In Praise of the Rain Delay

The recent sad passing of Bev Congdon caused the usual moment of reflection to note the loss of a cricketer who had graced the game in years past.  As is always the case, whether a player is familiar to the cricket follower depends on their age, and in my case I am too young to have remembered him playing.  And yet his is a name that’s familiar to me, from growing up and getting into the game of cricket.  Curiously, despite him being retired before I did so, I did see him play, but only through the medium of the series highlights played when it was raining.

Of course, in those days there was no internet, no immediate and obvious means of recognising what had happened in past series, and as much as anything else, the selection of a summer of cricket places on standby in case of rain, provided an education on the game and those who played it.  They tended to be from the 1970s, although occasionally they did go earlier, which I would initially object to, as it was transparently old to the intolerantly youthful.

To my young eyes, these were new players mostly – names introduced in small chunks across a particular Test series, and having no knowledge of the outcome, it was fascinating viewing.  Some elements were endlessly surprising, such as discovering that Dennis Lillee had been around for an awfully long time, some openly puzzling – Dale Hadlee can’t be Richard’s father surely? Oh, they’ve mentioned someone called Walter – ensuring much close attention to try and work out the strands of family relationships, or those who looked terribly young on these replays, and gnarled and grizzled in the live match currently suffering from wet weather.

Equally, some entire careers could be seen in fast forward, yet still without being able to place them in full context.  Graham Roope looked an exceptional cricketer to me in these highlight reels, and youthful confusion that no one ever talked about him wrestled with disappointment when his five minute long innings of about 70 would come to an end.

Occasionally, they went further back, and instead of 25 minute highlights of a given day, it would be the story of a series, invariably narrated by John Arlott – another mysterious name mentioned on occasion, but who I’d missed entirely.  From being grumpy at seeing black and white pictures, or film rather than video, those tones would draw me in.  Oblivious that it was a particular skill of his anyway, the storytelling of cricket was utterly beguiling, and the disappointment of an England defeat in a Test series long since finished was palpable.

If the highlights were memorable, so too were the studio discussions.  For the young nowadays, a David Gower or Ian Botham will be every much a part of the distant past to them as Jim Laker or Tom Graveney was to me – the longevity of Richie Benaud always placed him in a slightly different category – and the premature death of Laker in particular upset my young self significantly.  Those discussions around cricket, followed by a tape of some long forgotten Test match, meant that rain was only a mild irritation, certainly compared to the annoyance of my sister who was aghast at my fascination with watching someone called Edrich score runs from a decade earlier.

There is always the temptation to assign particularly fond childhood memories like this to nostalgia, but cricket does lend itself it to endless discussion more than some other sports; the long form of the game has its own cadences and rhythms that make even arcane enforced conversation feel a part of the process, rather than an interruption to the event.  And while the shift to pay TV has meant that satellite broadcasters either have no desire or no budget to buy in long gone highlights from 40 years ago, perhaps for this generation’s child watching the 2005 Ashes for the first time, the same emotions are stirred.

Certainly it isn’t purely a nostalgic thing anyway.  A few years ago in a series I can’t remember, between New Zealand and someone else, the morning rain inadvertently produced truly riveting late night television for the cricketing tragic.  If a line up in the studio of Charles Colville, Dominic Cork and Mark Butcher perhaps doesn’t press every button for many, then this would prove to be a joyful surprise.  Colville in particular is vastly better as a presenter than a commentator, with the rare and underappreciated skill of knowing when to shut up and let his guests talk.  And that’s what Cork and Butcher did – a wide ranging, sometimes serious and sometimes not debate on the game, memories and friends and colleagues.  As it went deep into the night, the viewing audience must have been miniscule, for Sky barely even bothered to go to an advertising break.  But for those who were watching and listening, it was a rare treat – two people chatting in depth about the game, with a skilled interviewer occasionally interjecting to ask a relevant question.  Want to know how wonderful that was?  The following night I tuned in, and was disappointed to learn the weather in New Zealand was sunny.

Equally, Sky now have a decent library of their Masterclass series, and it rarely gets dull to watch a special player demonstrate their skills – the skills of their minds as much as anything else; while listeners to TMS often actively look forward to hearing the rain fall given that radio is unsurpassed when it comes to the beauty of the unscheduled random conversation.

There can be few if any other sports where bad weather can prevent play, yet where aficionados are only mildly put out, taking the opportunity to drink in the game past and present.  It might even be said to be a formative experience, for it can sometimes most closely echo the experience of many a young cricketer sat listening to the old players in his (and now her) local club, absorbing everything that is said, and hoping they don’t notice him sat listening to every word.  They do of course, and they remember doing the same.

I can think of no other way I could have become so steeped in cricket history so quickly.  And the next generation have the same experience for those who to me were familiar.  It is a priceless introduction, and why above all else, cricket is a sport where sometimes it really doesn’t matter if the weather is bad.

Let it rain.

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3 years, 900 posts and a million views: Happy Birthday to Us

Writing a blog is a funny thing: you forget what you’ve done, time goes by, and eventually one of the team says something along the lines of “Hang on, isn’t our birthday in February?”.  So it is, although I must confess I initially thought it was our fourth rather than our third, which just goes to show how much attention we pay to such things.  Nevertheless, allow us to be all self-congratulatory for once, as the very idea of lasting more than a month or two seemed fairly daft back then.  It wasn’t really the start, for Dmitri Old’s How Did We Lose in Adelaide blog was the reason so many of us got in contact with each other in the first place, but his opening lines to this particular site are wryly amusing to look back on:

Let’s see how this one goes

The fallout from the Australia tour, the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, the shambolic reign of Paul Downton, the failure of the press to scrutinise rather than regurgitate the inner thoughts of Andy Flower and Giles Clarke – it all seems so distant, yet so recent in other ways.  The schism those events triggered hasn’t healed; if anything positions have become even more entrenched, even if some of the actors have now left the stage.  But when the ECB not only refuse to “clarify”, let alone apologise for the “Outside Cricket” jibe that gave this blog its name (that press release is still up on the PCA’s site), perhaps that no matter how things change they remain the same shouldn’t come as too much of a shock.  They meant it then, and they still do now.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the posts on here, and some have been very vocal about it.  Fair enough too, we have several points of view that people can agree with, disagree with, or ignore, but perhaps the volume of hits for an obscure little blog that’s been pathetically useless in promoting itself (we only got round to using the Twitter address properly recently) suggests it’s not a totally out there line to have taken.

Dmitri’s blog swiftly became a two handed site, then three, and now four.  We professionalised it by buying a real domain name rather than using a WordPress one, and apart from a small issue where some idiot on the team accidentally thought the renewal was a fraudulent payment (now you know why the site disappeared for a couple of days) and cancelled it, it’s been that ever since. With hindsight, outsidecricket.com might have been a better name than beingoutsidecricket.com, but you can blame that same idiot for that as well.

That first year it was all about Strauss, Pietersen, the press, books and subterfuge.  The two posts that attracted the highest volumes were A Matter of Life and Trust and Statement of the Oblivious, both about the sheer duplicitousness of the ECB attempting to pretend their chairman hadn’t said what he really had, and that going back on his word was in no way utterly deceitful and treating people like idiots.  Oddly enough, in the years since, Mr Graves has barely said a word, and could well be gagged and chained in a distant dungeon for all we know.  The most enthralling thing looking back on the first of those is how the focus on trust hasn’t gone away – is there actually anyone who believes anything they say?  Why would they when they are so often caught out fibbing?  Even for matters as small as player injuries the statements range from implausible to outright falsehood.

Both of those posts stand up pretty well in terms of the sentiments expressed, and it should be alarming (but it’s not surprising) that the objections raised have still never been answered.  The joke that the most recent hammering in Australia was probably also Kevin Pietersen’s fault remains as sharp a barb now as then.

Andrew Strauss’s announcement that Pietersen was persona non grata persuaded us to do our first ever live blog – something we’ve fiddled with from time to time since.  The tweets embedded in that particular piece are striking in retrospect – mostly because they’re every bit as true today.  Various of the We Need to Talk About Kevin brigade never did come up with any kind of decent defence, beyond the “Pietersen is a tosser” line.  Unless, that is, we count the marvellously pathetic leaked dossier that was swiftly disavowed once it became clear it was an object of derision.  Note that a real one never did appear – how could it?  That was the actual depth of the evidence against him.

