The Blame Game


It’s been less than a week since what can only be described as a disastrous Test match for England. This coupled with the fact that England have now lost 6 of their last 8 Test Matches has seen the once compliant media turn into circling vultures around the team. Dmitri came in off his long run on Tuesday and covered many of these points with deadly precision, so naturally I don’t want to cover old ground; however once the dust has settled and people have regained their decorum, it does need to be examined why England are in a continuous cycle of mediocrity.

As we have covered in previous posts, the condemnation came quick and fast, after all this is no longer an Alastair Cook team so it’s game on for the hacks, but the two that particularly caught my eye were the reactions of Nasser Hussain and George Dobell, with 2 thoughts on completely different sides of the spectrum.

Hussain was quick to put the boot into county cricket, which is not too much of a surprise considering he probably rarely watches it, stating:

The lads that are coming in aren’t doing anything for them – they won at Lord’s because of Joe Root, not Jennings, Dawson or Ballance.

“You name some lads who have come in – [James] Vince, [Ben] Duckett, [Gareth] Batty, [Zafar] Ansari, [Alex] Hales, Ballance – there is no-one coming in and doing well. “It is a sad indictment in county cricket that they are getting runs there and not for England.” 

Dobell took another line and was keen to understand what Bayliss was actually doing to address these problems:

Bayliss has clearly pushed an ‘aggressive’ mindset (remember his comments about wanting two “attacking-style batters in the top three”?) but, without knowing the red-ball ability of his options – he admits he has never seen Mark Stoneman, outstanding candidate for top-order promotion, bat in the flesh – he has instead tried to turn limited-overs talents into Test players. Jos Buttler was recalled to the Test team despite having played one first-class game in a year and, as a result, being given no chance to correct the faults that led to him being dropped; Alex Hales was promoted to Test opener and Liam Dawson has been selected largely on the grounds of being a ‘good bloke’. By such criteria, Nelson Mandela would have opened the batting for South Africa for 50 years.

Bayliss isn’t much of a technical coach, either. The players refer to him as “a man of few words” who leaves the technical work to others and is more interested in creating a positive, settled environment in which the players are able to perform to their optimum.

That’s important, of course. But if he doesn’t have much say in selection and he doesn’t have much say in coaching, it does rather beg the question: what does he do? If he’s just creating a relaxed environment, he could be replaced by a couple of scented candles, a yucca plant and a CD of ambient whale noises.

 It’s not that I wholly disagree with either of these quotes, it’s just that I think they fail to see the long term issues that England have glaringly had and have been swept under the carpet for so long now. It is easy to have a knee jerk reaction after another England collapse, but it’s far more positive to take a step back at properly look at the underlying causes rather than throwing mud at anybody not named Alastair Cook.

If I look at Hussain’s comments around County Cricket, I feel that he has taken the easy route of assigning blame without doing much research. We all know that County Cricket isn’t perfect, but then show me any national set up that has the quality of domestic league to keep churning out Test quality players (the Australian Shield Cricket in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was the exception rather than the rule). We are also in an era where cricket has become a marginal sport, so to try and find circa 540 professional players across the counties who all play at a high level is mission impossible. Of course it could be argued that by merging counties or introducing 3 divisions (the latter of which I’m actually in favour of) to increase the quality on offer is a nice idea, but even the counties aren’t stupid enough to vote themselves out of existence. This is verging on Mission Impossible. Hussain also argues that players coming through the counties should have had their techniques honed by playing County Cricket, and whilst it is a lovely idea, it is not exactly practical. The County coaches are under as much pressure to win as with any other professional game, so they’re not exactly going to take Ballance or Vince aside when they are plundering county attacks to work on their technique on the off chance that they may get recalled. It would be lovely if they did, but that is purely a pipe dream. It is also worth remembering that the counties often work on a shoestring budget, so they’re not exactly in a place to be able to employ the best coaches in the system and if they did so, then they would probably have to sacrifice players, robbing Peter to pay Paul in other words. Whilst we can all agree that County Cricket isn’t without fault, to lay the full blame on it’s doorstep is lazy journalism in my opinion.

The same could be said about laying the blame fully at the door of England’s coaches; after all they can only work with those who have been selected to play for England. Whilst of course there can be a portion of blame assigned to Bayliss, who fully admits that he doesn’t have a working knowledge of County Cricket (though that doesn’t mean that he can’t watch videos of every English player) and appears to foster a culture whereby there is a lack of accountability amongst the players; it would be foolhardy to hump the blame completely onto his back. Could Bayliss be more forthright, yes certainly and could he stop using phrases such as ‘positive brand of cricket’ (up there with ‘difficult winter’) absolutely yes, but it does feel slightly that his Australian upbringing has upset one or two of the media corp. There are questions around his backroom staff, which Dmitri pointed out in his last post, such as what does Farbrace actually do and why would you employ a batting coach, who was known to freeze in the Test Cricket arena? These are valid questions, but my view is that the England coaches should only be there to tweak techniques and mindsets and not have to start from scratch with players who aren’t either ready or good enough for Test Cricket. My question would be why are we having to pick players with poor technique or subject temperament in the first place? Surely there is a failsafe within the system to guard against this? Yes is the answer; however it is failing in its very basic goal:

According to the Lords website:

Loughborough University has a long tradition and is world renowned for its role in the development of sporting excellence. It is a key site for the new English Institute of Sport – and the ECB’s National Academy. The MCCU allows additional support to be invested in a squad of elite young cricketers, who benefit from Loughborough’s expertise and provision for the development of sports performance.

