It is perhaps perversely illustrative of the issues Test cricket faces that after two days play there is considerable intrigue at where this match is going, and rather more pleasure at the way that it is developing into a proper scrap. Despite all ECB attempts to portray the last Ashes as a classic, each Test was more or less over by the end of day two, the direction of travel beyond retrieval. Thus, the prospect of an even fight is in itself an attraction, and as far as Lords is concerned at least, reflected in strong ticket sales. Give the public something to watch, and they’ll turn out. This is of course helped by Pakistan not having come here for six years, precisely the importance of not killing the golden goose by playing the same teams constantly. Whether it’s a lesson the ECB will learn seems unlikely – the four year Ashes cycle that was promised to return is already being compromised as administrators look after their immediate financial interests rather than the game itself.
This isn’t anything new, nor is it remotely something of which critics are unaware, yet it bears repeating at every opportunity, for the matter of the game’s integrity is more important than anything else in cricket. Pakistan are a talented team, and one who are good to watch. There are wider reasons for their long absence from this country, but it doesn’t mean there is any excuse should it be a similar gap before their next visit.
For the second day running, the scheduled 90 overs were not bowled in the day. The bulk of the bowling was from Pakistan, after England bowled them out in fairly short order, meaning that both sides have been guilty of not providing ticket holders with what they had paid for. A ticket in the Compton stand was £90, making the mathematics rather straightforward. Yesterday we were three overs short, today it was four. This is after the additional half an hour was played in order to complete the allocation. The television coverage gently mentions it from time to time, but suffers from the fundamental problem that all the media does, written or broadcast, which is that they aren’t paying for their entrance – the very opposite. Ultimately, they don’t care any more than the players do about what is, without a shadow of a doubt, theft. That might be a strong word, but it’s a disgraceful, entirely unacceptable state of affairs. Players get fined occasionally (note that the money is not returned to the spectators, as it should be) but almost the entire series in South Africa suffered from shortened days in terms of overs, and nothing whatever was done. Fundamentally, as if we did not know already, the players and the ICC do not care about the spectators except as a revenue stream.
Doubtless if put to them they would protest that, but the fact is that nothing is done about it, and nothing is ever said to those unhappy about it. Both yesterday and today the crowds thinned out around 6pm, the scheduled close of play, as the crowd caught trains or buses home. This is meant to be when it finishes, so there is a contempt already present by not meeting the timings imposed; to then fail to get the overs in within the additional time allowed is nothing short of scandalous. The match referee then looks at it over the course of the Test, which is ridiculous in itself given that most people go for a single day’s play – it doesn’t help them if the over rate speeds up later on.
There are various ideas about how to prevent this happening, but the given the current sanctions aren’t used a great deal anyway, there’s little point even talking about them, as it seems unlikely they’d be used either. Both captains should be banned for the next match. But they won’t be. No one suffers – except the poor bloody spectator who pays for the game to be put on in the first place.
Chris Woakes is one of those figures whose first class record suggests an all rounder of rare ability, genuinely worthy of a place with both bat and ball, yet to date in his international career he has been more likely to be in receipt of comment that neither discipline is good enough, that he is, as the parlance goes, a bits and pieces cricketer. There has been defence of him on these pages, but his presence in the team has been anything but universally welcomed. In the same way that early struggles shouldn’t be a reason to his dismiss him, nor should his current success mean that he is a fixture for years to come, yet there are signs he is coming to terms with the standard, not just today, but in recent games where he has been one of the better performers. His 6-70 was outstanding, his halting of the Pakistani charge through the England line up in the last session highly meritorious. The one area where England have a notable advantage over the visitors is in the lower middle order. Woakes has hinted at batting ability often enough without going on to make a significant score – partly due to his lowly position at 8 or 9 – but in a tight game, a contribution from him could make all the difference.
Alastair Cook was the prime contributor to the England score, and in so doing became the highest Test run scorer of any opening batsman, overtaking Sunil Gavaskar. Longevity may not be the most important attribute in analysing a player’s worth, but nor is it to be ignored either. Opening the batting remains a uniquely challenging occupation in cricket, and the landmark is worthy of praise. Yet today he seemed somewhat out of sorts, playing and missing outside off stump frequently (and being turned square far too often) as well as having two escapes when straightforward edges were dropped. Most batsmen will worry little about that, factoring in the occasions where brilliant catches are taken or dubious decisions are given as evening up the ledger. But the slightly out of sync technique brought his downfall, dragging the ball on to the stumps as he failed to get across to it outside off stump. He’s not quite in top form.
Joe Root was clearly upset with himself for his dismissal; a poor shot undoubtedly, not for the first time recently. Perhaps he will receive genuine criticism for the first time in a while, but it seems few will be as hard on him as he will himself. Jonny Bairstow too was guilty of a poor shot, one borne perhaps of overconfidence as much as anything. Many a batsman will say that you don’t make hundreds when you are in the very best of form, because you take chances you wouldn’t do if the fear of dismissal was in the back of the mind.
But if those were somewhat self-inflicted – most dismissals are batsman error – it doesn’t detract from the performance of Yasir Shah. To take five wickets on day two of a Test at Lords, where pitches are usually flat and slow, is some achievement. England consistently have problems with legspin, despite their protests that they have learned lessons, and so it proved here. Given that the seam attack was a little off colour (not helped by the drops) it was ominous that England struggled so.
Late in the day the tale of two lbw decisions pointed the way to the future. Firstly Moeen Ali was given out despite two elements on umpire’s call in the decision. It was of course out by the rules pertaining to Hawkeye, but the question is whether it should be. If there are two points of doubt, surely there is doubt all round? The second example was the appeal against Stuart Broad, it was not out according to the current playing regulations, but when the new ones come in later this year, it would be. There have to be concerns that the number of lbw decisions will increase quite substantially, and matches shortened accordingly.
England are 86 runs behind with three wickets left. They could get close, they could be rolled over in short order. Not having a good idea where the match is going is when Test cricket is at its best. Day three may be pivotal, it may not. But the point is that there will be interest in finding out.
Day three comments below