England vs India: 4th Test, Day 2 – Hanging on the telephone

An abiding memory of this Test, for occasionally they happen, will be the increasing irritation within the household with the fall of every wicket, English or Indian. Perhaps this is not how most will see what has unfolded over the first two days of a match that has threatened to go at fast forward, but then not everyone lives with someone who has a ticket for day four. In the same way I recall a drive up to Edgbaston in 2015 listening to day two shouting at the radio as to whether any Australian, any Australian at all, could bloody bat. As it turned out, Mitchell Starc and Peter Neville could, somewhat, so we did get some play to watch. Still, with these two teams, hoping for a full fourth day is always going to be a bit of a gamble, and there remains the distinct possibiluty that tomorrow could see the game done and dusted. And there will be sulking if so, but the good news is that the pitch appears to be becoming easier to bat on rather than harder, certainly judging by fewer wickets falling today.

England did reasonably well with the bat, pleasingly so given the lack of any contribution from Joe Root this time around. Ollie Pope was the top scorer, batting fluently and with purpose, to the point that his dismissal, dragging one on to his stumps was a real surprise. Of all the more recent England batsmen, he is the one that looks most at home – when he’s going well. Or to put it another way, his trials and tribulations leading to him being dropped were perhaps the most disappointing, because his batting envelope looks a lot larger than many others who have come in. Still, there’s no harm in being dropped, it’s all about how a player comes back. Let’s see.

Primary support came from Chris Woakes, last man out for 50 to go with his 4 wickets in the first innings. Much discussion centres around the disparity between his performances at home and those away from home. His batting average in England is around 36, away it is 19. His bowling average at home is 22, while away it is 52. It’s hardly unusual for any cricketer to perform better at home, but the gap is so huge it is hard to understand. Sure, his style is very much that of someone you’d expect to do better in English conditions, but it’s extremely disappointing how poor his away record is. And yet another way of looking at this is to wonder why he isn’t a permanent fixture in the side at home, when fit. His away record might well be poor, but his home one is astonishing. So far this Test, he’s shown why.

Decent support came from Jonny Bairstow, before being trapped lbw to a ball coming back into him for 37 – a depressingly familiar weakness. Moeen Ali did what late career Moeen has done a lot, which is to say played some gorgeous shots, and then got out to one that was….agricultural. But from 62-5, a lead of 99 will have been in wildest dreams territory, especially so given the batting fragility so prominent in this series.

India’s turn to bat again, and surely they would do better than first time around. And so far they have done, it would be too much to say they saw the day out without any alarms, but nor did England look like they were about to run through them either. Which is why it’s fair to say they have batted well, and have reduced the deficit down to 56.

More of the same is required, in fact much more. To be in with any kind of chance in this game, India still have to be batting by at least tea tomorrow, and to be in with a realistic chance, they have to bat the day. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t seem the most onerous of requirements but both these sides have demonstrated a quite exceptional ability to fall in a heap with the bat, which is why a lead of 99 feels so significant. Still, it’s also true that most would have expected India’s batting line up to outperform England’s, so maybe this match will be the one where they show their capability. England are certainly on top, and India now lack any margin for error. But a normal day’s play tomorrow and it means a happy camper who can head up to the Oval on Sunday to watch some cricket. This, more than anything, is the priority in this corner of Outside Cricket Towers.

Oh yes. Short of overs. Again. No one cares, we get it.

The Peculiar Joy of the Veteran

On the day that the peerless Dale Steyn retires, James Anderson carries on. And on. Sure, he’s rather good, but for the purposes of this piece I don’t care about the detail of his outswinger, or how he sets a batsman up. I care that he’s bloody old. He’s 39 years old and still running in. Sodding hell say we all. And rightly so too, for the ability to remain at, or near the top of your game at a time when most have forgotten where they hung up their boots several years earlier is worthy of praise in its own right. The skill never wanes, but the demands on the body as it ages, as muscles fibres weaken and joints become less flexible, usually diminishes the overall ability long before now.

We are in an era where sports science when it comes to diet and preparatory exercise appear to allow those prepared to put in the work to extend their careers at the highest level beyond what has been historically the case. Whether it be James Anderson or Roger Federer, it isn’t that they carry on, it’s that they carry on at, or near the top. Anderson’s record is actually getting better by most measures, which is frankly preposterous, while it is only very recently there are clear signs Federer is significantly below his previous level.

And then there’s Darren Stevens, who does undermine the sports science and diet hypothesis fairly spectacularly, but it’s my piece, so I’m including him anyway. Into his mid forties and providing hope for all middle aged people who wake in the morning to yet another unexplained back spasm or sore foot for no apparent reason. He too seems to have pulled off the impossible of not just playing at an advanced age, but doing so effectively and arguably every bit as much as a decade earlier.

Yet it is not their records that interest me here, it is the response to them. And not just them, they’re merely the most visible. Us. The rest of us, our own ageing process in sport and how we handle it. Part of it is to marvel at the continued ability to compete and win, but part of it also is the recognition of our own struggles as we age. It’s maybe why the young tend to care far less about such things – a “move over grandad” attitude is normal enough in youth, and in any case by definition they don’t much remember players at the start of their careers. That’s not to say young people don’t recognise the longevity, but they can’t possibly fully appreciate how much this must damn hurt, nor how extraordinary it is to see Anderson bowling at 85mph not far shy of his 40th birthday.

