As Chris so elegantly described in his last post, England are somewhat riding the crest of a wave with our current ODI team’s performance, something that none of us thought we would be saying after the nadir of the 2015 World Cup and a million miles away from the “look at the data” comments post Bangladesh hiding. Hales, Roy, Root and Buttler have all stood up with the bat and can be counted amongst the top level of ODI batsmen and we also now have a battery of fast bowlers that can cause the opposition all sorts of problems on most pitches around the world. Credit where credit is due, Morgan, Bayliss, Farbrace and Director, England Cricket have woken up, smelt the coffee and have encouraged the England players to play attacking cricket without worrying about being dropped for playing what could be perceived as a reckless shot. This has led to a settled team playing very good white ball cricket; Yes there will be times when our batting collapses in a heap trying to be too adventurous but I’m sure most would be happy to accept this in the overall scheme of moving our white ball cricket forward.
Naturally, I am finally glad to be able to witness an England team playing this attacking style of cricket and looking to push the boundaries (whatever that means, it seems to be uttered in every post match interview), but what I am struggling to understand is why England haven’t rested Root or Moeen, who have played all formats all summer. Yes, I agree it’s good to have consistency of selection and results have shown that, but not if it burns out two important players in what is likely to be a packed and arduous winter. Surely it would have been good to have seen more of Dawson, Malan or Duckett so England can pick their best team for the Champions Trophy from a pool of 18-20 players rather than grind some of our better players into the ground and then hope and prey they don’t get injured; after all, we’re all too tiresomely aware of England’s bad habit of sticking with a certain formula and then throwing someone else into the team in a panic when someone loses form or gets injured just before a major tournament. C’est la vie, just my opinion anyway.
So from the positive to the slightly negative and without wanting to be churlish, Pakistan have looked like a side that either wishes it was back on the plane or perhaps more worryingly that they are setting out to play the type of outdated cricket that England were quite rightly criticised for during the Peter Moores reign. Scores of 350+ are now the norm rather than the exception, especially with pitches more akin to ‘bowlers graveyards’ being readily prepared all around the world, so Pakistan’s cautious approach to the first three ODI’s has been somewhat mystifying, though naturally their comedy fielding hasn’t exactly helped matters either. One could rightly point out that the lack of a substantial domestic competition in Pakistan has hindered them massively (despite the advent of the PSL), as it has enormously, but that isn’t much compensation to those fans that were looking forward to an even contest between the two teams. Unfortunately, I can only see another couple of easy wins for England in the next couple of games, which I hope doesn’t take the gloss off what was a very good Test series.
Anyway for those that want to comment on the 4th ODI, please do so below:
Since the first one day match nearly 50 years ago England have had a rather troubled relationship with the format. Despite protestations to the contrary over that time, it has taken a clear second place to Test cricket in both the affections of English fans and the ECB itself. Where the horse and the cart are located is an open question, but despite reaching three World Cup finals it’s a poor record compared to any of the other major nations. The World T20 win in 2010, propelled by He Who Must Not Be Mentioned remains the only global title England have ever won, a shockingly poor return.
England have had periods of some success of course, but always with the feeling that they were carrying an extra load on their backs. The innovation came from from others, England last showing signs of thinking differently when they pushed Ian Botham up to open the batting in Australia in 1987. The 1992 tournament turned out to be something of a high water mark meaning that for a substantial proportion of followers England have been dreadful their entire lives. Of course that’s a slight exaggeration, there have been times where they’ve put in good performances, won series and reached finals ; likewise there have been players who have been good performers in both 20 and 50 overs, and yet although individual players were considered dangerous – Pietersen most notably recently – it never amounted to a side who would ever truly scare the opposition.
With the invention of T20 at professional level, it moved to a different plane, as all the major sides upped the ante. Where scores of 300 were regarded as exceptional, they now became the norm, with 400+ now not even proving a safe score as Australia found in South Africa. But not for England. Stories abounded of them being hidebound by computer modelling, of aiming for “competitive” scores that the data told them they would win with, only to be battered. Graeme Swann has rarely proved to be a reliable witness but his stories of England’s tactical thinking seemed all too plausible.
The nadir came at the 2015 World Cup, where England failed to get out of their group, something that takes a considerable degree of effort considering the determination of the ICC to try to render the group stages to be as meaningless as possible, except financially. They left to derision from the cricket world, and contempt at home, a path their football and rugby equivalents would follow soon enough.
And yet. With hindsight perhaps the first glimmers of a new approach came at around that time. The removal of Alastair Cook from the side, to his clear and very public disgust, was long overdue – not because he isn’t a good player, but because his style of batting is simply obsolete in short form cricket. His replacement Eoin Morgan’s clearly stated dissatisfaction with the method England were employing became ever more obvious during the disastrous performances in Australia, while the omission of Ben Stokes from the squad and refusal to pick Alex Hales seemed symptomatic of a setup that simply didn’t appear to understand one day cricket, thinking it a contraction of Tests not an expansion of T20. For the first time though, the players were showing the smallest hints of rebellion, and the appointment of Paul Farbrace to the England coaching staff seemed entirely at odds with a side approaching the game in such a conservative fashion.
