England v India
Two of cricket’s “Big Three” meet in a five test series played over six weeks to determine who holds the Pataudi Trophy.
This is what the pinnacle of the game should look like. World Ranked number 1, against the sleeping giant waiting to give the top team a bloody nose. A contest in the offing.
There are many sub-plots to the ensuing drama, tempting, tantalising, invigorating and fascinating.
- How will Virat Kohli cope after the failure in the tests of 2014 when one could be forgiven for thinking that he was out of his depth?
- How will the old stagers of Anderson and Broad cope with the furious pace of this series with tests coming on top of each other with little chance of recuperation?
- How will England’s batting cope with the Indian spin bowling, and seam too, after years of low output?
- How will India’s batting cope with alien conditions, but potentially less alien given the summer we’ve had?
It should be great. Not only for the ECB coffers, for which this is a bumper year with the Indian TV money, but for the fans. They should be lapping it up.
But yet again there is a hollow feeling. A feeling that it might not just be the players going through the motions at the end of this series. A feeling that test cricket, shunted, like the county championship, to the end of the summer (and May), is going through the motions. And as I’ve said many times on this blog, a sense I am going through the motions too. There is only so much anger left to give. This series might epitomise all that is great in test cricket, but we’ve been let down before. This series might garner huge support for the game, but this is the ECB we are talking about, and while they say test cricket is the pinnacle and the long-form fans are their lifeblood, this doesn’t look like it to me. It’s August before this starts.
In their critique of the US emergency services, Public Enemy could well have been talking of the upper echelons of the England and Wales Cricket Board in this part of 911 is a Joke (which, believe it or not, was once covered by Duran Duran);
They don’t care cause they stay paid anyway
They treat you like an ace they can’t be betrayed
Well, the morgue truck, to quote the same song, is getting ready to “embalm the goner” if the stories emanating from the ticket sales outside London are to be believed. It appears as though the English cricket public is not exactly enthused with the test match upcoming and is voting with its feet. It may be prices, it may be an England team that appears in the doldrums, it may be the customer experience isn’t what they want, it may be the barmy scheduling, but there appears to be a serious issue if the world’s best test team, and a home team with a decent chance of beating them, can’t draw in the crowds. Remember when appointment to view was an important concept, you know with certainty of start dates? Good luck Edgbaston, with Days 4 and 5 at the weekend. Good luck all. Edgbaston on Wednesday, Lord’s on Thursday, Trent Bridge on Saturday, Southampton on Thursday, The Oval on Friday. These are your Day 1s. The Oval starts when the kids are back at school, which is terrific (I know it is not unprecedented). It’s little wonder the cricket fan is confused. We know who this schedule caters for, and it isn’t the punter at the gate.
But then, how can I exhort the punter to turn up and keep test cricket alive and so on, when I’ve not been myself. Well, after six years away from the Oval Test, which I attended every year for 15 years, many for multiple days (but not Day 5 in 2005), I am due to be attending the first day of the game, weather permitting, on 7 September. Any BOC’ers there that day, please let me know. This is a decision I’ve made because I’ve just not had the chance to see much cricket this year, and I need to stock up on my photo pool! That I’ve not gone has been due to the lack of comfort at The Oval, the exorbitant prices for food and drink, the increase in test prices (and restrictions on how many can be bought) and that instead of enjoyment, it became an ordeal. The ECB and the hosting grounds would do well to pay attention. Sure, you’ll sell out the Ashes if you held it in a car park, but you are seeing what happens with the other teams. Even India.
But that’s enough of that. You’ll probably get more when I can be bothered with my India series memories.
(Please note that piece was written before the team was announced. The perils of being a blogger writ large)
Focusing on tomorrow and the rest of the summer, this series is, as many are, key for a number of reasons. India do not look like a team that needs the endorsement of others to keep it’s inner assurance, and even a defeat here in England will not shake that. There’s a swagger they have which is in many ways something we should aspire to. There’s too much being the “nice guy” which the English media and many who watch want us to be while still winning. To me this most manifested itself in the disparaging of the 2013 Ashes performance. Australia, if genuine, are going to find it tough balancing these two objectives.
The swagger, for want of a better word (confidence?), is embodied by Virat Kohli, their captain, but others have it too – Ashwin, Rahane, Dhawan, Rahul, Vijay and even Ishant. This is a really good team playing, possibly, in really alien circumstances. Pitted against English seam they will soon prove if they are the 1986 model, that came here in early summer and tore us apart, or the 2011 model, that disintegrated once the first test was concluded (Rahul Dravid magnificently excepted). The most recent series in England promised much after India’s sensational Lord’s win, but petered out in exhaustion and possibly lack of commitment. India are driven so hard internationally, that it really can’t be reasonable to expect them to have unbridled enthusiasm and unlimited energy for every series. This is what is holding test cricket back. Fresh teams bring fresh cricket. But it’s pile ’em high for boards around the world and damn the quality. The mug punters will still pay.
Back to the contest itself. From England’s standpoint it’s the batting. The bowling will have its question marks, of course, but it’s the batting that worries me. Starting with the captain. Joe Root is now in the land of needing to score centuries, and big centuries, to ward off the critics. We’ve been waiting quite a while, but then you look at Cricinfo and it was the first test of last summer’s series when he made 190. It was two years ago he made 254. There was a 136 in the West Indies series in 2017. Prior to that he made a 124 in India. He’s making a century in nearly every series, just going a couple without one over the winter, and never going more than three innings without making a 50, dating back to the end of the Pakistan series in 2016 and the start of the Bangladesh one that Autumn. Root knows and the pressure is on. But should it be?
