The England Test Opener From A Different Era – An Interview With Nick Compton – Part Two

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In Part One, which can be found here if you somehow might have missed it, I discussed with Nick the key challenges that our batsmen of this generation and the next are facing when it comes to playing for England at Test level. We also discussed how the level of coaching has somewhat diminished across the board as well as the need for younger players to broaden their horizons.

In this Second part, I wanted to dive a little deeper into Nick’s own career as an England Test batsman, the challenges that came on and off the pitch as well as some reflections on his own career.


 

Sean: You had a pretty classical technique, did the guys at Loughborough try and tweak it? God only knows what they would have done to Steve Smith if they’d seen his technique as a kid?

Nick: “Not hugely. I mean they try to question you in terms of whether you get a bit better here or there, but they didn’t do too much with me. I think when I came in, I had come up the hard way through county cricket; I had scored loads of runs at county level and was an older and more established player. I had played on the England A tour and for the Under 19s too during my career, so no one really tweaked my technique too much.”

Sean: I have been a big critic of the pitches at county level, which encourages teams to play slow wicket to wicket bowlers, what are your thoughts having had a long career?

Nick: “Absolutely, I think the pitches are by and large substandard these days, with even Lord’s being one of them because it’s so dry and slow. When I was a kid you arrived at a game at Lord’s licking your lips – not just because it’s at Lord’s but also because you’re playing on prime surface – almost a work of art really. At times there are club wickets I’d genuinely rather go and bat on these days. It can appear patchy and it’s dry underneath, and all because they’ve got these underwater drainage systems beneath that suck the life out of a pitch, meaning they have to patch it up with extra grass to try and make it Test Match worthy. It’s not an excuse, but I really struggled with motivation the last two or three years I played there. I’d be fielding at backward point and the first ball of the game would drop in front of the wicketkeeper and I can remember thinking that this is going to be a very long four days.   The ball didn’t come on to the bat, and it doesn’t make for exciting cricket. My game was all about timing the ball, so I always wanted some pace in the pitch so it came on to the bat.  Slow pitches like that make it tedious and dull.

“Obviously that doesn’t affect some other players – a Ben Stokes can just hit the ball out of the ground, but it wasn’t my game and it didn’t suit me. It also leads back to the point I was making about the lack of fast bowling in our game – why bother when pitches are like that?  Now we are facing the Australians who have some real pace and our top order is struggling because they don’t face it in county cricket much. The reality is that these pitches encourage medium pacers and it doesn’t help anyone prepare to face bowling of the level and speed of Pat Cummins or Mitchell Starc. It really isn’t complicated – in county cricket you just don’t see those types of bowlers because you’re facing a trundler who bowls 73 miles an hour on a wet green dog of a pitch. In the end it affected my enthusiasm, especially in the early part of the season, because it was just so boring – medium pacer after medium pacer. I did a job as a professional and I had the extra motivation that I wanted to play for England, so I worked it out, but it’s always leave, block, leave, block when trying to get in on those pitches. Even then, no matter how hard you focus, you’ve got someone like Darren Stevens, all due respect to him, ambling in and bowling wicket to wicket.  In those conditions he can make you look silly, and that’s county cricket.  But then players go to Australia or South Africa where the ball is whistling past their ears and it’s no wonder our players struggle.  I was lucky, that’s what I grew up with.”

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Sean: If you don’t mind me asking, I was pretty shocked when you were dropped from the England set up in 2013. Do you think that’s because you weren’t an attacking opener?

Nick: “Yes, I’ll admit it’s a real sore point for me because I don’t think I should ever have been dropped. Was it my approach to batting? Perhaps, however I felt that I had forged a good partnership with Cook both statistically and in person and there really wasn’t a need to change things; however it shows how fickle and tough sport can be at the highest level.  In my final game at Headingley [against New Zealand 2013] I hurt my rib and couldn’t field on the last day which was originally diagnosed as a hairline fracture but eventually diagnosed as heavy bruising, but still meant I was unable to take the field. There was some scepticism from England’s management team at the time about the injury as they were under a lot of pressure and I knew I was under pressure from certain quarters. It was pretty tough to take as I was an opening batsman who had forged his identity through facing some of the fastest bowlers in the world and seemed to excel in some of the toughest conditions. Naturally, I wanted to contribute in the field so that we won the game and it was incredibly frustrating not to be able to do so. I know Andy wasn’t in a great space at the time and I gave the management an opportunity to look elsewhere by not playing my best at the time. Whether that contributed to being dropped from the Ashes series, I simply don’t know. I do know that I wasn’t given a chance to play again for England under him as head coach.

“Things like that are hard sure, but I have to hold my hands up, had I played really well then I wouldn’t be saying this. I also really don’t think it was the pace that I batted though, more to do with the fact that the England management team felt Cook, Trott and myself were a bit samey. But I’ll say it again, that in my experience that you need three opening batsmen with proper techniques to be successful in England at Test level. I’m of the strong opinion that in this Test series, if England had three top players who could get through the new ball, that middle order would be scoring a hell of a lot more runs than they have been recently, irrespective of what happened on Sunday. The top order need to survive the new ball, if they can last for an hour and a half then they’ve gone a long way to doing their job – and they can go on to a decent score and the middle order have half a chance of succeeding. But it’s not fashionable to approach it that way, and as a result they can’t do it, they don’t want to do it and their techniques aren’t potentially up to it.  Full stop.”

Sean: That must have a terrible blow, was that your biggest regret in the international arena?

Nick: “Yes, I would swap everything to have been able to play in the Ashes against the 2015 Australians because if there was ever a time that I could have excelled, that was it.  It wasn’t against Sri Lanka and similar teams like that, it was against the fastest bowlers. I truly think that’s where I could have offered a point of difference. I wasn’t the kind of player who would have stood out from the crowd against medium pacers but against for example, Mitchell Johnson, I believe my technique and experience against facing the quickest bowlers in the world in similar conditions would have meant that I had a better chance of succeeding than most; however I never got the chance to prove it and that’s a big regret as I do feel I was a better player than my Test average reflects.”

Sean: I remember Ricky Ponting at the time being shocked that you had been left out of the Ashes team after your performance at Worcester against the touring side.

Nick: “Yes, I played well in that game and they were all running in at 90 miles an hour too.  I couldn’t have felt more at ease with my batting than I was against them, it’s when I felt at my most confident and I just wanted that chance at the top level as I’m a different player against the fastest and best. I came alive against Dale Steyn in the game at Durban and felt completely comfortable because that’s what I grew up with and that was my main talent. But the problem was that I felt my card had been marked the first time around as someone who was too intense and didn’t bat with enough aggression. I remember a game at Uxbridge in 2014 for Somerset against Middlesex and I got 98 and 88 not out and played out of my skin saving a game against a strong Middlesex team featuring Steven Finn and Toby Roland-Jones who were all bowling really well. And I remember John Inverarity, who was the chairman of Australian selectors at the time and a fabulous cricketing individual telling my mentor that although I’d played very well, I still wouldn’t be selected, because the England selectors just didn’t want players who played like me.”

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Nick Compton looks at a picture of his Grandfather in the Long Room at Lords. Photo by Phil Brown

Sean: Did you feel that you were treated somewhat unfairly by the media?

Nick: “Yes at times I did. I felt I had to fight harder and harder as my career went on, because I didn’t feel there was a wave of backing for the way I played and the qualities I had – it wasn’t sexy enough for them. Of course there were some good players coming through as well, one by the name of Joe Root, who didn’t turn out all that bad! Given what was written in the press, I felt I had to bang my own drum to get any recognition at all but it also gave me a greater source of hunger for much of my career to prove them wrong.  At the time I started to wonder if I was losing it, but looking back now, and given what’s going on with the England batting currently, I realise I wasn’t losing it at all, it’s just my style of batting supposedly didn’t fit with what England wanted retrospectively.  I am still deeply disappointed how the likes of Michael Vaughan and those others in the media who would pontificate about how Compton was batting too slowly, portrayed me back then. Joe Root scored 12 off 80 balls the other day but nothing negative was said about him – just the opposite.  Now they bemoan the inability of the top order to occupy the crease, but it’s not what they were saying at the time when they were more interested in who could clear the boundary rope.  So why was that? They are supposed to know the game after all; Yes, it would have been easier for me if my batting average had been higher so I could have put those murmurings to bed, but I still felt that I was being singled out a bit at times when as a player all you want to be left to do what you’ve done before and will do again. The difference of course is that in international cricket it’s about time and there isn’t a lot of it due to the unique pressures you face in the international arena.  I’ve read that it was maybe how I came across in interviews, but personally I don’t think that was the case, I just felt I was focused and professional and that I gave it my all every time I went to the crease.  Perhaps it was the Compton name that made me a target, but whatever it was, I could just never understand why I was always in the firing line.”

