New Zealand vs. England, 2nd Test, Day 5 – Inevitability

It only took me around 2 overs last night to realise there was more chance of Colin Graves turning into a forward thinking and pragmatic administrator than there was in seeing some sort of positive of result in the 2nd Test. Some may rue the early missed opportunities on the morning of Day 5 with Ollie Pope putting down what would be a regulation catch for a full time wicketkeeper (which he is not and should never have been put in that position) and then Joe Denly dropping a sitter off Jofra Archer, but in all reality it wouldn’t have mattered. The pitch was the type of pudding that makes those cricket administrators that actually value the Test game have sleepless nights and of course England’s decision not to play a frontline spinner was made to look just as stupid as we all thought it would.

It’s difficult to know what England have got out of such a small Test series, other than another defeat and it drives me mad that we had 5 games of hit and giggle when a 3rd Test would have been far preferable but that’s what we get these days, a load of pointless white ball games to try and make the tours profitable. It’s a sad indictment of the health of the game. The main headline is naturally that England have failed to win a Test series in 2019 for the first time in 20 years. Again this should be a damning indictment on the ECB, as a so called member of the Big 3; however the ECB have made it plainly clear that they simply don’t care about the longer format of the game, they’d rather con fans into attending a white elephant of a competition that will make a small few richer and many more much poorer. In reality this series was simply a carbon copy of the New Zealand tour of 2018 with the hosts dominating a rather feeble touring team who have yet to work out how to take 20 wickets away from home (hint – dropping your frontline spinner isn’t the answer) and a batting unit that is both inexperienced and shorn of confidence. There may have been talk before the series about learning to bat properly in Test’s again instead of playing an aggressive brand of cricket which can be best described as reckless, but in the end the results have been the same. The best batsmen in the world know how to time their innings in Test cricket and know when to attack and when to defend, but unfortunately England don’t have very many of these, hence the need for the coaches to come up with sweeping statements in how they should approach their innings.

If this seems overly gloomy then I apologise, but I do feel as I did with the Ashes which resulted in another defeat, that the glass is half empty with this team rather than half full. Sure, there were positives that can be taken out of this series such as Joe Root finally regaining the hunger and application to make big runs in Test Cricket. Rory Burns has also cemented his spot at the top of the order and is beginning to look like a proper Test opener, even if he does seem prone to the odd brain fart at times. It was also good to see Ollie Pope make some runs in Test cricket as I do believe he has the talent to be one of our best batsmen in the future, though I would naturally prefer it if the selectors didn’t try and make it even harder for him to succeed by giving him the gloves or moving him up the order away from his natural position. C’est plus change! I can’t though buy into the captain’s statements after the Test series mind, with Root commenting after the 2nd consecutive defeat this year:

I feel like we’re a more rounded team for being out here, we got ourselves in a position in that first game where we could have gone on and put them under huge amounts of pressure, made a big first-innings score just like we did this week.

“It could have looked very different. But one thing I’m really proud of is the way we learned the lessons quickly from that.”

I personally don’t buy into being proud of a team that has just lost another series unless you were running the 1980’s West Indian team or the early 2000’s Australian team close. New Zealand are a good side with a decent bowling attack, 1 world class batsman and a couple of other international class batsmen, but certainly not a team I’d be proud to lose against. Sure, Root has got to say the right things on camera, but I’d have preferred him to look at what they didn’t do well and commit to do these better. Indeed, there were a number of weaknesses that this team displayed and areas that they can improve on. We still can’t perform with the Kookaburra ball away from home, with the England quicks (probably excluding Stuart Broad) looking less than potent; Jofra Archer has in particular had a poor tour and I do wonder whether Root’s overuse of him during the Ashes has led to the fact that his pace has been down all series. England also need to decide on a frontline spinner and to stick with him. I have no problem at all with it being Jack Leach as he is a tidy bowler with the ability to keep things tight and pick up the odd wicket. He isn’t going to run through a team at Test level, but then again, I’m not sure whether we have one of those spinners in the English setup, but we simply can’t be picking 5 seamers in future. There has to be questions around Sibley, Buttler and Denly, whilst the former should be given the rest of the winter despite his struggles in this series, Buttler definitely needs some competition as his statistics don’t smack of Test Match batsman (Ed – Pick a bloody reserve wicket keeper for South Africa for the love of god!) and whilst the latter is improving in the Test format of the game, he is 34 and needs to turn these 60’s and 70’s into a big century to fully justify his inclusion above a younger talent.

