Test Cricket Resurgent?

Two days, two matches, two results that made the cricketing world sit up and take note.  The extraordinary victory by the West Indies undoubtedly put a smile on the faces of those who love and care for the game, and while the Australians as usual thoroughly enjoyed England’s demise, their schadenfreude lasted barely 12 hours before they fell to defeat against a Bangladesh team who have progressed rapidly and are now stiff opposition to anyone, at least at home.

It all demonstrates a game in rude health, where the minnows can turn over the giants, and those who have been struggling can still show what they can do when given the opportunity.

If only that were true.

Little has changed from a week ago concerning the health of the game generally, the prevalence of T20 leagues shows no sign of abating, and in the midst of the two Tests Mitchell McGlenaghan requested he be released from his New Zealand central contract in order to ply his trade as a freelancer in the T20 game.  In his case, he’s not an essential part of the Black Caps international line ups, and it has been some time since he played, indeed he rated his chances of playing international cricket again as “pretty slim”, but it’s still an instance of a centrally contracted player seeking to strike out on his own. The self-imposed absence of AB De Villiers from the South African Test team put a huge hole in their batting (and the Kolpak desertions just as much) during the most recent series in England, and of course the numbers of West Indians unavailable for their international team is well known.  So much of that is self-inflicted by a dysfunctional board, and in that regard at least there are more recent signs of an improvement in the governance, and the bringing on board of people like Jimmy Adams and Jeff Dujon who might just care more for the game than for the politicking that has afflicted it for so long.  It’s an ironic thing in the wake of the victory that Chris Gayle has indicated he wants to play Tests again.  Whether that would be welcome is less the point than that it would be beneficial for the West Indies to be able to select from their full pool of players.

What hasn’t changed is the dispersal of funding centrally, the question of a meaningful Test programme and ensuring that all teams get to play.  Bangladesh’s win over Australia follows one over England on their last tour, suggesting that at long last they are becoming competitive.  But Tests remain relatively rare for them, they’ve only had one three Test series in the last decade (against Zimbabwe), and there were efforts to downgrade the latest Australian tour to a one day only series without Tests.  Their next series is in South Africa, and that too is just the two Tests.  It’s not uncommon for them to go the best part of a year with no Tests at all.  Perhaps the improvement in their cricket will lead this to change, but it seems a little unlikely.

It’s possible that the two results will not only fail to change the current Test match situation, but even make it worse.  If the response to them is to believe that all is well in the garden, then that ironically doesn’t help at all, for the battle to save Test cricket isn’t even close to being won; it is being lost.  There are many villains in the piece – the easy money that T20 in particular generates taking precedence over everything else.  The ICC is not a governing body in the normal sporting sense, subject to the whims of its members and their vested interests in a way that isn’t healthy.  The general principle that such a body should be in place to look after the interests of the game simply doesn’t apply, and while there are few examples of those who act altruistically for the sake of sport, the ICC remains extraordinarily opaque in its decision making and doesn’t engender trust in any way.

What the two matches did do was offer a timely reminder that in cricket, there is simply nothing remotely as exciting as a match that last five days (yes, five) and builds to a climax.  The number of one sided matches is a real problem, but when the sport gets it right and the matches are close it reaches a level of tension that is extraordinarily rare.  The unfolding of a fine Test match is without compare, and given the context of a proper series, that is close and hard fought, it creates a narrative that sucks in even those who wouldn’t normally pay attention.  The final day of the 2005 Ashes series is always going to be the case in point to that, but of course in that case the play was on free to air television…

Let’s be positive about it.  The wins for the West Indies and Bangladesh reasserted what Test cricket is all about.  If for no other reason than as a reminder that it’s worth something, they were exceptionally welcome.  If it caused those who had been advocating four day Tests to quieten down, that is even more welcome.  There is nothing in that proposal that improves the game in any way; there would be fewer overs, matches would be wrecked by weather to a greater degree than is currently the case, and the prospect of getting teams to actually bowl the overs they are supposed to by increasing the daily workload is quite simply laughable.  The proposal is there for the benefit of boards and money men, not cricket.

One final point.  When it comes to the media, there’s a rule that generally applies.  If a headline ends in a question mark, the answer is no.

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England v West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Five

Fabulous.  Despite the assorted efforts of governing bodies around the world to undermine it, Test cricket can still show itself to be the greatest exponent of the greatest game.  Those who want four day Test matches would rob us of days like these, they would remove the sheer drama, the extraordinary tension of cricket at its very best.  These people mustn’t win, they cannot win.  They cannot steal from fans, players and the game itself by removing the sheer drama of a fifth day run chase.  If this game doesn’t shut them up, then nothing will.  Yes, there are matches that don’t go to this point, but those that do tend to be the very best of all.  To coin a phrase or two, it’s time they piped down.  Moved on.

What a day.  Few gave the West Indies much chance, and there’s certainly no claimed wisdom after the event from this quarter either.  Survival seemed remote, victory seemed impossible.  Those taking advantage of the superbly price final day tickets (well done Yorkshire CCC, take note London grounds) would have gone expecting to see an England win, and maybe James Anderson taking his 500th Test wicket.  Instead what they saw were a pair of innings of the highest quality from Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope.  Having done it in the first innings, and got their team into a position of dominance that was then thrown away late on the fourth day, they did it again, but this time under serious pressure.

