A Little Learning Can be Dangerous

So there we have it, the second Test tour of the winter is over, and England are in rude health, having dispatched South Africa and found a team.  So runs the more optimistic take after what became a dominant performance in the second half of the series, following a floundering one at the start.  Reading too much into England’s performances at any given time is a perpetual danger, but failing to give them any credit for their successes when they have them is taking a curmudgeonly attitude too far.  There were good things to take from the tour, there were examples of players finding their feet in the Test arena and the kernel of a half reasonable team was more identifiable by the end of the Tests than at the beginning.

It must be noted that South Africa weren’t far short of a rabble by the end, either broken by England or by the circumstances in which they find themselves.  Triumphalism at England’s victory has been limited, given the problems afflicting both South African cricket and the wider game.  Few in the media generally have spoken about it in depth, partly for fear of damaging the product even further, partly because of a lack of detailed knowledge about the particular difficulties faced.  It’s wise not to pretend an awareness that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t make it any less concerning to see one of the game’s major powers in such disarray, and while there are always local factors or specific challenges (Kolpak in South Africa’s case being one), there is a pattern of struggle off the field among all the nations apart from Australia, England and India.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be good teams produced, but the financial reality of the world game is predicated on ever increasing wealth accumulation by those who already have it, and descent into penury for the rest.  When ideas are mooted to “help” Test cricket (just as there have been lots of initiatives to help the FA Cup that have gone swimmingly) they always fiddle around the fringes rather than examining the fundamental imbalance in world cricket that have led to this point.  Four day Tests are proposed as a means of saving money, supposedly supporting poorer national boards, but their advocacy is from one of the wealthiest – at least before the splurge to support the Hundred drained the bank account – and is indicative of the way absolutely every option must be considered apart from those that have created the major structural mess in which the sport finds itself.

The self-interest by those who have been tasked with acting as defenders of the game never stops.  South Africa’s own shortcomings on and off the field can’t be directly addressed by the world game, but it can provide a sufficiently level playing field that South Africa have a chance of succeeding, rather than continuing to undermine any prospect of a viable long term future.  This is why the repeated claims that Test cricket is the apex of the game, the highest form of cricket, are met with such scepticism.  It’s not that every action and proposal is intended to wreck Test cricket, it’s just that if that was indeed the aim, it would be hard to see how there would be a great deal of difference in approach.

It’s not as though there aren’t enough warning signs elsewhere, even if governance has been less than stellar in many nations.  The admission of Ireland and Afghanistan to Test cricket was greeted with delight as a rare instance of the game seeking to grow its international footprint, but Ireland have already cancelled scheduled Tests because they can’t afford them, such is the loss making nature of the five day game outside England and Australia.  That the other formats benefit from the presence of Tests is rarely factored into the global reach of the sport anyway, but the point is that concepts such as four day Tests don’t resolve this fundamental imbalance in any way, nor is there any prospect of someone who isn’t a fan of five day Tests becoming one by virtue of removing a day.

All of which is to attempt to provide some context for an England success that showed significant promise, but was against a cricketing nation in real difficulties.  The next tour to Sri Lanka will be against another country struggling to maintain its cricketing base, albeit there too there are substantial self-inflicted woes.  The England players aren’t responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves, and it can seem churlish to qualify their win by rationalising the circumstances of their opponents.  But as long as the gulf between the haves and the have nots continues to widen, the premier form of cricket is in peril, and the victories against those without the means to develop their own game to the same level has to come with an asterisk, as well as making clear the laughably awful administration in England that can’t even regularly make the most of its overwhelming financial and structural advantage.

This is unfortunate.  For England have a collection of likeable cricketers who may not all be exciting in the sense used all too often by boards determined to reduce every facet of the sport to variations of T20, but who have shown a willingness and ability to grasp the nature of Test cricket itself.  Of the batsmen, Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley and especially Ollie Pope enhanced their reputations as young players with the patience to play the long form of the game at the top level, while Zak Crawley showed flashes of potential that he might be able to do the same.  Added to a core group of players in Root, the estimable Stokes and Broad whose records, whatever the blemishes, speak for themselves and there is the basis for a half decent team.

In Mark Wood and Jofra Archer there is pace to burn, and if fitness is a concern over both of them, then that is still something of an improvement on not having pace at all which has been all too frequent.  The negative comment that Archer attracts continues to baffle, but he does receive a more questioning press, shall we say, than is remotely warranted.  There are suspicions aplenty about the kind of briefing that is being carried out – it may well be denied, it may well be not true, but that suspicion exists because of the track record of various ECB personnel doing just that to certain players.  As someone once said, this is a matter of trust.

Of the players deemed to be at risk for the Sri Lanka tour, two stand out, and for different reasons.  Jos Buttler is under pressure for his place following a fairly long fallow period in Test cricket.  He has his defenders, and his basic talent is not in question, more his aptitude for the red ball game.  He simply doesn’t have the track record in either county or Test cricket to suggest this run of “form” is an anomaly rather than a reversion to the mean.  A wicketkeeper batting at seven and averaging around 30 is no disaster, certainly.  But when that wicketkeeper is primarily a batsman anyway, and when at least one of his rivals is both substantially better in that role, and also probably as a batsman too, it is increasingly difficult to make a case for him.

The other player now under pressure, to the surprise of many, is Joe Denly.  He has certainly been consistent – consistently moderate perhaps, but consistent.  Plenty of starts, plenty of decent contributions, but he’s lacked a big score or two to go with it.  What he has done though is set the tone for those around him, absorbing the new ball, putting mileage into the legs of the bowlers, and providing a platform that the middle order , glory be, have started to turn into decent totals.  To that extent, Denly’s contribution to the team could well be viewed as being significantly greater than his run totals and average might suggest.  Even so, it’s not of a level that would normally make him a certainty to retain his spot, and if Burns was fit for Sri Lanka there might have been some support for thanking Denly and moving on.  It is that the reported change would be for Bairstow to come in at number three instead that provoked some disbelief, both given his own poor performance which led to his dropping, and a technique that isn’t often described as tight.  It is one report, so we shall see.

