First up, I hope you all had an excellent Christmas, and best wishes for 2020. The output on here has gone down with our increasingly busy lives, and, it has to be said, the inclination not to go over the same ground too often – the Hundred’s sheer ghastliness could sustain a whole blog, but others have that gig. We are, in the main, an international cricket blog when England play, and that’s what we will continue to maintain even if enthusiasm on repeating the same old same old on the ECB, while cathartic, diminishes.
Secondly, as I’m writing this on Christmas night, this isn’t going to be an in depth preview. The first test has been “switched” from the normal Boxing Day venue of days gone by of Durban to Centurion. My over-riding memories of Kingsmead tests were the pitch doing plenty very early, the team batting first getting skittled, the team batting second clinging on, and the wicket going very flat. I flew out to South Africa back in 2004/5 in the middle of such a Kingsmead test. It would bring hundreds for Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss (who had an amazing series) and the last for Graham Thorpe. England had won 8 straight tests going into that game, I believe. As soon as I touched down in South Africa, we drew. A few days later we lost in Cape Town and the jinx record was maintained. I digress.
There’s been a lot of talk about the wicket, thanks to George’s tweet on Tuesday, but let’s see how it plays. I’ve heard too often about duff wickets that turn out fine. My mantra is most people don’t have a clue what it is going to do – whether you are in Pretoria or in Peckham. Chris Silverwood, showing some early worrying signs, is outwardly saying that he might consider the wonderful no-spinner route that had them hurrah-ing in Hamilton (I’m of the thought that unless the pitch hasn’t been mown for months, or they are playing in an English spring, you consider not playing a spinner, then pick one). I would hope we won’t, but there appears to be a tendency among the England clan now to be the smartest guys in the room. If Leach has recovered enough from his illness, and is able to go five days, he’s the best spinner is available and should play.
I am not going to try to pick the England team. You can read that elsewhere. Leach is likely to miss out through illness, so count out what I said below. Pope has come down with it as well, so he may be replaced by Bairstow. Ben Stokes, and our thoughts must go to him with his father very ill (but appears improving) is likely to play. Anderson returns, but with him there must be a worry now as he breaks down more often than my brother’s old Vauxhall Cavalier (it is the 27th anniversary of that clapped out crate breaking down on the M62 on the way home from Tranmere tomorrow – note Tranmere away on Boxing Day, the bastards. It’s a “short” hop to effing Cardiff this year). Stuart Broad will keep his place, Jofra Archer will have the eyes of the “effort police” on him no doubt, and then it is a question of Woakes, Sam or some mystery spinner. The mystery being his identity, not what he will bowl.
Meanwhile South Africa, 20 or so months on from beating Australia so convincingly in the Abrasive Series, are a team in crisis. Their board has been a shambles, and while Graeme Smith has come in to the fold, with lots of the old greats trying to lend a hand, it remains to be seen if this is an impressive sticking plaster on a horribly infected wound. With things looking to have settled down off the field after a rocky December, the timing of Vernon Philander’s announcement that he will be retiring at the end of this series to take a “Kolpak”, probably at Somerset, is another punch in the gut. In England we’d probably sling him out of the team for that. South Africa probably don’t have that luxury. The irony isn’t lost on me. Back in the 1980s England were on tenterhooks for fear of their players supplementing insufficient income by going on rebel tours. Now, thirty plus years on, England are taking South African players for county cricket. The former had me angry at betrayal, the latter has me sad at the erosion of test cricket (and other international formats) in nations outside the Big 3.
So South Africa need new heroes. Firdose Moonda, who was part of the nonsense that started the demise of the previous head of South African cricket when colleagues were banned from attending South African cricket matches, lays out the new problems:
With two players, Rassie van der Dussen and Dwaine Pretorius, all but certain to make their debuts, and two others, Zubayr Hamza and Aiden Markram, with less than 20 caps to their names, South Africa’s batting is laced with inexperience. Though Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada have played 100 Tests between them, Anrich Nortje has only played two Tests and the back-up seamers, Beuran Hendricks and Dane Paterson, are uncapped.
So. A mightily flawed team, who travel as well as my border collie in a car, play a team being pecked at by an avaricious county structure taking the bribe money from the ECB for the Hundred and spending it on imports, and with rookies, young and not so young, in their ranks. It could be fascinating.
OK. That will do you. I have some thoughts for an end of year wrap up, but they can wait.
Before I go, I’ve not written much, if anything, since the passing of Bob Willis. There’s always something more painful at the loss of your childhood icons, and we all impersonated his run-up as kids. I will never forget watching THAT spell at Headingley. And I watched it all. He was part of why I loved cricket although I was never a bowler. Bob held our bowling attack together, stayed with England, and when he retired, turned into an acerbic, witty, funny commentator and pundit (and having read some of his tour and cricket diaries, he was a very good author/story teller). He introduced me to the phrase “Fred Karno’s Circus” regarding a run out in an Ashes test down under, which had me giggling uncontrollably despite not having the first clue who, or what, that circus was. He was The Verdict, and please, please, please God, don’t try to replace him with Dominic Cork. Please no. Most of all, Bob was a great England man, and why he was not knighted, given current standards, I do not know. He will be really, really missed.
Enjoy the cricket tomorrow, and tonight, when Australia play New Zealand in the Boxing Day Test on that notoriously lifeless MCG deck, and we’ll be trying to keep the reports coming during this test and beyond.
Enjoy the rest of the break. Comments below.