Dmitri here. For once.
On Thursday 6th of July England and South Africa will kick off the first test match of the summer. As was stated somewhere or other, this will be the latest start to a test series since 1983, which followed a World Cup and the “test summer” was just four matches long (against New Zealand). The world has certainly changed since then.
To get us all in the mood, we have seven, count them seven, test matches to play before mid-September. You may have missed out early on, but by JP Duminy, we’ll make up for it. Then, if you have forgotten what white ball cricket is like, and frankly, who could blame you, we have a T20 and five ODIs to squeeze in after that. Enough? Be off with you. Added to the international calendar, piling up like the fogbound M4 in rush hour, the lamented and not altogether loved (by the ECB) NatWest Blast will be, well, blasting away in the interim, struggling for attention – not too on purpose. It’s as if the cries of “too much cricket” are received by the ECB, in much the same way as Doug Stanhope thinks the Grand National authorities treat race horses.
“How many horses can this track hold? Well add five more. F*** ‘em.”
Test cricket is a wounded beast, to carry on the Grand National metaphor, and what it needs is a few really good, exciting series, to get the pulses racing. But then, thinking about it, is that enough? Last year’s excellent match-up between ourselves and Pakistan got bogged down in misty-eyed recollections of days of yore with the visitors, and while the matches themselves were keenly fought, no-one really gave a stuff. Losing to the Pakistanis at the Oval may have got them test number 1 status, but no-one really lingered on it. I guess that’s the “context” thing we keep hearing about.
Context and history is important. I joke about, yes, really I do, with a number of my work colleagues about the relevance of the British and Irish Lions, saying they don’t have a trophy to play for, and that it is all just a cynical money-making machine, yet there’s no doubt that the fans, and really importantly, the players still “get it”. Ten years ago, I would have said the same about test cricket on these shores, but I am really not too sure at the moment. Abdicating any real editorial or judgmental logic towards a lame duck captain probably didn’t help. We’ve been saying, and seeing, on here the effects of that treatment. Diehard fans walking away. Cricket’s important advocates rendered impotent by a wretched international governing body, a despicable home outfit, and a media so far over the hill they ought to be in Tibet.
But we persevere. Sometimes, given the other things competing for my time, I wonder why.
South Africa has always been a series that I’ve looked forward to. They aren’t the most exciting team, but they are a formidable one, especially away from home. But this tour will be without Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers from the team that came in 2012, and with Steyn and Morkel in serious workload decline, it isn’t as formidable on paper as past teams. Rabada is a new superstar, but a batting line-up of Elgar, Kuhn, Amla, De Bruyn, Duminy (D’Arthez’s fave!) and Bavuma doesn’t really strike fear, does it? However, you underestimate the visitors at your peril. After all, a highly paid scribe did before the opening test in 2012, and that went well (I’ve not been back to the Oval for a test since).
So while Faf’s away with his new kid, and replacement skipper Dean Elgar hopes for glory in his stead, it is the England team to which I really want to focus. This is the beginning of a new era, as we have a brand spanking new captain, and a selection panel that given the chance to blood new batsmen, played it “safe” and picked someone they knew. One could almost say they eschewed excitement – or as one sage on our comments page quoted, told Tom Harrison to eff off.
So I turn to my old favourite Paul Newman. There have been a litany of baffling decisions made during the Cook era, and yet greenhorn Cook never seemed to cop for them. It was always the selectors that were the issue, or even the players themselves (see Rashid, Adil), but never a leader who seemed to struggle to get the best out of them. Cook, if you recall, because I do, was backed so much he could lose an Ashes series 5-0 and have his position ENHANCED. The decisions to dump you know who were distanced from Cook, and the selection panel were said to have independence from the players. There seemed few occasions when all powerful Ali put out any messages about players he wanted.
But now, according to Newman’s latest diatribe, Root is responsible for Ballance and Dawson being in the squad. I had a brief chat with a prominent tweeter who said “Cook, years of failure given a free role. Root, first squad and Newman is calling him out.” It is very hard to disagree with this assessment, isn’t it? In a week when Root is making his test captaincy bow, we had Barney Ronay writing another puff piece about our now ex-captain. I do really wonder if Cook feels embarrassed by this, because I hope he would. Cook knows that one bad run of form and he’s finished – unless England decide to buck further trends with him (and sorry deers, for using buck and Cook in the same sentence) and say that he isn’t losing his eyesight / motivation / belief / energy / ability now he has passed 32 years of age (Pietersen and Bell were both 33 when dumped. Collingwood was 34 – all were “on the decline” when they were fired/jumped before pushed). There is many a mention of Cook doing a “Gooch” and actually improving as his age goes on. That’s lovely, may happen, but I do prefer the evidence of recent history and his five hundreds in 90-odd innings aren’t a great portent. But our media, and a number of the fans, do misty-eyed hope, and no-one elicits it more than Alastair Cook. Same as it ever was.
What we will see this summer – perhaps we should set up a watch list for it – is for every time Joe Root talks to Cook a commentator mentions how he is “tapping in to the former captain’s experience”. You know, the way Cook never had to (despite Anderson setting all his own fields if rumours are to be believed). We will also be on the lookout for Cook being a better batsman now he’s been relieved of the pressure. Anything good will be because he’s not captain any more. Anything bad won’t be down to the team stagnating under him. I expect Cook to do as he has done the past couple of years. Some solid knocks, a century, maybe two or three if the West Indies are as bad as advertised, and then a tortuous tour of Australia if it goes ahead.