Prior to the series, indeed after the first Test, an analysis of what might constitute England’s best team, and what changes might be made would have been a problematic matter to debate.  Not because of limited options but rather despair as to where to begin, so many were the holes in the team, so varied were the disasters.  England are a hell of a long way from even approaching being the finished article, but perhaps there is the basis of something with which to work in the years ahead.  All that is needed is opposition comprising more than two other teams for them to measure themselves against.

 

Castle on the Hill: 4th Test, Day Two

The first Test of this series seems an awfully long time ago, and as we approach the conclusion of the red ball part of this tour, England are tightening the screw and exerting ever greater dominance by the day. Having waited a couple of years to score 400 in a Test match, England did it again for the second game running, and on a pitch offering a little more to the bowlers than at Port Elizabeth. It was also something of a bonus – England had batted passably well – although no one scored more than the 66 that Zak Crawley managed – but following a mini-collapse leaving England 318-9, a rollocking last wicket stand between Wood and Broad raised England from a reasonable total to a good one.

Tail end partnerships invariably invoke diametrically opposed emotions from those watching, for the English it was a hoot, both in terms of Wood’s clean striking and also in providing an echo of the days when Stuart Broad was so nearly a genuine all rounder. His batting decline has been precipitous, and given England’s determination to pick bowlers who can score runs, there will come a time when his relegation to number eleven is the determining factor behind him being dropped. More than anything else, that feeling of slight melancholy (allied with giggles) when he hits the ball as superbly as he did today can’t be avoided. It remains mystifying that over several years his decline was accepted as one of those things by the various coaching teams. Ironically enough, in the last year he has looked just a little better, albeit from a low base.

For South Africa, that partnership was a shambles – up to eight fielders on the boundary bowling to numbers 10 and 11 was surely the wrong way to go, even if captaincy and bowler meltdowns when faced with tail end slogging are far from unusual. South African minds are showing all the signs of being thoroughly scrambled now.

If South Africa have been guilty all too often of gifting their wickets this series, England deserve plenty of credit for the way they left their hosts in tatters today. Sure, Dean Elgar will have nightmares about the way he slapped the ball to point, but in general it was English excellence that worked its way through the top order. It’s not to pretend that South Africa’s batting is at a level where it ought to resist, because it has been brittle to the point of disintegration, but today they were trying everything to survive, they just got stuck, strokeless and the pressure ramped up as the run rate plummeted. On this occasion, England did bowl superbly, extracting far more life from the surface than their counterparts and generally just being too good for the South African batting. Wood’s dismissal of Malan was clocked at 94.4mph – the second fastest wicket taking ball by an Englishman recorded (Steve Harmison holds that particular record, a desperately unfortunate Glenn McGrath failing to deal with one at 97mph). One thing England have lacked in some years is bowling variety; with a left armer in Curran, a tall and brilliant seamer in Broad, a genuine pace merchant in Wood (or Archer) and an all rounder at the height of his powers in the shape of Ben Stokes, they have a balanced enough attack. Woakes as the traditional English seamer fits in to this bowling line up in a way that he doesn’t with the four right arm medium quicks they have had all too often.

Stokes offers mongrel to the England side in more than one way, and today was fined 15% of his match fee and handed a demerit point for his curiously old school volley of abuse to a spectator last evening. It was a relatively minor transgression by the Ed Sheeran lookalike, and the punishment is appropriate enough, but it is another reminder that while he remains the MVP in the England team, things like this will be accepted. When he goes through a rough patch, or his powers begin to wane, keep an eye out for the stories starting to appear about him being hard to manage – the modus operandi of the ECB is too frequent to ignore.

England didn’t pick a spinner, to consternation in some quarters, but the evidence so far suggests they haven’t made a mistake. That may yet prove an oversight by day four, should we get there, but as things stand the seamers are being rotated, and rotated to effect. Perhaps the bigger miss was for South Africa, who had no options when Broad and Wood were frolicking in the middle.

The plight of South African cricket – in which England themselves are certainly complicit – provokes a sense of gloom for anyone who loves this stupid game. It makes any praising of England laced with concern as they go about their business of beating up a national team who we desperately need in the world game. But it does need to be said that by one means or another, England are beginning to identify the core of what might be a half reasonable side. If Joe Denly is unlikely to have a long term future in the team, he has at least brought a degree of discipline that has rubbed off on those with more natural ability than him, and to that extent if nothing else, he’s performed a valuable service to English cricket. Likewise, the improved overall disposition has highlighted specific problem areas that were previously just part of an endless list of disasters to be dealt with. Jos Buttler’s struggles with the bat were disguised among everyone else’s – now they are abundantly clear.

We are two days in to this game, and the outcome of this match is pretty clear, barring miracles. The depression of South African cricket lovers, not at the state of this series but at the state of the sport, mitigates the degree of satisfaction their English counterparts at the way their team is progressing. England are not even close to the finished article, but they do at least look like they have a plan. After several years of circling the drain, that is welcome. If only the world game could develop a similar plan to allow all nations to compete on an even basis.

SA v England, 3rd Test: Day Four – Spiralling Down

There is a long standing tendency in some quarters to never give England any credit for their successes – it’s always that the opposition have been poor, or missing players, or some other conspiracy causing the freak outcome of England winning a game, or God help everyone, a tournament.  It’s not just a cricket thing either, it can be any sport at all, where any achievement can only be explained by a confluence of freak events to change the right and proper outcome that any team but England should win.  Naturally, the idea of England winning anything is an unpopular one around the world from their rivals, so it’s unsurprising enough, but no less tiresome in its repetitiveness.

