Hand me Down a Solution – Series Review

In the early 1980s when growing up, summer holidays meant tuning in to BBC1 at 10:55 to watch the Test matches.  Come the end of summer, the feeling of melancholy at the conclusion of a series was always strong, with the only subsequent cricket being the end of season Lords one day final, which was akin to pretending to enjoy the sloe gin from the drinks cabinet when everything else has been consumed.  Times change, and cricket now is unending, where the finish to the Tests is merely a pause before the one day internationals begin, and then England go on tour somewhere.  In the same way that the end of the football season is a mere pause in hostilities, the end of the Test match cricket summer no longer normally carries so much power to create sadness.

And yet with this one, perhaps there is a little more in the way of regret at the passing of the season.  This is probably as much as anything due to Pakistan, who have been exceptional tourists, and thoroughly merited their victory at the Oval to draw the series.  Four Tests also offered up the reminder as to why a five Test series remains the best possible format, provided the series is a competitive one.  Few cricket fans would object to a decider for this one, yet it is a lament that so often is heard and never acted upon.  It was at least better than the ridiculous two Test “series” against New Zealand last year.

What the drawn series did do was silence those who were quoting the article of faith about England holding all the bilateral trophies.  It isn’t that doing such a thing isn’t a meritorious achievement, it’s just that something that no one had ever noticed or paid attention to before somehow became the highest possible achievement in the game in their eyes.  As with so many things, the context is all, noting success is a good thing, going overboard about it is not.  Doubtless, the bilateral series record will now return to being what it always was – a minor matter.

Given their troubled previous tour to England, Pakistan clearly intended to win hearts and minds this time around, and in that they succeeded.  It is a remarkable turn around for a side who it is probably fair to say were one of the least popular touring sides in England; they played with a joie de vivre that reminds everyone that cricket – even in its modern, money is all important guide – is a game, a pastime, and above all fun; the reason all of these players first picked up a bat or a ball in the first place.  The repeated press ups may have irritated the England players, but it amused the spectators every time.  Quite simply, the Pakistan team looked like they were enjoying themselves.  One particular moment comes to mind, a catch by Hafeez (who didn’t exactly have many high points) caused a young boy in the crowd to wildly celebrate, being picked up by the TV cameras and leading the player to end almost doubled over laughing, and applauding his young supporter.  It was a delightful moment, and one that re-inforced the image of a team comfortable with where and who they are at last.

Misbah ul-Haq remains under-appreciated in his homeland, but elsewhere he is approaching hero status for cricket fans.  The achievements are verging on the extraordinary, with Pakistan now having the most successful period in Test cricket in their history under his leadership.  It is quite exceptional in itself, and given his age, truly remarkable.  Misbah has made Pakistan competitive, and above all given his team their self-respect.  If it has to be that it is something more recognised for what it is abroad, then that is a pity, but it is still worth recognising.

So what of England?  The first part of the summer was routine enough, a Sri Lankan side shorn of its great players was despatched with little difficulty, but Pakistan proved to be something of a harder nut to crack.  This in itself came as something of a surprise to some, with many predictions of a comfortable England win before the series began.  Yet Pakistan were always going to be a threat, and in advance of the series the assessment of it being between two sides with good seam attacks, and patchy batting proved to be ultimately more or less right.  England had the advantage in the middle and lower order, while Pakistan had a (much) better spinner at their disposal.

Statistics can be gleefully misleading at the end of a series though: take the comparison between Moeen Ali and Yasir Shah, both of whom averaged over 40 in the series with the ball.  Yet Yasir was instrumental in both Pakistan wins, while Moeen – with the ball at least – certainly was not.  This isn’t a particular surprise of course, for Yasir is an outstanding bowler, and even the most adoring fan of Moeen would never make that claim.  But it does highlight the point that players can have an impact in a game disproportionate to their overall figures, perhaps we could call it the Ben Stokes effect.