It certainly doesn’t have to be at the highest level. Every club cricketer will know the player who unaccountably is still in the 1st XI aged 50, surrounded by teens, 20s and 30 somethings. A total liability in the field of course – probably put into gully in the hope that they’ll stop something because they can’t get out of the way in time. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it tends to be a bowler, a spinner perhaps, who takes two steps and releases the ball, usually with a knowing grin on their face as the youngster at the other end slowly realises this old fart has forgotten more than they know, and that they’re about to become his (it usually is a his) 3,000th victim in club cricket. It happens a little less for the batsmen simply because eyes tend to decline in efficacy, and there’s nothing more disconcerting than the realisation you can’t see the sharpish opening bowler who you used to be able to handle with ease. Note to those aged around 30, the first sign of what’s to come is struggling to see the ball in indoor nets.

This state of affairs can last for many years, the magnificently elongated period known as middle age, defined as about a week for those aged 20, and about 40 years for those who have retired. But then we reach the truly special ones, those who turn out in cricket, or football (usually standing in the centre circle, not moving, but spraying 40 yard passes everywhere and impossible to tackle), or any other sport, at a time when all of their contemporaries have long since given up. That they love the game beyond measure is not in dispute, that they love the game to the point they are determined to play at a level that is a shadow of where they were is less common, not least because of a lesser involvement. To have once scored glorious hundreds and now to wander out at number 10 to save the game (it’s always to save the game and you know it) is to set sights at a very different level.

Perhaps the pleasure comes from teaching the younger players about the game – certainly that is what the endless and vital volunteers up and down the country do anyway. Perhaps it is just that it is the socialising. But there is a slightly different lesson to be given in this context, which is that the grey haired old bugger who is holding you up a) is someone you can’t get out and b) if you can’t get him out now, imagine how good he was 40 years ago.

Now clearly, none of this applies to a James Anderson, or a Shivnarine Chanderpaul, or a Graham Gooch, or a Courtney Walsh. But there are some similarities in how we approach this and how we feel about it, it’s a matter of familiarity with those who surround us and how we go through life ourself. The admiration for someone maintaining their level as a professional is still related to someone able to take the field alongside the rest despite being half a century older. And it’s a very special thing too, but one that can only truly be appreciated from the perspective of someone facing their own passing years. On the cricket field, tutting at the “oof” as an older player bends down and misses the ball in the field attracts a particular horror when years later you become that older player involuntarily expectorating from the shock of a ball drilled at you. Which you still fail to stop.

There are the good parts. The joy of turning around while standing at slip as the 15 year old hares after it, oblivious to the entirely deliberate placing of him at fine leg to perform this valuable service while the chat with the wicketkeeper continues uninterrupted. It is in itself a life lesson for all young players, and notably one they soon learn themselves as they transition from young buck to old lag over the years. It’s perhaps unlikely Jimmy Anderson has entirely grasped this, though there must be suspicions that Darren Stevens absolutely has, another strand to the deserved love that comes his way.

They are the reminder that a game can be played by all, appreciated by all, and that the little brats have got a hell of a shock coming to them. That’s got to be a good thing, right?

England vs India: 3rd Test, Day One – Resurrection Joe

Cricket is a bloody weird game. Virat Kohli couldn’t win a toss, India’s tail-enders were smashing the England bowlers around the park, England (bar the captain) were unable to determine which end of the bat is which, and more of the same was due today. Except it didn’t happen. None of it happened. Instead we got a day of total English domination, and an India team in need of a something approaching a sporting miracle to get away with anything other than a defeat. After one day. The usual rules about not tempting fate applied to the eternally pessimistic England fans, but more than anything, as many were quick to note, this was most similar to the opening day of the Melbourne 2010 Test match, with the difference that here India chose to bat.

India’s batting hasn’t looked that hot in the series so far, but crumbling to 78 all out wasn’t on the agenda. Cue lots of complaining from the sub-continent about the pitch, which would have been a fair point had England not coasted past their total in the evening sunshine with all wickets standing. It was cloudy, there was some swing and some seam, but hardly excessive, and by Headingley standards, relatively tame. Though the injured Stuart Broad was quick to point out in the morning that it tends to get better for batting and that choosing to bat was a brave call. There’s a fair degree of mind-games in that of course, and it seems unlikely that Root would have sent India in had he called correctly. Cliches always abound in such circumstances, but “a good toss to lose” may well be a reasonable assessment.

In the morning session Anderson operated on that serene higher level that he can sometimes reach, especially at home. There are endless banal superlatives that can be applied to him, but at 39 years old and still able to crank it up to the mid eighties miles per hour (this perhaps is the most remarkable thing about him – his skill won’t wane, but his athleticism will) and with all the nous of a 20 year career, he was far above the level of any of his team-mates, and ripped out the heart of the India batting. He’s just someone to be enjoyed.

Four down at lunch, India had the chance to recover if they batted well, but if the morning had been about an exceptional Anderson, the afternoon was about some pretty ropey batting. Rishab Pant played a really poor shot, and then four wickets in six balls destroyed the innings entirely, kicked off by a shocker from Rohit Sharma.

Nothing gives a batting order quite so much confidence as knowing you’ve skittled the opposition for peanuts; nothing makes a bowling attack less incisive than knowing you’ve barely any runs to defend. Ishant Sharma hardly helped things with a dire first over of no balls, wides and boundaries, and the tone was set. Burns and Hameed batted with confidence and some panache at times, but you could almost see the hope draining out of the Indian team, as fielding errors were made and catches dropped. In the time honoured style of a side in trouble, India tried to get the ball changed, and eventually succeeded, only for Burns to pull it into the stands for a rare six. If ever a metaphor for how bad a day India have had was needed, there it was. Both Burns and Hameed passed fifty, in the case of the latter in particular, a welcome return to Test runs. Few will be anything other than delighted for him.