The Cricket-specific facilities and services are reinforced by access to Loughborough’s wider provision of high-performance sport support services, including fitness testing and development, technical analysis of skill acquisition, physiological and biomechanical analysis, sports nutrition, sports psychology, and sports medicine services.

Loughborough has been a failure on an immense scale. It is the place where aspiring fast bowlers and batsmen go to have their technique ripped apart and changed to what the ECB coaching manual dictates and to be turned from exciting young cricketers into ECB corporate drones. After all, we know that as long as you say the right things and suck up to Mr. Flower, then a Test place is all but guaranteed (more on him a little later). The crux of the matter is that we are not producing enough players of a high enough quality to play Test Cricket; we’re not drilling into them the mindset of protecting your wicket, batting time or bowling line and length instead of promoting the so-called so-called ‘X Factor cricket’. The basics seemed to have been replaced with how fast can you bowl the ball and how far can you clear the boundary by, which is nice for hit and giggle cricket but leaves players totally ill-equipped for the longer form of the game; hence the phrase positive brand of cricket now being bandied about, which roughly translates as our batsman have no clue on how to defend against quality bowling.

So then we dig a little deeper and shine the light on the two individuals who have the keys to the England Development Programme, Andy Flower and David Parsons. There has been very little written about David Parsons, England’s National Spin Bowling Coach, and that’s just probably the way that he likes it. Parsons has been England’s spin coach since 2006 and how many international class spinners have we produced since that time, yes you guessed it, a big fat zero (Swann was playing County Cricket long before Parsons was appointed). This is a clear example about how the ECB rewards those that are ‘inside cricket’ irrespective of the aptitude of said individual. If I had been in a job where I had one task but failed to deliver on it, then I would have been out of a job an awfully long time ago, but there Parson’s is, clinging onto his position for 11 years whilst contributing virtually nothing during this time, no doubt he’ll be knighted soon. My thoughts on Andy Flower are well known, I wrote a piece last year about his tenure with the Lions – and very little has changed since then. Flower has never had a particular aptitude of bringing through young cricketers, with only Steven Finn bought into the England set up under the age of 27 (Trott and Bresnan were extremely experienced county operators by this time) and clearly values good personality rather than talent. England are still criminally under utilising the Lions in the red ball format, which is madness, considering this should be the very vehicle where England’s aspiring Test players iron out their techniques, test out their temperaments and play against high quality players. It would naturally be impossible to mimic the England set up, but surely it’s not past the administrators to organise 4/5 red ball games a year for those that have been identified as next off the cab rank?? Surely Director Comma understands that the very definition of madness is doing the same things again and expecting a different outcome? The fact that we have consistently seen white ball cricket favoured over red ball cricket constantly rankles with me but it appears that this decision has come from the top.

We could also easily blame the selectors, whom many of us believe should have been sacked straight after the India tour and some even before that. There have been too many selections where they have tried to put round objects into square holes or have completely misjudged an individual’s readiness for the Test arena. The balance of the side has looked completely wrong for a while now and they continue to jettison those who don’t fit their mould as personified by the media luvvies (see Rashid, Carberry, Compton etc). The fact that James Whitaker still has a job is like the ECB is playing one massive practical joke on the rest of England, hell I’d rather have John Whitaker making the selections.

It is clear that many elements could be blamed for England’s consistently poor decision making and massive inconsistency in the Test arena (though one could argue that losing 6 out of 8 Tests isn’t inconsistency and just the sign of a poor side); however there does seem to be one constant running through all of these gripes. Yes, our purported savior, the Director, England Cricket.

Now many might say that it is unfair to put the blame squarely at Strauss’ door and some will even go further and say that I am purporting an agenda against Strauss, and whilst it’s true that I have little time for Strauss, the one common element is that all roads lead to him. Graves is being kept in a cupboard under the stairs, only allowed out to wine and dine the County chairmen, Empty Suit is too concerned with the TV deals and the Cockroach is still trying to infiltrate the ICC, so that really only leaves us with Director Comma. When appointed, Strauss’ supposed remit was:

Strauss, will will be responsible for “the long-term strategy of the England men’s cricket team” and for developing “the right coaching and management structure to support it”.

Strauss knew that Bayliss was more of a white ball specialist when he appointed him and that he had very little knowledge of county cricket; however it still seems that the key to Strauss’ appointment was to push the white ball game and to ensure a certain South African born player wasn’t picked. If Strauss didn’t know that Bayliss was a hands-off coach, then that is a damning indictment of his research and judgment. Strauss is also in charge of the selectors, so why has there been no accountability with bust after bust coming from Whitaker and co? Any fool could see they’re not up to the job, hell I would make Peter Moores chief selector, he might not be able to coach at International level, but he was the most successful in bringing young cricketers through to the England set up. I would certainly remove Flower from any formal or informal position on the panel, a conflict of interest there most certainly is, but whether Director Comma actually has the cohones to do it, is another matter.

Another damning aspect of all this has been Strauss’ insistence that white ball cricket was more of a focus across all of the age groups, very much at the detriment to the red ball game. We can of course question the mindset and attitude of England’s Test batsmen, but when they and the next generation are not being given proper exposure to the red ball game early in their career against high quality players, then of course we leave ourselves open to being undercooked at this level. It is astoundingly incompetent to have the Lions playing 6 red ball games over a 3-year period, with an England Test line up crying out for new talent. Whilst it would be unfair to directly apportion blame to Strauss for Loughborough’s consistent failure, it doesn’t appear that he is too keen to do much about it, after all that’s Mr. Flowers remit and one doesn’t go about sticking his nose into Darth Mood Hoover’s ‘oeuvre d’art’.