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Nick Compton who is never far from his beloved camera. Jonny Bairstow in the background with a fantastic handle-bar moustache

Sean: Perhaps people saw you as a bit of an easy target? There was the whole Nick Compton doesn’t fit in, which baffled me.

Nick: “I know, and that hurt me because I’m pretty sure I’m a decent bloke and got on well with the players in the dressing room. Sure I was a defensive batsman but then so was Jonathan Trott and so was Alastair Cook. I felt it was unfair and to be honest I didn’t really understand where it came from. I know that they didn’t like the fact that Kevin Pietersen was a big mate of mine, but I also made sure that I didn’t take sides in the fall out [Pietersen being dropped from the England side] and that was entirely deliberate.  I think all of the boys saw I gave 100% percent whether out on the field or in the nets, during the game or in practice. If I had to answer back to the media, it was perhaps that I’m my own person, an individual, and maybe a little more outward looking than some of the rest of the guys in the team. I have a huge passion for photography, I absolutely loved exploring new places when we were on tour and I’d go and do things that perhaps the other members of the team weren’t as interested in, visiting art galleries in New Zealand for example. Most of the guys preferred to stay in the hotel and play on the PlayStation, which is fine, but that wasn’t me – I didn’t want to stay in the hotel playing on a games console when there are other things to do and new experiences to have.  Does that mean I didn’t fit in? No, It was a ridiculous agenda, with no foundation to it. It’s not like they mentioned that I was really good mates with Alastair Cook, that was ignored. So, yes, it really upset me because it was my one shot and my career they were playing with.”

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Sean: Did you get any support from any of the former pros in the commentary box?

Nick: “Absolutely not. Never. Michael Vaughan has never met me in my life, Nasser Hussain has never met me in my life and I still find it strange that they made no effort to do so.  If I had their history as captain or top order player for England I’d be keen to talk to a new player and suggest a coffee and a chat about what’s involved – pass on my experiences or be there for advice if it was wanted. That would have made a huge difference to me, and I’m certain it would make a huge difference to those in that position now. These are former players we grew up watching. If having done so and then afterwards they then wrote a less than favourable article about me, then that’s fine, it’s their job, but the point is they never bothered to meet me or find out about me. They then still wrote certain things about me that were blatantly untrue. I knew the emergence of Joe Root and the calls to get him in the England side meant that I was a bit of a target, and obviously Michael Vaughan’s affiliation with Root added to that, so it felt like I was always in the firing line.”

“I’m very passionate about the way people are treated, and of course I was hurt by all the criticism I received; but I want to stand up for myself and talk about it because I believe in what I say and don’t see that as a negative thing at all. I want to help not hinder young players, especially those coming through into the England set up, so perhaps they might be able to learn from what I went through.”

The last question I was going to ask, was whether you’d take up a role on the selection panel if offered as I believe you’re uniquely qualified?

“I am actually on the selection panel. I’m only a scout at the moment and I have been tasked with scouting some young players and reporting back. Unfortunately, I don’t get any say on who is picked and who isn’t picked, that’s purely down to Ed Smith and his senior team. Perhaps one day.”

Sean: Once again, thank you for your time and your thoughts Nick; it’s been a real pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you about your thoughts on cricket in such depth.

Nick is an ex professional cricketer who played for England, Middlesex and Somerset during his career. Nick can be followed on Twitter via his account @thecompdog. Nick is also a passionate photographer and his collections can be found here: https://nickcomptonphotography.com.

As always, it would be great to hear your comments on the above article below.

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The England Test Opener From A Different Era – An Interview With Nick Compton – Part One

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So there I was, watching the highlights of the Test with a glass of wine in hand and seeing the English batting unit collapse in a heap once again. Many of our parish know that this isn’t exactly a rare occurrence, in fact it is more surprising these days when the English top order actually make some runs. I have my own theories around this as do the rest of the editors on the site, but I wanted to get an understanding from someone who has been there, someone who has not just played at the highest level but also who was renowned for his batting technique throughout his time in the English game. Even more though, I wanted to hear from someone who is still passionate about the game and has some strong views about what is currently going wrong.

So I got in touch with an player who I had seen come through the Middlesex ranks as a youngster and one who I had a number of fond memories of watching when I was still a member of the county and who I felt was cast aside from the England setup far too soon, especially when he was still in his prime: England’s former top order Test batsman, Nick Compton.

I was delighted when Nick agreed to speak even though he was due in hospital on the same day, even if it was for 5 or 10 minutes. I’m lucky that there is a passion that still burns with him and 5 minutes turned into 15 and 15 into nearly half hour. It was great to pick the mind of someone who has seen it all in both the Test and county arenas and I cannot thank Nick enough for sparing the time to speak to me.

The one thing I would ask is for all to read the interview with an open mind, whether you think Nick was discarded too soon or not. He has some great opinions, some strong views and a fantastic cricket mind. With that said, let the interview begin.


 

Sean: As a former Test opener, what are the main flaws that you can see in the English top order?

Nick: “Essentially, I think there’s a lack of the application and wider batting aptitude that is vital to be a successful test cricketer. Really, it begins with patience, technique and above all, an understanding of your game.  That’s how you learn to play the angles and have the ability to survive long enough so that you can contribute with big runs later on in the game.  It’s become fashionable to focus only on scoring shots and taking it to the other team rather than playing the moment and building an innings. It works well enough when the wickets are flat but when the ball is moving around, then it’s absolutely the wrong approach.

“Test cricket has been around for 150 years and hasn’t changed that much in its fundamentals – especially when it comes to batting at the top of the order against a high quality pace attack. Ben Stokes was magnificent of course, but it doesn’t mean the wider problems aren’t there.  Overall in this series the techniques of many of the batsmen on both sides aren’t that special. Of course, it’s easy to carp on from the sidelines and highlight the flaws of others, but I’m talking about a wider issue that affects our game, not pointing fingers at individuals.  There’s a shortage of high-quality fast bowling in our domestic game, meaning those who come through it haven’t had enough exposure to the kind of level they’ll face in Test cricket. So many of the dismissals this series have been poor, both technically and in terms of application. The batsmen aren’t fighting to keep their wicket intact – Test batting in other words – they’re going after the bowling and paying the price.  The standard of Test batting has to be a concern – there are a few really high quality players around, Smith, Pujara and Kohli for example, but the drop off below that group is a bit alarming.  Joe Root is clearly a fantastic player, but I think the whole move up the order to number three has affected his game more than people are prepared to admit. The “second opener” nature of number three isn’t his natural position, he’s better when he can attack, and that’s because he’s a middle order player.

“David Warner got a few in this last Test, but he’s struggling over here because the ball is doing something both in the air and off the pitch, and he’s just not used to facing it because he’s never really had to, especially in white ball cricket. He’s just an example, but countering the moving ball requires a technique that batsmen these days don’t have and can’t instantly apply.  Everyone is trying to score quickly and hit through the line on the up, but they can’t stay in long enough against the best fast bowlers because they take too many risks in attack, their defence isn’t good enough and they struggle to judge what to play, and more importantly what not to play.

“The point is that I’ve played with and against these guys for years in county cricket, and when the ball does something, they’re as normal as the rest of us. On flat tracks like Perth or at the Adelaide Oval, they’re going to out-bat me because that’s what their technique is geared towards, but I can tell you most of the time I’ll survive longer than they will when facing the moving ball. It’s not me boasting, it’s because I spent a lifetime building the qualities needed for that into my game, but the way cricket has gone that kind of approach has become deeply unfashionable.  It’s not they can’t, it’s that they don’t.”

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Sean: Did you see it creep into the international game when you were playing?

