England vs. West Indies, 1st Test, Day 5

What. A . Game.

After watching Wednesday’s turgid rainathon and Thursday’s parade of England wickets, the last thing I was expecting to see on Sunday was a nailbiting finish. But that’s what I got today, with both teams’ strengths and frailties leading to a tense final day.

England’s innings didn’t last long in the morning, with the tailenders adding another 29 runs to their overnight total for the last two wickets. This left West Indies with a target of 201 runs to win the first Test of the series.

There were two main themes to the West Indies innings. One was Jofra Archer, who looked a step above the other England bowlers in terms of wicket taking threat. This went from the start of the day to the end, with Archer bowling 17 of the 64 overs in the day and looking dangerous throughout. He began by hitting John Campbell in the foot with a yorker, causing the West Indies opener to retire hurt in just the fourth over. A couple of overs later, Kraigg Brathwaite inside edged a ball from Archer onto the stumps. Archer’s next over saw the end of Shamarh Brooks’ day, with the Barbadian trapped LBW. In just his first four overs, Archer cut through the West Indies top order and arguably put England in the position of clear favourites.

Which brings us to to the second theme: England throwing away chances with poor fielding and a lack of discipline. In the afternoon session, England missed three clear chances to take wickets and put themselves in the driver’s seat. Zak Crawley fumbled a run out chance after a mixup between Chase and Blackwood left them almost at the same end, and Rory Burns appeared to lose sight of a chance in the slips, but the worst one had to be Buttler spilling a glove down the leg side from Jermaine Blackwood. The West Indian batsman went on to score another 75 runs before being dismissed just before the finish. It is no exaggeration to say that this drop almost certainly cost England the game.

The bowlers weren’t entirely blameless either, or at least the captain. Ben Stokes overstepped the bowling crease twice for wickettaking chances, although the first one was dropped and the second time he took a wicket with his next delivery. Anderson didn’t seem entirely on the ball either, with his bowling being mostly defensive without much sideways movement. Overall, there was definitely an impression that England were not sharp in the field.

The West Indies were deserved winners, but England have to wonder what might have been. There was little to choose between the two teams at the end, and questions about the lineup, the decision at the toss and the quality of their fielding abound. I myself found myself rooting for the West Indies by the end. They bravely withstood a barrage by Archer, with injured opener John Campbell returning in the final few overs to take the tourists over the line. More than that, these people came thousands of miles into the midst of an epidemic, spending weeks in quarantine, just to play us at cricket. It would almost be a shame if they left with no victories for their efforts.

For the next Test, I’m not sure exactly what changes Ed Smith and Chris Silverwood will make. After the selections for this game, I doubt anyone could predict what they will come up with. Joe Root is certain to return, and the consensus is that Joe Denly will be the one to make way in England’s top four.

There’s certainly a very solid argument that Denly has failed to take his chance, with his 29 runs from 70 balls yesterday underlining both his key strength and weakness. He consistently gets in, lasting at least 30 balls in 75% of his Test innings. This compares well to Zak Crawley (62.5%, from a small sample), Rory Burns (64.5%), and even Joe Root (67.9%). The problem for Denly is that he also consistently fails to turn those starts into big scores, which is why he also has the worst Test average of the five likely contenders for the top four at Old Trafford.

It would seem virtually certain that Stuart Broad will return at Old Trafford, unless he is going to be punished for his forthright interview on Sky Sports. Surely only a complete idiot would play Archer and Wood in three Tests over the course of twenty-one days but, between Ed Smith and England’s medical staff, I couldn’t rule it out completely. Chris Woakes and Sam Curran would also be eager for inclusion, particularly if conditions were in any way similar to the first two days in Southampton.

Dom Bess has probably done enough to keep his place in the side for now, with 2/51 at an economical run rate being very useful first innings figures for a spinner in England. Ollie Pope had a poor game, scoring just 24 runs, but has a Test average of over forty since his debut in 2018 and therefore must be one of the first names on the team sheet.

Speaking of players who average over forty in Tests since their debut in 2018: Ben Foakes. The continued selection of Jos Buttler in England’s Test team is puzzling on two fronts. Firstly, the England team is essentially operating with completely separate squads for red and white ball cricket this summer and so it deprives the ODI and T20 teams of arguably their most powerful batsman.