Sure, England made mistakes – Cook has been a very reliable slip catcher after an iffy start to his career, but here dropped Brathwaite on 4, and late on dropped Hope when it was just about possible to claw something from the day.  These things do happen sometimes, and even Stokes dropped a fairly straightforward one late on, albeit when it was too late to matter.  England’s bowling wasn’t as good as it could have been, and certainly the pitch didn’t deteriorate as they had hoped for a fifth day surface.  The spin expected didn’t transpire, the ball didn’t swing as much as anticipated, and without question they lacked penetration all day.

One thing that shouldn’t be criticised (but almost certainly will be) was Root’s decision to declare.  Setting a team 322 really ought to be enough, in almost all circumstances, and when the opposition are a weak side who managed to lose 19 wickets in a day last time out, it was an entirely reasonable, if aggressive declaration.  What it might do is prevent Root from doing it again, and that would be a shame.  Conservative declarations have been the order of business for England captains in recent times, and Kevin Pietersen was pilloried for the defeat in Chennai for his declaration (even though it was 9 wickets down when he did so).  If the same happens to Root for this, then he’ll be even more unlikely to repeat it, potentially costing England a win in other circumstances.  Of all the reasons England lost this match, an early declaration isn’t one of them.  To his credit, after the match he stood by it.  He’s right.

For today was all about the West Indies.  When something special happens, it is always the case that one side can be criticised for their performance causing defeat, rather than the other being praised for winning.  By definition, if a side gets over the line, they have done better than their opponents, and it’s always a trade off between high performance on the one hand and underperformance on the other.  Let’s be clear here:  England were definitely not awful, they didn’t lose this game, the West Indies won it.

Shai Hope is beautifully named, for a young player who has for some time been very highly rated in the Caribbean hasn’t up until now shown that talent in the Test arena.  Headingley 2017 might just be the time when he announced himself.  His first innings hundred was exceptional, his second innings one truly memorable.  Alongside Brathwaite, he frustrated the England bowlers, slowly chipping away at the formidable total, eating up time and grinding down England.

No-one before has ever scored two centuries in the same match at Headingley, and yet here there were nearly two.  Brathwaite fell for 95, but his young colleague not only seemed entirely unfazed by the situation, but by his own personal milestones.  His muted celebration on scoring his hundred indicated a player focused on the win, not his personal achievement.  He is a talent.

As the target dropped below three figures, and with the departure of Brathwaite, the man England would really not have wanted to get in was Jermaine Blackwood.  Playing a shot a ball he made a mockery of the required run rate, removing any pressure that might have built up as a team entirely unused to winning became aware that they just might have a real sniff.  Of course, it could have gone wrong.  He could have got out cheaply and then the pressure might have told.  But the point with all of these things is that he didn’t and it didn’t.  He took a risk, backed himself and it paid off handsomely.  While the others may have got more runs, he was the one who led the charge home, and took the strain from Shai Hope.  That he wasn’t there at the end following a magnificently over the top wild swing at the ball is pure Blackwood.  May he never change.

The raw words can barely do justice to what occurred today.  Irrespective of what happened here, the West Indies are not a good side.  England might not be a great team, they’re not even consistently a good team, but they are a much, much better side than their opponents.  For three and a half days the West Indies dominated them, and then England’s power and depth turned the tables.  The Test match was gone, it had been thrown away.  To then recover from that, to and not just win, but win comfortably, is the stuff of dreams.

It changes very little.  The West Indies remain a weakened and often dysfunctional side run by a shambolic governing body.  The disparity in pay between the haves in England, Australia and India versus the rest is still there.  Test cricket is still in trouble, players are still leaving to milk the T20 cow.  But sometimes there is a game that can sit outside of that.  Acknowledging the problems and the challenges doesn’t mean ignoring the play, and this was a reminder of just why it can be so special.

Well done the West Indies.  You were truly, truly magnificent.  England batted badly first time around, but they were by no means awful. They were outplayed ultimately by a team that was for whatever reason, humiliation from the first Test perhaps, utterly inspired.  It won’t just be West Indies fans celebrating, it will be neutrals too, and many an England fan who loves West Indies cricket, and above all else loves cricket for the sake of it.  Of all the home series England have played in the last few years, who would ever have thought it would be the West Indies who achieved this acute emotional response?

Rarely has a defeat for England felt so enjoyable.  Not because of them, not because of anything they did, but because of how extraordinary the West Indies were.  Hoping that they build on it may be an aspiration too far, but for now they can celebrate.  Their long suffering supporters can celebrate.

Above all else, cricket can celebrate.  That has to be worth pausing for, surely?

 

 

 

 

England v West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Four

For three and a half days the West Indies have played well above themselves, indeed have played out of their skins.  But a side unused to winning, inexperienced, and ultimately lacking in quality anyway, finally wilted in the face of an England middle and lower order that is undoubtedly one that would cause a few tremors against much better sides than this.

There were chances missed, there’s no doubt about that.  The dropped catches ultimately added up to over 240 runs in England’s favour (though it should be mentioned that England have dropped a few themselves, which would balance that ledger to a degree), and the bowling discipline that was so evident in England’s first innings fell away alarmingly after tea, as Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes punished them for their indiscipline.

What might have beens are the stock in trade for weaker sides in every sport – the lower league football team that lets a lead slip in the closing minutes, the tennis underdog finally beaten in the fifth set – so to that end the turnaround in the match is one that could have been (and was) expected.  At the end of proceedings their performance over the first few days should be seen as the exceptional one, worthy of praise, and the return to the mean after tea on the fourth day more in keeping with where they are as a unit.  They have tried so desperately hard in this match, and the likelihood is that they will end up empty handed.