England did have some real successes in the series, Moeen himself batted absolutely beautifully, that dreadful slog at Lords proving to be very much the exception.  It’s notable in his case that that particular dismissal didn’t stop him from using his feet to the spinners, most gloriously on that final morning at Edgbaston where in the first over of the day he served notice that England were going all out for the win.  That Moeen can bat is not especially surprising news, that his batting improves out of all recognition when given one of the batting spots rather than being in the tail perhaps is.  Either way, and given that England have limited spin bowling options – presumably Adil Rashid will come in for the India tour – his series will count as a success, albeit with a couple of major caveats.  One item of note with Moeen’s bowling is that although his average is certainly not the best, his strike rate is quite decent, comparable with Nathan Lyon for example.  Batsmen do try to attack him, and do get out to him.  In the absence of a truly top class spinner of the calibre of a Graeme Swann, replacing Moeen with another off spinner is unlikely to deliver markedly improved results.  It doesn’t mean defending Moeen irrespective, but it does mean cutting England’s cloth according to what they have.  A decade ago Ashley Giles received no end of criticism for not being Shane Warne, but he did a job, and did it well.  Chasing rainbows is not the means to a successful side.

Joe Root finished top of the batting averages, largely due to that astounding 254.  Aside from that it will represent a mildly frustrating series for him, getting in and getting out with annoying frequency.  An illustration of just how good Root has become is shown by the feeling that the series was a slightly unsatisfying one despite over 500 runs at more than 73.  Such is the penalty for excellence, for brilliance is expected every time.  But Root himself alluded to the irritation of getting out when set, so it is less a criticism, and more a matter of the player being so good now that he can deliver even more than he currently is.  He has a decent shout of being England’s best batsman in many, many years.

Cook too had a mixed time of it, despite a strong set of figures over the series.  He looked somewhat rusty in the first Test, but thereafter his biggest problem appeared to be that his form was too good if anything.  He rattled along, having the highest strike rate of anyone bar Moeen, a most un-Cooklike state of affairs.  He was fluent and even playing cover drives, which tends to be one of the best indicators of an in form Cook.  That would then bring about his downfall – seeing him caught at point off a skewed drive, or dragging pull shots onto the stumps is not something that is expected.  Most batsmen will tell you that they score the most runs when they are just shy of their very best, where there is a degree of caution in the strokeplay.  When feeling on top of the world, more chances are taken, and getting out is more likely.  It is impossible to measure, but the suspicion has to be that this was the case with Cook this time.  Still, a good series for him.

Jonny Bairstow was the other major plus point in the batting order.  He’s the leading run scorer in Tests in the world this calendar year (by dint of having played far more than anyone else, it has to be an Englishman) and scored heavily without ever going on to a truly match defining innings at any point.  Four fifties and no hundreds represents a decent return from a player in excellent form, but perhaps his most notable achievement was muting the comment about his wicketkeeping.  He hasn’t turned into a great ‘keeper overnight, and probably never will, but it is tidier, and with fewer errors than in previous series.  He pulled off a couple of decent catches too.  His wicketkeeping remains a work in progress, but the reality is that his runs balance that out; the age old debate about a specialist keeper versus an auxiliary batsman who keeps has long been settled, in favour of the batting.  Bairstow will make mistakes, but the more he keeps – and it does need to be remembered that much of his career he has been essentially part-time – the better he will get.  There have been some suggestions that he move up the order, effectively to compensate for the flaws in England’s batting, but it would be a big ask to expect him to do that, especially in the heat of India or Bangladesh.  Weakening another player to make up for the failures of others has never been a solution.

England have become something of a team of all rounders in the last eighteen months, and the player who was widely felt to be more of a bits and pieces player than a true example of the breed is Chris Woakes, who probably had the best series of anyone.  He batted well enough, making a maiden half century, but his bowling was a revelation to many.  Yet Woakes has an excellent first class record with both bat and ball, and he was hardly the first player to find the transition to Test cricket a challenge.  The demand for instant success clouds the reality that an immediate impact guarantees nothing, and other players can take time to adjust.  One fine series doesn’t mean that he’s a fixture for the next few years, but he’s started to look the part with the ball for a while; in South Africa he bowled with very well yet was spectacularly unlucky.  This time he got the rewards.  By all accounts he has worked exceptionally hard on his bowling, putting on an extra few mph and improving his control.  Players can and do learn – it is not unlikely that James Anderson is a rather useful resource – and Woakes’ success is a reward for being patient with him.

