Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Victory

That was really quite impressive from England. From what was still a relatively unfavourable position overnight, and the concession of a small, but not irrelevant first innings lead, the tourists dominated day four and finished off the match as evening descended.

There are a few notable takeaways from the match and the series, but perhaps the most striking is that some of those players who had been on the receiving end of the harshest criticism responded well and had a good day. There is ever a call for players not performing to be summarily dropped, and while inevitably over a period it requires them to perform or be replaced, the instant nature of social media precludes the possibility that a player might learn and improve. There is a lack of experience in Asian conditions for obvious reasons, and on top of that players haven’t been able to actually get out on the field much other than in the Tests themselves. Leach and Bess both indicated that they were somewhat rusty, and that they weren’t happy with how they’d bowled in the first Test, but today they were much improved, taking all the Sri Lankan wickets between them and Joe Root, who chimed in with a couple at the end.

This doesn’t mean for a second that they are now the finished article, nor that they’ll perform well in India, but they have shown improvement in what are alien conditions. Both bowled extremely well today.

The same applies to Sibley, who had struggled badly in his first three innings of the series but took England home today with a measured and generally secure unbeaten half century. In his interview after the game he mentioned he had been working on various technical aspects and it will please everyone that in this innings it seems to have paid off. Few of England’s newer batsmen have much if any experience of Asian batting conditions generally, and there are no warm-ups to try and develop, it all has to be done in the nets or in their heads. When sledged by Dickwalla as to whether he would be opening in India, Sibley replied “I don’t know, I haven’t had a very good series” which is charming, disarming, and indicates a person extremely aware of not having done particular well up to that point. Again, it doesn’t mean he is nailed on to perform in India, but it does mean he’s working extremely hard to find a way of making runs. He is learning, they are learning. Zak Crawley’s innings was brief, but it too showed signs of him searching for a method that would work for him.

The captain will be important for this process – he fell cheaply in the run chase today, but his innings yesterday was more than good, it was sublime – one of those where a player appears to be operating on a different plane to everyone else. That provides a standard for others to aspire to, and shows that it’s possible to succeed. England might be considerable underdogs for the India series, but this tour of Sri Lanka has given the players an opportunity to prepare themselves for what they will face. It is not unreasonable to say that England’s chances now are better than they were a fortnight ago, it’s just that those chances remain comparatively slim. Of course, there will be significant changes to the team anyway, with the return of Burns, Arches and Stokes, and in those cases they will be coming in cold, while the loss of Jonny Bairstow is a pity, given that he did reasonably well in Galle.

As for Sri Lanka, they were faced with what is a common challenge in a close Test, that of the 3rd innings, where all the pressure goes onto the batting side who can lose the game in an afternoon, and they did. The batting was both reckless and excessively casual, and once again the curious psychology of a batting collapse took hold, whereby players will be sitting in the changing room wondering quite why their decision-making was so poor.

If an incentive were needed, it’s that England have closed the gap on Australia in the World Test Championship to half a per cent. They remain in 4th, but given the series coming up, they have the chance to change that. It’s a huge ask of them, but in any competition the most you can hope for is the chance to be in control of your own destiny. It’s therefore timely that today the ECB confirmed a two Test series against New Zealand in early summer. It would be ironic if that were to serve as a warm up for a final between the same two sides immediately afterwards.

Sri Lanka v England – 2nd Test, 3rd Day – I’m More Precise, To The Point I’m Nice

This is a report in two parts – one written 45 minutes before the close, and then, well, you’ll see when I changed the tone a bit. That’s test cricket. Never assume it is going to drift, it has drifted for the previous hour or so. You’d think I’d learn!

It was about fifteen years ago, to get all Ronay on you, that I found myself at Whitgift watching Surrey, I think playing Lancashire. It has been another day when a certain Mark Ramprakash had gorged himself on runs, and some wag, sitting near me uttered the line I remember, and use, to this day. “Ramprakash has carried more passengers this season than London Transport”. If Anderson is the bus network when it comes to the bowling in this test, Joe Root is both the Underground and Southeastern. Eat your heart out Barney!

This test match has emphasised just how really handy it is to have your best player, and since KP was ushered off the scene, Root has been that (yeah, yeah, argue about Stokes, but he just isn’t) in top form. This is seriously brilliant stuff, Cook in India 2012 stuff, where you are surprised he gets into any strife. So far he’s got out trying to hit out with the last man in, and been run out in a moment of supreme idiocy in the abbreviated run chase last time out. He’s look reasonably untroubled (as I start writing this a difficult chance at slip has just been missed) while accumulating, all in the hope someone might stay with him in this mission. He did have a fluent partnership with Buttler, and a dogged one with the impressive Bess (seriously like this guy’s temperament) to steer England out of imminent peril, although disaster looms in all directions. Such is the joy of test cricket.

In that sense the game’s position hasn’t really changed for the action of today. England started it in a position to post a lead, or to subside, and to dominate with a strategic partnership or have a weak (on paper) tail subside quickly. It sort of still sits like that. England lost Bairstow early, Lawrence didn’t last long either, both falling to Embuldeniya, who looks impressive but also ought to be asking questions about worktime directives and overtime with the bowling load he has had to carry. Buttler came in to steady the ship, while Root continued to his 19th test century in his 99th test.