Secondly, it is generally accepted that he is the worst wicketkeeper of the three in contention and that it is his alleged batting prowess that keeps him in the side. Buttler’s  drop of Blackwood in the second innings certainly won’t help him make his case as the best available gloveman. The obvious problem with that is that his form with the bat has been poor for a long time. He averages 23.22 with the bat since the start of 2019. It’s even worse than that though, when you factor in that until last November he was selected as a specialist batsman. Jonny Bairstow was dropped after averaging 18.00 from seven games as England wicketkeeper after succeeding Ben Foakes. Since replacing Bairstow as England’s keeper in New Zealand, Jos Buttler has averaged 18.36 in six Tests.

After three months without cricket (or much else), the next couple of months will be something of a feast for English cricket fans. Between now and the end of August, there won’t be a single break of more than three days between men’s England games. The second Test starts on Thursday at Old Trafford, and I for one can’t wait!

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

The Hundred For Sale

Last week, a sports investment company sent a press release to every cricket journalist extolling the virtues of the ECB hiring them as consultants in order to facilitate investment in The Hundred. It was a pretty obvious advert being portrayed as an independent ‘report’ which I chose to completely ignore. Unfortunately, the cricket journalists themselves decided to pick up on it and the story has been gaining traction ever since. I think now that its fundamental flaws need addressing.

The mechanics of investment seem fairly simple. The investor buys a portion of a company, in exchange for which they may receive a some of that company’s revenue or profits. In addition, if that company gains in value then the investors can typically also sell their stake to someone else for more money than they paid. For the company selling the shares, they get a short term increase in money available to them without having to repay a bank loan. That extra money can allow the company to expand, or restructure themselves in order to become more profitable. If everything goes well, everyone wins.

There are two scenarios which I can see applying to private investment in The Hundred. The first is the wildly optimistic outcome where the new competition is a huge hit, filling stadia with fans and earning a massive TV deal from 2025 onwards. If that happens, the ECB will likely lose a lot of that profit to the private stakeholders which they could have otherwise kept and invested in English cricket.

The second, perhaps more likely scenario is that The Hundred stalls. Perhaps not a total failure, but the offered TV deal in 2025 is lower than expected and the ECB want to cut their losses and start again. The problem with that would be they would have given up some measure of control to the private investors in exchange for their money, and so they might not be able to do so unilaterally. What should be a simple process instead becomes a complex and expensive negotiation involving lawyers and all sorts.

So it would be fair to say that I think this kind of outside investment will financially harm English cricket in the medium to long term, one way or the other. It has been suggested that the ECB might not have any choice in the matter due to their own current lack of funds. This is, I think, hyperbole.

Regardless of what happens this season, the ECB will still receive £220m in 2021 from Sky. I believe that is more than the television, ticket and membership revenue of all English cricket combined in 2019. It’s not currently clear exactly how much the ECB will be getting this year, except that it won’t be the full amount due to the postponement of The Hundred, but even then it is likely to be more than last year if the England men’s team play most of their scheduled games. So long as counties are sensible with their finances, and readjust their plans to the new situation, there shouldn’t be any threat to their existence.

In conclusion, I believe welcoming investment into The Hundred (or really any other aspect of English cricket) is a mistake which should be avoided. Things aren’t as bad as many people seem to fear (at least in the professional game), and so now is certainly not the time for panicked decisions or short term fixes.

Feel free to comment below.

The Quarantine Cup

eSports. That’s not what they call sports in Yorkshire, or at least not just that. It’s where people compete against each other using computer and console games. It’s a big business, and the very best can garner millions of pounds in endorsements and sponsorship alone whilst millions of people pay to watch streams of elite gamers in action every day. Fans of traditional sports (and few sports are more traditional than cricket) might be snobbish about it, but it’s a real thing which seems like it’s here to stay. At a time when public gatherings and almost all forms of human contact are being discouraged, it seems the ideal moment for the virtual world of eSports to take centre stage.

To that end, The Cricketer magazine launched their own digital version of the T20 Blast. The Quarantine Cup is a competition between 11 county teams on Cricket 19 for the PS4, with actual players from those teams at the controls. It tries to bridge the gap between the real world of cricket fandom and the virtual world of eSports by providing a online tournament which could appeal to the loyalty of county cricket devotees.

