It’s Chris Woakes Day. Oh Alright, Stuart.

As it turned out, the weather held off just long enough for England to take the last of the 8 wickets they needed to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 series win.  Only just, for mere moments after the final celebrations, the heavens opened.  Whether that downpour would have been enough to curtail play for sufficiently long to cause West Indian chagrin is a moot point, for there was a sense of inevitability about the steady procession of wickets and little in the way of meaningful resistance.  Jermaine Blackwood had a hint of permanence about him, but he too was swept away in a tide of wickets as Chris Woakes destroyed the middle order to finish with 5-50.  If ever there was a day to come up with a Michelle and still play second fiddle, this was it, for Broad took all of the others to fall to a bowler, including both his 500th Test victim and also the match-winning one.  The boy sure knows how to seize the limelight.

Much will be written about how this series was more about cricket being played at all, and the generosity of spirit in the West Indies team to come at all; they deserve the plaudits coming their way.  Despite local outbreaks, the Covid-19 situation is much improved from where it was when they agreed to tour, and while at present playing cricket seems an entirely reasonable activity, it was far from the case when they first accepted the invitation.  Cricket boards may have many reasons for acting the way they do, but individual players are the ones who walk the walk.  It isn’t just England who should be expressing their gratitude, it is all of sport, both here and abroad.  It may not be easy, and without spectators it may only be a facsimile of Test cricket, but all journeys begin with a single step.  That it was the West Indies players who took that first step should always be appreciated.

For the players involved, there were the usual winners and losers.  Stuart Broad himself performed the admirable feat of not only being highly vocal in his disappointment at being left out of the first Test, but of backing up his words to the point he was duly anointed Player of the Series despite missing a third of it.  He’s been a peculiarly under-appreciated player throughout much of his career, his exceptional spells where he can destroy any batting line up often seeming to lead to irritation about his performances the rest of the time rather than appreciation of the box office displays themselves.  Yet his record is a fine one, and more intriguingly, he appears, at 34, to be getting better.  The lengths are fuller, the line straighter, and the sense of danger when he’s bowling is palpable.  Perhaps now he is being accepted for what he has become, and with a career much nearer the end than the beginning, taken to heart as someone to be enjoyed while he’s still around.

For much of his career he has been the foil to James Anderson.  At last, it appears to now be the other way around.  He’s the main man in the England bowling attack, and revelling in the adulation.  And why the hell not?  The stratified heights of the 500 Test wicket bowling club is analysed in terms of bowling averages and strike rate, but in Broad’s case both are continuining to fall.   In the last two years his average has been under 21, and his strike rate a quite exceptional 41 balls per wicket.  At his age, it cannot continue forever, but it is something to be thoroughly admired for as long as it does.  Nor is it any kind of accident, for his awareness of his age led him to make adjustments to his run up and action in the hope of extending his career.  It seems to be working.

Ben Stokes topped the batting averages, a Test series coming of age in many ways, for although his performances had become notable over the last few years, this was the one where few could argue with the statement that he’s now England’s best batsman.  And not a bad bowler either.

He wasn’t alone in having a series to look back on with some pleasure.  The opening pair of Sibley and Burns both made consistent contributions, lending the first wicket partnership a sense of permanence that has been absent from England for quite some time.  Those who complained about the scoring rate missed the point spectacularly; there are plenty in the England batting line up who can score quickly, but their repeated exposure to the new ball in a side all too often reduced to 30-3 suppressed their own ability to score, and laid too much pressure on Root.  It would not be in the least surprising to see his performances with the bat pick up as a result.

Neither Burns nor Sibley are the finished product, nor are either likely at this stage to scare bowling attacks around the world.  Indeed, their struggles to find scoring areas against spin made it clear there is work to be done. That isn’t the point, stability is sufficient in this England side after a period of anything but.  And a word here for Joe Denly, who has likely played his last Test innings: his scores were ultimately insufficient to maintain a Test career, particularly at his age.  Nevertheless, against Australia last year and South Africa in the winter, he did at least set a template for occupation of the crease that seemed entirely out of keeping with the helter-skelter (and markedly unsuccessful) England approach of recent times.  He brought a sense of calmness to an innings that was refreshing in its rarity in the current age.  There is no disgrace at all in not being quite good enough to make it in Test cricket, for very few do.  To have been moved on having at least made some kind of mark is to have some satisfaction.

The jury remains well and truly out on Jos Buttler’s place in the side.  His score of 67 in the first innings of the Third Test may be sufficient to keep him involved for the time being in the series against Pakistan, but he must surely be running out of time to be the man in possession.  It’s all been so predictable, for his batting career in Tests is more or less what would be exprected from his batting career in all red ball cricket.  Bairstow (if he can sort out his technical flaws) and Foakes are too good to be left on the sidelines by an under-contributing rival.