Opening with Cook will be Keaton Jennings. Other openers are in better form, most notably Mark Stoneman, but Jennings has a test ton under his belt, and is the man in possession. I’m not screaming out loud about it, but I’m also not convinced he’s the best bet. That’s me having my cake and eating it. Much has been written and said about Ballance at number three, but he’s caning Division One bowling and averaging over 100. That’s lovely. I seem to recall Mark Ramprakash did that year after year, but we did stop recalling him when we thought he was shot. This is supposedly on Root’s shoulders, which you can read very cynically. The selectors may have indulged in “good journalism” and made it known in a very subtle way that it “wasn’t them, guv”. If it succeeds, they bask in glory; if it fails, well, lessons learned for Joe Root. That’s them having their cake and eating it.
Before turning to the captain, I thought I’d remind you of what I said about Hameed during the India series:
“Hameed is a talent, for sure, but I do like to see my talents make massive scores before anointing them as the heir apparent to Kumar Sangakkara, even if that means I’m bloody unreasonable in so doing. English sport is littered with kids built up before they are due, and cast aside when they don’t live up to the hype. Let’s hope HH is an exception to the rule.”
I don’t know. Remember when people had a pop at me over this? Hameed showed some great aptitude for a kid in India. I really, sincerely, desperately hope he goes on to a great career. But at this point in time, I’m a bit closer to reality than the dreamers. That makes me a miserable curmudgeon. I felt really uncomfortable at the hype, the unreasonable, ludicrous platitudes at the time, and still do. Hameed has had a tortuous summer. He’s young. I hope he learns and comes through. And I hope the next time this happens, people who should know better wind their necks in.
Joe Root hasn’t quite reached “Armchair #5” but I don’t give it long. As it is, he’s batting at four now, which is probably right. A lot is made of Joe Root’s conversion rate from 50 to 100, which is adorable (if you ignore the Bedford Water Deer in the room), but there is a point. Joe is crucial to our ability to post big scores, and we know he is capable of them. The England captaincy has weighed heavily on most skippers since Gooch. Production has gone down, pressure has increased. Joe Root is 26, quite young to have the full time captaincy thrust upon you, and also has a team “in transition” (downgraded from future World #1). There has been no practice run, no ability to discern whether he is up to it (that Middlesex run chase is still thrown at him) on a tactical basis, and in doing so we wonder if it will diminish what we need him for most. This isn’t new. No-one has the first idea how this is going to turn out. As always, I side with pessimism, not optimism. Think John Cleese, Clockwise.
Fan favourite Jonny Bairstow is locked in at five, as he should be. Ben Stokes will be at six, as he should be. The interest with Stokes is whether any dip in form, and it can happen, will be associated with desire now he’s the IPL’s MVP. I’ve been watching international sport for too long to be anything other than cynical. Moeen Ali will be the enigma at 7, scoring enough runs to keep the wolves from the door, taking not enough wickets to have the spinning cognoscenti clucking away. No Woakes means an opportunity for someone. Could it be Liam Dawson, the keen favourite of England’s most important flora, as a second spinning option at HQ? What about home favourite Toby Roland-Jones? Will Mark Wood last the pace? Anderson and Broad are locked in, so perm any two from those three.
This summer is the prelude to the key series – the Ashes. At this time, if all is to be believed, we’ll be playing a Grade Select XI rather than the usual foes. We have seven tests to get a team gelled, ready and firing, and to get a captain embedded. The seven matches will, no doubt, throw up some key issues, talking points and media nonsense. We’ll try to keep the blog running throughout. The tests are always our bread and butter – you lot just don’t seem to get fired up about much else – and I think the South African series is a really good examination of where we are as a team. It is a team that won in Australia, after all. It has its flaws, as does everyone else in the game at the moment, but on form the bowling attack can be fearsome – Rabada is a gift test cricket can ill afford to lose – and if the batting is up to par, it could be one we struggle to win. Look for some lopsided contests, but a key really hard-fought game somewhere that will turn/decide the series. What a shame AB de Villiers considers this beneath him, even at this stage of his career. AB, I note, doesn’t get the selfish arsehole abuse others get. Maybe I’m missing something.
This summer is a big one too for the mystery man Bayliss and the laughing gnome Farbrace. This has been a long honeymoon, but a Champions Trophy failure has taken down their firewall. Or at least it should have, because I’m really not sure any more. Also, it’s big for Comma. His focus on white ball cricket has yielded progress but not silverware, and now the test team have to take over not on a tide of optimism, but on a cautious, perplexed, almost tentative note. Newman is always one to go that extra mile, and his conclusion is probably right, but for the wrong reasons:
“The most worrying thing is this is the second successive year Bayliss has publicly advocated bolder options — last year Jos Buttler, this time Dawid Malan — only for the squad to be greeted by a groan rather than a gasp.
If it is true that England’s Test side has stagnated, then they have to adopt the same methods Bayliss has so successfully employed in one-day cricket.
The clock is ticking towards the Ashes and England cannot afford to waste any time in the seven Tests that Root will have against South Africa and West Indies to settle into the role.
And that makes this selection such a crying shame, whatever happens at Lord’s, where pragmatism will rule over a potential brave new world.”
Trevor Bayliss needs to assert his authority. Joe Root needs to assert his authority. England need to assert their authority. Welcome to an interesting summer of test cricket. Hopefully, we’ll enjoy / suffer it together.
Comments on Day 1 below. A day early I know but I’m off to Munich! The wanderer, though, has returned!