Oh yes. Over-rate. Again. It’s doubtful many of the crowd felt shortchanged by once again falling far short of the required 90 overs, and equally India are hardly going to hurry given the match position. But it’s now routine not to bowl the minimum mandated overs and nothing is ever done about it. Today won’t matter, hell, it probably won’t matter in this match, but it’s situation normal these days.

India need to have an exceptional morning tomorrow just to recover the situation to one of being in deep trouble. If they could bowl England out for another hundred or so, then just maybe they could turn it around. But that would still require an exceptional 2nd innings on their part. India might win every remaining day and still lose the game heavily. One day into this match, and England are closing on a win. Final point: The Hundred wasn’t the reason for England’s capitulation in the 2nd Test, and today doesn’t mean that the structure of the domestic game isn’t damaging the Test side. It’s not that hard to avoid kneejerk reactions, but too hard for some even so.

England v India: 2nd Test, Day Three – It’s All Too Beautiful

Today might have been England’s best day of Test cricket in a fair while – not in the sense that they were entirely dominant, because (Root apart), it was a workmanlike performance rather than flaying the bowling to all parts. But in terms of the application and intent, it was as impressive as it was unlikely in the minds of many. Perhaps an indication came from the woefully out of touch Jos Buttler. He only scored 23, and it was a quite exceptionally ugly 23 too, but he fought to stay there, scratched around for an hour, added 50 with his captain, and above all made a contribution. Given England have all too often fallen in a heap when placed under any kind of pressure, this is worthy of note, and in this particular game situation also deserving of some praise. Questions around selection or worth in terms of a place are separate to this, it showed a determination that has often been lacking in the England batting and was most welcome.

Bairstow had earlier looked a million dollars in making 57, before rather peculiarly struggling badly against the short ball, and then falling face first into the most obvious of traps. It was annoying, given how telegraphed the plan was, but it was also odd to see; he had terrible difficulties with the short ball when he first arrived in international cricket, but since then (and he did get bombarded in his early matches, so had to learn quickly) he’s looked in little difficulty. Indeed, his technical issues were around anything but the bouncer. Still, he made a score, looked the part, and supported the peerless Root impeccably.

Moeen Ali too scored runs, again not a match defining number, but again enough to allow Root to score freely at the other end and to contribute to a partnership. Moeen’s batting weaknesses are well known, and his dismissal with an edge to the slips entirely predictable, but the aesthetics of his batting also means that few players evoke such a desire from the watching public to see him do well. He did enough today in the match context, which answers nothing about the wider questions, but in terms of today, it was fine. It just would have been nice to have more of it.

And then there’s Root himself. If there’s one thing that unites us all on this blog it’s the descent into greatesteveritis that afflicts the media on a daily basis, and most certainly not just for cricket. Root isn’t a greatest ever anything, and the likely forthcoming articles and polls asking whether he is can be guaranteed to rile everyone, but at this point in his career, with a Test average hovering around that 50 mark, we can start to place him in some context in the more recent England era. And when we do so, what can we say? We can certainly say he’s worthy of being talked about in the last 30 or 40 years with Cook, Pietersen, Gower, Boycott and Gooch, and has a better Test average than any of them for what that’s worth. Beyond that, it’s subjective, not least because comparing bowling and batting is reliant on the function of the two – or to put it another way, a great bowling era would look identical if it was instead a poor batting era. Players can only exist in their own environment, and Root has become one of England’s best in a long time. Perhaps it could be argued that it’s even more so given that a fair chunk of his career has been spent in a pretty poor England batting side. He’s carrying the batting in a way few have needed to in quite some years in England colours. We can, at the least, start thinking about where we place him in the England recent pantheon now he’s past 9,000 Test runs with more to come.

Today he was majestic. Other players hit the ball harder, further and more often, but Root’s manipulation of the field and speed of scoring is impressive generally, but when he’s in the kind of form he currently is, it gives the impression of a player in total control not just of himself, but of the opposition too. He must be driving an otherwise vastly superior Indian batting order up the wall.

As for the match situation, we have a game on. England have a first innings lead, albeit a modest one, and while it’s true that a fourth innings chase is the hardest way to win, the Lord’s pitch tends not to deteriorate too much, indeed it often gets slower, lower and harder on which to take wickets. One ball in the afternoon session scuttled along the ground, so we will have to see if that’s an indication of what is to come.

The third innings brings with it its own pressure with each wicket taken adding to it, a position England have highlighted on all too many occasions. But with the weather set fair, a result seems distinctly possible, and more to the point, England have a chance of coming out on top. Most people would have taken that given the rather low expectations from this series. England may well be accused of being a one man team in the batting, and it’s not an unreasonable jibe. But when that one batsman is playing as well as this, it evens up the contest no end. The captain is very much leading from the front. The last ball of the day provided the conclusion that a terrific day of cricket really deserved, with Anderson dismissed (notably upset with himself too) and England bowled out. It really is now over to the Indian batsmen and the England bowlers.

Expectation Management

India will probably win, but England have had a pretty good day. Given where they began, and given expectations for a batting line up for whom the word brittle was coined, to set India 209 was a fair few levels above what may have been anticipated by the perpetually pessimistic with good reason England fans. That first innings deficit was both a psychological and and a physical barrier for England to overcome, and that they did so and set a reasonable target was almost entirely down to Joe Root. This was one of his best hundreds, looking in complete control and driving both sides of the wicket with fluency and outstanding footwork. He is nothing short of a joy to watch when he’s in this kind of form.