Two other sackings that year also got plenty of attention, firstly that of Paul Downton, with the beautifully titled post Aplomb highlighting the absurdity of all those in the media who backed their mate as someone special despite it being blindingly obvious to everyone else he was utterly out of his depth.  The other sacking was of course Peter Moores, a man who didn’t succeed on either occasion as England coach, but who is a rarity in ECB circles as someone on more than nodding terms with the concept of integrity.  His shabby sacking – leaked to the media as he watched his England team play a one day match, caused BOC to get all angry on his behalf about his treatment.  For all that plenty of people may dislike a Pietersen, always remember this happened to someone who no one thought could possibly deserve such underhanded and unpalatable conduct from his bosses.  The ECB have the sheer cheek to still claim (lie) that they don’t leak.

If 2015’s posts were dominated by the seemingly daily dose of ECB ineptitude, 2016 saw many of the most popular posts being about actual, real life cricket.  The tours of Bangladesh and India towards the end of the year in particular gained a lot of attention, and probably gave rise to the inside joke that this is the Bad News Blog, where readership rises in proportion to England’s cricketing woes.  It’s not quite true, the reality is that Test cricket is what gets the attention, whether England win or lose.  That we prefer watching and writing about Test cricket suggests there may be a hint of self-fulfilling prophecy about it, but it does mirror the newspapers, who also see traffic drop off for the more disposable versions of the game.  This of course makes it thoroughly intriguing how T20 in particular is seen as the future, when attention is so limited, at least in the written media.  This place isn’t representative of anything at all of course, but when it’s widespread across all media, it becomes notable.  The interest is unquestionably there of course, but it’s shallow.

Outside of the cricket itself, by far the most popular (in the strictest sense of numbers that is – it was deeply unpopular with many of the targets) post was the collective effort that was the Outside Cricket(er) List, a riposte to the gloriously pompous Power List published by The Cricketer Magazine, the one where its editor (Simon Hughes, just in case you’ve forgotten) decided to include himself – presumably 39th place was as high as he dared and well ahead of the editor of Wisden, for example.  Our own list probably caused more internal discussion than anything else we’ve ever done, mostly involving debates as to whether any of the entries were too nasty.  A few probably were, though in at least one case the response by the victim magnificently made a debatable hatchet job turn out to be nail on head.  Mind you, it was a few days later that someone asked why we’d left out Piers Morgan, followed by the horrified realisation that we really had somehow forgotten the most obvious subject of all.  He may consider that particularly wounding.

It’s long been considered that county cricket is death in terms of attracting attention, but Sean’s post  about the climax to the season, player availability and, that old favourite, the ECB shooting themselves in the foot provoked plenty of comment.  Perhaps there is life in the old dog beyond the Guardian county clique blog.

2017 of course was all about the Ashes, and the spike in hits across that period reflected the way that however hard the cricketing authorities try to undermine the game, certain things still resonate with anyone who loves the game of cricket.  That the series turned out to be once again a mess from an England perspective didn’t alter that, except that both posts and comments tended to range from furious, via despair to withering contempt.  Still, there was always l’affaire Stokes to keep everyone entertained, as writers and commenters worked out the best ways of talking about a subject that couldn’t be talked about.  Some of the Tangled Web didn’t age terribly well, but that’s blogging, and anyone who wants to go back over the output of the last three years and point out where we got it completely wrong is more than welcome to do so.  No need to tell us though – life’s too short.

Alastair Cook is a perennial favourite on here – partly because there’s just so much to say about him (and often very positive, contrary to popular belief), but the day he stood down as England captain (what, you didn’t realise?) was unquestionably a big one, not least because of the length of time he’d held the job.  I’ve always felt Dmitri’s assessment of him that day was one of the best things he’s written, weaving a tale of a flawed captain propped up by an adoring media who wouldn’t brook any criticism of the Chosen One.  The prescience of that piece was highlighted perfectly by the astoundingly over the top media response to what certainly was a fine innings in Melbourne, just not a visitation from the Almighty.

Last year also saw the completion of the Gang of Four (presumably, execution isn’t on the cards for this one) with Danny joining up and posting his analysis of All Stars Cricket, the latest wheeze from the ECB that pays lip service to grassroots cricket and generates lots of positive headlines when announcing it, before anyone has time to really start looking at it properly.

Of course, it’s not just been the four of us, the guest posts have been without exception outstanding – in one instance a journalist got in touch to expressly mention how good it was (they don’t do that for me, damn them) and how well researched.  Furthermore, the comments are always what makes a place like this worthwhile, whether agreeing or disagreeing, praising or hostile.  Like any community, it’s only ever as good as those who make it up, and from a personal perspective, it’s involved meeting a lot of terrific people, and in the case of a few, firm friendships have been forged. I did think about individually thanking everyone who has posted a comment on here, but then I realised how long it would take, blanched and bailed out. Sorry.

We’re three years old, we intend to carry on.  There’ll be hiatuses no doubt, and nothing ever stays quite the same.  We’re never going to monetise it, we’re never going to accept “sponsorship” from a betting company.  We (and I mean all of us, readers, writers, commenters) do it for the love of the game and the burning anger at how it’s being systematically wrecked by those who care for filthy lucre rather than the sport.

Onwards and upwards, and if you can, forgive this one piece of chronic navel-gazing.  So happy birthday to us – all of us.  To answer Dmitri from February 6th 2015, it’s gone pretty well.

Oh one last thing – on the million views claim.  We’re actually 30,000 short.  But as exaggeration goes, we’re not remotely close to newspaper levels.  And it won’t get us a profile in the Cricket Paper either.

Toil and Trouble

The announcement that Ben Stokes would now be available for the New Zealand leg of this winter’s tours caught most people on the hop, and it’s not too surprising as to why.  The ECB have tied themselves in knots consistently on this subject, and perhaps it was always going to be inevitable that they would do so.  As an employer of a high profile public figure, they could not afford to appear prejudicial to any trial, a problem that simply doesn’t apply to most employers in the same position, or people who never appear in the media.

Yet having followed a line of selecting him for tours at the same time as stating he was suspended for them, to then announce his return once the CPS has laid charges inevitably looks messy, and a contradiction of the previous line taken.  The ECB board was clearly split on what to do, and if nothing else that probably reflects public opinion rather neatly.  There are few easy answers here.

It’s most likely that one way or the other, they had hoped this would have been resolved by now and they could deal with that, but instead it remains a live issue, and one where everyone with the remotest degree of sense is tip-toeing around the subject.  The legal process can take a long time – though it tends to be quicker in the UK than many comparable countries – and perhaps that in itself was a factor, given nearly half a year has gone by since the story first broke.  Even so, two Tests and five ODIs is hardly a major forthcoming series (whether it should have been is a different question) and to take the decision now rather than at the start of the English domestic season could be seen to have made a rod for their own backs.  Would it have made a material difference to have delayed it?  There’s an argument that by doing so might be perceived as a judgement on guilt or innocence, which rather neatly makes the point about the difficulty of handling a situation where even the smallest indication may have significant ramifications.

That England are a stronger side with him than they are without is beyond question.  Missing the Ashes certainly unbalanced the side, and if it can’t be said that it was the reason for the thrashing England received, it can be said that his absence unquestionably weakened them, as it would any side.  To that extent, his presence in New Zealand will increase England’s prospects of salvaging something from a shambles of a winter, if he is able to focus properly on his game.  The more low key nature of the tour may too have been a factor compared to the cauldron of the Ashes.

The wider issues have yet to play out.  The ECB and its predecessor have never been particularly good at maintaining a consistent line on players around whom there is controversy, though they’ve never had a situation quite like this one to deal with.  Yet the criticism of expediency is one that regularly is thrown at them, and especially so when a player is considered vitally important.  Previous instances of rapid forgiveness for those who went to apartheid South Africa on rebel tours seemed far more forthcoming when they happened to be particularly good players for example, something that rankles still when compared to the treatment of players who did nothing so contentious.  Over the years, individual decisions and instances tend to be compared to others, highlighting inconsistency and flat out hypocrisy.  But in this one, it’s a little hard to be certain that any different actionsor decisions would have been clearly and inarguably better.  The ECB were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t, which might not excuse previous treatment meted out, but does in isolation illustrate the genuine dilemma they will have faced.