There are just 11 out of 18 county teams represented, although they were all asked. Several just couldn’t find a player with a PS4 willing to take part, with many apparently preferring the Xbox platform. There are some big names left out, with Middlesex, Somerset and Yorkshire all having failed to find a player. The participating teams are then split into two groups, where they play everyone else once in five-over games.

The season opener yesterday was a very one-sided affair, with Tymal Mills’ Sussex side crushing Kent’s Imran Qayyum by 47 runs. The presentation was pretty slick, with a few custom graphics provided by The Cricketer’s digital team and live commentary by Adam Collins and Dan Norcross. Given that the games have five-over innings, they only last around half an hour and don’t outlast their welcome. There were phone interviews with the two players afterwards too. All in all, it’s a pretty entertaining way to spend an evening.

The group stages are scheduled to take place for the next three weeks, with games at 7pm on weekdays or at 2pm and 5pm on the weekends. The full timetable, plus all the other details, are on the competition’s webpage at TheCricketer.com. Just to warn you all, there’s a 30 second advert for The Cricketer magazine at the top of the broadcast with a voiceover by Simon Hughes. Don’t worry though, he’s not in it at all after that.

Meanwhile, we asked for people to tell us their best and worst club performances on Twitter and got some crackers in response. If you have any you’d like to share, especially if they’re worth more than 240 characters, we’d love it if you put them in the comments  below.

Why The Hundred Must Be The ECB’s Priority This Season

No one could confuse me for being an advocate for The Hundred, nor a fan of either its concept or execution by the ECB. I have written posts here about its lack of simplicity, its patronising marketing towards women, its sycophantic press coverage, the ‘research’ which allegedly led to its creation, the ECB’s own justifications for its creation, the dumb team names, and the huge gender inequality inherent in the new competition. I have even written a Dr. Seuss parody about it. Last but by no means least, I have written a post with a hundred reasons why I think it’s a bad idea (Spoiler alert: I am also 82% through writing a second post with a hundred more reasons, although many of these may have become redundant based on current events). All told, I’ve written well over 25,000 words here on the subject. None of them complimentary.

Which is why it may surprise some of you to discover that I genuinely think The Hundred must be the ECB’s first priority when (or if) domestic cricket returns this year.

I’m no more a fan of it now than I have been before. Its a bad idea, made worse by the people running it. The rationale for it is flawed, and it risks alienating cricket’s loyal customers in order to attract new people. And I don’t even like any of the crisps. But none of that matters now. In light of cricket being essentially closed at the start of the season, there are two basic reasons why I think it should be the first domestic competition to return.

The first reason is that the competition format is literally made for television, which is important because it seems possible that people won’t be able to attend games in the near future. The main reason counties want T20 Blast games is their profitability, but a large portion of that money comes from attracting fans to the grounds. If large gatherings are banned (and the average T20 Blast crowd last year was over 7,000), then I think it might quickly become expensive for the counties.

The Blast’s format is basically designed to have as many games in as short as a period as possible in order to maximise attendance, with 126 group games played over 44 days. Sky Sports Cricket can typically only show 2 matches per day, and that includes the international cricket which will be almost certainly be happening in the same window. Without serious changes, such as a dramatic reduction in the number of games coupled with an increase in the competition’s duration, it seems likely that county cricket fans would only be able to watch around a third of the competition at all.

The Hundred, on the other hand, has 32 group games scheduled over 28 days. Ideal for Sky to fit around a Test series (which most of us will hopefully be watching), as was the original plan for this year anyway. If the women’s games were all made double-headers with the men’s, as the rationale that women’s cricket wouldn’t attract large enough attendances to be sustainable seems pointless if there are literally no fans present anyway, Sky might even be able to show all of them too. And that’s before we consider the BBC, who have the rights to show 10 men’s games and 8 from the women’s competition. With no Wimbledon, Olympics or European Championships this year, The Hundred might be the most high-profilelive sports they have this summer.

It may be possible that the English cricket season starts early enough to play both the T20 Blast and The Hundred, but even in that situation I would have The Hundred go first. The later the Blast is scheduled, in my mind, the more chance there is that people will be allowed to go to the grounds.