While never totally dominating, it wasn’t a minefield either and both players took England away from the rocky shore of a 200 deficit to calmer waters. Buttler passed his 50, and of course the commentators started on the “how great is he doing now” schtick before our talented one reverse swept a shot straight into his boot and straight up in the air giving Ramesh Mendis his first test wicket. I watched the replays – front on nailed Buttler, but the side on made it look, to me, that it hit the ground then hit the boot, which it didn’t. It was an optical illusion. It was given out out out by the 3rd umpire, and England looked vulnerable. 229 for 5 with a reasonably long tail. A 97 partnership that threatened a lot more, and in truth, we probably needed it.

I muttered to myself “I’ll take a deficit of 70 from here”.

Curran hung about for a while, coinciding with my walk of Teddy over the park to beat the snow. He fell to Embuldeniya, nicking the new ball to slip, and the deficit was still 129. Enter Dom Bess! I remember back when he made his debut at Lord’s that he got to 50 and then appeared sick to be out. He looked similarly peeved at Headingley. I like that. As Root, understandably, visibly tired, playing a few rash shots, looking desperate to reach the close, Bess was solid and kept his wicket.

But as time expired and we passed 5pm local time, and he nicked one to gully. The soft signal was out. The replay made it look, as always, as if it hit the grass then the hand. This was the only shot. Not out. But not to be denied Embuldeniya induced the edge and Bess was nabbed at slip. A vital 81 partnership was broken. Bess went for 32.

Mark Wood went down with all guns blazing, and brains held in suspension when he nicked to slip. Thirimanne pouching his 5th. But in the last over of the day, Root perished. 186. Run out as he hit the ball to short leg, who threw the stumps down before a knackered Root could make his ground. The last half hour saw England lose 3 wickets for 6 runs, and finish the day at 339 for 9.

What can you say about that Joe Root innings? Let’s put some things in perspective, this isn’t a vintage Sri Lankan attack. But this is gruelling work, no England player had made more than 151 in a test innings in Sri Lanka prior to this tour. The 228 was good, very good, but this was better. The 228 rammed home a massive advantage the bowlers had given him. This innings kept England within touching distance. A deficit of 44 is not negligible, but it is not large either. Root struggled at the end. He is our captain, and isn’t new to the role when some skippers seemed to get a boost – he’s very much in the worn down by the role zone others encountered. He looked in very little trouble until he got massively tired and limbs and muscles seized up. To quote the song that the lyric in the title is from, he felt like he was going to sweat until he bleeds. This was an amazing physical and mental effort. I was privileged to watch a fair bit of it.

So having prepared a “game has not changed that much in context” piece from 45 minutes out, now it has a little. Sri Lanka are probably going to have a small lead, worth around 45 minutes of batting time. The third innings will be interesting here, as the home team have to make the running. They will need to take risks to set the game up to give them enough time. The 4th innings is not usually England’s friend when batting out to draw, but maybe more interesting given a teasing total to chase. Embuldiniya will be a major obstacle, turning it away from our predominantly right handed batting order. His 7 wickets in just his third test bodes well (let’s hope he doesn’t become a T20 dart thrower). The wicket will deteriorate. It’s the beauty of test cricket, and why I love it.

Needless to say, England have won a test match and Ed Smith can come out and do a victory lap masquerading as high-performance selection. I might go into this more after this test match, but how can one argue with logic like this…

 “We’re not traveling by boat, we don’t go away five months at a time. We need to be more nimble. And if we need to break a tour up so we can get people in and get people out for their good and for England’s good, we’ll do it.”

I mean, you need a Double First to work that one out.

Looking forward to Day 4 which I will not be able to watch as I have to work. Enjoy!

Little Stattage… Last 186 in test matches was made at Galle. Karunaratne in 2015 against the West Indies. 186 is the joint 501st highest score in test history. Two other players have made 186 for England. Paul Collingwood at Lord’s in 2006 (I was there when he brought up his ton) and Kevin Pietersen in Mumbai.

Other Postscripts – 5 overs short. All that spin. Hmmm. We’ve been there before. Also, never met many opposition keepers I liked, they mostly spoke nonsense and bored me senseless. As Michael Vaughan might put it, just saying (with a hashtag).

SL vs England: 2nd Test, Day Two – Jimmy Jimmy

For the first time in this series, the England team are under real pressure. Overnight, the position of the game was very much in the balance. Sri Lanka had only lost four wickets, but England had restricted their scoring to just 229 runs. When two wickets fell in the first five overs this morning, including centurion Angelo Matthews, that should have swung the games decisively in England’s favour. Instead, a lot of innocuous bowling from England allowed Sri Lanka to bat through to Tea and set a challenging first innings total of 381.

Jimmy Anderson and Mark Wood bowled well, and claimed nine wickets in this innings between them. At this point in Anderson’s career, every wicket is becoming something of a milestone. With another three wickets today, including the crucial one of Matthews, his 6-40 marks his best ever bowling performance away from home. At 38 years old, he is the oldest pace bowler to take a five wicket haul in Asia. (SF Barnes holds the overall record for fast bowlers, and Anderson need to keeps going for another two and a half years to challenge that one) He extended his lead as the pace bowler with the most wickets in the history of Test cricket, and is now just thirteen wickets short of overtaking Anil Kumble and becoming the third highest wicket-taker overall (including spinners). To watch Anderson bowl now is to watch history in the making. Even in conditions where there is little swing, little seam, and little pace, Anderson gets the job done. He can’t work miracles, and perhaps a few Sri Lankans will blame themselves for their shot selections against him, but his line and length is so awkward that any attempt to score is fraught with risk.

The only other England bowler threatening to take wickets through the day was Mark Wood. His extra pace and bounce clearly discomfited the Sri Lankan batsmen, drawing edges and aerial shots whilst taking another two wickets today. He’s been unlucky so far in this series, and has more than demonstrated his worth as a strike bowler in batting-friendly conditions. Not as good as Anderson, but then who is?

