India vs England – 3rd Test, Day 1

There was a lot of talk going into this Test from English fans and journalists about the pink ball favouring the away side in this game, or that the toss was the decisive factor in both of the previous games. Today, England have done their level best to disprove these theories quite thoroughly.

When you go to exchange team sheets with your opposite number and see that they have gone with three spinners whilst you have dropped one from the previous game, it can’t be a great feeling. Joe Root won the toss, which was almost the only thing which went England’s way all morning. It does bear saying that the toss has proven less important in day/night Tests than you might think. The current record for teams winning the toss is 8-7, and it’s also 8-7 in favour of teams batting first. Indeed, the only definitive pattern for games played with the pink ball is that they appear to massively favour the home side with only two losses in the fifteen played so far.

England made four changes to the side which lost in Chennai: Crawley, Bairstow, Archer and Anderson replacing Burns, Lawrence, Ali and Stone. Of these four, only Zak Crawley made a positive impact in today’s play, scoring a quick 53. To put that in context, the other top six batsmen scored a combined total of 24 runs.

Dom Sibley fell early, edging a ball from Ishant Sharma to second slip. Bairstow followed soon after with an lbw to the left arm spin of Axar Patel. It is a little embarassing when a batsman is brought in based on his batting against spin, only to fall for a nine-baall duck. Root managed to steady the ship with Crawley for a while but was trapped in front by Ashwin on 17, whilst Crawley suffered the same fate from Patel. England, having won the toss and chosen to bat, were 81/4 at the end of the first session.

It didn’t get any better after Tea (the 20-minute break being first in this Test) with England’s tail failing to wag or even twitch a little. England lost their last six wickets for just 32 runs, with spinners Patel and Ashwin just dominating the tourists. Pope and Stokes were both dismissed in the first two overs of the session, which left Ben Foakes and a long tail. When England replaced Moeen Ali (England’s top run scorer in the previous Test) with Jofra Archer, that left them with a number 8 who has a Test batting average of 8.00. That decision put a lot of pressure on their specialist batsmen to build a strong platform, and they obviously didn’t respond well to the challenge.

To be clear: This was not the pitch, nor was the pink ball to blame for England’s collapse. There has been spin in Ahmedabad, but without the variable bounce or ‘excessive’ sideways movement we saw in Chennai. The new ball swung, but probably less so than the Dukes ball does in England. It was good bowling by India, and poor batting from England. It’s that simple.

Broad almost claimed the wicket of Gill in the five overs before the second (Supper?) break, but was denied by the third umpire overturning an onfield call of a low catch in the slips. There was dismay from the England team and their fans, not just at the decision but also how that decision was made. First, it came very quickly. From the third umpire asking the director for a replay to his decision being made took less than 30 seconds. Second, and more importantly, he only looked at one front-on angle. It is a basic principle with low catches that you should attempt to view it from side-on where possible, because foreshortening often makes the ball appear lower than it actually is due to the viewing angle and the lenses used.

The commentary was quite forthright in supporting the third umpire’s decision, which was not a surprise. There were two Indian commentators on at the time, and they simply wouldn’t have a job if they didn’t wholeheartedly support an Indian umpire making a decision in favour of the Indian batsman. Of course, they were helped in their certainty by their Star Sports producer declining to show any different angles of the catch (or non-catch). Mark Butcher had been prepared to question things in the first two Tests, and might have prompted further examination, but he has been replaced by Graeme Swann. It’s tough to remember a worse decline in commentary standards in the span just one Test. I’ve been watching it on mute.

In the night session, both sides played what could best be described as as average cricket. India scored 99/3, which is almost up to England’s total with plenty of wickets in hand. The conditions didn’t seem as bowling-friendly as advertised, perhaps because of dew on the ground. It is my vague recollection from when I used to watch the IPL on ITV4 that the ball got damp at night, causing it to seam and spin less. England could have poached a few more wickets, had catches not been dropped and (perhaps) the third umpire had taken more than a cursory look at a stumping.

Ultimately, England’s disappointing first innings total means that there is very little pressure on the Indian batsmen, who I expect to bat for most of tomorrow and put this game beyond doubt. Somehow, despite spinners bowling 47 overs, the day finished 8 overs short. It probably won’t matter, as England seemed the culpable party (bowling just 33 overs in over two and a half hours), but both sides have a chance of qualifying for the World Test Championship final and a points deduction would both hurt them and help Australia. Surely no one wants to help Australia.