The second, and perhaps more important reason, is money. It’s been that the ECB is concerned that “Sky Sports will withhold part of this year’s £220million television contract if [The Hundred] is postponed“. If people can’t attend the games, then that is already a huge amount of money lost from English cricket in terms of gate receipts and beer snake ammunition. Other revenue, such as sponsorships, might also be affected. This is not a time when we can afford to be picky about where the money to fund English cricket is coming from, or what it is paying for.

This crisis could hardly have come at a worse time financially for English cricket. The £220m Sky TV deal meant that everyone blew through their 2019 reserves with the secure knowledge that a huge pay cheque was waiting for them this season. The ECB’s funds got to such a low point that they couldn’t even afford to pay their white ball international contracts for four months. The players received generous pay rises going in to this season, as (I would guess) did the coaches and many other staff behind the scenes at the counties and ECB. This means that English cricket is now more expensive to run than ever before, and needs as much money as possible to continue as it is now.

That £220m wasn’t a gift from Sky, but a payment for the ECB and counties providing cricket games for them to air. Specifically international cricket, the T20 Blast and The Hundred. If the ECB fails to deliver all of those competitions, then Sky would presumably be well within their rights to withold their next payment. They might even be be able cancel the contract altogether, and that could be a real disaster. With Sky Sports and BT both having lost subscribers during this sporting hiatus, it seems very unlikely that the TV rights for English cricket from 2021 would be worth anywhere near as much to them as the current deal offers.

Will The Hundred be any good? With few overseas players and likely no crowds, I wouldn’t have thought so. And, like I wrote at the start, I can think of plenty of reasons why it was going to suck even before all this happened. That said, people might be sufficiently starved of live sport by the point it starts not to care about such things.

In summary: I think the ECB should prioritise The Hundred, and it should be the first domestic competition to take place this year.

And no, this is not an April Fool.

“Makes sense doesn’t it!” – The ECB, The Hundred, And Women’s Cricket

Today, as almost ninety thousand cricket fans crammed into the MCG and millions of TV viewers around the world watched the Women’s T20 World Cup final, seems an excellent opportunity to look at the status of women’s cricket here in England. The perception seems to be that we are making good progress towards a professional and popular women’s game. And, relative to some countries, we are. But there have been numerous opportunities squandered, a multitude of promises unfulfilled, and far too many empty platitudes.

Personally, I’ve found it frustrating that England has seemed to lag behind Australia in developing women’s cricket recently. England awarded the first full time central contracts in 2014, followed by Australia in 2015. Other than that, Australia have really taken the lead in the women’s game. Cricket Australia started the Women’s Big Bash League in 2015, followed by the ECB’s Kia Super League in 2016. When Australia’s domestic competition went fully professional in 2017, I naturally waited for the ECB to follow suit soon after. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Eventually, in 2019, the ECB finally seemed to come through on the next logical step for women’s cricket when the PCA announced that 100 new professional domestic cricketers would be created in 2020. It was included in the ‘Heads Of Agreement’ which detailed exactly what pay and other considerations professional players and the PCA could expect for the duration of the new £220m per year Sky TV deal. Meanwhile, people from the ECB were saying that there would be eight full time teams, based in the same cities as The Hundred, where these new professional players would play throughout the summer.

The creation of a professional domestic structure is absolutely key for the future of women’s cricket in England. It should provide a high standard of competition, which improves the ability to develop players for international cricket and also makes the  game more entertaining for potential supporters. In the best case scenario, if you build women’s cricket up like Cricket Australia have with the Women’s Big Bash League, you can even reach a point where women’s cricket is profitable rather than something subsidised by men’s cricket. Which is, frankly, more than men’s county cricket seems to manage.

Recent developments seem to suggest that we are a long way from the ECB committing to this kind of growth. First, the ECB reduced the number of new full time contracts from 100 to 40. Now, around 5 weeks before the English cricket season begins, we haven’t heard a single thing about any of these new players being signed or even the teams they’re supposed to play for. I’m starting to think that the ECB may have abandoned even these modest goals.

