Cricket – How do I Love Thee – Let Me Count the Ways

At the start of the lockdown, we asked anyone who wanted to write something for the site to send in an article. Elaine Simpson-Long took up the challenge with this lovely piece about falling in love with the game of cricket. Enjoy:

My journey from the darkness into the light took some time. 

I found cricket boring.

I was a tennis fan, skiving off school in the summer holidays to watch Wimbledon. When the kids went home to lunch I shot out with them and never came back.  I spent the mornings there so when Wimbledon was over and I returned and the nuns used to say “Have you been in School Elaine I have not seen you” I could answer with a clear conscience, “yes Sister I have” . And I had. But only for half a day.

I remember I used to get annoyed when the BBC would nip off to cover the Test match and left tennis behind.  Those were the days of one channel and cricket actually being on terrestrial tv.

I continued finding cricket a dreary past time for some years and then I ended up sharing an office with a cricket fanatic. During the summer he had his transistor radio (remember them?) permanently playing Test Match Special. Those were the heady days of Brian Johnson, Christopher Martin Jenkins, Tony Lewis et al and gradually this seeped into my consciousness and I found myself listening much though I tried not to.

Looking back I do wonder how this bloke got away with it as he did no work at all and skived all day. But then we worked in Local Government…..

A friend of mine invited me one summer to spend a weekend with her and her family. They lived in Nottingham and her dad, Bill, was a member of the Nottingham CCC.  Oh he was a lovely man. Immaculately turned out. pressed trousers, shirt and tie and polished shoes and courteous and polite. I loved him on sight.

The sun was shining on the Sunday morning and Bill announced we were going to watch a one day  match at the cricket ground. My heart sank, Oh God I thought but being a good guest I beamed and said “How nice” and off we went. Lovely sunny day and I found myself in the member’s enclosure drinking Pimms, eating cucumber sandwiches and strawberries and cream.  Despite myself I began to enjoy the cricket and then with a vague air of disbelief heard myself utter “Oh good shot, well done!” and this went on all afternoon. It was all frightfully British.

A month later and another visit to see Bill. This time it was in the hay fever season, the pollen count was through the roof and I could barely breathe. Bill had asthma even worse than mine so we stayed indoors with the curtains drawn and what was on telly? Yes you have guessed it. A Test Match against Australia.  

Bill and I watched it all and he explained everything to me. And I mean everything. Why a certain bowler placed a fielder in a certain place as he was going to make him play his shot there, the field placings – they took a while to sink in (I still have blank moments thinking about silly mid on)  – and the way individual batsmen played. He made me understand that just saving your wicket and blocking and sticking it out could be exciting (Cardiff in later years proved that) and I ended up being totally fascinated by it all.

(At the same time  I was learning to love cricket I had a boyfriend who loved Wagner and I spent an awful lot of time sitting through long Germanic operas and I honestly think the two were linked. You need tolerance and patience and stamina for both)

It was clear I just needed somebody to explain it all to me and I was lucky enough to find that person. Dear Bill. No longer with us but I will never forget him.

Later when I was married (luckily to a cricket lover) and had two daughters we all watched cricket together. When my eldest child started school I would strap her baby sister in the pram and race round to collect her from the playground in the afternoon, luckily just round the corner, grab her and belt back. No nattering with the yummy mummies at the school gate tarted up in the latest designer gear. I got it down to a fine art and found I only missed three overs.  Nowadays I would probably have only missed one. …

Though my husband liked cricket we did not have Sky and the darkness descended and so I watched an awful lot of tennis. This was anathema to him and  I did get rather tired of my beloved coming into the room and saying “Oh for heaven’s sake you are not STILL watching this crap are you”?

Reader I divorced him.

So I ended up living on my own and I thought ooh goody now I can get Sky with nobody to moan about it but the flats were a Sky free zone and so I languished existing on the coverage from Channel 4 which I thought was pretty good though Ian whathisface began to get on my nerves after a while. Too smooth and urbane by half. Never trust a smooth man is my motto. 

Then Sky came up with the idea of communal dishes and all of us screamed with delight and had it installed and I was in heaven. I now had cricket coming out of my ears and I wallowed in cricket and all was gemutlich and lovely. I was a happy woman.

It was too good to last. 2014 happened.

KP.   Need I say more? 

The answer is no because it has all been said, but I will nail my colours to the mast here and say I was firmly in Kev’s Camp.  I simply could not understand the vitriol and hatred he seemed to generate on social media and the cricketing forums and, of course, the ECB.  You would have to be a mixture of Mugabe and Hitler to justify this reaction. OK I get he was a Marmite person but considering the English team was peopled with the likes of Broad, Anderson and Prior you cannot feel he was alone in that regard.

Along with others during that time, I lost faith with the English cricket team. Not cricket itself, I could never do that, but I found it really hard, if not impossible to support them.  I found myself watching their opponents and willing them to do well. When they took an English wicket I cheered. Now I did not like feeling like this I found it all vaguely discombobulating.