That there were errors made is beyond question.  Gabriel and Roach were overbowled in the morning session as their team strove for wickets, and by the time the new ball was due they weren’t sufficiently rested to take it before lunch, and weren’t that effective with it afterwards either.  But they are errors from over-enthusiasm in trying to force the win, and perhaps it is the hindsight that lends that judgement of it,  rather than how it was at a time when England were only 82 runs in front and four wickets down.  At that point the tourists were firm favourites, even as England were just beginning to get into a position where they had a chance in the match.

Dawid Malan did himself no harm in terms of selection for the tour to Australia with a gritty 61 over the first part of the day.  It lasted over four hours, he rarely looked fluent, and included a bit of fortune when being dropped at first slip; but above all else he wore down the seam attack and created the circumstances for Moeen to come in and flay a weary bowling unit around the ground.  Sometimes the less eye-catching innings are the important ones, and given the knife edge the game was on, he deserves considerable credit for his determination.  There is a great deal of focus on technique when appraising batsmen but the game is littered with those with excellent techniques who don’t succeed, and others with deeply flawed ones who do.  His 186 ball stay did more to suggest he has the aptitude than a bright and breezy innings of the same score could have done.  Whether he goes on to make it is of course unknown, but he played well today.

England’s total of 490-8 was their highest ever without anyone scoring a century, and had it not reached those levels, it’s not hard to imagine that a fair degree of stick would be coming in the direction of Stokes and Bairstow for the manner of their departures.  Stokes was caught on the boundary trying to hit a six, Bairstow bowled attempting a reverse sweep.  With Malan out too three wickets had gone down for 24 runs and England were seven down with a lead of only 158.  The game was unquestionably in the balance, yes, but some are no nearer to accepting players taking risks than they ever were.

Even though the numbers suggested it was tight, the mini-collapse couldn’t dampen the feeling that England were starting to get on top.  The advantage of their exceptional lower middle order is not just that they can bat, but they score so quickly.  Moeen Ali is one of the best players in the world to watch when he’s in full flow, and here the array of exquisite cover drives and clips off his legs were fully to the fore.  He had one piece of real luck, when caught behind on 32 only to be reprieved by a no ball.  Devendra Bishoo has had a truly miserable match, his captain plainly doesn’t rate him at all, and bowled him only when he had to – ultimately he got a decent spell only when the fast bowlers were on their knees.  And while Shannon Gabriel in particular got away with endless no balls not called, Bishoo was called on field at the most crucial of times, and it was sufficiently tight to suggest it may have been harsh.

The question of on field umpires not calling no balls isn’t a new one, and the Sky commentary team were quick to complain that in a tight match the extra runs an extra workload could have proved crucial, but if it’s unfair to the batting team, it’s also unfair to the bowler, who all too often doesn’t know he’s been repeatedly overstepping until he takes a wicket and it’s sent to the third umpire to be checked.  There are suggestions the fourth umpire could do it every ball (a more dull, soul destroying job in cricket is hard to imagine.  Scoring maybe), and perhaps that is a solution.  But umpires have managed to check the front foot for decades without the aid of technology, it seems hard to understand why it is suddenly not possible.

At tea, England were 357-7, a lead of 188.  Before play Jonny Bairstow had expressed the hope that they might get a lead of 200, and England’s bowlers would probably have fancied their chances had the innings ended there.  But the tea break seemed to be the time the magnificently battling West Indies finally cracked.  From the first over on resumption it all went wrong – Kraigg Brathwaite of all people bowled it, nominally to allow Bishoo to change ends, but it was simply dreadful.  The first ball was a high full toss belted through the covers by Moeen, and it didn’t get any better from that point on.  Shannon Gabriel looked utterly exhausted, and his two overs went for 28 runs.  The balance of the match had finally tilted.

If Moeen did what Moeen does (and does so well), he was complemented by Chris Woakes, a batsman who is ridiculously good to be languishing at number nine in the order.  Indeed, he has a better first class batting average than Mark Stoneman, which demonstrates the ludicrous strength in all rounders England possess.  In many international teams, he’d be a number six.  His fine unbeaten half century, initially in a supporting role, latterly taking control shows how even when he’s been a trifle disappointing with the ball on his return from a long injury layoff, he has the skill to make a contribution.

England had been behind the game from the first morning, and so perhaps it was a slight surprise that before the close Joe Root decided to declare.  A welcome one, for although England’s lead was by then sizeable, few expected it.  There aren’t so many recent captains who would have taken the miniscule risk involved in doing so.

Brathwaite and Powell survived a testing six overs, and if nothing else, it showed the kind of fighting quality that their team has exemplified for much of this match.  If they can manage it for just one more day, then they will come out of the game with immense credit, even if they lose.  They aren’t completely out of it, but 322 is a huge target for anyone, let alone a side such as this.  It’ll take a special innings from someone to get close, and as Mark Twain once put it, “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that’s the way to bet”.

England vs West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Three

If one thing defined today, it was missed opportunities. Both teams were rueing missed DRS reviews, drops and misfields which, had they been taken, could have put them in the driving seat for this game.

The day started with the West Indies in the box seat after Day 2. They were already 71 runs ahead with only 5 wickets down (including a nightwatchman), and they had the chance to put England in an impossible situation with the bat. Jimmy Anderson put paid to that idea in the first two balls of the day, taking two wickets. If you were going to be critical, which would probably be harsh to Shai Hope in particular who amassed 147 runs the day before, both balls were short and wide enough to be left.

