Welcome to the House of Fun: India vs England, 3rd Test, Day 2

A ridiculous day of cricket. A ridiculous Test. One way or the other, the shortest Test match since 1935 isn’t a great advert for the game, even if the watching of it was intense, breathless and extremely exciting. There are two separate things here: firstly that low scoring matches of whatever format tend to be the most thrilling, and for the obvious reason that every single ball matters, but secondly when conditions are so far in favour of the bowlers, it makes batting something of a lottery, and brings things to a close far earlier than should be remotely the case. When the batsmen are in true peril, scavenging every run has a value, while the bowlers take on the aspect of pack hunters, circling their prey. Yet it’s always been the case that when conditions favour one discipline too much over the other, it leads to an unsatisfactory game, and finishing well within two days (and with slow over-rates) is not something to relish.

The question though is how much the pitch is responsible for that. Watching on television caused no end of head scratching as to just why both teams (at least until India’s second innings when the target was so small as to make little difference) struggled so badly. The Chennai surface in the second Test seemed to turn more, and the ball seemed to go through the pitch far more. But the players made it very clear that this was extremely difficult, and their view is the most important. What seems to have happened was that the ball skidding on made it impossible for the batsmen to cope with it – the number of bowleds and lbws indicated that particularly. It isn’t always the explicit turn or bounce that does for them, any more than a two paced pitch visibly makes it clear to the naked eye why drag ons on driven catches are so prevalent – the outcome dictates the reason to the observer. Therefore it can’t be a criticism of all the batsmen, quite clearly the conditions were such that everybody struggled, but it is possible to accept that point and also note that England struggled far more, and should have done much better in the first innings in particular.

England looked utterly out of their depth, a far cry from the first innings of the first Test, and part of a trend of England’s scores getting progressively worse. The lack of pressure in India’s second innings makes a judgment a little hard, for there is a huge difference between the heat and pressure of a live match and when both sides know which way the game is heading and are going through the motions.

While irrespective of result, the pitch, or the pitch in combination with the pink ball, weren’t good enough, it was still the same for both sides, and England should have had the best of the conditions on offer. They chose the wrong team, with three seamers and one spinner, and Joe Root was not only being forced into action, but also picked up five wickets. That is both a credit to him and an indictment of the team England had chosen in the first place. Equally, this match wasn’t remotely lost by the bowlers, but by the batsmen, especially first time around.

England’s slim hopes of making the World Test Championship final are thus extinguished, on the back of having made five successive scores below 200. It’s hard not to conclude that England are getting precisely what they deserve for increasingly abject batting displays. India might be better at home, indeed are better at home, but there’s a difference between being outmatched and being hammered. England are increasingly being hammered, and while they have the chance to square the series, few would bet on them doing so.

Free, to do What I want, Any Old Time.

The announcement about unlocking society yesterday has been timely for the ECB, given that today is the draft day for the Hundred. It is entirely unsurprising that the response from the majority of the commenting cricket fraternity has either been indifferent or negative, but that’s merely a reflection of the ongoing hostility to it, and also the abject failure of the ECB themselves to engage the support base over the last few years.

Where it gets more interesting is whether, in a sense, the ECB have fluked it in terms of the timing. If, as hoped, crowds return to sport this summer, then it just might be that their launch of this concept will work – in 2021 at least. The reasoning for that is simple enough, having been locked up for the best part of a year, there will be latent demand from the public to be out doing something – anything. The Hundred, with its reasonable pricing may well be able to tap into that desire, and the open air and generally spacious (except the seats) nature of cricket watching may attract even those who are nervous about being out and about among the general public.

Put aside views of the format of The Hundred for now, it doesn’t matter. Having something to do will matter, and given it’s summer before anyone can, it largely, if not entirely, bypasses other sports in the same period, and will have an earlier major event that crosses over in the liberalisation period with Euro 2020 taking place in June and July that ought to bring back some familiarity to the concept of going to sporting events.

Against that is the undoubted likely reduction in the numbers of people who are prepared to go anywhere this summer. Each time the pubs were re-opened there was an expectation of them being packed, and in city centres that may have been more the case, but elsewhere there was a clear reluctance from many to go out to public locations. What happens this summer in that general sense is an open question, but it’s probably true that the overall potential footprint is lower, while among those who do wish to partake, their incidence of making use of what is available may be higher.

