Paradise (Not Quite) Regained – By Maxie Allen

I’ll get straight to it. Full disclosure. I’ve stopped hating England. I no longer support their opponents. Over the course of this summer, I even found myself wanting them to win, and was glad when they did.

At the grave risk of sounding self-regarding, I’ll quickly remind you of the backstory. I wrote a piece for this site a couple of years ago explaining my contempt for the England cricket team and why I both exulted in their defeats and cheered on their opposition. That was the position I’d found myself in after three decades of loyal support. It was because of Things That Happened in 2014 – which left me angry, alienated, and betrayed.

And then all of a sudden, early this summer, and after five years of that alienation, I began to feel differently. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Nor was it because of a specific performance, or player, or passage of play. It was before any of 2019’s standout stories unfolded. There was no fairy-tale epiphany after watching Stokes or Archer. It crept up on me. It was something I noticed and then realised must have been there for a while, like hair-loss or a suspicious lump.

What I do know is it began with the World Cup, even though I’ve never been wildly interested in white-ball cricket. But it wasn’t because of England winning the world cup. Success, in itself, didn’t win me round and never has done. No, it was because of England trying to win the World Cup. The distinction is important. England had lost three times in the final but never won the tournament. They were at home. They were favourites. Would they fulfil their elusive destiny? It was a good story. And that story slowly but inexorably reeled me in.

The thing I’ve always loved most about cricket is its narrative arcs. The twists and turns. The sub-plots. The drama with an unwritten script. And England’s World Cup campaign crafted itself into a narrative I found too seductive to quite resist. They started brightly, messed up, bounced back, and, well, you know the rest, but the point is, I began to sense I had personal equity in the outcome.

I found myself going out of my way to watch the final group games against India and New Zealand. I was on a family holiday abroad, but managed to get an iPad to hook up to Sky Go by the pool. I couldn’t face missing the games. What startled me – maybe even disappointed me – was that I realised I wanted England to win. I feared them losing. A feeling I hadn’t experienced for five years.

It was an unsavoury sensation, and hard to come to terms with. I didn’t want to want England to win, because I’d hated them so much, and for good reason. But there it was. And then came the final, with one of the greatest narratives of all, and when Buttler broke the stumps from Roy’s throw and I could see Guptill hadn’t made his ground, I yelled and screamed and leapt around the room. Which I almost felt ashamed of doing.

I suppose I’d never felt quite as much contempt for England’s white-ball side as their Test counterparts. They felt vaguely like a separate entity and less tarnished by what happened five years ago. So the ODI team were the soft underbelly of my enmity, a gateway drug which led me into the hard stuff. Because when the Ashes began a fortnight or so later, I still found myself not hating England. Found myself sucked into the narratives of the Edgbaston test. Found myself at the mercy of their fluctuating fortunes and having to admit to myself that I wanted them, not Australia, to prevail.

This persisted and consolidated itself through the course of the series. I was disappointed by their setbacks, pleased at their comebacks. Again, it was unconscious, and again, it wasn’t because of individual flashpoints. I didn’t warm to England because of good things the team did, because it wasn’t bad things the team itself had ever done which had put me off them in the first place. I had spent thirty years watching England lose and that had never made any difference then.

I categorically did not return to England because of Stokes and Headingley. But that match did have a significance. I spent the Saturday afternoon on parental duties at a splash park, but found myself compulsively checking my phone to monitor the Root-Denly partnership. I slipped back into my superstitious habits of old, such as deliberately not watching or checking for fear of triggering an England wicket.

When Stokes got England within fifty, I stopped looking at the score, for that specific reason, and just hoped my phone wouldn’t buzz with the dreaded wicket notification. When I caved in, checked, and saw just eight were needed, only then did I actually start watching again. Those reawakened neuroses, once more. A year ago I would have been enraged by England stealing an outrageous victory. But there I was, feeling the exact opposite. And at that moment, I knew that this was the way things were going to be. I had to give up the fight and accept that I wanted England to win again.

All of which is a bit like a Celtic fan waking up and thinking “You know what, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Rangers”. It was the reluctant acceptance of something I didn’t want and felt uncomfortable with. But the only alternative would be to force myself to hate England and pretend I still wanted them to lose, which even for me seemed a bit silly.

So what happened? I’ve already mentioned the stories, and the power of those. When the Tests began, the fact it was an Ashes series played a part. The history and heritage – the unique magic of the urn – proved seductive. More broadly, the sheer heft of my previous life as an England supporter exerted its gravitational pull. Perhaps it was inevitable that in the fullness of time that thirty years of good things would outweigh one year of very bad things.

The biggest factor, though, is that Alastair Cook has gone. That may sound petty and vindictive and bitter, but I don’t care. I would always hate England when he was in the side, captain or not. With Strauss also departed – for tragic reasons of course, but the fact remains that he left – virtually none of the culprits survive apart from Graves. The absence of Anderson also helped. Here was a new and relatively blameless generation.

Some things will never be as they once were. I can’t imagine supporting England in a patriotic way, if that makes sense. Supporting England purely because they’re England and I’m English and the other side happen to be from abroad. I still think of England as ‘they’ or ‘them’, not ‘we’ and ‘us’, and I doubt that will change.

I’ll never be remotely jingoistic about England, as I was before, or take pleasure in mocking and taunting their opponents, as I once did. Neither will I revel in an opponent’s failure or humiliation, or begrudge them success when deserved. I won’t hope that an opposition player will fail or embarrass themselves just for the sake of it. The last few years have taught me how ridiculous those attitudes really are. This summer, I enjoyed watching Josh Hazlewood bowl and admired Steve Smith for his achievements. In the past I would have loathed both those things.

I will never forget or accept what happened in 2014, because nothing has changed, or forgive those responsible, because they have no desire to be forgiven. That includes not just the administrators but also the large number of England supporters who displayed such ingratitude, ignorance and bigotry – and it was those “fans” who alienated me almost as much as anything else.

What I have done is something all my friends have told me to do for years, which is to suspend disbelief and separate, by a few degrees at least, the cricketers on the field from the governing body in whose name they play. Many splendid cricketing things have happened in England this year, and not one of them happened because of the ECB and how they operate. Whatever is good about English cricket is good despite them, not because of them.