Weather permitting, England will win this match and go into a 2-1 series lead with one to play.  Indeed, no-one should ever refrain from reminding those who wish to shorten the Test game that the rain over the last two days would have likely caused this match to end in a draw.  England have been much the superior side from the start, and have shown promising signs of understanding how to build a Test total and exploit that subsequently.  They have had the advantage of winning the toss (again), and the best of the conditions, but they have made use of their advantage well, both with bat and ball.

With that said, and paying all due respect to England’s display, it cannot be denied that South Africa have been poor all game, and utterly woeful today.  The truncated morning session saw the last 4 first innings wickets fall for a single run, with a succession of dreadful shots that re-defined the description “loose”, and a lack of application that in the circumstances astounded.  The pitch surface has remained slow, the bounce continues to be fairly even with relatively little sideways movement, and while South Africa have been outplayed, a draw was far from out of the question, particularly so given the poor weather forecast, which might still come to the hosts rescue despite a day as abject as even the worst South African pessimist might have feared.

The principal members of the England attack bowled well enough to be rewarded with wickets, that it was Joe Root who proved to be the nemesis for the South African order with his Test best bowling figures is a serious indictment on their own performance.  One or two batsmen can feel they were got out – the look of complete confusion on Dean Elgar’s face as his off stump cartwheeled out of the ground was a picture – but most dismissals were either soft or reckless, Quinton De Kock falling very much into the latter camp twice in the day.

It remains a curious truth that being out to a defensive shot is often forgiven more than when dismissed to an attacking one, but so many of the attempted defensive strokes were sufficiently poor in thinking and execution that in themselves they will have infuriated the supporters and coaching staff alike.  Which is unfortunate on two counts, firstly that it does take away somewhat from the praise England are due, but also that having adopted a thoroughly defensive approach to their second innings, to fail to manage the basics is extremely poor.  The collapse in the morning session ensured that any realistic prospect of batting long enough to overhaul England’s first innings and take time out of the game that way, but it remained a strange approach to saving the game all round, making De Kock’s dismissals in particular look even worse.

Saving the match isn’t out of the question if it rains heavily, but in truth South Africa just don’t deserve the kind of luck that would involve.  Had England played in the same way (and they have done on many occasions in recent years), the fury would have been palpable and justified.  England do deserve the credit coming their way and don’t always receive it when they should do.  But today was a dreadful, appalling performance from the home team, one that deserves the opprobrium they will locally receive.  To that extent, it’s a pity, because England have (whisper it) shown one or two signs of learning this series.  Yet it can’t be denied that today in particular was more about one side giving up than the other exerting its superiority.  One sided cricket is rarely engaging, and if England exhilarated in their catching at times – Pope in particular – all too often they merely had to wait for the error that invariably came.  Faf Du Plessis made no excuses afterwards for their performance, which is to his credit, and the wider problems of South African cricket are well known.  But it was a batting performance that fundamentally lacked pride, and for any observer, that is the one thing they won’t forgive.

 

Back to it, Once Again

A Test series of more than three matches – ideally five, but four will have to do here – allows the advantage to move back and forth without a single win appearing to be quite so decisive overall.  It’s an obvious truism, but no less acute for all that.  England’s levelling of the series with two to play kindled further interest in the outcome of a clash between two sides who have clear flaws, but are fairly well matched against each other.  Sometimes a lack of quality fails to affect the intrigue, for that is more a question of rational consideration than emotional response.

Thus the main consideration in terms of the outcome of the Port Elizabeth Test is which version of either side will turn up – the reasonably good or the very, very bad.  The batting of both teams is inordinately brittle, there are players within the line-ups who can turn the entire match in a session, and there are no guarantees about the fitness of the participants – albeit in that last instance England appear rather more vulnerable given the rate of sickness and injury they’ve incurred.

The loss of James Anderson for the rest of the tour (and that will raise some longer term questions as is always the way when a player is getting long in the tooth) limits England’s pace bowling decisions to either Mark Wood or Jofra Archer, with the whisper being that it will be the former who gets the nod, either because of doubts over Archer’s recovery from his elbow injury, or because Wood has impressed in the nets.  Which of those is the more accurate depends somewhat on whether you wish to see the choice as a positive or negative.  Wood was certainly outstanding in his last Test match, but that was a year ago and several injuries distant.  Wood is far from a rarity among England bowlers in struggling to stay fit for any length of time, and frequently has flattered to deceive in his Test career.  But few would begrudge him the chance to show what he can do, all the while keeping fingers crossed that he can stay fit, and do himself justice.  A fully fit Wood and a fully fit Archer is no bad selection decision to have to make, and in either case the thrill of watching a fast bowler remains ever present.

Dom Bess seems certain to keep his place given the return home of Jack Leach, and probably would have done even had there been a late recovery.  Nothing but sympathy and best wishes to Leach from all quarters, but even from the outside it looked a sensible decision to allow him to go back to England.

For South Africa, the only rumoured change is Dane Paterson for Dwaine Pretorius, a mooted selection that would suggest the pitch at Port Elizabeth will indeed have a bit more life in it than has been the case on previous occasions.  If so (and photos of the prepared pitch don’t suggest a batting paradise), then additional pace from both teams may make batting even more difficult than these two often manage to make it look.  A slow, low pitch is something that few want to see, for the cricket is turgid, but a contest between bat and ball is not an unreasonable expectation.