So what have England actually achieved in Director Comma’s tenure, we have a white ball team that is better than it was but still hasn’t won anything, a Test team with the same glaring holes and lack of talent in the system as we had in 2014, which makes it impossible to make England a constantly competitive Test Team, oh and a new domestic T20 competition that nobody wants. It wouldn’t be unfair to surmise in my opinion, that in the three years since Strauss took over as Director, England Cricket, English cricket hasn’t moved forward an iota and that for me is the most damning statistic of them all.



Carry On Up The England

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. 

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day four – Shambles

England were always going to lose this match, the question was whether it would be today or tomorrow, and how they lost it.  The difference between the teams after the first innings was substantial, and probably meant defeat anyway, but with South Africa batting well on the third day, England’s target was always going to be far beyond them.  But how you lose is often as important as how you win, for it demonstrates the qualities of the team in adversity, and the character therein.  England’s abysmal collapse today was entirely predictable (indeed yesterday’s post did predict it) but it’s still disappointing to see the worst fears confirmed.

Amidst the storm of criticism England received after the denouement, it was interesting to note how many of the same people who castigated South Africa for not pressing on and playing shots yesterday now complained that England were reckless today.  The circumstances aren’t the same of course, but the selectivity with which one side can be criticised for playing decent Test cricket (and winning) and the other attacked for failing to do so is indicative of the confused approach so many have got into in this T20 era.

In the first innings England’s wickets didn’t fall because of too many reckless shots, but the attitude was one of a side that didn’t have too much confidence in their ability to defend.  It’s been a regular feature of the England side in recent times, but not exclusively so, they have on occasion batted defensively, even in defeat in India, but the reality is that the middle order are stroke players, and it goes against the grain for them to block.  That middle order is outstanding at counter attacking and ramming home an advantage and is more than capable of changing the direction of a match in a session.  But what looks terrific as a calculated gamble looks dire when a backs to the wall performance is required.  Yet it may well be that those who blame them are looking in the wrong place, for those players have particular strengths, and ones which have been evident as recently as the last Test match, when Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all plundered runs with their attacking approach.  Criticising Stuart Broad for being caught on the boundary this afternoon seems a peculiar line to take for example given the match was long dead by then.  The problems arise when they are exposed much too early, and the loss of early wickets in a paper thin top order is always going to generate disaster in such circumstances.

It’s not to say the middle order aren’t capable.  Moeen batted extraordinarily well in carrying his bat during another dire defeat – to Sri Lanka at Leeds – but having created a role for him in the lower middle order where he is to play freely, it is a bit rich to complain when he does the same thing with the game already lost.  That’s not to excuse him, for it wasn’t a great shot to say the least, but in the criticism of that middle order, there are some short memories about that working superbly only one Test ago.

It is true however that the innings as a whole was spectacularly spineless.  Cook did show how to do it early on, but with wickets falling about him it had the air of being in vain from half an hour into play.  It was a good ball that got him, and an even better one that got Root, but both of them could have survived on another day.  Good bowling yes, totally unplayable no.  In neither case does that make them responsible for what happened (to emphasise the point, they were definitely good balls), but it was still part of the pattern where no batsman (apart from possibly Dawson) came out with much credit, it is merely a matter of degree.  Cook at his very best exudes a sense of certainty missing here, and while others were infinitely more culpable, he will be as disappointed  as anyone not to have gone on.  Mentioning Cook today is in one sense harsh, but it is only from the perspective of him being about the only player in the side who has the concentration levels to bat for a couple of days.  That he doesn’t do it in the fourth innings to save a match that often (not many do) is rather beside the point.  He could, which is why the celebrations for his wicket are always the loudest.  But Cook has always been vulnerable to pace, and outstanding against spin, and South Africa have a terrific pace attack – his record against both them and Australia is markedly lower than against others.  That’s fair enough, for only the very best have no real flaws.  Cook is just below that level, but he is very good and the same applies to him as to others – to look at what he can do rather than what he can’t.

England have gone through opening batsmen not called Cook at a rate of knots in the past few years, and Jennings will be aghast at the gaping hole between bat and pad that led to him being bowled, while Ballance was once again stuck on the crease and lbw on review.  In the first case, England really do have to decide what they are doing with the opening position and show some faith that whoever they pick will learn the role.  In the second, whatever Ballance’s shortcomings at this level, England’s decision to put him in at three, a position he doesn’t hold for his county, and where he struggled last time he was selected, is throwing him to the wolves, irrespective of him apparently being injured this match.  Facing the new ball and being in the middle order are entirely different roles, albeit in this England side the middle order is getting used to it quite quickly.  England are hoping the square peg can be pushed in to the round hole.

If those two appear to be vulnerable to being dropped, the question is who could come in to replace them.  The new schedule for county cricket precludes county championship cricket during the meat of the season, meaning any replacements will not have played anything other than T20 recently.  This was of course pointed out at the time the schedule was agreed, but ignored.  Change will smack of shuffling the chairs on the Titanic, for it’s a big ask of anyone to come in and get used to different format from the off.

The other player who may give way is Liam Dawson.  He is victim of the extraordinarily muddled thinking that passes for selection – he hasn’t proved a success so far, but he’s done about as well as might have been expected given his record.  The dropping of Adil Rashid looked reckless at the time, to now give his replacement the boot so soon would make a nonsense of his initial selection.  It would also – along with the potential less likely removal of Mark Wood, be following the time honoured England tradition of blaming the bowlers for the failure of the batsmen.

