If you have come here looking for marks out of ten, then you have come to the wrong place. If you have come here to look for a tale of derring do, of great escapes, of wondrous times, then I suggest you log on to the Twelfth Man, or whatever the Tufty Club is that is approved by the ECB (or is that All Out Cricket?). If it is grumpiness, tetchiness and a completely egregious mention of Kevin Pietersen, then this might be for you.
England have completed a 22 run victory over Bangladesh in a tight, absorbing test match, with lots of good entertainment and a tense, taut ending. What this was not was a good England performance. Just like 18 months ago in Grenada, where the Jimmy Anderson show won England a test, Chittagong was Ben Stokes saving our hides. This may, or may not, be a portent of things to come, but remember, after Grenada came Bridgetown, and defeat to a team we would probably all believe would struggle against Bangladesh if played now, and who are living down to Costcutter Charlie’s description of “Mediocre”.
Let’s focus on the good stuff first. It was a top test match to watch. How many actually did in this country will be interesting to note – I wonder how ITV4 did for viewers, for instance – but those that missed this because it was “only Bangladesh” will have missed a contest that ebbed and flowed. BBC Sport were busy this morning lauding England for an “unlikely victory”, which is a bit of nonsense because for the vast majority of this test England had their noses slightly in front. After Day 1 we thought it was a competitive score on the board; after Day 2 with the late wicket we thought it was honours even, but Bangladesh had to bat last; at the end of Day 3, after another reliable top order subsidence, England had “enough runs” and were firm favourites; and on Day 4, England had two tail order wickets to take at the end of it, looking really shaky when Rahim and Sabbir were in partnership. It’s not exactly Botham’s Ashes or Adelaide 2006.
England won because of more experience, probably – and it’s hard to dispute that when the team you are up against haven’t played a test for 14 months – and they had the most influential performer on either side, Ben Stokes. For the Durham man this was a test match he can look on with great pride. He saved England’s bacon in the second innings with a mature, composed, and very clinical 85 which should take pride of place in his collection of batting performances. I ignore the Aussie with the constantly changing moniker, and his lame attempts to belittle the output of Stokes. He was magnificent. 6 wickets in the match to add to his runs made him a slam dunk man of the match.
Much has been said about how Cook only trusted his seamers (Stokes and Broad in particular) at the end of the game. Much was also said last night about the lion-hearted Broad “doing it again when it counted”. I must be watching a different game to these people. I saw tons of criticism of the spin-bowling allowing them to get that close (and not the top order batting for collapsing like wet cardboard, AGAIN). The top six in the Bangladesh batting order, the six you needed to get rid of, were all dismissed by spinners in the second innings. Yes. You wouldn’t know that from the reports, the tut-tutting online, the nonsense from Newman. The quicker bowlers knocked over the tail, the top order eked out by the spinners. I’m not saying the garden is rosy, I’m not saying we’ve found our spinning solution, and I’m not saying that this will work in India, but you’d have thought they’d all gone 1/120 the way people are going on. They weren’t Murali, or even Swann, but they were decent bowlers, maybe not quite test class, doing a job for England. In this mad rush to anoint a team as its greatest ever, you need to realise that not every generation is blessed with the tools to do so. I remember real dead losses like Richard Dawson and Ian Blackwell given a go.
Broad the Lionheart got rid of numbers 8 and 9. This wasn’t Trent Bridge, Jo’burg or even Oval 2009, but we do go overboard. That I’ve realised only too greatly since the 2013/14 epiphany. I hope we’ve learned from the past that we have a doughty, resilient side, with a long batting order, a decent, if limited bowling attack, and that there will be pains and losses along the way. We should realise that we have a flaky top order, a limited captain, and a propensity to alarming slumps when the intensity goes from their game. We are a little too reliant on super-performances to pull out matches, which isn’t the recipe for reliability. We are quite an enjoyable team to watch, but what we are not, and what this team should never be proposed as, is a great team, a team worthy of World #1. You might think that this is just the same old same old from me (and I’m reluctant to use too many personal pro-nouns), but I’ve not exactly been given a reason to hold those words back, have I? Thankfully, the response to this win has been more restrained than Grenada, for instance.
So let’s run through the team performance.
Cook – Returned with great fanfare from the attendant hordes, rejoicing in his return, and getting DDC some hits. Didn’t produce the runs we will eventually need from him, and his leadership was conservative. I think he should trust his spinners more, but that’s really easy for me to say. Now it is four test centuries in 42 test matches, if you are counting.
Duckett – A nondescript debut. Not having his technique demolished after two low scores could be an indicator that he’s in the chosen group of players who the media might give a chance to. See my comments on an earlier post about how not making 20 in your first test match is not a portent of great times unless you are Gooch or Hutton (and a couple of others).
Root – A quiet test match, which means he isn’t the heartbeat of the team for this test match. A massive contribution in the next, and a quiet test from Stokes will mean the clichés will be reversed. Perception here is he may have gone off the boil a little, which is understandable given he didn’t play the ODIs, and also he’s played a ton of cricket. That balance isn’t always easy. Which leads me to…
Ballance – Ballance is in that room where no-one wants to be. The “next one the media want out” room. I love how we are accused on here of not backing our players, but within ten minutes of a dismissal the journos are tweeting “he has to be gone”. I’d like to see them work on that basis, and perform their best. Ballance has made four test hundreds, and is derided for his technique. Cook can go months (and yes, him again) and all that the media care about is falling over themselves to say “he’s back to his best” after some flaky runs. Lord knows what they’d say about Tres, for example, now. Ballance had a poor game. Only he is on the hot seat.