It is obvious just by looking at the statistics, but it really is quite startling just how far ahead of the rest of the line up he is. It’s not quite the case that when he fails, England fail, but it’s not far off. England got a total that was quite passable, and a target to defend that is big enough to allow for some degree of hope that they might win the match. From 183 all out in the first innings, that’s no bad place to be, for they looked thoroughly out of it and facing a humiliation before Anderson ripped the Indian top order out. Indeed, although the Indian tail wagged irritatingly well, to bowl the visitors out for 278 was a fine performance from the England attack, particularly Robinson and Anderson. Without any hope of putting real pressure on, they maintained control and whittled their way through the Indian order. Conceding a 95 run deficit might not seem like a triumph, and certainly the late runs damaged England’s prospects, but it was still a sterling effort given the match situation.

Two early wickets in England’s second innings made it all the more likely that a day of disaster was on the cards, but Root and Sibley put together a partnership that steadied matters, and allowed England to erase the deficit and start to build. Sibley’s dismissal was a poor shot having done all the hard work, but he does at least give the impression of a work in progress, able to occupy the crease for long periods as often as not. Given the state of England’s batting, and that he’s their second highest run scorer (behind Root) this calendar year, he’s not the most pressing of England’s concerns. Getting out when set is not a great thing to happen, but he is at least getting set in the first place. His slow scoring rate is neither here nor there in the current circumstances. If England need quick runs to set up a declaration or win, he’s not the man – oh to be in a position where that is a consideration. That isn’t to defend him especially, it’s that he’s not the biggest problem right now, and there are quite a few of them.

Bairstow looked rather good but managed to middle the ball straight to Jadeja at deep square leg. Curran played an important little innings and again looked one of the more technically accomplished batsmen in the England team. Technique is only one element of batting, but while at present he may be one of those players who isn’t quite good enough in either the batting or the bowling department to nail down a consistent place, his batting still looks promising. That’s perhaps part of the issue, he’s all promise and at some point needs to turn that into results on a regular basis. Becoming a genuine all rounder remains a hope and a dream, and time is still on his side. But such a hope doesn’t mean it will come to pass – at one time Stuart Broad wasn’t that far away from all rounder status, and his batting decline has been vertical.

Part of the feeling of being relatively pleased with England’s efforts is the suspicion that India, even in English conditions, are a far superior team, and that this could well be a long and chastening Test series. The bowling attack, particularly in the shape of Bumrah, looks more threatening, the batting so far superior to their English counterparts that it is barely in the same equation. Although Robinson got the rewards in the first innings, a feeling persists that the old warhorses of Anderson and Broad aren’t just going to have to lead the attack, they’re going to be trying bail out the batting on a semi-permanent basis. And that’s too much to ask time and again, especially when there are injuries to potential replacements.

Into the evening session and England trying to dislodge the Indian top order. It can’t be said that KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma were under any pressure, because they weren’t, right up to the point that Stuart Broad, with headband on parade, took the former’s outside edge. It had been an oddly low key period of play, the crowds weren’t exactly roaring England on, and the team looked a bit flat, particularly given that bowling conditions were entirely in England’s favour. Once the wicket was taken, things went up a notch, especially with the arrival into the attack of the somewhat unlucky Robinson.

India are warm favourites to win tomorrow, weather permitting, and as a reflection of the match, so far, that would surprise no one. But England did at least fight today, and their captain showed how exceptional a batsman he is, and how far superior to anything else the team has. Given the forecast, we got more play than we expected, and England played better than expected. It’s probably not going to be enough, the old truism applying that you can’t win the game with the bat on the first day, but you can lose it.

It’s Test cricket though, and the most special thing about this finest version of the game is that you just never know. Roll on Sunday.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

If all publicity is good publicity, then the ECB should be thrilled, for the Hundred has undoubtedly been a talking point over the last week, whether in the media, social media or (the newly rediscovered) real life social settings. As far as social media is concerned, it’s largely hostile, as it always has been since the announcement of the entire concept. Twitter never has been a barometer of public opinion, and that it is negative towards it shouldn’t be viewed as meaning anything at all, and most definitely Twitter polls, or Facebook polls have no relevance to anything.

But the thing that has been utterly lost – not for the first time – on social media is any sense of nuance, with too many pointing to the entirely reasonable public interest in the Hundred as some kind of stick with which to beat those who oppose it, are uneasy about it or who simply aren’t interested in it. Tweets or single sentence posts tend to do that, with a complete inability to explore the issues resulting in confrontational shouting. A long form like a blog ought to allow for a more considered discussion, but it’s still easy enough for anyone to pull out a single sentence and berate people based on that too, as many a journalist will reflect upon to their cost. Lord knows we are probably guilty of that ourselves, making assumptions about a meaning that leaves the writer aghast at the assumed intent. It’s normal enough and human enough, and if I’ve done that to someone (I’m certain I will have done) I can only apologise.

That loss of nuance has also meant a lack of respect for contrary views. The county supporters are looking on in despair at the potential destruction of their sporting love; to treat them as irrelevant, old fashioned and out of touch is not just unreasonable and wrong, it’s extremely cruel. The starting point, even for advocates of the Hundred, ought to be one of empathy, not dismissal. Equally, those who do believe the way forward includes the Hundred deserve a hearing as to why they think so even from those hellbent on hating it, and why they believe the undoubted costs of it are worthwhile. People will come to their own conclusions about the wisdom or otherwise, but it would help things immeasurably if such a conversation could occur without shouting. This, undoubtedly, is a pipedream.