Where to go from here?  It should always be said that a team is never so good in victory or as bad in defeat as they seem, and the euphoria of the first Test win was completely misplaced as some kind of barometer for following games.  England’s recent record is so poor that this effort today shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, yet apparently it has.  Putting the boot in when they’ve played as badly as today is nothing but rampant hypocrisy given the excuse making for the last tour, the home defeats last summer, and the pretence that all was well, fully exonerating everyone from the captain to the Chairman.  It’s already been the case that some of our media friends have decided to criticise Root as captain, a mere two Tests into the job, having made endless excuses to this point when it was Cook in charge.  That’s not to pick on Cook either, it is to say that these problems with the England side have been apparent for quite some time, yet some were too busy pronouncing all was well when it clearly wasn’t.  Equally, those problems don’t mean that it’s fine to rip into the whole side just because of today.  Failing to be aware that this happens to the current England – or more specifically, to pretend it hasn’t done because of some misguided cheerleading of those in charge – does a disservice to everyone both then and now, including the players.  This is how England have been for a while, with all the concomitant strengths and flaws.  It is this apparent new found freedom in the fourth estate to say what has been obvious for a long time that grates so much.

For South Africa, this match couldn’t have gone better – and in the absence of Kagiso Rabada as well.  The seam attack had England under pressure from ball one in both innings, and Keshav Maharaj was excellent in support.  Yet as in the first Test, the margin of victory disguised the fact that both teams had opportunities.  There is absolutely nothing to suggest certainty about the outcome of the next two games, although doubtless there will be much discussion around how England change the “momentum” of the series.

After a day like today, it’s hard to know what is more irritating – the performance, or the apparent amazement that it happened at all.  There has been far too much absolving of the past, and so far, far too much criticism today from those who previously stayed silent and pretended the flaws in the team didn’t exist.  This is where England are, and yes they can certainly do better in these circumstances than they have today.  But it’s not new, and it’s not unusual.  A degree of honesty all round about where England have been for the last couple of years wouldn’t go amiss rather than responding day to day.



England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day 3 – Doomed

Barring the kind of sporting miracle that a few always cling to, England will lose this match, probably tomorrow, and it’s all down to their batting performance on the second day.  Today certainly wasn’t the worst England have played – they bowled reasonably enough – but the gap between the sides after the first innings meant that to have even the slightest chance they would have needed something exceptional, indeed to skittle a South African side entirely content to accumulate runs.

There are things England could have done better; certainly the delayed introduction of spin was highlighted by the way Dawson and in particular Moeen took wickets once they were finally used, but any suggestion that this was the difference between winning and losing would be rather extreme.  England toiled hard and bowled well enough in the morning session, but they were always going to be in a situation of trying to limit the damage as much as they could after the initial burst failed to bring results.  South Africa played it exactly right – not for them the abandon of attacking batting, they played as though it was a Test match, taking minimal risks and continuing to build on their already overwhelming advantage.  It was curious to hear the commentators criticising them for this fairly early on.  Despite at the time the best part of three days to go, the desire to see them throw the bat was present on both television and radio.  Perhaps it was a subconscious wish for England to get back into the game, for it is hard to comprehend why with so much time left to play it was remotely in the tourists’ interests to take risks with their position.  Perhaps the influence of T20 has become so pervasive that even observers can’t cope with a team playing decent Test cricket any more, for South Africa were hardly particularly slow – they were simply using the time honoured tactic of grinding England into the dirt.

Elgar and Amla did the damage early on, looking in little trouble as they made a strong position completely dominant.  By the time both were dismissed their team already had enough on the board to be strong favourites even if they’d stopped there, and neither dismissal was expected at the time given their level of comfort.  England did miss one opportunity, failing to spot a thin edge from Amla when on 25, but of their DRS problems this series, that was the least damning – players have missed hearing edges from the dawn of time.  They did get one right when Amla had reached 87, Dawson’s introduction bringing the overturning of a not out decision that was entirely understandable as he advanced down the pitch.

By this stage the surface was showing signs of some wear, if a long way from being unplayable.  The lbw of Faf Du Plessis will have sent tremors of uncertainty through England ranks given how low it kept from short of a length, but for the seamers at least, it was unusual to see the ball misbehave that much.  There was some spin to be had, as should be expected in the second half of a Test match.  Dawson had the advantage of bowling into the footholes to the left handers, but it was Moeen Ali who extracted more life, and looked the more threatening.  Part time offspinner England may consider him, but in the absence of Adil Rashid, he looks by far the more potent of the two spinners on show.  Dawson has done little to suggest he is the future, albeit from three Tests, and there are already whispers that his place might be under threat.  This is unfair because he hasn’t had anything like long enough to get used to Test cricket, or to learn, and should he not be retained then questions should be asked about his initial selection more than his performance, for if he isn’t deemed good enough, why was he thought good enough so recently?

Towards the back end of the innings, Philander and Morkel decided to attack, with Moeen bearing the brunt of their assault as he also took wickets.  In microcosm, this was a good sample of Moeen’s bowling career – expensive but taking wickets at frequent intervals.  His 4-78 represented unusually good figures for a spinner at Trent Bridge, albeit three of the wickets came from attempts to hit him out of the ground.  By that stage though, the target had exceeded world record levels, and with Philander’s departure, that was sufficient to invite the declaration and ask England to bat for a tricky 20 minute spell.