Immediately the momentum had swung towards England, West Indies going from 329/5 to 329/7 in two balls and they would be lucky to stretch their lead much past 100. They had that stroke of luck when Moeen Ali dropped an incredibly simple chance to dismiss Jermaine Blackwood from Broad’s bowling in the next over. This drop allowed the West Indies to bat through the rest of the session, and by Lunch they had increased their lead to 169.

England’s innings started with an unusual change of pace, with Stoneman looking more dangerous and fluent than the more experienced Cook. Together they posted the first 50 partnership for this duo, and only the second of this summer for England, before Cook edged a ball from Holder to the wicketkeeper. With the West Indies now feeling on top, Stoneman and Westley did well to survive until Tea.

In the first over of the evening session, Jason Holder managed to get the ball to cut into Mark Stoneman, hitting him on the hand and dislocating his finger. The England physio ‘relocated’ it (I suggest you don’t look at the photos), and Stoneman continued. Shortly after that, Westley was lucky to survive a run-out when he was ballwatching whilst Stoneman was running for a second, with only Bishoo’s failure to safely gather the ball saving him. Westley didn’t manage to cash in however, instead choosing to chase a wide swinging ball in the next over but edging it to the keeper.

Stoneman was bowled by Shannon Gabriel soon after, although replays suggested that Gabriel was lucky not to have conceded a front foot no ball with perhaps just the smallest fraction of his boot behind the line. Perhaps. This brought in Dawid Malan, who was fortunate to survive early on when he got a very faint edge which wasn’t given out on the field and the West Indies elected not to review. Clearly Dawid Malan is a shit bloke. A few overs later they spurned another chance, as Kyle Hope dropped a sliced shot from Joe Root which went right at him at gully. Root also survived being given out LBW after he reviewed the decision, as well as an unsuccessful LBW review by Holder.

The strangest cricket was left for the end though. In the penultimate over of the day, the West Indies’ specialist spinner Bishoo was brought out for what was only his second over of the day. This seems a particularly odd decision when England’s frailties against spin bowling are considered. Following that, the final over from Shannon Gabriel began with two wides, one of which also went for 4, and a no ball. These free runs meant that England finished the day leading by 2 runs with 7 wickets remaining.

For anyone keeping count, there were 6 overs short today, as well as 5 on the first day. I know a lot of people don’t care, but it bugs me that Stokes will likely be banned for swearing a few times whilst there’s no punishment for not fulfilling a fairly basic requirement of the game. I wrote a post here recently about it, which I’d love you to read and comment on even if you disagree.

As always, comments welcome below.

England vs West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Two

Remarkable.  Outside of the team itself, barely anyone would have picked the West Indies to have a day like this.  It wasn’t just that they were dominant, it’s also that it was on the back of a good day yesterday too – consolidating their position, and by the close of play creating one of strength.  Kraigg Brathwaite has shown for some time he has the right mental approach and patience for Test cricket, not least a mere two Tests ago against Pakistan.  In a struggling side he’s the one batsman of experience and ability, but even with that said, the omnishambles of the first Test made this a particularly impressive innings.  Shai Hope, in scoring his maiden Test century, was perhaps even more exceptional, not least how he didn’t allow the excitement of the achievement to distract him from his greater purpose, of getting his team in the ascendant.  Few would have blamed a young player had he got out soon after the landmark, but instead he carried on, and overnight is closing in on 150.

England could have bowled better for sure; although they took two early wickets, neither Anderson and nor particularly Broad got it quite right, the tendency to bowl short and admire the ball prettily whistling past a raised bat being much too frequent.  It wasn’t until Woakes came on for a decidedly unlucky initial spell that the batsmen were given cause to have to play forward rather than staying comfortably on the back foot.  Thereafter, Woakes was fairly unthreatening, perhaps not altogether surprising in a player returning from injury.  But these were good bowling conditions across the day, which made the 246 run fourth wicket stand all the more impressive.  The ball seamed and swung throughout the day, unsurprisingly lessening as it got older, but still with something in it for the pace men throughout.

A couple of late wickets seemed to herald an England fightback.  The dismissal of Brathwaite brought Roston Chase to the middle, and having been sat in his pads all day, it was the most predictable thing in the world that he would fall cheaply.  Any possibility of a late in the day collapse was however stemmed by Jermaine Blackwood meeting triumph and disaster in the way he always does – with a flurry of shots.

England are perhaps deservedly paying for their profligacy with the bat on day one.  Maybe it was complacency, and while that may never be acceptable, it could be deemed understandable given the turkey shoot of the first Test.  For the tourists to take advantage of that should warm the cockles of anyone who truly loves Test cricket, not just for the sharp reminder to England but more importantly for what it might do for this West Indies team.  The appalling disparity in resources between the rich and poor in world cricket hasn’t gone away; the fears for the future of the game outside the Big Three are still there, but over the last two days the West Indies have played with defiance, heart and considerable skill.  It is a joy to see.

There’s another element here too.  After two days of this Test the West Indies are on top, but the outcome of the match is uncertain.  Over 140 years of Test cricket this wasn’t worthy of comment, for a five day Test match could seesaw for some time before the outcome became apparent.  But in recent times this hasn’t been the case – the second day has consistently been the one where one team decisively took charge, with the remainder of the match being played out to an inevitable outcome.  This could yet become a real, proper Test match.  One where both sides strive to defeat the other, not go through the motions with the result known to all long in advance.  When cricket is like this, it justifies the belief of those who care about it that Tests are the greatest form of the greatest game, where every session, every bowling spell, every wicket holds the greatest of importance within the wider pattern of the unfolding match.