The other three bowlers, Sam Curran, Jack Leach, and Dom Bess, were just poor. Curran seemed to bowl a lot of bouncers, perhaps trying to emulate Neil Wagner’s technique, but he lacked the New Zealander’s control and he was the least economical of England’s attack. He did at least manage to take a wicket though, with a mis-timed hook being caught on the boundary. England’s two spin bowlers, Jack Leach and Dom Bess, bowled a combined sixty-four overs without anything to show for it. Aside from a dropped caught-and-bowled chance to Bess and an inconclusive edge from Leach’s bowling, neither even looked remotely like dismissing a Sri Lankan batsman. This should be a huge worry for England. These two are expected to carry the weight of the England attack in Asia, not least to spare the workloads of the pace bowlers. Both Anderson and Wood bowled more overs than Bess in this innings, and that simply shouldn’t happen.

England’s options to replace either spin bowler aren’t great either. Moeen Ali, the only other spinner in England’s ‘main’ squad hasn’t played in a single first-class game since 2019 due to being in England’s white ball team last summer. There are an additional three reserves currently on tour with the team in Sri Lanka and India: Matt Parkinson, Mason Crane and Amar Virdi. Parkinson didn’t play any first-class matches last year either whilst Crane has a career first-class bowling average of 45.16. That leaves off spinner Virdi as perhaps the ‘strongest’ option of the three on paper, a 22 year-old with promise but not much experience. If Bess and Leach are hit out of the attack by India, England really don’t have any depth behind them to cover.

Rory Burns has missed this series because he wanted to be home with his wife when his first baby was born. Much of the talk before the first Test was about whether he might replace Dom Sibley or Zak Crawley when he returned for the India series. There’s always a risk when players voluntarily skip tours that the stand-ins given a chance in their place might take the opportunity and keep them out of the side permanently. Fortunately for Burns’ job security, if not England’s batting, neither young opener has pressed their case so far as both fell cheaply yet again in the first few overs today. With batting averages of 2.00 and 7.33 respectively this series, some people have begun to suggest that neither Sibley nor Crawley should be selected in India. That would be harsh, as this is both batsmen’s first time in Asia and they might learn from the experience. On the other hand, international cricket is a harsh game sometimes and England’s best chance of winning Tests in India might not involve either opener.

Yorkshiremen Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root settled the ship for England, as they did in the first Test, and both made it to the close of play (after surviving a couple of close LBW calls). They are England’s two top runscorers in the series and, along with debutant Dan Lawrence, the only ones of the batting unit to look comfortable against the Sri Lankan attack. That makes Ed Smith’s decision to rest Bairstow for the next two Tests somewhat awkward, although understandable. England cricketers playing in all three formats definitely need time away from the England camp, especially when restrictive ‘bubbles’ are in pace. With a T20 World Cup in India this coming October, it would also be foolish to deny English players like Bairstow the opportunity to play T20Is in the country a few months beforehand or to force them to skip the IPL for their rest. His batting will be missed in Chennai though, not least because he is one of the most experienced batsmen in Asian conditions in the squad.

England finished the day on 98/2, 283 runs behind the hosts. If the first day’s winner was ambiguous, today’s wasn’t: Sri Lanka are in a great position. They punished England’s lax bowling and have put the tourists in a position where a couple of mistakes could turn this game into a thrashing. England need their middle order to bat very well tomorrow to keep their hopes of a 2-0 series win alive.

As always, please comment on the game or anything else below.

SL vs England: 2nd Test, day one

A day of hard work for the bowlers, and something of a grind throughout. Shorn of the first Test scenario where the home team had an unadulterated nightmare, we had instead one of setting up the game and providing what should be a more interesting day two. It’s always a truth of Test cricket that the first day of an even encounter leaves everyone unsure of what to make of it, it’s both the beauty of the format and the bane of anyone trying to say anything vaguely interesting about it. But that shouldn’t be a negative, for a Test match unfolds, and the unspectacular setting up lends more to the intrigue. At the end of day one in the first Test, we had a fair idea of the likely outcome. At the end of this day, we don’t have much idea. What a pleasure that is.

What might be said is that in these first two Tests Anderson and Broad have shown that their nous in Sri Lankan conditions has been quite evident, and perhaps is a good sign for the Indian tour. Bowlers with exceptional longevity often seem to develop in unfriendly cricketing environments, and while it’s far too much to ask of bowlers of this nature to run through an opponent, the skill on show can’t be denied by any but the most churlish. There is something special about the wily old fox coming towards the end of a career trying to outwit the batsmen, something that only Test cricket can really provide. As a child, the same experience was had watching the great Richard Hadlee, running in and bowling at a modest pace but it being abundantly clear the batsmen – the English batsmen at least – were struggling to cope with him. The records of Anderson and Broad overseas have been questioned often enough, and there’s no doubt that they are more effective at home, though this in itself isn’t a particularly unusual thing. But places like India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are never going to be their ideal conditions, any more than a spinner finds England their favourite haunt. A few do manage it, and that’s why they are amongst the very greatest of a given era, but it should not be a stick with which to beat a player that they aren’t quite the threat in some countries as they are in their own. With the notable exception of in India, over the last five years Anderson has a pretty strong record away from home, an indication of how he’s developed in the latter part of his career. Today, he was exceptional and led the attack throughout. As for the England spinners, they were much improved from the first Test, albeit without the same level of success. Both had pointed to a lack of match practice as a reason for their inability to maintain the degree of control expected of them last week, and while people may or may not accept that, there is a case that they should be granted the same degree of understanding that a batsman without many games should be.

