England comfortably enjoyed their best days in the field away from home in more than 2 years in their comprehensive victory in the First Test in Galle, something that a number of us didn’t see coming. They won the toss, recovered from their standard top order wobble in the first innings thanks to a supremely cool maiden ton from Ben Foakes, managed a decent first innings lead and then turned the screw in the second innings thanks to a rather surprising century than none other than Keaton Jennings. With a 450+ lead in the bag, it was no surprise to see England’s spin trio mop up the Sri Lankan innings and with it a fairly crushing defeat for the hosts.
Despite England’s comprehensive victory, it has been a little baffling why very little has been made of this performance or of Sri Lanka’s woeful performance, in fact one would need to look pretty hard to find any mention of this at all. It may be that England are rightly looking to play this victory down owing to the fact that there are 2 games left of the series and that we don’t yet know what type of pitches they will face in the next 2 games (unlikely), that they are mortally embarrassed at having it pointed out that this was the first victory away from home by England in more than 2 years, something that should be unacceptable to the team and board (they should be, but unlikely) or that no-one gives one jot about this series and it is more of an annoyance than anything else (most probably). Indeed, I completely forgot there was a Test Match on tomorrow, hence why I am doing this preview slightly later than I normally would. I know that cricket doesn’t grasp the imagination of many English residents these days, nor does the start time or the fact that it is stuck behind the pay wall help either, but I’ve seen more coverage of the Women’s T20 tournament than any of the Test the past week. It’s almost like everyone hoped it might get rained off and then everyone could get home and put their feet up.
So despite this lack of enthusiasm from the English press or fans, we now move onto Kandy (well I say Kandy, Pallekele is a fair way out, good luck to those trying to get to the ground without access to a car or a favourable Tuk-Tuk driver)! England have named an unchanged team for the Test, which I find mildly strange given that Kandy is up in the hills and generally a much cooler climate and hence this may have been the opportunity to go with 4 seamers. Now I haven’t seen the pitch report yet, but one would hope that this decision is based on these pitch conditions rather than those in Galle, as we have seen England pick unbalanced teams on sub-continental tours in the past based on what they think the pitch will be like rather than what it will actually play like. Talking of mildly perplexing decisions, England in all their wisdom have decided to have Ben Stokes take the number 3 position, when in all reality Root, who might not greatly enjoy batting at 3, should be the man to bat there on this tour. It again smacks of England trying to fit square pegs into round holes and although Moeen hasn’t really made any scores at number 3, I’m not sure how promoting someone who has the same technical flaws and is a cast iron number 6 at Test level, is going to help matters really. They may as well put St. Jimmy of Burnley at number 3 and be done with it! In all seriousness though, England somehow need to find a number 3 for the Summer ahead as none of the surfeit of number 6’s and number 7’s that we have seem to have acquired is going to stand a chance at batting at 3 in English conditions; indeed if the ball does indeed move about early in Pallekele, then one may guess that Root will be in early anyway. In my opinion, it just feels like another wasted opportunity to give a more promising player at that position some game time at 3 rather than having a number of bits and pieces players trying to cover up the glaring hole, not that our friends at The Spin agree, as naturally Ed Smith is the new Sir Alex Ferguson and a master of tactics and selection:
This particular piece of delightful bollocks was by Rob Smyth, but could have been Andy Bull or any other of the strays that the Guardian picks up to write these columns. One could almost hark back to the Mike Selvey era when reading this tripe, although I did say ALMOST.
As for Sri Lanka, it was a sad sight seeing Rangana Herath retiring after such a comprehensive loss, as he has been an integral part of Sri Lanka’s success on the sub-continent and will be a massive loss to them. They will no doubt find another spinner to try and bamboozle England on this tour, but those are big shoes to fill especially with the batting looking weak even before the withdrawal of Dinesh Chandimal through injury.
Of course, this could just be another one of the Test’s where you win the toss, bat first and win the game. If so, then England must hope that Joe Root’s luck in calling the coin toss correctly continues away from home.
We are slightly light in number for this particular game with 2 of our writers unavailable for very different reasons, so please bear with us if the daily reports are shorter than normal, later than normal or in extreme cases might not happen. Due to work commitments, neither Danny or myself will be able to see any of the live cricket and might struggle to catch the highlights, but we will write as much as we can.
As ever comments on the game or anything else (not Brexit) are welcome below:
“What I thought was happiness was only part-time bliss” – Janet Jackson – The Pleasure Principle
OK. So I said I was temporarily done with cricket blogging, and in many ways I still am. I want to have a proper break from the blog, work and to a certain degree, life. I am taking a holiday at short notice to visit my relatives in the States, and to get away from what has happened, and what is about to. It’s a chance to take a complete break from some of the matters that have ailed me, and in some ways made life harder.