As for hopes for the game, if another one going to the wire on the final day is a little too much to ask for, some solid batting to take the game into the latter part of the game would be good to see, if only to prevent the four day Test brigade from starting up their campaign again.  On which subject it has been pleasing to note Test cricketers, player organisations and even the MCC come out firmly against shortening the format.  In normal circumstances this might be thought to be more than sufficient opposition, but in these times where the governing bodies care little for the integrity of the sport and everything for the currency exchange markets, nothing is certain.  A debate on equalising to at least some degree the game’s revenues would answer so many of the (true enough) concerns about the costs of hosting Tests,  but as ever with the avaricious Big Three, this is too much to ask.

Curiously, one justification for considering the move is that Tests haven’t always been five days in duration, ranging from timeless Tests at one extreme to three day matches at the other.  This is certainly true, but it is a bizarre rationale to suggest how the game was played in the first half of the last century is a template for the future direction, and not one that the likes of the ECB have ever made before.  It seems reasonable on the same basis to look out for other such returns to the past as valid matters for review.  Presumably fast leg theory is also up for a return, along with uncovered pitches and the banning of helmets.  There is nothing wrong with debate, there is everything wrong with mistaking moves over more than a century towards what the game itself felt the most suitable format with some kind of belief in the sanctity of the duration for its own sake.

The series is level, there are five days of Test cricket this week to enjoy in a match where either side can win.  Sport for sport’s sake is never a bad starting point.

 

 

Cape Town: The Five Day Test Strikes Back

Extraordinary finish.  If the advocates of four day Test cricket are feeling a bit stupid right now, it’s because their idea was stupid, is stupid, and they deserve calling out on it at every single opportunity.

Yes, England won this match, but that’s not remotely the point and never was.  Throughout this final day the twists and turns, the likelihood of South Africa heroically batting out a draw or England grabbing the needed wickets captured the attention, not because of hopes for one side or the other, but because it was the very essence of Test cricket.  There is simply nothing like the countdown of overs on the final day of a closely fought match, where the desperation of the batsmen to stay in or the bowlers to make the breakthrough turn the sometimes sluggish pace of Test cricket into a riveting gladiatorial contest.  England winning is irrelevant to the wider point – had South Africa clung on for another 8 overs, it would have been every bit as special.

It’s not that every game is like this, or even that it can be like this.  It’s that removing the possibility of the game reaching the extraordinary heights of which it’s capable is nothing short of epic vandalism from people who ought to know better.  Football has plenty of 0-0 draws, rugby has penalty-fests, but the value of extraordinary sport is in the mundane as much as the exceptional, for without the routine you cannot identify the special.

The memories of this day will be off Ben Stokes dragging England over the line through sheer force of will, ripping apart the tail in the final session.  Zak Crawley’s superb reaction catch to dismiss Anrich Nortje at the second attempt.  Quinton de Kock looking entirely at ease before a shockingly executed shot that opened the door for England to force their way through.  Vignettes of play linger, far more than the individual procession of what happened and when, and it requires the first four days in order to generate the circumstances whereby this can happen.  Stokes himself passionately defended the five day game in his interview afterwards to cheers from those present, and more cheers from those around the world watching.

If it sounds like a love letter to Test cricket, then it’s because it is.  There is nothing wrong with it that requires major surgery to the playing conditions.  It’s not to say there aren’t things that can be done to protect and nurture the game, nor that innovation shouldn’t be considered and implemented if it helps both the popularity and, most important of all, respects the way the game is played and any effect on it.  Day/night Test matches may not be something that appeals to everyone, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the sport itself in the way that amputating 20% of the play does, the way removing the drama of a pitch deteriorating on a daily basis over the full length of the game does.

Add in to that the pacing, whereby a match has space for Dom Sibley to score a patient, disciplined hundred, for Ben Stokes to tee off in pursuit of a declaration, or for Rassie Van Der Dussen to score a mere 17 runs, but over such a length of time and with such skill that so nearly got his team to a precious share of the spoils.

And let’s remember the crowd.  The Barmy Army, all too often the subject of criticism from those sat in front of their televisions, or watching in the ground and having got in for free, they play a part in ensuring the match is played in a lively, and ultimately raucous atmosphere.  They aren’t beyond reproach, they can be annoying to sit next to, but they also spend vast amounts of their own money supporting the team all around the world, and making a material difference to local economies wherever they go.  Those who travel in huge numbers who aren’t part of the Barmy Army, but who travel across the world to do the same thing.  England cricket fans who follow the team are a special breed, and they deserve days like these as much as anyone.

Cricket needs moments that raise it above and beyond the routine.  T20 has its place, and as a means of growing and developing the game it is the ideal vehicle.  But it cannot and must not be the only form viable to those who want to inhabit the game, who want to live the sport, get deep inside it and appreciate every facet of it.

South Africa played more than their part in making this a day of defence of the highest part of the game, they acted as ambassadors for the game of cricket.  The flaws in the international game, and in these two teams are evident, but today it doesn’t matter, for it was nothing more than a response by 22 cricketers to those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  The weaknesses of the two sides can be saved for another day, for right now what matters is the game, the sport, the very existence of and justification of Test cricket.

Test cricket is priceless.  It showed it yet again today.

Cape Town Test, Day Four: Hard Pounding, Gentlemen

There is a temptation to get bored with repeatedly pointing out to the ECB that if this was a four day Test, England would have had to pull out much earlier to try to force a win, and that we would probably be talking about a drawn game right now.  It is a temptation that should be resisted, for the fact that this match is going to go deep into the fifth day, or even finish as a draw is something they don’t want to hear, and will swiftly ignore in favour of their ludicrous plans to hamstring Test cricket once memories of this game have started to fade.  Technically, all results remain possible, and while a South African win appears to be the wildest of fantasies, that is hardly the point – this match is going to go more or less the distance, with the result uncertain.