The reduction from 100 to 40 professional crickets is incredibly important for two main reasons. Firstly, it massively restricts the opportunities for women to make a career playing cricket. Australia’s star player, Ellyse Perry, had the option of either football or cricket as a career and chose cricket because there were more opportunities and higher wages in Australia. If she was English, it seems very likely that she would have become a footballer instead. Other prospective cricketers will have left the sport because they will have had to choose their full time job over cricket, because training and playing cricket in your free time in the hopes of gaining a rare full time contract just isn’t financially realistic for many people.

The second, and perhaps more important reason, is that a reduction to 40 new full time cricketers reduces The Hundred and the new 8-team domestic competitions (if they arrive) to semi-professional status. It’s simple arithmetic. If there are 21 cricketers with England central contracts, the 40 new domestic players and 24 overseas draft picks, that equals 85 total professionals.  There are 8 teams in The Hundred with a squad of 15 each, meaning that there is a total of 120 players. So at least 35 squad members in The Hundred this year will be amateurs. Club cricketers. A far cry from the rhetoric about it being an elite competition.

The reduction also acts as a reminder to all of us (not that anyone here needs reminding) that the ECB are not to be trusted, nor should their promises be believed. In another related example, England’s women cricketers were reportedly told that their pay brackets in The Hundred would range from £50,000 to £15,000. When the final figures were announced, it was actually from £15,000 to £3,000. Quite a difference.

I almost don’t blame the ECB for constantly lying and cheating though, because everyone else seems to just let them get away with it. The press don’t seem to care enough to write about it. The counties can’t even collectively act in their own interests, so the idea that they might somehow get their act together to help women’s cricket is almost laughable. The most disappointing to me is the PCA, who are supposed to represent and  protect these women cricketers from abuse and deceit by their employers. Not for the first time, the PCA’s response appears to be silence and inaction.

But most of this isn’t new. Whilst I’ve been angry about this consistent failure by the ECB to build up women’s cricket in England, the thing which really spurred me to write my first blog post in about six weeks was a couple of smug, arrogant and incredibly misleading tweets by the new “@TheHundred” Twitter account.

 

#EachForEqual is the official theme and hashtag for this year’s International Women’s Day (which is today). It is meant to represent support for “the gender equal boardroom, a gender equal government, gender equal media coverage, gender equal workplaces, gender equal sports coverage, [and] more gender equality in health and wealth.” So let’s examine how the ECB are doing on these aspirations which they are publicly supporting.

Gender equal boardroom – 4 out of 12 on the ECB board. There’s just one woman acting as a representative for the 40 counties and the MCC who elect the chairman and approve the board, I believe.

Gender equal media coverage – The ECB are always at pains to say that the men’s and women’s competitions are inextricably linked, and that both will gain signficant exposure. In the real world, Sky are committed to showing all 34 men’s games and just 11 women’s games whilst the BBC seem likely to air only the final. To put this into context: Sky showed 12 Kia Super League games in 2019, which means that the total coverage of women’s cricket by Sky will actually decrease this year.

Gender equal sports coverage – In The Hundred, the men will play 34 games at 8 grounds. All televised, all in big cities. The women, on the other hand, will play 30 games at 20 grounds, mostly in small towns and mostly not on television (and quite possibly not even streamed or with radio commentary).

Equality in wealth – Even including the £300,000 team bonus for winning, which is the same in both competitions, the average wage in The Hundred for a woman is around £60,000 less than for a man.

In other words, they’re achieving none of it. I don’t think they’re even working towards it. It’s just a meaningless hashtag and phrase.

The huge new TV deal and The Hundred were supposed to usher in a new era for women’s cricket in England. Whilst the press release platitudes and slick social media marketing still proclaim that to be true, the reality is far different. No amount of flashy videos, hashtags or other nonsense should distract us all from the fact that the ECB is absolutely screwing up the women’s cricket. Somehow even worse than they’ve done to the men’s game.

And the most frustrating thing to me is that hardly anyone seems to care.

Thinking Out Loud: 4th Test, Day Three

Test cricket can be a beautiful thing. A precious thing. A wonderful mixture of talent and pressure culminating in moments which are seared into our memories for life.

But it also unfortunately has days like today as well. The day began with England leading the series and dominating the game, and finished the same way. The bits inbetween, both batting and bowling, were thoroughly unexciting.