Of course, as many of you will know, and those that have read my long post on my personal blog certainly will, the death of my beloved border collie has knocked me sideways. This shouldn’t happen to a bloke of my age, but it has. While it is a hell of a struggle holding it together during working hours, the constant reminders at home, the lack of his presence, the destruction of the routine, the massive empty space to the right of me as I write this, hurts. It absolutely fucking hurts. 17 days on from it, there is no real reduction in the pain. I’ve been through grief before, we all have, but for some reason this one is different, because I am very different.
Now, I know this is not, as yet cricket related, but do stick with me. I’ve always used this blog, and How Did We Lose In Adelaide to convey my feelings. I think it was Zeph, many moons ago who said what made my blogging real was it exposed my weaknesses, my insecurities, and made this an honest read. Something like that. And it was absolutely true. It still is. My negativity and pessimism shines through. There’s a quip with my work colleagues that when someone says “you’re a glass half empty kind of bloke” I respond “what glass?” The four and a half years of railing against the selection policies, the media nonsense, and then the ECB’s running of the game have been mentally draining, but also a source of pride. I’ve been using this as an outlet to rail against the game, to shake my fists at the cloud, and I’ve found kindred spirits along the way. When people challenge me, I react poorly, but rarely do I think we lose the argument. I sometimes tried to be all things to all people, and on others righteously indignant. I’ve been scared to reveal my true identity. I’ve been labelled a few things. What was it Brian Carpenter called me in Wisden this year? Unwaveringly angry? Whatever. How about honest? No. That might come a little too close to the knuckle for those who want nothing but warm beer, village green and doff your effing cap to the establishment and its supine media.
England have just won a very decent victory in Sri Lanka at Galle. While Sri Lanka may not be the force they were, this is still a terrific win. There were great signs. England got centuries from Foakes and Jennings. They played three spinners, what a joy. They dropped Stuart Broad because, on that surface, it was giving England the best chance to win. Sam Curran’s development in playing in a test on surfaces like this must outweigh Stuart Broad flogging himself to death on a wicket that doesn’t do him any good, does it? Still there were whispers, still there was intrigue, mainly stoked by Vaughan, but we’ve come to expect that. Then there was Rory Burns, who didn’t look massively technically exposed, but already has Simon Hughes spouting off that he shouldn’t play here, Bairstow should open, and that he might be better saved for the West Indies (where pitches are low, slow turners also, bright spark) or England next year (where, presumably, he’ll sit twiddling his thumbs from May to when the Ashes starts). It’s when you listen to attention-seeking, clickbait, controversy generation that you don’t feel bad about having an outlet to express your feelings – at times we make a lot more bloody sense than these professional foghorns. England have won a really good, solid win, with some new exciting players, without someone we can’t do without, and there’s a lot of negativity. Contrast the reaction of some who bemoan the quality of the opposition with the victory in, say, Grenada a few years ago, greeted by rapture. It’s bloody revealing in my eyes.
But despite a good win, with an England team I identify more with, and in a style I quite enjoyed watching, there’s still a hollowness. Still this feeling I’m presiding over a decline. The test game is being abused to a level I can’t believe we’ve seen before. There’s great cricket out there, like Australia’s amazing draw in the first test in the UAE, as tense and exciting as tests can be at the end, but slagged off relentlessly for the first couple of days as a total bore. India played a dull one sided test series against the West Indies. Australia meet India in the next few weeks, with the ACA trying to get their ex-captain back (he really should be, but hey, let’s not stop Australian cricket tearing itself apart in moral hubris), but with every chance that they might find the visitors too tough. But then, we thought that back in early August and England managed to win 4-1. Sky Sports Cricket Channel has not shown either the UAE series or the Indian one, which does make you wonder why they have a dedicated channel. I am rambling on a ton of subjects within one, because there is no one reason for the hollowness. It’s an accumulation.
When Jake died I naturally benchmarked it with other grieving episodes. My mum died in 2005 of cancer, just like Jake, and it was a pretty short time to get used to the diagnosis and then death. Within a couple of weeks of her passing I had been invited to a reception which saw visits from Michael Kasprowicz, Simon Katich and John Buchanan in the build up to the Ashes. I then got to see day 1 and day 3 at Lord’s. KP’s debut. The game was on Channel 4. The public were into cricket in a big way. The whole game acted as a release. A way to get immersed into something that meant a lot. When Dad passed away 9 months later, I got to go to Sri Lanka at home, and some of the Pakistan series. Cricket was an intrinsic part of the healing process. It was an exciting distraction. Now, in 2018, I couldn’t give a damn.