Is it possible we might just get that?  England are by no means out of it, the difference between the sides is such that they will feel they can manage a sizeable deficit and still win, but the visitors will know that they have a prime opportunity to take this chance and square the series.  There will be many cheering them on, and not just fans of the team.  Cricket West Indies might not deserve it, the ICC might not deserve it, but this inexperienced shadow side who have performed so valiantly in this match do.  And perhaps more than anyone, those who love cricket for the sake of cricket and not for what it can do to the bank balances of the already wealthy deserve it.

Day three might well be a fantastic day of Test cricket.  Extraordinary.

 

England vs West Indies: 2nd Test, Day One

The West Indies come roaring back.  Test cricket is alive and well!  All the doom-sayers can get back to their caves and all is well in the world…

It’s not hard to see today’s play used as a counter whenever someone mentions the state of this series and the disparity between the sides evident in the first Test, and there’s no question but that the West Indies had a much better time today, and perhaps most importantly of all, played with a sense of pride entirely absent at Edgbaston.

As far as the match position goes, bowling England out for 258 and finishing 19-1 at the close represents a decent return on their efforts for the visitors, and tomorrow they’ll have the chance to push on, get a good total going past England, and put the hosts under serious pressure…

That’s not going to happen is it?

Seeing the West Indies play like this and praising them for it has the hint of condescension about it, for England were pretty woeful against spirited, but hardly lethal bowling.  It is true however, that but for dropped catches, England could and probably should have been dismissed for 100 fewer than what is anyway a fairly unimpressive total.  Those who did score runs – Root and Stokes primarily – were dropped at least once, and early in their innings, while others played some fairly average shots as the batting order displayed all the faults that have been glaringly obvious for so long.

None of the top eight were properly got out, the nearest being Cook who did at least receive a half reasonable delivery.  The others played variations on poor shot selection or execution, and once again the top order flopped to the point they were four down a long way short of having 100 on the board.  As tiresome as it is to write the same thing about the same problems time and again, it remains the case that with this England team, unless Cook and/or Root go on to big big scores, the undoubtedly powerful middle and lower order is going to be coming in to try and rescue the situation yet again.  And they simply aren’t going to do it every time.  With the Ashes tour looming, these problems are coming home to roost, and an air of panic around the media seems to be taking hold.  Stoneman was on the receiving end of this too, a player batting for only the second time in a Test match.  Whatever his likelihood of making it as an international cricketer, to be questioning him at this stage is palpably absurd, except as an illustration of the mess England have got themselves into.

Tom Westley received plenty of plaudits in his first couple of matches, for although he didn’t go on to make a big score, he was busy and played his shots.  How quickly the opinion of the pundits turns.  Another straight ball, another angled bat, another lbw and suddenly the knives were out for him.  Dawid Malan too, inside edging a fairly innocuous delivery from Jason Holder back on to his stumps, and the question marks over 60% of the top order were now being vocally discussed.

It’s too late.  The casual discarding of established players is what got them to this point, not because they can’t bring them back, but because they won’t.  Does anyone really think a 35 year old Ian Bell with all those Test runs under his belt would be a worse option than these two?  But no, they’ve dispensed with his services, and the swallowing of pride involved in recalling him (yes, he’s not had a great season – the question above is the pertinent one) is unlikely in the extreme.

So once again the core strength of the England batting order as a unit had to drag it back.  Root scored another fifty and got out again, and of course the muttering about conversion rates popped up again.  It’s clear enough that it’s winding up Root more than anyone, but at least he is scoring runs, which is more than can be said for most.

Stokes has batted a great deal better in his career than he did here, for he had a fair bit of luck on his way to his sixth Test century (passing Andrew Flintoff’s five, interestingly enough) but it bears repeating that Stokes’ style of batting carries significant risk.  Sometimes he will get away with it, sometimes he won’t, and edging over a vacant slip area is a freedom he earns by forcing fielding captains to re-inforce elsewhere.  A magnificent Stokes knock it wasn’t, but his innings was still full of extraordinary shots, and the manner in which he manipulated the bowling by stepping across to off and pinging the ball through midwicket was reminiscent of another highly destructive England middle order batsman of recent vintage.

For the West Indies, Kemar Roach’s 4-71 must have been one of the hardest working non-five wicket hauls in some time.  Every catch that went begging appeared to be off his bowling, but he was undeniably the pick of the attack, though the return of Shannon Gabriel added some potency missing last week.  Quite why Bishoo was brought back and then hardly bowled (while Roston Chase got twice as many overs) was harder to comprehend.  Still, he had more chance to contribute just before the close when coming in as nightwatchman.

The West Indies do have a chance here, but well as they played on day one, they’re going to have to bat out of their skins to get into a winning position.  It’s still hard to see beyond an England win, and after a day as sloppy as this one, that’s quite an indictment.  Maybe tomorrow will surprise.

Oh and one last thing: I don’t care if the Marketing Department have issued an edict that the official name is the Windies.  That’s a load of old bollocks.  West Indies they were, are and will ever be.  Windies is a nickname, got that?

