England vs. South Africa, 4th Test, Day 3

Today was the sort of day that many of us Test enthusiasts love, a day where bowlers had the sort of conditions that actually gave them the upper hand and where the batsmen had to fight for every single run. Yes today was a bit of a grind and I must admit that the Old Trafford surface hasn’t been great, but I would rather see a proper fight between bat and ball than 600 play 650 on a flat, bowlers graveyard of a pitch. The day ebbed and flowed, with South Africa battling to stay in the match and England trying to eek out enough runs to feel comfortable in defending on a deteriorating pitch. By the end of the day, England managed to emerge on top; however it was tough going, which Test cricket is absolutely meant to be.

England’s batting was a tale of the downright poor and one absolutely superb innings. I think it’s safe to say that England’s top order still has more holes than a watering can, with the top 3 all getting out to woeful shots and Malan, although 2 Test’s into his England career, looking nervous and out of place in the Test arena. It would be harsh to drop Malan after only 2 games, but sometimes a player just doesn’t look international class I’m afraid. As for the Top 3, I’m afraid it looks like game, set and match for Keaton Jennings. He came out with some credit from his performance in the 2nd innings of the Oval Test, but has looked woefully short of form all summer. This is absolutely not helped by the fact that his feet look stuck to the crease, his head position is too upright on connection with the ball, which means that he doesn’t seem in control of the ball when it hits the bat and of course he genuinely doesn’t seem to know where his off stump is at the moment in the face of good, patient bowling. I think his reaction to his dismissal said a 1,000 words, he realises that its now back to Durham to try and work on his technique and to score some big runs. The opener cab rank is starting to look extremely bare.

Westley and Cook also both got out in the same way, launching ill advised flashes outside the off stump in what were very bowler friendly conditions. Westley is still learning the international game and whilst I worry about his ability against deliveries pitching outside off stump, I’ve seen enough of him in the last couple of Tests to give him the benefit of the doubt. The same can’t be said for Cook. I’m afraid that Cook looks to be in terminal decline, unable to fathom out how to score big runs now international bowlers have truly found out his weaknesses. A number of us have pointed out that he is now 50 not out since he last scored a century against either Australia or South Africa and indeed having done a little bit of digging (Nonoxcol had the same idea) it now reads that Cook has an average below 30 against these teams going all the way back to 2012 (some 26 Test matches). These cold hard facts may be difficult to swallow for those that have chosen deify Cook, but it is a fact that Cook really has been a flat track bully over the past 5 years. I will again reiterate again that I’m not advocating that Cook should be dropped, far from it, we can’t find one opener let alone two at the moment, but the fact that Cook is still easily the best opener in England is more a terrible reflection on county cricket, than it is a reflection on how good Cook actually is at the moment. Oh and just to annoy the Cook straw men on Twitter that’s 5 in 98 now.

With the dismissal of Malan and with England 77-4, with only a lead of around 200 ahead, there seemed to still be life in this Test, as whilst the pitch was doing a fair bit, if South Africa could limit the chase to fewer than 275, they still had a chance. Root played very well before getting a ball that kept low. One may be nitpicking and argue that he should have got forward to it; however equally you don’t generally expect the pitch to have demons in it on Day 3. Stokes and Bairstow both came and went, with the former getting a good delivery, which he nicked off to slip and the latter looking uncharacteristically out of touch. So enter the hour and enter the man. I admit that I’ve been particularly harsh on Moeen in the past winter, as I could see all the talent in the world, but couldn’t see any growth in his game. He has proved to be excellent with the ball in this series with 20 wickets and an innings to come and today he showed his class with the bat. England were still in a little bit of strife when Moeen came in, but boy did he play this innings to perfection. He was positive rather than being reckless, something that hasn’t always been the case, didn’t allow the South African bowlers to settle into their line and lengths and then launched a perfect counter attack with the bowlers tiring. Moeen’s counter hitting was truly a sight to behold, though Elgar will be kicking himself for dropping him on 15; however this cameo has firmly turned the dial in England’s favour. I would be amazed if South Africa can muster a batting performance on this pitch to win it from here. It is also worth noting that Moeen’s tally of 20 wickets and over 200 runs is the first time that this has been achieved since a certain Freddie Flintoff achieved it in a rather special Ashes series. Now I’m not going to try and compare apples and pears, but if Moeen can keep this level of play up in the next couple of series and beyond, then England have another true all rounder.

As for the South African bowlers, they can hold their heads up high. Morkel, Rabada and even Olivier, who looked a club bowler in the 2nd Test, bowled extremely well in conditions that suited them. They consistently made England’s batsmen play and miss and on another occasion could have easily wrapped up the England innings for under 150. The only bowler who will be slightly disappointed will be Maharaj, though whilst he looked dangerous bowling into the rough, especially against the left handers, he will be disappointed that he only took 1-92 in pretty helpful conditions, although he could do little whilst he was being smashed round the park by Moeen.

So onto Day 4 and barring a miracle or persistent rain, England should wrap up this game and the series 3-1 in the next day or so. Whether we have learnt anything more about the England line up however, is an extremely moot point.

Thoughts and comments on Day 4 below.

England vs. South Africa, 4th Test, Preview

So we go into the last Test at Old Trafford with all to play for and though the scoreline on paper at 2-1 looks like it has been a closely fought series, it actually feels that it has been a slightly anti-climatic series with both teams clearly looking like they are in transition. Chris alluded to this in his wrap up of the third Test, that although the series is hanging on a knife-edge, especially without Director Comma’s ‘super series’, that none of the games have been particularly close. As I thought about it a little more, it has been a long while since England have been involved in a series where both they and the opposition have played consistently good cricket in each game of the series. The Ashes in 2015 was an example of a number of wide margin victories as was the Pakistan Test series last summer, where whoever gets on top after Day 2, normally ends up dishing out a bit of thrashing. Now whether this is particularly true just of England (I don’t think it is) or whether the fact that the T20 batting style has crept into the game, resulting in the batsmen failing to put a high price on their wicket, I’m not sure; however most Test enthusiasts amongst us yearn to see another up and down series like the New Zealand Tests in 2015. Whether or not that happens in the near future, I do have my doubts.