There is not a single person currently uninterested in this game who would be more interested had there been one day fewer, and a hell of a lot of people who are interested who would be deeply frustrated this evening had this been the bastardised version of Test cricket the governing bodies, the guardians of the game, wish to see.  Never let them forget it, never stop reminding them how their plans have absolutely nothing to do with the health of the sport and everything to do with the health of their bank balances.  Banging on about the same subject is tiresome, but they are hoping for that ennui, that fatigue to be the predominant response.

Going into the fifth day tomorrow, England require 8 more wickets after a dominant first half of the play, and a fine rearguard from South Africa in the second.  If the abiding individual curiosity at the start of play was whether Dominic Sibley would reach his maiden Test century, no one told Ben Stokes, who launched a furious assault from the start, largely but not exclusively against Keshav Maharaj.  Three sixes, including one quite glorious punch back over Dwaine Pretorius’ head took all the pressure off Sibley, who was able to cruise fairly serenely to his century as Stokes smashed his way to 72 off 47 balls.  If his dismissal was a disappointment, the rest of the middle order attempted to maintain the impetus.  Buttler made only 23, but in the circumstances his score was less important than the rate of scoring, and Sibley himself began to up the ante as England closed in on a declaration.

One hundred doesn’t a Test player make, but nor should it be overlooked in a side where centuries have been somewhat rare in recent times.  Sibley might look awkward in his stance, but he played with discipline and to his strengths.  There have been enough players over the years with slightly awkward approaches who have been successful to not discount what he is trying to do, and if he maximises his returns through batting this way, then along with Rory Burns (this could be the crabbiest opening pair England have had in years) England might just have an opening partnership worthy of the name.  Certainly his innings of 133 in 313 balls represents one of the longest innings by anyone not called Cook in several years, and in a side crying out for permanence at the crease, this is welcome in itself.

England’s batting was placed slightly into context by the relative ease with which South Africa batted in their long haul to try and save the game.  While not totally discounting a freak outcome , a world record target of 438 is implausible to say the least, barring Stokes/Perrera levels of ridiculousness tomorrow.  It’s a world record for a reason.  The pitch didn’t remotely misbehave, with debate surrounding whether the ball did more in the sunshine than when cloudy, suggesting that general levels of utter cluelessness amongst absolutely everyone as to why the ball behaves as it does is just as strong in 2020 as all previous years.  Maybe there’s something in it, and if so, England will be pleased as the forecast for tomorrow is to be hot and sunny.

In trying to save a match, every team has at least one player felt to be the one needed to bat long in order to have a chance, and it’s not being too presumptuous to assume that South Africans would have felt that Dean Elgar was that man.  He looked entirely at ease against everyone except, surprisingly, Joe Denly, whose part-time legspin extracted some often vicious turn and bounce from outside the left hander’s off stump.  His dismissal was mildly controversial, England’s appeal for a catch behind being upheld, and on review the tiniest, less than conclusive squiggle appearing on snicko.  If Elgar had been given not out, you’d imagine there was insufficient grounds to overturn him, but he was and so the same principle applied, and realistically there was no other decision the third umpire could have made – which isn’t to say conclusively that he hit it.

It was Pieter Malan who instead became the wall England spent their day trying to breach, without success.  On debut, he batted beautifully, defensively, and rarely appeared troubled at all.  Only the late wicket of Zubayr Hamza gave England cause for celebration, and with 56 overs gone, but the ball just starting to reverse, they were fairly slim pickings in 56 overs.

England will have a second new ball to come, they certainly haven’t bowled poorly, and they continue to have a great chance of squaring the series.  But it hasn’t been easy, and as the man said, we will have to see who will pound longest.

Cape Town, Day 2 – International Rescue

In as far as England have been competitive over the last few years, it’s generally been on the back of the bowling attack resurrecting hopes despite modest batting performances.  It is because of those mediocre batting displays that the bowling attack having an off day intensifies the outcome because of a lack of runs in the previous innings, or a lack of anticipated runs in the one to come.  The running joke has always been that England respond to batting failures by dropping a bowler, a gag that has more than some basis in truth.

England’s total of 269 was disappointing, again, but the response from the bowlers was enough to dig England out of the hole of their own making, and while some of the South African wickets were every bit as self-inflicted as in England’s innings, that shouldn’t mean the efforts of the attack need be overlooked or diminished.  There is a notable difference between the negative tactic of bowling dry that England revert to all too often, and one of pressurised containment adopted today.  All of the bowlers were tight, hard to score off, while carrying a threat throughout.  Stuart Broad was outstanding early on, threatening to rip through the top order in his customary way when it’s a Stuart Broad Day, ultimately denied when on a roll by a big overstep that cancelled out a cheap dismissal of Rassie Van Der Dussen who went on to score 68.  Umpires failing to call no balls has become a significant issue in Test cricket, and at least a dozen examples of unpunished breaching of the line were cited around the period in which the wicket was overturned.  Where responsibility lies for this is an open question – clearly the bowler is prime villain as he needs to keep some part of his foot behind the line, but failing to call them unless a wicket falls is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.  It is true that there is greater scrutiny by television, but it seems like umpires are more reluctant to call them in the first place.  The outcome is that no one benefits, which is why it’s hard to comprehend the lack of concern or action by the authorities for something that’s a fairly easy fix.

If asking the umpires to call the no balls is not going to happen, then divesting that responsibility to a third umpire seems the obvious solution.  Bowlers could help themselves by abiding by the line in training, rather than practicing no balls, something they appear to do despite pleadings from the Test arena to the village nets.  But the game too could ensure the law is enforced, and is failing to do so.  Watching a third umpire endlessly replaying whether a fielder has touched the boundary rope while utterly ignoring a simple facet of cricket is a wholly unnecessary frustration.