I was so looking forward to this Test too, with its reasonable hours and pink swinging balls. After England’s performance, and the prospect of more Swann commentary, I might just stay in bed all day.

India vs England: 2nd Test, Day Three-And-A-Bit

When Dmitri posted on Day 2 that he was sorely tempted to just post “See you for the Ahmedabad Tests”, I found the idea pretty funny. Now, faced with prospect of having to write a report on the end of England’s rather dismal resistance, I’m warming to the idea of doing it myself. Chris didn’t help matters by doing a great job of summing up the game and England’s performance in yesterday’s post, leaving me with precious little to talk about today. England’s batting didn’t help in this regard either, with few rearguard performances to talk about. Bearing in mind all of this, I’ve decided to mainly look ahead to the next Test match in Ahmedabad.

The big news, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that it is a day/night game. For those of us in the UK, that means 9am starts. I am a huge fan of this. I have to tell you that the 4am starts for the India and Sri Lanka series have been messing with my sleep patterns in the worst way, and the prospect of just having ‘normal’ hours for a couple of weeks is a definite plus in my book.

For the England team, a day/night test means that they will be playing with a pink SG ball. This could be a huge opportunity for England, as pace bowlers accounted for 27 of the 28 wickets to fall in the only other day/night game India have hosted: An emphatic innings victory against Bangladesh last winter. It could potentially allow England to field a standard 4 fast bowlers plus a spinner, which certainly plays towards their squad’s strengths. It also brings into contention some players who might not have been seriously considered for the team up until now, like Chris Woakes. That said, and given England’s issues with both batting and bowling in this Test, there’s every chance that India will still provide a spin-friendly pitch in Ahmedabad.

The next Test sees some of England’s squad members returning from a mid-tour rest. Bairstow and Wood are back, and Archer is expected to have recovered from an arm injury. Together with the week’s break between Tests, that means that Ed Smith should be able to choose from a full contingent of players bar the rested Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali. Bairstow averaged over 40 against Sri Lanka, and so it seems likely that a batsman will make way. Burns, Lawrence and Pope’s positions might all be considered vulnerable based on their record this winter, and I honestly couldn’t guess which batting lineup Smith and Silverwood will end up picking in Ahmedabad. (Dom Sibley could also be included in this group, except that he is by a significant margin the better of the two openers. As the old joke goes: You don’t need to outrun a bear to be safe, you just have to outrun the people next to you)

If Ahmedabad is a spinning track (and given England’s performance in Chennai, it should be), then the debate on which spinners England should pick will reopen. On a pitch which really helped spin bowling, probably to the point that it was technically illegal, neither Jack Leach nor Moeen Ali seemed able to consistently trouble the Indian batsmen. Ali’s quickfire 43 in the second innings would probably be enough to ensure he will keep his place in the side ahead of Bess, but Moeen is due to fly home for a few weeks’ rest before the T20Is and (possibly) the IPL. Whichever spin bowlers England go for, they will need their bowling to improve in the event that the Ahmedabad pitch is another sandpit.

Besides deciding the series, the Tests in Ahmedabad are also the final two ‘live’ games in the inaugural World Test Championship and the maths regarding both teams’ chances is pretty simple now: England need to win both Tests to have any chance of qualifying, whilst India need to win the series by any margin (2-1 or 3-1). Any other result (including England winning the series 2-1) sees Australia sneaking into the final despite both England and India having more points overall. It’s hard not to look at Australia potentially winning the final despite only playing one away Test series (the 2019 Ashes) in the two whole years as an affront to decency and virtue. No change from them, then.

The series is 1-1 and, although the hosts might be the more confident of the two teams, England would certainly have been very happy to be in this position at the halfway point of this series. With everything to play for, and the added bonus of a day/night Test for both England’s bowlers and fans, the next couple of weeks should be interesting to watch. I guess that all I can add is: See you for the Ahmedabad Tests!

India vs England: 1st Test, Day Two

England have, just about, batted through the first two days and put themselves in a dominant position in this Test. In truth, they looked pretty comfortable through most of the day. The pitch still seems relatively placid, although more balls are starting to spin off the surface or bounce erratically through the day.