 

 

England vs. West Indies, 2nd Test Preview (and a bit of rant)

After Dmitri’s short but brutally accurate report of the last Test, I’m not too sure about what more can be said that hasn’t been already. Let’s make this clear, this is a colossal mismatch between one team who are the have’s and another team who are without doubt the have not’s. It’s like signing up to watch Anthony Joshua fight Big Mick from the local pub, people aren’t necessary going for the entertainment more for the morbid spectacle that they know that this will become. It is of course, very easy to blame the West Indies for the mess they are in. The WICB is so corrupt and incompetent it makes the ECB look like the model of sobriety, as not even the ECB has managed to alienate every single decent player in their domestic scene;  as we know the ECB just alienate those that whistle when they get out and aren’t from the right type of family. It is of course, easy to blame the WICB for the calamitous position that the West Indies finds itself in and of course a decent proportion of the blame must be attributed to them; however I think it would be fair to say that outside factors have also played a major part in the West Indie’s sad demise.

If you haven’t read Tim Wigmore’s excellent piece in the Independent then I would strongly suggest that you do – http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/cricket/england-cant-ignore-the-role-english-authorities-played-in-killing-test-crickets-competitiveness-a7905706.html. Now the West Indies might be a special case here; after all, they haven’t won a Test away in England since circa 2000 and have won precious few elsewhere away from home (the last major away game they won was against SA in 2007 – thanks D’arthez). However if we delve a little further into the poison pit that is International cricket, then it’s not just the West Indies who are desperately clinging to a sinking raft. If I were to ask you which team have either got better or stayed particularly competitive since 2014, what would your answer be? India, Australia, England – anyone else?? Oh and why do I ask this question, well as we know 2014 was the year that the Big 3 decided to carve up cricket’s finances between themselves to ensure their survival at the expense of every other cricket nation, so I think you might know where I’m going with this. If we place England, India & Australia in Tier 1 (as at least they haven’t got appreciatively worse, though it would be fair to argue that none of these three has made massive strides), then if we look at Tier 2 (those who aren’t yet in perpetual demise) and Tier 3 (those that have fallen off the lifeboat into the choppy ocean), then I think that this gives us a more rounded view of where International Cricket actually is:

Tier 2

  • South Africa – Still competitive, but under threat as their fast bowling unit is getting old and they have lost too many players to Bransgrove’s Kolpakshire amongst other predatory counties
  • New Zealand – Still punching above their weight, but losing McCullum as captain was a massive blow. Still able to surprise the big 3 from time to time, despite big quality gaps in their batting order.
  • Pakistan – Can still put together brilliant performances on their day, but I fear for their batting having lost Younus & Misbah.
  • Bangladesh – Best side they’ve had since they became full members, but no-one wants to play them, which is a real shame.

Tier 3

  • West Indies – See above. Their best batsman is 43 and playing for Lancashire. This team would struggle in Division 2 of the County Championship
  • Sri Lanka – Currently being smashed around by India, they also recently lost to Zimbabwe. The days of watching Sangakkara & Mahela bat as well as Murali bowl, must seem like a lifetime ago now.
  • Zimbabwe – Hardly ever play, still as corrupt as ever.

As you can see this is far from a pretty site, yet the ICC still continues to re-arrange the deckchairs whilst the Titanic is sinking. Who cares about 4 day Test matches or pink balls when in a few years time the only ones playing it will be England, Australia and India as Test Cricket will have died everywhere else. Apologies that this is a little gloomy, but this is the reality and it’s clear that the ICC can’t even manage this decline effectively! Still there’s always the 50 or so T20 leagues that you can watch if you really want to see the same hit and not too many giggles cricket.

Ok slight rant aside, as for the next Test itself, England will naturally go into this as massive favourites. In a slightly strange and I do feel a very harsh move, they have dropped TRJ for Chris Woakes. Now I’m absolutely not advocating that Woakes doesn’t deserve a spot in the line up as he has been extremely consistent over the past year and is highly talented with the bat and the ball; however with a packed winter ahead and facing a weak opposition, surely it would have made more sense to give one of Broad, Anderson or Stokes a blow. Now of course, these players might throw a little tantrum about being dropped when there are easy runs/wickets on offer, but surely we learn nothing by having these bowlers face a paper thin batting line up; however such is the England way, they let the fear of a backlash from certain untouchable individuals within the team cloud their judgement on what is the right decision with the squad for the Ashes in mind.As for the West Indies, they must surely hope that the Headingley pitch is some kind of minefield to bring the two teams closer together, because if it plays like it did at Edgbaston, then I can’t see anything other than another 3 day Test.

Oh and one last thing, as Colombo might say, I had an extremely interesting exchange with a certain individual who was clearly a fan of the ex-England captain, on Twitter last Thursday. Now I’m not going to give this individual any further publicity, as I’ve regularly seen some fairly sane individuals turn into rage’oholics who froth at the mouth the moment anything remotely critical of Cook is written by anyone. I’ll leave these here for your enjoyment:

‘I’m astonished that some whose blogging career is devoted to skewing Cook’s stats is calling a plain stat skewed’ (For the record, it was highly skewed stat based on a certain batsman over circa 10 games, 3 years ago)

‘Go back to trying to prove Alastair Cook’s useless whilst he sleeps on a big pile of runs’

    ‘Imaging devoting an entire blog to hating Alastair Cook.’

    ‘I’m planning a big BOC subtweet when Cook reaches his double ton’ (he didn’t, I guess he didn’t find any to back up his position)

      So now we’ve progressed from being a bunch of KP fanboys to being accused of spewing hateful bile about Alastair Cook, I wonder what will be thrown against us next. It’s BOC’s fault that Test Cricket is dying? It’s our fault that global warming is ruining our world? It’s our fault that Brexit happened? The possibilities are just endless. Perhaps if the media did their job and took an objective view of Cook i.e. putting his achievements into some sort of perspective and instead stopped writing meaningless hagiographies, then we wouldn’t have to be the lone voice of sanity in a world where this is rarely so.