Stuart Broad is a bowler who attracts considerable ire and much comment, despite a record over the last couple of years that compares with anyone.  This series certainly wasn’t his best, and mutterings about his apparent habit of coasting resurfaced.  Yet 13 wickets at 28.61 is hardly a catastrophic return, and if that now counts as coasting, then it merely demonstrates what a fine bowler he has become.  It was a relatively quiet series for him because he didn’t have one of those spells where he becomes completely unplayable, rather than because he struggled at any point.  Broad is the focal point of the England bowling attack these days, despite Woakes having a better time of it this time.  Criticism of Broad is absurd, he is a fine bowler who had a series that was quiet by his standards.  The “by his standards” is the key.  Where there can be severe disappointment with him is with his batting.  It has completely fallen apart, and the pity of that is that for so long he looked like someone who, if never destined to be a true all rounder, looked a player capable of meaningful contributions on a regular basis.

Anderson too had a reasonably quiet but still moderately effective series.  He didn’t take a whole lot of wickets, but maintained excellent control throughout.  He made more headlines for having a preposterous strop at being rightly sanctioned for running on the track than anything else.  What can be said about him is that at 34 he remains an outstanding athlete, with few obvious signs of diminishing powers.  Assuming he carries on for another few years he will doubtless get slower, but he is a clever bowler, and one who will use the skill developed over a career to take wickets.  At the veteran stage of his cricketing life, he is still a valuable asset.

As for Steven Finn, his raw figures look horrible, but at times he bowled well and with pace.  He’s a difficult one to assess, forever making progress and then regressing.  At 27 he should be coming into his peak, but the nagging worry that he is not going to fulfil the potential he first showed is very much there.  Two away series (assuming Bangladesh goes ahead) in Asia are unlikely to show him at his very best, given that the rampaging, lightning fast Finn of the past now appears to be something we won’t see again.  He is once more at the crossroads, and which way his career goes is open to question.

The bowling overall looks in reasonable shape, the nucleus is there as it has been for some years, and if the spin side of it looks a bit thin, it’s an issue that applies to the English game as a whole more than anything.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the batting, for despite the good performances of those mentioned, that they were required to do almost all of it as the rest of the top order had poor series.

Ballance was the best of them, and he at least has a strong record to fall back on.  His return to Test cricket doesn’t appear to have shown any major changes in his technique, beyond batting a little more out of the crease than he used to.  He didn’t appear out of his depth, did get a few good deliveries and made one score of note.  Of all the players who had weak series, he still appears to be best equipped for Test cricket.  Yet the jury remains out on him, as to whether that slightly idiosyncratic style is going to allow him to make a true success of the longest form of the game.  He probably did enough to retain his place in the side, if only because others did worse, but he needs significant runs soon if he is not to be another to shine brightly but briefly.

Hales and Vince are the two who are most at risk, yet for differing reasons.  Hales doesn’t have the purest technique, but was brought into the side to provide a contrast with Alastair Cook’s accumulative style of batting.  Yet it was Cook who was by far the more fluent, while Hales appears to be attempting to bat like a traditional opener.  It’s hard to understand the thinking behind this, for Hales is never going to be as competent at that as others are, his strengths are in playing his shots, taking the attack to the bowling and giving England a fast start.  Once in, he is one of the most destructive players around, but whether it is his own decision, or it is pushed from above, it seems to be the worst of all worlds, a pedestrian style and a technique that doesn’t stand up to the rigours of Test cricket.  It would be easier to comprehend if he was trying to be England’s answer to David Warner, and whether that succeeded or failed, it would at least be an experiment worth trying.  As things stand, it’s hard to grasp what the intention is.