The day started with Stokes and Root riding their luck somewhat to avoid being bowled by Bumrah’s yorkers. Both managed to get just enough on the ball that it bounced over or away from the stumps, but it was a close thing. That is perhaps the cruel thing about great batsmen, that the difference between being out or not in Test cricket might be a few millimetres or a few milliseconds and some players consistently manage to get enough bat on ball to survive. Root looked very safe, past that early scare at least, but Stokes was significantly looser. Playing several slog sweeps and reverse sweeps, he survived a sharp caught and bowled chance to Ravichandran Ashwin plus an aerial drive in the covers which Pujara dropped.

Eventually Stokes did hole out, not long after the Lunch break, but not before scoring 82 runs. This brought Ollie Pope to the crease, who missed the Sri Lanka tour due to a shoulder injury. It was fair to say that his batting did seem quite rusty throughout his innings, and obviously the circumstances of these winter tours with no practice games won’t help batsmen in his situation. He didn’t last long, although he did manage to score 34 runs before being trapped lbw by Ashwin so it wasn’t a complete loss.

In the next over, Nadeem dismissed Joe Root with a very similar wicket for 218 runs. This whole winter so far has been remarkable by Joe Root. His first innings scores in the three Tests he’s played are 228, 186 and now 218. That is an average of 210.67. It is no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing greatness right now and, considering Channel 4’s coverage, probably the first time many UK cricket fans will have witnessed a batsman in this kind of form. It is traditional for sports fans not to appreciate what they have until its gone, and Test cricket fans are perhaps more traditional than most, but nitpicking Joe Root’s innings would be a petty and small thing to do.

Having said that, his second innings batting average this winter is 6.00 so clearly there’s some room for improvement there…

India had been in the field for two days, and so mistakes in judgement and fielding were bound to occur. The first were exemplified by their use of DRS reviews, wasting them in a vain effort to dislodge Root earlier in the day. Despite each team having three incorrect reviews per inning, India had used them all by the time Buttler was given not out despite edging the ball to the keeper. India, being overall a more balanced and sporting nation than Australia, didn’t attack Buttler’s character or accuse him of cheating and instead just got on with the game.

Tiredness in the field might also be the cause for Rohit Sharma’s drop of Dom Bess, which was one of the easiest chances you will see in Test cricket. Softly looped straight to him at head height, it is the sort of catch you’d give to a 10 year old during catching practice. Both this and Buttler’s edge were from Washington Sundar’s bowling, who finished the day wicketless on 0-98. Sometimes, it’s just not your day.

Buttler didn’t punish the Indians for their error, being bowled soon after by an Ishant Sharma inswinger. There are good leaves and bad leaves, and this was a very bad leave by Buttler. Sharma bowled Archer with his next ball, which triggered England fans’ fears of a quick collapse but Bess and Leach steadied the ship and saw England through to the close.

England finished the day on 555/8, which is a very good first innings score. Despite this, England fans seem determined not to be optimistic about their chances in this game. The word ‘Adelaide’ might well be trending on Twitter. To put this innings into context: No team has ever lost a Test match in India after scoring 500+ runs in the first innings. In the 99 times England have scored 500+ runs in their first innings, they have won 50 Tests, drawn 47 and lost just 2. Don’t panic. It’s fine. England have this.

Channel 4’s coverage improved on day 2. They had a segment with Simon Hughes at Lunch, of whom I’m not the biggest fan but they do need other people to bring into the conversation rather than having the same two people talking during every break in play for five days. They also started interacting with the audience by reading tweets using the #Channel4Cricket hashtag. This should remind viewers that Channel 4 had less than two days from the signing of the contracts to going on air to prepare, and that it will be a work in progress throughout the series. The coverage will hopefully continue to improve and evolve through the series, but it’s started pretty well. Even the Indian commentary, which many people were worried about, has been fine. Perhaps not amazing but, without the likes of Warne and Vaughan (amongst many other candidates), it is at least tolerable.

That’s all for today. If you have any comments about the game, Channel 4, or anything else, add them below.

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.

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, 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.

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.

How To Tell A Bad Idea In Cricket Without Actually Trying It First

The Australian Big Bash League have just announced three new rules which will feature in the competition due to start next month. These are ‘Power Surge’ [Two of the six powerplay overs must be taken after the halfway point by the batting team], ‘Bash Boost’ [Teams get a bonus point for being ahead after 10 overs] and ‘The X-Factor’ [Teams can substitute one player at the midway point of the first innings].