For the bowlers, England have something of an embarrassment of riches, at least on paper.  Anderson is no longer the attack leader in anything but name, but he remains a highly potent weapon, even if one used more sparingly than in the past.  Archer, Wood, Curran and Stone offer variety and potency – it is a greater selection from which to choose than appeared likely a couple of years ago when the bowling stocks post-Broad and Anderson looked frighteningly bare.

And then there’s Chris Woakes.  It is always a temptation to note the weaknesses of a player rather than their strengths, and while his overseas record isn’t too special, his one at home is quite exceptional.  There’s nothing particularly wrong in noting that as part of an overall strategy.

For the West Indies, there were few batting pluses, and those there were are couched in a sense of frustration they weren’t greater.  Jermaine Blackwood, Shamarh Brooks, Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase, Shai Hope – all flattered to deceive, all looked like they could bat, all got themselves out when set.  Some are young and can improve, for some it’s likely this is just who they are.  For the West Indies to turn from being a competitive side into series winning one (overseas, in particular), they need to find a couple of batsmen who can suggest they will be around for more than a session.  It isn’t a plea for a world class one to come along – although they would doubtless be appreciative of that – but one who the others can learn from and bat around.  Ironic it may be, but perhaps they need a Joe Denly to set the tone.

They have the bowling.  If they ran out of steam by the third Test in quick succession with no rotation, it’s not too surprising, but they are a decent unit and complement each other well.  There is enough with which to work, and their team ultimately falling short this tour wasn’t down to the bowlers failing to perform, but the batsmen.

There is a danger of being patronising in approach when lauding the improvement of the West Indies, and they remain some distance from being good enough to be regular (or even semi-regular) victors abroad, but the difference now is that it does at least look like there is a plan and a strategy for getting there.  They may not succeed, but if now at the point where Caribbean cricket is making the most of the talent at its disposal, that is something.  There is not the sense of desperation at watching a West Indies team losing that has been present for all too many years.

The West Indies leave for home tomorrow, with gratitude and thanks, and doubtless with some relief on their part to be in a warmer environment than Manchester.  For England, an ODI series against Ireland follows before the Pakistan Test matches begin.  Some more cricket to watch, and a perhaps a better sense of where this England Test team are going and how they’re developing.  In April, this seemed like a pipe dream on so many levels.

 

England vs West Indies, 3rd Test, Day 3 – Is Broad Bowling?

England are in a dominant position overnight, and it seems like only the English weather can rescue the West Indies from an inevitable defeat. One man is essentially responsible for England’s ascendancy in this game: Stuart Broad.

The West Indies’ first innings ended pretty quickly, at least once Broad started bowling. He had been held back for the first few overs of the morning, perhaps being saved for the start of the next innings if England had managed to enforce the follow-on. Whilst Jason Holder and Shane Dowrich had a few scares, including Holder being given out before being recalled due to Chris Woakes’ second ever Test no ball, they looked set when Stuart Broad started. Four overs later, Broad had taken four wickets and the West Indies innings was over.

England’s second innings began with two injuries to the tourists. First was captain Jason Holder, who stopped a bouncing ball through the slips with his left thumb and had to leave the field briefly for treatment. The second, and significantly more serious injury, was to wicketkeeper Shane Dowrich. Some late swing after it passed the batsman meant that a quick, short delivery from Shannon Gabriel barely glanced the keeper’s gloves and was instead stopped by his unprotected face. A painful one to watch, and he immediately left the field for medical attention and didn’t return.

Fortunately for the West Indies, ICC changed the rules in 2018 to allow teams to bring in substitute wicketkeepers. Shai Hope stood in for a few overs before reserve keeper Joshua Da Silva came on the field for the rest of the day. He almost made an immediate impact, just failing to stump Rory Burns. Just on the evidence of today, I would say that he looks much more confident in terms of his glovework compared to Shane Dowrich. It’s unclear whhether Dowrich will be available to bat for the tourists in the next innings. One possibility, seeing as it was a head injury, is that he can be replaced in the batting lineup by Da Silva if Dowrich is exhibiting concussion symptoms. Otherwise, Dowrich will either have to face England’s bowling attack or the West Indies will forfeit his wicket.

This England innings represents the tenth of Rory Burns and Dom Sibley’s opening partnerships. When they are batting together at the start of an innings, they score an average of 43.00 runs for the first wicket. This is fantastic. To put this in context, the last England opening partnership of at least ten innings to average more than this was the Compton/Cook pairing in 2012-13. The one before that was Cook/Vaughan in 2007-08. The Cook/Strauss opening partnership of 2006-12 averaged ‘just’ 40.96. There are many people, including journalists and commentators, who are decrying their slow scoring rate. It is certainly slow, only Joe Root’s opening partnership with Alastair Cook in the 2013 Ashes has a lower run rate in recent times, but it is also working. Just last summer, England were averaging 16.66 for their first wicket at home. Since then, England are scoring an average of 43.75 runs before their first dismissal. Good starts are a rare and precious commodity for England Test teams in recent years, and they should not be sacrificed on the altar of playing attacking or attractive cricket.

