Rules of Engagement

You know what?  We don’t even want to talk about it in a post.  In the comments, for sure, go for it.  In a blog post?  Not really.  The law took its course, the jury delivered its verdict.  That’s how it works, and he leaves court acquitted and a free man.  Decision made.

What it might mean for England is a little more complex and depends on what path they decide to go down.  There will be an internal inquiry, and whether he faces additional punishment or whether it will be felt to be “time served” given he missed most of last winter is an open question.

There’s a lot to talk about and a lot to discuss, but please forgive us if we feel that a lengthy post isn’t the place to do it, but the comments probably are.

Over to you…

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England vs India: 2nd Test, Day Three

One of the particular joys of putting out a blog and having opinions is the spectacular way to they can come back and bite you on the arse. Thus it is with some amusement that the description of Chris Woakes as “Mr Mediocre” in the preview has to be mentioned here after today, following a quite exceptional maiden Test century to follow up a rather good bowling performance.

Naturally, given that we’re close knit, supportive team on here, who always agree with each other, I shouldn’t remotely mention that. Nor should I mention that personally I’ve always quite liked Chris Woakes, and that when we’ve bickered long into the night about the merits of various players, this has always been a bone of contention. Thus under no circumstances would I have repeatedly texted Sean gleefully reminding him of his comments over the last few years, and he absolutely hasn’t expressed relief he’s not doing tonight because it would mean he had to be nice to Woakes. So I shall be.

Apart from the delicious schadenfreude of this innings, Woakes batted beautifully today, and he bowled beautifully yesterday too. This really says the obvious, at least thus far in his career – that he’s highly effective in England, and less so overseas. The question at hand is how much this matters, given that Woakes is hardly alone in this, and even the likes of Broad and Anderson are criticised for it often enough. Perhaps the problem is that it applies across the bowling line up rather than just with one of them – the ineffectiveness of many of those chosen in foreign conditions being a regular feature of England sides in recent times, and exacerbating the problem. Woakes has bowled well (without quite getting the rewards) in South Africa, certainly. But he’s not the first English fast medium bowler to struggle in Asia or Australia.

Woakes does have talent, of that there’s no question. He moves the (Duke) ball in the air and off the pitch, while his batting has always looked of greater capability than perhaps the results have demonstrated. To put it another way, no one should be that surprised he’s scored a Test century, he’s always looked sufficiently able.

England are now in an impregnable position, the loss of the first day’s play meaning that India are playing purely for the draw given the forecast. Indeed, with tomorrow’s weather now moving from the iffy to the grim with every passing hour, it could be that they escape with that draw, in what has been a curiously unsatisfying Test to date. Certainly India have had the worst of the conditions, being put in to bat with England’s pacemen salivating at the prospect. However, while Anderson, Broad et al are supremely skilful at exploiting such circumstances, it can’t be denied that India batted horribly. They are, at least partially, the architects of their own downfall here.

If climatic conditions may now save them, they’ll still need to play far better in what remains than they have done so far, for otherwise England may not need that much more than a session over the next two days to bowl them out, such was the dominance they exerted with the ball. And it’s not unreasonable to expect some play, whatever the forecast.

Woakes indicated after play that England may bat on, but there is surely a degree of kidology involved there, for 250 runs behind requires India to bat for a day even to get level. It’s arguable that England could have declared earlier, but given the early curtailment of proceedings due to bad light, batting on probably made sense. It should be noted though that this means England were taking the weather into account. Something teams always deny that they do, despite it being entirely obvious that it is always a factor.

India had their chances today. They took early wickets, and at one stage had half the England team out with the scores more or less level. A sliding doors moment in this Test, for from that point on, Woakes and Bairstow first eased away, and then dominated.

Even without Stokes, England’s middle order does look strong, but the troubles at the top continue. Jennings has looked reasonable since his return, but whoever the incumbent, England’s top order looks brittle. Cook started brightly, and even unveiled a couple of off drives, which is usually a sign of his technique being in decent shape. But Ishant Sharma got one to move off the seam, and that was that. It was a good ball, but not an unplayable one. Cook was caught on the crease and squared up. It happens. Lateral movement plays havoc with all batsmen, and it’s not a matter of Cook having done anything radically wrong, but three times this series he has supposedly been out to fantastic deliveries. Is it so hard to say that they were decent nuts, but that Cook at his best would have played them better?

Ollie Pope looked bright in his first Test innings, and certainly not lacking in confidence. No judgement can or should be made of him at this stage, except to say it is a pleasure to see a young player revelling in the excitement of playing Test cricket.

Root failed. This is rather noteworthy actually, because despite the comment about his conversion rate from 50 to 100, his ability to reach 50 in Tests is remarkably high, up there with Bradman. Thus his failure today gets a mention, not as criticism, but as a reminder to us all that Root is a very fine player indeed whatever his own frustrations.

Mohammed Shami was probably the pick of the Indian attack, troubling most of the England line up even as his colleagues wilted somewhat in the second half of the day. Perhaps they could have done with another seamer, for the spinners were ineffective, but conditions have made this look a worse decision than it probably was, given how Lord’s is often unresponsive to seam and swing for the first few days. A couple of recent Tests suggest this may be changing a bit, perhaps in line with English home Tests generally.