Nick: “Yes I think so.  I was a bit startled to see players who have had long international careers suddenly looking out of place. Even Alastair Cook in the last couple of years seemed to have moved away from the highly successful Test approach he’d had all his career, and it wasn’t just a matter of form.  So you pause and wonder how it can be that the most successful opener we’ve had in decades is struggling in the Test arena and playing shots that he’d never have considered in previous years. It’s because the mindsets of the batsmen have changed so much, and I felt that Cook was far looser with his technique towards the end of his career.  His defence was nothing like as tight as it had been, he was far less patient, especially early on and nothing like as watchful during an innings.  I don’t know if he felt some sort of pressure to become a “modern player” and tried to transform his game into this attacking breed of cricket that we’re all supposed to be playing, but I really hope not. In my case, I found as soon as I tried it, I lost the very qualities that made me the player that I was and gained me the success I achieved.”

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The opening partnership that should have been given the time to thrive?

Sean: England’s focus at county level has shifted from red ball cricket to white ball cricket, are we now seeing the results of this?

Nick: “Fundamentally, the powers that be believe that an “aggressive brand of cricket” equals entertainment, and that’s what they want to see. If I was starting out in county cricket now, why would I want to work my backside off to survive a couple of hours for 20 runs when there’s more concern about the strike rate than anything else? As far as developing players for Test cricket is concerned, these are the innings that are the most educational and useful and imbue batsmen with the kinds of qualities best suited for the top level. However players these days just don’t do that, and don’t place as high a value on their wicket anymore, they prefer to try and score quickly when it’s difficult because they don’t feel they’ll last too long anyway.  Patience as part of the art of batting – for the later rewards – is something that’s rather been forgotten these days, as is building an innings.  Instead there’s this desire to dominate, so after an over or two of struggle, you get this big booming drive and a wicket.”

Sean: Do you think you’re a dying breed of batsmen? I look at Trott in his prime and Pujara now for example and see very few else out there whose technique is based around defence.

Nick: “Yes but that’s the point isn’t it?  Given the direction modern cricket is going, why would you want to go to all the effort and work involved to become that kind of player?  T20 has meant that if you can hit the ball a long way and score rapidly, you can make a lot of money from all the T20 competitions around the world. To add to that direction of travel, now we’ve got the Hundred: the players are professionals and need to earn a living and win contracts so how can anyone blame them for developing their game in the way that benefits that? I certainly wouldn’t, I just went left-field a bit and it was a deliberate choice.

“I came to a crossroads in my career when I was 25 or 26, and I remember sitting down with my mentor for a talk about where I was going.  T20 had been going for several years, and a lot of the younger players coming through and some older professionals had either decided that Test cricket wasn’t really their passion anymore or had been found out by the longer form of the game. They saw the money that was on offer in the short form of the game and their heads were turned, so they decided to place all their focus on the T20 competitions. Me though, I did it the other way, I looked at my career and felt that there was a dearth of individuals who could bat for a day around the county game, and even fewer who could potentially bat all day for England. Trott and Cook were the main guys and I decided that I wanted to be the third one, renowned for being able to bat and bat and bat.

“At that time in my career Cook and Trott looked impregnable, and England were making huge totals on the back of them laying the groundwork. I felt I could be a part of that and spent months working on building a world class defence. People say I was slow, but I wasn’t that slow a batsman at all, I just weighed up the situation and played normal cricket. I had all the shots, but a lot of the time what was required for me in all the teams I played in was to take the shine off the new ball and let others bat around me. When I was at Somerset I can clearly remember my coach Brian Rose saying to me “Nick, I’ve got you down here for one reason and that’s to bat; bat all day and every time you think about doing something else, think again and just bat”. He wanted me to do that in all forms of the game and every morning the look in his eye would remind me what my role was. His attitude was that he had Trescothick, Hildreth and Kieswetter to play all the shots, he needed someone who could hold the batting line up order together. That was so helpful to me, if that’s how he wanted me to bat, then that was what I going to do. That kind of backing makes all the difference – I knew what my role in the side was and I was determined to go out and do just that.  And because I had some talent, I would be supremely confident knowing I had that support for the way I was playing. I’d be on automatic pilot much of the time, which is a great position to be in when batting; if there was a short ball, I’d just either duck or put it away, I’d been doing it for 20 years by then anyway.  I didn’t need to practice hitting a ball off my legs or pushing a half volley through the covers because they were my go-to shots anyway and my key strengths, so I wouldn’t have to think about playing them and didn’t need to practice those in the nets – it had just become second nature and low risk. In one day cricket, you’re going after the 50/50 balls because you have to be scoring all the time, and as the format gets shorter, it moves to 40/60 balls or 30/70 balls. This is absolutely fine in those formats of the game, but in the longer one you should be looking to leave those alone or defend them, and they don’t.”

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England’s Nick Compton bats during a practice session at the Basin Reserve, Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Devlin/PA Images via Getty Images)

Sean: I remember being coached particularly poorly at club level; do you feel that players are no longer receiving the right sort of coaching to play at Test level?

Nick: “Unfortunately, the standard of coaching is fairly poor across the board at the moment.  A lot of people are spending time throwing balls down at batsmen, so it looks like they’re putting in the hours, but that’s not coaching. You could pay a 16 year old lad on his summer holidays to come and do that, but that wouldn’t be coaching either, it would be practice.  Coaching should be about improving players and helping them get the most out of themselves.  At the end of the season young players need to know where they are and have a full review of their game and what to work on; Instead they’re either told well done or told nothing depending on how the season went. That means they disappear for the winter to do what they want until the start of pre-season when they turn up and do some running around and receive throw downs. How is anything going to have changed in that time?  The off season is such a good opportunity to go away and work on specific things, but there’s no structure around the period when more than at any other time they can make material changes.  What has he worked on? Who has he done that work with? This is the kind of specialist intervention that sets a good coach apart from the rest, but it doesn’t happen anything like as much as it should.  There absolutely are some coaches who do it, but nothing like enough and that’s extremely damaging.

“All players need help and support throughout their careers – even the very best in the world can get into bad habits, but when they do, they go back to their trusted coaches to work out the kinks in their game, and unfortunately much of the time that doesn’t happen for everyone else, even though it should.”

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Nick Compton during day four of the First Test match between New Zealand and England at University Oval on March 9, 2013 in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Sean: Why do you think this is? We’ve supposedly got all the brains in world cricket at Loughborough, why isn’t this cascading down to the county level?

Nick: “It’s a question of accountability and job security. It’s much easier to simply follow the instructions of the county and tick the required boxes so they stay in post rather than take on the responsibility of trying to make a major difference to a particular player. Numbers are also important here, because they’ve got large squads to handle, little time and the kind of one on one coaching of a young player that’s needed requires a huge amount of work and a lot of investment both in time and money. I also believe that there is a fear that if they do coach properly on an individual basis, they’ll get the blame if a young player keeps getting out and decides to blame them for it.  Coaches too want to have a job next year.

“Instead the approach is to deflect it back on to the player; instead of working with them they ask them questions – “how do you think you should be playing, what do you think you’d do in this situation?”. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility – a player who has a concern about their game doesn’t seek out a coach to be asked questions, they go to learn where they’re going wrong and how they can improve their play.  A player is often the least able to understand the mistakes they’re making, and that’s why a coach is so valuable.

“If I listen to what the coach is saying, understand and implement it and still don’t score a run, that’s my fault, not his. It could be that he’s not a great coach, but I still chose to listen, or it could be that I didn’t implement what I was told properly. Either way, that’s still ultimately my responsibility – I choose who to listen to and what to do, but I’d still prefer a coach who gave me bad advice but put his heart and soul into me to make me better than a coach who just stands there and asks questions. If nothing else, my mental state is going to be far better from one who has worked with me in detail and bought into me and what I want to achieve.  If it ends up not working, never mind, we both tried extremely hard and put in huge amounts of work in good faith to make me a better player. It just didn’t work out.

“That’s also where the player responsibility comes in, and partly why coaches are the way they are as it’s definitely also down to the player to play a role and work to make themselves better.   I look around the counties and I see guys who think that they are so much better than they really are. They don’t put the work in, they don’t look outside of county cricket, they do their training session and go home and play on the Xbox thinking that they’re doing their job to the best of their ability. But you aren’t going to become a better player just by playing for your county, any more than a club player will get better just by playing for their club. You’ve got to go and travel, mentally and physically – you’ve got to go to other countries and work on things. You’ve got to get other advice because no coach is perfect, and ultimately it’s about finding what works for you.”