There is also the economic aspect to this. Many people are dramatically worse off, through job losses, collapses in income or business, and they will not have spare cash to be able to splurge on summer events (in this area, the low price of the Hundred is in its favour), but on the other hand there is a smaller but still sizeable group who are much better off, due to working from home rather than commuting, and the loss of things to spend money on more generally. How much one group might outweigh the other is another unknown, but there is an opportunity for the ECB to promote the entire competition in a slightly different way to had it been a normal year.

None of this undoes the structural problems faced by the entire concept, nor the challenges it will have in future years. An initial frisson of excitement at something new lasts no time at all, but if nothing else, it provides a means of making a good start. For cricket generally, the pricing attraction versus a ticket cost in excess of £150 at Lord’s for an ODI is a clear point of difference, especially for a family, and it shouldn’t be underestimated how that vast difference will play to a group of people who are open to paying for public entertainment, but not to have to sell a kidney for the privilege of attending.

What it won’t do is justify the Hundred itself, although it’s not hard to imagine the PR crowing that will result from busy grounds. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t justified either, it would simply be that the special circumstances of 2021 mean it is impossible to draw wider conclusions about the wisdom or otherwise of the whole venture. But in itself, it has the prospect this year of generating interest and ticket sales. For the ECB and the counties hosting games, that will be enough for now, and with the women’s matches running in parallel at more grounds than the core, it could be wider in reach and scope than anticipated. Indeed, the impact of The Hundred on women’s cricket more generally is a wider topic for debate, but this year, it might just make a material difference.

This would undoubtedly create mixed emotions – the ECB receiving instant absolution for their actions over the last few years would go down badly with many, irrespective of the cost of failure of the launch. But perhaps even for those most implacably opposed, it could be seen as a necessary evil this year to give the game at least a fighting chance of generating cash. Where that takes us in years to follow, that’s a very different question.

The Day After the Day After Tomorrow

Predicting the future is problematic, it’s much easier to predict the past, although Twitter users might be an example of that not being entirely the case. In wider life there seems to be consensus that while the question of whether the pandemic will make material lasting changes is an open one, it almost certainly has accelerated existing trends – such things as the decline of cash or the continued rise of online over physical retail.

Cricket seems little different – there is no reason to assume that this last year will cause wild changes in itself, but an acceleration of what was coming anyway, that’s a different matter.

Television deals are at the heart of the future and the present, and have been the principal driver of the changes over the last 10 years, whatever the disingenous pontifications from governing bodies about trying to engage people in the sport as more than exploitable consumers. The shortening of formats, first to T20 and then to 10 over equivalents or the Hundred are all about packaging the game into compact segments that fit into programming and allow advertising to be maximised. India is undoubtedly the principal power behind this, because their financial muscle is greater than just about everyone else put together. The rise of the IPL to not just be the biggest short form tournament, but the priority for the game full stop has been inexorable, and the players have been part of that for their own financial reasons. In all cases, it’s not something to particularly blame anyone for, it’s merely a reflection of desires that coincide and aims that correlate – the belief in some quarters that professional cricketers with a short career should sacrifice their ability to earn for the sake of tradition is naive at best. Thus the expectation has to be that not only will the IPL continue, but that it will become ever more central to the global game.

The Hundred is the ECB’s attempt to muscle in on the same thing, having blown their chance of making T20 their central selling point to the world game. There are endless problems with the assumption behind that. Globally, the difference between 16.4 overs and 20 is so minimal as to be not worthy of further debate, and the ever lengthening duration of IPL and Big Bash T20 matches to up to 4 hours implies that the purported domestic desire to have a very short game isn’t one entirely shared elsewhere – perhaps short enough is sufficient. That doesn’t mean in itself that it can’t be a domestic success, but the wish the ECB have for it to be a global phenomenon looks hamstrung from the start. Gimmickry has a place in all sports, irritating as many find it, but a successful gimmick is one that does draw people in, that does appear to have a value. The Hundred lacks this entirely, the hundred balls of an innings doesn’t even work as a deception.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that the Hundred will be a domestic option, and one with limited expansionary appeal. The argument made in its favour that it’s still cricket, and that the difference between it and T20 is sufficiently small for it to have sporting integrity is precisely the reason it’s unlikely to truly take off – why abandon the investment in T20 for a game that offers little extra? If The Hundred does remain an entirely domestic concept, it’s hard to see how it has a long term future when everyone else prefers the ironically more traditional T20. All new things attract attention initially, and whatever the complaints about it, it will have that first flush of attraction as something new. The problem it has is beyond that, years three and four. There comes a time when the question will be asked what the point of it is, and whether a T20 tournament would work better. The Hundred itself looks doomed in the longer term, though it may serve its purpose if it garners sufficient commercial attention to cause that debate to happen.