The day began with an early wicket, Vern Philander caught off a leading edge in the first over of the day, leading to some speculation that England might consider enforcing the follow-on. That possibility was quickly crushed by the partnership which followed between de Kock and Pretororius, which almost carried South Africa through to Lunch. A quick flurry of wickets from Stokes and Wood ended this spell of resistance and left South Africa with a 217 run deficit in their first innings total.

The less written about England’s batting performance, the better. They were in a position where the score essentially didn’t matter as they were basically giving the bowlers a rest, and they batted like it. Loose shots, scrambled thinking, and poor technique. Honestly, the scoreline quite possibly flatters them in this innings. The dismissals I found most disappointing were those from batsmen who should be fighting for their batting position. Crawley, Denly and Buttler haven’t scored enough runs in this series to cement their place in the side, and this was their last chance to do so. They scored 24, 8 and 8 respectively. Crawley and Denly will likely have until Rory Burns is fit again to press their case, but this feels like it was Buttler’s last chance saloon.

Root managed to hang around though, scoring yet another unconverted fifty mainly with the tail. England managed to post a score of 248, leaving South Africa needing to chase 466 runs to win.

Somerset’s Vernon Philander looks to have finished his Test career early, with a hamstring injury of some description. He left the field in just his second over, and didn’t return all day. Given that this left South Africa with four seamers and no spinners, it’s little surprise that the day finished about 8 overs short.

South Africa v England: 3rd Test, Day 2 – The New Pope

At the end of Day 1, this game was in the balance. 224-4 was a solid foundation, but one we England fans have seen the team collapse from several times in recent years. Instead, Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope both made impressive hundreds as England took charge of this game and potentially the series too.

The day began later than normal, after a rain shower delayed the start of play. The South Africans probably wish the rain lasted quite a bit longer though, as Stokes and Pope absolutely dominated the bowlers. The pitch seemed better to bat on than the previous day, as perhaps the rain had left the pitch a little quicker whilst still not generating any movement from the pace bowlers. Even so, it was a very impressive batting from the pair, and they made it all of the way past Lunch before Stokes eventually hit one in the air to point.

Stokes’ batting in the past year has been absolutely tremendous. Since the start of 2019, he is England’s top Test runscorer with 1060 at an average of 50.47. Not only that, he looks like a ‘proper’ Test batsman when he’s at the crease. Confident and assured, making smart decisions, and being able to play both a counter-attacking and dominating innings depending on the situation. His bowling is, at this point, basically a bonus. In this innings he passed 4000 Test runs, and you wouldn’t necessarily bet against him doubling that in his career.

If Stokes has had a great year in the Test team, the next batsman in has had an anus horribilis [sic]. Jos Buttler came in, scored one run and then chipped the ball tamely back to Maharaj for a simple caught and bowled. Since the start of 2019, Buttler has scored at an average of just 24.13, playing in 8 of those 12 Tests as a specialist batsman rather than wicketkeeper. This marks a huge drop off from his initial comeback in 2018, where he averaged 44.70 from 10 Tests. I have no idea what might have caused such a huge drop in form, but it’s increasingly difficult for him to justify his place in the side for the next series in Sri Lanka.

Fortunately for England, the tail weren’t as loose as Buttler with their batting. Helped by the tired bowling and older ball, not to mention Pope’s batting, Curran and Wood both added quickfire 40s which really crushed the hopes of a South African win. Wood’s innings in particular was a joy, with him being given out caught before being reprieved by Rabada being shown to have overstepped the bowling crease in the delivery.

What made this even more delightful for English fans and neutral observers is that Root declared on the fall of the wicket, before rescinding his declaration when the dismissal was reversed. As some have pointed out, this technically would be against the laws of the games which clearly state that: “A captain shall notify the opposing captain and the umpires of any decision to declare or to forfeit an innings.  Once notified, the decision cannot be changed.” Not for the first time in the past year, England have been fortunate with umpiring going in their favour.

