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.