One thing is abundantly clear, short of an unexpected monsoon, this match is never going to be a draw.  England would have to bat 184 overs and if they did that they’d probably reach the target anyway.  Either they reach 474 (they won’t) or they will lose, and to that end to have even the slightest possibility (virtually nil) of winning then a good start was essential.  It so nearly got off to the worst possible start, Cook given out lbw first ball to Morne Morkel before successfully reviewing it.  In truth, it wasn’t a great decision, it always looked high and so it proved on Hawkeye.  But it must also be said it really wasn’t a great shot either – Cook was attempting to clip a good length straight ball through square leg.  He got away with it because Morkel is so tall, but it was a reminder that those who berated Moeen Ali for being caught at point tend to go much quieter when poor semi-defensive or defensive shots are played instead.

For the remainder of the four overs the two openers were under huge pressure.  Cook had another close lbw call against him when he again played across a pretty straight ball, while Jennings just about managed to control an outside edge and push it down in to the slip cordon.  Both these players could do with some runs.  Cook hasn’t been in the greatest of touch in Tests recently, but hardly disastrously so, while Jennings is suffering the murmurs of the press despite a more recent century of the two of them, and is only in his fourth match.  Cook quite clearly has a long fine record, but that observation is about him, it is about the seeming lack of patience with new players and the immediate pressure placed on them to succeed.  Cook had faith placed in him at various stages of his career, and perhaps dividends would be reaped if others received half that faith.  England are becoming very careless with opening batsmen.

They got through it, one way or another, and England can at least begin day four with all ten wickets intact.  It is hard to see anything other than a South Africa win, and a convincing one.  If England bat as they did in the first innings, it could be over in short order, but at least with Cook still there they have someone who could bat long and keep the game alive.  He’s not alone in that for the inexperienced Jennings has the temperament to do so, and so could Gary Ballance.  In the last case he really needs it.  Ballance does suffer in terms of perception from being anything but elegant, and this series he’s batted reasonably and not looked out of his depth, but without ever going on to make a score.

England could do themselves a big favour, even in defeat, by making a decent fist of their run chase.  There are question marks over their defensive techniques as a collective, and their ability to bat for long periods.  Falling over in a heap would make those criticisms louder and highlight to the opposition what they must already suspect – keep England subdued and they’ll get themselves out.  For England to come out of this match with their heads held high, they really need Alastair Cook to lead the way.

The trouble is, it’s all too easy to see England being all out by tea.


England v South Africa – Day 2 – Oh No! What Have You Done?

South Africa finish the day 205 runs ahead. England made 205. 15 wickets fell on the day. It hasn’t been a great day for the new Root England, but it isn’t, if we are being really truthful with ourselves, a massive shock. England’s batting is brittle. England don’t seem to cope well with any first innings score of 300+ on the board. We can look at how we play, and we can look at reactions under pressure, but this England team seem perfectly fine batting first at home. We don’t seem perfectly fine chasing a game.

What we do have is turbo-charged cricket which seems to be advancing test cricket matches so that it would be a massive surprise if this game goes to Day 5, and less of a surprise if it finished tomorrow. This may give Bungalow Graves and his Empty Suit more encouragement for their Shiny Toy backed idiocy, but where I am sitting, it looks like a massive drop in the quality of play. Batting has become a pursuit of having a good time at the crease, and not a long time. Joe Root, a man for all seasons, set the equal fastest half-century by an England test captain, but his support consisted of a doughty but not ground-breaking 20-odd by Gary Ballance, and a sketchy old knock by Johnny Bairstow.

England’s 205 was pathetic, even given the conditions which assisted the bowlers, but with an attack that saw Maharaj take three wickets on a pitch that does not assist the spinners, Chris Morris and Duanne Olivier looked, for long periods, to be out of sorts, this has to be nothing but a bitter disappointment. Philander and Morkel are a very good opening pair when in rhythm and on a wicket that assists (or with appropriate conditions). This happens too often these days, and while for many years England’s modus operandi was being hard to beat, now it seems to be self-destruction.

And yet the day started so well. The remaining four wickets were taken in very short order and Jimmy Anderson recorded his seventh five wicket haul and 309 for 6 turned in to 335 all out. That was something to put the spring in our steps, and no doubt delight our Antipodean friend who thinks Jimmy is not all his record is cracked up to be.

The momentum, such as it was, came to a shuddering halt in the space of two deliveries. Cook prodded forward to Philander, and while I was wondering if he was LBW, the Proteas were claiming a catch. Cook had indeed nicked it on to his pad, and de Kock had, indeed, held the chance. As if this wasn’t a big enough blow, Keaton Jennings followed the ball after as he nicked off to Morkel. Interesting that the commentators said it was a ball that would have got most out – defensive failings are quite often explained away. That’s four single figure scores out of seven test innings. Early days in his career, but there is no doubt he’s not locked in yet.

Root and Ballance kept South Africa at bay in different ways. Ballance pays for not having a style that is easy on the eye. I’m sure that makes up part of the almost hysterical “he’s not up to it” I see on Twitter. He may not be, but we’d just seen the two openers ripped out in no time, and it’s time to lay it on Ballance. He’s not set at three, but good grief, this isn’t the time to go mad about him. He saw off the attack and then fell after lunch. As I said, no-one is going to pay to watch Ballance play test cricket, but there seem to be a lot of very critical people on his case.

Root’s skittish innings was in large parts genius, and large parts reckless. He seemed to convey an attitude that the only way to get back into the game was to take risks, be aggressive and cash in. He’s a top top player. Joe Root can do that. Mere human cricketers aren’t so good at it. YJB managed to make 45, but it was all over the place. He has that charming knack at this stage of riding his luck and contributing (he did at Lord’s last Sunday) so long may it continue!

When Root was dismissed with the score on 143, the last seven wickets contributed just 62 more. That’s garbage. It was put into some context with South Africa’s 75 for 1 second innings, and trouble is in store. Unless England come up with a miracle, they will be chasing 300+ in the final innings, and we all know how tough that is.