After little more than a day in this match, England are completely dominant. Whether they go on to win seems more a matter of the elements than the play, for if the meteorologists are wrong, it is hard to see how India get out of this one. They need some luck, for otherwise this whole series starts to look one sided, as much as the last one in India. For the sake of interest in the remainder of the Test summer, a downpour or three may not be the worst thing.

Rain, rain go away…

If there’s one thing to be said for today’s complete washout, it’s that for once after the first day no one will be expressing certainty about which way the game is going. Indeed it’s fair to say neither team has the upper hand…

What it does mean is that over the next four days there will (should) be 98 overs bowled, which in an ideal world would make up a third of the lost play on day one. In reality of course, the teams will probably fail to get the overs in, and with a longer day involved, ironically there are more overs to lose. That we’re at the point where the absolute certainty that the teams will get away without bowling what is meant to be a minimum stipulation – and with an extra half hour to make up for any delays – remains ridiculous. Those that advocate four day Tests have never managed to answer this particular problem besides saying that the overs stipulation should be enforced. Well, yes. But it won’t be, and the overwhelming evidence for that is because it isn’t.

Equally, the loss of day one turns this into a four day game, with the follow on target reduced to 150 runs. A rare example of good sense in the international game.

Other than that, the forecast for tomorrow is for a cool day with light showers, and a weekend of rather better weather before Monday turns iffy again. The nature of the two batting line ups means that there could still be a result, depending on the surface produced. It has certainly looked green in the previews before today, though Lord’s is rarely a bowlers paradise.

Social media carried its fair share of postings about what the players and media had for lunch, which always seems a peculiar way to promote the ground, given how the plebs are confined to bringing their own or selling a kidney in order to buy a ropey burger and chips. Lord’s is a funny place. Half the time it appears to be the Henley Regatta of cricket, a place to see and be seen for a certain kind of person, rather than a sporting venue.

For sure, some will be lining up to point to it being the same old BOC moaning, but the problem is that the general public always appear to be invited in on sufferance rather than welcomed, except financially – and given the extraordinary prices charged, that financially is clearly a major factor. But it always jars somewhat to see what amounts to a celebration of the right kind of people being in attendance, something that doesn’t happen at any other ground – not even the Oval, which is hardly a bargain basement entry fee. Some things they get spot on, the installation of water fountains is an unqualified good thing, the ability to bring in your own drink equally so. It’s not like everything about it is objectionable by any means, but there’s a feeling about visiting, a nagging dislike that won’t go away.

Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps it’s a reverse snobbery to have a problem with the endless hagiography for the place, for undoubtedly it is a special ground for the players, the most special and iconic. But of all the grounds to go and watch cricket, Lord’s is generally my least favourite. I have friends who strongly disagree, and who love the pomp of a visit there, and as a club player, there’s nothing in your dreams quite so much as the outside prospect of reaching the club or village knockout final played there.

It’s beautiful, it’s historic, and it’s genuinely special. But as a paying spectator? Not for me, Clive. Or Sir Clive more likely.

England vs India: Day Four, Live Blog

Morning everyone…

Well isn’t this fun?  We’ve got about a session at most today, and three results are possible.  After a terrific couple of days of play  India need another 84 runs, with 5 wickets remaining.  That Mr Kohli is still in, and as long as he is, India may be favourites.

We’re going to live blog the play, and as ever, we will remind you that this isn’t the BBC, you have to hit the refresh button for updates.  One day we might even work out a way to auto-refresh, but that day ain’t today.

10:30 – Half an hour to go, and there’s the sense of anticipation that only Tests can provide.

10:41 – People accuse us of banging on about some things, but can you imagine how big the anticipation for today would be if this was on free to air television?

10:51 – What I’d really love to see here is this come down to the last run or wicket.  Whoever wins in the end.  For it to be tense throughout.

10:52 – Atherton raises the point that Test cricket is a far better game with the Duke than the Kookaburra.  He’s right too.  Bowlers are what make Test matches, not batsmen.   If the bowlers are flogged into the ground and can get no movement at all, then Test cricket is a very dull game indeed.  The best innings, the most memorable innings, are when faced with a challenge, not pummeling everyone around on a flattie.  Yet another area where cricket doesn’t help itself unfortunately.  Tests in England have become shorter, partly as a result of the style of play.  But this three and a bit day Test is utterly thrilling.  And that’s surely the point?

11:00 – Here we go.  Atmosphere sounds great

11:02 – Holding talking about there being no third man, and sure enough England leak one down there.  The whole no third man in Tests is fascinating, you’d have to think that the stats men in the teams have worked out everything as far as where runs are scored, but it does seem counterintuitive.  Ian Bell was a master at making captains look foolish.

11:03 – WICKET!!  Karthik gone.  Anderson seams the ball away a touch, and Dawid Malan, who hasn’t had the best of times in the slip cordon, takes a good one low down.  A couple of replays and the third umpire confirms it.  Great start for England.

11:05 – India are 113-6 and that target is looking distant.  But there’s a certain Virat Kohli still at the crease…

11:07 – Look I’ll admit it.  I love Stuart Broad.  I love his grumpy him-against-the-world-schtick, I love his sense of burning injustice, I love how he properly sticks it to the Australians.  And he’s a bloody good bowler who for some reason rubs people up the wrong way to the point they call for his dropping despite even in his quiet times still being highly effective.