The 50 over form of the game will continue to be squeezed, but it remains a viable option because it still attracts strong crowds and decent quantities of sponsorship and advertising money. There may be experiments made to widen the differential between it and T20, such as four innings of 25 overs, but it is a format that isn’t particularly broken. The attitude towards it may change somewhat as T20 becomes ever more dominant, indeed 50 over cricket may come to be seen as a long form of the game, which has a certain irony, because for club cricketers around much of the world (there are exceptions) that’s exactly what it is and what it always has been, even if concepts such as winning or losing draws offer a slight level of nuance – though note those kinds of playing rules are on the decline.

Where that leaves Test cricket is another matter. The World Test Championship has been positioned as a way of creating context for Test cricket in order to give the bilateral series meaning. It’s always been a slightly confused position – not because it’s a bad idea, far from it, but because the endless ODI bilaterals lack any meaning whatever, yet continue unabated because of the financial return created by them. There are of course tournaments such as the World Cup, but that’s not really the rationale behind holding so many bilateral series, or they would be considered no more relevant than an international football friendly with all the irritation they cause. Cricket is, and always has been different (and has similarities to international rugby in this regard) in that a match has inherent value in itself, and doesn’t necessarily need that bigger context for everything. That doesn’t mean for a single momoment that tournaments like a World Cup aren’t necessary, they both are, and are wonderful things in themselves, albeit the formats of such things are another question. Therefore a World Test Championship can be both a good thing in itself and also a fig leaf that doesn’t address the structural challenges being faced. There is a suspicion that Test series are often organised as a necessary evil rather than something to be embraced as justified and attractive in themselves, entirely for those financial reasons. Or to put it another way, if Test matches provided strong revenue streams for every board, there would be more of them – England don’t play lots of Test cricket because the ECB adore five day cricket. If there was serious money at hand, the players would be less inclined to abandon the Test arena for the more lucrative white ball forms of the game. The decline of Test cricket in favour of white ball cricket is not because of a particular dislike of that form of the game for sporting reasons.

There is no reason to assume this will change in the years to come, rather precisely the opposite. Countries like England play a lot of Test cricket because, at present at least, that is the largest level of spectators – and thus commercial – interest in the game. With big crowds and a big TV deal that has included, in fact focused, on Test cricket, it has been the core of the income of the professional game. It’s not the case elsewhere, and to highlight that particularly, the newer international countries such as Ireland have abandoned Test series because they cannot make them financially viable. Those are two ends of the range, but there are many more countries nearer the Irish end than the English one, and the English extreme is beginning to weaken. Core marquee series will continue, principally between the most powerful boards of India, Australia and England, but Test cricket will wither further beyond that. There is a way to prevent it, and that would be a more equitable wealth distribution globally, and allow the players to choose Test cricket as a viable means of support for them and their families. But let’s be clear – it isn’t going to happen. The handwringing about the decline of Test cricket among the great and the good has no relevance when the actions that could be taken to prevent it are verboten in administrative circles, because of their own narrow interests. Fundamentally, there isn’t a desire within the ICC hierarchy, and particularly the board hierarchies, to save Test cricket. Until or unless that happens, Test cricket is on a one way ticket to irrelevance and extinction.