The dismissal that may raise most eyebrows was Moeen Ali’s. A very loose drive, uppish, to a man placed there precisely for that shot, is the sort that infuriates us armchair pundits and some of the media corps. But it is what it is. Moeen is there to counter-punch, and it has worked before. His profligacy was accentuated by the tail contributing next to nothing. It’s how he plays.

I have to say watching Philander bowl was fascinating. He has those virtues of line and length, and the ability to keep a batsman honest. He took just two wickets, but he removed our two most defensive players. He will be a tough man to play in the second innings, and the suspicion is that he is nowhere near fully fit.

So, it looks very much like we will be all square going into the Oval test. If it isn’t, we’ll have a ton to write about.

RIP to the five overs lost today. They will be deeply mourned by the punters pockets, and placed in a communal grave by the authorities who give the square root of fuck all about that.

Comments on Day 3 below. Chris will be on the decks tomorrow.

England vs. South Africa, 2nd Test, Day 1

After such a long wait for the Test Summer to begin and despite all the so-called pomp and glory of Lords, the first Test felt a bit of a let down to me. England were pretty good but South Africa were pretty poor and that led to a fairly one-sided Test. The indications, after the first day’s play at Trent Bridge is that this Test will be anything but one-sided. Today was the sort of day that trumps any form of hit and giggle cricket out there, the game flowed one way and then another and by the close of play both teams would have taken their respective positions at the start of play. In my opinion, it is very hard to judge who has the upper hand, a joy for us slightly long in the tooth cricket followers that Tom Harrison clearly doesn’t value.

South Africa got their selection and tactics spot on today and whilst De Bruyn can feel slightly hard done by, the decision to pick Morris was spot on, especially with fears over Philander’s fitness and durability. One person who can’t feel aggrieved is of course JP Duminy, someone who has been making the team on past glories and so-called potential with bat and ball. As D’Arthez and Prime.Evil have mentioned constantly below the line, he is someone that infuriates all Proteas’ followers, a bit like in the way that the selection of Bopara infuriated all England supporters. Yes they both could bat and bowl a bit, but they both looked out of their depth in the international arena and on closer inspection their figures both suggest that they should both have been dropped long before they were. We might still see Duminy in a Test shirt in future, but to be a bit controversial, I would very much doubt that it would be down to his ability.

So back to the Test and South Africa won the toss on a fairly placid pitch, but one that was aiding the seam bowlers due to the overhead conditions. Both openers did alright without scoring the runs they felt they might have deserved and then Amla and De Kock put together a tremendous partnership once the sun came out and the ball stopped swinging. It was quite amusing to listen to Botham et al panning the South African management for not promoting De Kock earlier in his career; of course forgetting that batting at four after 110 overs in the field is less than practical. Whilst Amla’s innings was slightly skittish, De Kock looked in wonderful touch and it is easy to see why he averages over 50 in Test cricket, the only slight knock being that he got out to a lazy waft straight after tea when a century was looking on the cards. Amla then soon departed even after another reprieve from Cook at slip and once Du Plessis and then Bavuma departed relatively cheaply, England looked like they had an opening to bowl out the Proteas cheaply. The fact that they weren’t able to is of great credit to Morris and Philander, who both looked like bona fide all-rounders, especially when dealing with the new ball and due to some slightly strange bowling tactics from England.

For England, it was a bit of a ‘what could have been’ day. They bowled far too short with the new ball, a criticism that has been leveled at them on numerous occasions and when they finally did get their lengths right after lunch, the sun came out and made batting, which had looked fairly treacherous before lunch, look far more serene in the afternoon. England’s bowlers also had a pretty mixed day, with Stokes and Broad (once he had sorted his length out) being the pick of England’s attack. Jimmy bowled ok though he didn’t look particularly threatening and Mark Wood had a day to forget with the ball mainly down to the fact that he bowled far too short and was unable to bowl one side of the wicket. Wood is a talent and despite a bad day at the office, he should be retained due to the fact that he does have the pace to challenge opposing batsmen when he gets it right. And then we come to Liam Dawson. I don’t particularly take great pleasure in signally out one player for criticism, but Dawson is simply not good enough for Test cricket. He sort of reminds me of the quiet and slightly strange guy from accounts who ventures out for the work Christmas party and then hangs around at the side of the group; Sure it’s possible to make small talk for a while, however you don’t particularly want him to be there and more importantly, he doesn’t really want to be there either. He might well be a good character, but neither Dawson’s bowling nor batting merit a place in the side. It’s almost like England have no idea as to what to do with the number 8 position without Woakes and have hedged their bets on the very definition of a ‘bits and pieces’ player. Surely after this Test, the selectors will see that Dawson isn’t up to Test cricket, then again he’s an Andy Flower favourite, so will probably end up with 50 caps!

So after an intriguing first day, we move on to an equally intriguing second day with both teams having the ability to move themselves into the box seat. If South Africa bat well and get up to 450, then they will surely be favourites to win as Trent Bridge can turn into a minefield batting last; however if England can wrap this innings up for around 350-370, then providing they bat well, they could well be in a position to ramp the pressure up on the Proteas in the second innings. So cancel any plans to go out shopping or to go for a long walk in the countryside and sit back and watch Day 2, it could be a cracker tomorrow.