From an England point of view, the best thing that they can do is not to think about the dreaded word ‘momentum’. This seems to lull them into a false sense of security as the 2nd Test of the summer showed and instead concentrate on doing the basics right as they did at the Oval. Cook and Stokes played wonderfully contrasting innings in England’s first knock, which resulted in them being around 75 runs above par in tricky batting conditions and all of the bowlers (perhaps with Jimmy excepted) all bowled magnificently. From then, the game was won. It has been particularly interesting to see the reaction of the Media to Toby Roland-Jones’ performance with one or two high profile names already clamoring that he doesn’t have the pace to threaten the Australian batsmen in their home conditions. I find this particularly strange when they have quite rightly been gushing in their praise for Vernon Philander, especially as TRJ bowls around the same speed as Philander and relies on accuracy and a bit of movement to eek good batsmen out (for the record Philanders’ average in Australia is a touch under 30). Now I’m fully aware that most of the media and written press don’t sully themselves with watching county cricket, but if they had, then they might have realised that TRJ has consistently been getting wickets at an average of circa 27 on what is the flattest deck in the country, still I guess that this either doesn’t fit their rhetoric or that they are too lazy to do any research! For me, TRJ has to stay in the team for the rest of the summer at least.

It was also interesting to see Bayliss say that England don’t need 8 batsmen, especially when the English batting line up has a regular habit of falling in heap. Now it is clear to most that Malan hardly had a stellar debut (it happens), but using this as a logic to try and shoehorn Dawson, the very essence of a bits and pieces player, back into the team is just crazy in my opinion and smacks of a certain ‘mood hoover’ having a little word in his ear. For me, England should name exactly the same team for Old Trafford unless the pitch resembles something a bit like the Wankhede! I was also surprised and a little disappointed to see Finn called up as cover for Mark Wood. Now as most on here know, I am a great Finn supporter; however his performances over the past 2 years haven’t backed the selectors faith in having him around the squad; indeed he has been pretty mediocre even in county cricket, which pains me to say. I personally think that Craig Overton or even Jake Ball would have been a better choice as cover; however unless one of England’s main fast bowlers suddenly breaks down tomorrow (I’m writing this on Wednesday evening), then I would simply be amazed if they don’t go with the same seam attack as they did at the Oval.

As for South Africa, they do seem to have some standout players, some players who are probably not up to Test Cricket (yes Heino Kuhn I’m looking at you) and some players with talent who are absolutely frustratingly inconsistent. As for the batting attack, Dean Elgar has to be one of the best openers in the world at the moment, sure you wouldn’t pay the entrance fee just to watch him, but he is someone who has true grit and is able to get the most out of what is a somewhat limited technique. If I was the England batting coach, I’d be making Cook watch his innings at the Oval on repeat, as that was the sort of inning that Cook made his name from in the past. It would also be surprising if both Du Plessis and Amla bat as badly as they did in the 3rd Test, so it would not be a shock to see their batting line up roar back in the 4th Test, England certainly can’t approach it as if the job is done. The seam bowling line up on paper is also one of the best line-ups in the world with Philander (if you can keep him on the pitch), Rabada and Morkel all capable of running through the side. Morris for me, is the wildcard of the South African attack, capable of bowling brilliant spells followed by a spell of utter trash; he sort of reminds me of Andy Caddick, not through looks or bowling action, but that both could be a match winner when they were fully switched on, yet on other days when they simply didn’t fancy it they’re prone to send down a succession of floaty half volleys asking to be hit. South Africa will certainly hope the focused Morris turns up on Friday.

Dmitri, Chris and myself are at the Oval on Friday night getting down with the beered up T20 massive (do say hello if you plan to be there yourselves), so Danny will be on the decks on Friday for the Day 1 report.

As ever thoughts and comments below are always appreciated.

The Blame Game

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It’s been less than a week since what can only be described as a disastrous Test match for England. This coupled with the fact that England have now lost 6 of their last 8 Test Matches has seen the once compliant media turn into circling vultures around the team. Dmitri came in off his long run on Tuesday and covered many of these points with deadly precision, so naturally I don’t want to cover old ground; however once the dust has settled and people have regained their decorum, it does need to be examined why England are in a continuous cycle of mediocrity.

As we have covered in previous posts, the condemnation came quick and fast, after all this is no longer an Alastair Cook team so it’s game on for the hacks, but the two that particularly caught my eye were the reactions of Nasser Hussain and George Dobell, with 2 thoughts on completely different sides of the spectrum.

Hussain was quick to put the boot into county cricket, which is not too much of a surprise considering he probably rarely watches it, stating:

The lads that are coming in aren’t doing anything for them – they won at Lord’s because of Joe Root, not Jennings, Dawson or Ballance.

“You name some lads who have come in – [James] Vince, [Ben] Duckett, [Gareth] Batty, [Zafar] Ansari, [Alex] Hales, Ballance – there is no-one coming in and doing well. “It is a sad indictment in county cricket that they are getting runs there and not for England.” 

Dobell took another line and was keen to understand what Bayliss was actually doing to address these problems:

Bayliss has clearly pushed an ‘aggressive’ mindset (remember his comments about wanting two “attacking-style batters in the top three”?) but, without knowing the red-ball ability of his options – he admits he has never seen Mark Stoneman, outstanding candidate for top-order promotion, bat in the flesh – he has instead tried to turn limited-overs talents into Test players. Jos Buttler was recalled to the Test team despite having played one first-class game in a year and, as a result, being given no chance to correct the faults that led to him being dropped; Alex Hales was promoted to Test opener and Liam Dawson has been selected largely on the grounds of being a ‘good bloke’. By such criteria, Nelson Mandela would have opened the batting for South Africa for 50 years.