The removal of Peter Moores as coach appeared to be the catalyst for finally attempting to play the game as the rest of the world had been doing for some years, and the bonus of New Zealand being the first visitors post World Cup forced the change in concept, both in one day cricket and Test cricket. England have a lot to be thankful to their teachers for. Andrew Strauss’s decision to retain Morgan as captain was, if not a brave one as such, certainly not what was expected. Farbrace’s determination that England play with freedom wasn’t remotely the first time it had been said, but it was the first time anyone had ever meant it. The old line about scoring at ten an over but don’t take any risks which was unquestionably the way England thought gave way to a more forgiving environment where taking risks was encouraged, and failure in that pursuit forgiven. This is perhaps the biggest, most important change England ever made. Freeing up players to express themselves is only truly possible if those players do not feel a presence looking over their shoulders in the event that they fail. There are endless buzz terms to describe that, but it still amounts to accepting that failure is the price of success.
The impact was immediate, England going over 400 for the first time in a series where they scored at least 300 every time except in a rain affected D/L win. Whereas before 300 was the upper limit of England’s aspirations, they were suddenly viewing it as the bare minimum. The second match, a defeat, perhaps best expressed the remarkable change in thinking. New Zealand had scored an impressive 398-5, the kind of total England couldn’t ever have hoped to try to chase down. They fell short alright, but only by 13 runs. For the first time, there was a feeling that England might actually be developing the kind of side to seriously challenge large totals.
New players were being brought in, not because they were being analysed for a Test place, but because they were outstanding one day prospects. Jason Roy had a slowish start but was kept faith with; Ben Stokes was brought back; Alex Hales was no longer kicking his heels and carrying drinks but opening the batting and being told to play the way he can. From an era where England relied on the middle order to try to raise the tempo from a solid start, they were suddenly going at it from the off, with those below tasked with maintaining the momentum, not rescuing a lost cause and aiming for respectability.
A series defeat to Australia followed, and the flip side of the determination to attack showed itself in the decider, where England collapsed to 138 all out and were thrashed. This perhaps proved to be the most important test, for rather than retreating into their shells they instead, under new coach Trevor Bayliss, reaffirmed their determination to play in the same way and to consider such failures as nothing other than an occupational hazard. There’s an irony here – for so long asserting that high risk approach as being the way a player or a team does things has been used as a stick with which to beat them. Grasping that risk is part of the equation has always seemed beyond a certain, very English kind of mindset.
A comfortable series win in the UAE against Pakistan showed that England could play more than one way under different conditions, for that kind of away series offered different challenges and different upper limits in terms of scoring. It also marked a change in bowling approach to stop simply using the Test bowlers – not for the sake of it, but because there were better one day options available. Jason Roy too finally showed what he is capable of, and with Jos Buttler rapidly becoming a player to genuinely fear, for the first time in living memory England had a top five or six where every single one of them could seriously damage opponents. One player not mentioned so far is Joe Root, and it could be said that he is performing the kind of role given in previous years to Cook or Trott – the conventional player around whom the others would bat. The difference being that Root is a true modern cricketer, multi-dimensional and capable of all formats. A run a ball as the base minimum is not at all bad when others are scoring even faster.
England lost the subsequent series in South Africa, but not before once again approaching the 400 mark and not before once again overreaching and falling short in two matches to cost the series. That caused the first criticism from the press of how England were playing, that they needed to learn to lower their sights. Although never being explicit about it, the message that came back when reading between the lines was to reject that kind of thinking completely, that bad days given the nature of the format were inevitable and that if England were truly to become the best, then this was the only way they would achieve it.
It is of course impossible to assess a wider view on how that response was received, but at least anecdotally, English supporters appeared to be fully behind it, and much more willing to accept the bad days than the media were. In most sports, supporters tend to be more forgiving of failure if they have faith in the approach. And this one was exciting – reaching for the stars is more thrilling than simply aiming to get off the ground, even when it doesn’t quite work out.
Which brings us to yesterday.
Given the history of England in one day cricket, the very idea that England would break the world record total was perhaps one of the most laughable that could be conceived. Perhaps only Bangladesh or Zimbabwe of the full members would ever be thought less likely to do such a thing, and undoubtedly eyebrows will be raised around the world that it was England (“What, England?”) who set the new target. But it’s been coming. While results have been a little up and down, the likelihood that England would give a bowling attack a right royal pasting has been increasing all the time. Pakistan may not be at the level they have been, but their bowling is their strong suit, and yesterday they were simply destroyed.
Perhaps symptomatic of England’s troubled history is that their national record for the highest individual score had stood for over 20 years, and while Robin Smith’s 167 is a fine score in any era, that it barely crept into the top 40 of highest individual scores – with the best ever nearly a hundred more – was as good an example of how badly England had been left behind as you could find. Smith’s record may have stood for 23 years, but there are no guarantees at all that Hales’ new mark will stand for as long as 23 days. Jason Roy came close only recently, and Jos Buttler, Joe Root or Ben Stokes look capable of beating it every time they come out to bat, while Eoin Morgan is hardly ruled out.
Further down the order hitters are prevalent too, indeed only Mark Wood resembles a tail ender in any way – Liam Plunkett at ten has shown himself capable of striking the first ball he receives for six in the past. If that is the batting, then the bowling attracts less attention, but as much as anything this is merely how one day cricket now works. It is all about the batting, and bowlers, to their chagrin and the delight of batsmen the world over, are reduced to nothing more than feeding the batters and trying to keep the run rate under control. Perversely or not, this makes bowlers who do take wickets even more valuable, and it is in that discipline that there is a little less certainty with regard to England.