This also has knock on effects for domestic cricket, not just in England but around the world. After all, the purpose of first class cricket has been largely to provide a training ground for the Test game, something that puts the hackles up for the county cricket fans who see a game that is important in its own right. But it has never been financially viable in itself anywhere since the 19th century, it wasn’t the point of it to be. The diminution in value of first class cricket is a corollary of the decline of Test cricket and its lack of revenue creation has changed its positioning from one that needs support in order to promote the wider game to being viewed as a revenue drain on central resources. This is an important change in focus – county cricket has never been something central in and of itself to the finances of cricket, it has had sporting value and been deemed worthy of support as such. This has changed – the justification for concepts like the Hundred have been to generate financial income in and of itself, and not for the purposes specifically of first class county cricket. This is central to the expectations in years to come, for no longer is it considered inherently valuable.

The arrival of the Hundred has a further likely consequence, in that it introduces franchise cricket to England. It is from a different era that Durham was added to the roster as the 18th county, the desire now is to shrink the base of teams, not expand them. Protests that regional franchises are purely for the shortest form of the game smack of disingenuousness – the strongest counties will survive irrespective, but the weaker ones look like they have no long term future. Formal status is unlikely to be revoked, because it simply doesn’t matter much, they will fall by the wayside as power and money is concentrated in the hands of the few, and the difference between some first class counties and some minor counties will be harder to determine. Salami tactics work in terms of generating change – abolishing counties would invite end of days headlines, allowing them to fade into obscurity will be met with a shrug of the shoulders from all but those directly affected. The protests from county cricket fans will make little difference – they have already been written off as unimportant.

This is not a future that many will relish. But as things stand it is where we are likely to be. Test cricket being in trouble is not breaking news, but the lack of any impetus or desire to change this is what is going to doom it to the margins. First class cricket and county cricket will follow, and the focus on white ball, and particularly T20 cricket is the future to be faced. It can change, certainly, but only if there is a desire to enact what is needed to make that happen. There is no sign of that happening, and no sign of a desire that it should happen. Money has become the driving motivation in sport across the world, but cricket is in a different place, whereby the belief among administrators is that the game of cricket has no future without change, and that the generation of cash is the prime motivation, not the sport itself. Business people can have that view, indeed they always have done, there is no reason to pretend they are other than what they are for good or ill, what is different in cricket is that there are few at the top of the game who believe passionately in the beauty of their own sport, who see their role as primarily to defend and grow it. Instead they consider that change must happen in order to make money, rather than making money to deliver a better sport. Not even the feast of mammon that is football has quite this attitude to their own game – they have a rapacious desire to monetise their sport, not consider the raison d’etre of the sport to be money generation.

The amateur game is far from immune to the fallout. Sunday friendly cricket has undoubtedly declined in a precipitous manner over recent years, as the player base has shrunk. A push to T20 matches from those viewing it from the lofty perspective of their professional career is to miss the central point that a desire for shorter games is as much a reflection of a smaller pool as it is modern life writ large in cricket. Free to air broadcast of cricket may still be the biggest driver of arresting such an unpropitious collapse in the player base, but it isn’t a panacea for the problems of the game either. Like so many things, it is complex to the point of confusion, but in this arena at least, the biggest change would be evidence that there’s much more than lip service to the importance of it from the centre. Here again, there is little reason to believe that will happen, and the decline of the clubs will continue.

For good or ill, it’s our direction of travel. There is no doubt that many will be aghast, but an attempt to be realistic isn’t an endorsement of where we are headed. And more specifically, it’s where we are meant to be headed. This is not a lament for a passing time, nor a wish that if only a few changes could be made. Too often the debate is framed around a tweak here, a nudge there. A few more pennies for a county perhaps, or throw a bone to a former associate nation. None of it matters, and none of it makes any difference, except to allow the drowning to suck in a last few precious breaths of air. It would require fundamental change to move the trajectory, and it won’t happen, can’t happen, because it is not accidental. It is not a game that has lost its way and is seeking a way back. It is far too much of a conspiracy to assume this is the development of a grand plan to reach this suggested destination, but it doesn’t have to be, it isn’t how it works. All it requires is for an acquiescence with the direction of travel, and that contentment is entirely present. For as long as the approach is one of managed decline of the traditional and a defensive mentality of the long standing, while embracing the new, shiny and above all lucrative, there is little reason to doubt where we will end up.