When Dom Sibley did eventually lose his wicket for 56 (bringing his 2020 batting average to 57.44 from six Tests), the scoring tempo rose dramatically. Perhaps taking his cue from Stuart Broad yesterday, Joe Root went into white ball mode and managed to reach his half-century quicker than a run per ball. Eventually Rory Burns sacrificed his wicket on 90 trying a slog sweep in order to score more quickly, which led Joe Root to declare with England 398 runs ahead.

With Broad taking a six-fer in the first innings, all eyes were on him at the start of the second. He didn’t disappoint, taking John Campbell’s wicket in his first over drawing an edge to first slip. Nightwatchman Kemar Roach followed soon after. Between the end of the West Indies’ first innings and the beginning of their second, Broad took six wickets in seven overs today. It has been a truly remarkable Test for Broad, and he has the opportunity to cap it with a historic milestone as he currently sits on 499 career Test wickets.

Stuart Broad is also the top wicket-taker in this series so far with fourteen wickets so far. An impressive feat, considering the entire West Indies attack (and Dom Bess) have played an extra Test compared to Broad. Of those fourteen wickets, eight have been bowled or lbw. There is often consternation amongst England fans when England’s bowlers bowl short and wide, particularly at home or with the new ball. This series demonstrates why. Whilst some world-class batsmen would punish such a line and length, the vast majority of Test cricketers struggle against a seaming or swinging ball and deliveries going on to hit the stumps bring at least two forms of dismissal into play.

All eyes are on the weather forecast for tomorrow, with many people expecting a washout. In the form Broad is in right now, maybe he can even do something about that.

As always, please comment below.

England vs. West Indies, 3rd Test, Day 2 – Is Broad Batting

The rain did us all a favour today by deciding to head South rather than sit at its normal location which normally is right above Manchester and to be fair we’ve had a bonus day of good cricket, even if it was cut short abruptly by the Umpires.

England will naturally be the happier team right now even if they were hoping for a bigger score than 369 all out, though they would have bitten your hand off for that score at 280-8 after a significant collapse against the new ball. It is always hard starting again when the bowlers are fresh and have a new ball in their hand and it has to be said that the West Indies bowled superbly for the first half hour; however that being said it was a real shame that neither Buttler or Pope could go on and make a match winning hundred after the graft they put it yesterday. When Woakes and then Archer also went cheaply, the former is really struggling for form with the bat and the latter looks more and more like a number 11, the hearts of most England fans would have sunk. Enter Sir Stuart Broad.

This was not an innings for the purists to say the least and the time when Stuart Broad could be potentially viewed as an allrounder are long gone, but on my was it effective. Whilst Dom Bess played patiently as a proper batsman, Broad was given licence to have a swipe and swipe was exactly what he did with some great and then some fairly fortuitous shots to the boundary. It’s a real shame that Broad is unable to replicate the batting talent he had as a young cricketer, after all he has a higher Test score than a certain Mark Waugh; however when he bats, people watch. He may come off only once a series, but when he does, it certainly is compulsive viewing. England are just mighty glad that it was in this game that Broad managed to come off with the bat otherwise they’d be rueing another costly collapse.

So the West Indies, who had originally thought they’d be chasing under 300, looked pretty deflated when they came off the field and it showed in their batting. The sad thing is that I don’t England bowled all that well, except for Broad’s and Anderson’s spells after tea, which is a weird thing to say when they have a side 137-6. After getting the dangerous Brathwaite out early, England bowled far too short allowing the woefully out of form duo of Hope and Campbell to settle in nicely. Ironically it was a nasty bouncer by Jofra Archer that finally got rid of Campbell and allowed England to open the door. Anderson and Broad then took charge straight after tea, with the former bowling 2 unplayable deliveries that the batsmen did well to nick and the latter celebrating an LBW with an outrageous celebrappeal and probably a trip to the Match referees office too. Blackwood and Holder then looked to gain some semblance of momentum back for the West Indies before the former decided to go for an overambitious drive from a good ball from Chris Woakes that nipped back off the seam.

So we head onto Day 3 with a decent forecast and already talk of declaration speculation, especially as Monday could well be a total write off with the weather. I suspect England will bat again even if they do bowl the West Indies out short of the follow on target, but they probably won’t be hanging about knowing the forecast for Monday and wanting at least a day to bowl at the West Indian batsmen a second time.

One major moan though has to be the continued insistence of the umpires coming off for bad light at around 6pm each night. I even joked that they must have room service booked for 6:15pm every night. The light was murky but no way was it dangerous and we have also invented these crazy new things called floodlights to keep the game going. It’s crazy that in this day and age that we allow cricket to keep shooting itself in the dick and if the light is going to be a problem, start the damn Test half an hour earlier! The umpires are probably grateful that there aren’t any fans in the ground, because if you’d have paid the best part of £70 for the day, you’d be mighty pissed off at seeing the players trudge off the ground with the floodlights standing there. Anyway, slight rant over.