Thoughts and comments on Day 2 below:


England v South Africa: 2nd Test Preview

It’s curious how a single win can change both the narrative and the expectations for the next game.  England won at Lords at a canter, but South Africa certainly had their chances, and better catching and the ability to stay behind the popping crease could have made a material difference to the outcome.  Test matches are all about that kind of thing – the key moments that swing the game, although very often they are apparent afterwards rather than at the time.  Few remember the errors of the side who wins the game.  But the feelgood response to England’s win has led to an expectation of more of the same, and this is by no means a certainty.  England have a new captain, and that always engenders feelings of a fresh start, but with a recent record before this match of losing five of the previous six Tests, it is hardly a recent history to terrify the opposition, notwithstanding India being a tough place to tour.

One of the most interesting comments Trevor Bayliss made after the first Test was that Moeen and Stokes allowed the side to be balanced in almost all conditions, meaning that England quickly confirmed the same team for Trent Bridge and thus will play two spinners while at the same time having four seam bowlers.  There’s certainly a logic there, and handled properly, it could grant England the ability to ease new players into the side without taking risks as to the bowling attack.  This is a rare privilege for any side, a single all rounder tends to be the hope, as it allows a five man attack with seven batsmen.  England have three, including (and he certainly should be included) Jonny Bairstow.  Whether the selectors make best use of the opportunity afforded is a different matter.

If South Africa shot themselves in the foot repeatedly in the first Test, the cost of that is still to be found in the second.  The loss of Rabada is unquestionably a blow, and as self-inflicted as the future loss of Ben Stokes is likely to be when he falls foul of the same regulations.  Timing is everything, and if Stokes can ensure he gets himself banned for a couple of end of season ODIs then few will complain – except the ticket holders of course, and they never count.  Rabada may be out, but the return of Faf du Plessis certainly strengthens the batting, and of course having the captain back should in itself allow some stability within the side.  Rabada will certainly be replaced by Duanne Olivier, but there have been suggestions that two quicks could come in instead, with Chris Morris becoming the fourth seamer.  Should they do that, Theunis de Bruyn would most likely miss out and South Africa will go into the match with only six batsmen.

Du Plessis himself comes in to replace JP Duminy, a player who recently has provided more work for the umpires than the scorers.  It may be the end of his Test career, but he has come back before, and South Africa are rather light on batsmen this tour should there be injuries. Still, even with the unsurprising news of that particular change, six batsmen would represent something of a gamble.

Trent Bridge has a reputation for offering swing and seam to the bowlers, but in recent times the pitches have tended towards the slow, and sometimes downright turgid.  Two spinner in the England team may not be as unusual as might initially be thought to be the case.  Recent rainfall may have lessened the dryness of the ground beneath the immediate surface, and should the pitch assist the seam bowlers, then South Africa will feel confident they have the weapons to challenge England.

It is 20 years since South Africa last lost a series in England.  Lose this match and that proud record is under serious threat.  But despite missing the likes of Steyn and De Villiers, for differing reasons, they are a good enough side to cause England problems.  Quite simply, they just need to play better than they did at Lords.

Comments on Day One below:

The Curious Case of Moeen Ali: Part Deux

For such an affable chap, Moeen is a rather divisive cricketer.  His batting and bowling veer from the brilliant to the dreadful; opinions tend to be fairly fixed about his value, and yet even when criticised, it tends to be somewhat reluctant.  He didn’t have a good tour of India with the ball, leading Sean to write a piece he described as being like clubbing a baby seal, yet given his outstanding performance in the first Test against South Africa with both bat and ball, it surely puts to bed any questions about his merit.

Well, perhaps not.  The question marks over him are the same ones that have been there since he first came into the team three years ago, namely that his batting isn’t quite good enough to hold down a front line place, and his bowling isn’t near good enough to be the primary Test spinner.  He has certainly developed as a player over that time, and it would be a harsh critic who would say he hasn’t improved, but the question as to whether he has improved enough – one outstanding contribution fresh in the memory notwithstanding – is still a live one.

There has to also be a certain degree of awareness about the aesthetics of the matter.  Moeen in full flow with the bat is simply gorgeous to watch, more reminiscent of David Gower than almost anyone else who has played since.  No one would argue Moeen is remotely as good a batsman as Gower, but there is a similarity in style there, the way both will make any watcher purr with delight at an exquisitely timed cover drive, and gnash teeth with frustration at an ill disciplined waft outside off stump.  It’s both a positive and a negative, and it very much depends on the character and preconceptions of the observer.  Some will make allowances and forgive the flaws because of the intrinsic beauty on show, others will criticise the nature of the dismissals as irresponsible.  As this blog has mentioned before, there is a strange mentality whereby being out to defensive shots is permissible, yet messing up an attacking one is worthy of venom.  It’s the exact opposite to how batsmen tend to think of it, for being dismissed to a defensive shot is an admission of defeat to the bowler, and getting out to an attacking one an occupational hazard.

So allowances are made for being great to watch.  Or he’s criticised more than he should be because he gets out in apparently lazy fashion.  Strokeplayers everywhere have always suffered the same divergent opinions.

His batting is easier to assess these days.  A career average of 35.45 isn’t terrible, but nor is it of the top level.  Yet (and this will crop up again) with him statistics can tend to obscure what he is and what he brings to a side rather than illuminate it.  For he’s a player for whom the term “stat mining” could have been coined; they can be used to defend him or to criticise him, and both have validity.  Certainly his batting has improved at Test level over the last 18 months, raising his overall average from a sub-par high twenties to its current level.  Even in India, where the overall batting line up consistently failed, he tended to be one of the brighter spots.  More interestingly, his relative recent success has been done from a settled position at number seven in the order.  With only 8 Tests in that role, the sample is too small to be too meaningful, but it does reinforce a perception that his counterattacking style is exceptionally valuable down the order.  Either way, three hundreds in those 8 Tests and an average of 78.77 is quite startling, and of immense value to the team if he can maintain even anything thirty percentage points below that contribution level.  The trouble is that he was also markedly less successful one place lower in the order.  This could be psychological to some extent – bat in the tail, bat like a tailender – but it’s also true that in that position he ran out of batting partners often, and was frequently out late on trying to hit some extra runs.  One place higher mitigates that to some extent, but also provides caution in placing too much value on the impressive statistics.