India vs England: 2nd Test, Day Three: Oh, I Wept

This match was over long ago, we are merely playing out the details. India ground England into the dirt, setting them a preposterous target, while England lost wickets in their vain pursuit of the impossible. It is distinctly possible this will be done and dusted by lunch tomorrow, so outplayed have the tourists been, so unable to compete with India this match. Today was all about a Ravi Ashwin century, as both he and Virat Kohli pummelled the England attack after a bright start.

England did take early wickets, most notable for some fine wicketkeeping from Ben Foakes, but the match situation removes the pressure entirely – quite simply, it didn’t overly matter if India lost wickets, because they probably had enough runs before even starting their second innings. India had earned the right to play with England like a cat with a mouse, and did just that. So much has been said about the pitch being played on, and in truth it probably has deteriorated too quickly to be satisfactory – the chunks being taken out of it on the first day didn’t bode well for a long game. But that’s a matter of degree rather than anything else. The home team has the right to prepare surfaces that suit them, and everyone does it – yes, including you Australia. That England are incapable of coping as well is neither here nor there. Would England really have made a good total had they batted first? They probably would have been much more in the game, but it’s hard not to conclude that India would still have come out on top. England have said nothing negative about the conditions, it’s all come from outside. It was a slight gamble from India certainly, but far from an outrageous one given they were one down in the series. Fundamentally, they’ve not just played better, they’ve absolutely hammered England. The second innings is important not in the sense of England getting anything out of the game but to try to find a method of combating the Indian spinners, who are just far better than their English counterparts. This is a relative matter – on this pitch England are just not going to get 350 and walk off with their heads held high, they are going to lose by a lot. But an hour at the crease to learn and develop will have benefits later in the series.

1-1 is far from a disaster for England, it’s a better state of affairs than many expected half way through. It’s a challenge undoubtedly, and one that will have indicated to the hosts what kind of surfaces will do the job required, but it doesn’t mean England didn’t play superbly in the first Test, nor does it mean that India are only dominant here because of the pitch. There is a break after this match for England to reassess, but they are well in the series and that’s very much a positive.

Some other items from this game so far include the third umpire having something of a stinker and Virat Kohli berating the on field umpire for failing to give Joe Root out. In the latter case, there’s not a shred of doubt that he was extremely lucky to avoid being given lbw to one that looked extremely out, but the decision was (somehow) backed up by DRS, and arguing about it merely made him look a bit of an idiot, particularly given some of what has gone on this match. He can probably expect a fine to come his way.

Of the England batsmen, Rory Burns has looked most at sea, but he only joined the winter series in India, and his 25 in the second innings was a significant improvement. His form has tailed away considerably to the point that rather than looking like the answer as he did a year ago, his place will be coming under scrutiny. But it’s far from easy for him to arrive and look good, his partner Sibley struggled in Sri Lanka, only to come good in the first Test here. It’s always possible Burns will do the same. But he needs runs sooner rather than later.

There’s little more of substance to say. This one is done, let’s move on to Ahmedabad to a Test under lights and see how that one goes.

India vs England: 1st Test, Day Four

At around this time, there’s a decent chance my fellow writers on here will be waking up, having spent the early hours of the morning watching the Superbowl. Since this passes right over my head, to the point that not only do I not know who won as I write this, I don’t even know who was in the final. If it’s called a final. And that’s before I try and get my head around play-offs that aren’t play-offs. Or something. I could be wrong, and probably am, but if there’s something that both amuses and irritates them, it’s that I don’t care if I am. Still, they think it’s my loss. Anyway, it meant that I was duly elected as the one to say something today, and I can assure everyone that the others were unanimous in this view.

Back to the cricket, which is why we’re all here. England will go into the final day needing 9 wickets from 90 overs, and it’s something they ought to achieve. The pitch is still good for a fourth day surface, but it’s also showing disconcerting bounce from time to time, both low and high, and it only takes that to happen a few times to make all the difference. But if India were 8 wickets down and escaping with a draw, there will undoubtedly be fingers pointed at the approach England took in the final session, not being especially aggressive with the bat, and not declaring either.