“There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time when miserable.” Dante Alighieri
During Jake’s final days one of my great sporting loves, the Boston Red Sox, were beating the Yankees, beating the current champion Astros, and then the Dodgers to win their 4th World Series in 14 years. I cared a lot. I would watch the games, I would get up in the middle of night to watch some of them, or follow them on my phone. So I still love sport. I still love the thrill of the top matches, the excitement at the pinnacle of the game. Baseball has a crisis of confidence, much like test cricket. The game is too long. The kids don’t watch it. Viewing figures are down. The game needs to innovate. As if TV audiences is the be all and fucking end all of what sport is about. Yes, TV money is crucial to administrators, but why? Because it is about keeping up the lifestyles and wages of players, managers and administrators. Football is having one of its occasional crises of confidence over the financial fair play hogwash, but it is still on the decided path of maximising revenue, and fuck the fans. As we’ve said on this blogs, fans should pay up and shut up. When subscriptions go up, TV bids go up, entrance fee and tickets go up, and “more popular” versions of the game are shunted into our lives, it is to recompense money laundering owners, avaricious administrators, players who want to be paid massive amounts, and their retinue of hangers on, agents and personal trainers. It’s the free market innit, and sport and it don’t mix.
When you have this mix of my tired cynicism, diminishing love, grief, context of matches and a blog I’ve been constantly flogging my brain for for 50+ months, there comes a time to take a proper rest. But then, you know I won’t. Because one thing is clear, and it is why I’m the mug punter sport relies upon. What the hell else is there to entertain me? What’s my outlet? Football has become an oligarchy, and the hope has evaporated. Golf has its majors and the Ryder Cup but is disappearing up its own irrelevance, so much so that it needs a revived Tiger to keep it in the eye. Big sporting events in other sports are hidden from view, badly publicised, or not in my conscience now. I missed watching the Arc de Triomphe, for example, a race that meant a huge amount when I was growing up. Any decent fight appears to need me to pay an extra 20 quid on top of what I’m paying the thieving sport channel bastards. The NBA has become a travesty as the need to have star teams outweighs competitive balance. The NFL has now become a “I don’t care as long as the Patriots lose” league, which is not particularly fulsome a pursuit. Even the plucky little Red Sox had to have the top wage bill in baseball to win it this year!
“Respect cannot be inherited, respect is the result of right actions.”
So to cricket. If anything adequately sums up the message I’ve been trying to get across since the sacking of KP, and the puffery around Cook, it’s the Hundred. An idea put together by people who have no faith in the sport, don’t care about its existing customer base who they think will put up with anything, but think that we’ll just accept their word for it and will carry on regardless. It was the initial message in pieces like “Know Your Bloody Place” back in the day. The piece I wrote after that press release:
Following the announcement of that decision, allegations have been made, some from people outside cricket, which as well as attacking the rationale of the ECB’s decision-making, have questioned, without justification, the integrity of the England Team Director and some of England’s players.
This statement applies as equally now, as it did then. That KP was the focus then, now your quaint love of the T20 Blast or the County Championship is now. You are outside cricket, you aren’t authority. You can’t attack the ECB for a decision because they know best, and heaven forfend if you even intimate they might be either conflicted and/or incompetent. Don’t you dare. Know your bloody place. The penny might have dropped this year with many of the cricket blogging and social media fraternity/sorority. But it has come too late. Maybe if many of these had put aside their loathing for an individual and seen the KP stuff for what it was – the ECB telling you that you had no say – then maybe we’d see something different. A faint hope, but better than no hope.
My next missive may be focused on some other things I want to shake my fist at, and that’s most notably social media and blogging these days, but let’s have a break. I know this has rambled a little, but I hope you get the overall message. Cricket, test cricket, is great. I love it, but not unconditionally. I don’t need to love it when it is being abused, when we are abused for loving it. I might be harking back to a nostalgia that never happened, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling sad.
As writing is my emotional valve, and that’s what it always will be, I may well write some more on my personal blog. It’s not the end for me on here either. It is a break. How long, we will see. But as cricket is a part of my life, whether I like it or not, it will provoke me. I may even need to do a day of the next test!
Thanks for the support. Thanks for being friends. Thanks for being outside cricket. See you all soon.
There was another downpour overnight, to the point where many people thought that overs would be lost, and yet again play started on time and was uninterrupted throughout. It seems genuinely remarkable that we’ve had four full days of play, given the weather in the area.
The day began with Sri Lanka’s openers still at the crease from the night before. They both made it through the initial spell of seam bowling from Anderson and Curran with no incidents before Moeen and Leach began. Moeen created the first clear chance of the innings, drawing an edge from Karunaratne to first slip, which the usually safe hands of Ben Stokes spilled.