And this is how I reconcile myself with a softening attitude to England. For five years I thought supporting England meant supporting the ECB. I saw it as an act of capitulation. I was wrong. It’s an act of defiance. I hated England because they’re the ECB’s team. I was wrong again. The ECB only claim it’s their team and to play along is to give them what they most want: ownership. And validation of their proprietorial sense of entitlement. They can degrade professional cricket, trash the fixture list, bully supporters, and lock cricket behind a paywall, but one thing they cannot do, however much the ECB crave it, is to steal the team or steal the game. They belong to everyone.

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Pushing Boundaries: Pavel Florin Interview

By Annie Chave

If you want an easy example of how free to air television can make a difference to the visibility of cricket then you don’t have to look much further than the incredible rise to fame of Romanian cricketer, Pavel Florin. He became an overnight internet sensation in July, when the European Cricket League was broadcast by the Sports Channel Network.  Florin’s Cluj Cricket Club were playing French side Drexel, and his unusual bowling action caught the eye of viewers around the world, provoking a deluge of mockery, which modulated into patronisation, and stayed there. That in itself isn’t surprising – in the social media world every keyboard warrior is a critic and an expert – but what was unusual was Florin’s reaction to this barrage. He showed a defiance that sprang from his genuine passion to improve his own game, and that passion has become so infectious that it has spread across the internet like a virus. He has been quoted as saying, “Maybe someone says my bowling is not beautiful or not effective, but I don’t care because I love cricket”, and he means it. Having spoken to him, I know he does.

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When I contacted Pavel, on the offchance that he would be willing to talk to me, his response was “anything is possible”. This, I was soon to discover, is his mantra, and appropriate as a sentiment if he is to achieve what he has set out to do; to teach his country “what cricket is”.

Speaking from his apartment in Romania, Pavel said that he’s become quite used to being asked both questions and his views on the game.  He remains both relaxed about and dismissive of his newly found fame. The non-stop messaging on his phone is ignored with a sang froid that comes from a genuine sense of detachment; he’s not bothered with his fame because the attention is largely irrelevant to the job he has to do. His much-publicised trip to England, where he was invited into the President’s Box at Lord’s and interviewed on Test Match Special, was “a great experience”, he told me, “but it doesn’t help cricket in Romania”. “Here, I’m alone, I need to show what cricket is.” He isn’t a celebrity in Romania – he’s a night-club bouncer and a sport junkie – but he’s taken on a mission, and luckily for the game worldwide, it’s all about cricket, and only cricket.

Pavel came late to the game, beginning at thirty-two when most careers are winding down. An obsessive sportsman, he had played American Football and – in a national league team – Futsal. Now, though, his interest in cricket is “a story that everyone knows”. “I saw it being played in the park, and asked to join in. I am big and they [the group of Indian cricketers] were small … I could hit it hard and they flattered me, telling me that I could go far and be captain of Romania. I liked the lie”.  He laughs, and admits that they chose the right person to engage and flatter because, like Hans Christian Anderson’s little match girl, he took the spark they offered him and lit all of his matches to make his dream come true.

Pavel joined his local team, and, for six years spent most of the time fielding because “they wouldn’t let me bowl”. It was his determination to improve that won his teammates over, and he became not only a bowler but President of his club. Now, at the positively veteran age of forty, he plays for the Romanian national team. “There are six cricket teams in Romania”, he tells me, but his club is composed of thirteen Indians, one Pakistani, one Englishman and him. Cricket remains very much a minority pursuit and hasn’t filtered down to his fellow countrymen and women yet. It’s similar in many European countries, where expats from more traditional cricketing countries make up a large proportion of most teams, but Romania is a somewhat extreme case. Pavel tells me that he knows of only ten Romanians who do play in the whole country. No wonder: “ it’s not easy”, he explains, “I have nowhere close to train, my ground is 500km away.” He takes this journey with his team three times a week just to practise. It is time consuming and financially draining too. “There is no sponsor”, Pavel says, “I have to pay for my kit, my equipment and all my travel. My team play twenty matches and there are around five international games”. It is easy to see that, to survive let alone to succeed, there must be a real commitment to the sport and an unparalleled drive.

It is when he pans his phone around his room that the huge gulf in the status of an ‘international cricketer’ in Romania and one in England is at its most evident. Piled around Pavel’s small apartment is a choice array of cricket equipment that he’s been sent by well-wishers. For him there’s no clubhouse containing the bats, pads and various items of kit, they fill his room. He has no one to care for them or to transport them for him. The gifts are precious to him though; there’s the promise of a future with every item he’s sent, and he is determined to make good use of them all.

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Pavel’s stardom saw him initially inundated with offers from those eager to capitalise on his fame, with “agents offering me advice on making money”, but “they weren’t interested in cricket”, he laments, “it’s the little people that make me famous, not the ones that want to make money and not the ones that make fun of my bowling and then don’t have time to help.  I’m not stupid; why do you think I bowl this way?” It’s a question I can’t answer, but his explanation is fascinating and shows a sophistication that he’s not been credited with. “I do it because people don’t hit sixes off me.”

I ask him why cricket, and he quickly responds “I love all sport”, but when I ask him why cricket his answer is considered and to the point, “Because sport is adrenaline-based, and in something like football there is no time to think, but in cricket you pause and make decisions.” This, he says, “is adrenaline-pumping”.

The Pavel Florin story is best read in a global context. He doesn’t care about either the accolades or the criticisms that have come his way. He’s not playing for the connoisseur, he’s playing for the love of cricket and it is that and that alone which drives him. “One day I want to be the President of the Cricket Federation”, he says, and it has to be said that he’s made a start towards achieving the unachievable. “I have plans to talk to the council about finding a ground to play cricket on”, he says. “I will make my country see cricket”. As a cricket-loving nation, we should surely be encouraging him because, if cricket is to grow, it needs to move beyond its existing boundaries, and encouraging interest in a nation like Romania thanks to Pavel Florin’s new found fame is an opportunity that should not be missed.

