West Indies vs England: 2nd Test, Day One Blog

As most of you know, I’m at the Test this week, so will do a live blog for at least today and then see how it goes. Much depends on the quality of the mobile signal and if I can steal a WiFi password if it’s poor. Oh and it’s not the BBC. You’ll need to hit refresh.

First up, the weather this morning. On my side of the island at least it’s cloudy and showery but nothing to worry about. Everyone in this hotel is going to the cricket, so breakfast is done and heading over to the ground now.

Joe Denly is due to make his debut today, and here I have to confess I have a real problem with him playing. It’s not that he’s done a thing wrong, it’s not that I don’t like him as a player. It’s that I remember playing against his Dad Nick and seeing Joe playing cricket on the boundary as a kid. Dear God.

0821: Pissing down at present.

0926: Finally got into the ground. I knew it was a bit isolated, but it really is in the middle of nowhere. It’s like holding a Test match in the middle of Dartmoor or something. You’ll never complain about the Rosebowl again. The contrast with the ARG – basically at the end of the High Street in St John’s is stark.

Still, it’s an attractive ground alright, it’s just that it robs any chance of casual local spectators and that’s a real shame.

The weather has improved somewhat though.

0930: second bit of good news. By getting the cheapest tickets around, we appear to be by all the bars. Result!

0938: oh England are batting. Right you are. On the plus side, this could be exciting. Brief, but exciting. Nah, my bet is they’ll do ok this time around.

0954: Delighted to announce that some Brits stood for the national anthem and the rest resolutely stayed seated. Fantastically, contrarily British. I’ll leave you to guess which was me.

1010: Unsurprising, I know, but the crowd is almost entirely English. It’s a work day of course, and anecdotally quite a few Antiguans say they’re planning on coming in the afternoon. Hopefully they do.

Panoramic view of the ground:

1027: Be nice if they would actually show the review for those of us at the ground.

1049: This is going well. Again.

1102: Was told to post at drinks, so I will.

1112: This chap is providing plenty of entertainment taking the piss out of the England team. How good his local tours are, I’ve no idea – but I do admire clever marketing.

1121: Aside from that one going through the top and exploding off a length (best of luck out there, batsmen), the most entertaining thing so far is meeting an American chap called Dan. He’s here on his honeymoon having fallen in love with cricket. He told his new wife there was a Test match on this morning. Apparently she’s ok now she’s had some beer and rum.

1140: Dan’s new wife must think these things called wickets happen every few minutes.

1156: Ben Stokes has the best technique of any England batsman. Discuss.

1203: Lunch the lobster smells amazing.

1215: The lunchtime PA blasting out Earth, Wind and Fire is a lot more fun than Lords. And it’s not even September.

1255: No luck on the Dan front yet by the way. Stokes and Moeen at the crease could be fun. And saying that, you just know what’s going to happen next…

1304: Told ya.

1344: Drinks, and a pretty low key last 40 minutes or so. Probably not such a bad thing for England, but that was very nearly like Test cricket. Remember that?

1423: Pretty decent recovery stand between Foakes and (especially) Moeen. Hard to know what a decent total here is, though England are some way short at present of what you’d think was.

1427: In any potential list of things unlikely to garner too much sympathy, having to move in order to get out of the sun and into the shade is probably fairly high. But it is extremely hot, and one rather nice thing about this ground is a complete absence of anyone greatly caring where you wander to.

Which means I can give a nice new view of the ground:

1439: Just for Trevor

1441: And that’s tea. Something of a recovery, though given there are 39 over yet to be bowled in the final session, we’re going to be very, very short.

Moeen though. Enigmatic doesn’t begin to cover it with him, he fails repeatedly, but when he’s good there are very few better players to watch.

1520: not sure if that stopped on him or if it was just a poor shot. Either way, the end is probably nigh. So here’s some video, which won’t turn up the right way. Sigh.

1539: Is it bad to be really, really looking forward to watching Stuart Broad bat on this?

1553: this could be a very interesting last couple of hours or so, just to see if England get anything out of the pitch or not. If not, this could get very painful.

1623: Concerning the above, there are definite twinges.

1643: This has not been the most threatening of opening spells from these two. And it’s mostly being played on the back foot.

1703: Innocuous stuff really.

1741: The West Indies batted really well in that final session, and while England might claim that they didn’t have much luck, nor did they really create much in the way of chances. Unless they have a great morning tomorrow they’ll again be in serious trouble. But that is for then.

From a spectator perspective, the isolation of the ground is a problem, but the experience when there is simply delightful. No one particularly cares where you wander, meaning the ground is there to explore and get different perspectives. The food stalls are individual, cheap and put the horrific money pits at English grounds to shame.

It’s now back to the hotel, relax, have dinner and do it all again in the morning. See you then.

West Indies vs England: 2nd Test Preview

Playing catchup in a series, especially a short one, does tend to rather focus minds somewhat, and while it is not in the make up of anyone even remotely associated with the ECB to admit to an error, the 12 announced for tomorrow’s match at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium (let’s be honest, we all miss the Antigua Recreation Ground) by England are as much a tacit recognition of a first Test balls up as is ever likely to be the case. Broad is back in and seems certain to play, Jennings is out in favour of Joe Denly as the revolving door of England openers shows no sign of slowing down. More notable is the dropping of Adil Rashid, a player who might not be the Shane Warne standard that he appears he has to be in order to get any credit, but isn’t the clueless ingenue he gets all to often painted as either. More strikingly with him is the clear lack of any clue as to how to use him, either from the captain or the coaching team. If he’s not going to bowl more than a handful of overs, there’s little point playing him.

As ever, there are cases to be made both for and against any individual instance, but the inability of English sport across the board to be able to handle flair and individuality, whether on or off the field is a constant. It isn’t that Rashid in this instance deserves defending for his performance in the last Test, it’s that it’s impossible to ever know with such players how good they might be, so determined is the sporting culture to force them down narrow channels. This happens at elite youth level all too frequently to begin with, discipline too often coming to mean an insistence on conformity.

There is a consistent focus on what players can’t do rather than what they can. The idea that Rashid can be a stock bowler in Tests is absurd, yet so much of the criticism aimed at him consists of complaints about his accuracy and economy – it’s such a very English thing to do. None of this means that he is the answer to all our prayers, nor that his on field performances shouldn’t be criticised, but the pre-disposition in so many quarters to hold him to a standard he could never possibly achieve is simply bizarre, while the lack of scrutiny over how he is used is a failure of analysis.

Still, Denly can bowl a few leggies if asked, while Rashid can focus on more important personal matters.

For Jennings, there must now be serious questions over his future. He probably does have the aptitude for it, but his technical problems have become a major barrier for him. He has time to go and put that right, but it could be a long haul.

For Stuart Broad, with his new, more economical run up and work on his action, much will be expected. Not because of anything much more than that his omission was deemed in some quarters more culpable for defeat than the abysmal batting display in the first innings and the in some ways worse in the second. Being out of a losing side is one of the best ways to improve a reputation after all.

In the West Indies camp all is serene, the victory in Kensington most obviously allowing the clear anger at a perceived lack of respect to be vented from a position of strength. And why not either.