The announcement has been met with almost unaminous derision and disbelief from cricket fans, and quite a large proportion of the media too. The answer to that from its (relatively few) proponents is to watch it in action first. This strikes a nerve with me, because it’s the exact same answer people (almost exclusively employed by the ECB, Sky or the BBC) gave when faced with criticism of The Hundred. In the most extreme example, Isa Guha wrote that she felt people only had “the right to have a go” at The Hundred after it had been played for “4-5 years”.

There are three main ways in which this answer annoys me. The first is that it takes us as fans and customers for granted. There is absolutely nothing preventing us from spending our time and money on something else if we don’t like what we see. Second, I think most people can tell whether they like something or not very quickly. A bad first impression, such as from an ECB director going on national radio to tell people that the new cricket format isn’t for anyone listening, is a hard thing to overcome. A company ignores a significant negative visceral response from its consumer base at its peril. The third, and perhaps most important, is that its incredibly patronising. Few hearts and minds have been won by people implying that the people who are concerned must all be morons.

All of which begs the question: How can you tell a good idea from a bad one without spending tens of millions of pounds (or dollars) trying it in live televised games for a few years?

1) Is It Actually A New Idea?

One obvious way in which proposals can be judged is if they have actually been tried before. For people who were following cricket in 2005, the Big Bash League’s ‘X-Factor’ sounds remarkably similar to the ‘super sub’ idea which was briefly used in one-day internationals. That was abandoned within a few months after almost everyone involved agreed that it massively favoured the team who won the toss. It’s difficult to see how the BBL substitution rule won’t suffer the same fate, and it certainly hasn’t been explained by anyone from Cricket Australia.

Heeding lessons of the past need not be confined solely to cricket either. If we wanted to look at The Hundred’s reducing the number of cricket teams in England & Wales, we could compare it to the experience in Welsh Rugby from 2004. Nine clubs representing nine cities and towns were amalgamated into five (later four) regional teams. Despite undoubtedly producing a higher average quality of rugby, in terms of improving the finances or the number of supporters in Welsh rugby it has been a comprehensive failure.

2) Can You Make A Logical Argument In Its Favour?

In life, it’s generally a good rule of thumb that you probably don’t understand something very well if you can’t also explain it to someone else. Likewise, if you can’t clearly express why a change to the playing conditions of a tournament is an improvement then it probably isn’t.

It is a common theme that any explanations coming from the ECB or Cricket Australia on topics like these miss a vital step. They typically spell out what the problem they are trying to address is. They always say what they are doing. What they never do is link the two together in any kind of logical manner. Imagine that you went to a doctor with a splitting headache and they decided to put your ankle in plaster. That’s the level of logic that cricket boards seem to operate at.

When talking about the changes to this year’s BBL, the Big Bash’s player acquisition and cricket consultant Trent Woodhill said both, “Integrity [of the game] is about high performance and it’s about the contest between bat, ball and fielders.” and, “It happens in all other sports, coaches have a major say in the result. We want dialogue, we want discussion from broadcasters, as to why a coach or captain has made the decision they’ve made.” So the position of Cricket Australia appears to be that ‘bat, ball and fielders’ are the key to the integrity of the game, and that these new additions will make those aspects less important relative to the actions of the coaches and captains.

I’m certainly struggling to find a compelling argument for why Cricket Australia believe bonus points based on the scores after ten overs would be a good idea. If the team batting first scores 200-6 (Or, being in Australia, 6-200), their opponents are more likely to score an extra point if they are all out for 105 after eleven overs than they are scoring 199 from their allotted twenty overs. Why would you potentially reward losing by 95 runs more than losing by 1 run?

The ECB’s arguments in favour of The Hundred are even more egregious in this behaviour. To take just one example, one of the few snippets of the extensive research that the ECB have actually released to the public states that ‘75% of families would prefer a game that is under 3 hours in length and finished by 9pm’. That’s a fair enough point to make, but misses out two fairly obvious flaws. The first is that T20 Blast games already last under three hours (barring rain delays). Their own playing conditions state that games should last for 2 hour and 45 minutes. The second is that ten of the thirty-four games of the men’s Hundred scheduled this year were due to finish at 9.30pm because they could only start after Test matches against Pakistan had finished for the day. So, regarding the ECB’s own arguments for why The Hundred is needed as a format, the first part shows it to be unnecessary and the second part doesn’t apply to either competition.

3) Will It Still Work In An Imperfect World?