However it might be statistically, Moeen is unquestionably an exceptionally dangerous customer in the lower middle order.  His rate of scoring is destructive, and he can take a match away from the opposition in a session.  Perhaps not to quite the same degree as his team mate one place higher – Ben Stokes – but he’s certainly one to fear when he gets in.

If his batting is now operating at a level where he could arguably get in on merit solely as a batsman, his bowling is much more difficult to quantify.  He has repeatedly said that he considers himself a part time off spinner rather than a front line one, and post Lords Trevor Bayliss made the interesting observation that if that was how Moeen wanted to internalise it, then they were quite happy to let him.  The raw figures are that he has taken 108 wickets in 38 Tests (not too bad) at an average of 39.35 (not so good).  Yet even this needs some further analysis.

Firstly, it has to be taken into account that England fans have been spoiled by having Graeme Swann for several years.  England spinners over the last 40 years have not operated at anything like the level he did.  To put this into context, Swann had a Test bowling average of 29.96, by far the best since the days of Derek Underwood.  Of the other bowlers in living memory who have played a reasonable number of matches, they tend to group around the same kind of level, John Emburey averaged 38.40, Phil Edmonds 34.18, Phil Tufnell 37.68, Ashley Giles 40.60 and Monty Panesar 34.71.  Naturally enough, times, conditions and opposition are all extremely variable for all those players and over all the years, but those were the most successful England spinners in their eras, and none of them have a record that would make anyone sit up and take special notice.  For the reality is that England only rarely  produce exceptional spinners, and Moeen’s record in that list doesn’t stand out as being particularly poor.

There’s more there too, for when it comes to comparing strike rates Emburey’s was 104.7, Edmonds’ 96.2, Tufnell’s 93.2, Giles’ 85.1 and Panesar’s 74.7.  Swann had 60.1 and Moeen Ali 63.6.  Once again, different times and styles of play need to be taken into account here – the strike rate of the bowlers in the 1980s wasn’t thought of as being particularly awful for the time for a start, but the fact that Moeen’s compares well in this regard even to a bowler as well thought of and recent as Panesar is at least food for thought.  It tends to imply what most would think about him anyway – he takes wickets, he bowls some exceptionally good deliveries, but he’s also a little inconsistent and doesn’t maintain control as well as perhaps we would hope.  What Swann was particularly good at was that he was able to play a dual role: a very good defensive spinner in the first half of the game, and an excellent attacking bowler once the pitch began to deteriorate.

Comparative statistics against different sides and in different eras can be fundamentally misleading, yet what can be said is that Moeen’s performance level is not a huge variation from the mean.  In some areas it is better, in others worse.  In some circumstances he has played worse opponents, in others better.  And of course the nature of Test cricket has changed somewhat in any case.

Perhaps the most critical point here is that Australia spent years discarding spinner after spinner for the crime of not being Shane Warne.  Swann wasn’t at that level of course, but he was the best England had produced for many a year.  To hark back to him and hope that England have a plethora of ready-made, equally good replacements to call on would be unreasonable and a triumph of hope over reality.  It is quite simply the case that England do not currently have a finger spinner who would do significantly better.  A little better perhaps, or a little worse, but nothing that would radically change the spinning position.  This doesn’t alter the truth that Moeen had a poor series with the ball in India, nor that he’s anything but the first to suffer that rather chastening experience.  He’s certainly unlikely to terrify many teams in their own backyard, and in Australia later this year he probably won’t do terrifically well either.  Neither did Swann for that matter though, and he was much superior.

One of the strengths of having him in the team as a bowler is his batting, and along with Stokes and Bairstow as all rounders, this creates additional spots for others to take who are more specialist than him.  It could be argued Moeen the bowler is a free option, and a bonus.  This is important because of the qualification above that there aren’t any substantially better finger spinners out there.  That is because of course there is a leg spinner who could and perhaps should have a claim on a spot in the side, and as first choice spin bowler.   Adil Rashid performed markedly better in India than Moeen did, yet was heavily criticised and discarded summarily for failing to be outstanding in one of the most difficult places to tour for a spinner anywhere.  Yet the mistreatment of Adil Rashid shouldn’t be used as a stick with which to beat Moeen, they are two separate issues.  The relatively free pass given to the batsmen for their failures is as much an example of the unreasonableness of the media attack on Adil Rashid as anything to do with Moeen.

Moeen Ali is a flawed cricketer.  There’s no question about that, but perhaps it is time to focus on what he can do rather than what he can’t.  He fulfills an unusual role in recent England cricket history, and he might even be thought of as something of a bits and pieces cricketer, not quite at the desired level in either discipline.  But he also allows the specialists to be included in the side and in business speak can be said to “add value” to the England team.  Berating him for failing to live up to exceptional standards is pointless unless there are alternatives who could take over and improve the side.  Ashley Giles was no one’s idea of a top level spin bowler, but he performed a role in the team for a number of years, and the side was stronger with him doing that.  Moeen does the same thing while at the same time being a much better cricketer, and one who can and does win matches from time to time.   There are worse justifications for a player.