I allowed myself a little chuckle this morning. I am watching the print and TV media grow their adult teeth again. Mark describes it as “they are learning to be critics again”. Some were, of course, and some notably weren’t, because. Well we all know why. But now they have a chance to be free and they are taking it. Instead of taking pot shots at players for being “too intense” or “mentally fragile” they can now go at the collective again.
Exhibit A – I saw Chris Stocks put up a tweet of such blinding, well, blindness that I couldn’t help but laugh…
“Can’t think of a recent home loss that’s left so many questions and so much bile.”
How about Headingley 2014? Or Lord’s later that year? But then again, it wasn’t their sort of bile. That was a vocal section of the fan base asking what the hell was going on? Precisely what did the decisions of the previous year achieve? When would one individual stop being blamed, and when would another individual actually cop some from this de-clawed media mob?
Here at BOC we weren’t shocked by Trent Bridge. Why would we be? We’ve lost a load of test matches recently. It’s why we agreed, sort of, that Cook’s caution on Saturday at Lord’s was merited because something like Trent Bridge is always on the cards. There are many reasons to have a go at Cook, but Lord’s was really not one of them. But the media still play that game, as you may have seen from the laughable “Cook needs to repeat what Atherton did in Joburg” type headlines. If you’ve been watching test cricket for any time you will know Cook has made two 4th innings hundreds in his test career, and one of those was chasing a target. The other was at Perth, where he batted nearly a full day in 2006, while battling a technique the Aussies had slightly exposed. That he came through that was testament to his ability and mental strength. But he’s only played one successful second innings rearguard in my recall and that was Brisbane 2010. His Ahmedabad innings, although in a losing cause, was not to be sniffed at. All these innings are 5 years or so old. Cricket is, or should be, a “what have you done for me lately” game.
I don’t want to make this about Cook, but that’s the thing. It really is hard not to, when you look at how the media have reacted to this defeat. We endured years of cardboard cut-out captaincy, but because the press have a crush on Alastair, for whatever reasons, the captaincy was always sacrosanct. No such pact exists with Joe Root. This is truly a rookie captain, a man picked to lead England because he’s our best batsman. If anyone is going to have to learn on the job and need some slack given his way, it’s Root. But the signs aren’t good. By way of a small example, it was the Nasser Hussain “two grumpy bowlers” routine. How would Root handle his two grumpy bowlers when the batting had “let them down”? I never once heard that question asked of the previous captain, who seemed not to have those two on a leash either. It was almost funny to Nasser, who wouldn’t have stood for that nonsense when he was in charge, and who managed Gough and Caddick, that these two could almost defy their captain. Seriously? I actually think Broad is a good team man – he bowls through pain, he bowls his heart out most games (I really don’t want to like him, but I just can’t help it) – and Jimmy is just Jimmy. But Root is expected to control them, when they were exactly like this under Al, and no-one murmured anything? Watch this space for more on that.
Then there is Gary Ballance. He is on the media ducking stool. I think that stool should be named the Nick Compton seat but let’s leave that for a moment. Ballance is a selector’s nightmare. You know he has a wonky technique. Many players do. But he is burning it up in Division 1 cricket, which is of a pretty decent standard these days, and that’s an indication of decent form and ability. So what are selectors to do? Ignore the form of a man who made four test hundreds in his early career, or go with the evidence that he’s been well and truly “found out” at top level. The sheer lure of these sorts of players have been the undoing of coaches and selectors for all time. In some ways I feel sorry for them, but also remember this. At peak anti-KP time, James Whitaker could throw Gary Ballance’s record on the table, and he did, and they seals clapped like they were about to receive feeding time. Any player should do well to remember that. Your useful life as a player is only as long as some in the media need you to be. The other players should be thankful Ballance is there at the moment, because it stops them being in the hot seat. In the Mail’s round-up, all four of their writers would drop Ballance, three would keep Jennings (Newman would bring back Hameed – not a lot to say about that), and the replacements are drawn from Hameed, Malan, Westley, Stoneman and Buttler. All four would drop Dawson. But we’ll come to that later.