You can follow Annie on Twitter:  @AnnieChave

England vs Australia: 5th Test, Day Three

This is rather a strange Test match.  England are now hot favourites to square the series, barring a ridiculous Smith innings, which given his performances this summer only a fool would rule out entirely.  With the Ashes gone, the question of this Test being a dead rubber or otherwise is a fair one, but it is somewhat surprising to see how shoddy Australia’s performance has been at the Oval, given the series wasn’t won.  Catches dropped in the first innings, some poor bowling in the second, and while England’s problems haven’t gone away, they’ve played with by far the greater intensity of the two teams in this one.

Joe Denly was the star of the day, falling 6 runs short of a maiden Test century – his disappointment at getting out plain for all to see.  He has been perhaps the most interesting of the players tried in the England top order; he certainly hasn’t been a runaway success, but he has delivered more and more as the series has gone on. His technical flaws outside off stump were beautifully highlighted by Ricky Ponting, but he has been flashing at the wider ball on fewer occasions and seen his run returns improve as a result.  At 33 years old, he has set an example to some of the other – more experienced – players about how to learn and improve, rather than just repeating the same errors innings after innings.  He had some luck – being dropped last evening and getting away with an lbw not reviewed by Australia – their dire DRS performance continuing – but he earned it.  In the latter part of his career, he may not be considered a long term enough player for winter selection, but short term selections to fulfill a role – perhaps at 3 allowing Root to drop a place – aren’t necessarily bad in themselves.  Either way, his innings at Headingley gave England an outside chance of a win, his innings here has put England in a position where they should win.  It’s more than most in the top order have done.

Stokes and Buttler provided the most support.  The former looks to be the best batsman in the England side at present, given Root’s technical struggles.  Stokes has an uncomplicated technique, allied with ferocious power, and a concentration level that perhaps might not be expected of such a destructive player.  But while the sixes were still hit, this was a disciplined, focused innings in partnership with Denly that took England from a position of mild peril to one of strength.

Buttler capitalised on the foundation with a breezy knock taking England’s lead past 300.  He’s a funny one, he’s not had a good series overall, but has batted relatively well in the last couple of innings.  His defenders advance the case that to see him at his best the side need to lay a platform for him so he can play his shots, and while that’s probably true, if he’s in the side as a batsman then his job is to bat in all circumstances, not just to press an advantage home, or he’s simply a luxury player in a team that doesn’t have that freedom to select one.

Cummins and Hazlewood were again the pick of the Australian attack, without getting the rewards due, but Mitchell Marsh, given his first innings efforts, was curiously underbowled, and got more movement through the air than most others when he did.  Siddle picked up a couple of wickets, but was highly expensive, while Lyon was targeted early on by Denly and proved unable to fully contain the England batsmen thereafter.

As for tomorrow, England have a couple of wickets in hand, but are unlikely to add too many more runs, meaning Australia are likely to be chasing around 400 on a surface that’s still good, but offering a little more turn for Leach to exploit.  It is a measure of the fear Smith has instilled that England aren’t considered nailed on to win this.  Should they do so – and they really ought to, a 2-2 draw would represent something of a success in many ways – not in pure terms, but given how they’ve played.  Failing to regain the Ashes, certainly, but for much of this series the England batting order has been a mess, to the point that dropping a batsman for a bowling all rounder represented a strengthening of the order.  It would also be something of a failure for Australia not to win the series.  They’ve been the better team in three of the matches, denied by a freak performance from Ben Stokes.  Retaining the Ashes might have been the primary aim, but not winning a series that they really should do is falling rather short.

Lastly, the mandated number of overs to be bowled yet again weren’t.  Only two short today, but the running total for this Test now stands at 17 unbowled due to tardiness.  It remains unacceptable.

England vs Australia: 4th Test, Day Three: Snakes and Ladders

It was all going so well.  Surprisingly well, albeit if two batsmen in the top order were going to get set, settled and score runs, Burns and Root were by far the most likely.

Overton was an early loss, but while having him hang around would have been a bonus, he’d done his job last night.  The bulk of the day was all about the partnership of 141 which, if not comfortable, certainly looked in relative control.  It wasn’t easy, Cummins in particular bowled with pace, aggression and plenty of skill, while having very little luck.  But the two batsmen took England to the point where wild fantasies dreamed of a total decent enough to take England to some kind of position of safety.  Should have known better.

If nothing else, it demonstrated for the second innings in a row a greater level of batting responsibility from the England batsmen since the shambles of Headingley first time around.  To that extent, credit is due to them, for if 200-5 at the early close forced by bad light is some way of being a triumph -it did at least offer a relatively responsible example of batting at Test match pace, against challenging bowling.  It is to praise without context, for the times when England might be expected to respond to a big total by posting one of their own are receding rapidly into the past.

The late flurry of wickets, with both set batsmen departing and Roy joining them back in the pavilion wrecked a lot of the hard work that had been done, and with just 6 overs to go until the new ball, the possibility of a full blown collapse in the morning is distinct, but England’s first target of avoiding the follow on, which will take some time out of the game at least, is less than 100 away, and failing to get at least that far would represent a failure and a let down of the batting work done today.

Having been utterly dire yesterday, the problem England have is that they can’t afford a bad half hour for the rest of the Test, and that’s exactly what they suffered late after tea.  No one threw their wicket away, Burns and Root were both got out by excellent bowling, while Jason Roy had looked vastly more at home in the middle order than opening, before being undone by his technical looseness against a high quality Test match bowler. Perhaps if he’d been asked to bat in the middle order from the beginning, he’d have had a chance of getting into Test cricket, but his defence looks far too loose to allow him to stay in long enough to capitalise on his undoubted stroke making skill.  Even so, that he might never have been good enough to hold down a place is one thing, it is another altogether to select him as an opener which undermined fatally any chance he might have ever had.  There’s no disgrace in getting out to the ball that did for him, but how he got out, utterly beaten with stumps splayed everywhere wasn’t a good look.

Root will be picked up again for failing to convert a fifty into a hundred, but both he and Burns probably deserve credit for how they batted today more than criticism for not going on.  Losing them together was a huge blow for England’s chances of an escape, but the pressure had been increasing for some time, with Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon turning the screw ever tighter.  For once, England’s predicament is less about the batsmen, though the flaws inherent in the order make handling facing a big total more daunting than it was and than it should be.