While Hales rightly got the man of the match, it was Buttler who caught the eye even more. He simply terrorises the opposition – while he is in, anything is possible. Even so, while he reached his 50 off 22 balls, Eoin Morgan was only two balls slower to his, yet passed almost unnoticed such was the headiness of the striking.
England are now at the point where they strike fear into the heart of opponents. By making such a statement they are ensuring that no team will ever be sure they have enough runs, that no total is ever impregnable. It may not be that England are the best team in the world, but they are not far from it and they are still developing. Next year sees the Champions Trophy held in England, and perhaps for the very first time England will go in to a tournament not just with hopes of winning, but realistic aspirations that they should. Quite simply, there is no team, not India, not Australia, not New Zealand, who can compete with England’s batting power and depth. That in itself does not make them the best, for different conditions will bring different problems and highlight specific weaknesses, while other teams will play far better than Pakistan have. But what it does do is cause every other nation to cast nervous glances towards a side who are beginning to demonstrate that they are something a little bit special.
For any England fan, this is truly remarkable. The country that showed little interest except during World Cups where they stank the place out has set down a new standard. For the first time, perhaps ever, it is England who are causing the rest of the world to consider how to catch up.
Now. I’d be lying if I said I was looking forward to tomorrow’s game with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. I’d be lying if I said this was the number one thing on my agenda tomorrow. I’d be lying if I said this series had gripped me by my lapels, shaking my pent up excitement like a pair of maracas. The first two games have been unutterably dull.
This may be the case of after the Lord Mayor’s Show, given the excitement and verve of the recent test series. It might be that Pakistan are outmatched with a dodgy batting line-up, while England have a murderers row all the way down to Adil Rashid at number 10. The bowling is more even, but England haven’t had massive chases to test how much the visitors might bend. It’s been routine so far, and that’s not what we like to see. ODIs need the touch of the extraordinary or they become extra ordinary. A bad ODI, an uncompetitive one where the first score is low is no recipe for future enjoyment. I sat through Saturday’s game and I was phenomenally bored. I fell asleep for 45 minutes during our chase – part older age, part not caring as much, part the dullness of the game.
This much is true. (cue Spandau Ballet) 18 months ago we were garbage at ODI cricket. Absolute unmitigated rubbish. Now we (I) get bored when we win routine matches. Yes, I sound like an entitled Manchester United fan fed up that we aren’t winning in style. I get this. Except there’s not a lot of fandom, other than dearly hoping Jason Roy or Jos Buttler go off. I don’t mind Hales or Root play very well either. Less enamoured of Morgan, ever since the “that’s from me” macho bullshit, and Stokes really needs to justify his white ball place with performances rather than “I want to bowl because I’m bored” stuff, even if that was tongue in cheek. This isn’t unconditional fandom at all. But you knew that!
Tomorrow the match takes place at Trent Bridge. A couple of months ago there was a thrilling game where England got out of jail with a tie when Liam Plunkett hit the last ball for six. It was the sort of ODI that gets your attention. England, through Buttler and most notably Woakes, gave us a thin chance, and then got the rewards. Last year New Zealand made 349 and England chased them down with six overs, yes six, remaining. Eoin Morgan made 113, and yet not much more than a year later there are whispers that he should not be in the team, He made a half century on Saturday, so maybe that clamour has receded. Just mentioning those two matches show how the landscape has changed, and probably why the last two matches have been dull in comparison.
In my opinion, and I said it on Saturday, Joe Root should be given a couple of weeks off. He plays all three formats, has hardly had a break, and got a knock on Saturday. We do push our players to extremes at times, and I think he’s earned a break. No doubt Joe won’t want one, and no doubt the medical and management staff know better. But it looks to me as if there is no harm in doing so. Maybe, if we clinch the ODI series tomorrow, we can take a more pragmatic line, whether we are placing equal weight on ODIs and tests or not. It’s not as if there isn’t some exciting young talent behind the scenes. Duckett, Billings, Bell-Drummond et al. I know we are building a solid team for the Champions Trophy next year, but health has to come into it.
Comments on the game below. Come on now, you WILL enjoy it.
A while ago, a good year or so probably, in one of our editorial meetings Chris and I were pontificating – because we pontificate well – as to what we could do for future pieces. I mentioned that although a massive fan of all that KP did for England (well, nearly all), it’s got to the point where the very mention of him has some of our supposed cricket lovers rolling their eyes, but that there were things that I would like to do around his career and put up as posts.
Chris, in his sage like way – because he sages well, a Yoda figure – said something along the lines of “you should write a series of articles on his great innings for England” but advised I should leave it “for a bit”. We discussed about how his innings impacted on English cricket, the important moments, the approach, and that I should do something in the vein of the piece I did on Thorpe’s centuries.
The thing is, I have nearly all of KP’s centuries on DVD. In either highlight form or in the case of two of his Ashes tons, in full. A number of them are also on youtube. So there’s plenty to look at and review in terms of material. Then there are the books written around the time of some of them, including KP’s tomes, varying as they are in usefulness for the purposes of this set of pieces (Glenn McGrath, on a speed read of his book, barely mentions the 2005 Ashes!). But throughout the review of the hundreds there’s nearly always that sense of utter brilliance that was, by pretty much common consent of all his peers in the team, beyond their comprehension.