Of the other bowlers, James Anderson looked far more like himself in this innings than at Centurion, and perhaps his rustiness there should have been forgiven more than it was.  Either way, here was a threat, especially against the tail late on.  Both he and Broad were economical without being wasteful of the ball or negative in line, which forever makes it a puzzle that they don’t bowl like this all the time.  It is always churlish to criticise a pair with a thousand Test wickets between them, but the suspicion that they could have been even better with a greater willingness to go for runs is far from a fringe view.

Of the support bowlers, Stokes was relatively indifferent, but made up for that with four outstanding catches (and a couple of drops, difficult chances though they were) in the slip cordon.  The difference it makes to any team when the close fielders pull off the kinds of snaffles that he routinely does is immense, and something England have been lacking recently.  But it was Sam Curran and Dom Bess who were the relatively unsung heroes – in the former case because he appears to be one of those players who makes things happen.  His dismissal of Quinton De Kock was a superb change of pace that made the left hander look rather silly as he sliced it up in the air.  Many a batsman will have winced seeing someone be so thoroughly outwitted – it never looks good.

As for Bess, he bowled tightly and with discipline, and if he didn’t particularly turn the ball, then on a day two surface that shouldn’t be held against him.  What it did do though was allow the seamers to be rotated while he ensured control – a highly promising performance if he can maintain it.  He tied down Dean Elgar to the point that on 88, he had a horrendous swipe at one outside off stump and was caught at long off, departing the play distraught at his error.  In such cases it is a mix of a bowler earning the wicket and the batsman throwing it away, any observer can decide where they sit on that scale.  Berating the top scorer for getting out is a common pastime, but it did look the kind of mistake enough to cause hair to be torn out by team mates and supporters alike.

The match is relatively even after two days, with England perhaps slightly the ascendant; a tribute to England’s bowling today, and the often comedy batting of both sides.  Weak batting line ups can make for entertaining viewing, but the mooted suggestion of four day Tests isn’t going to be harmed by the inability of either of these sides to bat properly.  The suspicion that this series is going to be won by the least inept batting won’t go away.

South Africa will go into day three 54 behind with just two wickets remaining.  If the wickets fall quickly, that’s a decent lead for England, if the tail can close to within 20, it is of little relevance.  South Africa might have to bat last, but England have to bat next, knowing one more collapse will cost the series.  It is indicative of where we are that followers of both teams have sufficiently little faith in their batting that they all fear the worst.  But today was an enjoyable watch, in itself that is welcome.

 

Five Days in January

Given the news that England are pushing for four day Tests, the worst outcome at Newlands for the ECB would doubtless be a match that went into the fifth day.  Or that would be the case if anyone truly thought that cricketing requirements made the slightest difference in their quest for short term cash.  Still, it would have the advantage of being mildly embarrassing to have them reminded yet again that at least half of Tests do go to the fifth day, and the groundstaff at Newlands are rumoured to be playing their part by preparing a batting friendly pitch.  That being said, unless it’s slow and low, England have shown plenty of aptitude in terms of backing up their board on the pitch by flopping badly with the bat whenever the opportunity arises, so guarantees are in short supply.

England’s biggest doubt (at least until Rory Burns injured himself playing football) seems to be Jofra Archer, struggling with an elbow injury in the build up.  Should he not make it, then a one paced seam attack will be the outcome, and the Archer-meter will veer back to the “essential” side of the display, highlighting yet again that a player is never more valuable than when he’s not in the team.  If Archer is missing it will also postpone any decision about who to leave out from Centurion.  England made protestations about being happy to make the tough decisions over Broad and Anderson, which more than anything suggested they weren’t happy at all about it, though given the difference in performance between the two in the first Test, it’s curious that anyone would think it that hard a decision in the first place.

The main difference is potentially (though apparently not certainly) the selection of a spinner this time around, with the speculation being that Dom Bess is likely to get the nod in the continued absence of Jack Leach.  Not for the first time, selection policy is where eyes roll and heads shake, and in terms of how England handle their spinners, it’s more a permanent fixture over the last half decade or so, as they forever undermine their own processes and their own players.

Will MacPherson wrote a piece highlighting how the mismanagement of Moeen Ali has left England without the option of recalling him this series, and while Moeen’s dropping from the England team last summer was more a mercy than a blow, it is symptomatic of the inability of the management structure to treat players like valued staff instead of commodities that they managed to turn a necessary decision into a mess.  Moeen had and has severe limitations, but in that he is little different to any of the other options who don’t have even his level of Test success to fall back on.  This is forever the conundrum – awareness that the alternatives are unlikely to be any better shouldn’t be a reason to never make a change, but when making that change, to burn bridges with those who have had at least some success is the kind of ineptitude that England appear to specialise in.

That Leach has been poorly for a while is just unfortunate, though it should be noted that his main contributions in his Test career to date have been more with the bat than the ball – a particular irony given Moeen’s status as a batsman and part-time spinner converted into the main slow bowler – re-inforcing the central issue that the dearth of spin in the English game has no obvious resolution in current circumstances.  That those circumstances are self-inflicted by a board who prefer white ball cricket to the challenge of the longer game is a wider point that should never be overlooked.

The more immediate sour taste would be at the treatment of Matt Parkinson, the second spinner in the Test party until illness spread through the squad prior to the first Test resulting in Bess’s call up.  While it’s true that selection shouldn’t be automatic, to select a player in the original squad and then overlook them in favour of someone not even in it originally will hardly motivate Parkinson to feel he’s part of the set up.  That he’s a leg spinner is part of the problem, for England haven’t shown a great deal of faith or management skill in any of the options they’ve had for the hardest of bowling arts over many years, with Adil Rashid being the latest whipping boy all too often, in the press as much as elsewhere.  The revolving door of England spin selection for players not called Swann and over-expectation of what they might achieve has been a constant for a number of years now, with no sign that it will change any time soon.