Angelo Mathews is one of those players who seems to fly below the radar when discussions are had about the leading batsmen, but his record is good enough to be exceeded by only a handful over the last decade. It sometimes seems as though he particularly enjoys scoring runs against England, but the statistics suggest as much as anything a degree of consistency in all conditions. Either way, he was the centrepiece of a vastly improved batting display that leaves Sri Lanka with at least the potential for getting into a strong position. Since it’s so much better than the first Test, that’s all that was required at this stage. Dinesh Chandimal provided ample support, but the lower order are going to need to contribute to turn a reasonable position into a good one.

The media coverage is providing an interesting insight into both the shortcomings and merits of the normal cricketing circus. The commentary works well generally, though watching television pictures removes the wider context of seeing what is going on – Jonathan Agnew’s mildly embarrassing episode of commentating on a replay being one instance, Ian Ward not realising an umpire had given a player out another. But while commentators being at home is palpably obvious at times, in general it is acceptable. It’s not quite as unusual as might be thought, there are broadcasters in other sports who are happy to allow the listener to believe the commentator is in the stands when in reality they are in a broom cupboard watching a television feed. What’s notable in that instance, and perhaps it can only be the case with radio, is that few are aware of the fact.

Where there might be an issue for the media in future is with the written press. Unable to go to Sri Lanka, they too are confined to watching the television, and then writing up what they had seen. For a newspaper, the considerable savings on flights and hotels must offer a temptation to make the current enforced policy an optional one. There will undoubtedly be howls of protest that not being present will deny them access to the players or to question, and that’s true enough. But there are local options and pool feeds of which to make use. The damn virus is going to make a lot of changes for the future, and there must be a possibility that this will be one.

Should Bouncers Be Banned?

The series between Australia and India has been something of a bloodbath. India have had to field a team in the fourth Test consisting of many players who weren’t even in contention for a place in the first game. The injuries which have befallen them fall into two categories: Strains, perhaps in part caused by restricted training due to quarantines, and broken bones caused by bouncers.

India have had five players either unavailable for selection or had to leave the pitch due to injuries sustained from very fast, short-pitched bowling. Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja were hit in the hand by the Australian bowlers, missing the following games, whilst a blow to the elbow kept Rishabh Pant off the field for an innings. In addition, KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal were unavailable for selection after injuries in the nets whilst they were (correctly) preparing for a barrage of bouncers from the Australians. If you count every time the Indian physio has had to treat a batsman who has been struck on the helmet or body by a short ball, I’m not sure a single Indian has been unscathed. Cheteshwar Pujara in particular suffered, taking 14 blows to the head and body in the series according to CricViz. He was hit on the head, hand and ribs four times just on the last day at the Gabba.

Given the apparent high risk of injury and teams’ inability to substitute an injured player (outside of a suspected concussion), you probably won’t be surprised to learn that there is a law regarding this kind of bowling. Specifically, Law 41.6.1:

“The bowling of short pitched deliveries is dangerous if the bowler’s end umpire considers that, taking into consideration the skill of the striker, by their speed, length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on him/her. The fact that the striker is wearing protective equipment shall be disregarded.”

This law is also included in the ICC’s playing conditions for international cricket. Despite this, I don’t believe that I have ever seen it enforced. If the umpires aren’t going to warn or penalise a bowler even after an actual injury has occurred, as has happened multiple times in this series, they probably never will.

One fallacy around this law is that it is intented to protect tailenders, whose lack of skill leaves them more vulnerable to this kind of bowling. Certainly the law mentions “the skill of the striker”, but that is only meant to be only one of several factors in the umpire’s decision. As the list of Indians injured on this tour demonstrate, with three batsmen and an allrounder, it is typically the players with the most batting ability who are injured in this way. The same pattern follows for players needing concussion substitutes in international cricket. Ravindra Jadeja, Rishabh Pant, Liton Das, Dean Elgar, Darren Bravo, and (of course) Steve Smith have all had to leave the game after blows to the head since 2019. None of these are unskilled batsmen. The only specialist international bowler to have needed a concussion substitute which I could find was Bangladesh’s Nayeem Hassan.

The simple explanation is that batsmen face significantly more balls than bowlers, and therefore are more likely to face these dangerous deliveries. It does also seem to demonstrate that their skill level in no way protected them from injury. Most of the bowlers involved in the incidents are capable of reaching over 90mph, at which speed even the best batsmen evidently can’t always cope.

The reluctance of the cricketing authorities to reduce the number of injury-causing deliveries seems incredibly strange to me. In every other sport I watch, every effort seems to be made to actively discourage players from injuring each other. In football, two-footed tackles or head-high kicks are a straight red card with a suspension afterwards. In rugby union, tackles which either hit the head or cause the tackled player to land on their head are a straight red card with a suspension afterwards. In baseball, pitchers are ejected from the game after either two accidental or one intentional pitches in the direction of the batter. Even in American football, which is more or less a full-contact sport, blows to the head (and many other ‘dirty’ techniques) are a penalty and often also result in fines and suspensions. It is a curious anomaly that cricket, which considers itself a gentlemanly and gentile sport, allows a bowler to send an unlimited number of 90mph bouncers at the ribs of opposition batsmen with absolutely no restraints whatsoever.