It makes tomorrow a designated Big Day for the destination of the Ashes – England are going to have to bat out of their skins to get remotely close to Australia’s total, and bat long enough to take sufficient time out of the game to put pressure on Australia to try to force the win.  But it’s hard to see England having to bat less than a day second time around at minimum in order to get a draw, and by the time day five rolls around, on a surface that’s taking ever increasing amounts of spin.  Rain and bad light might yet intervene, and provide England with a salvation that they will scarcely deserve, for although they are battling hard, and doing about as much as might be expected of them with the bat, they are looking a doomed team.  The performance of Smith has been the difference between the sides, and England are wilting in the face of the repeated pummeling.  Bairstow and Stokes are still at the crease, and given the latter’s preposterous predilection for pulling off the impossible, all hope is not lost, but it’s not just uphill from here, it’s getting steeper by the minute.

Late on today came the announcement of the sad death of Abdul Qadir, swiftly followed in the rugby world by that of Chester Williams.  Two sportsmen who were iconic in different ways, the latter an icon of the rainbow nation that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the former for carrying the banner of leg spin bowling at a time in the 1980s when it appeared virtually extinct, especially in England.  Shane Warne a decade later would gain the plaudits for being truly extraordinary, but for a certain age group, Abdul Qadir was leg spin bowling – a man who would demonstrate something that was sufficiently rare and exotic as to send a thrill through the observer in an age where pace bowling dominated.   His record is a fine one, but his impact around the cricketing world can scarcely be underestimated.

 

England vs Australia: 4th Test Preview

Yesterday’s preview that wasn’t a preview rather removed anything that’s not a preview from this preview.  Or something.

Anyway, here we are, 1-1 in the series, a genuinely epic conclusion to the last Test match and everything to play for. England have replaced Woakes with Craig Overton, continuing the glorious English tradition of making a bowler pay the price for the failures of the batsmen to score enough runs.  Woakes was used sufficiently sparingly in the last couple of Tests to cause speculation about him having an injury.  That England insist he’s fit rather makes it worse – as it means Root didn’t bowl him through choice.  Overton is clearly intended to come in and be the workhorse, which is all very well as long as he keeps it tight and looks mildly threatening sufficiently to allow Broad and Archer to not be ground into the dirt.  Nice plan, let’s see if it happens.

The other change England are making is to swap the positions of Denly and Roy, a tacit admission that despite the insistence that being a white ball opening batsman is sufficient preparation and similarity of role for doing so in Test cricket, they’ve got it wrong.  Who could possibly have seen that coming?  Roy has plenty of talent, that much isn’t in doubt, but a refusal on the part of the selectors to accept the differences in the roles gave him little chance of succeeding.  Whether he has the technique to bat at four is equally in doubt, but England’s insistence on defining attacking cricket as being able to smack the ball around in a limited overs contest means that short of an open admission that the selection was entirely wrong, this was likely the only change they could make.  It looks a touch more stable at the top, albeit it now places Denly at a disadvantage, but his innings at Headingley did at least show he was more likely to last the first five overs than Roy.  Denly’s innings in Leeds was needed for his own sake, and while he likely isn’t quite good enough for Test level (few are) he is at least approaching his innings with a desire to occupy the crease, something in perilously short supply in the England order

Australia have responded to their bowlers failure to defend 359 by dropping a batsman, which would be rather more amusing were it not for being an obvious necessity in order to bring the returning Smith back into the batting order.  Khawaja is the unlucky one, and in his case it might be that he really is unlucky.  He’s not shone this series, but nor has he been a particular failure either – he’s certainly looked the best of the top three to date – Australia’s reluctance to drop Marcus Harris after one game being the primary reason for sitting him out of this one.  Marnus Labuschagne has taken his chance expertly enough, but there’s something a little strange about making Khawaja captain for the tour match and then dropping him for the Test.

Pattinson is rested for the fourth Test, presumably for Peter Siddle to return.  Australia are in the pleasant position of having sufficient stocks of fast bowlers that Mitchell Starc still hasn’t appeared in the series, and few of the journalists are suggesting he will in this one.  Maybe a surprise will happen.

Smith’s return does set up the prospect of he and Archer renewing hostilities, and there’s little doubt that England will look to target him with the short ball utilising Archer’s extra pace.  Smith would be less than human if he weren’t a little apprehensive about that, but the bigger danger for England is in over-doing a tactic and forgetting that a good ball is a good ball, whoever it is bowled at.  It will still be pure theatre when they face off against each other and he will be more than aware of what is coming.

As for the way the game will unfold, the return of Smith is undoubtedly a boost for Australia, but other than that not a huge amount has changed in terms of the weaknesses of both sides.  The top orders still look exceptionally brittle, the middle orders still get exposed too early, the bowling attacks still look to be on top.  But England are level in this series because of a completely outrageous performance from one player.  They have looked second best in the series for the majority of the time, and relying on Stokes to pull off the ridiculous doesn’t seem a strategy likely to yield consistent results.  Australia will certainly be wary of a player who can do that kind of thing, no matter what the match position, it’s just that it’s asking far too much for him to do it on more than an occasional basis.

Australia should be the favourites, both for this match and for the series, based on what we’ve seen so far.  But England can certainly play better than they have, even with a flawed batting line up.  They’ve had a lifeline, a hail Mary of a win – whether they can use that to raise their game collectively is a different matter.  But a finish as good as the last one, that would indeed be welcome.  Already, as is the wont of those who delight in the clickbait, some are suggesting this series could be as good as 2005.  To put it mildly, the last two Tests would have to be extraordinary for that to be the case, even discounting the standard of the two sides in this one compared to 14 years ago.  It’s silly, it’s always silly.  But it carries on, for that is the journalistic world in which we now live.  A decent game, that goes the distance, that’ll do here.

Comments, as ever, below.

Ashes 3rd Test, Day Four: Utterly Ridiculous

Where do you even begin?  Perhaps with stating, no, insisting with the re-affirmation of what cricket fans have known all along – that Test cricket is the absolute pinnacle of the sport.  That the extraordinary World Cup win earlier this year had drama aplenty, but there is nothing, not in one day cricket, not in T20 cricket, and definitely not in Hundred cricket that can begin to match the slow burn intensity, the ever increasing pressure of a Test match.