There is no contradiction whatever in some people being opposed to the Hundred but enjoying the cricket. They are, after all, cricket fans and are not betraying any greater cause by liking watching people bowling, fielding and batting. Nor is it any switching of sides to acknowledge that some elements of its start that look to be quite promising – the popularity of the women’s competition being high up in any such list. It is true enough that it might not have needed the Hundred for this focus in the media coverage to have occurred, but it’s also quite possibly true that without it, it simply wouldn’t have happened. It’s the Olympic regeneration argument – of course a city could – and probably should – sink billions into resurrecting a derelict area, but would it happen without such an event? Likely not. There have been significant missteps from the ECB in their approach to the women’s game, pushing the idea it is equal to the men’s when it clearly isn’t, either financially or in profile was to create an argument where there didn’t need to be one through overclaiming. In the same way, creating the impression that the women’s matches have no value through the cancellation policy looked awful, even if the intent was honourable. To their credit, they have acknowledged with something of a wince that they need to look at that again – more of that please, errors are forgivable, responding to them is a good thing.

Sam Morshead’s article in the Cricketer (do have a read if you haven’t already) noted some interesting dynamics with their social media engagement that provides a tantalising suggestion there may be some genuinely new engagement .  This is inherently a very good thing already, and were it to continue then a sceptic might well need to revise some preconceptions. That’s a big if, but it can only be a good thing and hoping for it not to happen because of a dislike of the Hundred would be a very skewed set of priorities.  Cricket needs engagement, it needs a wider demographic showing interest, anything else continues the slide to irrelevance.  Whether it required the Hundred to do that is a very open question, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t intriguing and it should most definitely not be ignored. Another area that is worth watching is the level of supporter identification with the teams. In this I declare an interest that’s not an interest: I don’t follow a particular county, and my overriding problem with the overseas T20 franchise leagues is that I couldn’t care less who wins and who loses. That lowers the degree of interest substantially, but mileage clearly varies in this, and creating a fanbase out of new franchises is both concerning and perhaps in another sense pleasing. It depends how it’s looked at, either a shallow level of interest, or a large market of potential cricket lovers waiting to be tapped.

On the other side of the ledger, the determination by some media figures and journalists to act not as guides or observers of the competition, but instead as rampaging zealous missionaries is intensely irritating and playing the audience for fools.  Even the most ardent believer in it would accept there are wider issues that cause disquiet, and while it is not reasonable to expect that to be a topic of debate in coverage, it goes beyond that to steamroller any possibility that this isn’t the greatest sporting show ever created. It shows scant respect, not just to critics, but to those who on balance are enjoying it and looking forward to it, but can spot the Pravda editorial a mile off.  Media coverage should not be akin to politicians announcing their latest initiative to party conference, and it’s something of a betrayal of journalistic values, and broadcasting standards, to treat it as such. 

Some in the media will undoubtedly believe in the concept and the tournament, there’s not a thing wrong with that, and an inability to accept that someone might have a different view without it meaning they’re somehow evil is one of the curses of modern times.  Others, it is less clear that it is anything but glowing support for the purposes of getting paid – there is still nothing wrong with that, except inasmuch as there’s a pretence at impartiality that isn’t plausible.  Therein lies the problem, most employees are expected to toe the corporate line – I have no intention of going wildly off message about those for whom I work, because I’m not an idiot – but if journalists are to claim that their role is different, and they are open-minded truth seekers, they can’t jump into bed for the company shilling and still maintain that air of separation and independence.  They can be an arm of the PR team or they can be journalists, they can’t be both. 

It’s a mild annoyance in the coverage, and it’s a reflection of where we are rather than a particular stand out, but it damages everyone else working in the sector by association, which may be partly why Huw Turberville and George Dobell are so clearly annoyed about the “Kim Jong-un school of journalism” as Dobell put it.

None of the perceived successes of the competition to date alter the initial objections to it, nor have they been in any way answered by the overly-enthusiastic response of some of its adherents.  The relegation of the 50 over competition to irrelevance, the further sidelining of the red ball competition, the potential for county cricket to be marginalised even further, the effect on the Test team – these are all live, real issues and won’t go away.  The amusement at the pickles the ECB got themselves into over the format matter little when the games are on, but the determination of the likes of Michael Vaughan and others to dismiss all criticism by saying it’s just a game of cricket is to attempt to bypass any discussion of the greater issues by focusing on the least relevant subjects.  For it IS just a game of cricket.  And cricket is a bloody brilliant game, messing with the format was never going to change that, and since cricket fans have been trying to tell everyone for decades how good it is why react with surprise?

But the same applied to T20.  There’s a distinct air of revisionism and straw manning in some of this.  There is no doubt that there were some, often journalists, who saw it as the end of civilisation when it was launched, but those didn’t include people who actually played cricket, for club, village, school and parks cricketers were familiar with the format on the simple grounds that they’d played it their whole lives, and they largely shrugged when it was first brought in professionally and wondered why it had taken so long.  That a retired colonel (this is a completely arbitrary assumption – see how easy it is?) wrote to the Daily Telegraph bemoaning it matters in no way whatever, and shouldn’t be used as a pretence that concerns about the Hundred are grounded in a widespread belief that the clock should be turned back to 1920.

Indeed, the initial explosion of interest in T20 when it first arrived should signal something of a warning sign for the Hundred.  So much of that pointed to as success for the new competition applied to 2003 as well (clearly not the women’s element) with the same novelty and excitement.  And while it is undoubtedly true that the ECB would be entirely thrilled with the same pattern and popularity, it also points to one of the other objections that T20 was already highly successful and didn’t need to be tinkered with.