Good friends of mine, who’ve known me decades, cannot understand why I am such a fan of Pietersen’s. He seems, in their eyes, to embody all I hate in sport. The flashness, the assuredness, the flamboyance, the appearance of I above Us. But I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. It can’t be abrasive characters because I’ve always sort of liked Nick Faldo. It can’t be talented geniuses who rub team mates up the wrong way because I love Brian Lara. I think they reference across to my “hatred” of Manchester United and especially David Beckham, but that was because I hated (and still do) United and he was the epitome of why. Pietersen was playing for my team, and in fact Beckham, post United was nowhere near as loathed when he played away from United and was a key player for England.
So for this series of pieces, which will take some time, and I may never finish, I’m going to look at all KP’s test hundreds. I may take one in one piece, may couple some together (going to struggle with that one to set up a declaration in the West Indies), but I’ll do it looking at the footage I have and discussing each one. Of course, that means the first is the 158 at The Oval in 2005, and books could be written on that one alone. As always, I’ll intersperse these pieces with personal recollections, photos if I have them (I saw three in the flesh, and the start of a fourth) and anything else that comes to mind. Pietersen is a divisive figure, putting it mildly, but it is because of what we saw, and how he did it, that makes those of us who were furious at the end of his England career how we are. How can you not want to see him do “this” again?
So…Part 1 – Century #1 v Australia at The Oval – September 2005… Coming Soon. But in the meantime, let’s get the introductory part to prepare for it.
To go into the story of the 158, you probably have to go back a long way to the way Pietersen’s career unfolded. But I’ll spare you the county details which you can read in Paul Newman’s ghost-written autobiography of Kevin Pietersen which came out soon after the Ashes victory. Instead the true beginnings were in Zimbabwe, at the tail end of 2004. All through that summer I recalled that Kevin Pietersen’s name was in contention for the A team, unconstrained by full country qualification requirements, and he’s played his part in a massive England A innings in India that also ended in a massive run chase by the home team to win the game. I’d seen Pietersen play at Whitgift School for Nottinghamshire against Surrey, and although remembered some clumps to leg, and a couple of big shots, I also recall falling asleep on the grass bank! That game pre-dated my Olympus Ultra-Zoom camera so no shots of the man from them.
Pietersen was picked for the Zimbabwe ODI tour which attracted, shall we say, a fair bit of controversy. I think, and I could be corrected here, that it was the last international tour not covered at all on live television in this country. So what came back were news reports and scorecards. In his debut he made 27 not out to steer England home to a relatively small total with a couple of overs to spare. Ian Bell had made his ODI debut too, and done very well, making 75, whereas the only report I could find on KP’s debut was:
Pietersen eventually hit the winning runs, but not before running out Collingwood and twice almost doing the same to Jones.
Some might say there was a warning right there. The second ODI, also in Harare, saw KP deliver a more substantial return. He made 77 not out in 76 balls, including three sixes, to get England to a very competitive 263 – he and Geraint Jones put on 120 in 13 overs and put the game out of the hosts reach.
Pietersen and Jones hit maiden one-day international half-centuries in a rollicking stand of 120 off 80 balls, which stood for four days as an England record for the sixth wicket against any opposition. Pietersen’s innings had the air of an announcement. Arriving in the 26th over with England stuttering on 94 for three, he was initially studious, taking 40 balls over his first 16 runs, before opening up to finish with 77 from 76, including four fours and three sixes.
As the Almanack expressed this as an “announcement”, the thought that KP might actually play for England in the next Ashes probably seemed fanciful. But Vaughan was beginning to be convinced, and maybe this is in hindsight, he thought KP had that “something” that was different. In the Third ODI, Pietersen wasn’t needed as a century from Solanki and 50s from Bell and Vaughan meant England chased down a total for the loss of two wickets. Game 4, also in Bulawayo (where the 3rd was played) saw KP get a first ball duck. But he’d done enough to convince the selectors he was worth a go for the ODI series in South Africa, and we pretty much all know what happened then.
That series, where Pietersen made three centuries (although none in a winning cause) ranging from the bravado of Bloemfontein, where one might say he went a little over the top in celebrating, to the rapid but ultimately fruitless explosion at East London, and the worthy but let down by his team mates 116 at Centurion. Pietersen had proved a point, and none more so than his international TV debut at Johannesburg where he confronted the hostility of a crowd and an opponent he had riled, stared them down, and held firm to assist a D/L win.
Nobody seemed happier than Pietersen, who was there at the end after being loudly booed while walking out for his first innings against South Africa, the country he abandoned in frustration at a perceived lack of opportunities. His initial exchanges with the always theatrical Nel provided the most dramatic moments of the game, with Pietersen struggling nervously for 11 balls before getting off the mark.
Pietersen weathered a hostile reception from the crowd, and the odd word from the fielders. After a nervous start – he played and missed at his first ball, at Nel – he proved a worthy replacement for Strauss, as he and Vaughan moved seamlessly through the gears. Vaughan brought up their fifty partnership from 73 balls with a forceful cover-driven four, while Pietersen’s thumping on-drive took England past 100.