Pope and Wood added another 31 runs before South Africa finally managed to dismiss Wood. On a day of milestones, perhaps the most important will end up being Ollie Pope’s 135*. His first Test century, this innings also pushes his career Test average to 51.85. This makes him the only English batsman with a Test average of over fifty since Ken Barrington’s last game in 1968. (Joe Root’s average fell below fifty in the West Indies last year, and sadly doesn’t look in danger of regaining that milestone on recent form) It’s obviously ridiculously early for such comparisons, but this innings by Pope was impressive for someone so young.

England’s spell in the field field did not start well. Stuart Broad and Sam Curran both failed to make any chances with the new ball, and it wasn’t until Dom Bess and Mark Wood came in that the South African batsmen seemed in any peril. Wood’s quick bowling caused real issues for the South African batsmen, causing edges and blows to the body, but Bess took the wickets. First a caught and bowled by Malan, followed by a bat and pad to short leg by Hamza.

The day ended a little early due to another shower, with South Africa still 439 runs behind on 60/2. It’s been a hugely impressive performance by the English batsmen, and now England have to hope that the rain stays away long enough to take the 18 remaining wickets they need.

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

South Africa v England: 3rd Test, Day 1 – Flat

Pancakes. Flounders. Spare tyres. None of these things are as flat and soft as the pitch this Test is being played on in Port Elizabeth.

The bounce has been slow, restricting both scoring and wicket-taking opportunities, and there’s been virtually no sideways movement to trouble the batsmen. All of which made Joe Root’s decision to bat after winning the toss this morning a very simple one. You do have to feel sorry for du Plessis though, because this marks the sixth consecutive toss he has lost for South Africa. With the ability to bat first often being crucial in Test cricket, it’s no surprise that South Africa are on such a poor streak of form.

The first two sessions were a pretty turgid affair, like the pitch. South Africa were mainly ‘bowling dry’ *shudder* whilst England were slowly accumulating runs. Sibley and Crawley both eventually fell to mistimed clips which were caught by leg slip/gully, but losing just two wickets before Tea is still a welcome sign of progress for this England Test team. They are normally well into their tail by then.

Things livened up just after Tea, with Denly and Root falling in relatively quick succession. Root’s wicket in particular will interest England’s bowlers, because he was bowled by a ball which appeared to stay noticeably lower compared to other deliveries on a similar length. Stokes weathered a spell of strong bowling from Rabada and Maharaj, including several unsuccessful appeals, before settling down with Pope to see out the day with England finishing on 224-4.

One thing which has been enormously fun to see on Twitter is the suggestion (by idiots and trolls, mostly) that England’s top order have been scoring too slowly. This is very much a luxury problem, because English batsmen in recent times typically haven’t been at the crease long enough for people to worry about such things. To put this in context: This winter, England have lost their fifth wicket in their first inning for over 200 runs three times in the last five Tests. That’s the same number as they managed in the previous fifteen Tests over three seasons. This England top order, since the dropping of Roy and Bairstow, has been consistently scoring runs.

The key word here is ‘consistently’. Whilst it has been frustrating to see so many English batsmen fail to reach fifty, there have been far fewer collapses this winter than we England fans have become accustomed to. This has been especially important since England’s tail, particularly their non-Stokes allrounders, haven’t been scoring heavily with the bat recently. In 2019, England’s batsmen from 7-11 collectively averaged 13.96. That’s the first year since 2013 in which they’ve averaged less than 20, and their lowest average since 2006. England can no longer rely on their bowlers bailing them out with the bat, and so I think that this new-found cautious approach from the specialist batsmen is both warranted and welcome.

On our usual side note, South Africa actually managed to bowl all 90 overs in a day. With so few wickets and boundaries, and spin bowler Maharaj bowling a third of the overs, they actually managed to finish a few minutes early.

90 overs bowled, England comfortably batting out a full day. I could get used to this…

As always, comments on the game or anything else you fancy are welcome below.

South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Day 3

One of the things I’ve found when writing match reports here is that it can get pretty difficult not repeating yourself after a while. This has certainly been the main issue I’ve had, with the repetitive nature of England’s problems with the bat. All of which made it an incredibly pleasant surprise to watch a day’s play without England’s top order collapsing in a heap and leaving Stokes, Pope, or Buttler with the job of rescuing the game.