In Part Two, I will be speaking to Nick about his own experience as an England Test Opener and the rigours and challenges that come with it both on and off the pitch.

Nick is an ex professional cricketer who played for England, Middlesex and Somerset during his career. Nick can be followed on Twitter via his account @thecompdog. Nick is also a passionate photographer and his collections can be found here: https://nickcomptonphotography.com.

As always, please feel free to leave your comments below.

England vs. Australia, 3rd Test, Alive and Kicking?

Approximately 24 hours ago, the majority of people I know either personally or through social media were sat enthralled by the action on the 4th day at Headingley. There is no other sport that I know that can have four or five days of action which can then all come down to one session of enthralling action. I was sat on the edge of my seat watching despair turn to hope, then back to resignation finally ending up at disbelief at what I’d seen. I can’t picture the emotions that those in the crowd and even more pertinent, that those in the throes of the action must have felt. The unbelievable batting by Ben Stokes, the resolute defence from Leach, the missed stumping from Lyon and the DRS decision that never was, and this was only the culmination of an amazing Test Match. There is simply no sport that can ever match that type of drama in my opinion and I had tingles down my spine to the rest of the evening trying to recall what I’d seen.

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From some of the twitter reports, Sky Sports recorded over 2.1 million viewers who watched the cricket yesterday afternoon and Test Match Special also recorded over 1.25 million listeners at the same time which is not bad for a so-called second-tier sport. However just imagine how many viewers yesterday’s action would have got on free to air; now this is not meant to have a pop at Sky who have enhanced the viewing spectacle dramatically, more it’s a pop at the ECB who sold cricket to the government as a second-tier sport and thus not worthy of free to air access. That is one thing I will never forgive the ECB for and something that still makes me incredibly angry 14 years on. Who knows, we might have had 8 million viewers had the game been on free to air yesterday?

The headlines have rightly going to Ben Stokes, who whilst looking in great touch all summer, played an innings that probably won’t be bettered by him in his lifetime. Naturally the media have caught the ‘best everitis’ or ‘momentum’ as seems to be fashionable these days with the phrases being thrown around like a politician promises new policies. I’m not personally going to get into the debate about whether this was the best innings ever by an English batsmen but what I can agree is that it was one of the finest innings I’ve seen. Stokes though should not just be praised for his amazing batting performance but also a fine bowling spell on the afternoon of Day two and morning of Day three where he wrestled some initiative back to England, even if then a victory seemed more in hope than in reality. Root and Denly also deserve praise for finally laying a platform at the top of the order which allowed Stokes to play in the outrageous manner he did. Indeed I had a quick chat with a former England International batsman before the Test who bemoaned that the like of Stokes, Bairstow and Buttler were not getting a fair crack of the whip because they were always coming and facing a batting crisis.

Now comes the reality though and most who read this blog regularly absolutely know it was likely to come. England were incredibly fortunate to win this Test Match and still have a chance of winning The Ashes. The type of innings that Ben Stokes played yesterday is perhaps something you may see 10 times in your life if you are lucky; certainly it’s not something that England can rely on for the rest of the series. Let’s face it England, the ECB and Ed Smith lucked out big time, we let Australia get 60 runs too many through poor bowling on day one and the batting performance from England throughout this series has been nothing short of disastrous, if you remove the events of yesterday. England might be one all in the Ashes, but it could have easily been a dead series as we headed to Old Trafford and nothing but a damp squib to end the summer after a historic World Cup win. Therefore, it would be so stupidly foolhardy for England to rest on their laurels, in a series where they have been comprehensively outplayed by this Australian team. In reality, Australia should have the Ashes in the bag and would have done so, if it wasn’t for one player’s quite breath-taking batting performance.

Fundamentally Jason Roy looks nothing like a Test player let alone an opening batsman, Jos Buttler is still being picked on promise rather than results (he has one Test Match century in 34 Test games now), Chris Woakes looks out of touch with both the ball and bat and Johnny Bairstow’s wicket-keeping simply isn’t good enough for a Test wicketkeeper. If England really are going to retain the Ashes, then Ed Smith has got to leave his ego by the door and pick a team more suited to Test cricket. If we stay with the same team going into Old Trafford, then I very much doubt we’ll be lucky enough to find another saviour to save us from the abyss this time. I will leave the selection debate to another time and I’m sure many of the readers and commenters on this blog have their own views on who needs to be dropped and who needs to be selected; however doing nothing is simply not an option in my view.

As for Australia, no doubt they’ll be devastated by the result and will have woken up with the sick feeling in the pit of their stomach; however the return of Steve Smith combined with the emergence of Marnus Labuschagne should give them cause for optimism heading into the Fourth Test. There may be talk of momentum shift by the English press and the England captain; however in my view, Australia are still favourites to win the series and take the ashes back down to the southern hemisphere.

On one last note, there was a wonderfully magnanimous piece written by Greg Baum written in response to yesterday’s play. I often criticise the media on both sides as being slightly ‘one-eyed’ when it comes to their team; however this piece was a true celebration of what the author had seen, irrespective of the result.

https://www.theage.com.au/sport/cricket/we-can-all-die-happy-now-cricket-doesn-t-get-any-better-than-this-20190826-p52knk.html

As ever, feel free to leave comments and thoughts below.

Ashes 3rd Test, Day Four: Utterly Ridiculous

Where do you even begin?  Perhaps with stating, no, insisting with the re-affirmation of what cricket fans have known all along – that Test cricket is the absolute pinnacle of the sport.  That the extraordinary World Cup win earlier this year had drama aplenty, but there is nothing, not in one day cricket, not in T20 cricket, and definitely not in Hundred cricket that can begin to match the slow burn intensity, the ever increasing pressure of a Test match.

The heart is pounding not in the final over, but an hour, two hours before the eventual finish.  The heart of the players, the heart of the spectators – in the ground, watching in England or Australia, listening to the radio.  Even more than that, it would have been for those watching in Chittagong or Colombo, for this is what this game can do.  Where every ball can bring a decisive swing, where all outcomes, even the vanishingly unlikely ones suddenly loom into view.

The endless sub-plots, a wicketkeeper as captain (and it is persistently understated just how hard a combination that is) losing the plot along with his team under the relentless pressure of a game already seemingly won beginning to get away from them.   The name Test cricket implies the scrutiny of not just ability, but the mental side of the game.  Keith Miller’s famous quote about real pressure being a Messerschmitt up his arse speaks to another world and a reminder of the realities outside a sporting contest, but it remains a truth that the tension of a Test match is unlike almost anything else, the gladiatorial individual contest in a team environment.

Stokes being an all rounder will always invite comparisons to the greats, and in England’s case Botham particularly.  He might be a different type of player in so many respects and ability wise it remains a pointless debate, but in the sense that he can seize an occasion, they are one of a kind.

There were of course plenty of moments where Australia could have won it.  Marcus Harris dropped Stokes in a manner eerily reminiscent of Simon Jones at Edgbaston in 2005, Cummins wasted Australia’s last review with a ludicrous lbw appeal that came back to bite them the following over when Stokes was given not out to Lyon with one showing three reds on DRS.  And right at the end, Australia missed a run out chance that was anything but difficult – the frantic moments of a game coming to a climax.

Ben Stokes’ hitting was beyond extraordinary.  The switch hit into the western terrace for six will live long in the memory, so bold the thinking, so exquisite the execution.  Length balls were disappearing over long off and deep midwicket, shorter ones smashed back past the bowler for four.  Jack Leach was the calmest man in the ground, defending his wicket and eventually scoring the priceless run to draw the scores level.

The earlier innings from Root and Denly gained in stature purely because of the outcome of the game, the problems in England’s cricket will be put aside for another day.  They shouldn’t be, for one freak innings from a player who knows how to seize the moment better than almost any does not alter the truth of the fragility of the English game.  The ECB will breathe a sigh of relief, that the focus will not be on them for another day.  But England will collapse again, the weaknesses Australia are exposing will come to the fore once more.  But just for today, just for now, it’s ok to bask in the brilliance of a player, and of the game of cricket.

It has to be said some have succumbed to the Greatest of All Time trap – emphasising why this remains such a stupid line to go down, because they’ve said it before.  And they’ve said it before so often.  It’s meaningless.  This was special, it doesn’t need to be ranked.