The weather for tomorrow seems similar to today, cloudy with showers. The dash from the beach to the room in a downpour will have earned me all the sympathy I’m expecting.

Tomorrow morning I daresay I might liveblog it and see how that goes down.

West Indies vs England: Send the Word, Send the Word Over There

It’s hardly surprising that the Caribbean is a popular place to come and watch England play: what isn’t there to like, warm weather during the depths of winter while watching cricket has a certain allure to begin with. Then there is the romance of the West Indies in cricketing terms to add to that.

Spending the day on a tube at 35,000 feet for 8 hours is a small price to pay, though with my travel industry head on, it remains endlessly amazing that places reliant on tourism often don’t seem to grasp that condemning arrivals to a wait of well over an hour to get through immigration is rarely the best first impression. These are the kinds of things that people comment on to friends and acquaintances.

No matter. The welcome is exceptionally friendly as might be expected, and the volume of people coming for the cricket comprised the majority of the flight, meaning if nothing else there is clear demand to come and mix a holiday with seeing the game.

From a ridiculously small sample of two people, there also appears to be a good level of interest locally, on the back of the West Indies’ dominant display in Barbados, which is surely a healthy state of affairs if it comes to pass in terms of the crowd.

A brief post this evening then, a more detailed one tomorrow, as the blog attempts not to become too much of a travel related one, and with a proper preview tomorrow.

West Indies v England – 1st Test Review, 2nd Test Preview (of sorts)

I feel like a bit of an absentee landlord at present. It’s a time of pressure at work, the energy at home going into the new puppy, and not a lot of time for much else. But I did get to see some of the last test in between times, as would you believe it, I’m off the drink at present and not socialising after work. But enough of me. There was a test match played, in Barbados, and just as in 2015 England came out on the wrong side of it. It was an absolutely nonsense test match. We had a hard working, grafting day one, a minefield impersonation on day two; a road on day 3; and a load of motorway maintenance men knocking off early on day four. In 1986 this performance would have been followed for demands for naughty boy nets, and the Stokes of his day would probably have naffed off and gone for a drink on a yacht or something. That West Indies side, as we all know, were something special. I don’t care how much you want them to do well, but this current team is ordinary and we all know it, deep down.

So what on earth does that make England? In all truth, I have absolutely no idea. Let me pose you good men and women out there a couple of theoretical questions:

  • If England discovered another KP in their midst, right now, a middle order gun player with the potential to average 50, would they:
    • Make him open the batting
    • Put him at number 3
    • Put him at number 5 and drop one of the all-rounders
    • Make him play umpteen Lions tours until one of the current team get injured
    • See if he can spin it and bat him at 8
  • Who is to blame for this performance:
    • Trevor Bayliss and the incredible invisible Farbrace
    • Joe Root for not carrying the team on his back
    • Ed Smith for muddled selection – even though it probably isn’t him selecting the team (I don’t know)
    • Inadequate preparation – playing glorified beer matches
    • The ECB for existing
    • County Cricket
    • Adil Rashid

One defeat and all the old wounds open again. I was always one to say, when we won, especially away, that we as a blog and as a supporter of cricket should not over-react to a win, and now we should not react to a loss in the same way. The manner of the defeat is probably of greater concern. England seem to have a bit of an issue in matches where they bat second and the team batting first make anything like an adequate score. Leaving aside the fact we scored 77, the upper limit for our second innings, with this team, appears to be 250-300. 77 was an ocean-going disgrace, where well-paid, and about to be even better paid, professional cricketers did a passable impression of a club side. Inadequate shots, insufficient temperament, stupidity and recklessness merged into a maelstrom of incompetence up there with Auckland 18. Sure, have a go at Adil’s bowling, but you are doing it because the elephant in the room is the batting. It got us somewhere in Sri Lanka, but it took us nowhere in Barbados.

There was the sight, at lunch on the fourth day, of a line of ex-England players singing the praises of a Rory Burns 84, having witnessed, the day before (a day I didn’t see much of), Jason Holder make 202 not out (getting that warm Karun Nair feeling during that innings), and Shane Dowrich a super hundred. They were waxing lyrical about tempo, about playing his own game, about how good he looked. It was over-praising what should be the norm for an England team. A player making 80-odd when 180-odd was needed should be noted, but not lauded like it was something to behold. Have our standards slipped so low? This team does not contain a player who has scored a 150 in a test match since July 2017 (Joe Root 190). This team is the living embodiment of the man they claim to disown – it is now, the way they play. Millionaire shots played by players, either high on a rare cohesive series against opponents who look more inadequate by the day, or so lacking in temperament as to be clueless in the face of a sizeable task. Once set 600+ to win you never thought they’d get close, but to lose 8 wickets to Roston Chase, bloody hell. You can’t live by the sword, if you are going to die against a part-timer.

And it’s all about not picking Stuart Broad. That’s your reason. Others bemoan Leach not being picked, but they love Moeen, and Adil provides something different. One would not be surprised if that is Rashid’s last test for a while, if ever, and yet he’s a convenient stick to beat when things go wrong. Broad is a doughty, excellent pro for England, but it may be the new breed sending a message to the old – time goes on, and automatic choice, regardless of performance is not on the cards any more. Hindsight might suggest the choice was wrong, but that’s the “joy” in backing someone who doesn’t play. You can’t be proved wrong.

So who do we pick in Antigua. Heaven only knows. At opener we are stuffed. It’s Burns and Jennings for this tour, like it or lump it. Burns looked quite good in the second dig, true, but some were worried he was still wafting a bit outside off, and that dismissal wasn’t good. But he looked like Hayden compared to Jennings, who seems to have a problem when pitches aren’t dead low ones. If the hosts now prepare two low roads, he may look good, but then we probably won’t find out anything new. Bairstow at three seems mired in a confused state, like the last one left in a pick-up game, knowing no-one else wants number 3. With 5,6,7,8 and 9 not occupied by pure test quality batsmen, Bairstow, who probably is when he’s on his mettle, seems confused to me. He wants to be the keeper, but if you drop Foakes for instance, he can’t bat three. It’s an awful mess. It’s a team stacked with number 6 batsmen, and some of them complicate it by bowling. Takes Stokes at 5, if you must. His bowling is valuable, but we need runs from number 5, and he’s not providing them. At 6 we have Jos. I like Jos, a lot, but he’s got one ton in all his goes, and although an absolute star in limited overs formats, is a luxury in this. If he were 6 in the Aussie teams of the 90s/2000s, he’d be terrifying. In this one, he’s a pretty painting aboard a sinking yacht.

At 7 we have Moeen. Picked for his spin, his batting confounds. He confuses, he annoys. He charms and he flirts with greatness, only to lose one or the other of his skills. I don’t know what the hell to do with him. Neither do England.

Foakes at 8 is too low – and a specialist keeper who can bat pretty well isn’t something we can look at and scorn. But really, has his presence clarified anything. There are two other keepers in the team, three if you count Burns who used to do it, and are any of them in the top five batsmen in English cricket? Yet two play as pure batsmen. It’s like an episode of Soap. When you throw Sam Curran into it, at one turn a budding superstar needed to be given his head, and on the other a neophyte not fit to bowl in test cricket, it’s no wonder England fans are confused. Adil is a whipping boy, Anderson the heroic bowler with no choice but to get grumpy at the lack of support. It’s too much.