As to where we go from here, perhaps there is one overriding issue that may dictate things, and that is the success or otherwise of the England team.  T20 was launched with the backdrop of a national team on the up, by no means a dominant one, but where the investment in the county game was beginning to show signs of success in the Test arena at least.  The current depth of red ball cricket in England doesn’t hold such promise, and with series at home to India and away to Australia (assuming it goes ahead), the results therein will be watched closely.  India have had some red ball practice in advance of this series, the England players have not.  Australia, for all the Big Bash hype, have maintained a greater degree of balance with their nursery for Test cricket.  There is something of a hope that things will turn out for the best, but if England don’t produce Test cricketers, they will be soundly beaten more often than not.  The wider damage a weak England causes the Test game is a separate, though vital, part of the equation – the patience of the public with such an eventuality may be a different question.  For the ECB do rely on a degree of ignorance among the casual supporter, those who will watch the Hundred and have no awareness of the potential problems ahead, or the impact on other elements of the professional game.  But they do tend to notice if England get thrashed a lot.

There was hope from some that the Hundred would fail, but there was rather more widely made accusation that anyone who expressed reservations about the concept hoped the Hundred would fail.  A curious assumption that those with deep concerns wanted it made even worse.    People have varying views and reductive and simplistic attack lines are no more valid for all on side than they are the other.  Those who approve of the Hundred often do so for the very best and most thoughtful of reasons, and it’s about time that was recognised as a possibility too. There is a contradiction in that with some of the criticism herein, but if there is an intention behind it, it is to try to comprehend a motivation that moves beyond catcalling for daring to hold a different opinion. We all do it, and we all need to do better.

We are where we are is one of those phrases that manages to be true and yet still annoying when used to express an indifference to what might happen next. But the Hundred is here, and it is not going away for the forseeable future no matter how much some might wish it to. But the battle for English cricket is only just beginning, for the unwieldy nature of the domestic season is not sustainable for any length of time, and what happens next is where the action is.

See Saw – 2nd Test Day One

All in all, both teams will be fairly content and also slightly annoyed with how that day’s play has ended up. England made a good start, suffered a collapse and recovered sufficiently well for their total to be, if not decent, then enough to be in the game. New Zealand ripped through England’s batting, but will be frustrated that Dan Lawrence, with the support of Ollie Stone and Mark Wood, got England back into it in the final session.

England’s batting has been a concern for a while, and nothing that happened today made any minds change about that. Rory Burns and Dom Sibley looked good – the former going on to 81, the latter frustratingly getting out when set. Once the first wicket fell, just after lunch, England suffered a familiar collapse. Both sides are missing players, and the loss of Watling and Williamson in this Test means that when New Zealand reply they are weaker than is normally the case, but for England it’s an ongoing issue.

Burns and Sibley attract plenty of criticism, and neither record is a stellar one, but they do look two of the more solid players in the England order, albeit far from being the kind of class seen in years past. The immediate problem is when they fall, and if Root doesn’t score heavily. It’s unsurprising that England lose wickets in clusters. Nor is it an obvious case of transferring players in and out of the side – there’s no queue of Test class players champing at the bit for selection. Stokes is missing, and he’s a loss, but Buttler is hardly a reliable performer, even with recent good scores, so it can’t be said that it is just the missing players that has caused that. Zak Crawley looks hideously out of form, but while one Test innings of note is no reason to give him a sinecure, it does at least suggest a sufficient aptitude to be worth persevering with. As for James Bracey, it’s hard to have any feeling other than sympathy at present – two consecutive ducks at the start of his career say little about how good he is, but a lot about how cruel cricket can be.

Dan Lawrence is an interesting player. Very bottom handed, he does move across the crease and appears an lbw candidate, but as he kept pinging Boult and Wagner through midwicket and not missing, it’s not a problem. There is a very long list of players who have batted that way and been successful, not least most recently Steve Smith. Looking ungainly matters little as long as he scores runs, and while it’s way too early to have any knowledge how things will go for him, he played really rather nicely here.

For the visitors, Boult and Wagner are known properties – high class quick bowlers who are a major reason New Zealand are in the World Test Championship final, but with Tim Southee missing this one, it was Matt Henry who came in and was the catalyst for England falling apart in the afternoon. It’s curious how often visiting bowlers look like they’re made for English conditions, and often much more successful than the “traditional English seamer” sometimes selected. But he might as well have been born in Christchurch, Dorset rather than Christchurch, Canterbury for how at home he looked.

Praise be, we got 90 overs in today. It went into the additional half hour, but that’s what it’s there for. Far too many excuses are made for teams not to manage it (umpire reviews, wickets), but today it was done. That it is worthy of note says it all.

And lastly, the crowd. 17,000 of them. How good was that? They clearly were enjoying themselves, and that snippet of normal life, an echo and a harbinger, was perhaps the greatest part of the day.

New Zealand’s Warm Up Series: Day One

Just thought I’d flick that around, given they’ve got a big date before too long and too many are viewing this as England’s preparatory series for India.

