The Tangled Web

Guess what everyone?  Today is the fifth and final ODI, and the last international cricket of the summer.  Yes, it’s still summer – did you not get the memo?  You may think it’s nearly October, but there’s still money to be made, and if that means January is henceforth to be considered balmy high summer, then you’ll just have to lump it.

Of course, the usual lack of interest in a non-descript dead rubber of an ODI (apart from those with tickets, obviously – but they don’t count for anything these days) is compounded by (note capitalisation now required) The Ben Stokes Affair.  As Sean wrote so eloquently yesterday  the ECB’s track record when players go rogue is anything but a consistent one, and the importance of Stokes to the team (but not Hales remember) means they are now in a tricky spot with regards to the upcoming Ashes.  Doubtless, they’d rather like the whole thing to go away, but it has to be said that this is rather more serious than the usual transgressions and the suspension of both Stokes and Hales was probably the minimum they could get away with doing.

There’s been a whole heap of discussion around the rights and wrongs of those events, but there are a couple of considerations for a blog like this:  first of all, none of us are lawyers and the term “sub judice” tends to strike a degree of fear into the team.  Worth noting that for the comments too by the way, so please be circumspect. Reporting what has been said is fair game, but there are plenty of places that’s discussed and rote repetition of what’s elsewhere seems a bit pointless.  We do from time to time get information about various subjects and have refused to post them (you might say we skip them) because there’s no evidence and none of us want to land in court.   We’re not so obscure we can say what we like.

The cricketing fall out is a bit different, which is why so many of the comment pieces in the press have focused on that.  Stokes’ status as the talismanic all rounder makes this something of a nightmare for the ECB to negotiate, as they balance the needs of the team with their public role as the face of cricket (stop sniggering at the back).  Were Stokes not so integral, it seems hard to believe that they would do anything but drop him from the Ashes squad, highlighting both the double/triple standards involved, and the line of least resistance so often taken.  What that means is that they are now in a real bind – they can weaken the side substantially by not taking him, or if they do then they will be accused of placing results above all other considerations – something of an irony given their predilection for placing revenue above cricket most of the time.

That the two of them were out so late has been a topic of some debate, but sportsmen have often partied as hard as they play, and often go out late and yes, spend that time drinking.  As much as some would like them to be monastic in their behaviour, it’s simply not going to happen with everyone – or more specifically, it’s not going to happen all the time.  How often they do that is a slightly different question, but it’s certainly true that players in the youth England sides are kept on an extremely tight leash, possibly excessively so.  It’s also true that many of the very best in all sports do look after themselves to an extent that the average person would find very hard to live with.  What that ultimately means is that going out to clubs is not in itself evidence of too much, it is a matter of degree, and on that subject we do not know how prevalent that is with him, or with anyone else in the squad.  And actually, nor should we – it’s a matter for management to, well, manage.  Some nasty minds have asked the question as to whether if Stokes is convicted he would then be eligible for Australia or not.

Since the Pietersen fall out, there has been the question about how they would manage Stokes.  In reality, something as serious as this wasn’t part of the discussion, since it’s actually possible to feel a degree of sympathy with the ECB’s dilemma here.  But it’s likely to be the case that Stokes is most of all reliant on being an essential player, because the moment he isn’t, or suffers a drop in form, he is vulnerable to being properly briefed against as disruptive.  This stuff almost writes itself these days, given the duplicitousness that is commonplace at the highest echelons of the English administration.  Whatever the outcome of the current difficulty, the likelihood of a drip feed of negative stories about him in the future is one to watch out for in future – which is a separate question to how currently the media are posting stories that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day to cast him in a negative light.  Already examples of poor taste comments on social media are being used against him – though when it comes to matters of conscience, the morality of someone who screenshots a private conversation with the intent of selling it to the tabloid press rarely gets mentioned.

Of one thing there’s no doubt at all – England without Stokes are a much weaker side than they are with him.  The truly Machiavellian approach would be to consider this the perfect excuse for defeat, and the entire responsibility should it transpire can then be safely loaded onto one person with no awkward questions being asked about anything else.  An “escape goat”, as it were.  But of course, that degree of Humphrey Appleby scheming is well beyond any of those who like to sit comfortably in their jobs at Lords…

Oh yeah, fifth ODI.  Will Billings play? Will it be Jake Ball or David Willey?  If a cricket ball falls and no one sees it, did it really happen?  Comments on the game below if you really want to – on anything else because you do really want to.

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England v West Indies: Third Test, Day Two

Given the forecast, a shade over half a day’s play probably amounted to more than most of those who had paid for their exorbitantly priced tickets could have hoped for.  Naturally, the regulations don’t offer any kind of refund once 30 overs have been bowled, but since it seemed distinctly possible barely any play would happen, it’s unlikely that too many on this occasion are that upset – what play there was proved enthralling.  This game is moving forward at a considerable lick – a day and a half in to the match in real terms and we’re well into the third innings.