      So as I read it, those of us that have the temerity to question Cook’s place amongst the International elite are now classed as Cook haters, with nothing else to do but spew angry bile about him! Does this also apply when I question or criticize other England cricketers? I have written critical stuff about Root, Moeen, Broad, Anderson & Woakes amongst others in the past, but I don’t generally get people screaming at me on Twitter when I do. Of course, there are those that point out that we write about Cook more than others and yes it’s true, because people are interested in reading about him (much like a certain individual a few years ago), after all if I spent most of my time writing about Chris Woakes, it’d be a pretty dull blog (I don’t care if I upset Chris Woakes as he has already blocked me on Twitter for some unknown reason). The sad thing is that the schism that Dmitri wrote about in early 2016 is still very much prevalent in 2017, but of course we are the ones with an ‘agenda’. For the record, I posted this on Alastair Cook a while back and nothing has happened to change my personal opinion since then – https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2016/01/29/guest-post-dont-blame-it-on-the-sunshine-blame-it-on-the-ecb/. I’m not sure it screams incandescent hatred, but I’ll leave you to decide on this….

      Anyway, I’m bored about writing and going over the same things about Alastair Cook, so I’m simply going to refer ‘people’ back to the above article when the next brain dead moron suggests that our whole editorial policy is based around our hatred of Cook.

      And with that nonsense out of the way, feel free to comment on the game below:

      England v West Indies – A Floodlit Farce

       

      England today wrapped up victory by an innings and 209 runs . It wasn’t a shock. It wasn’t England playing out of their skins. It wasn’t even a difficult pitch or particularly bad conditions. No. England turned up, played up to par, made the runs, took the wickets, finished it within three days and can rest up for another “difficult” match whenever these two sides meet again. Is it next week? Who the hell cares?

      You don’t need me to go into the gory details. 19 wickets in a day. According to the sources this is the first time this has happened in the history of West Indies cricket. We’ve seem some nonsense in the past, but this is a serious nadir in the history of the game in the Caribbean. These lads out there are not equipped to play in these conditions. A couple might have had county games (Roach, maybe?) but the rest are greenhorns over here. In the Caribbean they might put up more of a fight (we drew the last series, lost the one before that in the West Indies) but this is wretched. I’ll talk more about that in a post when I get the time, because West Indies is part of my cricketing education, my DNA, my historical linchpin. When I grew up they were the greatest. The team we never seemed close to beating. A team with legends. Even when they waned in the 90s and early 2000s, you still had Ambrose, you still had Walsh, you still had Hooper, Chanderpaul and of course, my favourite and my greatest player, Brian Lara. They may not have fired, but they were frequently very interesting.

      This procession has told England nothing. We have learned nothing. We cannot be surprised at the team in front of us who we are pummeling. How can you be happy watching this? The game is more than stats-padding and notching up simple victories. It has to be about a contest, and if it isn’t about a contest, then it should be because it is an all-time great outfit administering the whupping.

      Innocent Bystander is particularly fervent when he asks why it would be good for cricket if England lost to the West Indies? I know what he means. The above question posed by Lawrence Booth is an interesting one. Are we just being patronising by “feeling sorry” for the West Indies? I genuinely don’t mean to be, because they mean a lot to me as a fan. So I answered truthfully. I much preferred the 1980s to this. Because that was a team full of stars. Even their “less-heralded” players like Larry Gomes, or Gus Logie, would get 100 caps in this generation. To win a test against that team was amazing – I remember Jamaica 1990 as one of the most exciting wins by an England team – whereas this England team are plodding ordinary when the mood doesn’t take them.

      I’m not running through the day’s play. Why should I? Read it in the news, watch the highlights, listen to them pontificate on Cricket Writers. Let them all tut tut about how this is poor for test cricket as if they have played no part in it. As if the international authorities husbanded the money for the rich guys and cared not a shit for the others. How maladministration in all forms is badly under-reported, both internationally and at a local level – boots not suits is a short-term cure with a long-term disease – and now test cricket is royally on its knees. This test hasn’t just led me to this conclusion, it’s been the nagging thought in the back of my head for quite a few years. The one you hope goes away, where each team has two or three top players you need to get out, two really decent bowlers who you genuinely fear. Now Test cricket is dying before our eyes, and while Sky laud the England team, they also know this is a pup. You can see it in their eyes. You can hear it in their voices. A chap I follow on Twitter, who I disagree with a lot on cricket, has asked whether this is the last time the West Indies tour here. It should be if they can’t pick their best XI. That’s for starters. KP says there might be thousands of kids playing cricket, as some Windies Empty Suit blathered about at tea, but they all want to play T20. The heart sinks, and you hope some of them are inspired by Lara, by Richards and by the other greats and not some hit and giggle bollocks that disappears into the ether as soon as it is finished.

      There’s more where this came from. England won. Cook got a lot of runs. Some Twitter peeps got a little bit too chopsy, asking me to cheer harder (honestly) and accused this blog of being set up to hate Cook (honestly), and having a go because we point out he’s not doing brilliantly against top oppo and hasn’t for a long time, but still remains firmly our best opener and he batted very well. This sort of nonsense is a sideshow. We are watching the end of days of top class test cricket. I’m sad. Three days and nights to give you much food for thought.

      Shiny Toy has the answer.