The heart is pounding not in the final over, but an hour, two hours before the eventual finish.  The heart of the players, the heart of the spectators – in the ground, watching in England or Australia, listening to the radio.  Even more than that, it would have been for those watching in Chittagong or Colombo, for this is what this game can do.  Where every ball can bring a decisive swing, where all outcomes, even the vanishingly unlikely ones suddenly loom into view.

The endless sub-plots, a wicketkeeper as captain (and it is persistently understated just how hard a combination that is) losing the plot along with his team under the relentless pressure of a game already seemingly won beginning to get away from them.   The name Test cricket implies the scrutiny of not just ability, but the mental side of the game.  Keith Miller’s famous quote about real pressure being a Messerschmitt up his arse speaks to another world and a reminder of the realities outside a sporting contest, but it remains a truth that the tension of a Test match is unlike almost anything else, the gladiatorial individual contest in a team environment.

Stokes being an all rounder will always invite comparisons to the greats, and in England’s case Botham particularly.  He might be a different type of player in so many respects and ability wise it remains a pointless debate, but in the sense that he can seize an occasion, they are one of a kind.

There were of course plenty of moments where Australia could have won it.  Marcus Harris dropped Stokes in a manner eerily reminiscent of Simon Jones at Edgbaston in 2005, Cummins wasted Australia’s last review with a ludicrous lbw appeal that came back to bite them the following over when Stokes was given not out to Lyon with one showing three reds on DRS.  And right at the end, Australia missed a run out chance that was anything but difficult – the frantic moments of a game coming to a climax.

Ben Stokes’ hitting was beyond extraordinary.  The switch hit into the western terrace for six will live long in the memory, so bold the thinking, so exquisite the execution.  Length balls were disappearing over long off and deep midwicket, shorter ones smashed back past the bowler for four.  Jack Leach was the calmest man in the ground, defending his wicket and eventually scoring the priceless run to draw the scores level.

The earlier innings from Root and Denly gained in stature purely because of the outcome of the game, the problems in England’s cricket will be put aside for another day.  They shouldn’t be, for one freak innings from a player who knows how to seize the moment better than almost any does not alter the truth of the fragility of the English game.  The ECB will breathe a sigh of relief, that the focus will not be on them for another day.  But England will collapse again, the weaknesses Australia are exposing will come to the fore once more.  But just for today, just for now, it’s ok to bask in the brilliance of a player, and of the game of cricket.

It has to be said some have succumbed to the Greatest of All Time trap – emphasising why this remains such a stupid line to go down, because they’ve said it before.  And they’ve said it before so often.  It’s meaningless.  This was special, it doesn’t need to be ranked.

In the aftermath of the game, the Sky pundits talked about how this would inspire kids to play in the park, pretending to be Ben Stokes.  It hasn’t changed the invisibility of the sport, and if Stokes has a recognition factor, it’s because the World Cup final was available for all to see, while this final day remained a niche viewing opportunity.  Cricket needs exposure because a Ben Stokes can reach the parts hardly anyone can, as long as they see him.  This was something special, if only the nation truly had been gripped.

Somehow, ludicrously, this series is 1-1.  And now I need a lie down.

3rd Ashes Test, Day Two: Same Old England

Inasmuch as England are in this match at all – and their chances are very slim indeed – is down to the bowlers, who fought manfully to undo the damage caused by yet another abject batting performance and try to drag their side back into contention.  Stokes in particular, in a marathon spell that yielded two wickets and deserved far more epitomised a bowling attack attempting to pull off the impossible given what happened in the morning.  It isn’t going to happen, not without a batting display entirely out of kilter with everything that’s gone on recently, but if nothing else it showed heart and desire.

England have batted 13 times this year, and of those 13 innings they have been skittled out for under 100 on three occasions.  On a further three it’s been under 200, while only three totals have been over 300 and none have reached 400.  So when hands are thrown up in horror just because it’s happened against Australia, and because the Ashes are probably gone about as early as was possible this series, let’s not pretend for a moment that anyone should be surprised at this.  It’s routine, it’s normal, it’s exactly this England side.

When assorted bloggers, tweeters, fans, hell, people down the pub have been able to spot what was coming, it remains extraordinary to witness the wilful blindness from those who use their positions of influence to talk up their awareness of the game while ignoring the bleeding obvious staring every single cricket follower full in the face.  There have been a few, a a noble few, who have pointed out at every stage what the direction of travel was going to lead to, but so many have simply existed in the moment, suggested the deckchairs be moved around a bit, and reacted with amazement at the latest capitulation of a team comprised of white ball specialists and players out of position.

The Hundred is merely the culmination of a deliberate strategy to focus on short form cricket, at the expenses of the longer game.  It hasn’t even begun, it can’t be said to be responsible, but it is a symptom rather than a cause.  The county championship has been curtailed and shunted to the margins of the season where batting technique is compromised – and let’s not put aside the other likely impacts of that to come in the bowling department – all the while pushing the case that shorter is better.  Fine.  The aim was to win the World Cup, and that’s been achieved, albeit with a plan to immediately scrap 50 over cricket as a top level domestic competition to make way for a 16.4 over thrash-fest.  But the cost of that single minded pursuit of limited over cricket has been the Test game, the one that the ECB repeatedly state to be the most important form while doing everything in their power to undermine it.

There is no point being angry at today’s abject batting capitulation.  The damage has been done over several years, deliberately and pointedly, in favour of enriching the game at the top at the expense of the rest of it.  Blame the England batting line up for their performance today, don’t blame them for the structure that got us here.  Half of them are batting out of position, or being asked to do something to which they aren’t suited.  Some are simply not good enough but have been selected anyway by a chief selector who was happy enough to talk to the media as a leftfield cricketing guru (despite reservations even at the time even when things initially came off) but has skulked away into a corner the moment the strategy of ignoring 150 years of cricketing history in favour of funkiness began to unravel.