Perhaps above all else, the most delicious irony of the situation is that finally, at long last, circumstances have arisen that raise so many different and difficult ethical questions that it’s possible to have some sympathy for the ECB.  It’s a new and unusual feeling for many, and probably not one to be repeated too often.  But as an illustration of the complexity of the issues at hand, perhaps it can’t be bettered – Being Outside Cricket feeling a degree of empathy for the England and Wales Cricket Board is a first.

 

Housekeeping Note:

As ever, please be circumspect with comments on this matter, and don’t post anything that could be viewed as in any way prejudicial, or we’ll have to remove it.

Picking over the Bones: Final Ashes Panel

In the early hours of tomorrow morning, the One Day series between Australia and England will get underway.  For all the protestations about how vitally important the short form of the game is, it’s hard to believe many will remotely care about the outcome.  Even mischievously using the women’s Ashes rules, England are currently 18-2 down, which does at least make the point that winning the ODIs and T20 by a landslide still doesn’t make up for the thrashing received thus far.  Should England do reasonably, doubtless that will considered evidence that all is well; should they do badly, then England will finish the four year cycle exactly where they started it in the one day rankings.  Exceptional work all round.

With that in mind, we have the final Ashes panel drawn from the members of the blog.  Our contributors are Gareth, a long time supporter of English players, but not necessarily the England team – being from Edinburgh may explain that.  He can be reached on Twitter @G_Funk81.  Joining him is CricketJon, and Silk who also contributes frequently in the comments section.

So gents, I have some questions:

  • How do you feel about the outcome of the series? Did you expect it, or has it surprised you?

Gareth: The outcome itself did not surprise me, I had predicted 5-0, however the manner of the defeat was not what I expected. If I think back on the series, with the possible exception of the evening session in Brisbane (I think) when Root and Stoneman were given a working over, and perhaps England bowling under lights (albeit with the game gone) I cannot really think of a gripping period of play that really had that edge-of-the-seat Ashes feel. Rather than being blown away (as is often the case) it was more a case of being ground down, inexorably and inevitably, at the hands of Steve Smith. Death by a thousand depressing, tedious cuts, drives, pulls and whips through midwicket.

Silk:  Please. I’ve blanked it out of my mind already. I’m sure the NZ series, with a refreshed squad and a new vision will do fine.

CricketJon: I saved this question until last. The outcome of the series fills me with sadness. Not because a team lost 4-0 because that can happen in sport. Its life. No…..its the missed opportunities, the promises made after the last Ashes tour and the sheer lack of self awareness from the people running the English game. In other sports and business (and never the twain shall they meet…ah wait) the buck stops at the top.

Did I expect it? Well I wasn’t surprised. I would now class this team as a group I would be happy to idle away a summers day on (on the telly) but gone are the days of losing several hours sleep (and the consequences of doing so) to watch an away Ashes series.

  • Who is to blame, primarily?

Gareth: I predicted 5-0 the moment I saw the squad. Therefore I would say it is the fault of the selectors. Now, that being said, I do not think there was a squad they could have named that would have won the Ashes, but I’m sure there were several  possible squads that could have been less predictably dire. Any follower of English cricket could have predicted James Vince’s batting average and modes of dismissal before he got on the plane. Why couldn’t the selectors?

I notice in the aftermath of (and often during) the series that county cricket took a lot of stick from pundits and journalists. Certainly those top-performing county cricketers such as Leach, Robson, Northeast, Porter, Collingwood et al should be ashamed of the fact that the circumstances of their upbringing, choice of county or “character” (the go-to word when they just don’t like someone) led to them combining for a disappointing total of no runs and no wickets in the series. Moeen Ali exceeded that on his own (barely)!

Silk: I don’t really want to think about that. It’s just too depressing.

CricketJon: To answer this objectively one has to look at selection, coaching and the gap between the four day county championship and test cricket.

The selections raised eyebrows for me not for the first time because of the public endorsements of players by Michael Vaughan and his “interest in ISM”. The press, such as they, are do very little to entertain the myth regarding conflict of interest on this matter. It suggests that Whittaker listens to so called pundits, some of whom change their mind far too frequently or make it up as they go along. This may be a generational shift in how the press operates but I cannot see why that should apply to selectors.

The coaching set up at Bluffborough is more concerning. We hear stories of great athletes at the input stage (Bunbury week) and observe over coached bowling dry partially injured players unfit for 5 day cricket at the output stage. [ Maybe that’s why they want to reduce to 4 day Test cricket? The gap would be less exposed. ] The sheer lack of upcoming talent to replace Broad and Anderson is stunning given the huge financial resources. I do not know if the volume of inputs has reduced substantially because fewer teenagers watch cricket now (and we all know why that is) but the output is unequivocally poor.

The four day county championship now suffers from an identity crisis. Once a fiercely fought  competition for over 100 years in the pre-digital era to that of a feeder to the Test team  (2000-c2015) it has now become a background element shunted into disparate fragmented components of the season that would be imaginable in the days when Richard Hadlee and John Lever would take 110 wickets a season. It is not difficult to see how this fails to prepare players for Test matches even in English conditions.

The governing body are responsible for all three aspects.

  • Which players did better than you expected, and who did worse?

Gareth: Dawid Malan managed to do something that the other batsmen all singularly failed to do and adapted his batting to suit the circumstances. I’ll be honest and admit that I really didn’t think he had it in him, but I take my hat off to him and really hope he can kick on from here and establish himself as a fixture in the middle-order. He seems a phlegmatic sort of fellow, and I like the cut of his jib (and the flow of his cover drive). I’m already hearing talk of moving him to three, so I look forward to our collective suicide by face-palm in five Tests time.

The list doesn’t so much taper at this point as combust into flames and hurl itself into an abyss screaming “bring back Martin McCague”. I had high hopes that Chris Woakes would cement a long-term spot but he was ineffectual. I don’t think eight and nine-over spells did him many favours though.

I’m continually perplexed by pundits who express surprise at Broad and Cook’s lack of effectiveness. Had they not been watching for the last twelve months?

I know we should be getting stuck into James Vince, but he really didn’t perform worse than expectations, and an average of 26, with two half centuries, is actually a lot higher than I expected. He should never have been picked in the first place, and probably wouldn’t have made my own personal squad if I was purely picking a squad of sixteen English cricketers called James.

But Vince’s tour’s is akin to a silver feather run lovingly down the brow of a sleeping Baby Jesus when compared to the catastrophe that was Moeen Ali’s tour. An absolute disaster, but he’ll survive because he’s “a free spirit” and English cricket has invested too much in him, and spent too much time besmirching alternatives (Leach is a chucker and soft, Rashid bowls too slowly and is soft etc) to drop him.

Silk: You don’t really want me to answer that, do you?

CricketJon: Malan did better than I expected and Bairstow did worse than I expected. It was a struggle for Moeen but the inflexibility of the Master Strategists made provision for him to be picked even when injured. How ridiculous. If someone is unfit such as he was in the first two Tests then someone should replace him. Alas there was no Plan B.

  • Which players should be moved on, and who should replace them?

Gareth: If Broad is going to bowl cross-seam, then take the new ball off him. Too valuable, especially abroad, to waste. If he’s not happy being first-change, bin him. I’d give Woakes a go with the new ball in NZ. Toby Roland-Jones will hopefully be available to fill that vacant “fourteenth right-arm FM bowler” slot.

I’d personally take Moeen out of the firing line for his own good. If they want the (conservative) batsman-who-bowls option, I think Samit Patel would have done no worse. Adil Rashid took thirty wickets last winter, which I thought would have been enough to say “let’s work with him and try to build him up” but his time may have passed. I think Crane may have to wait until Stokes returns to provide that balance England crave. If they think Patel is too fat and Adil is too Rashid, there’s always Scott Borthwick for the batting part-timer role.

In terms of batting, I think they should tell Root to bat three, Bairstow to go to four and drop the gloves, and tell the pair of them that England are now in the business of winning Test matches, not Making Sure Joe And Jonny Get To Do What They Like Best.