Making cricket safer for batsmen isn’t necessarily an easy problem to resolve. If you ban bouncers aimed at the batsmen altogether, that also potentially eliminates the pull and hook shots from the game and much of the incentive for having fielders on the leg side with it. You may be left with most deliveries pitching wide outside the off stump with packed off-side fields, which sounds like a very boring tactic for spectators to watch. Extending the concussion substitute so that replacements for any injured cricketer can bat and bowl as needed has the potential for abuse. Many Australians were up in arms when Chahal replaced Jadeja in a T20I last month because they felt that it had strengthened India’s team. Some even seemed to imply that Jadeja had feigned a concussion in order to allow the substitution to take place. If any injury allowed such a substitute, these controversies could crop up in almost every game.

On the other hand, the status quo may not be tenable either. If another high profile series is beset by avoidable injuries, the pressure to address this issue will continue to mount. Had India lost this series, for example, the BCCI might well have been pressing for some kind of action by the ICC. Perhaps the best way forward, at least in the beginning, is to enforce the laws that are already in place. Allow international umpires to make the decision on what is or is not ‘dangerous’ bowling, except with guidance that this should be implemented more often.

If that doesn’t work then more stringent measures might have to be brought in, and cricket would be a poorer game for it.

If you have any comments about bouncers, or Australia’s losing streak at the Gabba, or anything else, please leave them below.

Sri Lanka v England: 1st Test, 4th Day – Provincial Towns You Jog ‘Round

So. This is my first match report for a bloody long time. Yet today, at times, took me back to around the time I started doing match reports for a humble old cricket blog called How Did We Lose In Adelaide. I confess, when I wasn’t sleeping through the day’s play, I was getting flashbacks to the Sri Lanka test at Headingley in 2014. Mathews at the crease, unfancied tailenders with him, wickets hard to come by.

I’m not going to go into the context of THAT match, because we were living in more emotionally heightened times in terms of the England team, but there is something about Angelo Mathews that sets my senses on edge. He does seem (not sure if the stats bear it out) to play well against England.

The tale of the day was of hard work and attrition. I awoke at 5:00 am and went downstairs to watch the cricket for as long as I could survive. Bess had removed the nightwatchman, Embuldinya, who bunted a ball to Sibley to get England on their way. Thirrimane completed a well deserved and hard earned century, but fell to the new ball when Sam Curran induced an inside edge and Buttler held on to a reasonably difficult chance. Chandimal joined Mathews, who had been extremely watchful when I was watching, and started quite positively. At lunch it was 242 for 4. I thought I’d nab an hour’s sleep……

Fast forward and I wake up and Sri Lanka are 8 down!

Chandimal didn’t last long post lunch. Bess removed him via Joe Root at slip. Chandimal was the key wicket, arguably, but this isn’t quite like the not long passed days when Chandimal at 6 followed the likes of Jayawardene and Sangakkara. The weight of the position may be quite telling on him, for he can be a fine player.

Niroshan Dickwella also added a score in the 20s, but did not go on. Bess removed him, caught behind by Jos Buttler, who while not being in Foakes’s class behind the stumps, has not really let England down in this game. Dickwella had made the vast majority of the partnership, but as parity with England’s total was reached, six wickets had now fallen. Five runs later Shanaka was beaten by a Leach yorker and was bowled, then after another 18 was added, Leach got De Silva to nick to Root, who took an excellent high catch, and with the lead in the 20s, England had their control.

The partnership between Perera and Mathews added 48, but unlike Headingley, Mathews wasn’t scoring at a prodigious clip. The end of the partnership came when, what looked to me a pretty straightforward stumping decision, Perera missed a good Leach ball, but didn’t get into his ground. The 3rd umpire took a lot of time to see if there was any of his foot behind the line, and finally decided there wasn’t.

Mathews tried to farm the strike, but the score didn’t really accelerate at all, and in the end he nicked off to Root at slip from Leach when trying to farm the strike. England were set 74 to win. Simples.

Ha Ha Ha.

Ha Ha.

Ha.

Ooops.

The comparison to Headingley wasn’t over. While we remember the Mathews century, we forget the five wickets that went down that evening. So in a hat tip to nostalgia, Sibley decided to leave a straight one, Crawley tried to be aggressive and nicked off to Mendis, and then Bairstow prodded one into the offside, and calamity ensued as he took a hesitant single, Root bashed into Perera, Dickwella retrieved and threw the stumps down, Root’s bat stuck in the ground (well short) and then fell arse over breast. If it wasn’t so serious, you’d laugh. Well, OK, it was a bit funny. 14 for 3 and your double centurion captain out. Looking good.

Just a few things on the world at large with cricket. Anyone mildly amused that the press are having to do their reporting and writing as we do? At least they get paid to do that. Anyone thinking that hard-pressed, tough economic times, and the need to save costs, that the day of the touring journo is over as they can do 80% of the job (what we do + good journalism) from the comforts of their own living room and a Sky/BT Sport/whoever else subscription. Where would we be if Dean Wilson can’t do “That Is Out” on Twitter from the ground and instead from his chaise lounge? Those good journalism titbits can be easily whatsapped!

I hate cricket with no crowds, and I hate it more with dubbed sound. They haven’t been putting in the dubbed sound from what I am watching, but you can hear the tension and frenetic attitudes without the dubbing as this tense play continues. Sports broadcasters sometimes assume what is wanted when they really don’t have a clue. What this whole nine month (and counting) nightmare has proved is that sport without fans (any fans, even a small crowd brings some reactions) is a corporate nightmare – both in terms of how sport can’t do without the interaction and in terms of how those supporters are treated. Let the paying punters never be abused again. Just remember what has been missed in these past few months.