Ballance is about proving the media right. They love that even more than we do. There is an agenda, alright. Not one of them (that I knew of) wanted Ballance back. Precisely the same with Compton. The difference in the two is that Gary was Joe’s captain pick, while the rumours I hear is that Cook could not abide Compton, and he certainly wasn’t Alastair’s choice. What we had with Compton was more insidious, with his problems put down to being too intense, too desirous of success that it hurt (Pringle couldn’t write an article without comparing him to Ramprakash – but then, I always saw with Ramps, if he was that intense, and failed because of it, how come he had a half decent Ashes record against those all-time greats?) With Balance, it is the criticism of technique. It’s not far off the mark, but as I said, you have to make a decision as a selector. Do you ignore a very good run of form, from a player who put it together in his early career, or do you move elsewhere? If the selectors don’t think he’s up to it, then Comma and his precious processes, and sitting in on selection meetings, should stick to it. Not say, as they appear to have done “we wouldn’t have picked him but Joe really wanted him”. This is where Newman, as always, is having his cake and eating it. If they make a choice that’s wrong, hang them. If the captain makes a choice that’s wrong, hang him. If the Coach can’t be arsed with county cricket then that’s fine. And if Andy Flower likes him and he’s duff, keep absolutely mum (Liam Dawson).
So Gary is in the firing line. We know that. Picking him again will give the media some more raw meat to chew on if and when he fails. I sometimes think he’s chastised more because he doesn’t look good. You don’t pay to watch him bat. He’s no Lara or Gower. Who should replace him? Well that’s where people like Whitaker, and yes, Bayliss should know who they like and who they don’t. But there’s no four day cricket on, and George Dobell nails that in his amazing new piece, and Bayliss seems to make a virtue of not knowing anything about the county game. What about Chuckles Farby, does he know anything? Have they identified anyone they think may have a bit about them. Notice the Liam Livingstone bandwagon ground to a halt? I’ve seen a little of Stoneman this year, and he looks good, but I’m just not sure he’s the answer. There are no sure things, but he seems to have a tighter technique than Jennings. I liked Gubbins at Middlesex, who looked a scrapper. I’ve always had time for James Hildreth but his time has passed on the back, it seems of a couple of errant sessions against the short ball. If you are talking Jason Roy, have a day off. The one I like is Dan Lawrence at Essex – and that pains me. But the pundits seem wedded to Westley. I might be lucky but whenever I see Kent, Sam Northeast looks the part. But his record is modest.
The succession planning, such as it is, doesn’t work. People hark back to Fletcher pulling Tres and Vaughan out of his hat, but there were some duff ones too. If he’s having Vaughan, he’s having Adams too. Now we have an England Lions set-up acting as a shadow team. Westley made a ton in the last outing, so he surely must be the next in line. Is he any good? Well only one way to really find out.
This test was lost by the 1st innings, but the 2nd is the one that alarms me more. There was no sense of fight in the team. One of the things that Flower’s teams (pre- difficult winter) in particular displayed was making teams really work for their wins. Those 9 down draws, those battling matches. Under Bayliss and the good environment (see Dobell for the way to tear that drivel apart, as we did with Moores, but with panache) we fold like cheap suits. We haven’t really shown that in a while now. The rearguard 150 in a losing cause. The battling back to back to back 70s and 80s that hold the opposition up. You tell me what has changed? You might be tempted to say if what it takes to get that back is a return of old Flower, then you might even sell me that. You might.
Remember when Harrison, the old Empty Suit, made, by inference, playing exciting attacking cricket more important than winning? Well, we played exciting, attacking cricket in this test match and we flopped. People I like on Twitter tell me Empty Suit knows what’s best for the game with his background in TV rights and entertainment. No he doesn’t. He knows what might be best for TV companies and the game, whatever it might be, can be flung into an increasingly meaningless, increasingly soulless T20 tour of the world.
What we have is a confused picture. South Africa were dead losses a week ago, and now are certainties to win the series. England were a team with flaws, but super-talented, but are now a team where they are flawed and super-dumb. We have a chief who wants attacking cricket, a coach who creates good atmospheres, a selection panel that delegates to others, a Lions coach in the shadows doing lord knows what, a Comma who comes out only rarely, an ECB who have split the county game apart, and a media re-discovering its bite when it doesn’t need to save Al.