Bairstow is probably the second most likely batsman to make a hundred. You diminish his chances of doing that by batting him at 6/7 and making him keep for two days. Foakes seems like a real blue-chip prospect, so let’s see what he can do.

As for Root – get him in at a 12-1 stumble rather than a 30-2 crisis.

My team for NZ – Cook, Stoneman, Root, Bairstow, Malan, Livingstone, Foakes, Woakes, Broad, Anderson, Crane

Livingstone makes it purely because he can turn his arm over (as can Root and Malan to be fair) a bit. I’m keen on Joe Clarke also, I’d take him as spare batsman. With Hameed and Gubbins in the wings, Stoneman needs a score. I’d tell Crane not to worry about the first innings – he’s there to mop up the tail, get overs and hopefully bowl well on days 4 and 5.

Silk: I almost think we are all of us ghosts. It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that ‘walks’ in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off.

CricketJon: Vince is not a number 3 and given his selection for NZ I direct you to part of my answer to question 2. I do not know who should replace them because I have a full time job and do not have the time to analyse talent. I should point out however that Mr Bayliss does have a full time job but he, by his own admission, knows very little about county cricket. We therefore, in light of this worrying news, defer to Mr Whittaker and his line of engagement with pundits who change their mind (“it’s just an opinion, Mr Vaughan?”) too regularly. This does not have the molecular structure of a successful operating model. If there were shareholders involved in this as a private enterprise, then action would be taken. It does not apply here which I shall detail in the last question.

  • How did BT do with the coverage?

Gareth: If I never hear Graeme Swann again it will be far too soon. You can just tell he thinks Tim Lovejoy’s stint on Soccer A.M was the cultural highlight of all mankind’s achievements. Boycs was awful too.

Silk: No idea. I was listening on Radio 4 LW.

CricketJon: Whilst it made a refreshing change not to have to listen to Sir Horseshit talking about golf, alcohol, bbq’s, DK Lillee and how the best road in London is the one that leads out of it, it was significantly more toe curling listening to Graeme Swann constantly rehearsing for some hitherto unknown stand up. The Australians, Gilchrist and Ponting were unsurprisingly erudite and generally factual and objective (something which is only possible if they don’t work for Channel 9) whereas Boycott either became a bore or I had forgotten just how boring and dogmatic he was. Alison Mitchell was very credible and Matt Smith was an ok frontman. No material problems with Damien Fleming. I despise Michael Vaughan on the grounds that he simply makes it up as he goes along and caveats this M.O. with “it’s just an opinion”. He is nothing more than a 2017/18 lounge lizard. Cant believe I once adored him.

  • Were England that bad, or were Australia really good? 

Gareth: I thought Australia’s bowling was as good as we expected. Smith was outstanding, and most of their batsmen chipped in at key times. As I said previously, there was a grim inevitability about the way they ground England’s attack to dust. You cannot help but respect their preparation – they clearly saw what happened in the sub-continent last year where you can patiently accumulate 600 plus against England’s attack.

Silk: Stop asking me these questions. Why do you torture me so?

CricketJon: When Shaun Marsh spooned the ball to mid off at Brisbane, I was chuffed with just how well England stayed with Australia bearing in mind this was quite a few guys first tour. Brisbane isn’t easy. Its 30 years since anyone won there. It was the high point of the tour in terms of the outcome of the series. The rest of the match is history.

What really boils my piss is that two guys with 2.6m Test wickets between them were entrusted by a young captain upon winning the toss to take advantage of the conditions in Adelaide. The correct decision. Root was let down. They bowled the wrong length and if any proof was necessary look what happened throughout the match when they altered the length. We keep being told they are experienced warhorses and similar claptrap. Where does this rainbow end? I can understand human error, it happens, they are not robots but lack of concentration and application? The match was lost there and it was galling to see when Malan and Root batted so well in the fourth innings on the fourth evening just what might have been possible.

We have 4000 backroom staff or whatever the current number is. With the amount of time that gets forever lost in Test cricket (what other sport are you allowed to just piss off after 83 overs and short change the punters?) there was ample time for someone to send a message to the bowlers in the first half hour. Maybe they did and the bowlers weren’t listening? As David Brent would say “They wont remember”. I do.

  • How do England make sure it doesn’t happen again in four years’ time?

Gareth: Sack KP again?

I think they have to identify what was lacking and look at a group of about 8-10 players that they feel, in 4 years time, will, with careful nurturing and gradual integration into the side, provide the necessary tools to overcome Australian conditions. And look at skill levels alone, not what a nice bloke Liam Dawson is in the dressing room or claptrap like that. The skills? Pace bowling, reverse swing, skilful spin bowling and nous, ability to bat and concentrate for long periods and adapt.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? But isn’t that what selection is about?

Some of the short-termism of some selections made by England in the last 18 months (hello Liam Dawson!) shows just how non-existent the planning process was. Dawson (and Ansari before him) was never going to make the Ashes. Was he just there to have a dig at Rashid?

Silk: There is no health left within me. I am bereft.

CricketJon: Tear up the operating model and bring in people that have no conflicts of interest, are not obsessed with 20 or 10 over cricket and the money it brings and sadly bring it down to 3 Tests which is where it is eventually heading anyway.

  • What about the home Ashes? Who will win that?

Gareth: I have it too close to call. It really does depend on if James Anderson maintains his standards – England have little else but Jimmy remains a master of his craft. If Aussie can keep those three quicks fit they will be a handful on any surface (bar Melbourne!).

Silk: Please, make it stop.

CricketJon: Much rests on the pitches and overhead conditions. Please note that in 2015 the two tracks that were most like Australian conditions resulted in Australian victories.

  • England have a tour of New Zealand next, should they be worried?

Gareth: Very much so; they’re not Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood but Southee, Boult and Wagner are no pushovers, and if I were any of those three I’d be looking forward to getting stuck into Vince. New Zealand also have their own superstar batsman, and a good settled team ethos. They are consistently more than the sum of their parts.

Silk: ARGH. <thud>

CricketJon: Yes without a doubt.

  • Any Other Business?

Gareth: I know we give Peter Moores absolute pelters and rightly so. But he did identify Liam Plunkett as someone who could bowl bouncers with an old ball on garbage surfaces (Headingley 2014 etc). I was thinking about that as I watched Tom Curran run in. Using the old ball is a skill in itself, and one which England have lost sight of.

Silk: I would very much like to thank everyone at BOC who have put some much effort into following this crap, and writing about it. To write so well, and with such effort, about such crap is a magnificent effort. The long-suffering England support deserves you, but those Inside Cricket do not. More power to you.

CricketJon; Yes. I have said it already on this website. The debate should be opened as to precisely who the game belongs to. Furthermore the following (and previously written) questions need considering. It applies to any form of democracy and governance and the source of the five questions is the late and remarkable Tony Benn:

1, What power have you got?
2, Where did you get it from?
3, In whose interests do you use it?
4, To whom are you accountable?
5, How do we get rid of you?

Any difficulties arising from answering those questions raises an enormous red flag.

My thanks to all for their time and effort in answering my questions, and as always, comment below is very welcome.

Fifth Ashes Test: Day Five – Humiliation

Defeat came as expected, and the scale of it was every bit as huge as anticipated, as England collapsed to lose by the small matter of an innings and 123 runs.  In some ways it offered the perfect conclusion to the series, for despite England being well beaten, indeed thrashed, there was also the smallest morsel for some to point to as the latest excuse – in this case the loss to illness of the captain, Joe Root, who at least deserves credit for trying to bat when clearly and visibly extremely poorly.  No doubt if he had been fully fit, England would have saved the Test and started the year on the same kind of high as they finished 2017…

Analysing the final day of the series is pointless, it went as expected, and with little fight beyond Root.  The series as a whole is a different matter, and as the dust settles somewhat, then the questions that won’t go away will come to the fore.  To some extent, Paul Farbrace was rowing against the tide when asking the kinds of questions that ought to be obvious, but which seemingly are buried beneath a wave of ever more desperate explanations.  It is striking that it was the first time anyone associated with the England set up even dared to say anything of the kind, and offered a marked contrast to Tom Harrison’s ridiculous collection of platitudes insisting that all was well.  How Farbrace’s call for “brutal honesty” goes down among his superiors remains to be seen, but the signs aren’t good.