11:10 – And on that point, we aren’t that far from the end of Anderson and Broad.  And what then?  Said it before, that this is the Walsh and Ambrose of the England team, and what is behind them gives cause for concern.  They are magnificent, and it’s not their fault people go over the top in their assessments of them.   We will miss them when they’re gone.

11:15 – Interesting to see the different approaches of the two bowlers.  Anderson is trying to lure the batsmen into playing outside the off stump, while Broad is targeting the stumps and making them play (nearly) every ball.

11:19 – At the sight of a giant panda in the stands, I often wonder what other nationalities make of the English predilection for going to the cricket in fancy dress.

11:26 – this is excellent bowling this morning.  Kohli is determined to get forward, and Broad nearly sconed him with a terrific short ball, and followed that up with one that swung in significantly the ball after.

11:30 – 121-6.  India inching their way forward…

11:33 – First shot in anger, a gorgeous straight drive down the ground from Pandya off Broad.  Fifteen runs this morning, and one wicket.  It’s extremely tense, as Broad answers back with one snaking past the outside edge.

11:38 – Runs starting to flow a touch…Kohli reaches his half century almost unnoticed.

11:41 – Another beautiful straight drive from Pandya.  Might be time for a change.  The reality is that Rashid is unlikely to get a bowl though, but England are leaking here, two boundaries in the over from Broad.  England don’t have enough to play with to afford this, so Stokes and Curran are now on the agenda.

11:44 – Ah, England are whining about the ball.  Some things never change.

11:45 – Stokes into the attack

11:47 – WICKET!!  Stokes get Kohli lbw, but immediately reviewed…it’s tight on the leg stump, but it’s out.  Huge wicket.

11:50 – WICKET!!  Stokes does it again.  Gets some extra bounce and Shami edges through to Bairstow.  Two in the over, the crowd go mad.  Outstanding over from Stokes, looking lethal every ball. 141-8 and England are looking firm favourites.

11:53 – 53 runs needed, and Curran comes in to the attack.  It’s all resting on Pandya now, who has looked aggressive this morning.  He trusts his partner and takes a single…suspect a lot of India fans are now praying Ishant Sharma shows hitherto unseen depths of batting skill.

11:55 – Sharma has surely hit that straight into the ground?  Yes, clearly so.  Nonsense that the umpires sent that upstairs, pure arse covering.

11:58 – The point needs saying over and over and over.  You can have gimmicks, you can target a particular market.  But when cricket is good, and Test cricket in particular, it’s very, very good.  This is thrilling stuff.

11:59 – Sharma errrr….”guides” the ball down to the third man for four.  Target is now under 50 away.  At this point it only takes a few slogs to cause panic.  Which is exactly why it’s so exciting.

12:01 – Verbals in the middle between the Indian batsmen and Stokes (obviously).

12:03 – 42 needed…The question to put out there, is at what point do England fans start crapping themselves?

12:06 – Adil Rashid on!  Mildly surprising and rather pleasing.  But it has to be with enough runs on the board for him to have a chance.  A brave decision from Root, for few of the journalists would have beaten him up had he not bowled him.  But he got Sharma in the first innings, so why the hell not?  It’s what he’s there for.

12:10 – ReviewWICKET!! Rashid hits the pads and Gaffney gives it not out.  It’s quite close…And it’s out!  Terrific delivery from Adil Rashid, who pays Root’s faith back with a fine over, and a wicket.  And with that one, he superbly sticks two fingers up at those who decided to attack Rashid for the crime of answering his country’s call.

12:13 – Rashid showing his mental fragility yet again with a superb over.  Now then, what does Pandya do here?  Field is spread as England look to try to bowl to Yadav.  This tactic can backfire sometimes, as it starts to look as they’re only trying to get one player out.  But it also puts Pandya under pressure to try to score enough runs to bring his team close without exposing his partner.

12:17 – And there’s an answer.  A magnificent shot over extra cover for four.  But it leaves Yadav to face Rashid.  Tough situation for Pandya, he has to score runs, he can’t just fiddle around getting a single at the end of the over.

12:19 – Rashid has bowled 10 overs and has 3-37 in this Test…  36 runs needed now.

12:21 – Field spread again for Stokes with Pandya on strike.

12:28 – Interestingly, England appear content to concede the single on the fifth ball of the over, leaving just one at Yadav.

12:30 – WICKET!!  Stokes does the trick, getting the outside edge of Pandya’s bat, and Cook, who hasn’t been totally reliable in the slips recently, does the rest.  ENGLAND WIN BY 31 RUNS

12:31 – Being greedy, it would have been particularly fantastic if this had got down to single figures, but the two wickets in an over from Stokes really broke the back of India’s batting, particularly when one of them was Kohli.  Kohli himself was superb this Test, and may well be in with a shout of man of the match despite being on the losing side.  But Stokes with the ball was quite outstanding this morning, as indeed was Public Enemy Number One Adil Rashid.  He can be very proud of his performances, and those who decided to pick on him rather than the selectors, can frankly get stuffed.

12:34 – England’s 1000th Test match turned out to be a very fine one indeed.  There’s plenty to criticise about the performances of both of the sides, and that England won doesn’t shut down debate about the weaknesses they’ve demonstrated here again.  Stokes will be missing from the second Test too (at the least), meaning England will certainly be weaker than they are here.  For India, their bowling looked highly effective, their batting too looked fragile, Kohli apart.  But it’s one match, and one match only.  You’d think that by now people would have learned not to extrapolate a single match over a series, but it’s nailed on that a fair few will do.