Either we let this madness play out, entertain and infuriate us at equal turns, or we see if there is a system we can actually fill. It’s not about guts or lessons learned. If you don’t know not to play like a muppet when the game is lost, but to stick at it, then you don’t deserve to be in international cricket. It’s about being smart, focused and aware. Maybe England took the West Indies lightly. Maybe. That bit them on the arse.

I don’t have a clue about the team for the second test. At least I’m honest.

Which is more than I can say for the Sky team, for the ECB, for Tom “Empty Suit” Harrison and Ian Ward, who, frankly, should be embarrassed at that powder-puff interview where, on about the third question in, the game was truly given away when His Emptiness called him “Wardy”. In Harrison world, everyone was doing fantastic, any question that he couldn’t answer was a “great question”, that we had pathways and cultures in English cricket, that county cricket fans were now great, and not the obsessive oddballs he painted them as a year ago, and that there was clear evidence that the T20 Blast would not attract new fans, but this new nonsense format would. All the while Wardy was smiling and cooing like a flirting mistress. The now retired Charles Sale of the Mail frequently remarked that Ward was too close to the players – but maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was too close to the ECB. Is too close. He’s gone from a potential Athers to a potential Nicholas. That’s not a pathway, or a culture, I’d want to pursue.

There then followed a bizarre rant by Nasser Hussain that the reason youngsters were dropping out of the game at 16-18 was that they wanted to play competitive club cricket, but were being blocked by, and I quote, “old fogeys” who wanted to play friendlies. How charming. I suppose now Cook has gone back to Essex, he can’t have a pop at county cricket. It’s arrant nonsense. The recreational and club game should give a stuff about England and the ECB when it is reciprocated. Club cricket has been in crisis in my area for a while now. It’s not a blockage, it’s teams folding through lack of players, older players packing it in, lifestyle changes, the greater focus on exams in the summer than when I was playing, and a myriad of other things. Having a pop at warm hearted, cricket-loving people who want to do something they enjoy seems bloody typical for professionals who, at the end of their careers, couldn’t stop playing quickly enough – and let me give due respect to Alastair Cook for going back to Essex and playing county cricket. Just pack it in Nasser.

There’s more in them there hills, when it comes to issues I have. I found the social media scene from Barbados more than tedious (oooh, players are batting without helmets and hitting sixes – Pseuds Corner everyone). The reactions to the game probably even more so. I saw the same old tropes, the same old whimsy, the same old trying to be the smartest guy in the room. I saw Rob Key trying to put forward Jason Roy as a test opener. I saw a panel where all three members were either in the ECB hierarchy, or coached in it. This isn’t intellectual curiosity or critical thought. It’s people excusing and covering up. It’s jobs for the boys and girls, and the most important thing is to be a strategic partner, not an honest broker. And as for you, as fans, as lovers of the game. Pay your money, and shut your traps (unless you cheer).

So. I’m happy. I’m even more happy knowing the wintry weather coming our way tomorrow will chill us to the bone. And on that note, we’ll hand the blog over, this week, to thelegglance, for wherever he may be, and you might have guessed, will be a lot warmer than here. I’m not jealous.

I said on Whatsapp I’d rant for a thousand words tonight. It’s coming up to 2000. It’s easy when you try! Comments on the test will probably be best attached to Chris’s piece. If he can fit them in on his busy schedule. I’m not bitter. I’m off to Frankfurt.

Night all.

 

 

West Indies vs England: First Test, Day Four

What is there really to say? England lost this Test in the first (abject) innings and the last two days has largely been about how long the West Indies cat intended to torture the English mouse, and then see if the England batsmen could make a better fist of things second time around.

To that extent, today was a modest success, at least in the first half. Certainly Rory Burns put a tick against his name with a fluent innings that ended when he someone missed a fairly innocuous straight ball. Perhaps it was a question of concentration more than anything, just before a break, which would be unfortunate to say the least. Still, beating up on the top scorer is an English pastime that is indulged far too often. His idiosyncratic bat lift distracts from what appears very good weight distribution in his shots. Whether there are too many shots is another matter, and we shall see how he develops.

Certainly he is in a better place than Jennings, who fought hard but again played a horrible waft outside off stump to a ball that he didn’t need to play, and hadn’t got close to. As a result, he played entirely with his hands, with the obvious result. He’s clearly trying his hardest, but it is his judgement rather than his technique that is letting him down most often.

Thereafter there were pretty twenties and thirties, as England fell apart to the newly fearsome spin bowling of Roston Chase, who managed to lure English batsmen into some remarkably careless shots. Teams that find ways to get themselves out like this betray scrambled brains, lack of confidence in their method and uncertainty at how to play. It’s all there, and in spades.

To a degree, the fact the game had long gone made the second innings irrelevant, but both for their own confidence and to make a statement that they really can play, losing with dignity and forcing the opposition to strain for the win can be valuable in a series context. Collapsing to defeat as England ultimately did has the opposite effect.

The problem is that by and large this collection of players is the best England have. Whether it is down to the progressive sidelining of the first class game or the rise of short form cricket, or a combination of both, English batsmen have no sense of permanence. Even if they score runs, they do so quickly – batting out a day seems mentally beyond most of them. Perhaps ironically, the one who looks most capable of doing that is Ben Stokes.

As for the West Indies, they have thoroughly outplayed England, and perhaps it was the ultimate salt in the wound that having expressed surprise at England playing two spinners, their own part-time version demolished England’s batting comprehensively, to record the best figures of his career.

England will doubtless make changes for the second Test – Broad will presumably return, at least Rashid and possibly Moeen too will be dropped, while the question of how long Jennings will be persevered with will come up again.

There’s no reason to assume England will be as poor next time around, but these abject defeats aren’t occasional events, they are fairly regular. Two figure totals are also becoming regular. They can play better, and they probably will. But it doesn’t change much, the brittle nature of England’s game is inherent and endemic. And after Anderson and Broad call it a day, the bowling future looks equally uncertain.

There will be the usual over-reaction to defeat and the gnashing of teeth about what happened. There shouldn’t be. Not because it’s not a terrible defeat, but because the structural issues around English cricket have been there for ages. Bad defeats don’t make that more obvious, good wins like in Sri Lanka don’t make it less. But pretending it’s about one performance is to condemn everyone to the same next time around.

To put it another way, is anyone actually surprised? The ability of the team to play rash shots and collapse is a known feature of the team, muddled selection is another. Granting a part time spinner eight wickets on a pitch not helpful to spin merely another indicator of the position they are in.

In times past, a recognition of the problems in the game and a concerted effort to put them right would be the response. Not any more. Now we have a Chief Executive who channels his inner Iraqi spokesman to insist all is well, and the future is exciting. Many may beg to differ.

West Indies vs. England, 1st Test, Day 3 – Wicketless

Cricket is a funny game sometimes. Yesterday, Sean had to write a report on a day where 18 wickets fell. Today, literally no wickets whatsoever. I’m not sure which I’d prefer, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting to write about when play started…

The day started with the West Indies enjoying a lead of 339 runs with 4 wickets remaining in their second innings, and England’s bowlers already fatigued after spending almost two full days in the field with no prospect of saving the game. Jason Holder and Shane Dowrich were the last decent batsmen left for the West Indies before their tail. This, together with their team’s commanding position in the game, gave them a license to attack England’s bowlers at will. They took advantage of this license, smashing Moeen, Rashid and Curran around the ground.