It’s very easy to make plans on paper which appear flawless but come apart very quickly in real life. To take a recent(ish) example, look at the 2019 Men’s Cricket World Cup final. Even the most one-eyed England fan must admit that having the game and the overall winner decided by boundary countback was a little unsatisfying. The fact is that the tie-breakers were agreed by every cricket board involved, who almost certainly thought that there could never be a situation where both teams would be tied after the super over. It really helps to consider these scenarios before they happen, rather than complaining about them after the fact.

With cricket, whether in England or Australia, the most common issue competitions face is the weather. One shower of rain and everyone’s on their computers trying to work out the DLS scores and how to come out ahead in a shortened game. Ten games were rain-affected in last year’s Big Bash, so it is not something which should be overlooked. With that in mind, how well do Cricket Australia’s proposals handle rain delays and reductions in overs?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is not well.

The ‘Bash Boost’ bonus point for being ahead after ten overs becomes a nightmare if rain occurs at any point between the start of play and the midway point of the second innings. Imagine a game where Team A scored 80 runs in their first ten overs and batted for the full twenty before it rained for an hour during the mid-inning interval. Team B then face a DLS target of 120 from ten overs. How many runs do they need to win the bonus point, and after how many overs?

If the rain occurs during the first innings, it becomes more complex still. Let’s say that Team A scores 80 in the first innings in ten overs when it starts raining, leaving Team B to chase a DLS target of 70 from six overs. Is the target for Team B to beat based on what Team A managed to score in ten overs or five? I get a migraine just thinking about the complexity required to keep things even remotely fair to both teams with such a system in place.

4) Can You Hold A Trial First?

Even after you’ve cleared all of these hurdles, it must be worth playing a few trial games with the proposed rule changes to see how actual cricketers and fans feel about them. The Big Bash League are basically committed to these new rules for 61 games this winter. Almost two solid months. If Australian fans start whinging (and we all know that goes against their national character, but it could happen), then that’s a lot of unnecessary resentment and strife for the players, coaches and administrators to deal with. It also potentially risks tens of millions of dollars if cricket fans decide to stop watching altogether.

With so much at risk, surely it’s worth seeing how it plays in real life before committing so much money and effort? A week of games, with players trying several scenarios as well as full games. If everything goes well, they act as further promotion for the competition and new rules. If things go poorly, you have only lost thousands of dollars instead of millions.

In the ECB’s defense, something I rarely say, they did actually hold some trials of The Hundred in 2018. The general consensus appeared to be that it was very, very similar to T20. The problem there is that it was supposed to be to a distinct and entirely new format which would attract people who found T20 too long and boring. Trials don’t serve a purpose if you ignore the results, unfortunately.

5) Are You Being Honest About Your Motivations?

All of the above points assume that cricket boards are fundamentally truthful and open organisations whose statements can be taken at face value. Both Cricket Australia and the ECB talk about making cricket more exciting, more popular and more modern with their new formats. What neither mention in their press releases and interviews is a desire for cricket (or at least their portion of it) to become more profitable. With three new rules, each with their own branding, the proposed changes to the Big Bash give Cricket Australia at least three more opportunities per game to add extra sponsors, making the BBL more profitable. For the ECB, they seem annoyed at T20’s popularity around the globe because they think they invented it and deserve some licensing money from the global leagues. They genuinely believe that other countries will pay them for the rights to host competitions using The Hundred as a format, if it can be a success here.

Regardless of whether they are right or wrong (Spoiler: They are wrong), it seems at least some of these public relations issues are caused by their disingenuity. If Cricket Australia had said, “In the current circumstances, we need to make more money this season or risk further job cuts,” then people might have been more understanding about the whole thing and willing to give it a go for a season. Telling people who already enjoy cricket that these nonsensical rule changes will make cricket more fun, on the other hand, is a recipe for disaster.

I don’t consider myself a cricket traditionalist. To be honest I find the idea a little amusing when it comes to a format like T20 which has only been played professionally for eighteen years. There are many rule changes I would like to see, or at least try. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask that governing bodies try to think things through before putting the contents of their brainstorming session on national television.

Thanks for reading, if you have any comments about this post or anything else please add them below.

How Not To Market A Product

As The Hundred begins its marketing campaign for next season, it seems like a good time to talk about some incredibly basic things to consider when selling something. It seems like the ECB needs all the help it can get.

The most basic tenet of marketing, at least as far as I understand it, is to always consider your audience. This encapsulates two concepts: The audience you currently have, and the audience you want to attract.