12:41 – Returning to the subject of Adil Rashid; apart from his first, solitary over before lunch on day two, he bowled very, very well.  And he batted well too, both innings.  Whatever the future may hold, he can be pleased with his performances here, and more to the point, an awful lot of people should be ashamed of how they specifically targeted him in the build up to the Test.  Sure, it was controversial that he was selected, but that wasn’t down to him, all he did was accept the request to play for his country.  Instead, he was slated, slagged off and abused.  It was disgusting and despicable.  They won’t be ashamed about it, because that’s the kind of people they are.  But they should be.  Not going to forgive that.  Cricket is a game of opinions, and whether he should or shouldn’t be playing in this England Test team is an open question, with honestly held views.  Having a go at Rashid himself is not.  And never will be.  Your cards have been marked.

12:52 – The presentations now.  Man of the Match goes to Sam Curran.  That’s ok, he was outstanding in this game, and his innings yesterday was probably the difference between the sides.  Kohli would have been every bit as good a call, but there’s something about young Mr Curran that is rather exciting.  Hopefully he won’t be over-showered with praise, for we’ve seen that far too often in recent years.  But he was a breath of fresh air.

12:58 – So there we have it.  England go 1-0 up, but there’s a long way to go.  Thanks for your company on here, there’ll doubtless be a review up at some point later, and comments below are always welcome of course.  But that was all really rather fun.

 

Day Three: A love letter to Test Cricket

For most of the summer we’ve been fed a diet of white ball cricket, of limited interest and importance, and giving rise to a sense of frustration that the best part of the summer was being wasted on cricketing frippery.  In some ways it was unfair, the white ball build up to this series was perfectly reasonable, but the insertion of the five matches against Australia undoubtedly led to ennui amongst those weird extremists called cricket fans.  And then the Tests began.

T20s and ODIs are an essential part of the cricket framework.  It may be largely a financial matter, but nevertheless they are, and they always should be.  But nothing, absolutely nothing at all, reminds everyone that Test matches are the apogee of the game more than a genuine thriller, twisting one way and then the other, despair and delight alternating between the fans and players as a battle is played out over days in varying conditions.  Individual players can turn a game in a manner beyond the raw figures of runs scored or wickets taken; the crowd can become an additional player on the field, as they roar their chosen heroes on, and the sense of tension can be palpable thousands of miles away as every single ball desperately matters.

The ECB may argue that the Hundred is a financial imperative, that the funding of the game (the professional part, anyway) is reliant on them introducing yet another competition, and yet another variation on the rules and laws of a sport in desperate trouble.  But above all else, they have given off the stench of an organisation that not only doesn’t care for the game, but one that doesn’t even like it, that constantly apologises for it, and tries desperately to make cricket less crickety wherever possible in order to sell it to a mythical hidden audience.

Sit them down.  Put them in front of this match from start to finish (whoever comes out on top), and remind them that cricket at its best remains a stunning game, a brilliant sport.  And Test cricket is the one.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with ODIs or T20s, but not a thing can approach a truly titanic Test match, being wrestled one way and then the other; with brilliance, errors, mental resilience and yes, mental fragility too.  Test matches have always been beautifully named, the stress of sporting combat writ large over several days, and when they are at their absolute best, as has been the case here, there is nothing to touch them.  Nothing in cricket, and not much in other sports either.

Cricket is not a game that doesn’t appeal to people.  Cricket isn’t a game that has to be ripped asunder and re-constructed for a 21st century audience.  It is a sport that offers its own cadences and rhythms, but can offer nerve-shredding tension like little else.  It’s not like this is unknown either – the 2005 Ashes became a national obsession not because of the detailed knowledge of the millions watching, but because the basic principles were simple and universally understood.  The intensity and fascination derived from that, not from gimmickry.  This is not to say that the answer to cricket’s woes lie in the Test arena, but it is to repeat the bleeding obvious that the ECB appears to have forgotten.  Cricket is brilliant.  Cricket is fantastic.  Cricket needs to sell itself as cricket, and the highest level is the one that is the most enthralling, most memorable, and needs to be seen by the widest possible audience.  For that is how a game succeeds, by inspiring others through showing the best of itself.  Cricket can be dull, Test matches can be dull. T20s can be exciting.  It can be every iteration within that too.  It is a sport in the round that offers a vast amount to anyone with even a passing interest should anyone care to reach out to them.

Stop apologising for it.  Embrace the sport, because it is capable of extraordinary heights, as with both yesterday and today.  For this has been a sensational match, a low scoring one (as the best ones so often are), where the batsmen have had to work hard and where the bowlers have been hunting, rather than being ground into the dust.  That is why Sam Curran’s innings today, only 63 runs that might merit barely a footnote in other circumstances became a hat to hang hopes upon as the England innings disintegrated around him.  It’s why Virat Kohli, all at sea in the early stages of his first innings knock, defied the England bowlers in the final session of the day to give his side every chance of knocking off the further 84 runs needed for victory, with half his side already in the hutch.