As ever do feel free to share your thoughts on the game or anything else below:

Add the Buttler to the Popery

A pretty good opening day from England, and one that seemed unlikely mid-way through the afternoon when Rory Burns was (superbly) caught by Rahkeem Cornwall to leave England 122-4.  Not tottering as such, but having left out a batsman to account for Ben Stokes’ questionable bowling fitness, certainly vulnerable to subsiding to an inadequate score.  Having put England into bat, four wickets in the day is a mean return for the tourists, who looked somewhat jaded with the ball with the notable exception of Kemar Roach, a threat throughout.  Indeed, Shannon Gabriel left the field in the morning, causing considerable alarm bells to ring.  He returned, and bowled, but without real fire or penetration, though nominally up to his normal pace.  Three back to back Tests is a real ask for any bowler, and while the first day tells little about the remainder of the game, it could be that the lack of rotation will cost them dear.

If there’s a certainty about cricket, it is its ability to level players, and thus it was that Dom Sibley, after his century heroics at Old Trafford, found himself plumb in front at Old Trafford, for a duck.  A rather lazy run out accounted for Joe Root and Ben Stokes was removed in spectacular style by a superb delivery from Roach, swinging in, seaming further and bowling him through the gate.  It’s too trite to suggest that it required something of that order to get rid of Stokes, exceptional though he has been, but it hasn’t been a feature of his game in a while to be so thoroughly beaten playing a defensive shot.

That wicket was the high point of the West Indies day.  Ollie Pope joined Burns and after the latter’s dismissal it was Jos Buttler, under serious pressure for his place, who came to the middle.  When bad light caused an early end to play, the pair had added 135 runs for the 5th wicket and were looking increasingly at home.  Buttler is the intriguing one – his performances have been sub-par not just in Test cricket, but in all red ball cricket, with few signs he was coming to grip with it.  The English game has changed to the point where a strong county record isn’t necessarily required in order to develop into a Test cricketer, albeit it’s a significant help to have a decent record to fall back on.  No, in Buttler’s case it isn’t just that his county record doesn’t suggest he’ll make himself into a Test batsman, it’s that his Test career hasn’t suggested he’ll make himself into a Test batsman.  It’s not unreasonable to suspect that this match was his last chance, Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow are too good to be ignored forever.

56 not out isn’t a career saver by any stretch of the imagination – or shouldn’t be, but it is a solid foundation on which to build.  When his notable scores have been so few and far between, there’s no reason to think either that he’s suddenly cracked it, but credit needs to be given where it is due; he started carefully before unleashing a few shots as his confidence increased.  His technique did look tighter than normal, and his judgement outside off-stump much improved.  Who is to say what will happen tomorrow or beyond, but he batted well.

Ollie Pope has had a fairly dry series so far, but today he looked outstanding.  His supposed similarity to Ian Bell seems to be based on his stature as much as anything, but his cover drive is also an attractive shot, and he is busy at the crease, turning over the strike and scoring at a comfortable pace.  In his interview after play he didn’t sound like a man struggling at being left in the nervous nineties overnight, his entire demeanour is one of confidence, boding well for the future.

Rakheem Cornwall’s selection excited much comment before play.  There are a few issues here, his size certainly is going to be noticed, but what was less talked about was his ability.  His record is an impressive one, and while he doesn’t have a particularly active action, he also managed to turn the ball before lunch on day one.  He wasn’t overly threatening, but not many spinners are at the start of a match on a fresh pitch, but he was controlled, and at 6’6″ clearly has the added weapon of getting significant bounce.  We will have to wait and see how he performs in the second innings on a more worn surface, but the dismissiveness in some quarters before seeing him was neither fair nor reasonable.

What can be said is that it’s very hard to imagine England selecting a player with his physique, irrespective of ability.  Cricket is certainly a game of fitness, but it is more a game of skill.  The immediate suggestions on commentary that he would be improved as a player by losing weight were troubling, partly because it ignores the person, partly because it is faintly patronising about his talent, and partly because it implies that fitness is an aim in itself for a spinner rather than one factor of many.  It is perhaps true, but it is not so self-evident it can pass unchallenged.

England are by no means out of sight, and the thin batting order means that falling in a heap in the morning is far from out of the question.  But today was a good day, one player continuing to the look very much the part as a Test cricketer, and one hoping to remain one.  The West Indies haven’t had a great last couple of sessions, and do look flat, but day two is usually the day to define the rest of the Test, and both teams are in this one.

England vs West Indies, 3rd Test – Preview

Just a few days ago, England looked like they would fail to win the series and regain the Wisden Trophy. Now, you’d have to say they must be considered clear favourites to overcome their loss in the first Test and come out victorious again at Old Trafford.