Immediately after the first drinks break, Leach pinned Kaushal Silva in front of the stumps to take the first wicket. Moeen took a wicket soon after when Karunaratne attempted to loft the ball over the mid-off but instead hit it straight back to the bowler
The two spinners challenged both Sri Lankan batsmen, but it wasn’t until Stokes was brought in to bowl just before Lunch that England finally took another wicket. De Silva prodded at a ball just outside the off stump and edged it to Joe Root at slip.
Stokes continued bowling after Lunch with a great session of short-pitch bowling considering the slow pitch. With several edges, gloves and mis-hits falling safe, the best chance from the spell came when Mathews pulled the ball straight at Jimmy Anderson who was fielding at midwicket. In the first instance of catching karma, Stokes’ earlier drop was punished by the normally safe hands of Anderson instead not hanging on to the ball.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan batsmen continued to bat in a bizarrely aggressive fashion considering the benign conditions and their position in the game. In just the next over, Kusal Mendis sliced a lofted drive from Leach’s bowling to Moeen Ali at mid-off. In the over after that, Jimmy Anderson suffered his own catching karma as the typically flawless Foakes dropped an inside edge from an inswinger which fooled Chandimal. Inside edges are often the trickiest ones to catch for wicketkeepers, but Foakes did get his hand to it so it has to be regarded as a missed chance. The Sri Lankans didn’t show any inclination to punish England for these mistakes in the field though, and Leach bowled Chandimal a few overs later with a beautiful delivery which pitched on middle and hit the right-hander’s off stump.
This left Angelo Mathews and wicketkeeper Dickwella as the two remaining batsmen for Sri Lanka before the tail, and Moeen Ali dispatched both in his first two overs after the Tea break. First to go was Dickwella, who edged one to slip where Stokes made no mistake this time. Mathews followed soon after being surprised when the ball spun and bounced, scooping the ball gently to Jos Buttler at mid-on.
With just tailenders remaining, the rest of the Sri Lanka innings felt like a slow crawl towards an inevitable defeat. Rashid was brought on to clean up the tail, which is usually a speciality of his, but was much looser and more frequently off-target than he was in the first innings. Moeen Ali continued at the other end and eventually drew another edge to Stokes at slip, this time from Dananjaya. Rashid took almost a mirror-image wicket soon after with Perera edging a loose drive to slip. Herath’s was the last wicket to fall, with an undignified run-out for the retiring Sri Lankan hero.
Whilst it is England’s first Test win at Galle, this might not be quite the achievement it first appears. For a start, they have only played there five times and lost just twice . Second, and perhaps this indicates Sri Lanka’s recent weakness, the last eight Tests at the ground have been won by the team which also won the toss.
More importantly for English fans, it’s the Test team’s first away win since October 2016 and only their fifth since the beginning of 2013. England are a long way from being even a competent side away from home, their top order being their most obvious flaw, but the bowling unit appears strong in these conditions and the lower order batting continues to rescue the team on a semi-regular basis. With just two games left to play, there’s reason to be hopeful that the tourists can win their first away Test series since South Africa in 2015/16.
England’s biggest problem going into the next week’s Test is perhaps that too many of today’s team performed well. Bairstow should be eligible for selection again after his football injury, but it’s difficult to see Bayliss and Root dropping Foakes after the debutant wicketkeeper was named Player Of The Match. There are also suggestions that the pitch at Kandy will be more conducive to pace bowling, but should they drop one of the spinners when they did so well as a unit in this game? It’s a dilemma for the management team, with no clear answers.
If you have anything to say about the game, the squad, or anything else that comes to mind, please comment below.
Today’s play was so similar to England’s efforts on the first day that I was sorely tempted just to copy and paste my report from Tuesday with a few minor changes. The same players prospered, with the exception of Ben Stokes, and the same players struggled.
The day began with openers Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings at the crease on 38-0 . Like in their first innings, Jennings was by far the more comfortable of the two. Having survived a close LBW shout, Burns threw away his wicket again attempting a suicidal single to mid-off. Moeen’s top order struggles continued a few overs later with a chip straight to mid-on. Herath got Root out again, although this time with a good ball which moved away from the bat and caught the edge, and England were in the same position as Tuesday of being 74-3.
This brought the partnership of Jennings and Ben Stokes. Where Stokes had thrown his wicket away with an attempted sweep outside the line in the first innings, he was somewhat more circumspect this time around and was happy to run singles at the start. Jennings was lucky to survive an LBW shout just before Lunch where the ball hit the pad and bat (in that order), but the Sri Lankans decided not to ask for a review which would have dismissed the batsman.
Jennings and Stokes continued batting through the afternoon session with the allrounder accelerating throughout until he played inside the line to a Perera spinner which hit the top of off stump. Buttler came in and kept things moving briskly with a quick 35 runs before offering a sharp catch to Kaushal Silva at silly point. He was followed by Ben Foakes, who went even quicker with 37 runs from 35 balls before holing out at deep square leg. This dismissal drops Foakes’ average from a Bradmanesque 107.00 to a still-respectable 72.00, but it was a selfless innings from the debutant in the circumstances. Sam Curran came out for one more ball, but Joe Root declared at the end of the over with a lead of 461 runs.