Tomorrow’s play will be brief – a session at best – yet it is evenly poised, with small errors on either side, or brilliance from an individual the difference between victory and defeat.  Two hours.  Less than a match in the putative Hundred, yet with a Test like this, it will cause players and supporters on both sides nervous flutters this evening about what is to come.

For today had an abject England collapse, of the kind that has become endlessly familiar recently, but it also had an Indian collapse, as Broad threatened to bowl one of “those” spells, and Anderson dredged up from the past his uncanny ability to make even very fine players look totally out of their depth.  The subplot of Adil Rashid providing sterling support for Curran, of Ishant Sharma ripping the heart out of England’s batting with skilled swing and seam.  The dropped catches of a player beginning to come under pressure for his place, among a slip cordon suddenly brittle.  And at the end of it all, seesawing one way, then the other, the teams remain evenly locked, just as they were at the start of play.

Details, details, details.  At one stage, with a crushing England defeat imminent, tonight’s post might have been a lament to the repeated failures inherent in this England team that haven’t gone away.

But sod it.  And sod the chronological blow by blow account of the day too.  This is bloody marvellous.  Go well tomorrow, you twenty two in white.  The worries about the game can wait another day.

Crashing by Design – the Adil Rashid Controversy

In the age of social media, outrage is never too far away. Sometimes it’s over a big issue, but very often it’s not, as people work themselves into a frenzy over a matter that no one had considered before to any great degree, let alone got themselves into a moral fury. In such circumstances the usual approach is to shout ever louder, and certainly never consider that someone with a different opinion might have a valid reason for feeling that way. Debate goes out of the window in a cacophony of noise and tempestuousness, and a subject that all told has limited importance suddenly becomes a cause celebre entirely out of proportion to its significance.

So it is with the curious case of Adil Rashid’s recall to the Test team for the first match against India next week. It is perhaps a slightly surprising decision, but it’s not the first slightly surprising decision, and Ed Smith has probably raised more than a few eyebrows with his inclination to think beyond the narrow parameters employed by England selectors over the last couple of years. Certainly, if some of those currently screaming are to believed, he seems to have discarded the “good bloke” (in the opinion of the ECB hierarchy) qualification in England selection that has caused no end of rancour since 2014 and seemed to defy the natural conditions of every workplace in the land. To that end, it has to be said that Smith hasn’t made a bad start. Whether individual selections are agreed with or not is entirely beside the point, his refusal to follow the path of least resistance thus far is actually rather refreshing. Given the criticism Smith has had for his past troubles with other people’s work (and rightly so – the attempted ignoring of that issue is precisely why it keeps cropping up), it isn’t always easy to give credit where it might be due and, in this case as with any selection, no one knows whether it is inspired or destined to fail. But the point is that he has shown himself prepared to take that risk. And you know what? Well done Ed Smith.

Picking a nice safe England side is easy – we can all do it, who the hell needs selectors if that’s the intention? And if the results aren’t good, well, dump a couple and bring in the latest flavour of the month on the county circuit and see if he sinks or swims. Not the selectors fault if the team isn’t good enough, they’ve all had a crack at it. See? It’s easy.

That’s why the selection of first Jos Buttler and now Adil Rashid is in itself something to be praised. Not necessarily in terms of the players themselves, for that is an arguable point, but because it implies a willingness to do more than be confined by the exceptionally messy structure of the English professional game. And herein lies the rub. For the protestations about the supposed “integrity” of the County Championship are laughable when they come from those who have agreed to, and indeed supported, every diminution in importance of what is supposed to be the proving ground for the Test team. Over the last few years red ball cricket has been pushed ever more to the margins, to the point where the bulk of it is played in April, May and September, a situation only likely to deteriorate further once the heart of the summer is given over to whatever format the Hundred ends up with, alongside the T20 Blast that also too must be given priority.

With that being the case, the role of the selectors has become either extremely easy or extremely difficult, depending on which route they go down. If they choose to only select those players who commit to the County Championship, then they lose those who disappear to the IPL (as was the case with Buttler) because that’s when most of the county matches are played until September. Complaining about players doing that is senseless. Cricketers will go where their opportunities are, and this is particularly the case for those who aren’t central to the Test team for whatever reason. If it’s a Ben Stokes, his position is sufficiently secure that it doesn’t matter – he’s in, subject to Her Majesty’s Courts And Tribunals Service – but if it’s a Jos Buttler, by no means safe in Test selection terms, it is an opportunity to maximise the income from a short career given no security in a full central contract. What on earth do people expect? A player to plod along for a relative pittance in the county game in the vague hope of a call up? Perhaps that’s exactly what they expect, yet it is always the case that the expectations of prominent sportsmen and women among the wider public jar utterly with the way they live their own lives. Offer someone a job paying twice the money, and their own loyalty vanishes in a puff of air, with few suggesting they ought to have paid more attention to the social dimension or their responsibility to a wider group.