For @TheHundred, the first demographic is very easy to define: English cricket fans. Before a ball has been bowled, or a game televised, the only people who will have any interest in an upcoming domestic cricket competition’s Twitter account are obviously people who already like the sport. They almost certainly follow the England cricket team, and are more likely than not to be familiar with county cricket too. They might be men or women, young or old, rich or poor, but they all have that in common.

Knowing that, the obvious approach would be to use @TheHundred Twitter account to promote the cricketers involved in the competition. “You like this player? You can see him next summer in The Hundred.” The people following the account will already know them, and you might persuade some of those followers who were on the fence about the whole thing to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s not sexy, it won’t win you an award for innovative marketing, but it works.

One incredibly odd choice for The Hundred is when its tweets and posts give every impression of being dismissive or downright hostile towards county cricket and its fans. I struggle to think of any example where a company has attacked or insulted its own customers whilst promoting a new product. For example: Coca Cola owns both ‘Coke’ and ‘Innocent Drinks’ (or at least 90% of it). Innocent’s Twitter account has never said, “Coke is incredibly bad for your health. Drink Innocent’s smoothies instead!” Literally no responsible company would do that, ever.

But the England And Wales Cricket Board do.

The second group, the Twitter account’s presumed target audience, is the more interesting aspect of The Hundred’s marketing efforts so far. It has been stated repeatedly by its proponents that The Hundred is designed to reach people who might be discouraged by their impression of the T20 Blast as a competition for ‘lads’. To quote Simon Hughes: “A lot of people feeling the Blast is not a game for them because it’s largely middle class and largely white, and particularly a kind of beer-fest. […] It has become a piss-up, actually.

If you look at who responded to The Hundred’s Twitter relaunch positively, and there wasn’t that many, a clear pattern emerges: They are all youngish men aged roughly 25-40. No women, no British Asians, no kids. Just blokes who I would guess like a drink and some ‘bantz’. If The Hundred’s aim was to draw in a new diverse audience for English cricket, they appear to be failing badly.

This is not a surprise to me, although I suspect the same could not be said for many at the ECB. My impression is that children or even the under-25s rarely use Twitter. Instagram, TikTok and Twitch all seem to have a younger user base, and so might be better platforms for attracting schoolkids or young adults to cricket. I would hesitate to even speculate on the best way to draw British Asians into English domestic cricket, but it’s not immediately obvious that the ECB have tried anything beyond creating a franchise-style competition vaguely reminiscent of the IPL/PSL/BPL.

The worse misstep in the ECB’s marketing approach regards women. The tone of The Hundred’s Twitter output could be charitably described as ‘laddish’. The thing to remember about this kind of the behaviour is that it is generally how men act when in the company of other men. Women tend not to participate in it, nor find it appealing. This might be why the vast majority of internet trolls appear to be male. If you were promoting a new competition which proclaimed (falsely, in my opinion) to be based on the principle of gender equality, with both the men’s and women’s competitions inextricably linked, why would you choose to project such an obnoxious and exclusively male personality on social media?

The problem the ECB face is that this is not an isolated problem with regards to their promoting cricket outside of their core white male demographic. If you remember last year’s launch of The Hundred’s website, the stock photo used prominently on the front page was literally the top Google result for “male audience”. When Andrew Strauss first announced The Hundred on Radio Five Live, he implied that the reason more women weren’t cricket fans was because they weren’t able to understand the game. There are two things which these three events have in common. The first is that they all demonstrate a chronic inability to consider the ECB’s output from the perspective of a female audience, which leaves them struggling to connect with roughly half of the UK population. The second (and more damning) commonality is that each of them would have been thoroughly prepared over several months. None of them could be excused as mistakes made in haste. Every detail will have been pored over by virtually the entire PR/marketing/social media arm of the ECB, not to mention a few very well-paid executives, and no one appeared to notice any issues.

Being ‘Outside Cricket’, I must admit to having almost no knowledge of the ECB’s inner workings. That said, I would be utterly unsurprised if I were to discover that the people involved in these debacles were almost exclusively white men aged thirty and above. Particularly when it comes to the senior roles where decisions are made. Whilst perhaps not essential, having a diverse staff must surely help when it comes to attracting a diverse audience. Otherwise you risk seeming out of touch, patronising, and frankly a bit of a joke.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about this, or anything else which came up during our extended break, please post them below.