And through the whole day, Keaton Jennings accumulated runs. Aside from the LBW scare, it was another accomplished innings from the opener. I must confess that I was hoping he would be dropped for this series after being very unimpressed with his batting during this past summer. It has been noted that he did well in India, so perhaps he is just well suited to Asian pitch conditions? It’s difficult to otherwise explain how he averages 17.72 in England but 71.80 in India and Sri Lanka. Conversely, his partner Rory Burns (according to CricViz) struggles against off-spin in county cricket. With grounds in the West Indies sometimes helping spinners, by the time England prepare for the Ashes it’s possible that Jennings will be undroppable and Burns unpickable. This could be a big problem if English conditions and a pace attack play into Burns’ strengths and Jennings’ weaknesses.
England’s declaration left Sri Lanka with 7 overs to survive, and their openers duly obliged. Curran, Anderson, Moeen, Rashid and Leach all had an over or two each to try for a breakthrough, with the only excitement being a close stumping chance from Ben Foakes and a bat-pad from Leach’s bowling which didn’t go to hand. There were a few aborted runs between the two batsmen though, which they will presumably have to discuss sometime tonight. Sri Lanka need another 447 runs to win, or to survive 6 sessions (barring rain). Dare I say it, I think England might win this one…
As always, your comments on the game (or anything else) are welcome below.
I wonder what the odds were before the game began of England being in such a dominant position at the halfway stage of the game. Probably about the same as the first two days being completely uninterrupted by rain.
The day began with yesterday’s hero Ben Foakes on 87 runs with just two tailenders left as partners. He scored another 8 runs before Jack Leach got out edging to slip, leaving him on 95 and just Jimmy Anderson as company. Clearly thinking his time at the crease was running out, Foakes hit three fours in the next over to reach his century on debut before skying a delivery from Lakmal. England finished on 342, a very competitive total in the circumstances.
The Sri Lankan innings played out very similarly to England’s innings yesterday. Firstly, their top order collapsed in the morning session. Anderson made the initial breakthrough on his second delivery, with opener Karunaratne getting a very fine edge to Foakes. Sri Lanka’s other opener, Kaushal Silva, only lasted a few more overs before being trapped LBW by Sam Curran.
After the first few overs the swing available died down, bringing England’s three spinners to the fore. First to get his chance was Jack Leach, who drew Kusal Mendis onto the front foot where the ball clipped the edge and Stokes caught it low at slip. Moeen came on soon after, and bowled de Silva round his legs in a dismissal eerily similar to Stokes’ from the first innings.
The experienced partnership of Angelo Matthews and Dinesh Chandimal took Sri Lanka safely to Lunch, and were making steady progress through the afternoon session. When you need someone to break a solid partnership, who would you turn to? Adil Rashid, of course, and he duly delivered by luring Chandimal down the pitch before it spun sharply to Foakes who completed the stumping.
Sri Lanka were 115-5 at this point, exactly the same position England found themselves in the day before. The major difference between the two teams is that the hosts do not have players capable of scoring fifties and hundreds in their lower order. There was a scare just before Tea as Dickwella hit the ball flush into the neck area of Rory Burns at short leg as the fielder ducked to try to avoid it, but after receiving medical attention on the field it appears to have just left a bruise.
Ali struck in the first ball after Tea, with Matthews edging a bat-pad to Jennings at short leg. He also dismissed Dickwella and Dananjaya before Leach and Rashid took the final two wickets of the innings. Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings came out to bat and made it safely to the close of play, although Burns still looked nervous and the more vulnerable of the two openers.
Today’s performance by England is perhaps the best one I’ve ever seen from them in Asian conditions. The spin unit appeared to have no weak links and the fielding was superb, with Ben Foakes doing well in his debut behind the stumps. Sri Lanka are not the strongest opponents, having not recovered from the loss of several great players in recent years, but then again the same could be said for England.
Moeen Ali’s figures of 4/66 take him to 149 career Test wickets, becoming the 7th highest wicket-taking spinner for England and overtaking two-time Rebel tourist John Emburey. Not only that, but his bowling average of 38.44 is better than both ‘King Of Spain’ Ashley Giles (40.60) and Pat Pocock (44.41), and is only slightly worse than Emburey (38.40), Phil Tufnell (37.68), Robert Croft (37.24). All five of these players were repeatedly picked as specialist spin bowlers, so it might be time for us to consider Moeen in those terms. He’s by no means a great spinner, as his bowling average of 49.67 away from home attests, but I think it would be fair to say that he would have walked into almost any England team as either an allrounder or specialist spinner in the last forty years or so. He’s just unlucky to have been the one to follow Graeme Swann.