The centuries and the attitude that was reported to come with it seemed to indicate a coming force, and conjecture already surrounded how he could be fitted in to the test team. Michael Vaughan claims that his mind was made up that in some way he had to be selected for the Ashes. A lot of weight was being put on whether you had “mental scars” from too many Ashes beatings. Here was a man, unburdened by history, it seemed, fearless and relentless. It seemed too good to be true. It probably was.
Seasoned cricket fans on this blog need few reminders about the events of early 2005. England’s test team had won in South Africa, without Ian Bell who had made his debut at The Oval against the West Indies the previous year. The England team that finally won in South Africa contained a line-up of Trescothick, Strauss, Key, Vaughan, Thorpe, Flintoff, Jones at the top of the order, and with Freddie being a clear choice at six, the main vacancy appeared to be Key’s. This was despite an impressive innings at The Wanderers, and a double ton in the home series before. Bell was clearly earmarked for three, judging by the press statements (Butcher had been injured in South Africa and never played another test) in advance of the home series against Bangladesh. There seemed little threat to Thorpe, who although creeping on in years, had been a vital cog in the previous series (his century in Durban making the game totally safe in a famous fightback, and also vital in the West Indies the winter before). Whispers started to surround Thorpe. He was too old, too many scars, going to retire soon etc. etc.
Those whispers weren’t made any louder by his form in the Bangladesh series, where I don’t believe he was dismissed, but also got little chance to make an eye-catching hundred, while Bell did at Chester-le-Street. The batting line-up seemed settled then, and in truth there was not a lot of noise for Pietersen. Then came that Sunday afternoon in Bristol.
I was out watching my club side that afternoon (my Mum was in the last throes of her cancer, and I took the chance to meet some friends as a brief release), and so have only seen the very repeated highlights on Sky. The innings that won the game had all the same bravura of South Africa. He dismantled Jason Gillespie in particular, and gave off that self-assured, confident demeanour that would delight and enrage in equal measure. He also had narrow escapes on run outs. But this was totally un-English in its approach. It reminded you of a more developed, more accomplished Ben Hollioake at Lord’s. It wasn’t really true until he did it here. Sure, he had played well in the T20, but this was nearer “proper cricket”. The crescendo grew.
I was at The Oval to see his 70-odd pull England to semi-respectability and it was the second time I’d seen him in the flesh. I really can’t remember a lot. My mum had passed away 11 days before it, and her funeral was the next day. As a release it was great, but as a day’s cricket, Australia’s win passed me by. My mind was more on what would happen the following day, putting the ill-fated eulogy into my head, worrying about my Dad and all that. Compared to the events of the following day, the effects of which persist to this day, seeing a KP 70-odd hardly resonates. But where it did, it mattered. Now the calls for Pietersen to be in the test team were unstoppable. And in the firing line was Graham Thorpe.
Now, as you may know, if you’ve read the blog long enough, Thorpe was/is one of my favourite ever players. His hundred in Barbados in 2004 is still one of the greatest innings I have ever watched for England. When he got to the hundred, that shot of adrenaline, the thing that makes your hair stand up on the back of the neck, was amazing. The ovation at Kensington was incredible. He had fought so hard, and you’d think that fighting that hard would be what was needed against Australia. We thought wrong.
When Pietersen was up for selection there was absolutely no doubt that Ian Bell would play. None. In hindsight we all say “well, he shouldn’t have played instead of Thorpe, it should have been Bell” but that was not on the cards. Thorpe was in danger. Pietersen batted in his position in the side – number 5. Thorpe was the oldest. Thorpe wasn’t mobile in the field. Thorpe had back problems. He looked vulnerable, and when the axe fell, it was on him. He’d just had his 100th test match, and it seemed a neat end. But there still are the pangs of “what if”?
I was fortunate enough to be at Days 1 and 3 of the first test match. Again, anyone with a passing interest in cricket does not need a reminder. KP came into bat at 20 for 3, saw two more wickets fall quickly, rebuilt the innings to a degree with Geraint Jones, and make a fifty, including smashing McGrath into the Lord’s Pavilion for 6. In the second innings he made another 50 in a totally hopeless cause, and despite a soul-crushing defeat, loads of dropped catches (although he did effect a run out) and all round feelings of “here we go again”, the man with the mad hairstyle had announced his arrival.
The Edgbaston test saw KP play his part in the rollocking 400 in 80 overs first day, with a quickfire 70-odd in concert with Freddie, and then a 20-odd in the second dig. Diminishing returns at Old Trafford, including his first test duck were lost in the tenseness of the test, and he did not pull up any trees at Trent Bridge.
So to the Oval. Here is where we pick up the story of Kevin Pietersen’s test centuries. The next instalment will be along when it is written. Keep your eye out…..
I used to be a Surrey member. I’ve been a supporter since the 1970s, when I followed my deceased grandfather’s teams rather than my Dad’s (Dad was Kent), and thus can’t be accused of the old “bandwagon” tag. But I did become a member for about six years from 2001 onwards, and spent some great days at The Oval, as well as going to Guildford and Whitgift over the years.