For that might just be the worst part of the way this England team is set up.  It’s not just that the batting isn’t good enough, it’s that they aren’t even being given the chance to make the most of what they have.  An opener in white ball cricket who has barely done the job in 4 day cricket, let alone Tests is dumped into the team (with the strong and vocal support of so many of the cricketing press and pundits) right at the top of the order and unsurprisingly fails to demonstrate the kind of technique required to do the job.  It isn’t just that Roy might never be good enough to be a Test cricketer, for that is a question to be answered by playing him, it’s that he isn’t even being given the chance to prove whether he is or not.  He’s a middle order player, and one who only may be of the standard required.  Who would ever have suggested that someone like Kevin Pietersen, a much superior player, could go and open?  The idea is preposterous.

Root was pushed to bat at three by a baying mob who felt the only response to the failures of others was to compromise England’s best player and then be shocked at the outcome.  Root has a reasonable enough record at four, but he was an outstanding one at five.  He’s another middle order player, a stroke maker.  The captaincy may well be having an effect on him, but probably not as much as the prospect of having to carry the batting order doing a job for which he’s not best suited, which was known perfectly well back when he opened the batting and was moved down because he wasn’t that good at it.

Now, in this England team, batting at one or five doesn’t amount to a whole lot of difference given how they routinely lose early wickets, but there’s the perfect storm of choosing square pegs for round holes, multiplying the errors and causing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That England have plenty of middle order players is no surprise – they’re geared that way because of that same focus on white ball cricket.  Some of them are decent players in Test cricket too, but they can’t overcome the fundamental problems in the top order.  Jos Buttler might be considered a luxury player at 7, but he’s one that might well be highly effective if he had a decent platform when he came into bat rather than constantly reaching the crease with the team in crisis.  He’s done reasonably in an order where reasonably amounts to a success.  He’s just another unable to show his best because of the wider so called strategy.

There are some players around whose game is geared towards the longer game – Sibley and Crawley are the two mentioned most often – but they aren’t the salvation of a structure that actively works against developing such players in the first place, and which is geared ever more to accelerating that trend.  Even the obvious Test cricketers like Root have been working hardest to develop their T20 game as the sport heads further in that direction.

This is a global phenomenon, and Australia’s batting order shorn of Smith hardly looks one to terrify bowlers of past and present, but only the ECB have gone quite so far down the direction of deliberately undermining the Test team in pursuit of the short term cash provided by T20 and now the Hundred.  Yet they clearly have produced players with a greater Test match mentality than England have, and Labuschagne is a perfect example, having ground out another invaluable knock today.

The bowlers on both sides in this match have performed well.  There was a period yesterday when England’s were profligate and even downright poor, but overall they have struggled manfully with trying to rescue a team that is holed below the waterline.  Likewise, while Australia have a very fine bowling attack, for England to be bowled out (again) in well under 30 overs was unacceptable however disciplined their opponents were.

It’s not about individual performances at this stage, it’s not about the effort that is being put in.  Ben Stokes bowled as fine a spell today as could be wished for, and with the bat shows every sign of being determined to be as good a player as he can.  But he’s fighting an uphill battle alongside all of the individuals in a team that has no idea how to approach the Test game and a governing body that barely pays lip service to the concept of generating players who can perform in it.  The sound is of chickens coming home to roost, of a structure that has been intended to create precisely the kinds of batsmen that we now have.

Two years ago Tom Harrison unveiled the ECB strategy by stating that England under Root were to play a positive, exciting “brand of cricket” even if they lost a game or two.  The rationale stated was that this was how to excite the young and get them into the game of cricket.  It’s the same justification all the time from an organisation that never questions its own genius, and responds to every setback or criticism by insisting the answer is more of what they are already doing.

The England Test team is the jewel in the crown of English cricket not because of old farts harking back to a golden age of cricket, but because it is the form of the game that drives the most interest from those who love the game, and which still garners by far the most attention.  A weak England side getting hammered by Australia is somewhat unlikely to raise the level of interest in the sport, no matter how many domestic competitions are created.

None of this absolves the England batsmen for their shots this morning.  Throwing their hands at the ball outside of off stump is reckless in any Test match, but that it is anything but the first time in recent matches that they’ve done so is why it can’t be approached as though it were a one off team aberration.  It’s systemic, and while the entire batting order bar, arguably, Root were out to balls they didn’t need to play at, this remains a consistent mindset in the England team.  If it were as simple as them not doing it next time, it wouldn’t keep happening.

England are fighting hard, but they are a team with one hand tied behind their back and with their bootlaces tied together by those tasked to help them make the most of themselves.  It isn’t about England not being a particularly good side, for God knows any England fan in middle age has seen that on plenty of occasions.  It is that the entire ethos of the sport at the highest level in this country seems determined to make it even worse.

Perhaps it will be that a heavy home defeat against Australia will be the factor that forces action – if not a change in direction, a moderation of the current approach.  But successive 5-0 and 4-0 away defeats didn’t do that, and with a World Cup in the bag this summer, the ECB will continue to slap themselves on the back and insist all is going marvellously.  Perhaps it might even be that they are right, and that in a decade Test cricket, played over 4 days, will merely be a hangover from an older generation’s desire to wish the game hadn’t changed.  But those who love cricket, those who really care about the game, almost universally think of Tests as the apogee, the summit of the game, and so do the players.  Going all out to wreck it in favour of the filthy lucre provided by the shortest versions of the game are more likely to drive it to that end irrespective of desires or wants from players or fans.

England’s batting was abysmal yes, but look behind the actions of today for why it is far from a one off.

And lastly, 98 overs were scheduled today, 87 including the two for change of innings were bowled.  It’s getting worse.

 

 

England vs Australia: 2nd Test, Day Four

For England to win this match, they probably need to be bowled out sometime around the middle of tomorrow, for the chances of them declaring with any kind of reasonable target are minimal, particularly given their position 1-0 down in the series.  It is fortunate then that the batting line up did their part to remove the possibility of a tricky decision by (yet again) getting out early.  So much has been written about the flaws in the order, and the second innings was little more than a rinse and repeat of the first – Roy getting out early, Burns looking the part as a Test opener without going on to a big score, Root struggling at number three, Denly getting in and getting out again.