So this takes me on to the bowling. England’s bowlers haven’t been hauled over the coals for this one, although their performance on Day 1 wasn’t, according to people who watched it, up to scratch with too much short stuff – where have we heard that before? Anderson and Broad are the untouchables, and their performances still merit that status. Jimmy is still the best we have, Broad a potential match-winner when the stars align. Mark Wood, therefore, is in the spotlight because there has been a disappointing return from him. I’m always a bit wary of having a go at bowlers because there are only ever 10 wickets to go round in each innings. Wood hasn’t looked himself, and that is a potential Simon Jones type quickie. What do you do? Keep him on and hope it clicks, knowing he is test class, or send him back to the Blast and prepare for benchwarming duties Down Under? I don’t have the answer. The easy one is to drop in and see how Toby Roland-Jones does. I wouldn’t go mad if you did that.
Then there is Liam Dawson. First of all, it is not his fault he has been picked for England. I think we should all remember that. Secondly, he’s not been awful in these two tests. He’s not shone either, but with the ball, he’s a regulation spinner. He’s not Lovejoy. Thirdly, in this test, he batted OK. England see him as a pseudo-all rounder, again that isn’t his fault. He isn’t the glamour pick, he isn’t Adil or Mason, so it’s open season. He should never have been picked, but he isn’t Gavin Hamilton (again, if Fletch is having Vaughan, he’s owning that one too). Belittling him is not fair. I don’t think so, anyway. Adil, a crowd favourite around here, has simply not made a compelling case to be our spin bowler. Pretend all we want, there’s not match-winning performances, there’s not the body of evidence to call our clowns “clowns” for not picking him. Some are seduced by Mason Crane – why not? We’re looking to pluck something from nothing. They’ll soon forget if he flops – success has many parents, failure is an orphan.
The test match that concluded provided some big lessons to England, but the first one should be never take South Africa for granted. They chopped out a weakness, corrected a selection mistake, and put out a team unit that worked brilliantly. People might remember that happened in 2004/5, when the first test was effectively gifted to us by some odd selections. Then South Africa got their act together, but we fought back and won a brilliant Joburg win after a terrible Cape Town loss. Teams can, and do, rebound. This England team has the ability to do so. But, and despite my journo mate getting the hump about it, Vernon Philander’s game seems built for test matches, and it’s not fluke he takes all these wickets. Morne Morkel must be a nightmare to face, but England would have given up on him years ago because he doesn’t get the wicket hauls that his talent suggests. Chris Morris turned from trundler to menace in the space of 48 hours (amazing what bouncing out Cook does) and Olivier will be replaced by Rabada next time out. Maharaj provides a useful spin option. This team looks good, but the batting still has weaknesses – Kuhn as opener should be a walking wicket for example – and is by no means unbeatable. They will collapse at least once on this tour – but the thing is, so will we.
This has been a long enough ramble on the previous test, but I thought I’d finish on one last Alastair Cook note. You know I’m keeping count on the number of test centuries in certain amount of innings. You know, the 5 centuries in 94 test innings thing. But what you notice, more and more, is that this doesn’t matter at all to some. No. He’s made 11000 test runs so his place is safe. His place is safe because he is one of the best two openers in England now. That should be the only selection issue. When he isn’t, or when he doesn’t want to be, he should not be picked. He is an automatic selection with a record on decline. Previous players like KP and Bell, had their records used against them, and they were on opposite sides of the awkwardness spectrum, as they aged. I don’t think age should be used, and in that regard, if Cook remains one of our top two openers, he absolutely has to stay (how anti-Cook is that – calling for him to stay. I wish the anti-KP crowd were so even-handed back in the day).
So we have a little break now until the next test. I will be at The Oval tomorrow night to see the return of KP to a cricket field in England. I had the tickets ages ago as we are taking my American work colleague to his first game. I might even get him to write a few words on what he thought. We’ll find some things to occupy our time up until the Oval test match, as the media seem to be in silly season (after I wrote the line about Flower above, I see certain journos are now saying he should be back as Test coach!). Feel free to let me know what you think of any aspect of this piece. There’s a lot of it. There’s nothing like a loss for a blog like this.
Post writing this, England have qualified for the World Cup final. Well done to all concerned and good luck for the Final. Been lean years by their standards but a welcome return to form. Go well.