It is forever the case that armchair observers, whether former players or the wider public, are much more aggressive in their thinking than captain and coach ever are. Alastair Cook did his best to try to explain what England might be thinking about (to have two goes with a fairly new ball both this evening and tomorrow morning) but it was fairly clear he didn’t entirely agree. Yet his own captaincy was littered with extremely conservative declarations, and few would deny that on balance Joe Root is much less so – not least given he had his fingers burned once with a bold declaration. That’s not a criticism of Cook in this instance, but it is to note that his evident frustration watching on was very different from his approach as captain. He was self-aware enough to acknowledge the contradiction, but also correctly pointed out that it was less about the specific timing as much as the very curious negativity in the batting.

India will overall be comparatively pleased – their position at the start of play was far enough behind that they could have ended up with a lot longer to bat than they will. That was down almost entirely to Washington Sundar, who batted with controlled aggression to narrow the gap somewhat. But 241 remained a huge lead for England, and meant that even losing early wickets didn’t materially affect that position. In such circumstances, it’s often most helpful to be bowled out in reasonable time while scoring quickly, and for much of their 2nd innings it was exactly how it seemed to be unfolding. Root and Pope in particular took chances and went along at not far short of a run a ball. With both their dismissals, that suddenly changed.

There have been some quite exceptional run chases in recent times, and perhaps that is more in the minds of captains than it has been, but 381 more runs to set a world record on a day five pitch seems an absurd prospect. Yes, the likes of Rishabh Pant are aggressive players, but to worry about a world record chase at four an over would be to take caution to the most extreme of levels. If they were to pull off a miracle like that, there’s no point in factoring it in, it would be the freak of all freaks.

Having taken one wicket this evening, the draw is by far the bigger risk and it is that that would represent grounds for criticism. It seems likely the thinking was to preserve the freshness of the bowlers, and it’s a view. The outcome this time tomorrow will dictate the wisdom of it.

India vs England: 1st Test, Day one

If England were to compete in this series, so the received wisdom had it, Joe Root would need to have an especially fine series. The early signs are promising, but not just in terms of confirming that widespread belief, but also because other than Root, England looked rather comfortable. Sure, the pitch looked flat, and with little turn (as it should be on day one), but given England’s status as serious underdogs, they looked far from out of their depth even early on. Rory Burns will be kicking himself for his dismissal, having done all the hard work, and the nature of that dismissal inevitably attracted criticism. It is a truism of the game that being out to an attacking shot is automatically deemed worse than being out to a defensive one (even if the players tend to have an opposite view when it happens to them), and something like a reverse sweep is going to result in considerable ire. Yet it has become a normal part of a batting repertoire in recent years, most recently highlighted by Joe Root in Sri Lanka, as he manipulated the field by judiciously playing the stroke throughout his twin hundreds.

There is often the temptation to judge the shot selection by outcome – if a ball just clears a man on the boundary for six, it’s a great piece of batting, but if caught on the line, the batsman should never have played the shot in the first place. It’s not to defend the execution of the stroke, for Burns himself made his views of what he’d done quite clear as he left the field, but it is to defend choosing to play the shot in the first place. Nevertheless, it was an unfortunate end to an innings of promise and placed England under early pressure, particularly when Lawrence quickly followed.

Thereafter, it was the Sibley and Root show. Root is in the form of his life, and just looks like he’s going to go big from the moment he reaches the crease. While it is far too much to hope that he can quite maintain this level of plundering, perhaps as he turns 30 he may be settling down into being a consistently high class performer after the dips of the last few years. Certainly it can be argued the biggest dent in his batting average (which for better or worse is how many tend to measure it) was his poor conversion rate between 50 and 100. If he overcomes that – and nothing helps quite so much as continually scoring hundreds – then a significant uplift is likely.

While Root will rightly get all the plaudits, a partnership is always in two parts, and Sibley deserves huge credit for his knock. He struggled in Sri Lanka, and rather disarmingly openly wondered if he would be playing in India during his half century in the Second Test. There is often a reluctance from some quarters to allow for the possibility that a player can learn; instead calls for their head are common. But Sibley has been a fine example of a player highly inexperienced in these conditions finding his method wanting, and needing to think about how to adapt. Consecutive half centuries don’t prove he’s nailed it, but do show a degree of application that reflects well on him. The days of people complaining about his scoring rate are hopefully over – he is providing a level of solidity at the top of the order that has been absent since the relative decline of Alastair Cook.