Buttler and Stokes arrested the slide batting to the close, but with England just 104 ahead and with only six wickets in hand, posting a challenging score is going to be difficult. As to what would offer a passable chance of victory, anything around 200 would be likely to be less than easy to chase, because although it is really only a two and a bit day pitch, there will be the added pressure of a run chase. Yet it is by no means certain England will get there, it is going to require some support from the tail, and at least one of the remaining batsmen to make a significant contribution.  If more than one does so, then the chances of a definitive result will start to recede, but these are wild fantasies given the batting performances so far, even if the lower order have done well.

Undoubtedly the biggest talking point of the day was Jofra Archer’s duel with Steve Smith.  It was a riveting, thrilling passage of play, with Archer’s speed rising into the mid-nineties and Smith for the first time look genuinely discomfited.  First the blow on the arm, which eventually resulted in Smith going for an X-Ray (fortunately showing no break), and then a sickening blow to the neck which left Smith on the ground, to retire hurt, and then to return for a frantic brief stay at the crease.

There are so many issues arising from this – firstly that Test cricket is testing, and that a fast bowler intimidating batsmen is entirely part of the game, and those who complained about that part are simply not worth listening to.  The next element was the reaction of Jofra Archer, based on he and Jos Buttler smiling and sharing a conversation a good five minutes after the event, but while Smith was still being treated some distance away.  Archer’s reaction was deemed in some quarters to be showing a lack of care, a lack of interest in the welfare of a player hurt.  This is unfair and presuming knowledge of the inner thoughts of another person.  It’s also something to which I can relate to some degree.  Some years back I hit a straight drive back which hit my batting partner (who wasn’t wearing a helmet) flush on the side of the head.  I can recall my reaction to it all too well – yes, absolutely I went to see if he was OK, but I was also utterly bewildered and confused by it.  That initial reaction was not so much to rush to his aid (as it undoubtedly is when a bystander rather than the perpetrator), but a confused one, denial that it had happened, and absolutely nervous laughter and attempts at humour.  It is entirely normal to be so uncertain in terms of reaction, and not to behave in the way that those on the outside might imagine someone should.  The mind in those circumstances is a maelstrom of conflicting thoughts and emotions.

As my batting partner left the field to go to hospital, I carried on batting, entirely on auto-pilot.  I lasted about 5 minutes before the dawning terror of what had just happened came through, and at that point the cricket field was the last place I wanted to be.  I spent much of the rest of the afternoon with a rising sense of concern and became progressively more upset.  I have no idea what was going through Jofra Archer’s thoughts, but I do absolutely recall my own state of mind when something not too dissimilar happened, and I am not prepared to act as judge and jury because someone didn’t react in the way that the court of social media wanted them to do in the moments following a genuinely sickening incident.

The ground did go completely silent as it happened, as grounds do when there is shock and concern, but when Smith came back on to resume his innings, a largely supportive crowd gave a standing ovation, but the ground also contained a few who booed.  Those who did are idiots, but it doesn’t take very many to do it out of a crowd of 30,000 to be extremely noticeable.  And while they might be idiots for doing that, there have been enough instances in Australia, England and elsewhere of related fools to forestall any attempt at claiming the moral high ground by anyone.  That’s not to defend in any way those at Lord’s who booed a brave and fine batsman, it is to acknowledge that morons exist everywhere, and selective outrage either in England or Australia when some in the other country are guilty of it remains endlessly tiresome.  More than that, it operates as a feedback loop, and doubtless there will be some in Australia next time around using that as an excuse to berate English players.  And so it carries on, with some pretending they are the good guys and the opposition supporters are not, with no grounds whatever for such a view.

Those present at the ground reacted with some surprise at the strong reaction on social media, suggesting that the boos that were clearly audible through the TV speakers probably were not indicative of a wider response within the ground.  Either way, it was unedifying and didn’t reflect well on those who did it.

As a passage of play though, it was utterly beguiling.  And there is the additional point about what it means for the remainder of this series.  Extreme pace makes any batsman, no matter how good, uncomfortable.  Smith has looked to be playing on a 25 yard pitch thus far this series, so much time has he had to play the ball.  For the very first time, he looked in trouble, and that means that he’s going to get a whole heap more of the same for the remainder of the series, which is no different at all to the way England players have been targeted by short pitched bowling by Australia, and something Smith himself will both expect and be up for the challenge set.  It means it’s going to be exciting, and intimidatory, and entirely within both the laws and the spirit of the game, just as it was the other way around.  When England were being bounced out by the likes of Mitchell Johnson, the frustration was that England didn’t play it better, not that there was anything at all wrong with the tactic.  In Archer, England have a weapon of not just pace, but extreme pace.  Given the number of overs he bowled this innings, the danger is in him being overbowled rather than used as a strike bowler, and his 25 overs in Australia’s innings ought to be a concern.

Smith aside, England had chipped away at the Australian batting order all day.  Archer was explosive, but Broad had been his usual efficient self with the ball, and collected four well deserved wickets.  Broad continues to be somewhat underappreciated, despite his 450 Test wickets, but his enforced rest over the winter gave him the opportunity to work properly on his bowling, and the results seem fruitful.  At 33, and without quite the athletic physique of his long term opening partner James Anderson, he may not be too far from the end, but his attempt to prolong his career reflects well on him – even his batting appears a touch more confident than it has been, albeit a long way from the days when he was verging on being a genuine all rounder.

Tomorrow might be a depressing day, a dull day or a thrilling day.  And the 98 overs scheduled will have to be bowled, which will make a delightful change.

Same old: England vs Australia, 2nd Test, Day Two

To the surprise of no one, England posted a modest total having been put into bat by Australia.  In itself, being inserted might have been a slight surprise, in that both teams said they would have bowled first, and perhaps reflects more on the fragility of both batting orders than the conditions in which this match is being played, for there appears nothing wrong with the pitch.

Bowling a side out on day one having put them in is always the hope, if not the expectation, and even if the surface offered some movement, it wasn’t one to cause palpatations in a decent Test batting line up.  The trouble is that England don’t have a decent batting line up, and haven’t done for some years.