I had some leave to take and thought the Lancashire fixture looked like one to be at. For me Surrey v Lancashire will always bring me back to a magnificent tense Day 4 back in 2002, when Ramps took us home against a pretty decent Lancashire attack (Chapple, Flintoff and Hogg). This year’s match saw two teams looking up and down, as the table is very congested in the middle, with only Middlesex, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire really sure of their fate (safety/relegation). All eyes look at Hampshire and what one win might do to the competition, so although Surrey lay in third place, they had played more and could not afford a slip-up. A win would guarantee survival, more or less.
England won by 4 wickets. I think. Pakistan were 2 for 3 and that was pretty much it. Sarfraz made a hundred, and really enjoyed it. England chased down the runs, Joe Root hobbled to a score of 89, Moeen Ali played enough shots to get people doing the ritual purr, Jason Roy played a shot that said “open in tests in India”, and a tedious 50 over “contest” played out in front of a crowd that had little to ignite it.
For the record, I fell asleep for 45 minutes during it.
No form of cricket can guarantee close matches or excitement, and the first game somewhat petered out in a drizzly mess. But even though England’s win was ultimately confirmed by Messieurs Duckworth Lewis and Stern, there was little doubt which way the match was going anyway. It was a curiously old fashioned game, at least as far as Palistan were concerned, as their innings brought back memories of England under Flower and Moores as much as anything. 260 may even be a “winning score” as far as the statisticians are concerned (probably not) but England were in complete cruise control throughout.
The second match therefore will be interesting to see how the visitors look to approach it, for England look a real force in the one day format, one who seem quite capable of reaching another hundred on top of that. That’s not to say they can’t fall in a heap, for the shorter the game, the higher the level of risk, and the greater the opportunity for collapse. One of the more pleasing things about this England side is that when that does happen, they regard it as an occupational hazard, shrug it off and continue in the same vein.
Yet if the batting is doing well, it was the bowling, or more specifically, one element of the bowling, that caught the eye. Mark Wood has shown he has ability and pace before, but his entire England career to date has been while labouring with the presence of an ankle problem. Having been away for quite some time getting it sorted, he is now back – and my, how he is back. His pace is right up there with anyone, and it was startling to read that he feels he’s not fully there yet and could get quicker. It may yet be the best news of the summer providing he suffers no reaction.
In the days between these matches England confirmed that they will tour Bangladesh this autumn. The ECB rarely earn praise from anyone – well, apart from one or two for whom they can do no wrong no matter what – but while it is impossible to judge the rights and wrongs of this particular decision, they do deserve praise for at least trying wherever possible to ensure these tours go ahead. It’s not the first time, back in 2008 after the Mumbai terror attacks, England returned to the country, ensuring that normality was restored in sporting terms.
Again, we must trust the Foreign Office and the ECB’s own advisors that this particular decision is the correct one, but assuming it is so, it would still have been easy to use the security situation to cancel it. Indeed, there must be a suspicion that other countries may well have done so, and thus with the proviso that we do not know the reality of the decision, the ECB do deserve credit for not using it as an excuse to avoid going. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s wonderful rise to the top of the Test rankings, it would have been crippling to Bangladesh had it got the go ahead.
The ECB have told England’s players that they can drop out of the tour with no effect on their careers, but whilst this is a good thing to say, the truth of the matter is that for all but those absolutely certain of their place, it means nothing. Players who do well are always going to be in pole position, the man in possession has the advantage. It means that for some, there will be some soul searching about whether to make themselves available or not. It is hard to think how else the ECB could have done things, they may be many things, but they are not fools, and they will be as aware of this as anyone.
Finally in other news Somerset have announced the prices for the T20 international between England and South Africa next year. It is the first time they will host an international in 30 years, and they seem determined to make the most of it, by announcing ticket prices of between £60 and £80. It’s not the biggest ground, it is a big event for them. But it is still an outrageous price. There seems little doubt they will sell out, and therefore in commercial terms it’s justifiable. Yet once more it is those who support the game being used as a cash cow and nothing else. Commercially sensible yes. Grasping and greedy, also yes. I trust they’ll use the financial bonanza wisely.
It’s excitingly poised at 8-8 in the Super Series as we go into the ODI portion of Pakistan’s tour. What? You weren’t aware? Come now, this is what makes cricket relevant and modern, this is how we provide context for the game. Perhaps it was lost in pointless discussion about such things as the extraordinary achievement by Pakistan in going to number one in the world Test rankings. I mean, who cares about such irrelevancies like that? Who would note that a side who haven’t been able to play so much as a home match in years have gone to the top of the pile? No, no, there are bilateral trophies, and Super Series that are far more important.
OK, although the sarcasm mode is deserved, in reality we do have some more cricket coming. And somewhat peculiarly historically, we go into an ODI series where England are the ones who have been playing vibrant cricket, while Pakistan are much less certain about where they are and what they’re doing. A comfortable enough win over Ireland gave them a decent warm up, but with good weather forecast, it’s more about whether Pakistan can match England’s batting firepower than anything else.
There’s no question that as far as this blog goes, Test matches are where it’s at. In the baldest terms, the number of hits received for ODIs is far below those of Test matches. Personally, I find them enjoyable enough to watch, but rather instantly forgettable. That’s illustrated as much as anything by having to remind myself of how England have done in recent outings, and vaguely trying to remember who the hell is playing.
It’s not to say that the shorter forms of the game are unimportant, for the financial realities are always that 50 or especially 20 over cricket is where the finances are most supported. There’s an article in there which I will return to at some point soon about why there’s no excuse for one form of the game to be in trouble, it can only be through lack of care or deliberate action, it’s just that World Cups aside, they don’t live long in the memory.