England welcome back Ben Stokes for this test match having missed the Pakistan series, but, of course, he’s not going to be around next week for other reasons. Stokes is a key component in this team and will be welcomed back for cricketing needs, but his role also matters in that he will influence both ends of the card in terms of team make-up. Could he be the trusted third seamer to allow England to play two spinners, or do we need to add another seam bowler, possibly at the expense of a batsman.
Keaton Jennings, after the magic beans of the last test where all the pundits sagely nodded to confirm that his technical difficulties were a thing of the past, is the second opener, aka, The Hot Seat. Jennings has good memories of India, where he made a hundred on debut replacing Hameed, but has done precious little since. Another run of failures, and a few more scores for Burns if he gets a chance to play any cricket, might ramp up the pressure some more. I wish him well, if only so that Rory gets to lead Surrey to the championship!
Dawid Malan is the subject of whispers, as he’s not had a prolific summer. It would seem harsh to jettison him but I can’t help get the feeling is that he’s not quite up to it. I’d love to be proved wrong, because Perth didn’t appear a fluke, but there’s the cloud over him. Another century would be welcome.
Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler give the team exciting potential. It’s nice to have some buzz. Buttler was the star of the first series this summer, but he still has a lot to prove in the test game. Bairstow is about as near a thing there is to being a nailed on selection.
Which brings me to Alastair Cook. Now I have to admit, the reaction to anything this guy does now is one of the reasons I have gone off blogging. Cook is the sort of individual player that attracts a reaction far beyond what he manages on the field. Cook should be opening the batting for England until he’s not the best opener there. Be it through bad form, or two others make a compelling case to leave him out, a la KP and Bell forcing out Thorpe. Anything I say on Cook now that isn’t part of the party line is jumped on. There is the Anti-Cook blog nonsense, the failure to recognise that 244 in a less than live rubber isn’t anywhere near the achievement of a 235* in the first test of the series, the back to his best when he isn’t. Cook needs to have a series where he makes more than one century, and the rest aren’t below 40. Cook and Root have a similar hundred problem, remember the former going the best part of two years without one, but Root strings scores together. Cook is still England’s number one opening bat. But me saying that will never be good enough because of how I reacted after Kevin Pietersen. Because I pointed out how long he was going without scores. That he wasn’t back to his best. That he wasn’t a terrific captain. It’s wearing on the soul, but I’m not going to back down.
I have no real comments on the bowling. Anderson and Broad are permanent fixtures until they either get injured or retire, and a third seamer in the absence of Woakes until he’s fit (certainly in England) has hardly put their hand up. Sam Curran might play, but I think it’s too soon. Jamie Porter might play, but isn’t he just another fast-medium home team bowler? If the wickets do something, or we revert to a proper English summer again, then all might be dandy. That’s to be seen.
So what do I want from the five tests? A really competitive series would be great. If this was 2-2 going into the Oval it would be brilliant. India can win overseas against teams stacking pitches in their favour, and Kohli seems right up for this one. Pujara has to have a decent series, and he’s in horrendous form. Dhawan might be too flaky for tests, while it would be great to see what Rahul can do. Then there is my main man, Mr 303, MTTTT (more test triples than Tendulkar), Karun Nair waiting in the wings. Love to see him get a game. The Indian bowlers need to stay fit and bowl well, something they haven’t done on the previous two tours for the duration. Then again, England’s rickety batting may keep India in all the games, and if it comes down to a battle on good surfaces, I think India are well in it. Last time we met at Edgbaston in a test, England posted 700, Sehwag got a king pair, and Pringle criticised Cook for being too slow in his 294, even though we won with a day to spare. We’ve moved on, but we haven’t.
Comments on Day 1 and the test preview below but for some fun, perhaps you’d like to respond to a few questions below in the comments to get your views. I’m not saying “Have Your Say” because I hate that.
- Who wins the series, what score (and why)?
- How many hundreds for Virat Kohli?
- How many hundreds for Joe Root?
- Key player for each team
- How many total centuries for England over the five tests?
Finally, Adil Rashid. He may not even play. I have been utterly appalled by the treatment of Rashid this last week. As I see it Ed Smith took the leap, asked Rashid if he wanted to play test matches, Adil said yes and Smith picked him. The county cricket impacts are on Smith, not Rashid. The moaning about Yorkshire is on Smith, not Rashid. The whingeing about stabbing county cricket in the heart are about Ed Smith, not Adil Rashid. You could have fucking fooled me.
The one thing that gets me with our media and pundits is that they never learn. The one thing that riles me is that they bully players, they have their favourites (not many pieces calling for Cook to be sacked, were there, yet Cook believes the media is against him), yet this is following yet another line. Look at who has been sorted out recently – Nick Compton for one. Kevin Pietersen polarised opinion but the media had made up their mind. Now Rashid, who has been in the cross-hairs for two years at least. This has been turned from Rashid picked by a selection committee to play for England when perhaps they shouldn’t have to Adil being a mouthy, mercenary, not all that cricketer who needs to shut up and know his place. By people in houses made very much of glass. I don’t absolve those now who latch on to the Fitzwilliam Foghorn’s piece and say that’s not what THEY mean. Leave off. It’s precisely what you mean, and you know it. Ed Smith has gone out of his way for Adil Rashid. Not good enough to do that, not respectful enough, speaks out when mouth on legs have a go at him, and worst of all, disrespects Yorkshire. It seems strange for Adil to be the hill that Ed Smith dies on, so let’s pick on Adil for a change.
And he might not even play. (STOP PRESS – HE IS. AS THE ONLY SPINNER)