Thus, the selectors have a dilemma. Choose who they believe to be the best players, and they are open to the accusation of ignoring the County Championship. Fail to do so, and the side they select may not be the best one available. In the case of Buttler, selecting him worked spectacularly well, his batting proving to be a highlight in both Tests against Pakistan, which certainly set him apart from anyone else. Furthermore, his selection was welcomed by the great and the good, despite barely any first class cricket over a couple of years, and with little success on the rare occasions that he did so. Indeed, since 2015, Buttler had played only six Championship matches before his Test call up, yet this was considered more than sufficient to be selected for the England team – or rather, it wasn’t, but he was called up anyway. There was plenty of scepticism about that too, but he did well, and whatever happens with him in the future, Ed Smith can feel pleased and vindicated about his decision. And rightly so too. But here’s the point: Some were uneasy with what that said about the County Championship and those players involved in it, or more pertinently not involved in it. They were subsequently drowned out by the acclaim Buttler received but they weren’t wrong to raise that question, and when they do so about Rashid they aren’t wrong now either. The debate about the merits and indeed existence of the County Championship as constituted are entirely valid matters for discussion, particularly given the concerns over the future of Test cricket, but it needs to be done from a position of consistency and not a scattergun approach based on who the latest shiny toy is.

The ones who really are wrong, the ones who invite irritation and contempt, are those who cheered to the rafters the choice of Buttler as being creative thinking, while raging about the selection of Adil Rashid now on the basis that it undermines county cricket. This is preposterous cognitive dissonance, made worse by their inability to remember what they said the previous week. In that period when Buttler has played six Championship matches, Rashid has played twenty-four, and the last time both played a Championship match was at the same juncture. It is nothing but sheer hypocrisy to approve of one and decry the other. Ah, but Rashid gave up red ball cricket they say, that’s the difference. But is it? If Buttler isn’t playing County Championship matches, then what actually is the difference? Gary Lineker has retired from international football and I haven’t, but we’ve both played the same number of games in the last few years. It isn’t a matter of what people say, but what they do.

To add to that, the structure of the County Championship itself strongly discriminates against spin bowlers anyway. The early and late season fixtures tend to help the medium-pacers who do a bit with the ball (much as Darren Stevens is a legend, it’s not perhaps his particular skills we should be seeking to emphasise) , meaning that the likes of a Rashid are of limited value, and perhaps more importantly, may not even be selected. Why have a potentially expensive leg spinner in the side in a match where the seamers are going to do the bulk of the bowling? In the Division One bowling averages this season, you have to go down to 32nd place before you find a possible England spinner (Amar Virdi) who has bowled more than 100 overs this season. Given the structure of the County Championship now, spin as a choice is thoroughly marginalised, and Rashid is far from the only one pointing this out. English cricket has not been brilliant at producing top quality spin for a very long time – Graeme Swann was a wonderful anomaly – and the endless search for one who can measure up is only made harder by playing the game in conditions alien to spinners until it comes to the main Test matches where they are called upon to perform miracles, and then criticised when they don’t.

It is here important to note what Rashid himself said when he announced his sabbatical earlier this year:

“That [lack of high summer red ball cricket] was a big part of it. Early season, I may not bowl much. A couple of overs here and there. Doing that, I wouldn’t get my rhythm — two overs before lunch, a few overs before tea. That wouldn’t help my confidence. At the stage, I’d just be going through the motions.

“It’s not a permanent thing. It’s for this season, to see how it goes, how it unfolds and what happens. See what my mind says and what my heart feels. If it changes I could be going back to red ball cricket next season.”

Very, very little of the discussion around Rashid’s selection has focused on this issue, at least until today when Jason Gillespie wrote in the Guardian about the matter, implying there was far more going on here than the narrative about a player who simply didn’t want to play red ball cricket any more. What the truth of that is, is going to be a matter of perspective, but it is at least refreshing to read an alternate take on the character of Rashid, and from someone who is in a strong position to reject the lines of those who insist they know more than anyone else, always, just because.

This doesn’t exempt Rashid from blame, for his decision to quit red ball cricket was clearly a disappointment to Yorkshire, and explains some of their misgivings over his call up, with the proviso that as Gillespie says, this is not a straightforward matter. But it does provide a degree of context, as does the at times weird treatment of him by England. He has undoubtedly shown exceptional ability at carrying the drinks, and as a result England appeared to choose him for that role on a repeated basis. When he did play a full Test series, in India, the opprobrium heaped upon him for failing to win the series bordered on the bizarre, and caused more than one or two to question why he was singled out so specifically, particularly when even some members of the media have confirmed that there was a whispering campaign against him. Attacks on his character were many, in a way few others have received recently, and that too must have contributed to his decision to stand down from red ball cricket. There will be some who consider this confirmation of the supposed character flaws but there is little quite so distasteful as the feeding frenzy among certain quarters of the press with someone either they don’t like, or they have been briefed not to like. Casting aspersions as to the motivation behind such behaviour is easy, lazy and dangerous, but it didn’t need that for many to find the persecution of Rashid far beyond what was acceptable from supposedly professional observers.

Selvey is of course one of those – never slow to remind people of his in-depth knowledge, even of golf, and back in 2016 he wrote:

“Rashid, though, is sailing close to the wind with his club and career: there are sceptics about, some with a greater depth of knowledge than most, and his card has been marked.”

This is classic Selvey, the statement that he is far brighter than everyone else, and that he has the inside track. It is highlighted not because it is wrong, but because of how the repeated nature of the attacks are principally on character, with the cricketing ability being secondary to that. Players must fit into the prescribed format defined by others, or suffer public vilification on a repeated basis, and lest anyone try to pretend it’s just about Rashid, it’s been seen far too often with far too many “difficult” players to be coincidental. Naturally, if the player answers back, this is then considered further evidence of the character flaw, as has happened with Rashid for daring to respond to Michael Vaughan’s comments. This is the justice of witch dunking.

