Once Again, Cast Unto The Dark, To The Coldest Night, And The Misery’s Dawn

In case you are wondering, the song lyric above is from a cheerful ditty by Royksopp called “Woods of Desolation” from the album “The Inevitable End”. No prizes why that album title popped into my head. Because there was nothing more inevitable than England losing this test match overnight, dark and cold in the November early hours, and dawn bringing misery as I looked at the phone.* (See note at the end for a Dmitri Mess Up confession)

Well, misery for those that care enough. Judging by the reactions I’ve seen, the number that care are dwindling in number. There’s something to learn there, you know, ECB. When it comes to future series, you won’t even have the TMS diehards to wax lyrical, because that’s been flogged off for most overseas tours to Talk Sport. Yes, I know that’s not the ECB’s fault. It is pretty much the only thing about this debacle that isn’t. The alarms are going off, the word salad emanating from those in high office gets more irritating, and while Rome wasn’t built in a day, these are players getting paid more to produce less. It’s not lost on me. I hope it isn’t on you.

But it’s not new. It feels inevitable.

Stop me where you’ve heard this before. Inadequate first innings by England. Bowl themselves back into the game, then let the opposition off the hook and allow a relatively unheralded player to make their first test double / career best, sometimes accompanied by a lower order bat making a ton, and the bowling attack look toothless. Then, when faced with saving a game, falling apart at the seams at the first hint of pressure. This could have been any number of tests – the ingredients are there. Bridgetown, Antigua, Perth, Sydney, most of the last tour of India. It’s the same old same old. Jason Holder, Karun Nair, Mitchell Marsh – we’ve been here before.

A couple of years ago, and I don’t forget these things as you may notice, I once berated England winning a test match and was called out for it – at home against Pakistan. We could have done it better, I said. I was told that I was being too negative, and knew sod all. The crux of my criticism was that no-one makes big hundreds any more. While Jos Buttler making a flowery sixty was all well and good, the lack of big hundreds was frightening. How many scores of 150+ in the recent past? Bueller? Bueller? Where have been the first innings hundreds taking the game by the scruff of the neck? Where have been the massive innings on flat decks – because contrary to the opinions being expressed, there have been a number of flat decks. If we’re happy to potter along looking forward to winning matches on relative green tops at home, with a Dukes ball and an overcast sky, then great. If you want to be world number one, and these guys say they want to, then act like it.

Here England faced a flat deck and a bowling attack not quite on it first up. This is the new era. The Silverwood era. We were going to change from the apparent simple approach of Trevor Bayliss – he of the give it a red hot go mate, while I have a kip in the changing room – which was pretty much the simplistic message conveyed by our media about him when it came to tests. Bayliss was employed as the limited over cricket savant, limited savvy when the overs weren’t. The test job as an additional throw-in to keep him occupied when not planning the triumph of 2019.

But that’s changed now. Ashley said so. Now Chris Silverwood is in charge and we are going to play like test batsmen, give test cricket priority while the board tries to launch cricket’s version of El Dorado (look it up). No longer the give it large, give it high, devil-may-care approach of Bayliss. No. This is Yorkie world, and a price needs to be paid for your wicket. An opener being 75 not out at the end of a full day’s play would be lauded, not lambasted. A batsman making a 300 ball ton, not called Sir, would not be pilloried as dull, but heralded as a test batsman to relish. Long passages of play with little scoreboard movement will be recognised as proper test cricket, not aggressive, in your face play. Hell, even our feed was drinking the Kool Aid on Day 1, thinking this is something more like it. 241 for 4. Denly showing grit and determination. Stokes sticking at it. Burns and Sibley playing like proper openers. Love it. We’re in. This is TEST CRICKET, baby. It’s common sense. While at the back of my mind my thought was, couldn’t we have been 280 or 290 for 5? But it was better than 200 all out, or other worse initiations to recent series, so better to be on the safe side.

Then it went wrong. After a docile hour on Day 2, with Pope and Stokes starting to put the foot down, there looked minimum 400 and a bit more in the offing. But no, I shouldn’t have let those thoughts in my head. Leopards don’t change their spots. England collapse, more news later. Past performance is a useful guide to future results, and so the wheels came off.  That four wicket flop in the morning session on Day 2 ultimately cost England the match – we just didn’t know it then. While we were being told Ollie Pope is head and shoulders above anything else in county cricket, so was Mark Ramprakash! Ben Stokes looked imperious, until he didn’t. Sam Curran got nailed first up. Jofra made an application to bat at 11, not 9.