Test cricket is back, and with crowds. Not a full crowd, but a reasonably sized one, and enough to generate a background noise that is so much better than an artificial backing track. So let’s get something out of the way first, the over rate. It was poor. Again. By the time play came to a close we were four overs short. It’s not new, it’s never been tackled, and it’s abundantly clear the ICC couldn’t care less. It’s also true that a lot of cricket supporters aren’t that bothered either, so why be so annoyed about it? Because after the last 15 months where players and administrators have fallen over themselves to explain why spectators are so important and so valued, it is disrespectful to shortchange them like this, and doubly so to do it without the slightest sense of anyone in authority caring. There have been days when the shortfall has been worse than today, but it is still saying, on a daily basis, that the fans don’t matter, that what they’ve paid doesn’t matter. It is entirely fair enough for those who go and aren’t put out by it, but it’s not about that, it’s about the mentality of players, captains and administrators who don’t care in the slightest, and on the day Test supporters returned after such a long hiatus, it’s unforgivable. Don’t give us the bullshit about how much you value cricket fans and their presence at matches, when you can’t even be bothered to deliver what they paid (a lot) for. The media complain about it, but they barely ever confront the players about what their actions imply, and they should. Every single time. Enough.

As for the cricket, it’s as clearly New Zealand’s day, and they’re in a fine position to go on to dominate the Test. Devon Conway has been the star of the show, so look forward to all the “Devon’s got the Cream” headlines in the morning – and they’re deserved too. A late entrant to Test cricket, he’s taken his chance, and by demonstrating some decidedly old-fashioned skills – that of the patient opener. There’s something rather special about those who are nowhere near the Test arena until relatively advanced into their careers, who then grab the chance with both hands. As ever, one innings says nothing about the future, but a hundred on debut, at Lord’s, is no bad way to start. More to the point, he looks the part – slightly unsettled by Mark Wood’s pace at times, but able to adapt and cope.

His century is more impressive for the lack of consistent support until the arrival of Henry Nicholls midway through the afternoon session. England’s bowlers had chipped away and the innings could have gone in either direction. Digging in – for neither exactly dominated proceedings – and grinding down the England attack to push their team into, if not a dominant position, certainly a healthy one is how Test cricket used to be far more frequently than in today’s game. And it was a welcome return of such past values and skills.

It is a flat surface – there was some movement in the air, and the new ball carry through well enough to the keeper, but aside from one spell from the luckless Broad when he was all over Ross Taylor, it can’t be said New Zealand looked in a great deal of trouble.

Much comment has gone around about England’s choice not to select a front line spinner, relying on Root to get through a number of overs. And while by the end of this match that may prove to have been an error, it can’t realistically be stated so baldly on the first day – the idea one would have been certain to pick up wickets on such a friendly surface at the start of the game is the epitome of a player showing huge improvement by virtue of not playing. Had one been picked, they would have done more or less the same role as Root himself, to get through a few overs as cheaply as possible while rotating the seamers.

Nor have England bowled at all badly – they’ve probed and kept things tight without resorting to anything as base as bowling dry, it’s just that on the day the batsmen, specifically Conway and Nicholls, have been better. It happens, and New Zealand are a good team – which is why they’re in the World Test Championship Final and England aren’t.

England also picked a pair of debutants, James Bracey and Ollie Robinson. The former kept tidily enough, and nearly nabbed a stumping off Root as well. So far so good in his case. Ollie Robinson will be pleased enough with his day on the field – a couple of wickets and bowling nicely. It will be slightly ruined by the realisation that some old tweets as a teenager have garnered attention and it is an issue that will need dealing with. One observation there is that it is something of a mystery why neither player’s agent (assuming he has one) nor the ECB think it a worthwhile idea to check these things properly in advance to ensure there’s nothing detrimental or embarrassing that can come up when a player is selected.

Tomorrow is another day. England may not have bowled badly, but they can bowl better. The modest run rate means New Zealand haven’t got away so this match hasn’t decisively tilted one way just yet. But New Zealand will be the happier, and they deserve it too.

The Tangled Web

I’ll confess to a considerable degree of amusement that the Australian ball tampering scandal has reared up again on the back of an excellent interview with Cameron Bancroft. Amusement but not outrage, though – for the main crime was in being so extraordinarily brazen about it and getting caught. Teams have operated variations on the theme for time immemorial, and Australia aren’t remotely unique in so doing. The hilarity at their idiocy wasn’t a sense of fury at them doing it, it was always the rank hypocrisy of operating as the arbiters of cricketing morality while being even more obvious about it than everyone else.

So spare me the appalled hand-wringing, both then and now. What is new, and what was entirely predictable, is the seeping out of implications of others being involved beyond the three who admitted to it and who took their punishments. Bancroft wasn’t and isn’t a core member of the Australian team, and has always had less reason to keep his trap shut than Warner or Smith, and while clearly reluctant to dob in his team mates, that is the effect of his words. Rule one of allowing any closing of ranks and permitting people to take all the blame is to ensure that it’s worth their while to do so, not just initially, but over time too. There’s something oddly admirable in Bancroft’s refusal to name names or implicate others, but it has always been wildly implausible that bowlers for whom the condition of the ball is everything would be entirely oblivious to what was going on.

None of this hugely matters, bar as a truly wonderful spectator sport, except to point out that the net result has been that this entire sorry tale has rumbled on for three years and counting, and has now been gifted a new life. It’s not entirely academic either, given the likely change of captaincy of the Australian Test team in the near future and the candidates for that role.

It is thus that the decision to turn the whole affair into a navel gazing exercise on the subject of national character has backfired spectacularly by failing to ensure that it was comprehensive and final. As crimes go, this wasn’t the worst, but the response was so fantastically over the top that it created its own life far beyond the period in question. Cricket Australia’s statement that they would welcome further information has inflamed a whole topic that could have been put to bed long ago. And while social media and crowds (God love them, let’s see them again soon) wouldn’t let the Australian players forget, that didn’t matter and doesn’t matter – opposition crowds are looking for a reason to bait a team, not conducting a rationalisation of virtue.