In the aftermath of the game, the Sky pundits talked about how this would inspire kids to play in the park, pretending to be Ben Stokes.  It hasn’t changed the invisibility of the sport, and if Stokes has a recognition factor, it’s because the World Cup final was available for all to see, while this final day remained a niche viewing opportunity.  Cricket needs exposure because a Ben Stokes can reach the parts hardly anyone can, as long as they see him.  This was something special, if only the nation truly had been gripped.

Somehow, ludicrously, this series is 1-1.  And now I need a lie down.

3rd Ashes Test, Day Three: Inconsistent

England’s inconsistency with the bat finally worked in their favour today, with a couple of the batsmen finally showing an above-average Test performance. On a personal level it was slightly annoying, as I had already pencilled in what I was going to write in today’s report, and scheduled stuff to do tomorrow. Joe Root’s decision to actually bat longer than a session was, quite frankly, massively inconsiderate.

The first half of the day showed no deviation from the expected script. England’s tired bowlers struggled to take the final four Australian wickets, with an inadvisable run off a misfield eventually leading to Marnus Labuschagne’s dismissal. Archer was the main strike bowler for the hosts yet again, taking the wickets of two Australian tailenders plus giving Labuschagne’s grill another testing blow, but Stokes and Broad also bowled fairly well.

Puzzlingly, Chris Woakes didn’t get a chance with the ball this morning. It seems an odd choice on paper by Root, since Woakes has taken more wickets than Stokes at a lower average so far in this series. Given the lack of trust shown in his bowling, it seems likely Woakes will be the one expected to make way for Anderson if the veteran seamer is considered fit to return by England’s medical staff. Apart from a series of solid (but by no means amazing) bowling performances in the series, the allrounder also has the third-highest series batting average for England. He’s scored more runs than Bairstow, Roy and Buttler, and yet is more likely than any of those three to be dropped. Life is just not fair. Especially if you’re an English bowler.

England’s batting seemed to be following the pattern of recent games, with two quick wickets at the start. Burns was the first to go, fending a bouncer to the slips. Roy followed a few balls later after being bowled by Cummins after playing down the wrong line.

This left Root and Denly at the crease, with 69 overs left to survive in the day and (even more unlikely) 344 more runs needed to win the game. Denly rode his luck early, being lucky enough to miss the assorted wild drives to full and wide deliveries from the Australian quicks. But, over time, he settled down and made a partnership with Root which somehow lasted most of the day.

Eventually it was a bouncer which did for Denly. The Australian bowlers had targeted his head and body through the day with some success, and he finally fended one with his gloves which looped into the wicketkeeper’s welcoming hands. Having scored fifty runs in this innings, it’s hard to see England dropping him for the remaining two games. On one hand, Denly was under pressure, with many people (including myself) calling for him to be dropped, and he delivered. On the other hand, Australia might well think that he’s vulnerable to the short ball and bowl accordingly.

Joe Root’s 75* was no doubt a huge relief for England’s captain after he had made two consecutive ducks in his previous innings. We all know he’s an extraordinarily capable batsman, once compared to Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, but it’s been a lean couple of years for him. (It’s been even more lean for Smith, of course, due to his ban for cheating) Whatever the reason, his form has declined from ‘great’ to ‘good’, and then again from ‘good’ to ‘good enough for England’. Hopefully this innings will allow him to rebuild his confidence and Test batting, although I’ve seen too many flashes in the pan to be very optimistic on that score.

Root and Stokes were still there at the close of play, with England on 156/3 needing 203 more runs to win. It’s still massively unlikely that they can cause an upset, but at the same time it’s significantly more likely than it was this time yesterday.

It’s the hope that hurts the most, I find.

Finally, we were ‘just’ four overs short today. I think we saw that one coming…

3rd Ashes Test, Day Two: Same Old England

Inasmuch as England are in this match at all – and their chances are very slim indeed – is down to the bowlers, who fought manfully to undo the damage caused by yet another abject batting performance and try to drag their side back into contention.  Stokes in particular, in a marathon spell that yielded two wickets and deserved far more epitomised a bowling attack attempting to pull off the impossible given what happened in the morning.  It isn’t going to happen, not without a batting display entirely out of kilter with everything that’s gone on recently, but if nothing else it showed heart and desire.

England have batted 13 times this year, and of those 13 innings they have been skittled out for under 100 on three occasions.  On a further three it’s been under 200, while only three totals have been over 300 and none have reached 400.  So when hands are thrown up in horror just because it’s happened against Australia, and because the Ashes are probably gone about as early as was possible this series, let’s not pretend for a moment that anyone should be surprised at this.  It’s routine, it’s normal, it’s exactly this England side.

When assorted bloggers, tweeters, fans, hell, people down the pub have been able to spot what was coming, it remains extraordinary to witness the wilful blindness from those who use their positions of influence to talk up their awareness of the game while ignoring the bleeding obvious staring every single cricket follower full in the face.  There have been a few, a a noble few, who have pointed out at every stage what the direction of travel was going to lead to, but so many have simply existed in the moment, suggested the deckchairs be moved around a bit, and reacted with amazement at the latest capitulation of a team comprised of white ball specialists and players out of position.

The Hundred is merely the culmination of a deliberate strategy to focus on short form cricket, at the expenses of the longer game.  It hasn’t even begun, it can’t be said to be responsible, but it is a symptom rather than a cause.  The county championship has been curtailed and shunted to the margins of the season where batting technique is compromised – and let’s not put aside the other likely impacts of that to come in the bowling department – all the while pushing the case that shorter is better.  Fine.  The aim was to win the World Cup, and that’s been achieved, albeit with a plan to immediately scrap 50 over cricket as a top level domestic competition to make way for a 16.4 over thrash-fest.  But the cost of that single minded pursuit of limited over cricket has been the Test game, the one that the ECB repeatedly state to be the most important form while doing everything in their power to undermine it.

There is no point being angry at today’s abject batting capitulation.  The damage has been done over several years, deliberately and pointedly, in favour of enriching the game at the top at the expense of the rest of it.  Blame the England batting line up for their performance today, don’t blame them for the structure that got us here.  Half of them are batting out of position, or being asked to do something to which they aren’t suited.  Some are simply not good enough but have been selected anyway by a chief selector who was happy enough to talk to the media as a leftfield cricketing guru (despite reservations even at the time even when things initially came off) but has skulked away into a corner the moment the strategy of ignoring 150 years of cricketing history in favour of funkiness began to unravel.

For that might just be the worst part of the way this England team is set up.  It’s not just that the batting isn’t good enough, it’s that they aren’t even being given the chance to make the most of what they have.  An opener in white ball cricket who has barely done the job in 4 day cricket, let alone Tests is dumped into the team (with the strong and vocal support of so many of the cricketing press and pundits) right at the top of the order and unsurprisingly fails to demonstrate the kind of technique required to do the job.  It isn’t just that Roy might never be good enough to be a Test cricketer, for that is a question to be answered by playing him, it’s that he isn’t even being given the chance to prove whether he is or not.  He’s a middle order player, and one who only may be of the standard required.  Who would ever have suggested that someone like Kevin Pietersen, a much superior player, could go and open?  The idea is preposterous.

Root was pushed to bat at three by a baying mob who felt the only response to the failures of others was to compromise England’s best player and then be shocked at the outcome.  Root has a reasonable enough record at four, but he was an outstanding one at five.  He’s another middle order player, a stroke maker.  The captaincy may well be having an effect on him, but probably not as much as the prospect of having to carry the batting order doing a job for which he’s not best suited, which was known perfectly well back when he opened the batting and was moved down because he wasn’t that good at it.

Now, in this England team, batting at one or five doesn’t amount to a whole lot of difference given how they routinely lose early wickets, but there’s the perfect storm of choosing square pegs for round holes, multiplying the errors and causing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That England have plenty of middle order players is no surprise – they’re geared that way because of that same focus on white ball cricket.  Some of them are decent players in Test cricket too, but they can’t overcome the fundamental problems in the top order.  Jos Buttler might be considered a luxury player at 7, but he’s one that might well be highly effective if he had a decent platform when he came into bat rather than constantly reaching the crease with the team in crisis.  He’s done reasonably in an order where reasonably amounts to a success.  He’s just another unable to show his best because of the wider so called strategy.