Ali – Very useful runs in the first innings, part of the problem in the second. Five wickets in the match, but because he didn’t run through them, and bowled his usual assortment, he’s part of the problem. That five of them were top order batsmen (and left handers) is his fault. Seemed a pretty usual Mooen match to me, does things well in parts, does things not so well. Having made 7 or 8 his home, and effectively so, he’s back up the order.
Stokes – A terrific performance, with his second innings 85 a really top notch performance. With the ball he was our main weapon, snagging six wickets, and getting the vital blow of Rahim late on Day 2 to perhaps turn the match (given the tail subsided the following day). Interesting point raised by Nick Knight (yes, stick with me), that it seems as though Cook leans on Stokes for advice (said on Day 4) and that his views are quite widely respected in the team. He’s the heartbeat (or at least until Joe Root makes runs) of the team. Clearly man of the match.
Bairstow – Jonny is now a team fixture, and the debate as to whether he or Buttler should be the keeper is pretty much closed in my eyes (and I’m a Buttler fan). Again he came to our rescue, with 99 runs across two innings, both in key alliances to dig England out of a hole. It is a role he is becoming used to, but I feel we rely on too much. He dropped a big chance last night, that to this untrained keeper’s eye looked like a horrible one to take (Chris might opine), and copped a Hollywood strop for his troubles. Dunno, but I reached right for KP – the Autobiography at that point. Otherwise, on a difficult surface his improvement was there to see.
Woakes – A nothing game really with the ball, yet another 50+ runs with the bat at number 8. They are vital runs, coming in at 194/6 in the first and sticking around for another 60 or so and in at 189/6 in the 2nd and being there at the end for another 50 runs. 0/15 and 0/10 in two seven over efforts with the ball, keeping it tight, but not getting wickets.
Rashid – I can say that I didn’t see a lot of his bowling in this match, but I tend not to listen to what I’m being told by people who have made up their mind about him long before he reached the test team. He’s going to be a “when it clicks” it bowler. A sort of spin equivalent to Devon Malcolm. Is this a long-term recipe for a team that aspires to greatness? Probably not, because we are all about containment rather than attack. He didn’t have a great game. He knows that. Should we jack him in? Well, you’ve either made up your mind and wild horses wouldn’t make you do it, or you think, perhaps he is that weapon we might, one day, need.
Broad – He’s going to be called Hollywood from now on. (Interesting only to me, I call Neil Warnock “Hollywood” in football). Hollywood is the man to win you the game. He can bowl unplayable spells, He can also average 143 in India. Broad nicked out two late wickets last night to put England in control, but in context, it was “just” the numbers 8 or 9. No-one else was going to get the Hollywood glare if they’d done it (perhaps Stokes). Two double figure scores should not be overlooked, scratching out vital runs, and yet having us pine for the man capable of 169 v Pakistan.
Batty – Again, didn’t see a lot, but the one spell I did saw him bowl well, look dangerous, and having the batsmen taking risks to score. But then it’s really fashionable in cricket circles to slag off Batty. True, he’s 39. Newman uses him as a reason to bemoan England spin bowling (I’ll bet if Cook is still playing with England in his late 30s we won’t be seeing the same). But Batty took a few wickets, including the key breakthrough of Rahim to end the menacing 6th wicket partnership, and still the people moan. Again, what it is it about us not backing our players? I’ve read the slamming verdicts on him, and note that, yet again, we are the ones with the agenda.
To the other question / debate that has been posed. How should Bangladesh treat this performance and how should England fans approach it? First of all this wasn’t Bangladesh’s first chance to push a top team to the limit. Last year in Chittagong they took a decent first innings lead on South Africa before the rains came to ruin the match. This should, if Bangladesh are approaching this the right way, a pleasure in being a plucky loser to a world power, but a real case of “we probably should have won this”. To have chased down 280-odd would have been magnificent. I’m not having the “moral winner” stuff, because England made it hard work (and because Bangladesh made them work hard), but I probably would like to judge this off the back of the second test back in Dhaka later this week. England, after all, looked like world-beaters in the 1997 first Ashes test, but subsided. Bangladesh need to maintain the intensity.
As for whether England fans should cheer on Bangladesh, well you know our site’s views on that. You should be free to choose who you want to win without admonishment. I don’t necessarily cheer on the oppo, but I also don’t get as mad about England as I used to which I think allows me to take a more dispassionate view on proceedings. It certainly helps in not losing my temper at the latest move I disagree with. It also allows me to laugh when the pants on fire enthusiasts stretch their latest (il)logical leaps of faith. I might have a dispassionate view on England, but I’m not about to reduce the passion for the game. This test match was a cracker. It deserves 2000+ words on it as an Ashes test might. It had great storylines, it had great drama and importantly it had a great test match wicket. So many of us were thinking it wasn’t going to be up to five days play, but the surface played its part in this absorbing contest. Let’s hope Dhaka brings us a repeat.
Happy to hear your thoughts. I’ll have some other takes tomorrow, if I have the time.