But as a template for a governing body response, it remains fascinating. To go far over the top in the moral framing, and then accept a hopelessly unlikely explanation has managed to create the worst of all worlds – far from shutting the matter down, it has extended it, and created a glorious feedback loop of further questioning. It’s beautiful to watch.

No, I’m not horrified, appalled, aghast or anything else. But I am chuckling.

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

The overnight news about the proposed football European Super League will have caused many a wry smile from cricket followers up and down the country. All the usual words and phrases are in there – “stakeholders” will be consulted, it’s about “partnerships”, a “sustainable commercial approach” and not forgetting “solidarity”. A copy and paste of corporate gaslighting and bullshit meaning little except for a power grab and a desire to enrich themselves yet further and remove the jeopardy that is the essence of sport.

Football is a vastly bigger and wealthier game than cricket, and as such the response is magnitudes higher, but the arguments are the same, the objections are the same, and the lack of any interest in what the little people think is just the same. We’ve been here time and again, and we will see the same degree of pretence that it’s for the good of “the game” (another reminder that those in power only mean the game as it pertains to them, not the game itself) and that it’s nothing other than trying to secure the financial stability of the sport.

Where football differs is that this has attracted the attention and the ire of the politicians, who never fail to sport a point of votes principle on which to opine. To that extent, football fans are luckier. When both the ICC and ECB, internationally and domestically decide to put aside matters of sporting integrity in favour of filthy lucre, there is a deafening silence from all but a very few. Cricket doesn’t particularly matter, and certainly doesn’t matter to enough. Football does.

But the same set of parameters apply – that sport is a means of generating money rather than the other way around, and it’s both reflective of the reality in which we live and also a governance question that has never been addressed. It has been said before that the most dangerous foe any sport can face is a man (always a man) in a suit saying “I can help”. Yet there’s also the endless hypocrisy about it all. Sky News has spent much of the morning decrying the greed involved and parading their new found commitment to tradition and sporting values over dollars and euros – a quite breathtaking demonstration of rank hypocrisy. Should it go ahead and Sky win the broadcast contract, expect a rapid reverse ferret from their news channel to promote it as the greatest sporting invention since the round ball. Likewise, while Gary Neville’s monologue about the tradition of the game is helpful for all those opposed to the Super League, he’s one of those who has benefitted heavily from the concentration of power and resources in the hands of the few. His part ownership of Salford City is the same in microcosm – invested money making a team competitive above the level it would otherwise be – not a thing wrong with that, except the selectivity involved in deciding what is morally acceptable and what isn’t.

Football and cricket are different in so many respects, not least that football clubs have always been rapaciously commercial for a century or more. A quick look at the origins of many of the leading clubs shows very little has changed – all of the so called “traditional” big teams have become that way due to heavy owner investment at different times in the past. Just like cricket, this is nothing more than the logical culmination of a direction of travel that has been in place for decades. Few of those furious today strongly objected to the abolition of gate sharing in the 1980s, nor when directors were first allowed to take money out of the clubs around the same time, let alone the creation of the Premier League which was also sold as being for general benefit rather than personal enrichment. Some greed is apparently fine, it’s only when it goes to the next level that it’s something to object to.

But this is a cricket blog, not a football one, so those arguments can be had elsewhere. The relevance to cricket is only in the parallels, in the way that the ECB have tried, with rather less competence, to move the sport into the same frame with the same kinds of outcomes. While sports are different, the determination to force them down the same path to maximise (in the short term, it should be noted) revenues and ameliorate the bank balances of those already in positions of power is entirely the same. Franchise football with no promotion and relegation removes the essence of any sporting system, namely that teams can rise or fall on their sporting merits (and financial management plays a major role in that). But it is anaethema to investors, who wish to see a return on their down payment with certainty, something that sport is inherently bad at – which is why we watch it.

The Hundred is the cricketing equivalent of the European Super League in these ways. Ignore for now the format – it’s always been the least of the objections anyway – a fixed number of teams able to compete each year with no danger of dropping out is precisely the golden goose for sporting investors. As long as the competition thrives, it’s a one way bet, an almost literal licence to print money. The difference is the serious doubt about the level of interest outside of a pandemic year where the public are desperate for anything to watch, which is why as well as a curse for the ECB’s finances, 2021 is also a golden opportunity to embed a structure that the supporters in general loathe. The IPL and the NFL are models for owners of sports franchises to wish to expand into other areas – irrespective of the latter having various safeguards built in to try to maintain a level playing field. Indeed, the IPL perhaps more so is the perfect template to follow, whereby sport as entertainment in the same way as WWE is the aim and the intention.

The European Super League faces a lot of hurdles to overcome – the hostility from football supporters matters far more than the hostility from cricket ones, because packed grounds are more essential to football than to domestic cricket which doesn’t have that tribal following to anything like the same extent. There will be those who suddenly discover it’s not such a bad thing after all when they realise there is scope for personal professional advancement, and that’s not in itself an unreasonable position to adopt because everyone needs to look out for themselves. But it doesn’t mean everyone else has to fall in line, nor that they have to accept the worldview espoused that is nothing other than self-interest on the part of those doing so – indeed all the Super League needs now is people to come out and say this new competition isn’t aimed at traditional supporters. Some of those who advocate exactly this for cricket have been quick to decry it happening in football – don’t think for a second it hasn’t been noticed.