Bayliss isn’t much of a technical coach, either. The players refer to him as “a man of few words” who leaves the technical work to others and is more interested in creating a positive, settled environment in which the players are able to perform to their optimum.

That’s important, of course. But if he doesn’t have much say in selection and he doesn’t have much say in coaching, it does rather beg the question: what does he do? If he’s just creating a relaxed environment, he could be replaced by a couple of scented candles, a yucca plant and a CD of ambient whale noises.

 It’s not that I wholly disagree with either of these quotes, it’s just that I think they fail to see the long term issues that England have glaringly had and have been swept under the carpet for so long now. It is easy to have a knee jerk reaction after another England collapse, but it’s far more positive to take a step back at properly look at the underlying causes rather than throwing mud at anybody not named Alastair Cook.

If I look at Hussain’s comments around County Cricket, I feel that he has taken the easy route of assigning blame without doing much research. We all know that County Cricket isn’t perfect, but then show me any national set up that has the quality of domestic league to keep churning out Test quality players (the Australian Shield Cricket in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was the exception rather than the rule). We are also in an era where cricket has become a marginal sport, so to try and find circa 540 professional players across the counties who all play at a high level is mission impossible. Of course it could be argued that by merging counties or introducing 3 divisions (the latter of which I’m actually in favour of) to increase the quality on offer is a nice idea, but even the counties aren’t stupid enough to vote themselves out of existence. This is verging on Mission Impossible. Hussain also argues that players coming through the counties should have had their techniques honed by playing County Cricket, and whilst it is a lovely idea, it is not exactly practical. The County coaches are under as much pressure to win as with any other professional game, so they’re not exactly going to take Ballance or Vince aside when they are plundering county attacks to work on their technique on the off chance that they may get recalled. It would be lovely if they did, but that is purely a pipe dream. It is also worth remembering that the counties often work on a shoestring budget, so they’re not exactly in a place to be able to employ the best coaches in the system and if they did so, then they would probably have to sacrifice players, robbing Peter to pay Paul in other words. Whilst we can all agree that County Cricket isn’t without fault, to lay the full blame on it’s doorstep is lazy journalism in my opinion.

The same could be said about laying the blame fully at the door of England’s coaches; after all they can only work with those who have been selected to play for England. Whilst of course there can be a portion of blame assigned to Bayliss, who fully admits that he doesn’t have a working knowledge of County Cricket (though that doesn’t mean that he can’t watch videos of every English player) and appears to foster a culture whereby there is a lack of accountability amongst the players; it would be foolhardy to hump the blame completely onto his back. Could Bayliss be more forthright, yes certainly and could he stop using phrases such as ‘positive brand of cricket’ (up there with ‘difficult winter’) absolutely yes, but it does feel slightly that his Australian upbringing has upset one or two of the media corp. There are questions around his backroom staff, which Dmitri pointed out in his last post, such as what does Farbrace actually do and why would you employ a batting coach, who was known to freeze in the Test Cricket arena? These are valid questions, but my view is that the England coaches should only be there to tweak techniques and mindsets and not have to start from scratch with players who aren’t either ready or good enough for Test Cricket. My question would be why are we having to pick players with poor technique or subject temperament in the first place? Surely there is a failsafe within the system to guard against this? Yes is the answer; however it is failing in its very basic goal:

According to the Lords website:

Loughborough University has a long tradition and is world renowned for its role in the development of sporting excellence. It is a key site for the new English Institute of Sport – and the ECB’s National Academy. The MCCU allows additional support to be invested in a squad of elite young cricketers, who benefit from Loughborough’s expertise and provision for the development of sports performance.

The Cricket-specific facilities and services are reinforced by access to Loughborough’s wider provision of high-performance sport support services, including fitness testing and development, technical analysis of skill acquisition, physiological and biomechanical analysis, sports nutrition, sports psychology, and sports medicine services.

Loughborough has been a failure on an immense scale. It is the place where aspiring fast bowlers and batsmen go to have their technique ripped apart and changed to what the ECB coaching manual dictates and to be turned from exciting young cricketers into ECB corporate drones. After all, we know that as long as you say the right things and suck up to Mr. Flower, then a Test place is all but guaranteed (more on him a little later). The crux of the matter is that we are not producing enough players of a high enough quality to play Test Cricket; we’re not drilling into them the mindset of protecting your wicket, batting time or bowling line and length instead of promoting the so-called so-called ‘X Factor cricket’. The basics seemed to have been replaced with how fast can you bowl the ball and how far can you clear the boundary by, which is nice for hit and giggle cricket but leaves players totally ill-equipped for the longer form of the game; hence the phrase positive brand of cricket now being bandied about, which roughly translates as our batsman have no clue on how to defend against quality bowling.