Holder and Dowrich coasted through the morning session without any alarms, adding another 110 to their team’s total in the process. Holder survived an LBW appeal soon after lunch from a Joe Root legspinner which, if England had any reviews left, would have been out. There were signs that the fielders were feeling the heat too, as Burns, Foakes and Buttler all missed chances to break the partnership. Eventually it was a personal milestone which ended the West Indies innings, with captain Jason Holder declaring after reaching his double century. The partnership totalled 295 runs in 411 balls and will have immensely pleased the West Indies fans, not to mention the WICB as they sell tickets for Day 4.

In an even more unlikely turn of events, the wicketless streak continued in England’s innings. Rory Burns scored freely whilst Jennings played defensively through to the close of play. They finished on 56-0, a mere 571 runs behind.

Today’s play will be used as ammunition to attack England’s bowlers, whilst completely ignoring the game situation. England’s bowlers were knackered after spending almost two full days in the field and in a position where they would certainly lose, whilst the West Indian batsmen had nothing to lose and played like it.

Adil Rashid will perhaps be the most vulnerable, having failed to take a wicket in this game and being by far the least economical English bowler (Not counting Jennings, who isn’t really a bowler). It was telling that Root bowled himself more than Rashid in the second inning, suggesting that the captain has lost faith in the leg spinner (if he had any to begin with). Rashid’s selection was presumably a reaction to the pitch, which appeared dry and mostly bare and many people expected to break up and spin sharply. Either England’s brains trust misread the pitch or failed to consider that their team might allow the West Indies to bat twice before Day 4, but there wasn’t much in the pitch for Rashid to work with. None of the three grounds England will be playing at in this series have been particularly spin-friendly in recent years, a fact which might cause some people to question Ed Smith’s wisdom since he selected three spinners in his squad. I don’t expect Rashid to play in the next two Tests, the question will be whether he will return to the Test team for the Ashes this summer. I hope he does, because Australians hate batting against spin.

The other bowler drawing a lot of fire is Sam Curran. Dropping him is more complicated, since he has been in very good form with the bat. In the 8 Tests he’s played for England, Sam Curran ranks third in terms of runs scored behind only Root and Buttler. His Test batting average is higher than Burns, Pope, Stoneman, Malan, Westley, Dawson, Jennings, Duckett, Vince, Hales and Lyth. In fact, Ben Foakes, Dom Bess and Haseeb Hameed (remember him?) are the only three English batsmen to have debuted since 2014 and have a higher batting average than Sam Curran. Even in England’s calamitous first innings, he was the second-highest runscorer with 14 runs. All that said, unless he’s batting in the top 6 it will be difficult to include him if England don’t rate him even as their fifth bowler.

Root’s tactics might also come under closer scrutiny after he chose to bowl Anderson and Stokes several times throughout the day. With no rest weeks between the three Tests, asking both bowlers to work so hard in a lost cause seems at best pointless, and at worst risks fatigue and injury later in the series.

Whilst England’s cause might seem lost, there are several players who might want to secure their place with a big score tomorrow. I wouldn’t put any money on them lasting all day though…

West Indies vs. England, 1st Test, Day 2 – Calypso Collapso.

There is an old adage to never judge a pitch until England have collapsed on it and Day 2 of this Test showed that these words still ring true after all these years. In fact it’s a close run thing whether it took me longer to write this post than England managed to survive against the West Indian bowling attack.

If Day 1 was one of those days that momentum shifted back and forward between both teams, then Day 2 offered the exact opposite, this was a procession for the West Indies bowlers and another humiliating and inept batting display by the England batting unit. There was much talk at the end of play around whether England picked the right team for the Test or whether they might have got away with one yesterday; however the answers to both of the above question were soon answered as an emphatic No as the West Indies blew our batting away within 30 overs through a good performance from their seam attack. In normal circumstances, bowling the West Indies out for 289 after they had opted to bat first would seem to be a decent result; however the way that England’s bowling attack looked so toothless up until Tea and then coupled with the fact that Jimmy and Stokes got the ball to seriously talk after tea all seemed to add up to the fact that the selectors and/or Root had blown another big call. I’ve mentioned a number of times that I am a huge Sam Curran fan but he is not (and I doubt will ever be) an opening bowler at Test Level certainly compared to a senior England bowler with the height to trouble the batsmen on a slightly uneven pitch and over 430 wickets in the locker.

The fact that the West Indies had gone into this Test with only a part-time spinner should have also raised alarm, as I would generally back the home team to understand their own conditions than the touring team. It very quickly soon became clear that 2 spinners was an unwanted luxury on this pitch, coupled with the fact that the one spin bowler they didn’t pick was the one I’d have picked myself as having a spinner in the side that concedes on average 4.5 an over and regularly lets the batsmen rotate the strike is less than ideal. It’s not rocket science to observe that the West Indians first innings score of 289 is by no means a massive score and in many way shouldn’t have been close to match winning one.  However when you factor in England’s ability to collapse in a total heap in the first game of many an away series alongside the fact that the selectors felt they had to pick a number of all-rounders to make up for the frailty of the specialist batsmen, alarm bells should have been ringing loud and clear at the end of Day 1. Day 2 only managed to confirm our worst fears.

England did what they needed to do in wrapping up the tail with minimum fuss this morning, with Stokes bagging his fourth and Jimmy bagging his first 5fer of the winter. So in the absence of any annoying tail-end stands, it was down to England’s openers to bat sensibly and get England off to a good start. There naturally has been a strong focus on the opening slots with the retirement of the ‘chosen one’ and the revolving door that has been at the other end with discarded opener after discarded opener. With both Jennings and Burns having a solid Test Series in Sri Lanka, this was now the chance to further their cause on a pitch away from the sub-continent against a lively new ball attack and to reward the selectors with their selections. Sadly, maybe even predictably, this was not the case. Jennings got a start before lazily wafting at a wide ball from Holder and Burns didn’t seem to be switched on straight after lunch, when he played at an innocuous Roach delivery with an angled bat which then rolled back to hit the stumps. Naturally this was not the start that neither the opening batsmen nor the England team wanted and it did very little to suggest that these players might not be best suited to opening in Test Cricket. Sure this is very early in the series, but neither batsmen should be happy or proud in the way they got out and there will need to be a marked improvement if England aren’t going to be heading into a home Ashes series with either one or two major question marks around our opening batsmen.