      Have a good rest of the weekend. We hadn’t planned for a fourth day scribe. Now you know why.

      England vs West Indies: First Test, Day 2

      The West Indies were poor yesterday and England, specifically Cook and Root, took full advantage of this. England were on 348/3 at the start of the day and were in a prime position to kick on and post a huge total and chase personal milestones. For the West Indies, only an old-fashioned England Test collapse could really rescue any hope of winning this game.

      Unfortunately for the West Indians, both teams continued in the morning session as they had played the day before. The bowling continued to be generous to the batsman, and England continued taking full advantage of that generosity. Cook and Dawid Malan batted through the whole first session adding another 101 runs before Malan edged part-time offspinner Roston Chase in the last over before Lunch. Malan’s 65 was clearly the best of England’s three new batsmen in this game, but he also did have by far the best conditions to bat in of the three so there probably won’t be a groundswell of support for him keeping his place on the back of this performance.

      After Lunch, England’s lower order were faced with a completely alien situation for them: A sizeable platform built by the specialist batsmen. To put England’s 449/4 in perspective, it is their highest 4th wicket total since they played against India at the Oval in 2011. Between 2012 and 2017, it is only the second time they have posted a 400+ total for their 4th wicket. Between 2008 and 2011, in what we now must consider a golden age for England’s batting unit, they managed it 7 times.

      Faced with something they hadn’t faced before, and perhaps with instructions to bat quickly and prepare for a declaration, England’s allrounders failed to do their customary trick of more than doubling England’s run total. Stokes and Ali both fell quickly to part-time spinner Chase, whilst Bairstow chopped on from Holder. Roston Chase managed to get Cook out LBW via a DRS appeal soon after, and England declared on 514/8. With Chase taking 4 wickets, there will probably be some questions about why the West Indies didn’t select a specialist spinner in their team.

      Obviously our editorial policy at BOC is to slag off Alastair Cook at every possible opportunity, but even we have to concede that a score of 243 is impressive. The West Indies bowling attack might carry all the threat of a pink sparkly rubber knife, but the powers of endurance and concentration required to bat for 9 hours against any opposition must be admired. He might not be quite as good as he was earlier in his career, but England are lucky to have him and he would be sorely missed if he retired in the near future.

      West Indies’ innings started poorly for the visitors, with Kraigg Brathwaite edging an Anderson outswinger to the wicketkeeper without any runs on the board. Three overs later, Kieran Powell was lucky to survive after Ben Stokes dropped what for him would be considered a regulation catch at gully from Broad. After that scare, the West Indian batsmen regrouped and managed to score 44 runs before the English weather brought the day to a premature end.

      Just to remind everyone, play will start half an hour earlier tomorrow at 1.30pm (BST) due to the rain today. The West Indies will need to bat through all of tomorrow to have any hopes of saving the game, whilst England might have to rely on scoreboard pressure, funky captaincy and tight bowling to take wickets on a flat pitch with a largely unresponsive pink ball.

      As always, please feel free to comment below.

      England vs West Indies: First Test, Day 1

      In the lead up to today, most of the discussion has been about anything but the actual game. Will spectators and TV audience enjoy a day/night game in England? How will the pink Dukes ball perform? Which players will secure their place for the Ashes? The result appeared to be foregone, even West Indies fans seemed to have given up before a ball was bowled.

      At the toss it was confirmed that Roland-Jones would keep his place in the team, with Mason Crane and Chris Woakes missing out. Joe Root won the toss and chose to bat first, which came as no surprise to anyone. Certainly it feels like the bowlers appreciated the chance to see how the new pink balls performed from the pavilion rather than working it out on the field.

      The conventional wisdom about pink cricket balls is that they tend to move in the air for a few overs, then become more batsman-friendly after that. All England’s top order had to do was survive the first hour and then they could cash in through the day. To no one’s surprise, this was not how things played out. Alastair Cook’s latest partner, debutant Mark Stoneman, was bowled through the gate in the third over. It was a very good delivery from Kemar Roach which both swung and seamed, but at the same time you’d probably hope that an opener would at least get something on the ball. Westley returned to the dressing room soon after, having being given out LBW via DRS after playing down the wrong line.

      This brought together the familiar partnership of Alastair Cook and Joe Root, both of whom have had difficulties converting their good innings into centuries but are still a class apart from the other English batsmen at present. Helped by slow, wayward bowling and flawed, defensive tactics from the West Indies, Cook and Root dominated the visitors past the Lunch interval and through the whole second session. It wasn’t until almost an hour into the third session of the day that the West Indies managed a breakthrough, with Kemar Roach managing to bowl Joe Root, but not before England’s captain and former captain both managed to score their respective deserved centuries. For those keeping count (you know who you are), that means that Cook has scored 100+ ‘only’ 6 times in his last 99 innings. This is more than his respective partners, but still a marked decline from his prolific earlier years. It has also been noted that Cook has struggled against strong pace attacks in recent years, and the West Indies bowling unit is definitely not a strong pace attack.

      Root’s wicket brought the third of England’s auditioning batsmen to the crease, Dawid Malan. He rode his luck early on, flashing an edge from Kraigg Brathwaite just past slip, but recovered to finish the day on 28. Having reach double digits, Malan will probably feel better than Stoneman or Westley overnight about his chances of playing the whole series. At the other end, Cook had managed to bat through the whole day scoring a somewhat impressive 153. At the end of play England are 348/3, and seem to be in a great position to put the West Indies out of contention.

      As always, feel free to comment below!