The press certainly aren’t going out of their way to answer them, or even properly consider them.  Two elements immediately spring to mind, firstly that Alastair Cook is consistently highlighted as being one of the more successful elements of the series.  One genuinely superb innings in Melbourne on an officially poor pitch cannot be used to mask the remainder of the series where he scored just 132 runs in 8 attempts.  By all means salute that one knock, but rarely has a series average of 47 proved so misleading or irrelevant.  It isn’t dismissing him or belittling him to acknowledge that, and he’s openly expressed his frustration – why others make excuses that he doesn’t is exactly why some cricket journalists attract such contempt.

Secondly, the response to Mason Crane’s performance has been nothing short of extraordinary.  He’s a 20 year old kid, playing in his first Test, and to that extent expectations were entirely minimal, and his match figures of 1-193 aren’t terribly relevant.  First Test, dead rubber, let’s see what he can do, and he bowled nicely at times.  But it certainly can’t be considered a success, and to highlight him as being so is downright peculiar. No seam bowler would receive such plaudits for that kind of debut, and certainly no off spinner, no matter how young.  It isn’t about hammering him for not having a good match, it’s about being realistic about what it was, and acknowledging him for what he is – a young player learning his game, who may or may not go on to have a good career.  Adil Rashid must wonder just what it is about him that deserved such an entirely different set of headlines throughout his seemingly finished Test career.  On that point, what England would have given in Australia for a spinner who could bat and was capable of taking 23 wickets in India.

The parallel universe of cricket reporting and administration continues to amaze.  A 4-0 defeat is hailed as being better than the last attempt four years ago on the grounds that England managed to draw one on the flattest pitch ever seen in Australia.  Nominally, that’s true, but denial of the horror of this tour against an Australian side that hasn’t been particularly outstanding over the last couple of years is a remarkable exercise in putting heads as deep in the sand as possible.  One draw and four heavy defeats as progress isn’t the highest of bars at which to aim.  At that rate of improvement, a  flippant observer might think England could just possibly look forward to a very dull drawn series round 2034.

Any cricket supporter can acknowledge and accept being outplayed by a better team, but they also have the right to ask why that is, especially when it keeps happening.  This series defeat is worse than any of those in the 1990s, when Australia did have an exceptional side and England a poor one, yet at no point during that era was there such insouciance in the press and within the ECB about it.  Even the 2006 thrashing, while shocking, had some mitigation in being at the hands of a magnificent side bent on revenge.  2014 might well have been a disaster, but at the end of it the sole response was to kick out one player and insist that it wouldn’t happen again.  Well, it has done.  What the bloody hell have the ECB been doing for the last four years and why will so few in the media hold them to account for it?

The truth is that they don’t care.  The money is rolling in from TV deals and T20 cricket in particular, though they’d be wise to realise that catastrophic performances (and it’s only a year since the same thing happened in India) tend to kill interest quicker than anything else.  Cricket is in deep trouble in England, not because of one series defeat, but because of the policies adopted that have led to it.  Viewing figures are down, participation is down.  Sponsors tend not to align themselves with invisible sports that are failing, and kids most definitely don’t take up sports they don’t see and don’t have any heroes in.  Yet because finances look good at present, there is much backslapping at Lords, and those responsible will be long gone by the time the reality of the disaster they’ve overseen in the game manifests itself.

There are so many elements to this, and barely any of them are ever even acknowledged, let alone addressed.  The ECB have already stated that there won’t be major action taken over it, so just like last time around, the structure will remain the same – only this time there’s no obvious scapegoat to blame for everything.  The county championship will remain marginalised at each end of the season, limiting opportunities for fast bowlers and spinners, and continuing to ensure that medium pacers who do a bit off the seam can thrive – and be entirely unsuitable for higher levels.  Darren Stevens’ success last season was a beautiful thing, but the fact it could happen at all is not.

The fast bowling academy at Loughborough, which has been spectacularly unsuccessful will carry on as though nothing of import has taken place. The bowling attack will continue to be carried by two veterans who have done sterling service over the years, but who have so little behind them to challenge their positions.  The batsmen will carry on being drawn from the ranks of those averaging in the thirties in first class cricket, who may or may not be capable of making the jump to the top level.  The administrators will remain in position with no accountability whatever for what has transpired on the field.  The players will be developed from the tiny pool of the public schools which demonstrates a genuinely impressive level of wastage amongst the 93% who do not.  The people who care for the game will continue to be dismissed as “obsessives” in favour of those who wander along to a T20 match.

The worst part is that none of this is going to change.  None of it.  This is how it has been set up, in fact this disintegration of English Test cricket (it isn’t going to get better as things stand) is the exact outcome from the policies set in place over the last decade.  Removing all cricket from free to air television in favour of a financial drug fix was a disastrous decision.  It doesn’t mean that had they not done that all would be well, but it does mean that it set the game on a path of dwindling relevance and interest that the ECB then compounded with their other decisions.  To that extent, this is what they’ve achieved, and it was pointed out at the time.

The ECB consistently talked about the four year cycles, and did so after the last drubbing.  What have they achieved in that time?  The refocusing on short form cricket has delivered precisely zero titles, and the current team is mired in the middle rankings of the ICC tables, just as they were four years ago.  They approach it rather better than they did, and they’re certainly more exciting, but it’s hardly been an obvious road to success.  The Test team in that four year period has been “rebuilt” to the point where the only players secure in their places are the ones who have been there since then, and in most cases, years before.  Jonny Bairstow is the single exception to have come through and he was on the fringes then anyway.  England don’t even have the excuse of being  young side.  They arrived in Australia with doubts over three of the top five batting positions, the spinner in Australian conditions (and who openly regards himself primarily as a batsman anyway) and the entire seam bowling attack apart from two who have been around for a decade and more.

The biggest crisis the Test team face right now is the sheer poverty of what is behind the veterans, with very little sign of anything truly exciting coming through.  That this will get worse, not better.  When people say England will miss Cook, Anderson and Broad when they’re gone, they don’t realise just how right they are.  Home series against Pakistan and India may well paper over the cracks somewhat – though should England lose, as well they might, perhaps the alarm bells might finally penetrate the heads of the assorted establishment figures – but not to anyone paying close attention.

England have lost 9 of their last 12 away Tests – two thrashings in India and Australia, and a drawn series in Bangladesh that frankly, they got away with.  But it’s ok, Tom Harrison says all is well.

A small housekeeping note:  Sharp eyed visitors will have noted a new link at the top of the home page where you can contact any of us, to have a rant if you feel the need.  We will do a final Ashes panel over the next few days, so if you’re interested in being part of it, drop an email to tlg@beingoutsidecricket.com

 

 

5th Ashes Test, Day Two

Australia in a strong position – check

Steve Smith in and looking ominous – check

England’s bowling looking toothless – check

Here we go again.  Despite Tom Harrison’s proclamation that all is well and the only reason England are marginally losing this series is because they haven’t taken their opportunities, two days of cricket at the SCG have once again emphasised the gulf between the teams.  And this after England did fairly well with the bat in the morning too.  In a better balanced series, Australia finishing on 193-2 would mean that with a deficit of 150 still to be made up, the game was in the balance, and if England bowled well in the morning then they would be in a decent position.  The problem is that repeating this in the face of all previous evidence is the kind of thing only the empty suits at the ECB do, to try and ensure that wherever the blame goes, it doesn’t go to them.

Sure, it’s possible that by the time the third day is complete, this post will look ridiculous, as England skittle Australia and start building on their sizeable lead, but the exceptionalist nature of such an outcome, and the way that you, dear reader, have almost certainly scoffed at that possibility is exactly the point.  England have now reached the point where the feeling of inevitability about the outcome has taken hold, a pattern in every Test, apart from the one where the pitch was officially rated as “poor” and allowed England to escape with a triumphant draw – one that sealed the Ashes into eternity according to the response to it in the media.

There can be surprises, certainly.  The weak looking England tail did rather well, aided by some extraordinarily brainless bowling at Stuart Broad, and some impressively inept catching.  Maybe the Australians weren’t quite feeling the intensity with the series well and truly won, not that anyone is allowed to mention that of course.  Still, Tom Curran and Broad rode their luck and made decent contributions, as did the out of sorts Moeen Ali.  Yet while 346 represented a much better total than it could have been, it still looks lightweight in context.

