This has been a very different last few days. My thanks to Chris for stepping up to carry out the reports from the last three days of the test. I just couldn’t do the action justice, at times feeling extremely sorry for myself, as the great match passed by with me swilling salt water, popping painkillers, administering antibiotics, and caressing clove oil onto a very sore tooth that refused to give up telling me how much it hated my guts. I missed Saturday’s play (and a sincere apology to my hosts, yet again, for not being able to make it, and for missing the chance to meet a genuine legend of the past) and spent most of that day laying down trying desperately to get some sleep. It’s not really conducive to blogging. While the pain has eased, no doubt to the great sorrow of some of my biggest supporters, the fact I’ve been in the hands of others to keep the show rolling again is of some concern. Here’s hoping for a successful Friday, when I go under the local at the same time as the afternoon session draws to a close on Day 1 in Manchester.
But I saw enough to bring a smile to my cricketing heart. The temptation is to take this victory as something more than it is – a good win against a good side, which England are – and extrapolate to a whole series. After all, just two years ago India won at Lord’s and we were thinking the same, before they collapsed in a heap in the remaining three test matches, so that Alastair didn’t have to “nearly resign” at the end of that campaign. But we had the sense, did we not, that this win was somehow more substantial than that Indian one? First up, the bowling looks pretty decent, and there are others who might be able to come into the team without markedly weakening it. Also there are three left armers, and England have had their struggles in the past against that form of bowling. Then add on top the leg spin of Yasir Shah, and England are facing a somewhat more deadly foe, it seems, than India. Then, against India, we feared the visitors batting, and thought we would win, easily, a bowling contest (although the Rose Bowl was anything but that). Here, we sense a bowling contest may yield a 50/50 contest, while a batting shootout is not going to be in anyone’s favour it seems, as they are seen to be weaknesses.
Many are saying it was a good toss to win. Many also said after half an hour that this was a nailed on draw, on a boring Mick Hunt wicket, where at the end of play on Day 1, England were seen to be well ahead by many. Step back a bit and look at last Summer for a reference point. England won 4 tests and lost 3. In the three they lost, they batted second. In all three the winners stuck on over 300 in the first innings and England appeared to wilt under scoreboard pressure in English conditions. In the four victories we batted first in two of them – NZ at Lord’s, Australia in Cardiff – and made decent first innings totals. In the two we won, we skittled Australia out for shirt buttons in the first innings. In UAE this winter, Pakistan batted first in all three matches, won the series 2-0, and did that in the two games where they made 378 and 234 in their first innings, not the one where they made 500+. Indeed the only test in recent memory where England faced down a team that got 300+ in the first dig to win was the Joburg test, when England reaped a favourable overhead condition and one of those Stuart Broad spells to whistle out the hosts for next to nothing in the 3rd innings. It may be that batting first against England, on anything other than a green top, is a good recipe for success. Hence, let’s see how Pakistan go if England get a first go to see if this is something worth pursuing further. (Think back to 2013, when in that Ashes series, we won when we batted first, didn’t do well when Aussie did). But it’s a little bit of a pattern, which may indicate some endemic mental frailties?
Of course, after a test like that, questions are asked of the home team. In a sport where there are just 10 wickets per innings going around, and one of your players gets 11 of the total, eyes are going to be cast at the others. Jake Ball had his status as debutant to fall back on, and it will remain to be seen if that is his only test for a while despite not letting himself down by any means. With Anderson and Stokes returning, he seems surplus to requirements. Steven Finn will find himself under a lot of pressure, and rightly so, but every time I think that, I also think what might have been, and why he is still such an enticing presence when he’s not in the team. He has the capacity to be horrible. To be a bowler no-one wants to face, but it doesn’t happen often enough. Chris Woakes had a game for the ages, with his bowling threatening and his lower order batting also resilient and intelligent. It is easy to be seduced by a bowler taking wickets and scoring runs. Broad at the start of his career, and Goughie too, were seen as pseudo-all rounders, good to bat at number 8, but regressed as their number one suit had to take preference. Woakes is showing no signs of either, and his temperament is what impresses me more than perhaps the wicket taking. He seems to have a solid head on those shoulders. Broad had a run-of-the-mill bowling performance, while any time Moeen Ali is attacked, the media push the panic button and start hunting around for the spinner who is taking wickets that week. I note Rashid is back in the squad today.
The fact that two bowlers are likely to be dropped, and a third possibly, is the general hilarity that comes with a match where the batsmen undoubtedly lost it. I think Talking Heads sung it best. Same as it ever was. Alex Hales had, by all accounts as I didn’t see a lot of it, a good series against Sri Lanka, but this was a match he’ll want to forget. Fact is, he’s always going to be hit and miss with the way he goes about things. I think he’ll be the sort that if persevered with is going to give you a series for the ages, followed by one for the aged not long after. It is up to England if that is what they want. Root at three is neither proved a success or failure judged on a performance where he looked ok defensively but got out to two expansive shots which always attract the ire of the cognoscenti. If he’d been got out to a defensive shot against the new ball, the clarion calls would have been deafening. Instead of knowing how Compton felt, he probably knows a little bit more about how KP did. Vince is not convincing (sorry) anyone at this moment. The suspicion that the promotion to test status was based more on some attractive stroke play than longevity and sustainability is growing. Dobell uttered those thoughts on podcasts a good while ago, but other more persuasive voices have held sway. He may have the series, he may just have the next game, but the sands of time are running out. There aren’t exactly many new faces being put forward – the fact the two I’ve seen are Robson and Bell sort of sum it up – is one slight factor in Vince’s favour. Dropping catches while struggling is not a good look.