There are some players around whose game is geared towards the longer game – Sibley and Crawley are the two mentioned most often – but they aren’t the salvation of a structure that actively works against developing such players in the first place, and which is geared ever more to accelerating that trend.  Even the obvious Test cricketers like Root have been working hardest to develop their T20 game as the sport heads further in that direction.

This is a global phenomenon, and Australia’s batting order shorn of Smith hardly looks one to terrify bowlers of past and present, but only the ECB have gone quite so far down the direction of deliberately undermining the Test team in pursuit of the short term cash provided by T20 and now the Hundred.  Yet they clearly have produced players with a greater Test match mentality than England have, and Labuschagne is a perfect example, having ground out another invaluable knock today.

The bowlers on both sides in this match have performed well.  There was a period yesterday when England’s were profligate and even downright poor, but overall they have struggled manfully with trying to rescue a team that is holed below the waterline.  Likewise, while Australia have a very fine bowling attack, for England to be bowled out (again) in well under 30 overs was unacceptable however disciplined their opponents were.

It’s not about individual performances at this stage, it’s not about the effort that is being put in.  Ben Stokes bowled as fine a spell today as could be wished for, and with the bat shows every sign of being determined to be as good a player as he can.  But he’s fighting an uphill battle alongside all of the individuals in a team that has no idea how to approach the Test game and a governing body that barely pays lip service to the concept of generating players who can perform in it.  The sound is of chickens coming home to roost, of a structure that has been intended to create precisely the kinds of batsmen that we now have.

Two years ago Tom Harrison unveiled the ECB strategy by stating that England under Root were to play a positive, exciting “brand of cricket” even if they lost a game or two.  The rationale stated was that this was how to excite the young and get them into the game of cricket.  It’s the same justification all the time from an organisation that never questions its own genius, and responds to every setback or criticism by insisting the answer is more of what they are already doing.

The England Test team is the jewel in the crown of English cricket not because of old farts harking back to a golden age of cricket, but because it is the form of the game that drives the most interest from those who love the game, and which still garners by far the most attention.  A weak England side getting hammered by Australia is somewhat unlikely to raise the level of interest in the sport, no matter how many domestic competitions are created.

None of this absolves the England batsmen for their shots this morning.  Throwing their hands at the ball outside of off stump is reckless in any Test match, but that it is anything but the first time in recent matches that they’ve done so is why it can’t be approached as though it were a one off team aberration.  It’s systemic, and while the entire batting order bar, arguably, Root were out to balls they didn’t need to play at, this remains a consistent mindset in the England team.  If it were as simple as them not doing it next time, it wouldn’t keep happening.

England are fighting hard, but they are a team with one hand tied behind their back and with their bootlaces tied together by those tasked to help them make the most of themselves.  It isn’t about England not being a particularly good side, for God knows any England fan in middle age has seen that on plenty of occasions.  It is that the entire ethos of the sport at the highest level in this country seems determined to make it even worse.

Perhaps it will be that a heavy home defeat against Australia will be the factor that forces action – if not a change in direction, a moderation of the current approach.  But successive 5-0 and 4-0 away defeats didn’t do that, and with a World Cup in the bag this summer, the ECB will continue to slap themselves on the back and insist all is going marvellously.  Perhaps it might even be that they are right, and that in a decade Test cricket, played over 4 days, will merely be a hangover from an older generation’s desire to wish the game hadn’t changed.  But those who love cricket, those who really care about the game, almost universally think of Tests as the apogee, the summit of the game, and so do the players.  Going all out to wreck it in favour of the filthy lucre provided by the shortest versions of the game are more likely to drive it to that end irrespective of desires or wants from players or fans.

England’s batting was abysmal yes, but look behind the actions of today for why it is far from a one off.

And lastly, 98 overs were scheduled today, 87 including the two for change of innings were bowled.  It’s getting worse.

 

 

Ashes 3rd Test, Day 1 – I Blame You For The Moonlit Sky

It was a day when nothing seemed to go quite according to plan. I booked a day off, knowing I had a load of things I needed to do, and thought to do the report justice I’d need to watch the early exchanges, and perhaps do all the other stuff later in the day. Of course, the plan should have been reversed. I saw one of the wickets to fall live all day – the first one – and missed the whole of the last session. So this report of the day is on catch-up. Also, most of you will have seen more of the play than I have. Still, I bought some nice shoes, and got to get pissed off at Warner making a 50.

First up, apologies for no Ashes Panel this week. On Sunday I came down with a naughty bout of manflu (I’ve lost a good chunk of weight this week due to it, so out of every negative comes a positive) and by the time I was in any shape to do things, it was too late. Thanks to the team for covering the preparation for this test. Yes, I saw the reactions to the pieces over the weekend, and will say what I always say – we are not a team of writers who agree, we welcome differences, we don’t take many editorial lines (politics is definitely one we don’t want) and yes, things can get tetchy. I’d be surprised if they didn’t. So play on people. More that keeps us together than tears us apart, as it were.

So to today. I’ve never much liked Headingley tests, dating back to when I was a kid. Whenever one was on, it was always the one that seemed to be badly rain affected, it had that pavilion that looked like a council office, and that electronic scoreboard was dreadful. It has those sightscreens with people popping up above white boards, like they were working in a call centre. Today took me back to those days. England won the toss and put Australia in. Harris came in for Bancroft, but did a decent impression of the opener by falling early. Archer bowling, perhaps within himself if the pace gun is to be believed, around the wicket inducing a thick edge to YJB leaving for 8…. and then they all followed off due to rain.

90 minutes later and the players returned – I was working from home a little during this time so didn’t really follow play – and within 20 or so minutes Broad got Khawaja to strangle himself… a flick off the bat, well in front of the pad, carried through comfortably to YJB, and it was 25 for 2. Khawaja becoming immediate bookies favourite to be replaced when Steve Smith returns, and Marnus better get used to number 3! Presumably, as he belted the damn cover off it, and didn’t walk, there will be mass condemnation as a “shit bloke” for Usman. And my tongue is only slightly in my cheek.

Through the rain and the bad light – oh my lord, they took them off for bad light when the floodlights were on, yet again – Warner and Marnus took Australia from peril to comfort. Warner fighting himself, dug in, took toll of what he could, and made his first half century of the series. Marnus looks fit for test cricket (although he has a face of a man who looks as though he’s about to shout “WHY ME!!!!) showing a good deal of courage and application. He’s booked himself in for the rest of the tour.

The Aussies reached 136 for 2 – and in a position of real strength, when Warner nicked a full one from Jofra Archer. In the following over Broad claimed the important scalp of Travis Head, who has been an understated piece of Aussie resistance in the preceding two games, by bowling him with a naughty little cutter – one of the greatest balls he’s ever bowled, according to the increasingly silly Nasser. Head’s duck was followed by a similar contribution from Matthew Wade. Wade could consider himself unlucky in a couple of regards – first the ball took that odd carom off the thigh pad that sends the ball back towards the stumps, rather than the natural line down the leg side….. and the ball hit the stumps with a gentle thud AND the bail fell off. If this were the World Cup, when an earthquake AND tsunami would not remove the bails, Wade would be continuing the resistance.

Paine and Labuschagne kept the England bowlers at bay, as the ball carried on moving, but it couldn’t last (I’ve taped the whole day’s play and watching key moment as I write this). Yes, there was an amusing moment when the captain copped one at half mast, which was shared widely on Twitter while I wandered around Bluewater, and which all club players can share in the agony of the moment. My worst wasn’t while I was batting – I got one four square in the bollocks from an off drive. I recovered, and the oppo paid as I made my then highest ever score in the second innings of the match, and hit my first two sixes. Tim Paine made 11. Woakes pinned him LBW to overturn Chris Gaffaney’s decision of not out. Chris has said to me on the Whatsapp that it didn’t look right. Oh dear, how sad, never mind (in the words of the late great Windsor Davies).

As the clock approached 7pm, Jofra got Pattinson to nick an 86mph delivery and Joe Root took a catch at 1st slip that appeared to come to him quicker than he thought. 173 for 6 at 7pm ended up being 179 all out by close as Jofra brushed up the tail in a manner we haven’t seen for a while. Pattinson was followed by Cummins who gave the thinnest of edges through to Bairstow (before the thin spike came up, Pat and Marnus were chortling away, but that soon disappeared, and Cummins looked gobsmacked), giving Archer his 5th.