So then we dig a little deeper and shine the light on the two individuals who have the keys to the England Development Programme, Andy Flower and David Parsons. There has been very little written about David Parsons, England’s National Spin Bowling Coach, and that’s just probably the way that he likes it. Parsons has been England’s spin coach since 2006 and how many international class spinners have we produced since that time, yes you guessed it, a big fat zero (Swann was playing County Cricket long before Parsons was appointed). This is a clear example about how the ECB rewards those that are ‘inside cricket’ irrespective of the aptitude of said individual. If I had been in a job where I had one task but failed to deliver on it, then I would have been out of a job an awfully long time ago, but there Parson’s is, clinging onto his position for 11 years whilst contributing virtually nothing during this time, no doubt he’ll be knighted soon. My thoughts on Andy Flower are well known, I wrote a piece last year about his tenure with the Lions – https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2016/11/23/englands-missing-lions/comment-page-1/ and very little has changed since then. Flower has never had a particular aptitude of bringing through young cricketers, with only Steven Finn bought into the England set up under the age of 27 (Trott and Bresnan were extremely experienced county operators by this time) and clearly values good personality rather than talent. England are still criminally under utilising the Lions in the red ball format, which is madness, considering this should be the very vehicle where England’s aspiring Test players iron out their techniques, test out their temperaments and play against high quality players. It would naturally be impossible to mimic the England set up, but surely it’s not past the administrators to organise 4/5 red ball games a year for those that have been identified as next off the cab rank?? Surely Director Comma understands that the very definition of madness is doing the same things again and expecting a different outcome? The fact that we have consistently seen white ball cricket favoured over red ball cricket constantly rankles with me but it appears that this decision has come from the top.

We could also easily blame the selectors, whom many of us believe should have been sacked straight after the India tour and some even before that. There have been too many selections where they have tried to put round objects into square holes or have completely misjudged an individual’s readiness for the Test arena. The balance of the side has looked completely wrong for a while now and they continue to jettison those who don’t fit their mould as personified by the media luvvies (see Rashid, Carberry, Compton etc). The fact that James Whitaker still has a job is like the ECB is playing one massive practical joke on the rest of England, hell I’d rather have John Whitaker making the selections.

It is clear that many elements could be blamed for England’s consistently poor decision making and massive inconsistency in the Test arena (though one could argue that losing 6 out of 8 Tests isn’t inconsistency and just the sign of a poor side); however there does seem to be one constant running through all of these gripes. Yes, our purported savior, the Director, England Cricket.

Now many might say that it is unfair to put the blame squarely at Strauss’ door and some will even go further and say that I am purporting an agenda against Strauss, and whilst it’s true that I have little time for Strauss, the one common element is that all roads lead to him. Graves is being kept in a cupboard under the stairs, only allowed out to wine and dine the County chairmen, Empty Suit is too concerned with the TV deals and the Cockroach is still trying to infiltrate the ICC, so that really only leaves us with Director Comma. When appointed, Strauss’ supposed remit was:

Strauss, will will be responsible for “the long-term strategy of the England men’s cricket team” and for developing “the right coaching and management structure to support it”.

Strauss knew that Bayliss was more of a white ball specialist when he appointed him and that he had very little knowledge of county cricket; however it still seems that the key to Strauss’ appointment was to push the white ball game and to ensure a certain South African born player wasn’t picked. If Strauss didn’t know that Bayliss was a hands-off coach, then that is a damning indictment of his research and judgment. Strauss is also in charge of the selectors, so why has there been no accountability with bust after bust coming from Whitaker and co? Any fool could see they’re not up to the job, hell I would make Peter Moores chief selector, he might not be able to coach at International level, but he was the most successful in bringing young cricketers through to the England set up. I would certainly remove Flower from any formal or informal position on the panel, a conflict of interest there most certainly is, but whether Director Comma actually has the cohones to do it, is another matter.

Another damning aspect of all this has been Strauss’ insistence that white ball cricket was more of a focus across all of the age groups, very much at the detriment to the red ball game. We can of course question the mindset and attitude of England’s Test batsmen, but when they and the next generation are not being given proper exposure to the red ball game early in their career against high quality players, then of course we leave ourselves open to being undercooked at this level. It is astoundingly incompetent to have the Lions playing 6 red ball games over a 3-year period, with an England Test line up crying out for new talent. Whilst it would be unfair to directly apportion blame to Strauss for Loughborough’s consistent failure, it doesn’t appear that he is too keen to do much about it, after all that’s Mr. Flowers remit and one doesn’t go about sticking his nose into Darth Mood Hoover’s ‘oeuvre d’art’.

So what have England actually achieved in Director Comma’s tenure, we have a white ball team that is better than it was but still hasn’t won anything, a Test team with the same glaring holes and lack of talent in the system as we had in 2014, which makes it impossible to make England a constantly competitive Test Team, oh and a new domestic T20 competition that nobody wants. It wouldn’t be unfair to surmise in my opinion, that in the three years since Strauss took over as Director, England Cricket, English cricket hasn’t moved forward an iota and that for me is the most damning statistic of them all.

 

England vs. South Africa, 2nd Test, Day 1

After such a long wait for the Test Summer to begin and despite all the so-called pomp and glory of Lords, the first Test felt a bit of a let down to me. England were pretty good but South Africa were pretty poor and that led to a fairly one-sided Test. The indications, after the first day’s play at Trent Bridge is that this Test will be anything but one-sided. Today was the sort of day that trumps any form of hit and giggle cricket out there, the game flowed one way and then another and by the close of play both teams would have taken their respective positions at the start of play. In my opinion, it is very hard to judge who has the upper hand, a joy for us slightly long in the tooth cricket followers that Tom Harrison clearly doesn’t value.

South Africa got their selection and tactics spot on today and whilst De Bruyn can feel slightly hard done by, the decision to pick Morris was spot on, especially with fears over Philander’s fitness and durability. One person who can’t feel aggrieved is of course JP Duminy, someone who has been making the team on past glories and so-called potential with bat and ball. As D’Arthez and Prime.Evil have mentioned constantly below the line, he is someone that infuriates all Proteas’ followers, a bit like in the way that the selection of Bopara infuriated all England supporters. Yes they both could bat and bowl a bit, but they both looked out of their depth in the international arena and on closer inspection their figures both suggest that they should both have been dropped long before they were. We might still see Duminy in a Test shirt in future, but to be a bit controversial, I would very much doubt that it would be down to his ability.