Things got better when the Golden Boy finally retired and I did not have to watch him standing in the field looking gormless and picking his nose while Anderson and Broad ignored him and did what they liked.  Of course, I then had to watch Joe Root standing in the field, not picking his nose thank gawd, while Anderson and Broad ignored him and did what they liked.  

This feeling lasted until last year when the tide slowly started to turn and I found myself beginning to support them again, but I have to say it is still early days and I realised how fragile this feeling was when I watched the final of the World Cup and really wished New Zealand had won.   

Watching cricket over the past forty years has brought me so much joy.  I enjoy one day matches, I enjoy 20-20, I love the IPL with all its razzamatazz and silliness. But oh how I love Test Cricket.  When it is on my friends and family know that I more or less go into purdah and will not answer the phone or venture forth. When four day Tests were mooted last year I nearly had apoplexy.  

And sometimes I find myself watching cricket even when it clashes with Wimbledon. Proof positive I think.

At the moment I am in self isolation as I am an Old Person – my daughters have told me so and said I have to Be Careful.  So now would be the perfect time to watch cricket. And of course there is none. Talk about the law of Sod. It is like being ill in bed and thinking oh I can spend all day reading when the reality is you are feeling lousy and can’t be arsed.  

There are only so many re-runs of old cricket matches one can take, and the picture is square and you have great gaps at the side on your posh new telly and it is all too much to bear. So I have switched off and ponder on the Big Question – are Sky going to give me a refund on my sub to Sky Sports now they are not showing any?  I have my doubts..

So there you have it. My journey into the light. Not exactly revelatory or earth shattering.

It’s quiet at present, otherwise I am sure this would never see the light of day .  So if you have read this sparkling and witty piece through to the end then well done. You deserve a treat. 

Perhaps you should buy a ticket for The Hundred…..

Elaine Simpson-Long @randomjottings1

Idle Nonsense

I posted on Twitter an invitation for anyone who wanted to write an article to while away the time as we all stare at four walls over the next couple of weeks to do so.  I’ll do so again here, and if you want to contact any of us, that’d be great.  For what it’s worth, I’m at tlg@beingoutsidecricket.com

Often people worry about how well they write, how it will come across, and whether they have enough content to make it worthwhile.  Come now, no-one is going to care, anything amusing or entertaining is going to bring a much needed smile to someone, so go for it.  Even if it’s very short, it’s well worth it.

I thought I’d share a tale from many years ago about a cricket tour, about how players on cricket tour are utterly brutal to their friends.  Some will read it and tut, some will laugh or smile.  But these memories stay with you, and for good reason.  Names and locations are changed to protect the extremely guilty.

The Geordie was a passable enough cricketer, and a decent bloke.  Liked a beer, liked a laugh, had an accent that became progressively thicker the deeper into his cups that he became.  But he was a sensible enough chap, inordinately proud of his good looks, utterly horrified at the prematurely receding hairline he would do his best to hide that caused much debate as to how far he would go in years to come when it required winding around his head.

The phrase “kid in a sweet shop” was made for his first cricket tour.  The relatively sensible fellow had become a raging beast, permanently hammered and incapable of any kind of meaningful speech.  My arrival a day in to the tour meant as I said hello to him and was answered with incoherent dribble (no, not drivel) caused a mirthful team mate to pull me aside and advise that “the Geordie you knew is not the Geordie who now exists”.  Obviously there is a fine line between someone being highly entertaining and extremely irritating when they’re like that, and he did his level best to cross that line at every opportunity.

Nevertheless, to the shock of everyone, he still managed to pull.  God knows how, God knows what she was thinking.  In the manner of people who support their friends at all stages, everyone naturally did all they could to wreck it for him.  But she knew what was going on, and ignored us with the disdain and contempt we entirely deserved.  It all went wrong for him when, fed up with the lot of us, he lost his temper and yelled out “What’s wrong with you all, you’re like flies round shit”.  After a brief pause of disbelief, we fell about laughing, she said “Oh, thanks very much” and stormed off.  Job done.

He may have been mildly irritated with us all by that stage, so clearly the only thing to do was to make it even worse for him.  For reasons I’ve long forgotten, one evening he passed me his wallet and asked me to look after it.  Clearly, this was an opportunity not to be passed up, so another team mate promptly stole his credit cards.  In the manner of such things, he was too drunk to notice, and we didn’t volunteer to return them.  The following morning he noticed they were missing, asked around if anyone had seen them, and our complete innocence was beautifully acted out.

