Ridiculous to the Sublime

The dust has settled somewhat on England’s Test series with Pakistan, but at the end of it, few are any wiser as to where England stand. For Pakistan, their tour to Ireland and England must count as a reasonable success – victory in Malahide was expected, certainly, but the quality of the Test and the occasion itself lent a real shine to their participation. That Test match reminded all who love the game, and this form of it in particular, just why they have so much affection for it.

A 1-1 series draw with England, after fielding an inexperienced side, must also be deemed a fine result. In the discussions around how to help away sides compete, with ideas such as the abandonment of the toss (swiftly shot down by the ICC), it has perhaps been overlooked just what a good overall performance this has been. If there is fragility in this Pakistan side, it is to be expected at this stage of their development, better Pakistan teams than this edition have been equally prone to meltdown.

For England, the curate’s egg applies. Victory in the second Test spared their blushes somewhat, but shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the dire display at Lord’s, nor the previous nine months that left Headingley being celebrated as their first win in eight matches.

Jos Buttler did well, even in the first Test to some degree, and if the concept of a frontline batsman playing at seven remains a peculiar longer term strategy, he did all that could have been asked of him. It doesn’t make him a long term success at this stage, but that he has talent is not in question. How he performs later in the summer will be intriguing to watch.

Placing a frontline batsman in an allrounder’s spot is reflective of the brittleness of England’s top order, yet ironically Buttler would be a devastating player to have in the locker were there a strong batting line up before him. To that extent he is a luxury, and it is to his credit that he performed in a rescue role as well.

Cook and Root both batted well at times without either going on to a really big score, though this remains a consistent England problem throughout the team, and the endless focus on Root’s conversion rate rather overlooks the small matter that even with that issue, no one has more centuries than him over the last couple of years. Still, for England to compete, let alone win against India, these two are going to need a strong series.

On the bowling side, Broad and Anderson still led the way, and both are in a similar position to Cook, in that they may be past their best, but are also still comfortably the best available in their positions. Neither of them bowled badly at Lord’s, yet received the usual criticism bowlers seem to when failing to contain opposition batsman after a miserable England batting display. To put that into context, few criticised Pakistan’s bowlers after Headingley, and they found themselves in a similar predicament.

Broad himself has talked about working hard on his wrist position, and both bowled among the fullest spells of their careers in the second Test. The problem with the discussions around them tends to stem from the determination of some to bracket them in an all time great list. They are unquestionably the best England bowlers in many years, and when leaving it at that, or even in arguing they are modern England greats, it is so much easier to give them the credit they deserve, rather than focusing on their weaker elements.

Behind them, it is less certain. Wood played the first Test and was discarded, again, without it being clear why he was dropped, or indeed why he was called up in the first place. Woakes did what he always does, which is to look a handful in English conditions, while Sam Curran remains what he was before his selection – promising.

This determination to label every new young player as the coming thing on debut is rather strange. Haseeb Hameed went through the same process (and may come again) and should surely be illustrative of the lack of wisdom in rushing to judgement. Dom Bess too has had plenty of column inches, but his success came rather more with the bat than the ball, and England spinners have been coming and going for a fair old while since Swann’s retirement. He may be different, and let’s hope so, but he is still merely a young player who may or may not prove worthy. Patience and realism is a better approach than gushing over the latest bright new thing.

We now have a long break before the next Test in August, the core of the summer given over to an interminable series of white ball matches that, however England perform, will be instantly forgettable. Who remembers the one day results last summer? Who remembers the one day results in New Zealand for that matter?

The ECB’s continual claim to place Test cricket at the heart of what they do rings as hollow as ever, as not just county championship cricket, but also the Tests are pushed to the margins of the season. The justification this year is the World Cup next, but few imagine that this will revert to the previous normal, and the number of Tests per season is in any case being reduced to six. This would be reasonable were it the case that it was to ease the burden on the players, but let’s be clear, it will be considered a gap, and a gap that will be filled by one day matches and T20.

Of those six Tests, three will take place in London, with Lord’s guaranteed two per year. Half of English Test cricket will take place in the capital, meaning the Midlands and North are scrapping for the remainder. English cricket continues to narrow its horizons.

There has been talk of Ireland playing a Test at Lord’s next year, and naturally enough, the ECB decided this was the perfect opportunity to push the concept of a four day Test. If there is one certainty about this organisation, it is that no opportunity to use the game of cricket to push their financial agenda should be missed. What could have been a glorious welcoming of Irish cricket to this side of the water will instead be an experiment for the ECB’s preferred financial model of play. Trying things out is fair enough, pushing an agenda irrespective of cricketing need is not.

This weekend England will play Scotland in an ODI. Thus it begins. Before the First Test against India, England will play 13 white ball matches of one kind or another. They are of course lucrative, and they are entertaining enough. England are a strong side, Australia and India the key draw in international cricket in this country. But the feeling that the battle for the soul of the game has been lost does not go away. Financial health is important, but the game of cricket does not exist purely in order to create that financial return, and there seems little doubt this is now the abiding priority.

There is no doubt that Test cricket is the core interest/readership of most of the blogs, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is similar in the newspapers as well. Perhaps that shows the priorities of England cricket fans, or perhaps it merely shows the priorities of a sub-set of cricket fans, the obsessives, as the ECB once put it. Either way, the absence of Tests, and indeed most of the county championship, during the peak summer months smacks of the future. The white ball is now king.

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