The Sky at home comms team has largely worked, as far as I can tell. They have gone with a solid team – assume the female commentators are all gainfully employed elsewhere. I can even put up with Bumble, because all I need to remember is a quote from the truly, legendary awful commentary team in Australia – Mark Waugh on this particular occasion – when he said, re Tim Paine “what’s better, a man who scored 70s or a man who scores nought?” (Paine, by the way, has passed 70 just three times in his 56 test innings). I mean, you have to have played hundreds of matches for insight and analysis like that.

Atherton, Nasser and Kumar taking us through that last half hour, with the tension and lunacy of it all were terrific. Treated their audience like adults, decent insight, not too hysterical but in the moment, and most importantly, not talking for the sake of bloody talking.

So England are 38 for 3 going into the final day. The weather forecast is not supposed to be crash hot, but I suppose Galle owes Sri Lanka one after 2007 when England followed on 400 behind and it rained to save them. Yep. I have a long memory, as if you didn’t know that.

Good to be back, and I hope the mojo is returning. Not sure who has Day 5. Good luck to who has. Sad to say with the way work is at the moment, I won’t be getting up at 4ish to watch it. At least, I don’t plan to. But sleep is an elusive beast these days, so I might wander downstairs. Will panic ensue again!

Sri Lanka v England: 1st Test, Day 3 – Reversal

To let you in on a little behind the scenes secret from BOC, everyone thought someone else was doing the match report today, hence the relative lateness. In the end I got the honour or drew the short straw, depending on your perspective.

Having done the report for day 1, today’s post might have been an almost copy-and-paste job with the names changed. The team batting first played somewhat loosely with the bat, gifting their wickets to the opposition, and then proceeded to bowl in a similarly generous fashion. That we are talking about England rather than Sri Lanka is the only difference in this broad overview of the day.

England began the day on 320-4, and by any measure would have hoped and expected to post a big score which would absolutely force Sri Lanka into batting last on this pitch. Whilst Joe Root met or exceeded this expectation, taking his personal total to 228 by the end, no one else stuck around to support him. Only Jos Buttler lasted more than a few overs to support their captain’s efforts, and even he wasn’t there for much longer. England number 11 Stuart Broad was the only batsmen in the bottom five to even reach double digits in the runs column, at which point Root was caught on the boundary.

The whole theory behind the selection of Jos Buttler, Dom Bess, and Sam Curran is that they are handy with the bat. They are not considered the best at wicketkeeping or bowling in the squad, particularly in Asia, but their contribution with the bat is supposed to offset these deficiencies. Buttler scored 30, whilst both Bess and Curran (at 8 and 9 in the order) didn’t manage a single run. Today was not a great showcase for their batting talents.

Even with their poor performance with the bat, England still posted a first innings lead of 286 runs. Scoreboard pressure, a wearing pitch and fresh legs for the bowlers having spent most of the last three days watching Joe Root bat should have meant that would be more than enough. Instead, Sri Lanka’s application with the bat combined with a lot of very innocuous bowling by England and a pitch which is still relatively benign meant that the hosts are still very much with a chance of salvaging the game.

England did manage to take two wickets, eventually. The first was Kusal Perera, who contrived to find a fielder on the boundary when dispatching a wide long hop from Sam Curran. The second was Kusal Mendis, who Leach managed to draw an edge from and (somewhat miraculously) Jos Buttler caught.

Perera’s wicket highlights the fact that almost all of the Sri Lankan wickets have been taken by what can only be called atrocious deliveries. A lot was made of Bess’s five-fer in the first innings relative to the quality of his bowling, but a couple of Broad’s wickets and the run out by Leach might also be considered somewhat undeserved. England will struggle to defeat Sri Lanka on that kind of form, and certainly wouldn’t be considered favourites to defeat India in their own back yard. This is important because England’s only chance of reaching the World Test Championship final this summer at Lord’s is to win at least five of their remaining six games this winter. On the evidence so far, I can’t see that happening.

Tomorrow’s action begins at 4.15am again, but I might be tempted to have a lie-in rather than watch this quality of bowling from England.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about the post, game or anything else, please post them below.

SL v England: 1st Test, Day Two

There are a few things different about this match in these Covid times. The lack of any media coverage at the ground hasn’t especially impacted the commentary, although being reliant on TV pictures means they miss things they’d otherwise see, but it doesn’t take long to forget they are all in their pyjamas at home. One thing that is very much absent is the repeated social media posts about how amazing their press box meals are, which is no bad thing. Nor is their realisation that getting up in the middle of the night to watch the cricket is an experience the rest of us are very much used to. It never stops being amusing to see them experience how the lesser half lives.

As for the game, well England could hardly be more on top. Sri Lanka’s abysmal first innings has probably lost them the game on the first day, a reminder to those who needed it that you can’t win the game on the first day with the bat, but you can lose it.

The hosts took only two wickets all day, Jonny Bairstow for 47 and Dan Lawrence for 73, a fine debut knock before being undone by one of the few deliveries that spat off the pitch. Initial strong scores are not remotely indicative of a good Test career, but they are equally much better than failing to get any, so he will be pleased and he looked the part. More than that can’t be said.

But the day was dominated by Joe Root. He’s had plenty of criticism for failing to turn his fifties into hundreds, but when he gets to three figures, he goes on to make a big one half of the time. It’s a curious anomaly in his career, and perhaps indicates that he’s thinking about his conversion stats and relaxes somewhat when he reaches his century. Either way, the only means of overcoming it is to do it more often, which sits nicely in the “easier said than done” category. Yet he averages 49 and so much of the debate surrounding him focuses on what he doesn’t do rather than what he does. He’s far from the first to suffer from this, indeed all those in recent times for England who have had averages just shy of 50 have gone through it to varying degrees, either with excuses made, or unfair criticism. Either way, it avoids a more rational examination of their strengths and weaknesses. For anyone over the age of 40, an England batsman averaging nearly 50 is a rare beast indeed, and one to be cherished.