Assuming he’d lost them the night before, he returned to the hotel bar, and nope, they weren’t there.  So one of us rang the hotel from a call box (you can tell this is many years ago) claiming to be from the club we’d played the day before and that they’d found them.  Off he went by taxi, using the last of his cash, promising the taxi driver he’d be able to pay via a cashpoint for the return journey.  It wasn’t too bad, only about 10 miles or so away.  He got to the club where the groundsman was working on the pitch, and the Geordie naturally assumed that he’d rung.  Nope, sorry mate, no idea.  Having timed it perfectly, that’s when we rang the club to say terribly sorry, but the person who had found the cards had had to go into town and could he meet him there?  Much grumbling ensued, but he was a spirited bloke, so he walked.  5 miles.  In the opposite direction to where we were.

Clearly, there was no one there to meet him, and no way of him getting any money.  Somehow, he persuaded another of the clubs we played, located in town, to lend him the money to get back to the hotel, hot, extraordinarily grumpy for some reason, and willing to regale us with the horrendous day he had gone through.

“And I still don’t know where my effing credit cards are”.

“These ones?”

“You bastards.  You utter, total bastards”.

And you know what?  He wasn’t wrong.

Feel free to add your own better tales below for our entertainment.

 

 

Netflix and Chill

The unsurprising news of the cancellation of England’s tour to Sri Lanka as the the Covid 19 virus continues its spread across the globe is not even the latest to be afflicted by the desire to limit contagion, as event after event, fixture after fixture is cancelled.

I’m not a scientist, comment on the virus and public policy by those with no knowledge of what is the right thing to do has been a feature of social media over recent days; screaming from a position of scientific ignorance is something I wish to avoid.

But the impact on multiple industries is going to be exceptionally severe, and sport is far from an exception.  The advice from the Chief Medical Officer that the peak level of infection is potentially 14 or more weeks away takes us into June, and thus from an English cricket perspective well into the summer.  This means that at best the Test series against the West Indies must be in major doubt, alongside the early rounds of County Championship and the T20 Blast.  Whether the cancellation of all such events over a lengthy period is sustainable is open to question, for few businesses can maintain shutdowns for any length of time, and whether the public will buy into an absence of much semblance of normal life is also a matter for debate.

The elective nature of the cancellations – as opposed to government compulsion – also means the question of whether insurance cover applies comes to the fore.  Few are likely to have direct knowledge, and by the very nature of it no one is going to want to admit the position publicly, but there must be considerable doubt as to whether the ECB or their counterparts are protected.  Such matters may be thought trifling in a public health crisis, but at some point things will return to normal, and the damage done to that normal life is important too.

It is clearly a big summer from the ECB’s perspective, the launch of the Hundred has been extraordinarily expensive, and while some might teasingly hope that cancellation of that unloved concept is a consequence, any curtailing or abandonment of it would provoke a major crisis in the finances of an organisation that is, like many others, already facing a highly uncertain future.  It is at times like these that the diminution in the ECB’s financial reserves over the last few years begins to look like a risk that has backfired badly.

Furthermore, there must be issues for Sky Sports, who have lost almost all of their content.  Subscriber cancellations seem the likeliest immediate impact of that, though what it means for the various sporting contracts must too be open to doubt.  Given the multi-lateral problems for all parties, one thing that probably can be assumed is that few will be looking to take a hard line.

Of course, the optimistic view would be that the return of sport in the coming months might attract much greater interest than would otherwise have been the case, and there is some reason to hope that once through the worst of this, entertainment may well pick up rapidly from a relieved and probably bored population.  The flip side of that is the financial hardship likely to be faced by many significantly reduces the disposable income for such things as sport.

If the central tenets of the ECB’s most lucrative activities face serious difficulties, it isn’t just the top level that will have questions to address in the coming months.  The amateur game too will be hit by some not wishing to participate, whether or not that is a reasonable response.  Clubs are always on a financial knife edge anyway, and it doesn’t take much to cause them serious difficulties, and with a governing body that even if inclined, would be financially unable to support them.

Supporters too are consistently overlooked.  The cancellation of the Sri Lanka tour was announced by the ECB with no reference to those who had booked to follow the team.  Worse than that, there was still no mention of those travelling in the email sent out to the England Cricket Supporter’s database.  It is clearly not practical for the ECB to offer refunds of their travel, but supporters are highly unlikely to be able to claim on their travel insurance for a destination that remains open to visit.  They are in an extremely difficult position, and it isn’t unreasonable to have expected the ECB to acknowledge that in their communication.  To have ignored it entirely smacks of an organisation that doesn’t care in the slightest about anyone else, and doesn’t even pay lip service to pretending that they do.

What happens next no one knows.  But it seems likely that Netflix, Amazon Prime and similar platforms are doing a decent trade in sign ups, as people either self-isolate or simply don’t have a huge amount else to go and do, or sport to watch.  Sport is always the most important least important thing, and either way the consequences are going to be with us for some years to come.

One thing is for sure, it is far from only sport that is facing these questions, take it from me.  For I work in travel and tourism, and I have had a shit of a month.

 

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.