Gary Ballance was brought back on the say so, we are given to believe, of James Whitaker. His return wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great. He’s not changed the technique that had the scribes panicking but then again it was a style that nabbed him four test hundreds in less than 12 months. His second innings dismissal was alarming for someone who might be needed to play the spin in India this winter, but then again, Strauss once got exposed like that and he did OK. The fact is that Ballance isn’t an exciting pick, but he has the temperament which is one big tick in the box. He’s got a while to go but I suspect we know how this is going to end. Jonny Bairstow was a huge plus for me. He looked very dodgy against Yasir in the UAE and again in the first innings, but his second innings performance showed he learned quickly, not without fault, and his confidence has really helped his temperament for the game. His keeping will always have the pundits and fans nervous. People, we aren’t picking the best keeper if he isn’t capable of test hundreds while this top order is the brittle mess it is at the moment. It just isn’t going to happen, so don’t wish your life away hoping for it. Moeen’s thrash in the second innings isn’t going to go down in his scrapbook of favourite memories, but one thing with Ali is that he will forget about it, and move on to his next match. Again, he has a couple of test hundreds, plays selflessly for the team, and there isn’t a spinner in county cricket begging to be selected. You have to be practical.
And Cook. 81 in the first innings, a poke and a low score in the second. It’s Cook. It is who he is. While the first innings was aggressive, full of intent and the highest score made by an England player in the match, when he was needed in the second innings, it never happened. SimonH has noted he hasn’t a great record in 4th innings when chasing down a gettable total. I saw his ton in Perth when we were chasing 500+ in the 4th and that was the sort of knock needed here. The ball that got him could have got anyone out, but it was also the sort of ball you expect to receive as a test opener. Let’s put it this way, if Hales had got out to the same ball, no-one would be giving the bowler all the praise, and instead be pointing out that Hales showed a weakness outside off stump. That’s what 10000 runs, a free pass from the media and a Twitter feed in hock to your genius gets you. As for his captaincy, I never really got to see Pakistan bat (work on Thursday, pain on Saturday) so couldn’t comment. His comments after the game? I’d like to see / hear the context before going totally at him for them, but let’s say this. He’s got form for being a little churlish.
The test was won by a team who put together a decent display despite showing weaknesses. The openers aren’t going to scare anyone, although you feel Hafeez might put it together in one knock in the series. I am a big fan of Azhar Ali, but it wasn’t his best game. Younus looked a little dodgy to say the least, but woe betide we let him get into form. Ramiz Raja was going on about him being over the hill, and with his eyes going, while then offering all sorts of praise to a 42 year old! Asad Shafiq is a gritty customer, and played two really vital knocks in a performance that went right under the radar, but vital to stem the bleeding in the first innings and set a target in the second. Misbah’s hundred got all the praise it deserved on Thursday, and his captaincy looks calm and assured, a leader of men indeed. Sarfraz had a funny old game behind the stumps, but appears to be that noisy nuisance that’s a joy for your team in the field and batting, but a pain in the rear end for the opposition. And we’ve said what needed to be said about the bowling before. Amir’s return was overshadowed by Yasir Shah – who went from barely mentioned prior to this test in the Amir brouhaha to Shane Warne status in the space of 48 hours – while Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali were threats throughout in a league above what we saw from Sri Lanka. It was ironic / fitting that Amir applied the final coup de grace with Ball’s wicket, and the wish we had on here, that Pakistan would provide decent opposition was confirmed. 1-0 up in a four match series, in a really fun, hard fought test match.
A couple more observations from the game. We’ve seen Pakistan’s 2-0 win in the UAE almost ignored in the light of the 2-1 win in South Africa and the 3-2 win v the Aussies that preceded it. That defeat was dismissed as “alien conditions” and “we never win there” when teams like New Zealand and South Africa had won tests in the Emirates. Pakistan came to their alien conditions, with only really Younus Khan a dab hand at them in the past (Azhar Ali played a very good knock at the Oval in 2010, but not much else) in terms of batting, and won a closely fought contest. Maybe that 2-0 win will garner some more respect as a result? The other point is that while it was wonderful to see a great test, this doesn’t mean test cricket is “back”. People point to a four day test future, and imagine what that would have done to this game (do you seriously believe we’ll be seeing 100 over test days? really?). England would have shut up shop rather than chasing the game. The five day test needs to be preserved when the pace of over rates is so slow. The test match also conflicted with the Open Golf, the Tour de France, the Davis Cup (and wasn’t that a great win) and football will soon be upon us. Great games don’t hurt, but there’s a long way to go. But it looks an exciting one.
Old Trafford is usually a good cricket wicket, the weather is always dodgy in Manchester (joke) and the last time we played Pakistan there, didn’t we hammer them in 2006 behind top performances by Harmy and Monty (19 wickets and a run out), and a ton each for Cook and Bell? Here’s hoping for another terrific contest, and who knows, maybe some more press-ups for us all to enjoy.
Or was there something else I needed to talk about?