So, we head to South Africa and whilst their board are doing the best impression of the ECB, the cricket on the field isn’t going to get any easier. In fact, this winter schedule seems to have been designed to break some of our cricketers especially Ben Stokes (who was asked to do his best impression of David Saker’s bowling manual at times last night), so there is a good chance things could get worse rather than better.

Another series and another defeat is not what we wanted or hoped for to start the winter with; however, it could easily be argued that ECB have got exactly what they deserved. It’s not a particularly pleasant feeling for fans of the national team mind.

Feel free to share any thoughts on the series below.

Curating a Better Egg

Barring a collapse from New Zealand of the kind that England have so often managed to conjure up in these circumstances, this match will probably end in a draw, not least because the weather forecast isn’t overly promising.  The hard facts will then be that England have lost a second successive series in New Zealand, albeit with only two Test in each instance the term “series” is barely justified.

The surface in Hamilton is slow to the point of being turgid, and England have demonstrated they can definitely bat on such pitches, so assuming this game to be a benchmark for the future would be unwise to the point of recklessness.  But it is also the case that in both matches England have at least tried to play more like a Test team with the bat, and if that went rather badly wrong in the first match, it was at least an attempt.  As Dr Johnson once said about a dog walking on his hind legs, it’s not that it is done well, but you are surprised to see it done at all.  Perhaps this is a new approach, perhaps it is indicative that England are taking Test match batting more seriously and without the carefree approach that has seen them fall in a heap all too often.  Or perhaps it’s just a very slow pitch with minimal movement that has allowed them to plod to big total.  Whether the glass is half full or half empty probably depends on how many times someone has cursed at the television over recent years when England are playing away from home.

The upside is that Joe Root will unquestionably be better for a long innings and a big hundred.  Sure, conditions for batting were benign, even if upping the tempo was difficult, but Root’s relatively poor run in recent times appeared less down to a technique that couldn’t cope with faster tracks than someone who appeared to have lost his patience to play long form cricket.  To what degree this was down to his pursuit of T20 contracts is a matter for debate, but it certainly can’t have hurt to be reminded of what it felt like to play a long Test innings and make the kind of personal score almost forgotten by English batsmen.

In the same spirit, Ollie Pope’s 75 is also highly welcome, especially so given his additional role this match as emergency wicketkeeper.  He is a player of promise, and at such a young age there is no reason to assume he won’t learn and develop, meaning his occasional extravagant shots can be forgiven at the present time.

The new coaching set up had insisted that England were going to bat properly in Tests and these two matches have at least shown a willingness to try.  That doesn’t mean the first Test collapses aren’t indicative of pre-existing faults, but at such an early stage, perhaps a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt towards the intention is worthwhile.

What it doesn’t fix is England’s ongoing problems using the Kookaburra ball overseas, but then there are many reasons behind it that are unlikely to be fixed in a couple of Tests in New Zealand, even if there was a firm intention to fix them at all, which remains doubtful.

Slow, low pitches provide the least entertaining conditions for watching cricket, and if the setting is stunning, the cricket has not been.  The game can ever surprise, but anything other than a draw after tonight will be a major one.  Test series should never really be just about learning for the future, but neither should it just be a case of looking at outcome and ignoring at least the possibility of progress, however limited that might be.

The problem is invariably a complete lack of faith in the ECB to truly mean any of what is needed to provide a genuine pathway, but if the ECB’s duplicity in talking up Test cricket while acting at every stage to undermine it, at least they’re not alone in that.  Cricket South Africa have provided an object lesson in Dennis Healey’s first law of holes – having removed the accreditation of cricket journalists for the crime of daring to criticise a highly dysfunctional governing body, they have subsequently tried to justify it, apologised for it while justifying it, mentioned that cricket journalists should only be talking about events on the field, and even got in the ECB favourite of thanking the stakeholders.  They haven’t so much backtracked as crabbed sideways before flipping over and waving their legs in the air in a vain attempt to get back upright.  It remains endlessly fascinating how cricket administration is so appallingly inept that it even fails to reach the limbo level low bar of sports administration generally.