As for where the game goes from here, it’s moved on apace but we’ve only had two days, which is why it’s always puzzling to see some already starting to push for England to declare. There’s not remotely any need for it, they can bat the whole of tomorrow if they are capable of it without having a shred of effect on any risk of failing to win, short of the kind of biblical downpours that shouldn’t be factored in at this stage.

Which doesn’t make it very interesting, except in terms of seeing how the individuals go. Even if Sri Lanka have a miracle session, they are so far adrift as to be almost beyond the horizon. That’s Test cricket, and we should never apologise for the one sided games when the format has the potential for thrillers. What would be more of a concern is if this is how the whole series goes, though it’s hard to believe Sri Lanka will bat quite as badly again as they did yesterday. The differential in income around the world is an ongoing subject, but can’t be used as a justification for the abject shot selection that placed them in these dire straits. It is a separate, but valid matter to a team playing well below their capabilities, irrespective of the difference in resources.

Despite the immense time remaining, England’s scoring rate of nearly three and a half an over it’s entirely possible this game will conclude tomorrow. At a time when any cricket is good cricket, it’s not to be sniffed at, but everyone will hope for something more competitive in the Test to follow.

Sri Lanka v England – 1st Test, Day 1 – A Day Of Two Halves

After almost a five month break for England’s red ball team, there’s nothing like good Test cricket. And, to be clear, this match has not been an example of good Test cricket so far. Loose bowling competing with worse batting has meant that this game seems unlikely to last more than three days, let alone five.

Sri Lanka won the toss in the morning (4am to be precise. Who starts a cricket game at 4am??), which is usually very important in Sri Lanka. In the last 18 Test matches in they have hosted, 14 have been won by the team who chose to bat first. That includes the 3-0 series win by England two years ago.

Sri Lanka were missing captain Dimuth Karunaratne to a hairline fracture and bowler Suranga Lakmal with a hamstring injury, but otherwise were able to field a full-strength team with three spinners. England had to do without Moeen Ali due to the spinner still being isolated with coronavirus and opted for two spinners and three seamers.

The theme of Sri Lanka’s innings was atrocious batting. You would expect an international team to be confident and reassured in home conditions, but they batted like… Well like England typically have done in spinning conditions. Trying to smash balls from well outside the off stump, playing a large number of slog sweeps and reverse sweeps, and generally having no control or consistency whatsoever. Broad started things moving with a few early wickets whilst Bess cleaned up the tail and claimed a five-fer, but it’s difficult to give England’s bowlers or fielders much credit on a day when their opponents seemed very happy to fall on their own swords.

England tried to imitate Sri Lanka’s comedy wickets with Zak Crawley doing his best to run himself out early on, but the host’s fielding was as bad as their batting and they failed to convert their chance. The openers didn’t last too much longer though, with both Sibley and Crawley falling in quick succession. Crawley’s wicket in particular was poor, going down the pitch before mis-hitting a lofted drive to mid-off. His previous Test innings was 267 against Pakistan though, so I’m prepared to cut him some slack on this one.

From that point on, with Bairstow and Root at the crease, the game was actually pretty good. Solid, cautious test batting from England’s batsmen and patient, probing bowling from Sri Lanka. Young left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya in particular was very useful for the hosts, taking the wickets for both openers and drawing a few edges which didn’t go to hand. Whilst Dom Bess was wildly fortunate to take five wickets, Embuldeniya was arguably as unlucky not to take more than two. Root and Bairstow were both a lot more cautious than Sri Lanka were in their first innings, keeping shots along the ground. The captain made 66* whilst Bairstow finished the day on 47*. Jonny’s success might cause a headache for the team if they intend to bring Rory Burns back into the team against India. One of Sibley, Crawley, or Burns will have to miss out, if he stays in the team. England finished the day just 8 runs behind and with 8 wickets in hand. It’s hard to imagine how the day could have gone any better for them after they lost the toss.

As a bit of comedy relief, BBC’s Test Match Special aired an interview during Lunch of Australia’s coach Justin Langer by Alison Mitchell. There’s a clip of it on Twitter here. It really is an incredible mixture of delusion, arrogance, stupidity and outright lies. To be clear, the incidents in question (Tim Paine swearing at the umpire and Steve Smith scratching at the crease whilst fielding) are fairly minor. Both were caught on camera (by their own broadcaster, no less) and both are undeniably against the laws of the game, but the fact that Langer feels the need to vociferously defend either by making the argument that both Smith and Paine are wonderful and virtuous people is both unnecessary and hilarious. He also makes the claim that Tim Paine is “the best wicketkeeper in the world” and that he hopes Paine will still be captain next year in the Ashes. As an England fan, I hope that is what he genuinely believes.

All in all, a good start to the new year for England.

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

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Jos Buttler?

Jos Buttler is an absolutely incredible white ball cricketer. That is a statement which even the most contentious or unorthodox cricket pundit would find impossible to disagree with. No player in the history of one day cricket has scored more runs than Buttler at a faster strike rate. Only Shahid Afridi and Glenn Maxwell even come close. A destructive and dominating batsman who instils fear into the hearts of his opponents.