England gained a quick success in dismissing Bancroft, a fairly routine delivery from Broad breaching his defences, which merely goes to highlight that the idea that England are up against a great team remains as absurd as ever – the controversy over their lack of batting depth seems a long time ago.  Perhaps it is the case that Australia do indeed have a very fine bowling attack, but given England’s inability to cope with many others around the world, it’s hard to tell for sure.  Even allowing that, it doesn’t provide an excuse: either England are totally outclassed, in which case why is that; or they are, just unable to grab the moment (Harrison), in which case why are they being battered repeatedly?

After the early success, there were few alarms; Warner compiled a well made fifty, Khawaja closed in on a century, and Steve Smith seems to have been at the crease for the entire series.  And there’s the problem, James Anderson has done fairly well this tour, but while he has received some criticism for being defensive and containing, the question needs to be asked as to what else should be expected of him?  He’s 35 years old, is unquestionably one of the cleverest bowlers around, but surely at this stage of his career he ought to be a support bowler of extreme skill rather than the one carrying the entire attack.  Broad at the other end has had a mixed tour by his own admission, and that’s fine, because it happens.  Last time around he was exceptional even as the side disintegrated around him.

George Dobell is one of the few journalists pointing out the reality of England’s position, the abysmal failure of the ECB to produce fast bowlers, and the seemingly counterproductive fast bowling programme allied to the sidelining of first class cricket.  England’s current pace bowling attack has the feel of the West Indies in the late careers of Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose.  Those who respond to criticism of Anderson and Broad by saying England will miss them when they are gone are exactly right – for when they do go there is so little behind them except a collection of medium pacers without their level of exceptional ability, or crocks.  Cyclical problems can afflict any country, but the utterly blasé response of Harrison’s insistence that all is well highlights Dobell’s point about the complete lack of accountability.  When it is said that this is a golden era having Anderson and Broad, the sad truth is that they are almost certainly right.  A 35 year old and a 31 year old should not be leading the attack with no rivals for their position in a healthy structure.  Don’t blame them, blame the administrators who have created the position where they are not only the best we’ve had in the last 20 years, they are also the best we will have for the next few years as well.  Ambrose and Walsh indeed.

The same can be said to apply to the spinning role.  Moeen Ali has had a miserable tour of it, and once again failed to impress here.  Yet earlier in the series he was apparently being played as a batsman only (only to then bowl) because his finger was so badly damaged, and was also suffering from a side strain.  In the rush to beat him up for this series, this no longer seems to be mentioned at all, in which case it either wasn’t a problem in the first place, or he’s being slated for playing badly when he’s not fit – it has to be one or the other.

Like clockwork, now there are calls for him to be replaced.  Fine.  No player should have a sinecure when they are out of form, or if they ultimately aren’t good enough to stay in the team, but here it still smacks of thrashing around in the death throes.  Drop Moeen Ali by all means, but be sure that the replacement is going to be better.  This doesn’t mean you don’t try things of course, otherwise no one would ever be selected, but in the last 15 months England have used Moeen, Rashid, Ansari, Dawson, Batty and now Crane.  Six spinners in just over a year, discarded one by one as not being good enough, with the last a left-field punt that doesn’t offer huge confidence for a long term selection, which is absolutely not his fault.

As Dobell points out, Adam Riley, meant to be the answer to England’s spinning woes, didn’t play a county championship match last season, and even Crane only appeared in some of them.  They can give Ollie Rayner a go, presumably based on his average of just under 40 last season that just screams “pick me”, but it isn’t going to magically change things.  Moeen might well have been very poor away from home (again, let’s emphasise he was meant to be injured for this one, because this seems to be constantly ignored) but he has been good at home, both with bat and ball.  Is that remotely ideal or acceptable?  Absolutely not.  Is it probably as good as is likely whoever they pick?  Yes.  It might even be better.  This is not a defence of Moeen Ali or a call for him to be retained, but it is pointing out that the idea that things will magically change for the better when a player is dumped is wishful thinking.  England do not have ready made replacements to slot in and improve the team, nor do they have a production line of young talent.

The same applies to Cook.  In his poor spells, it can’t possibly be said that he came under true pressure for his place, not in this case because of the media, although that is true, but because with a lack of a successful opening partner, how could he possibly have his own place questioned?  Cook horribly out of form was still England’s best opener.

Irrespective of how this match unfolds, the true horror of England’s position is that this really is their best team, and most of their best players are in the later stages of their career.  Perhaps some will magically seize their opportunities, but it’s not something you’d put the house on.

This is where the ECB have led the English game to.  Invisible, unimportant, hidden away, wealthy (for now), not very good, and likely to get worse in future.  Well done chaps, drinks all round.

Day Three Comments Below

 

5th Ashes Test: Day One

OK, hands up:  who’s really surprised?  Perhaps that England had a pretty decent day up until the last five minutes, yes, but the close of play score?  Unlikely.  A middling total, encompassing a promising position thrown away, with the prospect of that lengthy tail to come, and a new ball in Australian hands.  It’s possible that England will go on to make a fine first innings score, for Dawid Malan is still there, and of all the England batting order is the one who exudes a degree of permanence when at the crease.  Equally, Moeen Ali could be said to be due for some runs – forever the last kind of unreasoning hope to be extinguished.  But after that, there’s not much at all, and while 350+ is always possible, so is 250 all out, and the probabilities lean closer to the latter than the former.

Of course, much of the comment will be around Root passing fifty and failing to go on to a century yet again.  That it’s a problem he’s more than aware of was shown by his despairing reaction to his dismissal, but as ever, it’s something that gets commented on in isolation about him, and never should it be mentioned that Cook has more than a slight issue over the last few years with the same thing; occasional huge scores don’t alter that.  England throwing away promising positions is hardly new, but nor is it down to just the captain.  Oh, and nor is this conversion problem something that’s afflicted him since he became the skipper, it’s been a problem for a while.  Still, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be mentioned, for Root’s dismissal didn’t look great, and was compounded by Bairstow being quickly dismissed afterwards.  In the peculiar way cricket is sometimes looked at, Bairstow’s dismissal is apparently Root’s fault.  228-3 is a decent position, 233-5 is Australia’s day.

The lack of a nightwatchman on Root’s removal also became a topic of debate.  As ever, it’s being wise after the event.  Given how many times Bairstow has been left marooned as the tail fell apart around him this series, it’s not too surprising he didn’t want to bat any lower than he had to.  This time, it just didn’t work out, but Australia went some years having abolished the role entirely.  As ever, decisions like that are often only good or bad in retrospect – Bairstow backed himself to get through the last two overs.

The last five minutes apart, England had done fairly well but with all the same flaws they’ve shown all series.  Stoneman started well but failed to go on, Vince looked pretty but got out for the same kind of score that he tends to get out for, and Cook was dismissed for 39.  Two things about that, firstly the Daily Mail’s description of it as “a convincing 39” is preposterous, and does Cook himself no favours, and nor was his lbw, given on review, in any way controversial, no matter what his number one fan Paul Newman might claim.  It was too much to hope that Cook would repeat his Melbourne innings, but it can be said that he looked technically very good here too, which is promising from his perspective as long as he can maintain it.  That’s not meant to be dismissive of him at all, Cook when he has his game sorted is a fabulous opener, but he also drops off alarmingly at times in terms of his technique.  As he gets older, this will become ever more important, but he remains quite extraordinary in the divergence between when he is fully sorted, and when he isn’t.

Dawid Malan is England’s batsman of the tour, which may seem to damning him with faint praise, but three fifties (including his current one) and a big century represents a better return than anyone else, and if this innings was a careful one, he still very much looked the part.  And bringing in batsmen who do look the part has been in fairly short supply recently.

And so we move into day two.  Any feelings of impending disaster are entirely to be expected, which is probably just the time they’ll confound us all and bat out of their skins.