Stokes then chipped in with the old fashioned full bunger swinging in to pin Labuschagne LBW for 74, a weird ending to a gutsy knock, and he looks nailed on to be the number 3 when Smith returns. The commentators said he appeared to be moaning about the bad light, and that he might have lost it in the gloom. I’m minded to quote Windsor again. Archer took his sixth to finish the innings with his first ball of the 53rd over, when Lyon was plumb LBW for 1. 179 all out, and Jofra Archer taking 6 for 45.

Some early statwatch results. 103rd time an England bowler has taken 6 wickets in an Ashes test, the third time 6 for 45 has been recorded by an England bowler (Johnny Briggs and Derek Underwood the other two) – the 54th equal best for England in all series v Australia. It was the joint third best figures at Headingley in Ashes match-ups (Underwood again, in 1972), and the best since Bob Willis in 1981. It was the best 1st innings figures by an England player against Australia at Leeds. Only Ian Botham, with 6 for 95 in the first innings against Australia in his wonder test, has taken 6 wickets in the 1st innings of the match at Headingley, for England, before today.

The game itself is advanced. Australia had the whip hand when taking 70 runs off the first eleven overs after tea, but England came back with favourable conditions towards the end of the day. There is much to discuss, but on a day when I couldn’t watch a lot, a lot happened.

Finally, alongside the “comments below” invitation, for the Day 2 play, let me give a round of applause to the BOC contributor – not me – who put this Tweet up.

Hope the link works.

To Day 2…..

England vs. Australia, Third Test, Preview

So we head to Headingley, with the fallout of the Second Test still ringing in our ears. I must admit that I was not expecting the game at Lords to have been so close with the amount of rain and time lost on the test, but to the credit of each team, they fought to the bitter end. Day Five proved to be a day full of drama with Australia batting out for a draw but the main fallout from the game was naturally that of the Steve Smith concussion and the so-called reaction of Jofra Archer to the ball that fell Steve Smith.

I must admit it did leave a sour taste in the mouth with unfounded accusations and ugly behaviour from both sets of fans. The fact that Smith was booed after he had been hit was utterly disgusting but equally the individual that called Joe Root ‘a cheating wanker’ for claiming the catch of Marnus Labuschange was not exactly an upstanding individual of the game (I’m not even going to bother with the Andy Bichel comments). I’m also keen for us not to sully ourselves with those who question the nationality of certain players on both sides, which for me is a complete nonentity, but sadly common in the modern game now.

It has been a strange series so far, in that the game on the pitch has been played in a hard but fair manner, however the behaviour off the pitch from the opposing sets of fans has been anything but that. I get the tribalism from each set of supporters as the rivalry between England and Australia has gone back since the dawn of time, but at this point it does look like a race to the bottom between each sets of fans with each declaring that the other are more disgusting. I didn’t see the ball from Archer that hit Smith in real time, but I’d have been very surprised if Archer was laughing at the plight of his injured opponent. TLG mentioned in his piece about having a delayed reaction when he unwittingly hurt a player from his own side, with bewilderment turning to shock then then turn into horror. Indeed Mitchell Johnson, a scourge of many a former England Test Batsman wrote this piece in the ‘I’ paper yesterday:

One thing that may have opened his eyes is the dispute around his reaction to his blow to Smith’s head. For me, I just don’t think he knew how to react at that moment. To judge him without knowing the facts and on limited evidence is pretty poor.

Bowling with pace and hostility doesn’t happen without the intent to do so. You need the desire to do it in order to go through all the pain that comes with bowling at extreme speeds. I can say with absolute honesty that I used to run in wanting to take the batsman’s head off when I was trying to bowl a bouncer.

That’s not me saying that I ever wanted to hurt anyone. It was simply a way to trick my mind and get up for the battle.

I didn’t think that I would like Mitchell Johnson, as he took on the role of heavily moustachioed destroyer of England’s batsman in the past, but it has been a nice surprise to listen to his well-informed and erudite commentary, especially as he has past experiences of bowling with pace and venom and hitting one or two players in the process. It’s a shame we haven’t heard more from him as opposed to some other of his compatriots who are far less insightful.

It has now been confirmed that Steve Smith out of the Third Test, which is a great pity for those that want to see the best players playing in the Ashes, even if they are for the opposition. I’m not a doctor and hence can’t provide an informed view of the Smith concussion, but although he did look shaky when he returned to the crease, I am more than willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the Australian medical team and the concussion checks that they no doubt carried out; whether there should be an independent medical team for each Test Match is an argument that is potentially worth having in the future, but for now it’s a moot point and personally I seriously doubt the Australian medics would purposely endanger their own player. It is naturally a huge blow to Australia in losing their best player; however I don’t agree with those who now make England favourites for this match, it’s more the case that both teams are more equally matched now. In my opinion. I can’t see Australia making many changes to their side apart from the enforced change, with Marnus Labuschange likely to come in for Smith, though there could be a possible change in the bowling line up with either Starc or Pattinson potentially coming in for Siddle, who was not at his best at Lords.

As the England it looks like it will be an unchanged side despite the clear deficiencies of the batsmen. As Danny pointed out his last post, the fact that we only have a three day gap between this Test and the last Test and with the other English batsmen in the county set up not having played red ball cricket for a long while, it means that England are stuck with the batsmen they have. They may decide to tinker with the batting order, with Root maybe going down to his preferred position at number 4 with Denly replacing him at number 3, but it’s like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic anyway! One would expect that another failure for Roy or Denly will likely mean changes for the fourth test; however this is Ed Smith and I’m not sure if he has ever admitted that he has been wrong. The one major positive for England has been the performance of Ben Stokes, who looked a top-class batsman in the last Test and is hopefully now beginning to realise the major talent that he has in abundance. Stokes has been the backbone of the English batting line throughout the World Cup and has looked in fine fettle this series and boy do England need him to carry on with his form throughout the rest of the series if they are going to have any chance in re-claiming the urn.

The weather looks set fair for Headingley, which is no doubt a relief for both sets of batsmen as the ball can swing round trees with sufficient overhead conditions. Here’s hoping for another edge of the seat game at Yorkshire, perhaps without the controversy and mudslinging that we saw at Lords. Oh and one more thing, can someone please ask Joe Root to try and not ruin our new fast bowling hope? If i see Archer being given any more 12 over spells, then I might just combust.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts on the game or anything else below.

 

 

 

 

England vs Australia: 2nd Test, Day Five

After the fireworks yesterday, today ended with more of a damp squib than anything else. The rain which removed another seventy minutes of play from the game made the draw seem almost inevitable from the start. Stokes and Buttler made it through the truncated morning session unscathed, which made the possibility of an Australian win vanishingly remote. England then declared on a conservatively high total, meaning nothing less than a miraculous spell of bowling would manage to take ten wickets in the space of just 48 overs.

Archer did rise the hopes of England’s fans early on though, taking the early wickets of Warner and Khawaja with his customary quick deliveries. He followed that by hitting Smith’s replacement Marnus Labuschagne on the helmet with just the batsman’s delivery at the crease. The South African substitute batsman recovered though and, together with Cameron Bancroft, steadied the ship until Tea.

Leach struck in the first over after Tea, trapping Bancroft LBW, but Labuschagne again buckled down and defended well. It wasn’t until the last hour that England managed to break through the Austrealians’ defences, with Leach taking the wickets of Labuschagne and Wade in successive balls. But, even with these dismissals, England simply ran out of time to press for a result.

With the next Test starting on Thursday, all eyes are already turning to selection issues. Jason Roy didn’t do himself any favours by dropping a slip chance which bounced off his chest, but it seems unlikely that England would make a change to their batting lineup at such short notice. Perhaps they could swap Denly and Roy’s batting positions, but that seems like a pretty marginal improvement to me. Archer and Leach both made themselves seem indispensible in the game, which raises the headache for England’s selector about who to leave out if Anderson is ‘fit’.

In truth, most of England’s batting lineup should be in the firing line. Other than Rory Burns, who averages 56.50 in the two games so far, it’s been a lacklustre couple of games for the specialist batsmen. Root (24.75), Denly (21.25), Buttler (12.25) and Roy (10.00) should all consider themselves lucky that the quick turnaround and the fact that county batsmen have been playing T20 for the last few weeks makes it unlikely (but not impossible) that England will ring the changes in Leeds.