The key difference between the two teams in this game is their bowling attacks. England have a choice from six pace bowlers for three available slots, assuming Stokes and Bess both play. None of the six have played in back-to-back Tests in this series and so should be fit and raring to go. If anything, there is too much choice for the England camp. Woakes and Broad both bowled superbly in the last game, and so it would be incredibly harsh to leave either of them out, but selecting both would mean only picking one of Anderson (at his home ground) and Archer. The suggestion has been floated that England might forgo playing with a specialist spinner altogether, instead opting for an all-pace attack with Root as a stand-in spin option. I personally can’t see it happening, but it would certainly be interesting to watch.

For what it’s worth, I would pick Archer, Bess, Broad, Stokes and Woakes for this Test, from the announced matchday squad. Broad and Woakes demonstrated their ability in Mancunian conditions last week, taking 11 wickets at a combined average of 16.73. Archer and Stokes are, for me, the most challenging two English bowlers with the older ball. That would mean leaving out Jimmy Anderson (587 career Test wickets, has a stand at Old Trafford named after him), Sam Curran (Makes Things Happen) and Mark Wood (By far the least effective England bowler so far in this series).

England’s batting lineup will continue unchanged from the second Test. This is unsurprising, as they have been very effective so far in 2020. Their top six of Sibley, Crawley, Stokes, Pope and at least two of Root, Burns and Denly have combined to lead England to innings totals over 400 four times in the last eight Tests, plus 391/8 declared in Cape Town. To put this achievement into context: From the 2017/18 Ashes to the 2019 Ashes, in twenty-six Test matches, England managed to reach 400 runs only three times.

For the tourists, the picture is somewhat less rosy. Having chosen to play an unchanged side in the second Test, the West Indies must now either pick a bowling attack which must feel dead on their feet or select their less experienced or skillful backup bowlers. As for their batting, opener John Campbell and scourge of Headingley Shai Hope have failed to impress so far in this series with averages below twenty.

All of which is to say that I think the West Indies have a mountain to climb in this game. That said, England have shown themselves fully capable of shooting themselves in the foot in the past and it would be a fool to underestimate (or call mediocre) any Test team who faces them.  The previous two Tests have developed into last-day thrillers, and it would be wonderful if tomorrow’s game completes that set, whoever wins.

As always, please comment below.

The Fifth Day Element

Well, that wasn’t a bad old day, was it?

There are some things that are tiresome to keep repeating, yet repeat them we must.  For yet again, a Test match went deep into the final session of the final, fifth day,  and those who continually lobby for four day Tests should again be hiding their faces.  They won’t of course – they stay completely silent on these occasions where their chosen affectation looks absurd. And nor is it any excuse to say the same applies in reverse to those who oppose shortening the game when it doesn’t go that far.  It’s not remotely the same, for we all know that Tests can finish in short order sometimes, it’s that it removes the option when they don’t that is the objection.

Losing a day’s play to rain, as happened here, would have killed off a four day Test completely.  All that we saw over the last two days wouldn’t have happened; Stuart Broad rattling through the West Indies batting, Ben Stokes launching himself into the role of opener in a way that Ed Smith dreamed  of Jason Roy achieving.  It wasn’t normal, no, but it was fun.

From the latter part of day four, it seemed inevitable that England would win the game, one way or another, not because of the overwhelming dominance of their position as much as the feeling that the West Indies were swimming against the tide.  They were ragged in the field this morning, faced with a Stokes assault, but they’re not the first team to fall apart when being pummelled to all parts of the ground by a fully liberated batting order.  If England’s plan was to leave themselves 85 overs to take ten wickets and dangle a slight carrot in front of the West Indies batsmen, it was slightly undermined by the pace of scoring that meant instead of a challenging but gettable 280 to win, it had become an extremely steep 312.

For a brief period in the West Indies 2nd innings when Brooks and Blackwood were together for a partnership of 120, there may have been thoughts of a truly special run-chase, but unless a team falls over completely, there’s usually a partnership in all doomed pursuits that raises hopes, only for them to be extinguished.  It was little more than a mild consideration to note it needed to continue for another couple of hours for there to be any genuine prospect of an upset.

It’s not to say the West Indies batted especially badly, but England unquestionably bowled well enough when it mattered.  It’s easy enough to fall into the trap of criticising England’s opponents as the justification for England’s victories, but it shouldn’t be a reason to forego the credit due to the likes of Stuart Broad – who had a point to prove, and did so – and Sam Curran, forever damned with faint praise by those who would focus more on what he can’t do than what he can.  As for Stokes, he chimed in with key wickets to add to his runs in both innings.  He’s England’s best batsman over the last year, England’s key slip catcher, and the bowler to whom they turn when nothing is going right.  Inevitable comparisons to other all rounders in the global game can be ignored for the time being; for this England team he’s a special player, and possibly the only one who is truly feared for what he can do.