The worst part of this is that his selection has been the excuse for this to start again. There is not the slightest thing wrong with considering Rashid of insufficient standard to play for the England Test team, but the highly personal flavour of some of the comment betrays a personal antipathy that is startling to see. Few will believe that Rashid represents the second coming of leg spin in this country, but most will accept that whether it is him or someone else, the cupboard isn’t exactly well stocked with alternatives. His tour of India has been portrayed in many quarters as an unmitigated disaster, which is a curious reading of events. Sure, he was a long way from being outstanding, but he did take more than twice as many wickets as anyone else. To put it into further context, Rashid’s 23 wickets in that series came at the cost of 37.43 per wicket. Not brilliant by any measure, yet the 17 wickets taken by every other spinner combined that England selected came at an average of 62.53. Not only is that a huge difference, but it’s also entirely symptomatic of likely England spinners’ performances in India with the exception of a single tour.

When considering the performances of England spinners in India this century it is hardly a tale of derring do. Rashid’s wicket-taking measures up perfectly well against most others, and his average is certainly not out of kilter with what should be expected. It appears – as with Moeen Ali all too often – that Rashid is berated for failing to perform above and beyond the level that should be expected of England spinners overseas not called Swann.

This still doesn’t mean that he’s the answer, and it absolutely doesn’t exempt him from debate over whether he is sufficiently good to be in the team. Nor does it mean that his selection having given up red ball cricket shouldn’t be worthy of scrutiny, but it does mean a few other things: Praising the left field selection of Buttler and screaming about the one of Rashid is nothing but rank hypocrisy. Failing to consider how we got to the point where a player who plainly wants to play Test cricket gave up the red ball version of the game is an abrogation of thinking and in a parallel universe, Adil Rashid is being praised for answering his country’s call. Lamenting the loss of integrity of the County Championship while simultaneously applauding every move the ECB makes to sideline it even further is both stupid and taking everyone else for a fool too.

Adil Rashid may be a successful pick. He may not. He may not even play, which would be an entertaining irony. Either way, Ed Smith has certainly stayed true to his expressed determination to bring a fresh approach to his role. And the ever lamentable section of the press corps have stayed equally true to their own lack of principles. Only one of those things is a pleasant surprise.

Guest Post: The County Game

Many of you will know Annie Chave from Twitter (and if you don’t, give her a follow – @AnnieChave) and here’s her thinking about how to change county cricket.  She would welcome comments, suggestions, criticisms and disagreement, but as we always say with guest posts, be nice – it’s a nervy experience to put your first article up.

A Saturday in July in one of the hottest and driest summers in living memory and there is one T20 game in the whole of the first-class cricket calendar and no Test Cricket.  This has prompted me to think how we can rescue County Cricket in our country and restore it to its former glory.  The ECB in its wisdom has negated the importance of the county championship and has relegated it to the fringes of the season, playing most games in April/early May and then finishing off the season at the fag end of the summer in August/September.  They have cashed in on the hype and the glamour of T20 cricket and given some limited importance to The Royal London Cup and the unpredictability of 50-over cricket.

Looking at the problem of planning fixtures, I can see that there is a real dilemma in accommodating three different formats in a sensible and cohesive way.  I’m not claiming to solve all problems, but I’d like to see the three existing alongside each other in a way that can work for each format.  Mine is a suggestion that lifts county cricket into the status it should have if it is to feed into the pinnacle of Test Cricket and gives T20 prime viewing time whilst giving it a lesser importance.

The obvious idea would be to shorten the county game back to 3 days, but this wouldn’t make for great games.  The pitches probably wouldn’t wear enough to bring in the spinners, and they wouldn’t therefore prepare the players for five-day Test Cricket. Games would more than likely end up with no result or, worse still, produce either an artificial one or a declaration ‘bash’, not dissimilar to T20.  I don’t think that playing on uncovered pitches is a viable option.  They bring their own problems.  So, working with what we have, I would keep the county format as it is: i.e. four-day matches, two divisions with two teams going up and two going down.   With an emphasis on consistency, we could play the games over the 22 week season (with rest weeks for The Royal London Cup to be played at different grounds) throughout the whole summer, with 16 weeks (Division 1 with 9 teams and Division 2 with 9) dedicated to the county championship and the T20 competition playing alongside each other.  The T20s could be played on the Friday nights.  The winning team of the T20 Friday game is deemed to have won the toss for the County game that starts the following day – Saturday – and runs until Tuesday, using the same squad.  This way makes the toss less a matter of luck, gives the teams practice for T20 and Test Cricket and restores the importance of the County Championship.  But perhaps the two most important things are, firstly, it will provide the T20 crowd with a link to the following championship match, heightened by a familiarity with the players who feature in both formats, and, secondly, counties will be able to develop a squad that can play all formats, thereby encouraging them not to abandon red-ball cricket.

I know that currently there is a North/South divide for T20 cricket separate from the divisions of the County Championship, but this proposal is that the T20 should mirror the Championship.  The consistency of a weekly T20 games would be massively better for TV rights, and I think home support for T20 matches is strong enough to provide sell-out games.  There would still be a finals day for T20 and for The Royal London Cup to complete their own separate competitions.