If there was a major disappointment in how both openers fared, then this disappointment soon turned to outright alarm with both Bairstow and Root following both openers back into the changing room in quick time. Bairstow might count himself a little unlucky after being bowled after being struck on his elbow, though this doesn’t take away from the fact that Bairstow is hearing the death rattle of stumps being struck far too often for a top order batsman, whilst Root never looked settled and was undone LBW by a great delivery from Holder that originally looked like it may have done too much but would have ended up canoning into leg stump. England’s soft underbelly was being exposed again by a good, but no means top class bowling unit and the lower middle order once again had a massive job to do to rescue England’s ailing top order. This time though the lower order could bail out England’s underachieving batsmen, with Stokes, Buttler & Foakes all falling cheaply and Moeen trying his best to win the ‘worst shot of the day’ competition with the sort of shot that genuinely gives club players the shivers. By this time outright alarm had turned to blind panic with none of England’s batsmen able to hold up an end, rein in their shot making and play for time until the ball got softer, after all, this is the aggressive model that the captain wants his team to play with, which is admirable unless you’re 61 – 8 and staring down the barrel. The West Indies eventually took the final 2 wickets to reduce England to 77 all out, another humiliating collapse to add to the record books. It’s only a shame that they didn’t put England back in to follow on as we might have all got the day off tomorrow, though naturally my one crumb of comfort is that Danny will now have to write a review of tomorrow’s play.

Naturally praise has to go to the West Indies pace attack who bowled quickly and put the ball in good areas, but this is no West Indies bowling attack of the 80’s. Kemar Roach is hardly Malcolm Marshall nor is Holder the reincarnation of Courtney Walsh and the pitch certainly isn’t Sabina Park 1998. Yes the West Indies bowled well and credit must go to them for that, but the English batsmen looked unsure about which way up to hold the bat let alone look like actually score some runs. I’m sure the players and management will be quick with the excuses that they hadn’t had enough time in the middle (well make time then by touring longer) or that the West Indies had the best conditions to bat in, but again this is no excuse. This happens time and time again at the start of England’s away tours, one only has to look back a year ago, when we were bundled out for 58 in New Zealand. Sure they’ll be talk about ‘accountability’ and ‘putting right a wrong’ but it’s the same empty rhetoric that is employed after every dreadful batting performance. Nothing ever changes except maybe the standard response bowler being dropped for the next game. Personally I’m just thankful that I have little attachment to this team. In the past I’d have been incredibly annoyed perhaps even raging at this performance, now I find it almost amusing although I would emphasize the word ‘almost’.

At the close of play, West Indies extended their lead to 350, mainly down to the fact that their board wants to protect their Day 3 revenue rather than put England’s inept team to the sword and risk a 2-day defeat. Mind you, perhaps this wasn’t completely communicated to the West Indies batsmen who batted like they had a hot potato in one hand and an important round of golf to attend tomorrow afternoon in the back of their minds. This strange approach from the West Indies batting unit allowed Moeen to add a few junk wickets to his tally and to boost his average with the ball to once again enhance the pretence that he is a Test class bowler or even an international class all-rounder (as a FYI, he is averaging a tad over 11 with the bat this winter). Sadly, once again this was way after the horse had bolted.

England may have a statistical chance of chasing down a score under 400 in the fourth innings, if England can skittle the West Indies tomorrow morning. In reality though, this game is over after 2 days and what a soul-crushing defeat it will be. It just comes down to when the West Indies fancy putting England and their long-suffering fans out of their misery once again.

This might be a little more a ramble than I thought it was going to be, so please feel free to add a few more insightful comments below:

 

West Indies vs England: First Test, Day One

Ah, the start of a series in the Caribbean. If it isn’t quite the highly anticipated series of years past, it does at least have the advantage for an English audience of good scheduling, both in terms of post-work cricket to watch, and in reminding everyone of the sunshine in the depths of January – this is, after all, the prime justification for the broadcast of Death in Paradise.

Given the West Indies side, talented but still recovering from the schisms of the last decade, the pitches that would give them the best chance are those with a bit of life, a bit of pace and plenty of bounce. Certainly their quartet taken as a whole are quicker than England’s, particularly after the decision to drop Stuart Broad. But there is a contradiction between the best interests of the West Indies team, and the related needs of the cricket board and tourist boards, both of whom see dollars of various descriptions dancing in front of them, and have no intention of wasting the opportunity.

Thus it is that to the surprise of precisely no-one, the pitch turned out to be on the slow side, prompting England to select two spinners, while the hosts stuck with four seamers and the locals insisted the pitch was unlikely to turn. That meant for the third time in four Tests Broad was omitted, this time for Sam Curran, and naturally prompting whispers about the senior man’s future.

It is perhaps a little premature to do that, but there seems no doubt at all it is Anderson who is the first choice of the two at this stage of their careers, and probably rightly so. The one thing that has really returned to bite Broad was illustrated by Root’s observation that Curran offered the team more batting depth. Broad’s decline from almost being considered an all rounder to virtual ferret may well now be the factor that goes against him. A reminder that cricketers now have to be multi-faceted if they’re not right on top of their discipline.

As for the day’s play, it is forever the case that unless one side has a genuine shocker of Melbourne 2010 standards, at the end of play it can only be said that England finished well, but the West Indies are in the game.

Anderson remains an exceptional performer, and three late wickets from him and one from Stokes tilted the balance significantly. Yet a total of 300 would be at least adequate enough to provoke sighs of relief from the authorities, and it can’t be said that England are sufficiently reliable with the bat to be sure of matching them. But there must be a sense of a missed opportunity in the home dressing room -five batsmen passed 40, none reached 60, albeit Shimron Hetmyer is still at the crease on 56, and has looked very good getting there.

Second new ball apart, the England seamers looked unthreatening much of the time, Stokes probably being the pick until Anderson’s late burst. But it didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know, England lack the express pace to overcome a sluggish pitch, they don’t have mystery spin and they are heavily reliant on the exceptional skills of their veteran spearhead, even on a pitch that doesn’t suit him.

In the morning, Hetmyer may well need to try to score rapidly, but the real meat of this game will be seeing what the home team can get out of this pitch in response.

West Indies vs. England – A preview of sorts..

In the not too distant past, an upcoming tour to the West Indies would have garnered a lot of noise and a lot of media attention in the build up to the series. Fortunately or Unfortunately, I was not old enough to witness the almost unbeatable West Indies sides of the late 70’s and 80’s, though they had a pretty handy side during the 90’s though probably not quite on the level as their predecessors and hence there would naturally be a lot of excitement about such a tour coupled with a lot of trepidation from the fans (and probably the players) about facing such a strong side in what used to be a trial of pace on quick, bouncy wickets. I have not so fond memories of Messer’s Ambrose & Walsh destroying the English batting line, with the 46 all out in Trinidad during the 3rd Test in 1994 being the nadir. I remember Lara destroying the English bowling unit time after time and stroking the ball to all and every part of the ground, and it was not just Lara, but also the likes of Carl Hooper, Jimmy Adams, Richie Richardson and a certain young chap called Chanderpaul who regularly put England to the sword. I clearly remember the grubber that Hooper bowled Hussain with, the unplayable pitch at Sabina Park in 98, which even with my medium paced dobbers, I’d have fancied taking a few wickets on and then in 2004 the famous Harmison 7-12 bowling spell back at Sabina Park in 2004.