The teams will stay at Old Trafford for the Third Test beginning on Friday, which leaves some interesting selection decisions.  Jason Holder’s post-match comments indicated that, if possible, the tourists would retain the same bowling attack, but England’s policy of rotation is going to come under considerable scrutiny.  Stokes appeared to tweak a muscle at the conclusion of the Test, and while he’ll surely play purely as a batsman if not fit to bowl, it does change the team balance somewhat.  If Bess as spinner is retained and England play with four rather than five bowlers, then Anderson, Archer, Wood, Broad, Woakes and Curran are all pushing for the three seam bowling places.  Dropping Broad might add comedy value, given the likely explosion of rage following his performances this week, but it seems he is the one bowler who ought to be confident of retaining his place.  Beyond that, there will be some extremely nervous bowlers.

We’ve had two fairly decent Tests, and we’re lucky enough to have a decider.  There are flaws in both of these teams, but whatever the outcome of the series, the West Indies are in better shape on the field than they have been for some years.  That it is a shadow of the great teams of yore is to ignore the progress they have made in terms of personnel and leadership.  Their record overseas may be a poor one, but they’re being competitive in England.  That is pleasing to see.  Perhaps it is true that we are so delighted to see cricket, and Test cricket in particular, return that we may make allowances that in other circumstances wouldn’t be granted.  So be it if that’s the case, there is time enough for that to revert to normal.

 

England vs. West Indies – 2nd Test, Day 4 – “One Of Those Spells”

There is a serious danger of this blog becoming a Stuart Broad fan site. For essentially the first five hours of play, this Test match was seemingly drifting towards an inevitable draw. Then Broad took the second new ball and ripped through the West Indian middle order and the game was not wide open, but at least still in play.

The first hour seemed promising for England fans, with at least two clear wicket-taking opportunities going to (and through) the slip cordon. Eventually, it was Bess who managed to dislodge yesterday’s nightwatchman with a sharp catch from Ollie Pope at short leg. England fans hoped that this would start an avalanche of wickets, but that didn’t come to pass. The flow of chances seemingly dried up, with wickets falling sporadically but without the  tourists looking overly troubled as they meandered towards avoiding the follow-on.

England took the new ball with the West Indies on 235/4, apparently set to comfortably bat out the rest of the day. What happened instead was Stuart Broad dragging England back into contention with three wickets in four overs. Two lbws and a bowled show the importance (as ever) of bowling at the stumps, although Broad was certainly helped by the new ball eliciting variable bounce which left the tourists unsure whether to go forwards or back to his deliiveries.

Woakes continued Broad’s good work, taking the final two wickets of the innings, but it was too late for England as perennial thorn-in-England’s-side Roston Chase scored the runs which took the West Indies past their follow-on target, forcing England to bat again.

Ben Stokes left the field apparently holding his side early in the evening session. Given that he bowled an 11-over spell, largely consisting of bouncers, it wasn’t much of a surprise, but fortunately for England it was apparently just indigestion. He returned to the field not long later, and was called upon to serve as a pinchhitting opener when England’s second innings began.

Stokes’s opening partner was Jos Buttler. He was bowled for a duck, getting an inside edge on a short and wide delivery which cannoned into his stumps. Whilst it may be unfair to read anything at all into a Test batsman’s performance in such circumstances, it does bear mentioning that the two situations he faced in this Test are supposed to be his strengths. In the first innings, he came in with England on 352/5. In that scenario, Buttler is supposed to score runs quickly (using his undoubted white ball prowess) and put pressure on the opposition without taking time out of the game. Instead, he scored 40 from 79 balls. Understandable restraint, given that his continued selection has been questionable for a while now and he needs a big score to secure his place in the side, but arguably not what was needed by his team. In the second innings, when he could essentially treat the game like the shorter formats in which he thrives, he simply mishit a short, wide ball from Kemar Roach which was there for the taking. It may beg the question: If Jos Buttler won’t deliver for England in the exact circumstances that he is supposed to thrive in, what is the point of picking him at all?

England’s batting order reset after the experimental opening duo of Stokes and Buttler, with regular number three Zak Crawley scoring a quickfire 11 before being bowled by Kemar Roach. Regular number 4 Joe Root then came to the crease, in the too-familiar situation of England being 17/2. He and Stokes managed to see out the day, with England finishing on 37/2.

This all means that England are currently 219 runs ahead, with 98 overs scheduled for tomorrow because of yesterday’s rain. England need to win the game in order to regain the Wisden Trophy and avoid drawing their second consecutive home Test series and so, if that is a priority, we might expect a fairly early declaration tomorrow. If England managed to score 50 runs in the first 40 minutes, for example, that would leave the West Indies chasing 270 runs in 86 overs at a minimum of 3.14 runs per over. The later England leave it, and the more the West Indies can restrict the scoring rate, the greater the chance of the tourists rescuing (or even winning) this game.

After a rather dull first couple of sessions, Stuart Broad really rescued England and leaves us going into tomorrow’s play with all three results still on the table. Test cricket is great.

As always, please leave your comments below.

England vs West Indies, 2nd Test, Day 2 – Application

Well ladies and gentlemen it certainly looks like we have a decent game on our hands, especially if tomorrow’s predicted rain holds off.