So back to the Test and South Africa won the toss on a fairly placid pitch, but one that was aiding the seam bowlers due to the overhead conditions. Both openers did alright without scoring the runs they felt they might have deserved and then Amla and De Kock put together a tremendous partnership once the sun came out and the ball stopped swinging. It was quite amusing to listen to Botham et al panning the South African management for not promoting De Kock earlier in his career; of course forgetting that batting at four after 110 overs in the field is less than practical. Whilst Amla’s innings was slightly skittish, De Kock looked in wonderful touch and it is easy to see why he averages over 50 in Test cricket, the only slight knock being that he got out to a lazy waft straight after tea when a century was looking on the cards. Amla then soon departed even after another reprieve from Cook at slip and once Du Plessis and then Bavuma departed relatively cheaply, England looked like they had an opening to bowl out the Proteas cheaply. The fact that they weren’t able to is of great credit to Morris and Philander, who both looked like bona fide all-rounders, especially when dealing with the new ball and due to some slightly strange bowling tactics from England.

For England, it was a bit of a ‘what could have been’ day. They bowled far too short with the new ball, a criticism that has been leveled at them on numerous occasions and when they finally did get their lengths right after lunch, the sun came out and made batting, which had looked fairly treacherous before lunch, look far more serene in the afternoon. England’s bowlers also had a pretty mixed day, with Stokes and Broad (once he had sorted his length out) being the pick of England’s attack. Jimmy bowled ok though he didn’t look particularly threatening and Mark Wood had a day to forget with the ball mainly down to the fact that he bowled far too short and was unable to bowl one side of the wicket. Wood is a talent and despite a bad day at the office, he should be retained due to the fact that he does have the pace to challenge opposing batsmen when he gets it right. And then we come to Liam Dawson. I don’t particularly take great pleasure in signally out one player for criticism, but Dawson is simply not good enough for Test cricket. He sort of reminds me of the quiet and slightly strange guy from accounts who ventures out for the work Christmas party and then hangs around at the side of the group; Sure it’s possible to make small talk for a while, however you don’t particularly want him to be there and more importantly, he doesn’t really want to be there either. He might well be a good character, but neither Dawson’s bowling nor batting merit a place in the side. It’s almost like England have no idea as to what to do with the number 8 position without Woakes and have hedged their bets on the very definition of a ‘bits and pieces’ player. Surely after this Test, the selectors will see that Dawson isn’t up to Test cricket, then again he’s an Andy Flower favourite, so will probably end up with 50 caps!

So after an intriguing first day, we move on to an equally intriguing second day with both teams having the ability to move themselves into the box seat. If South Africa bat well and get up to 450, then they will surely be favourites to win as Trent Bridge can turn into a minefield batting last; however if England can wrap this innings up for around 350-370, then providing they bat well, they could well be in a position to ramp the pressure up on the Proteas in the second innings. So cancel any plans to go out shopping or to go for a long walk in the countryside and sit back and watch Day 2, it could be a cracker tomorrow.

Thoughts and comments on Day 2 below:

 

England vs. South Africa, 1st Test, Day 1


Well it’s certainly felt like a lifetime after all the white ball shenanigans, but today, the 6th July, the Test season finally started with the symbolic bell being rung at Lords to mark the true start of summer. Both teams came into this Test with question marks around their batting, with bowlers carrying a niggle or two and two new captains aiming to put their individual mark on their respective teams. I don’t think it would be unfair to summise that the only real highlight of the morning as far as England were concerned was that Root won the toss and quite rightly elected to bat on what appeared to be an absolute belter of a pitch; however England managed to make a complete pigs ear of the first session, which again confirmed everyone’s fears around the make up of England’s top order.

In every single Test played in England, it is always imperative to see off the new ball in the first hour and from there batting often tends to get much easier but England completely failed to do this. Jennings might be a tad unlucky as the ball was shown to be pitching outside leg stump and to be fair, Bairstow got a good one; however there was nothing evident in Gary Ballance’s batting to show that he has made the technical tweaks to cope with international fast bowlers. I can understand why he was picked, after all weight of runs in the CC Division 1 should in theory be rewarded; however it does seem that the selectors weren’t exactly enamoured about his selection, this coupled with the fact that he was asked to bat at number 3, which is a surefire way to have your technique tested out, makes no sense at all to me. The fact that he played around a straight delivery reminded me of all the technical difficulties that were exposed by Australia a couple of seasons ago. It may just be that Ballance, like many before him, is too good for the county game but not good enough at Test level, he will certainly feel the heat the longer he is unable to post big runs. My biggest criticism of the morning however, was the shot that the ex-captain and media lovechild played to get out. It was just a lazy waft at a wide delivery that someone who has 30 Test hundreds (yes we are reminded of that every time he walks into bat) should not be playing. Yet we have seen it time and time again as Messer’s Clark and Harris can vouch for in many an Ashes series. The fact that Nasser described the shot as someone who was just in too good form was even more risible than the shot itself; I expect that to be buried in the national newspapers tomorrow.

So at 76-4 on a flat Lord’s deck, England were in more than a spot of bother when Stokes joined the new (and improved) captain at the crease. There was a real chance of being rolled over for under 250, which would have been a complete disaster in the circumstances; however the fortunes of each side completely turned on their heads. South Africa suddenly looked like they had morphed into Pakistan on the field and England decided to play positive but not reckless cricket. The pitch that England’s top order had made to look a minefield suddenly looked anything but that. Stokes played beautifully I thought and just when I was about to praise him to the high heavens, he then got out himself playing a low percentage, high risk shot. Stokes has a beautiful technique and I have absolutely no issue in him playing with a completely positive mindset, but trying to hook a ball with the realistic result of it being a single at most, isn’t particularly smart. Once Stokes tweaks this part of his game (and he has improved dramatically over the last 18 months), then England will have a hell of a player on their hands. Moeen also came in and played a typical Moeen knock full of dreamy drives and the odd misjudgment; however he did look remarkably improved in playing the short ball than he did in the winter (and that caused me to write a large rant about it). It was the perfect counter attack against a tiring South African bowling attack on a very hot day and hopefully he can push on in the morning.