When I was growing up in the late 80’s and early-mid 90’s, the West Indies were most people’s favourite cricket team aside from England and certainly each series was seen on a similar footing to the Ashes with similar expectations that we were likely to get a hammering in the series. It didn’t matter though, because the West Indies bought their own culture, their own flair and of course a fair share of world class talent to each series and even now I wish that I had managed to find a way to afford a West Indies tour in the late 90’s/early 200’s. There are still those out their that claim the standard of Test cricket hasn’t gone down and that averages of those bowlers and batsmen have improved due to better skill, better train and more longevity in the game. This tends to be the fall back answer from most Sir A. Cook apologists though I would personally have loved to see how he fared against Holding, Garner, Ambrose, Walsh or Marshall – not very well I would guess. I could also say the same for Jimmy and not having to bowl to the likes of Sir Viv, Haynes, Greenidge, Richie Richardson, Lara etc. which would probably merit similar results. The West Indies teams of the 70’s, 80’s and mid 90’s are the type of team we’ll never get to see again in our lifetimes, which is reflects terribly badly on the WICB, ICC and the whole of International cricket and something us true cricket fans continue to mourn.

This brings me back to the upcoming Test series, which unless you were really studying social media or sky, might have passed you by as starting tomorrow. Sure there are no Lara’s or Ambrose’s of the world still playing for the West Indies, but the lack of coverage of what used to be a marquis series up until a few years ago is truly astounding. Then again, perhaps it really isn’t astounding at all. The WICB are skint and incompetent and have struggled to find any sort of world class talent in their ranks for a number of years and generally those that they do find who are international class are normally hounded out by the board or prefer to take the money that the various domestic T20 tournaments can offer. As for England, we have an administration that is so focused on getting a white elephant form of the game through (so much so, that I can barely call it cricket) to supposedly attract new fans to the game, when all of the international and county fixtures are behind a paywall and lost to the masses coupled with the depth of newspaper and magazine journalism is at it’s weakest in living memory. Sure I can hardly call the likes of Mike Selvey, Derek Pringle and Stephen Brenkley investigative journalists as they generally wrote around whatever suited their agenda or in particular the agenda of the ECB, but at least they were writing to a national audience about the sport. Nowadays aside from the likes of Nick Hoult, George Dobell, Ali Martin and Lawrence Booth in his Wisden role there are no other cricket dedicated, serious journalists left in the national eye (anyone who claims Paul Newman, Dean Wilson & John Etheridge are serious journo’s needs their head examined, I mean would readers of the 2 papers said latter people write for really notice if they weren’t there?). Anyway I digress. The main point here is that cricket is becoming such a niche sport that in a few years time will anyone be on hand to write to about it? This is not meant as a slight on the individuals that play for the England team. I think many are talented just not at a world class level, and naturally they still train as hard as ever to keep their places in the side and there certainly don’t seem to be as many ‘dickheads’ floating around as previous tours gone by (Stuart Broad naturally excepted), but I do really find it difficult to both identify with and even like. Maybe it’s just me, but their disappearance from the national eye coupled with the malicious incompetence of our own governing board leaves me very ‘meh’ these days, which is probably another reason why our output on the blog has gone down over the last 6 months or so.

west-indies-test-1980

England go into the first Test as strong favourites for the series and thankfully Colin Graves has been locked away in his cupboard to prevent giving the opposition so more motivation to perform, though Geoffrey Boycott seems to have weighed in on his behalf, let’s just hope the West Indies don’t read the Telegraph! Though England are favourites for the series, I don’t see it being all one way whatsoever as recent past tours to the Caribbean can attest to, as the West Indies can still perform above their level on their day. Shai Hope is a talent and I personally think Royston Chase will have a good series, meanwhile with the ball the West Indies have a couple of quick but very inconsistent fast bowlers as well Jason Holder, who is one on those players who has sucked every ounce of his talent out to be successful in Test cricket and someone I hold in high stead given the way he has handled the basket case that is the WICB.

As for England, they would have hoped that with the modified duke ball, they would have been able to go with their preferred balance of four quicks and a single seamer for the majority of the series with the view that they should be able to do more with the Duke ball than they would with the kookaburra. Having said that the England team having seen the state of the pitch in Barbados, which looks like it had animals grazing on it only a couple of days ago, might well be favoured to go with 2 spinners. One would imagine that the top 7 from the final Test in Sri Lanka will probably be in place for the whole series barring injury or a complete loss of form and one would imagine that Jimmy, Broad and Stokes will be the mainstay of the fast bowling attack with Moeen favoured over Leach should England go with one spinner. The final call I would imagine would be the inclusion of Sam Curran, who has already shown his maturity and aptitude for Test cricket and would be terribly unlucky to miss out or Leach if they think the pitch will take turn later on in the game. Naturally I would very much like to see Sam Curran included in the final XI, but not if it harms England’s ability to put their best side out with regards to how the pitch will play.

Naturally, we will try to cover each day’s play throughout the series, but that might mean that some reviews are posted the next morning (or not at all if we’re all tucked up) owing to the late finishes. Please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on the game or anything I have commented on above…

You Walk Alone With The Ghost Of Time – Australia and Me (Part 1 of a Few)

“Those darling byegone times, Mr Carker,’ said Cleopatra, ‘with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!” Charles Dickens

So, Australia. I’ve thought about this for a while now, and remember back to when I did a series on the Blackwash series of 85-6, which people seemed to like, and I enjoyed writing. This isn’t a history of the Ashes, I leave that to wallet chasers like the Analyst and so forth. It’s what Australia means to me. From the early memories, through 81, the 86-7 series, losing the World Cup Final, the juggernaut Aussies of the 90s and early 2000s, to seeing them in the flesh, to the 2010-11 series, the humiliation of 2013-14 to today, and their current plight. It’s going to take a while. If I have the inclination, I can spare the time, as the Pet Shop Boys nearly said. This is a post of Opportunities, after all.

There is, certainly within, me to lurch back to what Ian Botham thought was the curse of Ray Illingworth. “It was so much better in my day”. As India have closed a test series in Australia with a 2-1 advantage and taken home the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, there is time to consider how big an achievement that is for the nation that has most grown the game in the past 30 years or so. But it also makes me look back on the great players of the past that never won a series there for India. While this era may be the time of hyperbole and sell, sell, sell, yesteryear comes with rose-tinted glasses, an in-built editor for the unmemorable, and a forgetfulness for the sub-standard. There was crap authoritarian bullshit in huge supply from the governing bodies. There were players who divided the press, the populace and the players themselves. There were blowhards, know-it-alls, rent-a-quotes and mob rule just as there is today. Today, the players get paid more, and so do the administrators, and even taking for inflation, the people paying this are you and I – directly through ticket prices and subscriptions, or passed on advertising costs for the corporate backers.

So what’s my point, you ask, not for the first time. Well, I’m about to get a bit nostalgic and go back in time a little. The kernel of the idea for this post was planted by Fred’s response to my comment on the current Australian schmozzle over the ball tampering nonsense. I’ve been clear from the start. I think the ban was ludicrous, the reaction over the top, the penance a joke, and the authorities, some of who needed to be taken from the building kicking and screaming, playing the role of sanctimonious, pious hypocrites that I won’t reel back from. These were aided and abetted by a media who have one main role in life – generate heat, to get those clicks and peepers on the TV, to flog advertising. This was a story. The heat generated far outweighed the crime. That it carries on to this day, and Australia submitted meekly this winter to India as a consequence, is bizarre. An act of self-flagellation that will satisfy no-one. A crisis borne of its own self-regard, its own view of the world of cricket. England are not immune from this stupidity. We actually ban players for f*** all, and are told to shut up moaning about it by the authorities, acting with aplomb, the media, acting like ventriloquist’s dummies and the useful idiots in the social media world who clapped the result while not exactly considering what happens next time.