The batting options were initially confined to a question of whether Ollie Pope comes in for Jonny Bairstow or not.  England have defended the latter with the age old “playing well in the nets” rationale, but Bairstow only played in the first Test due to Pope being ill, so it seems likely he will return to the middle order.  However, the news today that Burns had hurt his ankle playing football set off another round of comment about whether the team should be playing such a sport in advance of matches.  My own view on this is pretty simple – injuries happen in practice, warm ups are necessary in themselves, and  young athletes want to play games.  Wrapping them in cotton wool is neither possible nor desirable.  Players forced to sit around or do gentle sit ups for fear of breaking would go stir crazy anyway, and that’s before the likely increase in muscular injuries without regular and fairly intense exercise.  Shit happens.

For South Africa, the one probable change is the injury enforced omission of Aiden Markram, with Pieter Malan the man tipped to replace him at the top of the order.  Temba Bavuma has been released from the squad and told to go and make domestic runs, so the superbly named Rassie van der Dussen keeps his place.  Having progressively demolished England in the first Test, all is pretty well with the hosts’ camp, an illustration of how rapidly things can change in short order.  The fundamentals of this series haven’t particularly changed, South Africa’s batting is still brittle, and their back up bowling is as much a concern as it was before the series got under way.  But it is indicative of the way one side seized their opportunities and the other wilted under pressure.

Momentum is as irrelevant in a Test series as it’s ever been, but England will have to perform dramatically better in all facets of the game to get back into this, and while it’s possible that they may do so, another defeat will only increase the clamour from the stands and the press box for a plan to improve.  If only the problems afflicting English cricket had been in any way predictable.

South Africa vs England, 1st Test: Omnishambles (Slight Return)

This Test might have lacked one of England’s now iconic 50 all outs, but taken as a whole this match has highlighted once again the deep structural problems in the England team.  Yes, there has been illness, and as a result even those players who were fully healthy by the start of the game were likely undercooked, but as excuses go, this only offers up a plausible response if the team generally performs at a higher level than this.  England don’t, this is more of the same, more of the usual failings.

Putting the opposition in might have been a gamble, but this game wasn’t won or lost at the toss, but in the manner of the performances thereafter.  England had South Africa in trouble at 111-5 and let them get away to a workable total.  This happens all the time, to the point that England in recent times have the highest bowling average of any Test side for the last three wickets.  They followed that up with the normal abject collapse in the first innings losing their last 7 wickets for 39 runs.  Again, so customary, so repetitive.

Having conceded a sizeable first innings lead, England again bowled pretty well initially, only to utterly fall apart as the deficit grew, whether by accident (which lacks discipline) or design (which lacks brains).  And then when given a virtually impossible target, they batted pretty well, but were still needing to rely on a miracle of Headingley proportions to pull off the win.  Those events just don’t happen very often, which is why they’re considered miracles.

And here’s the rub.  We’ve written all this before.  You’ve read it all before.  You’ve screamed at the television watching another middle order player with their feet in treacle throwing their hands at a wide one and getting caught.  We’ve seen Jos Buttler end up holing out because he has no choice but to go into T20 mode when batting with the tail.  That doesn’t for a moment exempt him from the longer term problems of which he is part, but it is another repeat of the same old afflictions and the entirely predictable way this game ultimately panned out.

For South Africa came into this Test match in disarray, and England not only didn’t take advantage, but they were pretty heavily beaten.  Again.  Sickness throughout the squad can be pointed to as a factor, but patience has been exhausted with this team – there’s always a damn excuse for yet another capitulation.

It’s not so many years since England smugly discarded players with Test records the current lot could only dream of on the grounds of preparing for the future.  That future is now, and it really doesn’t look very good at all.  Individual players are still scapegoated, – Jofra Archer before his five wickets in the second innings was getting plenty of stick, a new, raw fast bowler ground into the dirt with a workload more suited to a stock bowler than a strike one; he was mishandled in New Zealand, and then berated for failing to put right all the myriad flaws in English cricket.

Broad and Anderson have been superb servants of English cricket, but they are coming to the end, and they aren’t, can’t be, at the same kind of level they were in years past, and the cupboard is pretty bare. For all their peculiar flaws upstairs for players with so much experience, it’s hard to believe things are going to get better once they’re gone. On the batting front, Rory Burns has shown there is something there to work with, but while the top scoring player should never be singled out, it’s still true that when that top score is 84, the team won’t be winning many matches.  Joe Root and Ben Stokes are the big names in the middle order, but the most solid player in the line up is a 33 year old who responds to a deficit in ability at Test level with sheer bloody-mindedness.  Joe Denly deserves immense respect for extracting every ounce of talent he has, but when he is the one most likely to dig in for the long haul, and a feeling of impending doom with his dismissal is present, it says everything about the level England are operating at.

Even those players who do have the ability have compromised their Test games in pursuit of white ball riches.  Joe Root, however frustrated a figure he cuts when he gets out, is a shadow of the Test batsman he looked prior to attempting to move into T20 leagues, Jonny Bairstow’s technique (never his strongest feature) has disintegrated to the point where the tactics against him have been simplified to either bowling straight or bowling wide and waiting for him to get out.  Jos Buttler shows little sign of becoming a fully fledged Test batsman after nearly 40 Tests.

If the players just aren’t that good, the thinking and the planning at every level of English cricket is worse.  The mentality of the approach is invariably wanting, epitomised by the tactics of bowling bouncers on a surface crying out for the ball to be pitched up.  England do this time and again, misreading conditions, making the wrong call in selection and at the toss.  They are less than the sum of their parts on every occasion, and the antithesis of a team like New Zealand who still manage to compete overall with a fraction of the resources despite their recent hammerings in Australia.  The difference between a side that has a strategy and one wildly thrashing about in the dark is apparent.