The main praise of course has to go to Joe Root, who despite riding his luck at times played a sublime innings under pressure. There was of course speculation leading up to the game as to whether Root would be able to combine the pressures of captaincy alongside carrying the England batting, as well as the constant annoyance of us and him at his failure to convert 70’s & 80’s into match winning hundreds. We needn’t have worried. After the early let offs, Root played the type of innings that reminds us why he is one of the top four batsmen in the world. His ability to keep the score ticking over, his ability to dispatch both the good and bad deliveries to the boundary and his ability to score all over the wicket means that he must be a nightmare to bowl to, let alone set fields for. It would have been easy for Root to go into his shell and to try and grind out a score with England’s batting in disarray, but that’s not how he plays nor how he wants his team to play and at times it was special to watch. One swallow does not make a summer, but the early prognosis is promising.

As for South Africa, it was great first session and then a sobering experience for the rest of the day. Philander bowled brilliantly in his first spell, accurately probing England’s batsmen with every delivery and fully deserved of his 3 wickets. The success of Philander in international cricket (average of 23 with the ball) should prove a lesson to England amongst others, that you don’t need to have express pace to trouble international batsmen as long as you have the skill to land it on the same spot 6 times an over. I’ve seen many a decent county bowler being dismissed from England’s thinking because they don’t bowl at 85MPH, yet Philander tends to hover around the 78MPH mark and has been highly successful. This should prove as food for thought for the selectors but somehow I don’t think it will. The rest of the day unfortunately proved to be a bit of a horror show for the Proteas, with a reeling England at 76-4 being able to finish the day at 357-5. The Proteas had their foot on England’s throat and then failed to go in for the kill, of course dropping the oppositions best player twice early on is never a strategy that is worth pursuing. This combined with the fact that they bowled two wickets off two no balls, meant that even the most battle hardened South African is likely to be crying into his Castle Lager tonight. To take one wicket off a no ball is reckless, but to take two with the latter being from a spinner is down right criminal. I’m not sure I’d fancy being in the Proteas’ dressing room tonight.

On a couple of last side notes, I fortunately/unfortunately (depending on your point of view) missed the Empty Suit interview at Tea though I’m guessing that it contained lots of buzz words such as ‘engagement’, ‘family friendly’ and ‘new audiences’ with very little actual content. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. And as a final moan, we yet again didn’t complete the full 90 overs in a day and at one point it seriously looked like we might not get many more than 80. This has been a bugbear of all the editors on the blog; however if I’m paying top dollar for 90 overs, then that is exactly what I want, 87 overs simply won’t do. End of.

So on to Day 2, and to see if England can motor towards 500 or whether South Africa can take early wickets with the new ball. Either way, it feels like the first session tomorrow could be pivotal as to the result of the game. Thoughts and Comments below as always:

England vs. South Africa – 2nd T20 thread

With England winning the first T20 at a canter, it seems like the hugely disappointing performance in the Champions Trophy is already being swept under the carpet. The first T20 was a strange affair as South Africa were truly abject with both bat and ball. The fact that they could only muster 142/3 on that pitch was truly shocking, I for one, have never seen AB de Villiers so out of nick, this coupled with another average performance from the perennially average Behardien, made the English bowling attack look like the West Indian attack of the 80’s! As for their bowling, I think the phrase pop gun would be too kind, they were far worse than that. A truly terrible day at the office for the Proteas and one they’ll need to get out of their system quickly.

This is not meant to take any credit away from England who batted and bowled both professionally and ruthlessly, something England haven’t been exactly renowned for in the near past. Whilst Woods will get most of the acclaim with the ball, it was the two inexperienced spinners that should get the most credit in my opinion as both Crane and Dawson bowled like they were seasoned internationals, not two bowlers who have less than 10 ODI caps between them. As for the batting, Roy got us off to a good start before giving his wicket away and then Bairstow carried England to an easy victory with another brilliant innings. You have to give YJB a lot of credit as whenever he’s picked for a white ball game, he nearly always sticks his hand up with a decent score. It must be incredibly frustrating being the ‘nearly’ man of England’s white ball team and many would’ve displayed a less than positive attitude, but it’s a great credit to Bairstow that he has continued to be upbeat and back his own ability. In my opinion, England simply need to find a way to fit him into the white ball setup permanently.

So we roll on to Taunton, which is hosting its first international game and for a measly £60 you could go and watch it, that is if you’re slightly insane with money to burn. It should be a high scoring game as Taunton is generally a bowlers graveyard and it will be interesting to see what changes both sides make. I still think it would be criminal if Curran, Malan and Livingstone aren’t handed any game time in what is essentially a meaningless series, so it will be interesting to see if and how they slot them in.

In other news, Ireland and Afghanistan have been made full members, which is great news until you realise that they are being funded as Associates who have just lost £40million as part of the settlement to appease the BCCI. You have to give it to the ICC, they are the masters of giving and taking away at the same moment. Then we have the ECB trying it’s best to rinse the media quickly so as to pay off the counties and to swell their own coffers – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/cricket/2017/06/22/ecb-expect-1bn-bt-sport-sky-prepare-tv-rights-bidding-war/. Stuff the cricket, this is the ECB’s number one priority. We’ll try to cover these in a little more depth when we have the time.

Anyway thoughts on the match and other news below:

England vs. South Africa – T20 thread

Anyone else bored of white ball cricket yet? I certainly feel that I’ve had my fill. Yet here we have the token T20 part of this tour, just to make sure you get Empty Suit’s vision of the future, with a bolted on series that I doubt anyone else but the punters can get excited about.