As always, please comment on the game (or anything else) below.
Trying to predict the weather in Sri Lanka is a fool’s errand, and it seems to have caught most English observers out yet again. With a torrential downpour yesterday and rain expected through most of today, it was certainly a surprise to me when I woke up at 6am and discovered I’d missed most of the first session. Less of a surprise was the fact that England had already lost 3 wickets.
The game began on time, England picking their expected XI with Leach, Burns and Foakes replacing Broad, Cook and Bairstow. Joe Root also won the toss again for the 6th game in a row, and decided to bat first. With early indications that the pitch will be conducive to spin, I think it was the better option for England to deny Sri Lanka’s bowlers the 4th innings.
England’s batsmen were woefully under-prepared for this game, and unfortunately it showed. The touring team had only scheduled a couple of two-day warmup games, and due to the poor weather only batted 140 overs in total. Despite England’s notorious weakness against spin, it was Sri Lankan seamer Suranga Lakmal who made the initial breakthroughs in the third over. Debutant Burns was the first to fall with a fine leg-side edge to the keeper, and he was followed immediately by Moeen Ali who was bowled by a full, straight ball from around the wicket.
What followed was a bizarrely aggressive first session from England’s batsmen. I had seen it suggested on Twitter (font of all knowledge) before the game that the English batsmen should pretend they were playing limited overs cricket, a format they excel at even against spin, rather than attempting to defend and getting out cheaply. Trevor Bayliss has certainly stated several times that he prefers ‘aggressive’ batsmen in Tests. England scored 113 in the morning session at 3.9 runs per over, which is a good start but for one minor detail. They had also lost five wickets.
The three dismissals were all examples of over-aggression from England. First there was Root, who yorked himself by running down the track to an innocuous ball from Herath. Next was Jennings, who was bowled after missing an attempted cut to a ball heading straight at middle stump. Last, but by no means least, Stokes got himself out by going outside off stump whilst attempting to sweep the ball to fine leg and instead being bowled behind his legs. All of these shot selections would be fine in a T20, but seem utterly nonsensical in a Test match. You have to wonder what Trevor Bayliss and England’s batting coach (Is it still Mark Ramprakash? I can’t believe he hasn’t been fired yet) think about this display.
The afternoon session followed the typical script of England’s lower order rescuing their specialist batsmen. This time it was wicketkeepers Buttler and Foakes showing the top order how to bat, adding an extra 51 runs at a relatively sedate pace of 3.4 runs per over. Unfortunately for England, Buttler edged a ball from Perera to the keeper just before the drinks break, bringing in England’s inexperienced ‘tail’.
I use the quotation marks because England’s tail seems like their best batsmen. In fact, from the start of the summer England’s top five average 2.17 less than the bottom six. There’s a genuine argument to be made for reversing the batting order. Sam Curran outperformed the specialist batsmen yet again, scoring 48 runs including three sixes before edging one from Dananjaya to slip. Adil Rashid then added a quick-fire 35, including another two sixes, before also edging to slip. Jack Leach made it through to the end of play with a somewhat lucky 14 runs, surviving two edges through the slip cordon.
And throughout all of this was Ben Foakes, the second Surrey debutant and England’s new wicketkeeper. He came to the crease in the first session when the score was 105-5 and guided England to 321-8 at the close of play. It would be difficult to overstate how important his innings was in terms of the tourist’s chances of winning this game. He was calm and composed, and most importantly didn’t get himself out.
At the same time, his batting abilities shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Although regarded as a specialist wicketkeeper, Foakes has a first-class batting average of 40.64. That’s more than Jennings (33.95), Malan (36.98), Stoneman (35.03), Vince (38.44), Westley (36.31), Hameed (30.91) and Duckett (38.69). In fact, the only two batting debutants in recent years to have higher first-class averages than Foakes are fellow Surrey players Ollie Pope and Rory Burns. Now this might suggest that the Oval has been pretty batting-friendly in recent years, which is fair, but you have to question why it’s taken so long to get him in the team. Jonny Bairstow wants to be England’s Test wicketkeeper, and I can’t say I know how Foakes’ outfielding stands up, but there has to be a way for them (and Buttler if need be) to fit in the team? Surely as an alternative to picking Vince ever again…
So the day finishes with England in a position which is not bad. Sri Lanka in some ways let them off the hook with defensive fields and poor fielding, but you have to give credit once more for England’s bowlers and Ben Foakes for bailing out the team. It’s now set up for England’s bowlers to put some pressure on Sri Lanka with the ball tomorrow.