Shit shots, decent bowling, the rot infusing this scientific experiment of a cricket team as surely as if they’d been an old bark dowsed in stagnant water for days on end. This was a wicket for someone to go big. Really big. 91 is not really big. New Zealand bowled well, but not amazingly. England seemed to revert to their modus operandi of tours past, and posted 350. Hell, even yours truly tried to convince himself that 350 was an OK score that kept England in the game. I’m a fool.

As England took five wickets before the New Zealand score had reached 200 (with Taylor and Williamson out), and yet still managed to concede 600 runs, you have to ask why. It was a good pitch, but once again this bowling attack travels about as well as English wine. Make your own jokes. I saw some of this insipid performance, and at times it was hopeless. Commentators love a bit of this, and they went to town. While I don’t necessarily equate hands on hips, or crouching on kness as a pointer to not taking wickets (the New Zealand commentators can talk some real old toss at times, and they took turns to show fielders with hands on hips or crouching to prove the point), it is fair to say that Root’s captaincy is far more Cook-esque than Shiny Toy-esque and that’s not a compliment. It doesn’t have the showmanship or vivacity of others, and can look as thought the key word is drift. But that’s not all that alarms about Root’s captaincy. We’ll get on to his handling of Jofra later.

I’ve made a point of tracking Root the batsman’s average as he took over the captaincy. From an average comfortably in the 50s, and being a cut above any middle order bat in my cricket watching lifetime, he’s now just a couple of basis point ticks above Kevin Pietersen’s 47.27, which, as we recall didn’t make him a great player, just a player of great innings. It’s hard to remember Joe’s last great innings. I’ll take it back to Joburg 2015, and you can shout out any other (Cardiff 2015? Edgbaston 2015?). It’s also giving the lie to the nonsense of the conversion rates – sure I want to see big tons, but I also want to see Root make 70s and 80s if he isn’t. I don’t want to see him get out to crap shots, or worrying early technical lapses. He is so much better than that.

Around Root are bits and pieces, not quite good enough test batsmen. For all his verve and sense of occasions, Stokes still averages 36 in 58 tests. It’s not exactly stellar. Burns looks like the best of a duff opening bunch, what the US would call a AAAA player in baseball – too good for the minors, not good enough for the majors – while Sibley looked what he is, in my view – ungainly and bound to be found out by the good bowlers. Denly’s mental fortitude and sheer application is to be applauded, and rewarded. He should be the last of the top order to be dropped, but he’s not a long-term answer. Ollie Pope, sitting at six, is a talent, but he’s not going to get away with being loose at this level. Buttler hiding at seven is a waste, but then he’s not a test bat on his own merit, so not sure where he should be. 33.5 in 37 tests, with one century (in a losing cause, where hope there was none) isn’t anything to write home about, but makes you an almost automatic selection in this team. They are already talking about bringing Moeen Ali back for South Africa, as if the poor man hasn’t suffered enough.

The bowling was lack lustre. Broad was bowling within himself in the mid 70s most of the time. Archer was borderline accused of being a lazy child by Simon Doull in particular, an interesting, and not altogether wholesome opinion, for a man who bowled more overs than any of the other pace bowlers. He is supposed to be a shock bowler, not a stock bowler. It isn’t going to be any surprise in three years time when the 90mph spells will be the thing of joyous memory, and Archer will be bowling mid to low 80s, has had a stress fracture or a knee injury, and find his character further impugned. It’s the way we play, I’m afraid. Joe Root looks as well suited to handle him as I am to author the book “Looking on the Bright Side”.

Curran looked OK, but the experts think he bowls too slow, and they seem to like Woakes more, so there is that. I’m still convinced he’s a tweener – not a good enough bat, not a good enough bowler, but just about tempting enough to play. He does remind me of the early days of Ben Hollioake – the potential is so alluring. Jack Leach did little to convince he is the future runner through batting line-ups that his stats in county cricket indicate. This looked a light bowling attack and it proved so. I have no idea what they will do in Hamilton.

