kock’s elevation to number four didn’t pay dividends here, and while anyone can have a quiet game, the doubts about the wisdom of over-working the wicketkeeper must continue.  A number four will be fully padded up and preparing to go in at the fall of the first wicket, and De Kock would have been at that point after eight overs and five overs of the respective innings, having kept for over a hundred overs and eighty overs just previously.  It’s asking an awful lot of his mental resilience no matter how physically fit he might be.

One thing does seem likely: with these two sides few would feel that a draw (unless rain affected) at Old Trafford is the obvious result.  Both are flawed, both are prone to collapses and have brittle looking batting orders, and both have decent bowling attacks. It really is anyone’s guess what will happen, but it would be a pleasant change if at least it could be reasonably close.

 

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Day Four

With England leading by 250 runs overnight and two whole days left to play, there were only two questions people were asking about the day’s play: “When will England declare?” and “How many wickets will South Africa have lost by the end of the day?”. The answer to the first question was a lot later than a lot of people would like, especially for Australian former leg spinners employed by Sky. England were clearly in no rush to build up their lead, slowly accumulating runs through the day.

Jennings was the first wicket to fall, having added 14 more runs to his overnight total before edging a short ball from Rabada to gully. This brought out Joe Root, who together with Westley batted carefully through to the lunch break. Today’s innings from Westley showed great promise for people looking for a successor to Jonathan Trott at 3 for England. In a position where many pundits and fans would have wanted their batsmen to score quickly to leave more time to bowl out South Africa, Westley scored his 31 runs today at a glacial strike rate of 30. In an innings where he was the top scorer in England’s top 6 and in a game which his team is likely to win with at least a session to spare, Westley will likely be attacked for being too slow. You can’t get more like Trott than that.

After Lunch, England tried to increase the pace with mixed results. Westley added another 9 runs before being stumped after misreading a spinner from Maharaj, quickly followed by Root hitting a slog sweep straight to the man on the boundary and Malan being given out LBW on review after an inswinger from Morris. This has probably been a debut to forget for Dawid Malan, only scoring 11 runs and both dismissals being to similar full inswinging balls which he couldn’t get forward to. Between the three debutants, Malan seems the most vulnerable for being dropped in the next Test.

In a now familiar story England’s lower order outshone the specialist batsmen, scoring big runs and quickly. Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, and Roland-Jones scored a combined 125 runs in the session from only 119 balls. When Bairstow lost his wicket for 63 just before Tea, England declared with a lead of 491.

With such a massive target, South Africa’s only hope was to bat out the evening session. Those hopes were given an early blow by Stuart Broad, who bowled Heino Kuhn in just the sixth over. Hashim Amla followed soon after, edging a delivery from Toby Roland-Jones to slip. In a remarkable statistical feat, Roland-Jones has dismissed Amla in all 3 international innings he has ever bowled, both innings of this game and an ODI before the Champions Trophy. Bunny doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In the very next over, Stokes took another two wickets from two balls. De Kock was bowled by a quick full ball, whilst du Plessis was given out LBW after not playing a shot for the second time in this game. Elgar and Bavuma negotiated the remaining 21 overs in the day without major incident, leaving England with six wickets to take tomorrow or South Africa with an incredibly unlikely 375 runs to score.

As always, comments on the game (or almost anything else) are welcome below.