What would have been a day of eventual total dominance was only slightly marred by the loss of Sibley in the final over, but England are in a very good position, and most positively of all, look at this stage like a team capable of matching India. But that “at this stage” is the most important rider – it’s one day, it’s one innings, and a Test series can be an arm wrestle where it starts off even before one team begins to twist and strain the other, but at this stage, that’s still a positive, and perhaps more than many hoped for. If it were to continue, well perhaps England might be a better team than they’re often given credit for, for while they have had success recently, this is perhaps the ultimate challenge in world cricket.

Today was also the return of Test cricket to free to air television in the UK for the first time since 2005. There is nothing in this world that is universally welcomed, and sure enough some were soon complaining about the quality being lower than Sky. It is something of a matter of personal preference in that – having favoured commentators for example, but Channel 4 are taking the feed from the host broadcaster, which is very normal for away series even when Sky have the rights, although on some tours they have additional cameras. The difference is in the commentators themselves, for Channel 4 are using that host commentator feed as well. Of course, in terms of practicality, they have no option, even if they’d wished to have their own there was insufficient time to arrange it. But if this tour had been to New Zealand, for example, would people have been queuing up to praise them for the exceptionally strong voices they would hear from one of the best commentary teams in the world game? It’s unlikely, and there is a temptation to conclude at least some element of internal bias in assuming that it’s only Sky who can provide the highest of standards. Irrespective of having a preference for Sky, which is reasonable enough, the very presence of Test cricket on free to air television or streaming is such an unusual experience that it feels slightly surreal. There will be people unable to afford pay TV, watching live Test cricket (or live Test cricket legally in many cases) for the first time since the early years of this century. It’s astounding and wonderful.

On to tomorrow – it is of course possible that England will fall in a heap and waste their good position, but the point of having such a good first day is to ensure that even if they do, they are in the game. And if they do take advantage, they might be in with a real chance of winning the Test. Day one is always the set up day, and day two the one that tends to dictate the rest of the game. A chance is there to be seized.

Return of the Mambo

It hasn’t yet been formally confirmed, but assuming all goes as expected, Channel 4 will be showing the India – England Test series. There are some interesting things about this development, beyond the pleasant surprise of the Test game returning to terrestrial television for the first time since 2005.

Strikingly, BT Sport and Sky failed to show much interest, while the mooted plan for primary rights holder Star Sports to distribute it via the Disney+ platform appears to have come to nothing. Amazon don’t seem to have tried terribly hard to get the rights either, and Channel 4 have bought them for a price below what might have been expected.

Certainly the time difference is less than prime time in the UK with starts around 4am, but there is a day/night Test in the schedule, while at weekends in particular at least half the day’s play is at a relatively civilised time.

What is of significant interest is the lack of intent by those channels who have in the last decade been the sole outlets for almost all cricket in this country. Given the relatively low cost, should it be a concern to the ECB that appetite is so thin? Perhaps. It also does emphasise that the oft-repeated line that terrestrial broadcasters are inherently uninterested in the Test format is untrue – and it will be a harder case for them to make in future.

This doesn’t mean that the ECB will see the light – their addiction to money ahead of all other considerations is unlikely to wane, because it would mean difficult decisions about priorities. What would be embarrassing for them would be for the Channel 4 audience to exceed that of Sky – for it would provide ammunition against the ECB who appear to revel in the concept that the public don’t care about the game and won’t watch it on free to air television.

The ECB might have no say at all about who shows this series, but the fall out from it could prove interesting to say the least. If broadcasters’ desire to show cricket has lessened, so will the amount of money they’re prepared to pay. Hiding the game away on satellite pay channels has come with immense costs to the wider game, but been supported by the governing body on the grounds that there is no alternative. Their expectation appears to have been that rights values were only going to go in one direction – upwards. It is distinctly possible that this upcoming series is a first indication that may not be so. If that were to be true, and we have little firm idea what is in the minds of the pay TV channels, it may yet be the ECB have backed the wrong horse even by their own standards of success.

For now, let’s just enjoy the return of the best form of the game to a place where all can access it. But this may well not be the end of the matter for the game in this country.

Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SL vs England: 2nd Test, day one

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

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

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

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

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

SL v England: 1st Test, Day Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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