With England due to arrive in South Africa in a fortnight, it offers up the enticing prospect of playing against a team whose governing body is even more crassly incompetent than their own, although in their favour they haven’t yet come up with an entirely new but unnecessary playing format.

Still, first things first – England do have a match to win this evening, and unlikely as it may be, the old favourite of a couple of quick wickets making it interesting will certainly apply.

Hey Rainmaker, Come Away From That Man – 2nd Test, Day 3

Dmitri here, as a late stand-in to write today’s little piece. And for once, I promise it will be short!

England started the day in an awkward position, but the theory was/is that England would have the best of the batting conditions on Day 3. With Rory Burns and Joe Root, who had built a decent partnership at Old Trafford back in September against the Aussies, at the crease, it was clear that a lot of responsibility was on their shoulders. They started quite fluently, and Burns reached 50 first as Wagner tested whether he could play the short ball or not (he could, and when he middled it, the ball fairly flew to the boundary). Joe Root was much more circumspect, cutting out some of the more risky shots in his repertoire, but relying more on the the nudges and flicks.

At lunch, and with me flicking back and forth between this and the Iron Bowl (War Eagle!), I decided, after an hour failing to get to sleep, to stay up until Rory Burns made his century, or fail trying. Post-lunch the play was very sedate – good for England to get some time at the crease, play proper test cricket and get a sound base, but not wonderful if you are actually trying to win the game (and I believe that ship sailed once New Zealand passed 300).

The pace slowed, England facing the bowling dry ethic, some funky field settings and some thoughtful, if not penetrating bowling, and had to remain patient. Burns had some release shots, most notably when he seemed a little stuck on 94, when he got a nice wide gift, and then a few balls later he made it to his second ton with a flick off the hips. I said before this test that Rory is a AAAA player in baseball parlance, and I still think he is to a degree. But what he is at the moment is the best opener in England, so he’s certain of his place for a while now.

A brain fart did for him, just as Athers was commenting that this was a time for a big ton, Burns pushed for two, wasn’t the quickest on the first run, and was one frame short for the return. Having survived almost being sawn off by Joe Root earlier (Matt Henry missing the throw in from the outfield), it seemed a particularly careless dismissal. One suspects that this innings will turn out to be more important to Rory than it will be for England.

Joe Root got stuck in, didn’t give it away, accumulated and made a confidence building hundred. While I am most worried about the captaincy’s effect on Joe Root’s average, and production for the team, this doesn’t answer the questions about his ability to lead in the field that are getting louder and louder. This was a vital innings, and to be very fair, Root has tons in his last three overseas tours, so he’s not failing to produce away from home. But again, the innings also was one that didn’t advance the game in any way, and probably betrayed the lack of confidence he might have in this team. It would look a good innings if we were trying to save the series. In terms of winning it, it maybe wasn’t the best policy. For our long term future, it might be the most valuable for the team. Cricket is funny like that.

Root made his slowest century in terms of balls faced (I’m getting a Matthew Hayden at the Oval vibe) but he’s still there, and while he is, England can contemplate getting up to New Zealand’s total. The dimissals of Stokes, who nicked to first slip after a fluent cameo, and Crawley, who might have blown his one chance for a while by nicking off to Wagner for 1, set England back. Ollie Pope came in and stabilised the innings with Root to take England to 269 for 5 – 106 behind but with a chance, if only a slim one – before the remainder of the day was rained off. The forecast isn’t crash hot for the rest of the game either. All pointers are for a second successive 1-0 win for New Zealand in a two test series. This pitch is a slow pudding, and it’s hard to see England bowling New Zealand out with time to chase down a winning total.

Thought for the day(s) – Doesn’t the way Warner has got nearly 500 runs, for once out, in two digs on flat Aussie wickets with the Kookaburra ball speak absolute volumes for the quality of some test cricket. Pakistan will enjoy it in England, if we put up the same conditions as we have in the past few years. It’s mad. Also, Yasir Shah made a test hundred. The game is in a pretty old shape, ain’t it?

Comments on Day 4 below.