In Test cricket, the picture is more nuanced. A Test batting average of 33.90 is not particularly impressive for a 30 year old after 47 Test matches, especially having played 20 of those games as a specialist batsman. It’s not a terrible record either, but it places him significantly below the top tier of Test wicketkeeper-batsmen (de Kock, Watling, Pant and Rizwan, for example). Nevertheless, Joe Root has come out in the press this week vehemently backing Buttler not only as a batsman but also as the Test wicketkeeper for this winter’s tours.

Buttler’s batting statistics last summer were exemplary. He was England’s second most prolific run scorer in the six Tests, scoring just one run less than Zak Crawley, and finished with a batting average of 52.00. A wicketkeeper with that kind of scoring ability is essentially undroppable.

So here is my argument for why I would drop him from the Test team.

For a start, it might be worth considering why Buttler performed so well this summer. One notable aspect is that he didn’t play any white ball cricket in the months leading up to or during the Test summer. With the IPL postponed, his last T20 was in February against South Africa and his last fifty-over game was the 2019 World Cup final. That represents almost six months with no distractions from preparing for Test cricket.

Few batsmen seem able to seamlessly swap between white ball cricket and Tests, with the transition usually having a negative effect in at least one of the formats, and this is borne out in the statistics. Jos Buttler averages 38 when he has played a Test in the previous 30 days, but only 18 when he hasn’t. Buttler is without doubt one of the best white ball batsmen in the world, with ODI and T20I strike rates which are amongst the best of all time, and there is a T20 World Cup due to be played in India this October. Is it a good selection policy to keep him out of T20Is and the IPL this year in order to have him playing at his best in Tests?  I don’t think so.

Another key aspect to my preference on not selecting Buttler in Tests is his wicketkeeping ability. Specifically, his keeping when up to the stumps is just plain bad. According to CricViz, Jos Buttler was by some considerable distance the worst Test keeper to spin in the period from the beginning of 2018 to the first Test against Pakistan in 2019. I must confess that I don’t exactly understand how CricViz quantifies ‘Fielding Impact’ as their models are intentially opaque, but it is presumably some combination of missed wicket-taking chances and preventable byes and wides being conceded.

One clear example of Jos Buttler’s abilities (or lack thereof) with regards to spin bowling is his record of Test stumpings. In 27 Tests as England wicketkeeper, Buttler has not taken a single stumping. Not one. In fact, in the history of Test cricket only one wicketkeeper has played as many Tests as Buttler without taking at least three stumpings: Former ICC CEO and South African international Dave Richardson (who still took two more than Buttler). This could be a crucial weakness because England’s next two Test series are in Sri Lanka and India.

England have won only one Test series in Asia over the past eight years, and that was their 3-0 victory in Sri Lanka two years ago. The key to this rare overseas whitewash was their spin bowling: 49 of the 60 wickets England took were from their spin attack of Leach, Ali, Rashid and Root (18, 18, 12, and 1 wickets respectively). Seventy-nine percent of England’s overs were delivered by these four bowlers. It is patently ridiculous to me that you would even consider selecting Jos Buttler as wicketkeeper in conditions where he seems almost certain to struggle.

It is worth noting that Buttler was selected as a specialist batsman in the previous Sri Lanka series, and performed very well. He scored the second most runs for England, amassing 250 runs in six innings and was behind only Ben Foakes’ total of 277. There is certainly an argument for including him this winter in that role, but that isn’t necessarily clear cut either.

For one thing, ‘demoting’ Buttler to a mere batsman would lead to him replacing one of the existing batting lineup. I can’t see him playing in the top order, although England did try Moeen Ali once as an opener in the UAE so I can’t entirely rule it out either. England’s middle order comprises of the captain, the best batting allrounder in the world, and Ollie Pope. Pope is currently returning from a shoulder injury, so won’t even be available for the Sri Lanka series. If he does return in time to play in India, Pope is clearly the most vulnerable. He has never played a Test in the subcontinent, and also had a lacklustre summer for England. On the other hand, he is only twenty three years old and he already has a career Test batting average greater than Buttler’s. I’m not sure I’d necessarily opt for experience in this scenario, although Buttler might have the Sri Lanka series to press his case for inclusion.

Perhaps the most important factor regarding Jos Buttler’s selection would be managing his workload in 2021. If Buttler is selected for all of England’s Test cricket this year in addition to the IPL in April/May and the T20 World Cup in October, it is not unreasonable to think that he would only spend a few weeks outside of the England camp all year. In normal times, this would be mentally and physically draining for any cricketer. These are not normal times however, and there seems a fair chance that a large portion of this time will also be in some form of quarantine or bubble.

If three-format players like Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer aren’t given series off, they might well be burned out by the end of the year. You only have to look at England after they had been driven beyond their limits by Andy Flower to see how that might decimate a team. I like my cricket management like I like my TV: Without repeats of the shit stuff.

There is a strong argument that Stokes and Archer are essential picks in the subcontinent. In England’s last series in Sri Lanka, Stokes took five wickets whilst the swing and seam bowlers (Anderson, Broad and Sam Curran) could only manage two between them. Pace and bounce are clearly more effective weapons in those conditions, therefore I would probably look to rest those two during during the English summer instead. Whilst you can certainly make a case for Buttler’s inclusion as a specialist batsman in Sri Lanka and India, his place in the squad doesn’t feel anywhere near as necessary to England’s chances of success as those of the pace bowlers.

Joe Root has publicly backed him though, so he’ll probably keep wicket in all six Tests this winter.

If you have any comments about Jos Buttler, the upcoming Tests, or anything else, add them below.