The main aim for this suggestion is that we have cricket consistently throughout the summer and not random blocks of various formats punctuated by cricket voids.  I know my alternative programme needs ironing out and that it has its problems, but it’s a suggestion I’m happy to argue over.

Annie.

Dog days

We’ve been rather quiet on here the last month or so. It’s for a number of reasons: the diet of white ball cricket in the heart of the summer allied with a football World Cup (and England’s progress to the latter stages) inevitably dominates attention. No matter what, it would be the sporting centre-piece, but it can’t be denied that cricket seemed less relevant than ever, a summer afterthought to the main events. Summoning the motivation to write pieces that were only going to echo one another has proved rather hard to do for all of us.

Fortunately, we are now beginning to approach the meat of the cricketing summer, with five Tests in six weeks that will restore somewhat the rhythm and cadence to a season. Yet the future is clearly that the Tests are to be an August feature, and a September one too, given the Ashes schedule for next year takes it well into the autumn. It’s not that this is inherently wrong, and nor is it unprecedented, but the intended sidelining of Test cricket for lucrative white ball cricket, international or domestic, few overs or many, is abundantly clear. This is the future as the ECB see it.

The sheer drivel around the Hundred continues apace. The 10 ball final over idea appears to have been nixed by the players, but now the revised “plan” appears to be something along the lines of 20×5 ball overs, but with the freedom to bowl consecutively, or even all from the same end.

It should be remembered that this was initially sold as being a simple concept, one that would attract non-cricket fans rather than the apparently detested lovers of the game. Yet we’re now in the position that even those eccentrics are helplessly confused about what on earth is going on, what the rules will be and how it helps anything. Even a bank balance. Cricket really isn’t that complicated a game yet if you listen to the ECB you’d be under the impression it was far to the north of quantum physics. But having pushed the myth of this, they now seem intent on making it even more complex in order to apparently make it simpler. This is insanity, a full on Catch 22 approach to the sport.

Of course, the fundamental point here is that they aren’t promoting cricket. They have totally lost sight, by accident or design, of what their role is meant to be – financial rewards are supposed to be there in order to support the game of cricket, not to be an end in themselves. We now have a future summer schedule where red ball county cricket is pushed ever more to the margins, a T20 Blast that is proving highly successful, 50 over competitions, white ball cricket internationally in the heart of the summer, plus a new competition that appears to be being designed to fit into the initial name with no regard for anything else.

Add to that Cricinfo reporting that the ECB are tying up a deal for 10 over cricket, and the flippant comment that what the ECB would really like is to be able to remove cricket from the equation entirely looks prescient rather than amusing. For perhaps the first time in history, a sporting body seems to loathe the game they administer, and to try to avoid it wherever possible. It would surprise no one if the word cricket was deleted from the Hundred, such is the terror of the sport by the administrators. At no point in recent years have they backed the sport, shouted about how amazing it is, how everyone should want to watch and play one of the finest games ever invented. It is all apology, all excuses.

At some point, the question of whether the ECB are fit for purpose to run cricket in this country is going to come up. It’s not there yet, but there are the beginnings of rumblings. Even the press have started to be more critical, although notably it is either those at Cricinfo, or those who are general sports reporters rather than beholden to the ECB access rules. It isn’t much, but it is growing slightly. A governing body that has no faith in its own game really ought to be disqualified from running it on those grounds alone. It is failing from the start.

For let’s be clear: if there’s one thing that anyone who loves cricket wants is that those running the game share that most basic belief. And who really thinks the ECB does any more?

England vs India: 1st ODI

Back to normal. Defeat in the World Cup doesn’t seem to have stung as much as on previous occasions, perhaps because rather than being unlucky this time, England were simply outplayed by a superior side in the end. But perhaps the striking thing was that in many ways, football did come home, as a youthful, inexperienced side managed to engage the public both on the pitch and off it. The use of social media by the players added to the sense of being “our” team, and the normal dismissal of them as millionaire, uncaring young men was placed in abeyance.

In years to come, it may be that this is the most striking element of this World Cup, and yes, its availability on free to air television to truly engage with the nation is a huge part of that.

But it’s more too, an establishment of principles, a desire to play a certain way and the willingness of the players to be a part of that, to sacrifice their personal roles for the whole. Above all else, the generation of hope for the future is what has been taken from it.

And so to cricket, where the feeling of envy for what football has achieved won’t go away. It has happened before, in 2005, but those days are long gone and more than anything, there’s no sense of any possibility that they will return. Sadness and a deep anger at that is a constant refrain.

Thus we begin the ODI series, and in an ideal world this would be the antidote to disappointment, another national side to rally around. If only. Though if even through the newspaper reports, a nation would dearly love to see an England side victorious, and grab at any bit of success there is.

The ODI series against Australia at the height of the summer felt pointless then, and feels pointless now. But it also detracted from what would otherwise have been a fairly sensible schedule against India. Three T20s, three ODIs and five Tests builds the anticipation for the main event well, and the longer white ball format perhaps gives a better indication of the merits of the sides than the shortest form (until the ECB create their latest, anyway).

So in all, this has the potential to be an interesting match up, and cricket finally has the chance to move up from footnote to byline. Progress of a sort.

Comments on the game below.