Vince in contrast looks lovely, full of gorgeous and stylish shots, only to fall repeatedly to a fundamental weakness outside off stump.  The health enforced retirement of James Taylor created a vacancy in the middle order, but it wasn’t a position that had carried much strength anyway.  Vince looks every inch the Test cricketer right up to the point he gets out, then rinse and repeat next time around.  Michael Vaughan for one has insisted that Vince be given more time but the ISM factor there lowers the credibility of someone whose views ought to be credible.

What that means is that there are three players in the top five not pulling their weight, an impossible situation for any team.  The only reason it hasn’t proved catastrophic is because of the strength of the middle and lower order.  When England’s top five (with two obvious exceptions) are collectively referred to as the “first tail” it’s clear there is a problem.  Of course, not for the first time the selectors have made a rod for their own backs.  As with the Pietersen situation it requires replacements to be notably better than those that have been dropped, and the discarding of Ian Bell can hardly be said to have been an unqualified success.  The problem here is not the dropping of a player, it so rarely is.  Bell had struggled for a while and not selecting him for the South Africa tour was a decision that could be justified.  Where England go wrong is in at the very least implying that at no point could they ever have made a mistake, and ignoring any and all criticism that they may have done so.  All teams have to create a space for new players to develop, the issue England have is that 60% of the top five are in that position, something completely unsustainable.  The rather transparent attempt to undermine the selectors in the media by the coincidence of several articles at once proposing the creation of a supremo (like we haven’t been here before) don’t alter the truth that the selectors themselves have a fairly patchy record.

Looked at that way, it is something of a miracle England managed to draw the series at all.  With the five matches in India to come, it is difficult to see how they could get away with these flaws.  The one bright spot is that Ben Stokes will return, and while his batting is not entirely reliable it is at least more so than some currently in the side.  It may well be that by bringing in Rashid and dropping one of the seamers (presumably Finn at this stage) they have a ridiculously strong middle order with Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes and Rashid comprimising numbers 5 to 9.  Whether that then compensates for the top is another matter.  There are whispers that Adam Lyth may be recalled to top of the order, or it could be that another young player is thrown in.  Eventually no doubt they will find the right player, but repeated discarding of batsmen doesn’t give too much confidence in the method.

A few last items: It has been a regular topic of complaint on here, but this was surely the summer in which poor over rates finally caused the ICC to take action and stop the theft of spectators’ money.  It would take an extraordinarily insular governing body who didn’t have an issue with it, one that considered paying spectators as nothing other than a resource to be exploited.  Perish the thought.

According to the press, should the Bangladesh series go ahead it will be left to the players to decide whether to go, with no adverse reaction should they decide not to do so.  Nice words, but the reality is always different; it may not be deliberate, but a player has a chance to get into the side by making himself available – equally few but the most comfortable will want to take the chance that someone else comes in and takes their spot.  It’s not meant to be critical, the ECB’s position on this is a reasonable enough one.  But reality intrudes on this – there will be some reluctant tourists.

After that comes India, and a huge challenge for the team.  While it is entirely for monetary reasons, it is still welcome to have a five Test series over there, but 2012 is a long time ago and England will do will to escape with a drawn series, let alone anything better.  Cook will need to be at his very best for one thing, but the batting will need to do far better than it has shown itself capable of in recent times in order to compete.

England are not a bad side at all.  The Test rankings show nothing more than that several teams are capable of beating each other on their day and (especially) in their own conditions.  But for all the talk about whether England could get to number one by beating Pakistan, it’s of no importance if they might drop down the series following.  There is no outstanding side in world cricket quite simply, and the focus on being the best is quite some way away.  Although there is necessarily going to be an England-centric focus on that, it’s no bad thing to have a number of competitive sides.  A bigger issue is the difficulty of winning away for anyone – which is why Pakistan drawing this series is such a creditable result.  They have been delightful visitors.

Oh yes one last thing.  It’s 8-8 in Director, Cricket’s  Big Plan To Make Cricket Relevant Idea.  You hadn’t forgotten had you?

Advertisements