England managed a more than respectable 469-9 before they declared much to the chagrin of those that have missed Stuart Broad batting more than anything else, but on a slow wicket on which runs are hard to score, it was a refreshingly decent performance from most of our batsmen. The day belonged to both Dominic Sibley and to Ben Stokes who both converted hard earned starts into hundreds, indeed the latter looked like he might take the game away from the West Indies, when he decided to flick the switch. It has been a long while coming that an English batsman not named Ben Stokes knuckled down and scored a hundred in conditions that were not at all easy, yet somewhat predictably but still somewhat mystifyingly, there were a number of people queuing up to have a pop at Sibley for batting too slowly. It all smacks of ‘have your cake and eat it’. We’ve all been rightfully criticising the English batting line up for being too flaky and too aggressive, yet when an individual digs in and makes a century, albeit one of the slower ones in recent history, he is accused of ‘batting for his average’ or hampering England’s chances to win the game. It’s like people have forgotten the Jason Roy experiment last summer. Personally I’d be happy if Sibley plays like that every day if he continues to churn out big scores at the top of the order and sets a platform for our more fluent batters.

Stokes on the other hand has really become the talisman of our batting unit, who has the uncanny knack of knowing when to defend and when to attack. This coupled with the fact that he is skilful enough to be able to flick the switch between attack and defend means that he is an incredibly dangerous batsman to bowl at. The one thing I also really like about Stokes batting is that his set up is incredibly simple. There is no big trigger movement, no scratching around the crease, but instead on most occasions his bat comes down at a perfectly straight angle. I’m certainly no expert on batting (much like Simon Hughes, though I’ve decided not to release a book) being a bowler when I still played the game, but I just don’t see him suffer the same sort of technical issues that many in this team still have. If only batting was as easy as Stokes makes it look at times, though his reverse paddle to get himself out is something I can relate to, except that we needed to bat out 7 overs at the time.

The rest of the batting was a bit of a mish-mash as England tried to put on some quick runs that would enable them to have a crack at the West Indies this evening. Pope looks a bit out of touch at the moment, Woakes dollied a wide one to slip and Buttler played the sort of infuriating innings that he has been accustomed to in Test Cricket, eventually holing out to the only fielder within 50 yards on the onside. Of course, this was never going to be a winning situation for Buttler to bat in as he would either be accused of scoring easy runs against a bowling attack running on empty or get out cheaply again playing a silly shot. In the end, he performed somewhere in the middle, which sums up his Test career – simply a bit mediocre.

The West Indies stuck manfully to their task in the field, obviously battling fatigue and a number of injuries to their fast bowlers. The pitch although difficult to score on, hasn’t really helped any of the quicks with a lack of pace and a lack of sideways movement and the best they could really do was to try and dry up the runs. It was left to Roston Chase again, so often the tormentor of England to take the majority of the wickets. Chase did manage to get a fair bit of turn out of the pitch, which should have Dom Bess licking his lips at the chance of having a long bowl on it. Whether it’s just the fact that he has the wood over England or due to a lack of technique against spin, Chase once again made one or two of the English batsmen look a bit silly. Not bad for a supposed part-time bowler.

So with runs on the board and a tired West Indian side at the crease, England went in search of wickets to really open up the game. The fact that they only managed one, a really nice delivery from Sam Curran that was eventually given out on review, will be a slight disappointment. This was even further compounded by Root not choosing to review an LBW shout against Joseph that both looked out in real time and was going on to hit middle stump. This isn’t to say England bowled badly, Broad in particular can feel unlucky that he didn’t manage to find the edge, but it does highlight the slog England will have in taking 20 wickets on this pitch, especially if Bess doesn’t bowl well.

So Day 3 is nicely set up for tomorrow and fingers crossed, if the rain holds off, we could have another intriguing day’s play ahead.

As ever, thoughts and comments are always welcomed.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

It is, as some people seem incapable of grasping in these divisive times, possible for many things to be true, without being contradictory, or even remotely a criticism.

Thus, it is entirely the case that this was not an exciting day’s cricket.   Turgid, largely.  Absolutely it is true that Sibley scored slowly and was some way short of being a delight to watch.   But nonetheless there’s not the slightest thing wrong with any of that.  England plodded along after losing early wickets, setting a platform, taking the sting out of the West Indies bowling attack, and generally batting pretty well on a surface that looks (at this stage) hard to score on.

It’s hard to know what is expected at times.  An England batting order that all too often has carelessly thrown away wickets (and there was some of that today too, Joe Root notably in his first innings this summer) with reckless abandon also receives criticism when a player digs in.  Not only has he done nothing wrong, he’s batted very well, on day one of a five day Test.  It’s genuinely hard to understand what, apart from a lack of sixes, it can be imagined he’s failed to do today, or how he has hindered England’s chances.  It’s so clearly the opposite.  That Stokes hardly provided an array of dazzling strokeplay either ought to make it clear it wasn’t a day for that.   It’s not exciting to watch.  True.  And?  Sometimes that’s how it is.