It’ll be on, I’ll pay attention to it, and I’ll likely enjoy it. Just don’t ask me in a week what the scores were, because I won’t remember.
An update on world cricket in three parts. Today, part one on India, Pakistan and Australia. A brief review of where we are, a look forward to the winter and other assorted comments.
The World Game… Test Cricket
This blogger loves test match cricket. You know that. But there is not enough time in the day, or the week, to keep up with it all. Not while holding down a full time job, and keeping up with all my sporting interests. But I can take an overall view of what’s happening, subjecting myself to the greater experts out there, but putting down a starting point for a discussion. Hopefully.
India (Latest Series – Leading 2-0 v West Indies (a))
The Indian cricket team, on paper, doesn’t strike fear in the hearts. This may be because I take a rose-tinted view of the past teams, with the Sehwag-Laxman-Dravid-Sachin-Dhoni axis at the top of the order, and with a quality seamer in Zaheer Khan. Spin also seemed more daunting with Kumble and Harby over the past couple of decades. The team is currently playing the West Indies in a four test series (and by the time this goes to print, it will all be over) and they have handled the hosts quite comfortably. The batting revolves around Virat Kohli, who has looked good on this tour at times, with solid citizens like Rahane to back him up. The opening slots look to be between 3 players – KL Rahul, Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan – while Pujara, who looked awesome a couple of years ago, seems to have really gone off the boil. In this series India have played Ashwin as a number 6 bastman (and he has rewarded them with two centuries) but that has to be an unlikely gambit to play at home against England, one would have thought. Saha appears to have nailed down the keeper-batsman slot, which leaves the bowling. We’ll see three spinners I would imagine (given the quality of Ashwin’s batting, we are talking a potential all rounder here) in the series against England, and hoping that Ishant and whoever else is doing the seam work can do their share.
Before England visit India, there is the small matter of a three test series for India at home to New Zealand. These will be played at Kanpur, Kolkata and Indore, with the first starting on 22 September. The five test series against England will start on 9 November in Rajkot, with the following four matches in Vizag, Mohali, Mumbai and Chennai all being wrapped up before Christmas. India are also scheduled to be playing a one-off test against Bangladesh at home – that’s taken them just the 18 years – at Hyderabad in February. I refuse to believe that India will then let their international players twiddle their thumbs until the IPL starts, but Cricinfo has not got them playing anyone until then (but it looks like Australia will be visiting – see below). Surely Sri Lanka are available for an ODI series?
England fans are always going to wonder about India. It’s terribly hard to shake the memories of the Indians last two tours to this country. Firstly the 2011 tour, when a keenly fought first test gave way to a downward slide in performance was put down in part to a dying of the light of the old pros (although Dravid gave a lie to that), part due to Zaheer’s injury and part to boredom on the part of India – and a bloody decent England team playing just about as well as they could. 2014 was different only in that the performances lasted until the second test, before the remainder of the test tour descended into performances of atrocious quality. India will be back here in 2018, and with the different style of Kohli as captain, I don’t expect phlegmatic shrugs and devil-may-care attitudes. Not sure Kohli hasn’t seen a situation he doesn’t see as a competition, and I put the brilliant but undervalued Ashwin in the same category. Both are fine cricketers. Many love to watch Rahane, while I’m quite partial to the traditional opening skills of Murali Vijay. The bowling will always be a hostage to the conditions that home matches are played in.
Many think that the five test series will be played on similar surfaces to the ones that took South Africa down last winter. Some on here were particularly scathing of those wickets. We’ll get an idea when New Zealand visit. England know what is coming. India do to. They can reinforce the number one position in the world this winter against two good foes.
PAKISTAN (Latest Series – 2-2 away v England)
The English summer, as Chris said in his recent piece, was a magnificent one for Pakistan, and for England fans who craved a competitive series with committed and competent foes not from the Big Three. It wasn’t 18 months ago that New Zealand had provided an albeit short quality series, but Pakistan’s longer series was much to enjoy, and greatly received. They stand on the cusp of World #1, and yet this may be elusive as India may well reinforce their lead. Their core is quite old, with two key batsmen nearer pensionable age than school age (allow me some poetic license with Younus, eh) and the quite experienced tier underneath looking good at home, but not so much on the road. However, I mean Asad and Azhar in particular here, both adapted and made test hundreds in England to add to their excellent home records. Like many world teams, the openers are not settled, but they may have found a good one in Aslan (a lion heart – sorry), and I suppose Hafeez may come back for home conquests. It was interesting that Azhar opened in the final test, and whether this may be his new position we’ll see in the fullness of time. The bowling was up and down in England, but is going to be useful in its “home environment”. Actually, Yasir Shah is probably a bit more than “useful” in the UAE, while Amir will be good for the run-out in England, and Wahab, Sohail and Rahit all looked decidedly decent at times. They’ve got some great talent.
