Ah, May. A time for the preparation of pitches up and down the summer, for club batsmen to walk ruefully back to the pavilion having horribly mistimed one that stuck in the pitch, and for England to begin their Test schedule for the year with the joys of what is always a warm up series no matter how they try and pretend otherwise. And this year it’s Sri Lanka. Again. It was only two years ago they were last here, when of course they rather memorably won a two Test series, where Alastair Cook had a thorough meltdown as captain, where the glorious Kumar Sangakkara scored a memorable hundred at Lords, and where Jimmy Anderson ended in tears at being out to the penultimate ball to settle the result.
Now apologies are due for mentioning any of that, but it seemed wise, given that this particular series appears to have been wiped from the collective memory banks of the great and good in the media, but it was remarkable for the contrast between sublime and shambolic, and more remarkable still for apparently never having happened. Yet to come back only two years later for another go is in itself worthy of comment. It’s really Bangladesh’s turn, who haven’t been to England since 2010, and aren’t scheduled to either. It will be at least ten years between tours of England for them, and most likely longer. Pretences about the sanctity of Test cricket and the importance of the game should always be viewed in the context of the ECB not remotely caring about Bangladesh. The same applies of course to Zimbabwe but here at least they can point to the government not allowing them over, but given the Bangladesh situation, it is not exactly radical thought to believe it would be no different.
Instead we have a young, inexperienced Sri Lanka side shorn of their greats, who in May conditions in the north of England should be beaten comfortably. There are a couple of points about the venues for these games, Lords of course gets two Tests each summer, but after last summer’s Ashes which didn’t venture north of Nottingham, only one of the main event against Pakistan is in the north of England (Old Trafford). With Headingley and Chester-Le-Street selected for the lesser series, and only one of the Pakistan series in the north, a year after none of the Ashes matches were suggests that the jibe that Strauss and the others won’t venture outside London seems to have some validity. Perhaps the ECB boxes aren’t as good. Indeed, last year and this London will have had six Tests, while the whole of the north of England only four – and only one of those against the main attraction of the summer.
The second issue that always crops up is the supposed unfairness of Sri Lanka and other similar sides being forced to play in the colder spring rather than in conditions more conducive, and here the sympathy is in less abundance. For few complain about England being forced to play in the heat of Colombo, and it’s no different in principle. Touring sides play in alien conditions, that’s always been the case, and England don’t get given a free pass for when it doesn’t suit them, and nor should they.
What it does mean is that England’s defeat last time around remains one of the more abject in recent times, made worse by being largely self-inflicted on so many levels. It is unlikely this will be repeated in 2016, for England, for all their faults, are a better side than they were then, and Alastair Cook’s captaincy has been unquestionably liberated by the replacement of Flower and Cook and is, if not exactly dynamic, rather more competent than it was two years ago.
Cook himself will almost certainly reach the landmark of 10,000 Test runs this series, and it is undoubtedly an achievement of serious merit. What it won’t be is the mark of all time greatness that the thoughtless will undoubtedly bestow on him. It is so often regarded as being sour, but it is simply being realistic. Cook is an excellent player and one of the best England have had in the last 30 years. He has technical problems certainly, but his ability to overcome them is worthy of high praise, and his concentration levels are genuinely astounding. When he’s in, he grinds on remorselessly. So it is nothing other than setting it in context, that a player who plays as long as he has done is likely to reach landmarks that those of the past could only dream about even if they played for the same period in terms of years. The 16 Tests across the calendar year of 2016 are evidence of that. Number of Tests played is now the indicator, not time and certainly not age, no matter how often some try to roll out the stat about reaching landmarks earlier than Tendulkar.
Hyperbole rules across so many areas of modern life, but it creates entirely unnecessary resentment by hagiographical approaches to what is a fine achievement on its own terms, without trying to pretend it is something else.
James Vince seems quite likely to make his debut in this series after the health enforced retirement of James Taylor, and he will join a batting order that is still somewhat in flux. Joe Root, Cook himself, Ben Stokes are all secure, but this is a big series for Alex Hales and also for Nick Compton. Hales had his troubles in South Africa but is not the first at the top of the order to have had difficulty against strong opposition. Indeed his record in that series was barely any different from Cook himself, which within the context of one of those players having a thoroughly established record and the other not, still needs to be considered – seemingly the selectors have done so. Yet it is probably the case that this series is where Hales needs to make some kind of impact. Given England’s remarkable ability to go through openers not called Cook (sometimes even when they’ve done better than someone called Cook) it is to be hoped that some stability is around the corner.
Compton on the other hand did ok in South Africa. Not outstanding, certainly, but he did alright. The scrutiny on him always appears to be more about his character than anything else – precedents have been thoroughly set. Further down the order Jonny Bairstow’s main task is to improve his wicketkeeping. He had a wonderful series with the bat in South Africa, but less so with the gloves. He’s a part time keeper over much of his career, and patience is needed with him. Most of the mistakes he made were those of someone who doesn’t do it all the time. He will get better, and if delving into the dangerous territory of predictions, it would be to say that as his keeping does get better, he’ll go through a drop in batting form. Getting both disciplines to work at the same time is always a tough challenge.
The exclusion of Ian Bell from this series does suggest England are unlikely to go back to him. It is to be hoped that England have at least told him where he stands, and done so on the basis of truth not expediency. England are just terrible at this – there comes a time when it is right to move on, but they so rarely handle it well. Which brings me to another matter: In the women’s team, Charlotte Edwards’ more or less enforced retirement was entirely out of keeping with the service she has given England over 20 years. It may well be entirely the right decision to go with younger players, but surely it cannot be right for someone who gives half their life to the England cause (much of which was not paid remember) to be unceremoniously discarded that way. Cricketing decisions need to be made, but respect is due to her for her achievements and commitment, and it appears to have been forgotten. Her statement that it came as a shock suggests no-one had talked to her about how they saw the future over the last year, and that’s just poor for such a great servant. It is is easy to add two and two and make five, so let’s just say it is to be hoped that Sarah Taylor’s sabbatical is unrelated to the management of that.
The Test series beginning tomorrow is one that I shall miss almost in its entirety. Work is calling and I shall be out of the country until the middle of June (Thailand, Laos and Indonesia if you’re asking – and you haven’t) so all the comments will be my means of keeping up with what has happened. See you on the other side.
Day One comments below please