There can be a view taken, and some do, that I hate Australia, and that comment is the basis for what I want to write here. Australia has been the most important cricket influence on me alongside the West Indies of the 70s and 80s. I would watch them at every opportunity. They were an amazing team during the 90s and into the early part of the century. They are the most important series we play in the mind of most.

So with nostalgia firmly in place, for good or ill, let me take you back to my first cricketing memory and move forward. This piece is going to be what Australian cricket means to me, as an England cricket follower, and may take more than one post. Because it’s complicated.

It actually goes back, funnily enough, to a One Day International, probably a Prudential Trophy match, played at The Oval. All I remember about it is that they carried on playing in the pouring rain. I know I remember it because every time this person sat down in front of the TV to watch cricket and it was raining, I would say “well they played out in it in that game at The Oval, why not now?” It appears as though the game may have been this one in 1977 (http://www.espncricinfo.com/series/17145/scorecard/64960/england-vs-australia-3rd-odi-australia-tour-of-england-1977) but my faded memory could have sworn it pre-dated Viv’s 1976 destruction of England – thank god for real facts and not alternative ones. But let’s go from there. Chappell (G) was the danger man. He played the winning innings. Dickie Bird was the umpire in the pouring rain. I have no earthly idea who was playing for England in that game.

1977 was the first Ashes series I remembered, and to be frank, it was no big deal. To me, as a growing enthusiast for the game, my memories, my love for the game, and my fear for England derived from the West Indies team. Not Australia. 1976 was the hot summer, the summer of Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding. Immense innings augmented by pace. The game at a different level. I knew not of Bradman. I knew nothing of Bodyline. I had a book that told me we won the Ashes after donkey’s years in 1953 when Compton swept the ball to the Gas Holder. But that was it. In fact, looking back, that book had Randall’s cartwheel on the cover, so I would not have known even that.

1977’s series, won by England, had several memories for me. The Aussie to fear was Greg Chappell. I wasn’t really familiar with many of the others. England gave a debut that series to Ian Botham, and yet his test commencement, great as it was, was overshadowed by a run out. Geoff Boycott, who everyone knew (play a defensive shot out in the street, it would be “who do you think you are, Boycott?) had returned after exile, and came into the team for the third test. A memory of the time is that the series was being played under the shadow of Packer – at the time I never had a clue what that meant (Imagine BOC being around during that!) – and Tony Greig, a favourite of mine, had been sacked as captain but stayed in the team, and some grey-haired posh-speaker had taken his place as captain. The first test (might remember a catch or two, but nothing else) was drawn at Lord’s, the second won by England at Old Trafford. Boycott returned for the third test at Nottingham, and then promptly ran out the prodigal son of Nottingham, Rags Randall himself, and got booed. Mercilessly. I can still picture the head in his hands at what he had done. You can loathe Boycott all you want, but the bloke had some mental resilience. Australia had made 243 in the first innings, and Boycott’s faux pas contributed to England subsiding to 82 for 5. Then came Alan Knott. I remember looking at a TV in some shop window in SE London and Knott and Boycott still being there. They went on, and on, putting on over 200. Boycott made a redemptive hundred. Knott made a match-winning one. Australia set England 180, Brearley made one of his highest test scores to get us on the way to the ticklish total, and Boycott was there at the end for 80 not out. So was Randall. Lovely.

The fourth test of that series was played at Headingley, and this then gets into the realms of how life used to be. I was lucky to be able to go on a summer holiday with my parents every summer, and in 1977 this meant Kalathas in NW Crete. Nothing really happened while we were there. I met my first real-life Americans (they said “hey you guys” a lot and came from the big naval base on the west of the island). My mum had the most momentous strop on the whole family (the only one I ever saw), and as she’s no longer with us, I’m sort of safe to say it. Elvis Presley died. I got stung by a jellyfish – that sort of pain is very memorable. I got wound up by my little brother, turned round to give him a whack, and belted a local kid by mistake (I was 8) – his dad wasn’t pleased.

But the main thing you had to do, before I got a long-wave radio, was to find the shop that sold the British Newspapers. Yes, even at that age I was agog at newspaper writing. I was brought up reading the sports pages of newspapers by my parents. But on holiday finding out football scores and cricket scores was a different, and in some ways much nicer, ball game. If something happened on Thursday, it would be in the Friday paper, which you might get on Saturday, if you were lucky. That weekend, we found one. Boycott had made another hundred. That special one, the hundredth one. Then, every day we tried to find a paper to continue the story. That’s how we found out Elvis died. I’ll never forget where we were – Hania Market. Meanwhile, while Elvis was preparing to leave this mortal coil, England won the match by an innings, regained the Ashes with a 3-0 series lead, and Derek Randall did a cartwheel and ended up on Brian Johnston’s Book of Cricket the following year (a really important book in my cricket life – I still have the remants of it). I saw none of the test, though. Now there’s a problem that still exists today when I go the States. Then you couldn’t watch it. Now you won’t watch it (legally). A game, authorities will never learn.

It never really resonated, the importance of the series, until the next one in 1978-9. By then Australia were decimated by Packer, and the team was a shadow of what could have been put out. It was also the first series I remember where action from far away fields was shown on TV via mid-evening highlight packages. The BBC opened up the geography of Australia to this boy who loved maps. I still wonder to this day when we were going to go to Darwin as we’d visited everywhere else for a test (sorry Tasmania, you were an odd drop at the bottom of the country). We also won, a lot. 5-1. I missed one of those tests on a school trip. Might have been the one we lost. But this was brilliant. England winning easily against Australia. It seemed we reserved our worst performances for Melbourne, but still, mustn’t grumble at 5-1. Of course this was the series of Rodney Hogg. I sort of remember him being really quick. It’s that “sort of memory” we all have of certain sporting events. You think you remember, but you probably don’t. Subsequently, on the recommendation of one of the blog commenters, I got the Graham Yallop book on the series – the fall guy Aussie captain – and it’s superbly bitter. If you can pick it up, get it.

England visited Australia again the following year in a curious winter where we played three tests but the Ashes were not at stake. We lost the lot, I remember nothing. Not even the aluminium bat nonsense. I remember us getting into the haughtily named World Series Cricket final and not looking like getting Haynes and Greenidge out in one of the Finals, listened to no TMS when I could get the chance. Given I lived 8 miles from my primary school, the morning run was listening to this day-night oddity on the trek up to Deptford. This was the Australians being flash for flash sake in my eyes. Even then, as a 10 year old, I was quite resistant to the new world order. I loved test matches. ODIs? Not for me.