Sure, there were some mildly promising knocks – Burns looks at home in Test cricket now, with the mental aptitude for the scrap.  His innings of 53 wasn’t without luck, being dropped twice before a superb catch from Bancroft at short leg sent him on his way, but he did at least look prepared to bat multiple sessions.  At this stage in his career it would be overly harsh to expect him to be the bedrock of the England batting order, but the reality is that if it’s not him, who else would it be?  Roy went in the first over, another poor shot from a player being asked to do a job to which he isn’t suited.  Roy has talent in abundance, but he’s not a Test opener – it’s not just that his technique isn’t particularly tight against the new ball, it’s that his mentality at the crease is that of a one day opener.  There’s nothing particularly outrageous in having someone who looks to attack at the top of the order, Warner and Sehwag made successful careers out of it, but while their own techniques have been questioned at times, their shot selection tended to be far better than Roy’s at this stage of his career.  He’s been given a poisoned chalice, made particularly acute by having him opening while Denly bats at four.  Whether Denly is worth his place in the team is a separate question, but he’s surely better equipped to see off the new ball than Roy is.  It’s a confused batting line up that doesn’t get the most from the talent at its disposal.

Root came and went, and with him disappeared England’s chance of a significant total.  Root attracts much comment because he is so far and away England’s best batsman, but he’s shown little sign that he’s more comfortable at number three this time than he was the last attempt at pushing him there.  It’s easy enough to say that anyone who can bat at four can bat at three, but they are slightly different roles, and some players are simply more comfortable in one position than they are the other.  Compromising the best player to compensate for the shortcomings elsewhere is a strange way of getting the most out of the batting order.

Buttler and Stokes didn’t last too long, and while the latter has plenty in the bank and looks the most technically adept player in the side, Buttler is struggling.  Again, this is only partly a matter about him, for Buttler coming in at 250-3 – or even 180-3 in this side – is a slightly different prospect to him coming in at 92-3 with the pressure on.  It’s just not really his game, and highlights the confused thinking concerning what is being attempted.  It’s not to say that he shouldn’t be able to adapt, but it is to point out that England are hardly likely to see the best of him when he’s permanently coming in in a crisis.

At 138-6 the writing was on the wall – that Australia recovered from an even worse position in the first Test is neither here nor there – but England did recover to some extent.  Bairstow often looks freed by having to bat with the tail, compiling a well made fifty thanks to sterling support (again) from Woakes in particular.   Australia reverted to the short bowling tactic, which worked well enough, for England do seem peculiarly vulnerable to short pitched bowling.  Bairstow was the last man out, trying to get some runs against Lyon with just Leach for company.  He got some criticism for his dismissal, but trying to hit fours in those circumstances is surely what he’s meant to do – fiddling around with a single at the end of the over won’t take anyone very far.  Execution certainly can be questioned, but runs were needed, he was trying to get them.  Blaming him for being the tenth wicket to fall seems harsh, irrespective of Leach’s last innings at Lord’s.

Hazlewood and Cummins were the pick of the Australian attack, bowling with pace and accuracy, but again England didn’t make them work overly hard for their wickets.  Siddle had two straightforward catches dropped off him – enough to drive him to a burger this evening – while Lyon extracted significant spin considering it is a first day pitch.

If 258 doesn’t remotely look a par score, it does look a par score for this England team.  They simply don’t have the batting currently to expect much more, and tend to be reliant on the lower order even to get them to that kind of total.  And scores in the 200s don’t win many Test matches, unless the bowlers do something special.

Broad did his best to do exactly that, removing Warner for the third time in three innings.  Warner looks somewhat all over the place with his batting presently, head falling over and bat coming down at an angle.  Smith’s preposterous return to Test cricket has made it look as though a year out shouldn’t have an effect, but both he and Bancroft look rather out of sorts, and it’s understandable.

Archer opened the bowling with Broad, and certainly showed pace, regularly clocking over 90mph.  He had the crowd with him too, for little in cricket is quite so box office as a genuinely quick bowler in a Test match.  Whether that is converted into wickets is, naturally, the big question, but he does have all the attributes.  It is to be hoped he is used in short spells as a strike bowler rather than ground into the dirt as a stock performer.

The last hour of play England did look dangerous, suggesting that they are by no means out of this match.  But they are once again reliant on their bowlers dragging them out of the mire, something they do reasonably often, but cannot do all the time.  It remains to be seen if they can perform the miracle tomorrow, but with this England batting order, a lead of 100 is needed before even a modicum of confidence is there that England can press for a win.

As the saying goes, the first session tomorrow is crucial.  Because it is.

Finally, the day finished five overs short.  This is a constant factor, but if the authorities care little normally, to do nothing about it when an entire day has already been lost to the weather is nothing other than abrogation of responsibility both to the spectator and the game itself.  We’ve lost 58 overs already this Test match.  Losing five more through tardiness is beyond careless.

 

 

 

England vs Australia: 2nd Test, Day Two (ish)

After yesterday’s washout, we should get underway today at last.  The match is reduced to four days, with the follow on target down to 150, and with 98 overs scheduled for each of the remaining days.  Obviously, in terms of the latter, they won’t get 98 overs in, but that’s de rigeur these days, and no one cares about it anyway, but even so if the weather stays fair then there is a reasonable chance of a result.

England made it pretty clear yesterday that Jofra Archer was going to play, and while they could always change their minds, there’s no reason to assume they will.  Pattinson is certainly out, rested, for Australia, while Hazlewood replaces Starc.

Other than that, it’s pretty much as you were – England are fretting about how to get rid of Steve Smith, who has moved from world class batsmen to batting God in the space of a Test, and will doubtless provoke wild celebrations just by showing signs of human weakness at any point.  The two batting orders still look fragile, the two bowling attacks still look like they might run through the opposition.  Australia have the upper hand largely because of Smith, but there is no reason at all England can’t skittle their visitors – the problem is the lack of confidence in the England batting order taking advantage of it.

There was some talk in the media about replacing Denly with Curran, drawing a furious response from Nasser Hussain about what that implies about the England batting order.  He was right too, either England choose batsmen or not, and selecting a bowling all rounder on the basis of more runs would be a savage indictment on the selection process.  Yet the wider issue is that even the suggestion of it already is that savage indictment – the possibility that an all rounder might contribute more to the run scoring than a selected batsman.  And that it might well be true.

Let’s hope we have a full day’s play today, not least for those who have paid the £150 a ticket for their inadequate seating and the privilege of seeing on social media how the chosen people get to enjoy the dining options.

Comments as always below.