In a way I hope England use this series to blood new talent, as we know the pro’s and con’s of the normal group. I’d definitely like to see Livingstone & Malan given a chance up the order and whilst I think they’ve picked the wrong Curran, I hope Tom gets a chance to bowl as England’s attack is far from potent. It seems like Mason Crane has been inked in to play the series, which I’m excited to see as it’s clear the guy has talent, though how many games he gets to play without being labelled fragile or too expensive by Pringle, Newman et al, will be interesting.

We’ll try to post as many reports as we can, but it’s holiday season combined with the fact that we’re all busy and a bit bored of not being able to see Test Match Cricket.

Anyway thoughts on the game below…

England vs. Pakistan – Champions Trophy preview

So now we get to the real nitty gritty of the tournament. England have looked imperious during the qualifying stages of the Champions Trophy and as a bonus, instead of being drawn against a high quality South African side, they instead face the unpredictable enigma that is Pakistan. Seriously it is impossible to predict what Pakistan will actually turn up in Cardiff, will it be the one that bowled so well against South Africa or the meek side that got hammered by India, there’s just no point in trying to guess. One thing that Pakistan will need to do to be competitive is improve on their batting dramatically from the past 3 games, as they haven’t anywhere near threatened a score of 300 in the tournament so far and have seemed to take the old England approach of having one aggressive opener and a number of accumulators in the middle order to try and get them to a decent score before they open their shoulders in the last 10 overs. We have seen from past painful experiences with England that this really isn’t a formula for success in the ODI arena, so one would hope that Pakistan will throw off the shackles with their batting tomorrow. We shall see.

As for England, it’s more of the same please, but with one exception; that being that poor old Jason Roy looks like he has finally been dropped from the team tomorrow (it was reported that Bairstow netted today and Roy didn’t, which seems about the biggest hint possible). It’s hard not to feel some sympathy with Roy as he has been an integral part of the white ball set up under Bayliss & Morgan and I do think his presence at the top of the order allows Hales a bit of time to settle into the game; however sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Roy has just happened to fall into one of the worst trots of form in his England career at the worst possible time; his head looks scrambled and his technique looks all over the place, that coupled with a reserve batsman in prime form waiting in the wings meant that a change was going to be inevitable. There had been talk from Morgan about backing Roy for the whole tournament but I would guess the manner of his dismissals added to the fact that this is a tournament that Director Comma really needs to win to lend credibility to his white ball focus, meant that Roy is now in the firing line. Some may point to the fact that Roy didn’t do himself any favours by sitting on the bench throughout the IPL and I agree that could have possibly been a factor; however young HH has been playing county cricket all season and has a top score of 38, in my opinion, sometimes you are just out of nick irrelevant of circumstances. I’d be shocked if there were any further changes for England, despite Ball not exactly pulling up trees with his bowling. The one thing that could be interesting tomorrow is that this pitch in Cardiff will have been used three times before the game, hence don’t be surprised if it’s a bit two paced and conducive to spin. 300 might not be the par score everyone is expecting  and hence the team batting first will quickly need to assess conditions especially if par is around 275. Misjudge that and 215 all out could beckon.

Then of course, we come to the ticket farce, with as much blame storming flying around as a Tory cabinet meeting. Our good friend shiny toy has naturally waded into the debate now that he has stopped advising everyone on how to deal with the threat of global terror, and naturally he starts off with blaming the fans for not attending:

https://twitter.com/5liveSport/status/874525506468696064

https://twitter.com/MichaelVaughan/status/874542158178639877

The fact that Vaughan has used the ticket price as justification for the fans not attending again shows that he is on a different planet to everyone else. So to make it easy for Shiny Toy and #39 to understand, I’ve carefully explained things below:

  1. Many matches are on a weekday and guess what people have to work or look after children, if only it was that easy to drop all commitments for a jolly at the cricket then we’d all be there.
  2. There are very few £30 tickets with the majority being in the £40-£60 bracket. When you factor in travel and food costs you’re probably around £80 lighter at least. In case you hadn’t noticed the economy isn’t exactly in tiptop condition at the moment and many can’t afford the outlay.
  3. Stop holding tournament matches in Wales, give it to Lancs or Yorks if you want bigger crowds to come. The Swalec is a lovely ground and really central but if the surrounding communities are a bit meh about cricket (since they can’t watch it on TV), then why expect people in their droves to turn up to Bangladesh vs. New Zealand.

Anyway rant over on that score, if you are in the Wales vicinity tomorrow there is a good chance of getting a ticket to the game as around 38% of available tickets were bought by Indian fans hedging their bets that have since decided to return their tickets. Hasten to say, it would not surprise me one bit if there are plenty of empty seats at the game tomorrow, however I’m not going to even start on the ICC ticketing procedures….

In other news, there’s also been the announcement of the T20 squad to face South Africa after the Champions trophy with five new debutants in the squad for the three games. It would be nice to see Malan given a go as he has been supremely consistent over the past two years, Liam Livingstone looks like he could be something special and it would be also interesting to have a proper look at Mason Crane, who despite having limited playing time for the Bransgrove lot at the start of the season, still looks a fine prospect. Will anyone actually care about the series after the glut of white ball cricket well that is another matter completely.

Lastly, England have announced the England Lions squad for the one off 4 day game against South Africa A, I wonder if you can spot where England’s focus might be? Anyone else would’ve laughed if they’d included Chef as well?? 

England Lions squad: Keaton Jennings (Durham, capt), Mark Stoneman (Surrey), Haseeb Hameed (Lancashire), Nick Gubbins (Middlesex), Dan Lawrence (Essex), Ben Foakes (Surrey, wk), Sam Curran (Surrey), Jamie Overton (Somerset), Tom Helm (Middlesex), Jamie Porter (Essex), George Garton (Sussex), Jack Leach (Somerset), Dominic Bess (Somerset).