After I drafted the main part of the post, I realised I had left two main test events out. The Centenary Test played in Melbourne, where the first formal test match was played, and Lord’s for the English version, where the first formal test match in England wasn’t. Summed it up. The first game I never knew was going on, and it passed this young Deptford lad by. Of course, it was famous for Derek Randall’s solo super effort, and the result being the same as the first ever test. The second event was more famous for the Lord’s members kicking off and getting mad about the weather and the reluctant umpires. Oh yes, and Kim Hughes belting the ball into the pavilion. Boycott may even have made a hundred on the final day, but it doesn’t leave a huge impression on me.

I suppose, like most, the mysticism and aura of the Ashes, and beating Australia, derived from the events of 1981. Cricket, it has to be said, was massive in England then. In 1979 we had lost the World Cup Final, and then appointed Ian Botham the captain for the start of the 1980 season. A 1-0 loss to the West Indies was not a bad result, although the weather played a huge part. Botham’s baptism as captain was not helped by the West Indies being on the agenda that winter, and a 2-0 loss barely covered the tour’s story. Thrown out of Guyana, the death of Ken Barrington and an opposition growing into its pomp, coupled with Botham’s loss of form ramped up the media pressure. Without being melodramatic, if Alastair Cook thought that the media were against him in the aftermath of the 2013-14 tour, he’d walked about 2 feet compared to the mile walked in Botham’s shoes at that time. The media were vicious. This was not just the cricket writers, but the front of the paper mob too. Cricketers, and Botham in particular, were that famous.

The first test was played at Trent Bridge. It was a dull, drab, low scoring affair, played under miserable grey clouds. Australia had a little wobble chasing a small total, but got there and took a 1-0 lead. They had an innocuous looking dibbly dobbler bowler (compared to what we’d seen the year before) who kept taking wickets. Botham was out of sorts with bat and ball. England saw the pressure ramping up day-by-day. Botham was a match-to-match captain as Alec Bedser, faced by the froth and fury of a tabloid world, and an establishment mob who saw Botham as an oik, trying to walk a plank that was going to snap.

The concept that Beefy was constantly on trial was not helped when, immediately after the defeat, Alec Bedser, the Chairman of Selectors, announced that Botham was appointed as England captain for the first Test match only. “We have to decide whether the captaincy affects Botham’s play,” said Bedser, with Botham himself trying his best to remain positive over the affair: “It’s better than not being appointed at all.”

Both England and Botham would need a good performance at Trent Bridge to keep the doubters at bay. The Mirror’s “Both on a tightrope” headline summed up the player’s perilous position. – The Guardian – 9 July 2013

After a pair at Lord’s which I missed due to the minor inconvenience of being at school, the legend grew about the stony silence that greeted Botham’s return to the pavilion. As always, it seemed, with Lord’s, this was a bore draw, but England had a big issue. Botham resigned “a minute before he was sacked” (Matthew Engel – Cricinfo). England listened to his sage advice in the now oft-played interview. They picked Brearley as captain. Then came Headingley.

As a 12 year-old I recall the start of Botham’s innings to turn around our fortunes coinciding with attending my little brother’s sponsored walk at Deptford Park. It was a Monday. The first day I knew nothing of the score. The second day coincided with last day of term, so no interest there either. Saturday was sitting in front of the TV, or going out to play football. I saw some of Botham’s 50 in between the horse racing. Then Sunday was a rest day (although we started experimenting with Sunday play in subsequent games – something I welcomed because Sundays were boring), and Monday we were all resigned to defeat. I do remember the Saturday morning being one of the most boring spells of test cricket in my memory. England became shotless. It wasn’t the only time.

So when I got home, England were on life-support, but somehow, someway, Graham Dilley was batting well. Botham was chancing his arm. Now this is what gets a kid truly inspired by the game. Alderman suddenly looked human. Lillee, dominant throughout, not looking too great now. Lawson, tyro Aussie, losing his rag. Ray Bright being ordinary. The deficit decreased. There was still no hope, but this was, at least, exciting to watch. I’d missed many of Botham’s batting tour de forces until then, but now I could watch. Anyone who underestimates the power of visibility in sporting figures needs to take heed of moments like this. You could sense, as the stories of the comeback were being told, more and more people switching over to BBC 2. More and more people willing him, Dilley and then Chris Old on. You sensed it meant so much. The legendary confectionary stall six. The thrashes over the slips, the belt to deep backward point for the hundred, Botham running the first, big sweater on, raising his bat and fist. I sometimes didn’t warm to him as a kid, but you didn’t half love him then. The gesture from Brearley on the boundary to stay there in between the applause for the hundred. All there. Seared in my brain, with or without the endless replays of the game. If this was an epoch in English cricket, mis-appropriated, repeated more times than Dad’s Army, clutched to by England fans during the dark days, then so be it. For it is what sport is about. Victory from the jaws of defeat, attacking and reckless, thrilling and without pressure, it seemed. If you sneer at Headingley 1981, then you are wrong. It made heroes. It gripped people. It is what sport is absolutely all about.

But even me, who did have some grains of optimism, thought 130 to win wasn’t enough. But I was going to watch it all, to the last. My dad was a printer, and he was on the real late shift, so he wasn’t up and about. Mum worked weekdays. My brother didn’t care. So it was me, on my own, in the living room, glued to it. The dodgy first wicket of Wood, who probably didn’t nick Botham’s wide half-volley. Then peace until just before lunch, Australia on 56 for 1. The wickets off lethal short balls to get first Trevor Chappell, and then straight away, the dangerous Kim Hughes, and we were in business. In my head it was now all about one man. Stuff Dyson and his dull first innings hundred. Who could see as dull a batsman as that win the game. It had to be someone getting Allan Border out. Already he had that aura with me. The player to dismiss along with Hughes.

Yallop lasted five minutes, getting another brute from Willis. But with Border there, it was still in their hands. When Old got one through his defences, it was 65 for 5. I thought we had a chance. Willis got Dyson, and then the dangerous Rodney Marsh, who probably brought forth Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ most famous TV commentary “Dilley underneath it….AND HE’S CAUGHT IT”. Lillee gave me heart palpitations before I knew what they were, but when Gatting took the catch at mid-on we could breathe. Willis cleaning up Ray Bright (after two drops in the slips) and then wheeling away in delight had me waking up Dad. I think he was pleased to be woken up with the news.

You can’t put a price on experiences like that. But what did it tell me of Australia? Well, at this time all that had happened was they bothered to put a full team out only at home. They were riven by Packer. They had decent bowling. But they hadn’t embedded themselves in my cricketing soul. The West Indies had. It was important to beat them, but you did not feel like you were beating the best.

I’ll pick up Part 2 from Edgbaston 1981, and take it up as far as I can, probably to the inflection point on the relationship. The 1987 World Cup Final and then the 1989 Ashes. I’d love to hear any memories you have from the late 70s, Headingley etc. All I can say is that I never had a favourite Aussie player, I never particularly cared about playing them, I never measured England on the Australia axis. They were beaten in England, and we could beat them there (I didn’t know any better).

Obviously since those days I’ve bought and read a lot on the above matches. The pictures above are from some of the books I’ve snaffled on Amazon SecondHand Books, or at cricket book stalls. The rivalry is such that now reading about your childhood memories reinforces the views of the day, basked in the hindsight of what was to come a few years later and the Aussie total domination. It’s what makes the game special. It’s why it should be treasured. I look forward to writing Part 2. I genuinely enjoy stuff like this.