Fifth Ashes Test: Preview

If ever there was a measure of how far sights had fallen on this tour it was to be found in the way that a draw at Melbourne, on a pitch so batsmen friendly it was rated as poor by the ICC, was treated as a triumph by some.  3-0 down, a series and the Ashes gone, but apparently England ended the year well.  Perhaps in some ways that’s true, when you’ve lost the last seven away Tests and the last eight away Ashes Tests anything better than that is something to take note of, in the same way that just because the ship has gone down doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the piece of wreckage to which you’re clinging.  Yet denying the disaster that this tour has been remains as pathetic as it was after the Indian tour.  In that case, few expected England to come out on top, but being battered repeatedly and insisting that it was nothing other than the expected – all is well, don’t worry – was a low point for a group of cricket journalists who haven’t been afraid to plumb the depths in recent years.

Here too, the same has happened.  Cook’s unquestionably excellent innings at the MCG doesn’t mean Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth didn’t happen, and pretending that it does invites the contempt it deserves, and not just from the Australians either.  Claiming that it is irrelevant because it’s a dead rubber is nonsensical, ignoring the 3-0 scoreline and a series thrashing is preposterous.  It counts.  Of course it counts, it always did.  But it also always had a slight note against it. Indeed, the England coaching staff clearly didn’t get the memo, for when Trevor Bayliss was asked about selection for the final Test, he said “with the series lost it gives us the opportunity to look at some different people”.   Of course, this shouldn’t need saying, as it is blindingly obvious to anyone paying even a cursory degree of attention, but apparently it does, even though England on the other side of the equation did exactly the same thing when selecting Woakes and Kerrigan at the Oval in 2013.  Writing on cricket is a matter of opinion, but refusing to acknowledge reality in favour of hagiography remains as intellectually dishonest as ever, particularly given the same people were talking about retirement precisely one Test earlier.  Even allowing for finally having something positive to write about, it went much too far.  England played better at Melbourne, the seamers in the first innings were very good, Cook absolutely batted beautifully, while Australia probably lost some intensity, but still saved the match with something to spare.  Fine.  It was better, give Cook plenty of credit.  Move on and don’t overdo it.

Thus, for this game Mason Crane will make his debut.  The SCG pitch is expected to offer some assistance for spinners (interestingly, Nathan Lyon doesn’t have as good a record there as the traditional expectation for turn might suggest) and as a result, Moeen Ali is expected to keep his place.  He hasn’t had a good tour, either with ball or bat, and so this represents something of a reprieve given the initial expectation it might be a straight swap.  Much comment has been made about him not getting overspin, which does raise a few questions:  Firstly whether this is something he’s always had a problem with – the lack of any discussion prior to this tour suggests not – and if it’s just in Australia, why that might be.  He’s clearly not been fit for much of it, with talk of both side strains and finger damage throughout.  If that is the reason why, then England have done him a serious disservice by repeatedly playing him, and then seeing him get a kicking for not performing.  The player narrative shifts from week to week, with no reference to what has been said before, so perhaps the injury claims were overblown instead and he really has just been poor, but it would be nice to once in a while have some degree of consistency in appraisal without the need for excuses first, then a hatchet job.

Crane himself represents something of an unknown quantity at this level.  His first class bowling average is nothing to write home about, but he’s also young and promising.  The biggest fear with him has to be that if he doesn’t have an exceptional time of it, he’ll join the list of those brought in for the final dead rubber of a series (oh, that again) and then never heard about again.  England’s management of leg spinners who fail to be the next Shane Warne doesn’t engender too much confidence.  Maybe it’ll be different this time.

Chris Woakes misses out, having suffered a recurrence of his side injury.  England are saying that it’s precautionary, and hope that he’ll be fit for the ODI series following the Tests, but scepticism about their injury management is probably second only to scepticism about their selection strategy.  Side strains don’t tend to clear up quickly; it seems hopeful to say the least that it will properly heal in such a short time, and risky to then bowl him if it is a problem so soon after being out for so long with the same issue.

Woakes’ absence means that Tom Curran will play, saving him from the possibility of being a one cap wonder, while Jake Ball is nowhere to be seen in the discussions, except to point out that he’s nowhere to be seen.

This will leave England with a line up that requires the top order to get all the runs, for after Jonny Bairstow at six will come a hideously out of form Moeen and a tail that might be nowhere near as abysmal as the legendary Caddick, Giddins, Mulally Tufnell one, but does have the particular distinction of being just as long.  It will be fascinating to see if Cook’s technical work continues here, while Root and Malan too will need to have good Tests.

For Australia it’s easy – Mitchell Starc should return in place of Jackson Bird, although there are suggestions he’ll be rested for the ODI series in preparation for the South Africa Tests, an illustration of their priorities if nothing else.  They have their own batting issues in the top order, but also have Steve Smith, who has been imperious for so long  it has masked the other problems.  How to get him out remains a conundrum that has proved beyond England and might well be the single biggest difference between the sides.

The surface is by all accounts well grassed, and should provide a better contest between bat and ball than last time out.  The trouble is, that looks like very good news for Australia and very bad news for England.  English optimism is in short supply, but always remember Tom Harrison’s soothing words:

“It’s a pity that we’re not in a position to take the Urn home with us, but there’s a lot more to play for over the course of this winter. The health of the game is more than about Ashes series overseas. This is not the moment for kneejerk reactions or rash decisions in respect of performance.

“We have a plan. We’re making progress on that plan. England have been very competitive for large parts of the Ashes series. Those marginal periods of play where you can turn a game, we haven’t been able to do it which has been the difference between the teams in each of the Test matches.

“We understand that it’s extremely disappointing. But this team will be learning from every experience they have on the field and we’ve got a lot more to play for over the course of the one-dayers and the Test series in New Zealand.”

The lack of any critical coverage of what he has said is quite simply remarkable.

 

The 2017 Dmitris – Number 2 is Kumar Sangakkara

This was a post that had been on the stocks for a little while, but then Christmas and Tests got in the way.  So here we go with Dmitri’s introduction:

“I might have had Kumar down for a Dmitri on HDWLIA in 2014, but I can rewrite my own rules, because no-one takes this that seriously anyway, and nor should they. I’m a  Surrey fan, and it’s been a slim old time the last decade or so. But every so often there is a shining star. This year, more than ever, it was Kumar Sangakkara. There seemed a need for me to recognise just what the great man brought to the County Championship this summer.

For the early part of the century I had the good fortune to watch the best county championship batsman of his generation, Mark Ramprakash, make hundred after hundred for Surrey. This year, on the two occasions I saw him in the flesh, Kumar batted out the tea session of the opening day, and had a rare failure at Guidlford. I missed all of his hundreds, and his double hundred, and yet I felt satisfied just to have seen him in his final season. Eight centuries, 1491 runs, 106.5 average. Speaks for itself. Brilliance.

But instead of me waxing lyrical on the Sri Lankan genius, I thought I’d hand it over to The Leg Glance himself to do the man justice. Call it a love letter, an homage, call it what you want, but Kumar pressed the buttons, and we have a massive fan to see him out….”

June 14th 2014 was a fairly special day for me.  It wasn’t that I was at Lords, for that is hardly uncommon, and my love-hate relationship with the place (on the one hand all the history, on the other all the snobbishness) doesn’t make going there for a Test match anything that special.   But it is usually a pleasant enough day, even if the early Test series of the summer rarely offers up anything exceptional.  England had racked up 575-9, with Joe Root scoring a double hundred, but the hammering in Australia (oh, the irony) and the fall out with the ECB deriding those “Outside Cricket” was still fresh in the memory.  For the first time in my cricket going life, going to watch England didn’t mean hoping to watch England win – I simply didn’t care.

But on the Friday evening for the end of day two there was another, and definitely meaningful consideration.  Sri Lanka had replied well to England’s score with Silva and Sangakkara at the crease in the final session. Now, Sangakkara had always been one of my favourites – possibly because I am both a left handed batsman and a wicketkeeper (similarities end around about there), and even as long ago as Nasser Hussain’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2001, he was a player I watched with interest, and with a deep liking for how he played the game (lippy for a start, mostly with Hussain, who subsequently expressed how much he enjoyed their sparring) and especially how he batted.