If they’re not too tired from carrying England’s batting unit all the time, of course.
I wasn’t sure whether to write something vaguely incisive about the build up to the First Test or just to post a picture of some puddles and the weather forecast for the upcoming game, in what has quickly become a farce of a tour. I mentioned in ODI review that holding a Test series in the middle of monsoon season was just about as stupid a thing one can do, unless the players and fans particularly enjoying sight seeing in the wet.
If by some miraculous occurrence, the weather does clear up for long enough to hold the game, then one must think England will be at a serious disadvantage. In the past, when teams were actually committed to winning a Test away from home, they would organise at least 3 tour games of sufficient length to try and get their batsmen and bowlers acclimatized to the foreign conditions. This has long since been dumped in favour of shorter tours, combined of more ODI cricket and then the odd 2 or 3 day match to try and get the players somehow ready for the upcoming series and the media wonders why it is so difficult for teams to win away from home in this modern age. Unsuprisingly, the weather has played havoc with England’s warm up preparation with a 50 over knock about on a flat, unresponsive pitch hardly likely to replicate the conditions they will face in Galle, should there be any cricket held there this week. I’m not surprised that Sri Lanka didn’t prepare a rank turner for England’s warm up games, just as I am never surprised that England don’t hold warm up matches on green seamers whilst preparing one for the first Test. This should be something that the ICC actively looks at if they want to keep Test cricket at the forefront of the game and stop it from being a procession of home Test victories; however I’m not going to hold my breath, based on what the ICC and the other governing boards have done in the past.
As for the team itself, for a change it is quite hard to predict what team England will actually go for, especially in light to the injury to Jonny Bairstow whilst playing football in a warm up for one of the ODI series. Now there are many ways a player can get injured on the cricket pitch, so actually losing one of your best players in a warm up during a football knock about is unforgiveable; if Bairstow misses more than just the First Test, then serious questions need to be answered by the English coaching team. I would imagine that Burns will rightfully get a go at the top of the order after a fantastic county campaign last season alongside Keaton Jennings, who is incredibly fortunate to be included on the tour. Jennings has built a reputation as a good player of spin, though that could be heavily weighted on his century in India a couple of years ago, and without doubt if he fails again in this series, a place on the scrapheap with England’s other tried and failed openers from the last 5 years await. As for the rest of the line up, then aside from Root batting at 4, your guess is a good as mine! We’ve had speculation that Buttler will bat at 3, or that it will be Moeen, or that it could be Denly – in other words, no-one has any sort of a clue as to how the English batting line up is going look. Personally I’d have Denly at 3 and Moeen at 5, but then personally I would have had the best player of spin that England currently has at the moment on the tour and in the line up! Whatever James Hildreth has done to upset the English selectors is beyond me, perhaps Mike Selvey has marked his card sometime ago! One would also imagine that the no matter how much rain falls between now and the beginning of the game, that the Galle pitch will be conducive to spin bowling; hence I would guess that England will line up with Anderson, Stokes and one of Broad, Woakes or Curran with the latter probably earmarked for the role due to his batting. As for the spinners, then it will be down to Moeen, Leach and Mike Selvey’s favourite bowler, Adil Rashid, to take the majority of the wickets once the ball stops doing anything for the seamers after 4 over or so.
Sri Lanka, will start the series as hot favourites in my opinion whatever the bookies think, especially if they can reproduce their performances against South Africa earlier in the year, where the decimated the Proteas by 278 and 199 runs in the two Test series. Sri Lanka’s array of spin bowlers befuddled the South African batting line at every turn and we can expect a heavy reliance on this again in this series. As a side note, Galle will be the last Test in his career for Rangana Herath, who despite his portly appearance and lack of a ‘magic ball’ has had a tremendous career at International level, especially on the sub-continent and someone Sri Lanka will miss massively. Herath may not spin the ball prodigiously but the control and accuracy that he has displayed throughout his career has meant that the opposing batsman has not been able to lose concentration for one minute when he is bowling. England will be very grateful to see the back of Herath after Galle. As for the Sri Lankan batting, they will once again lean heavily on Dimuth Karunaratne, who had his breakthrough series against South Africa alongside Angelo Matthew (provided he hasn’t been dropped) and Dinesh Chandimal, who are the backbone of the Sri Lankan batting unit.
The toss will be incredibly important to win and England must hope that Joe Root has his lucky shirt on, as England face a tough enough prospect to win this series, let alone batting 4th on a raging turner. This of course could be rendered completely irrelevant if the forecast stays true and hence, the fans have the pleasure of staring at puddles on the pitch rather than any live cricket. Perhaps they’ll be kind enough to beam the AB De Villiers masterclass into the stadium should the weather forecast prove right.