According to the cricinfo page on future series, Pakistan will not be playing tests in UAE this winter, but they have two test tours lined up. The first of those is the abomination that is a two test series, which makes no sense still, in New Zealand, with the matches being played in Christchurch and Hamilton. These take place in November. This is followed by a tour of Australia for three tests – the first, in Brisbane, is a day-night match, with the second and third at the traditional Boxing Day and New Year’s venues of Melbourne and Sydney. International duties are fulfilled by the end of January in Australia, and there then seems a gap. Maybe the path is being cleared for the PCL, or whatever it is called? The ICC Future Tours programme (stop laughing Simon and D’Arthez) suggests they’ll be contesting a four test series in West Indies. As if. It also suggests that they’ll be playing a two test home series against the West Indies in October, but I haven’t seen a lot about that, have you?
Pakistan were impressive tourists, but we could see their flaws in the way they were thrashed at Old Trafford, and let a great position slip away, in my view due to an abundance of caution, at Edgbaston. When on the front foot they can be excellent foes, and at Lord’s they won a close game by keeping their heads when England were losing theirs. The team’s core is old, and when they go, which won’t be long, it’s going to need Azhar, Asad and Sarfraz in particular to take up the cudgels of senior pros and lead from the front. They have the ability, but whether they have the sticking power is debatable. But their ability, their flair and their personalities shone through and the long-awaited renaissance of Pakistan cricket looks to be on track. Whether it is sustainable, and whether it crosses into other formats, is a matter of wait-and-see. The world would be a better place for a firing Pakistan playing regular international cricket.
AUSTRALIA (Latest Series – Lost 3-0 in Sri Lanka)
What on earth is going on? We know that for non-Asian teams, winning away on alien surfaces is a treasured prize, but the same goes for Asian teams on their visits overseas, and very little slack is cut for them (see my views on India in 2014). This Australian team is an absolute mess when it leaves the shores of their beloved home. It folded any time there was movement in England in 2015, and now, in Sri Lanka, a team rebuilding after star players have left the stage, who looked dreadful for large swathes of their previous series, turned over Australia in three hard fought matches. Their bowling didn’t let them down, it was the batting putting their bowlers into various states of Mission Impossible. On paper, with Warner, Smith and Voges an experienced trio anchoring the batting this should not happen. Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja are supposed to be talented batsmen. But there is something about Australian selection that is harking back to the hilarities of the Hilditch regime, where bits and pieces players are popping up at number 5 (Moises), and talents like Burns are given a couple of bad games before they are fired out of a cannon into limbo. Australia used to be the benchmark when it came to shrewd considered selection. I’m wondering if Ted Dexter is secretly running the show.
Australia will fall back on their success at home as they attempt to get over yet another Asian shambles. They go to South Africa for some ODI nonsense, before hosting the Proteas in Australia for three tests in November (South Africa want Boxing Day matches of their own, not bowing down to Australia, so it seems unlikely Sydney and Melbourne will see them much in the future). Those matches take place in Perth, Hobart and finally Adelaide (a day-nighter it seems) and will probably end up in a comfortable home win with lots of players looking really good. This will then be followed by another three test series against Pakistan (see above), where we will see if normal service is resumed, and Australia dish out a beating. After some ODI action, the FTP has them playing four tests in India in the early part of 2017. No details of venues yet, but Bengaluru, Dharamsala, Ranchi and Pune are mentioned as the potential hosts.
But what of the team? The flow of ready-made, top quality batsmen, with almost flawless techniques seems to have passed. Australia, rated number 1 until recently, are a pale shadow of past number 1 teams – hell, if you need a benchmark from 10 years ago, they are it – and are something we’ve never associated with them, brittle. From losing the first test having bowled the hosts out for 117 in the first innings, to contriving to lose a test match in Colombo where the hosts were 26 for 5 in their first innings, and the visitors were 267 for 1 in their reply is staggering. These players appeared mentally bereft. The old tenets of international cricket were ripped up. Australia losing their composure? Really?
Selection for the first home test is going to be fascinating. Joe Burns had two ordinary tests and was replaced by Shaun Marsh, who promptly made a ton, but has let Australia down before. David Warner is secure, but he went another Asian series with no real success. Steve Smith was a centurion in Colombo, and made starts in the other two tests, but he’s not convinced as a leader as yet, and may find himself in a position that Clarke inherited, but without a Mitchell Johnson to bale him out. Voges had a low-key series, Khawaja, having looked a million dollars last winter, was dropped again as soon as he failed in a couple of games. The bowling was fine, although Lyon wasn’t the success that was hoped on wickets where Herath made hay. But it was Australia’s sense of throwing selectoral mud on the wall and hoping some would stick that mystified. Heaven knows what happens when they go to India next year. It might not be pretty.
One senses with Australia that they will maintain home dominance and still falter when not expected to away. Despite weaknesses against spin, and the apparent discomfort on Asian surfaces, no-one expected that latest reverse to be so dramatic. Their handy dismantling of the New Zealand good news story last winter is evidence that this is a quality side. Where they concern me, if I can be concerned about Australia, is that this team needs selection patience, and they aren’t doing it. It’s fine and dandy to have a hair trigger when your team is dominant and your 2nd XI would probably give you a better game than most test teams (as in the early 2000s), because the top boys need to maintain their standards. In a team bedding in new players, that’s not sensible. I mean, seriously, who envisages Moises Henriques becoming a test stalwart? We saw this in 2010-11, albeit a bit more laughable, but the portents aren’t good. Burns and Khawaja are quality players. Faith is needed. Perhaps the most interesting country to watch this winter. It might be bipolar in the extreme.