This was to be almost certainly his final Test at Lords, a place where he had a peculiarly poor record, as indeed he had in England generally.  That Friday evening as he began his innings was one of those fraught occasions where watching on television is to desperately hope he doesn’t get out, and is still at the crease for when you arrive in the morning.  The close of play with his wicket intact was a moment of quiet celebration – I’d finally see him bat in the flesh, and on a good batting strip to boot.  Setting off that morning it was the principal, perhaps even the sole motivation for wanting to be there.

Towards the end of his career Sangakkara was just starting to get the praise his career deserved.  He’d always been somewhat overlooked – in an era of Tendulkar, Dravid, Kallis and Lara, he was the one whose record matched anyone but was rarely mentioned in the same company.  A fine record as wicketkeeper/batsman had moved into the stratospheric once he gave up the gloves, and still few would talk about him as being of the highest calibre.  The raw figures bear this out; his overall Test batting average was 57.40, a number to bear comparison with anyone not called Bradman, but without the gloves – as he was for most of his career – that rose to an extraordinary 66.78, with 31 of his 38 Test hundreds coming as a pure batsman.  He did it almost everywhere too, and if it was better at home than away, it was only by a small margin, and his away record remained phenomenal.

Stat-mining is a dangerous game – it can be used to ignore those elements that don’t suit a narrative, but identifying a difference between him as all rounder and as pure batsman, given the substantial volume of data for both, is perhaps not an unreasonable way of highlighting just how good at the crease he really was.  There are some qualifications of course – his keeping period came when he was a younger player, and perhaps it might be that the biggest difference was an improvement with experience rather than the demands of the gloves, but the difference remains startling.

Even with such a record, some innings of his stand out, his 192 in Hobart when chasing an impossible 507 to win in 5 sessions perhaps most of all, because the eventual 97 run defeat might have been different had he not been wrongly given out by a subsequently contrite and apologetic Rudi Koertzen.  It’s a rare feeling to have that you’re watching someone play an entire team on his own, but that day it was the one many had – it was extraordinary.  And above all else, he did it with style.  Left handers are often generalised as being elegant, but for every Sangakkara or Gower there is a Graeme Smith or Gary Ballance, but his was a cover drive to match any who had ever played the game, a shot of exquisite beauty and timing, year in, year out.

Of all the top ten leading run scorers in Test cricket, Sangakkara has the highest average.  Such a statistic may not be the be all and end all, but nor is it something that should be ignored.  Indeed, it is not until going down the list to Sir Garfield Sobers that you find anyone with a better one, an indication of just how great a player Sobers was as much as anything.

At Lords, as Sangakkara passed 50, then 60, then 70, a curious feeling came over me.  It was nervousness.  Here was a player I had watched for years, had got into arguments over every time he was ignored when discussing the greatest batsmen in the game, and now I was being teased mercilessly by friends well aware of how much I wanted to see him get that hundred, how much I’d berated them for failing to fully appreciate this most special of players.

His team mate and friend Mahela Jayawardene said afterwards that he had rarely seen him so nervous as he was when in the nineties, and perhaps in the smallest way, the way only a fan can have, I shared in that, for rarely have I wanted a player to reach a landmark quite as much as I did then.  And if I’m honest, not for altruistic reasons.  I wanted to be present when the great Kumar Sangakkara scored a Lords’ hundred.

Of course he did so, and received as warm a reception from the crowd as anyone could hope for.  Except me.  A few people stayed in their seats, and more than anything I wanted to go around the ground and drag every single one of them to their feet, to scream in their faces that they have been particularly privileged on this day to see a player so good they should be telling their grandchildren about him.  That standing ovation (mostly) should have gone on for at least another minute, genius should be fully appreciated.

He was out finally for 147 – when I was out at the bar, rather wonderfully – but he’d done it, he’d “ticked the box” as he put it, and I was lucky enough to be there.   Cricket is a collection of memories, and that was one to file away in the Very Special mental drawer.

Maybe that day was the final piece in the jigsaw in England for recognition, for it seemed to be from then on that he was placed in the great category in this country more widely than he had been before.  Certainly fewer people needed to be convinced by the army of statistics I had memorised by then to show how badly he’d been under-appreciated.  His extraordinary “Spirit of Cricket” speech at Lords three years earlier had certainly gained attention and praise, so perhaps that made the most difference.  And for those few cricket fans who haven’t seen it, here it is – put an hour aside and watch it:

The gift to cricket fans was his last couple of seasons in English county cricket, a run of form that was scarcely credible, but which offered up the opportunity to drink in the chance of seeing a modern great, no, not modern, an all time great.

It’s been said by a few that Test cricket could do a lot worse than put Michael Holding, Rahul Dravid and Kumar Sangakkara in charge of the game.  Watching all three play was a privilege, but this is Sanga’s piece, so this is for him.  Sri Lanka’s greatest batsman, who ultimately belonged to the world.  What he does from here is up to him, but if he does it with the grace of his batting and the class of his oratory, there’s little doubt it will be truly special.

 

 

If a Wicket Falls and Everyone is Asleep, Did it Really Happen?

So there we go, the pitch ultimately won, as always seemed likely, and Australia batted out the day comfortably in the end.  The only point at which it livened up was when David Warner played what must count as one of the worst shots of his entire career, and Shaun Marsh was unlucky enough to get a genuinely good ball.  At effectively 16-4, Australia were in some trouble.  But that was as rocky as it got, and while the play was as turgid as the pitch, it was also a masterclass in saving a Test match.

Probably the area where England do deserve some credit is how well they bowled on the second day, for Australia’s first innings total was ultimately some way below par.  England’s response was excellent, and of course Cook’s innings extremely fine, but the degree of comfort with which Australia batted out the day placed all before it in context.  Losing half a day to poor weather was unfortunate, but there were few indications that it made that much difference given England bowled 124 overs for just four wickets second time around.

On the plus side, England arrested a run of seven consecutive away defeats, although it’s still only their second draw in ten, and likewise a run of eight consecutive away defeats in Australia.  These are pretty small crumbs of comfort and the backdrop of that is hardly cause for much celebration.  Moeen Ali has been fundamentally poor this whole series, and while it’s not so surprising that he’s struggled with the ball, he’s also had problems with the bat.  He must be vulnerable for the final Test, and how responsible his finger injury may be is open to question.  It would hardly be the first time England have picked a player who is unfit and then been surprised they haven’t done well.  England’s batting problems have been presumably the reason for reluctance to pick Mason Crane, but the same old question arises – what is the point of him being on the tour if the primary spinner is struggling so badly that Root and Malan are the ones turned to on the final day.  To put it another way, had either Adil Rashid or Samit Patel been available – and never forget they were both discarded summarily, and it seems not for cricketing reasons – it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have been brought in, if only because both can bat.

Other than that, Stuart Broad was much improved this time around, and while he remains as divisive a character as ever, he was admirably frank about his own shortcomings this series, only to see his words deliberately misinterpreted and used against him in yet another tiresome jab from the Australians.  George Dobell called out the “bullshit” in an unusually annoyed article that rightly mentioned all the times England have been equally guilty of it.

Melbourne usually provides a good Test, and a result.  Here they clearly got the surface preparation wrong, and it ended up the kind of wicket certain to kill any interest in the game and drive viewers to the Big Bash with batsmen unable to score freely and bowlers unable to take wickets.  They’ve had plenty of criticism for that, but c’est la vie, it’s not a normal state of affairs, and in truth England should be grateful for it, as on the showing so far, that was the only way they were going to avoid another pasting. 

Maybe that’s harsh, but with Starc back for Sydney, and a more responsive pitch, it is surely not unlikely normal service will resume.  How Cook performs will be intriguing, not in that it should be expected he repeats a double century, but if he looks as good at the crease as he did in Melbourne.  He’s a funny player in so many ways, when he’s technically off he looks truly dire, and it’s unusual to see a player so visibly battle his technique on such a regular basis.  The SCG will have more pace (not hard) and it may answer a few questions about how much he’s changed his game.  Here he appeared so much more upright in head position and balance.  Irrespective of series position of preposterous media response, that’s as good as he’s looked technically in three years.

After the game there were the usual platitudes from both sides, and the usual statements of regret at not winning, but above all else it was just dull, viewers drifting off to sleep in Australia, let alone England.  

Grateful as they may be for it, 3-0 down with one to play is no position of joy.  The torture tour is not over yet.