Anyway thoughts on the game and anything else below:

England vs. Australia – Match Day Thread

With everything that is going on outside of the cricket world, none of us have managed to find the time or inclination to do a full match preview in what is essentially for England at least, a dead rubber.

That being said, the game is against the Auld enemy with a chance to send them packing from the Champions Trophy, so motivation shouldn’t be a factor, but England and dead rubbers rarely go well together from past experience. The weather whilst changeable doesn’t look at this moment that it will wipe out the game and whilst many of us would heartily laugh if the game was a wash out, I’m not sure I can take any more whining from certain Australian fans about the British weather (yes it rains in England, get over it). I think we would all much prefer England to win in without any rain affections.

I’d be surprised if England named anything but the same team that played against New Zealand, despite the fact that they have already qualified, as the dreaded ‘M’ word seems to be emanating from the team and MSM – Momentum. As for the Aussies, I’m not sure there will be any changes for them either, although Chris Lynn from what I have seen of him looks unlucky to have missed out so far.

Anyway for those with the inclination to do so, do add your thoughts on the game below.

England vs. Bangladesh – Champions Trophy 2017

For those that have not watched the game but have seen the score, it might seem like this was a straightforward, one-sided victory, but at the halfway point this was simply not the case. England on the whole bowled pretty poorly with big question marks about their choice of personnel for the bowling attack (more on that a little later on) on what was a typically placid Oval pitch. Though England didn’t bowl particularly well, it would be churlish not to give credit to the Bangladesh batsmen with Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur in particular looking like the quality international batsmen that they are. The one thing that will disappoint the Bangladesh team was that both set batsmen got out in the final 10 overs, especially when a total of 330, which would have been more than competitive, was on the cards. Although Bangladesh have improved enormously over the past few years, it does feel that they are heavily reliant on both Iqbal and Mushfiqur to carry the bulk of the batting, as showed by their lack of power hitters at the end of the innings, although a great deal of credit should be given to Liam Plunkett, who was by far England’s best bowler.

So at the interval, most of us felt that the Bangladeshi’s were about 20 runs short, but equally were slightly unnerved by the fact that England needed to score over 300 runs in a game they simply had to win whilst dealing with all the pressure that goes with that. We needn’t have worried. After getting off to a shaky start, with Roy once again being dismissed cheaply, the other England batsmen made hay whilst the sun shone, against what looked like a pretty ineffectual and popgun Bangladeshi attack. There has been some talk that Roy should be dropped, but I’m glad that England are sticking with him as i believe he takes the pressure of Hales and lets him settle into his innings, which provides Hales with the opportunity to size up the attack before pressing the ‘go button’. Anyway after the minor blip, it proved to be plain sailing from there on in, with Hales taking the attack to the Bangladeshi bowlers, Morgan making a brisk and welcome half century (his record in ICC events has left a little to be desired) and Root leading England home with a magnificent century. This was by far the most heartening innings that Root has played for some while, with many including myself, criticizing him for not converting pretty 50’s into match winning centuries. It could be said that he was not facing the most hostile of attacks and whilst it is true that there will be tougher days ahead, it would be extremely churlish not to be anything but full of praise for this particular innings. The fact that Root combined power hitting with his normal sumptuous touch should be a source of great encouragement to all England fans.

So all is rosy in the Garden of Eden right, umm not exactly. There were some incidents and decision making that should have England fans concerned if not worried yet. The first mistake England made in my opinion was the very thing I praised them for in my preview of the South Africa series, not keeping a settled team together. Despite Morgan’s protestations, I find it unbelievable that they decided to leave out Adil Rashid, who may not be a great Test bowler but is certainly a mighty fine ODI bowler. The key to limiting the best sides to manageable scores on flat decks is to take wickets and this is something Rashid, whilst having the habit of being rather expensive, is probably the best bowler England have to do this in the middle overs. So to leave him out for another pace bowler in my opinion seemed to be an overly cautious selection and not something that we’ve been used to in the Bayliss era. I hope this proves to be a one off ‘horses for courses’ selection as I strongly believe that Rashid is integral to England’s success in the white ball format.

Then of course, we come to the injuries and this is where things can get very messy for England. If Woakes has an intercostal muscle strain, which most people think he does, then he is not only out of the Champions Trophy but also the South African Test series as well. As an ex fast (ok medium pace) bowler, I have also suffered the same injury and it’s a 6 week healing job at the least and there is certainly no way to patch him up like they have with certain other members of the squad. The injury to Woakes is up there on the ‘things that England’s management team would be desperate not to happen’ as he has matured immensely as bowler and I would suggest is now the leader of the ODI attack. Certainly without him our bowling options start to look a bit  threadbare. This coupled with the fact that a patched up Stokes had to bowl far more than England would’ve wanted him to today alongside a calf injury to a hobbling Root, means that England’s medical team are really going to have to earn their keep over the coming days. What I hope is that both simply have niggles and not something serious; however the England medical team have a history of allowing players with fairly serious injuries onto the park, so I will be waiting with baited breath to see if both pull through without sustaining a more serious injury, especially given the upcoming schedule. There was also the ‘catch or no catch’ debate regarding Iqbal’s proclaimed catch off Eoin Morgan, but I think I’ll leave that bugbear of mine for another time.

My last grumble (sorry I know England won the game) is the FTA scheduling of the highlights. Now bear in mind this was a day game, there is absolutely no excuse for the BBC not to show these at prime time; however the BBC feel they know better and have decided that 11:20pm is the ideal time to air them. To me, it just feels like another wasted opportunity to bring cricket in front of a mass audience again in England and something that cricket’s administrators should be bitterly disappointed about.

Despite the various grumbles, the long and short of it is that England did what they needed to do and recorded a victory, but at what cost and whether it proves to pyrrhic remains to be seen.

As ever, thoughts and comments on the game below.