Jofra Archer’s late removal from the starting line up due to breaching the bubble rules (which can be added to the list of phrases never heard before 2020) was a perfect storm of outrage and criticism, with Michael Vaughan leading the calls for him to be dropped for the third Test, while at the same time saying he needed to be looked after.  This is an insane overreaction.  Why is it that every error needs to be met with a brutal clampdown?  Archer has made a mistake, he’s a young man, and for entirely sensible reasons has been removed from the team for this Test.  That isn’t a punishment, it’s a rational response to the requirements of playing a Test match in isolation from those outside.  It’s a minor infraction that could have had serious repercussions had it not become known until the Test had begun, for it’s entirely possible it would have required both teams to self-isolate rather than play.  OK, so all can be in agreement it was a truly daft and thoughtless thing to do, that’s not in question.   But it doesn’t help him or anyone else to continue smacking him over the head until he begs for mercy on this.  He probably feels embarrassed enough as it is  – if he doesn’t, then it can be conceded there is a problem, but there’s no reason to assume that at all.

Covid-19 has been a challenge for everyone, a determination in some quarters to hammer a young man purely to express outrage is utterly distasteful, counterproductive and rather childish.  Put him in the stocks for all the good it will do.

There is one further area where England have got themselves in something of a pickle.  Sam Morshead from the Cricketer raised the point that it could be suggested one reason for Jos Buttler’s continued inclusion is that he isn’t in the ODI squad, meaning if he was dropped from the Test team, he would be playing no cricket at all.  Morshead wasn’t pushing this idea as a full explanation, he was idly musing on whether it might be a factor, but it is to be hoped not for it is more akin to ensuring a player at least gets a game in the Sunday 2nd XI rather than an instance of choosing the best Test line up.  Equally, with the removal of Archer from the side, England refused to countenance the idea of Wood, rested for this match, being brought back in as a like for like replacement.  This is simply odd – for it could be seen as a reluctance to try and pick the best team, but instead to focus entirely on the planned rotation for the sake of it.  Perhaps not, perhaps the belief was that the best player to be picked wasn’t a fast bowler at all, but at first sight it seems a strange way of going about things, more wedded to principle than strategy.

All in all, a decent day’s play for England, and a frustrating one for the West Indies after an excellent start.  Unless it goes monumentally badly for one team, it’s always a setting up day, and so far so good for the hosts.  What happens tomorrow either way doesn’t alter that.

 

England vs. West Indies – 2nd Test Preview

After a great conclusion to the first Test of the summer, England head to Old Trafford in order to try and rescue the series and their chances of regaining the Wisden Trophy. For the West Indies, tomorrow’s Test presents an historic opportunity to win their first Test series in England since 1988. There certainly isn’t a direct financial motive for the tourists, with their series win bonus being reportedly only £1,600 each. It throws the disparity between the two teams’ financial positions into sharp focus, as well as explaining why so many players from countries outside the Big Three concentrate on T20 instead of the longer formats. As might be expected after a game where they outperformed England in virtually every aspect of the game, the West Indies have announced an unchanged squad.

England’s situation is, as is common after a loss, significantly more fluid. It’s been confirmed that Joe Root will replace Joe Denly in England’s top order, which will take no one by surprise. Anderson and Wood have also been rested for this Test, meaning that Sam Curran and Ollie Robinson have been drafted into the matchday squad. This means that there are four bowlers vying for the two open slots, with Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes having missed out last week.

This squad means that Jos Buttler and Dom Bess will be retained, probably for the remainder of the series. Buttler’s issues with the bat have been apparent for a while now and, after his drop of Blackwood in the previous Test, his work behind the stumps will be closely examined too. Since Chris Read’s last game in 2007, no England Test batsman has averaged less than Jos Buttler whilst playing as wicketkeeper. It’s clear that there is a huge amount of faith in Jos Buttler within the England camp, but surely this experiment has to come to a close soon?

With Dom Bess, his continued selection asks more questions about how the England selectors view Jack Leach. After 10 Tests, 5 of which were in England, Jack Leach has a lower Test bowling average than Graeme Swann. Both at home and away. Leach also has a lower Test economy rate than Swann. Leach has even contributed for England with the bat, most notably at Headingley last year, and has a useful Test batting average of 18.33. I’m not saying that Leach is a better spin bowler than Swann was, but he’s not done much wrong and must be asking what more he could have done to earn a place in the team this summer.

Despite all of the uncertainty in selection, muddled thinking and their sloppiness in the field, I still think England should be considered clear favourites to win in home conditions against this West Indies team. Even with all of the mistakes England made in the first Test, they still had chances to win the game in the final day. The West Indies are no mugs, and to underestimate them (or call them mediocre) would be a mistake, but the last game represents only their second away Test victory since the start of 2018. This is largely because they don’t play many Tests, being in only six games away from home in that period. Their squad has talent and potential, and Jason Holder in particular is a remarkable all-round cricketer, but a team with the experience and resources of England should beat them more often than not.

As always, please comment below.