The day began with England needing two wickets to clean up the South African tail, and Anderson did so within a few overs. This efficiency is also uncharacteristic of England’s recent performance, with opposition teams scoring just over fifty runs on average against them fpr the last three wickets in the past two years. This was hugely important in the context of the game, because it allowed England a first innings lead and meant that England’s top order wasn’t stuck in the field through the morning session waiting for their chance to bat.

When England did come out to bat this morning, something truly incredible happened: A competent Test batting performance from an England batting unit. Honestly, it was simply a better version of the first innings performance. The batsmen all got starts, but Dom Sibley applied himself and got a well-deserved 85*. When Crawley and Denly did lose their wickets, an Englandbattingcollapse didn’t immediately follow. It was not the most hostile conditions for batting, and the bowling seemed quite tame at times, but England’s batting has been so chaotic in recent years that this seems like definite progress.

A particular point of improvement over England’s past batting has been their performance against South Africa’s spinner Maharaj. Whilst not hitting him out of the attack, England’s batsmen did manage to keep the scoreboard ticking over when they were facing him and have yet to gift him a wicket in this innings.

With the recent proposals by the ICC to change the default format of Tests to four days, I’ve seen the argument made that today’s play would support that idea. A day with few wickets and little drama does nothing to make Test cricket more attractive and profitable around the world, some people have suggested. There is certainly something to this point of view. We’ve all seen flat pitches leading to boring draws which sap the will to live of anyone unfortunate to be watching.

The thing I like most about Test cricket, when compared to ODIs and T20s, is the lack of artificiality. More often than not, the better team in the conditions wins a Test match. Great bowlers are allowed to bowl as many overs as they are able, and place their fielders with few restrictions. Batsmen can typically bat to the farthest limits of their abilities, both mental and physical, rather than swinging wildly at a few deliveries and calling it a day. Allrounders can demonstrate their skills in both phases of the game to the fullest extent. Everyone bats, in every game.

England have been by far the better side in this game, in particular with their bowling which has been able to extract bounce and movement from this pitch. Therefore, it seems absolutely fair to me that they should be able to put themselves in a virtually unassailable position with this innings if they are able to. If this Test were shortened to four days, then they would be not be able to fully establish a winning position due to time pressure and would either have to declare early on day 4 or risk gifting South Africa an undeserved draw. This would not seem fair to me.

On the topic of four day Tests, there were another 4 overs lost from today’s play due to the bowling teams’ lethargy. On a day where South Africa’s spinner bowled almost 30 overs. If you think international teams will be able and willing to consistently bowl 98 overs in a day, then I’ve got a Nigerian uncle who want to get in touch with you about an exciting business opportunity…

Comments on the game, four day Tests, or anything else are welcome below.

South Africa vs England: 1st Test, Day 3

Why is an England away Test performance like a Christmas cracker joke?

Because the grim inevitability of disappointment has become so deeply ingrained that it would be infinitely more surprising if they were even remotely good.

One of the hardest things about writing an England match report here is trying not to repeat what you or the other writers have written in past posts. Days like today make this task so much more difficult as England, not unlike an 80s rock band, wheeled out all of their greatest hits.

The day began with South Africa reeling on 72-4, so naturally England’s bowlers all bowled short so that there was virtually no chance of hitting the wickets. It was only when they started bowling full, just before Lunch, that England actually managed to dismiss any South African batsmen. Unfortunately for the tourists, that adjustment was too late and they were already 300 runs behind.

After Lunch, England just had to dismiss the tail in order to chase their high and still-increasing target. So, obviously, they bowled anywhere but at the stumps and let the tailenders add another 98 runs for the last three wickets. This will not be a surprise for anyone who has followed England recently, as they have the second-highest Test bowling average (behind Afghanistan) when bowling for the last three wickets this year.

The third stage of the archetypal England performance, after a feeble batting collapse and a toothless bowling display, is the hope. Against all experience and reason, we still think England can pull off a miraculous rearguard and somehow win the game. Burns and Sibley played well, and put together the highest England opening partnership since Cook and Jennings in 2016. Sibley gave his wicket away with some gentle catching practice to Maharaj, but that was the only wicket the visiting team lost all day. From an impossible target of 376, England now need ‘just’ 255 runs with nine wickets remaining.

It really is the hope that kills you.

Comments welcome below.