For Australia, the situation is more serious. Steve Smith was finally diagnosed with a concussion this morning, which left him unable to play today and unlikely to be available for Australia in the next Test too. There would be no guarantees beyond that either, as concussions can last for an indeterminate length of time. Marnus Labuschagne did a fine job filling in for Smith at short notice, but there is also Marcus Harris and Mitch Marsh vying for the open spot. It would be a huge blow for Australia if Smith wasn’t available though, as he virtually won the first Test single-handed for the tourists.

I have what I acknowledge is an unusual viewpoint when it comes to cricket. Whilst I love watching it, I often view it through the prism of being a workplace rather than wholly a source of entertainment and drama. So, for example, I don’t expect a player to be any more ‘loyal’ to his team and fans than someone working behind the counter at McDonalads would be to that huge corporate machine and its customers. Another, more pertinent example would be the low regard with which teams, journalists and fans often regard the health and wellbeing of players when in pursuit of short-term glory.

I missed most of yesterday’s play, and so I didn’t see Smith’s full batting performance personally, but his dismissal to Woakes and his subsequent review did not seem the actions of a batsman with all of his faculties. There is an attitude in cricket (and many other professional sports) that it is necessary for players to ‘man up’ and play through pain, risking further injury. Those who choose to leave the field of play or make themselves unavailable for selection to seek treatment are called ‘weak’ and ‘not team players’ in the press, and can have their card marked in terms of selection.

Concussion is an incredibly serious condition, one which can become significantly more serious if it recurs soon after the initial blow. I cannot imagine any other workplace in the Western world which would even consider allowing an employee to return so soon after taking a blow like Smith received to his unprotected head. It is a decision which should have been out of his hands, regardless of how much he wanted to get on the Lord’s honours board.

Cricket Australia justified their actions in a press release by saying that 30% of concussions don’t show symptoms until 24 hours later. If that is the case, considering the strength of the blow to an exposed part of the head, why didn’t they wait 24 hours before allowing him back on the field? Cricket is just a game, or a job, and not worth risking someone’s life over.

As always, feel free to comment on the game or anything else below.

England vs Australia: 2nd Test, Day Four

For England to win this match, they probably need to be bowled out sometime around the middle of tomorrow, for the chances of them declaring with any kind of reasonable target are minimal, particularly given their position 1-0 down in the series.  It is fortunate then that the batting line up did their part to remove the possibility of a tricky decision by (yet again) getting out early.  So much has been written about the flaws in the order, and the second innings was little more than a rinse and repeat of the first – Roy getting out early, Burns looking the part as a Test opener without going on to a big score, Root struggling at number three, Denly getting in and getting out again.

Buttler and Stokes arrested the slide batting to the close, but with England just 104 ahead and with only six wickets in hand, posting a challenging score is going to be difficult. As to what would offer a passable chance of victory, anything around 200 would be likely to be less than easy to chase, because although it is really only a two and a bit day pitch, there will be the added pressure of a run chase. Yet it is by no means certain England will get there, it is going to require some support from the tail, and at least one of the remaining batsmen to make a significant contribution.  If more than one does so, then the chances of a definitive result will start to recede, but these are wild fantasies given the batting performances so far, even if the lower order have done well.

Undoubtedly the biggest talking point of the day was Jofra Archer’s duel with Steve Smith.  It was a riveting, thrilling passage of play, with Archer’s speed rising into the mid-nineties and Smith for the first time look genuinely discomfited.  First the blow on the arm, which eventually resulted in Smith going for an X-Ray (fortunately showing no break), and then a sickening blow to the neck which left Smith on the ground, to retire hurt, and then to return for a frantic brief stay at the crease.

There are so many issues arising from this – firstly that Test cricket is testing, and that a fast bowler intimidating batsmen is entirely part of the game, and those who complained about that part are simply not worth listening to.  The next element was the reaction of Jofra Archer, based on he and Jos Buttler smiling and sharing a conversation a good five minutes after the event, but while Smith was still being treated some distance away.  Archer’s reaction was deemed in some quarters to be showing a lack of care, a lack of interest in the welfare of a player hurt.  This is unfair and presuming knowledge of the inner thoughts of another person.  It’s also something to which I can relate to some degree.  Some years back I hit a straight drive back which hit my batting partner (who wasn’t wearing a helmet) flush on the side of the head.  I can recall my reaction to it all too well – yes, absolutely I went to see if he was OK, but I was also utterly bewildered and confused by it.  That initial reaction was not so much to rush to his aid (as it undoubtedly is when a bystander rather than the perpetrator), but a confused one, denial that it had happened, and absolutely nervous laughter and attempts at humour.  It is entirely normal to be so uncertain in terms of reaction, and not to behave in the way that those on the outside might imagine someone should.  The mind in those circumstances is a maelstrom of conflicting thoughts and emotions.

As my batting partner left the field to go to hospital, I carried on batting, entirely on auto-pilot.  I lasted about 5 minutes before the dawning terror of what had just happened came through, and at that point the cricket field was the last place I wanted to be.  I spent much of the rest of the afternoon with a rising sense of concern and became progressively more upset.  I have no idea what was going through Jofra Archer’s thoughts, but I do absolutely recall my own state of mind when something not too dissimilar happened, and I am not prepared to act as judge and jury because someone didn’t react in the way that the court of social media wanted them to do in the moments following a genuinely sickening incident.

The ground did go completely silent as it happened, as grounds do when there is shock and concern, but when Smith came back on to resume his innings, a largely supportive crowd gave a standing ovation, but the ground also contained a few who booed.  Those who did are idiots, but it doesn’t take very many to do it out of a crowd of 30,000 to be extremely noticeable.  And while they might be idiots for doing that, there have been enough instances in Australia, England and elsewhere of related fools to forestall any attempt at claiming the moral high ground by anyone.  That’s not to defend in any way those at Lord’s who booed a brave and fine batsman, it is to acknowledge that morons exist everywhere, and selective outrage either in England or Australia when some in the other country are guilty of it remains endlessly tiresome.  More than that, it operates as a feedback loop, and doubtless there will be some in Australia next time around using that as an excuse to berate English players.  And so it carries on, with some pretending they are the good guys and the opposition supporters are not, with no grounds whatever for such a view.

Those present at the ground reacted with some surprise at the strong reaction on social media, suggesting that the boos that were clearly audible through the TV speakers probably were not indicative of a wider response within the ground.  Either way, it was unedifying and didn’t reflect well on those who did it.

As a passage of play though, it was utterly beguiling.  And there is the additional point about what it means for the remainder of this series.  Extreme pace makes any batsman, no matter how good, uncomfortable.  Smith has looked to be playing on a 25 yard pitch thus far this series, so much time has he had to play the ball.  For the very first time, he looked in trouble, and that means that he’s going to get a whole heap more of the same for the remainder of the series, which is no different at all to the way England players have been targeted by short pitched bowling by Australia, and something Smith himself will both expect and be up for the challenge set.  It means it’s going to be exciting, and intimidatory, and entirely within both the laws and the spirit of the game, just as it was the other way around.  When England were being bounced out by the likes of Mitchell Johnson, the frustration was that England didn’t play it better, not that there was anything at all wrong with the tactic.  In Archer, England have a weapon of not just pace, but extreme pace.  Given the number of overs he bowled this innings, the danger is in him being overbowled rather than used as a strike bowler, and his 25 overs in Australia’s innings ought to be a concern.

Smith aside, England had chipped away at the Australian batting order all day.  Archer was explosive, but Broad had been his usual efficient self with the ball, and collected four well deserved wickets.  Broad continues to be somewhat underappreciated, despite his 450 Test wickets, but his enforced rest over the winter gave him the opportunity to work properly on his bowling, and the results seem fruitful.  At 33, and without quite the athletic physique of his long term opening partner James Anderson, he may not be too far from the end, but his attempt to prolong his career reflects well on him – even his batting appears a touch more confident than it has been, albeit a long way from the days when he was verging on being a genuine all rounder.

Tomorrow might be a depressing day, a dull day or a thrilling day.  And the 98 overs scheduled will have to be bowled, which will make a delightful change.