It isn’t just about the Test team either.  This is an endemic, systemic issue afflicting the whole of English cricket.  The Hundred in itself is just another form of cricket, the mentality and approach that resulted in its formation though, is another instance of failing to see the wood for the trees.  This is institutional incompetence from top to bottom, and while they can legitimately point to a World Cup victory as proof of a strategy, the response to that of effectively scrapping the domestic 50 over competition was most representative of the utter confusion throughout the administration.

England just don’t learn, English cricket just doesn’t learn.  In this Test match the spirited attempt at a preposterously unlikely target is considered mitigation for the circumstances that led them to need such a low probability outcome in the first place.  Whether it be Stokes or Kusal Perera, the fact that every team is going to be nervous while they’re at the crease doesn’t make it any more likely they’ll turn once a career performances into once a series ones, and hoping for them to do so is a triumph of hope over reality.

Test cricket fundamentals haven’t changed, not even in an era of T20 dominance.  A big first innings score means a team will win a lot more matches than they lose, and for England a big first innings is now 300, not 500.  There are three tours scheduled this winter, as things stand, and even playing teams that aren’t all that great, the distinct possibility of losing the lot is a live issue.  South Africa are a long way from the powerful unit that they have been in the past, but in comparison (and in comparison is the important point here) they look cohesive, well drilled and simply superior.  They didn’t even have to play that well to hand out a drubbing this match.

If the performance of the team itself is a kick to the nether regions of increasingly annoyed supporters, the awarding of an honour to Colin Graves in the New Year list was more of a laughable joke.  The honours system is one that people either approve or disapprove of, and it’s always going to cause ructions when it comes to the individuals chosen.  Yet as usual, it’s a faceless suit that picks up the best gong going in English cricket (a knighthood for Clive Lloyd, a pleasure, isn’t a reflection on cricket in this country), and once again for no apparent reason apart from climbing the greasy pole of the establishment.  It’s not that it is reprehensible as such, it’s that it leaves a sour taste for all those up and down the land doing their level best to ensure the survival of their local club despite the official indifference towards their efforts and in a sport where they are fighting a losing battle, such has been the mismanagement from the top.

Over Christmas news leaked out that England were open to an Indian idea of an annual four way white ball competition, including Australia and one invited country.  There had been suggestions of an additional ICC tournament, nixed by the Big Three on the grounds of insufficient gaps in the calendar, yet suddenly the dollar signs appeared before the eyes of the administrators and at least two of those Big Three seemed to find a space in the diary for it to happen.  That this would be disastrous for the world game is fairly obvious.  That the mendacious, avaricious, self-interested cockalorums in charge of the world game would think it a magnificent wheeze equally unsurprising.

England head to Cape Town for the second Test.  Pope will presumably come in for Bairstow, and if England want to play a spinner it leaves an interesting decision as to which seam bowler to drop.  But it’s still likely to be more of the same – the personnel might change, the coaching staff might change, but the confusion and modest performances continue, along with the excuses.  If there’s one thing that’s improving in English cricket beyond all measure, it is the excuses.  Good work everyone.

 

South Africa vs England: 1st Test, Day One

A fair to middling opening day to the series all round. South Africa won’t be terribly happy with their total, England won’t be terribly happy with their bowling performance.

If nothing else, it’s set up the rest of the match for anything to happen, for the host’s total is one to get them into the game without being in any way imposing. Equally, England’s ability to fall in a heap with the bat remains undiminished, despite a more patient approach in New Zealand that still resulted in series defeat.

England’s sickness throughout the team dictated at least some of the selection, and Ben Stokes was off the field requiring re-hydration for at least part of the day suggesting he has been suffering the same affliction, adding to what’s been a hard few days for him to say the least.

Two players can be particularly satisfied with their efforts: Quinton de Kock’s counterattack in the middle of the day got South Africa back into the game from a position where they could have disintegrated, while for England Sam Curran was the clear pick of the bowlers. He remains someone upon whom the focus is all too often what he can’t do rather than what he can – he might not be the quickest around, but he does swing it both ways, and does provide control as well. Vernon Philander, for whom this is the last Test series, has never remotely been quick, but he has been an unqualified success at Test level. If Curran were to have a similar impact over his career, he’ll have done alright.

That England had South Africa 111-5 represented their high point of the day. That they failed to take advantage of that position is all too familiar to watchers of England. Sure, illness and the consequent lack of good preparation may be factors in that, but it’s hardly an unusual state of affairs for them to let teams off the hook and today was no different. If there’s one thing that has been abundantly clear over recent years, it’s that a score of around 300 against England is not one that is often shown up to be sub par, and often is enough for a decent lead.

That said, the pitch offered some movement, but it was no minefield either. There’s no reason why England shouldn’t bat decently, except the constant doubt that they are able to put together a big total in any but the most benign circumstances. They have insisted that there is a different batting approach under Chris Silverwood – less helter skelter, more graft – and tomorrow is no bad time to make that obvious.

One constant does remain – despite the extra half hour to compensate for delays, 90 overs still weren’t bowled in the day, with only 82.4 being managed before the close. It is boring to keep highlighting the lack of care or interest from the authorities in enforcing this most basic of requirements, but they could do something about it if they wished, or they could just say what we all think is the reality and that they couldn’t give a stuff. It’s this pretence that 90 is the minimum when it plainly isn’t that grates most of all.

England have one wicket to take in the morning before it’s their turn to bat, and as ever, day two provides a better indication of the direction this match might be taking. After day one, it’s fairly even, albeit England could have had a much better one than they eventually did. Their brittleness with the bat as much as their profligacy with the ball may yet be the decisive factor.