As ever, all thoughts on the game are welcome below:
Has there ever been a more low key build up to a major Test series? As English cricket continues to search for new ways to obliterate any goodwill it once had, and Australian cricket views the comedy W1A as a handbook for how to impress people, it’s easy to forget there is a Test series around the corner in Sri Lanka. The ODIs were sufficiently pointless to lower the bar of contractual obligation fixtures still further, particularly given the blithe excuses for scheduling them in the wet season, but now we come to a Test series that appears to have largely passed even cricket supporters by.
The strange thing about that is that Sri Lanka has always been one of the favourites for followers of the England team, and doubtless there will be impressive numbers of England supporters at the grounds, but the continuing tribulations around governance in both countries are of greater import than the games themselves. When a sport spends more time navel-gazing than playing, it’s a crisis.
Where to even begin with this? The unwelcome headlines around match fixing are one thing, the ECB managing to look indifferent and oblivious are another, testament to their uncanny ability to make any situation worse. The claims might seem a bit thin, but that doesn’t mean that lofty disdain is the right response.
The rumblings around the dog’s breakfast that is the Hundred continue, with the latest potential wheeze being the idea of selling off franchises. Quite why anyone would want to stump up serious money for a competition that has had such a hostile response, and which the ECB have marketed with the sure touch of Gerald Ratner hasn’t been explained, but if nothing else it points to a concern that the money-spinner the ECB claimed it would become isn’t likely to come true.
There are reports that the cost of its operation has now spiralled to £40m a year, a figure that beggars belief, and when added to the subsidy to the counties, it’s more like £70m a year. No wonder the idea of selling it off is now an attractive one – a shortfall needs to be made up.
Of course, a franchise system further erodes any semblance of fan loyalty to the teams, and having made it abundantly clear that the competition isn’t for existing supporters (deliberately telling your customer base to foxtrot oscar remains one of the most extraordinary things a governing body has ever done) we still don’t know who, if anyone, is likely to come and watch. Empty grounds are perhaps the biggest risk to the whole event, not initially (everyone rubber necks a car crash) but in terms of the viability over a few years.
Still, if it doesn’t work the ECB will happily change it – their inability to leave the cricket calendar alone for more than a year at a time is exceptional – but the amount of money already sunk into the thing and committed further is frightening. No business would dream of operating this way and expecting success.
Being committed to a particular approach and sticking to it no matter what is sometimes admirable, but this is seriously going out on a limb, and while expressing disbelief at the ECB has now surpassed cricket itself as a national sport, the worst part of the whole affair is that those who love cricket are placed in the unenviable position of being worried that the Hundred doesn’t work, not that it does. The potential for calamitous failure is now so high, and the consequences so dangerous, that it is a complete unknown what the fallout might be.
The upside is that the game will survive, by ironic virtue of the rather limited support to the grassroots the ECB has provided anyway, but here too the danger signs have been long flashing. Sunday cricket is in crisis, player participation levels reached desperation levels some years ago and the decline shows little sign of abating.
There are efforts to try to support it, club networks to allow players to get a game for example. They are laudable, but that they are deemed necessary is in itself a symbol of the mess the game is in. The biggest problem of all is the inability to see a way out of it. For all the fury at the invisibility of the sport to the public, the grotesque mismanagement of the game by the ECB itself, we are now in a position where the options are narrowing by the day. Perhaps the tipping point will only come when those involved at the highest level start seeing their own incomes under threat, and we are some way off that.
If the ECB’s incompetence is a benchmark few can match, Cricket Australia appear to be doing their damnedest to try. If nothing else, they do appear to have a better grasp of business realities than their English counterparts, but they too are afflicted by the drift away from criticism and towards mockery. The board level machinations are one thing, the ludicrous way the national team is disappearing up its own backside while maintaining an air of staggering pomposity is another.
If elite mateship hadn’t been received with sufficient hilarity, to double down and highlight elite honesty ensured many an aching side. Perhaps it was directed at David Warner, who threw his toys out of the pram when someone dared to sledge him, or perhaps it was directed at the ACA who are pushing for the return of those banned for ball tampering. The punishments for something that has gone on for years (though rarely with such ineptitude) seemed harsh at the time; to try to undo them afterwards is magnificently brazen, particularly with South Africa in town.
And I haven’t even mentioned how WADA are likely to deem cricket non-compliant. Marvellous.
And so we have some cricket on the way. For all the craven disdain for our game that those determined to exploit it for their own ends, the sport itself remains special. Cricket does not deserve the loyalty it receives from those who love it, seeing them as a revenue stream not the marketing team they really are – dedicated missionaries who wish to see it succeed. Those people will watch, buy tickets, travel to watch the team, as I am doing in the West Indies this winter. But patience is being tested to the limit, repeatedly.
It’s not yet too late. But my God we’re getting close.