As always I concentrate too much on England and not on the excellent play of the hosts. My Kiwi colleague has been waiting to hear my views on the game, in the way I wanted to hear Charlton fans talk about their latest loss in their cup final to my team. To downplay the New Zealand performance would be wrong. It is always great to win from positions of difficulty and 197 for 5 chasing 350 required it. When needed Watling, de Grandhomme and Santner played magnificently, honing in their natural game (and in CdG’s and Santner’s case, giving the lie to the adaptability argument/defence we continually hear to excuse our performance) and then pounding home the advantage.

BJ Watling has been a bloody good cricketer over the years, sticking in there with his more heralded team-mates. It was he who accompanied McCullum for much of the time to get New Zealand’s first test triple hundred. He accompanied Kane Williamson in a partnership of 365 against Sri Lanka as well. He’s no stranger to batting long. Or batting well against England. His century in the Headingley test of 2015 was pivotal in the series levelling win. Here he had a game plan, stuck to it, made the most of being dropped, made England pay, and, by all accounts, kept wicket very tidily too. He’s no superstar like Jos, nor a firebrand like YJB. He just averages 40.8 in tests, and is rated as a good keeper. Our two average in the mid 30s, and aren’t being confused with the greats behind the wickets either. Sometimes, you need to doff your cap. Sometimes you have to ask who is overpaid, and who doesn’t get enough respect.

Mitchell Santner joined Watling for another mammoth partnership against England and all hope ebbed away. 600 out of 200 for 5. Vive la revolution. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Santner has that in him, he’s a dangerous limited over batsman. It was his first hundred in tests, and one suspects it might not be his last. The New Zealanders took England to school, and not enough lessons were learned. Our successful rearguards of lore are now in the distant rear view mirror.

I’ve not seen the highlights of England’s demise. Reading the tweets, the reports, the comments and some of the online clips is enough. It doesn’t need watching. Just as you’d seen all the Police Academy films when you’d seen the first one, so this tired old retread, with several different cast members isn’t really dragging you to watch it. Therein lies the rub. If we aren’t watching it, or bothered, then who should be? Would we really miss the Barmy Army and their self-serving rendition of Jerusalem? Would we miss the post-match comments about learning lessons, and good play being let down by bad? Would we miss Chris Silverwood talking about holistic approaches? Would we miss Mike Selvey having a go at this management-speak while in the past he’d given the Flower and Moores piffle a free pass?

On to Hamilton for the next test. You may remember around a decade ago us collapsing in a glorious heap in the fourth innings there. It happened to a team stacked with the players that would lead us to world domination. It can also happen, but a lot more frequently to a team stacked with also rans. Until proven otherwise, and in the absence of miracles baling us out (not a long-term plan), this team is a bunch of also rans, and no holistic paradigm shifts, no straight talking, no taking the positives, no learning of lessons can persuade me from the belief that this is a team, and a future, in almost terminal decline. I hope to heavens I am not wrong.

Which brings me to Joe Root as England captain. Accompanying his diminishing average, are dismissals a top batsman should not be encountering. He should not be giving it away to distracted strokes. He should be averaging over 50 and he isn’t. This is the criminal damage we are inflicting. He should not be bowling Archer as a workhorse, but as a man to bowl short, quick spells. He should not be the languid, almost invisible presence he portrays when he is in the field. I didn’t think we’d go back to the Cook style, but we are. It’s worrying. He shouldn’t have long to turn this around, but we live in the ECB world of TINA. His runs are more valuable than his leadership. There are no guarantees that relinquishing the captaincy will increase the output. It didn’t really with Cook. But the trend is alarming.

The second test starts on Thursday night, UK time. May optimism be on the agenda, and may we actually see an England player pass 150 sometime before this winter is out.

“The warmth of a thousand suns, drawn away
And fade before my eyes
The Inevitable End, I always knew would be
The truth you could always see.”

Could be the mantra for English cricket, and the first test at the Bay Oval.

* The funny thing is, I got confused. Royksopp has a great album called the Inevitable End, but these lyrics aren’t from that album. They are from a band called The Inevitable End and a song called Woods of Desolation. I’ve since listened to the song, and have no idea where these lyrics are in it. Oh well. You get the message.