The overhead conditions are of course playing a major part in this, the ball is swinging and seaming all over the place; batting is proving immensely difficult and the bowlers are having fun.  Low scoring matches are quite enjoyable to watch; the game can be turned in a session in many Tests, but when runs are hard to come by it becomes even more the case.  A bad session tends to be terminal when there may only be seven or eight of them anyway.  There have been too many shortened Tests recently in England to be able to fully appreciate the drama for what it is, and that is a pity, because this one is rather good.

This is the latest in the season Lords has ever hosted a Test match, and those with longer memories will well remember the adage of the September one day domestic finals in the 1980s and 90s where winning the toss generally meant winning the match as batting proved nigh on impossible early on.  Times and pitches change, so it may be nothing more than coincidence and the cloud cover that has made this such a challenge for the batsmen.  Either way, tricky conditions don’t justify any attempts to resurrect the idea of four day Tests, even if some will try and suggest it if, as seems distinctly possible, this one is done and dusted by tomorrow.

It’s not quite evenly poised, a delightfully agricultural innings from Stuart Broad, so far away these days from the cultured near-genuine allrounder that he was some years ago,  nevertheless probably did more to turn it England’s way than anything else.  Full of hacks, slashes, backing away and hoicks over the slips, it frustrated the West Indies attack and turned parity into a lead of 71.  That England were as good as level in the first place was mostly down to Ben Stokes, a player who appears to be developing into a serious cricketer with the bat, and more than useful with the ball.  He has an uncomplicated batting technique, but plays straight.  The power might be what garners attention, but his driving is almost textbook, foot to the ball, head over it and the weight in the direction of travel.  Technique can be overplayed at this level – Graeme Smith was no one’s idea of the MCC manual – but Stokes does appear to have the raw ability to be far better than his admittedly rising average would currently suggest.  Time will tell.

The West Indies of the first Test would have folded faced with such a deficit, but if they surprised everyone with their performance in the second, this was more of the same.  Finishing the day 93-3 represented an exceptional effort in the circumstances, and a lead at close of play of 22 with seven wickets remaining, fragile a position as it may be, was still a fine performance.  Maybe, just maybe, they are finding their feet at this level to an extent few thought possible.  If so, then they are in the process of proving many people wrong, and that in itself has to be a good thing.

Kieran Powell hasn’t had a great series by any stretch of the imagination, but he can play, and here showed as much.  He batted with tenacity and skill, and it ultimately took quite the delivery from Anderson to remove him.  Ah yes, Anderson – the relief on his face at finally taking his 500th Test wicket was obvious.  Landmarks are funny things – players may deny that they matter until they’re blue in the face, but few believe them, and nor should they.  A cricketer’s motivation has to be personal as much as for the team, particularly when they’ve played for any length of time.  Cricket is a strange game, it may nominally be a team one, but it’s highly individual.  Batsmen don’t celebrate a hundred because the extra run from 99 matters to the team, but because the century matters to them personally.  There’s nothing wrong with that, personal pride in performance translates to a contribution for the team, that’s really rather the point in measuring individual records and averages.  Anderson’s achievement is one he celebrated, and he’s damn right to do so.

Longevity in a seam bowler is just a little more special than it is for a batsman or a spinner, the hard yards in training, the stress on the body and the physical decline after the age of 30 all make it just that bit different.  At various times in his career he’s been mangled by well meaning coaches, spent entire tours bowling at cones while not coming close to selection, and been dismissed as a talent who would bowl one four ball an over.  It wasn’t until a decade into his England Test career that he got his average below 30, and it has continued to drop ever since.  There has always been discussion about Anderson’s place in the list of great bowlers; often with him being dismissed as ordinary by those who really should know better.  There is certainly a significant difference between his performances home and away, but he’s not the first to have that problem, not even towards the very top of the list of all time wicket takers.  At home, in English conditions, where he does play half his matches, he has been exceptional, and he still is.  He may go on for a few years yet, and there are few signs of waning powers, more the up and down form that afflicts any player.  There have been better bowlers than Anderson, but there are very, very few who are as clever and skilful.  When he finally goes, the art of bowling will be poorer for his absence.

Anderson wasn’t the only bowler today who had cause to be proud of his efforts.  Kemar Roach has had a career that has been somewhat up and down, but he bowled beautifully throughout the England innings, his five wicket haul being entirely deserved.  At the end of play, his warm words for Anderson himself on his achievement reflected as well upon him as a person as his efforts on the field did as a bowler.

The forecast for tomorrow is rather better, and offers the West Indies an opportunity to put England under real pressure, should they bat deep into the day.  The odds may be on England to bowl them out and chase a small target, but having been part of those (i.e. more or less everyone) who got it wrong repeatedly during the reviews of each day of the second Test, claiming to know where this one’s going is a mug’s game.  Shai Hope is still there, Roston Chase is still there, and Jermaine Blackwood could do anything from the crass to the brilliant.

This West Indies tour has been the highlight of the cricketing summer.  Quite astonishing.

 

 

England vs. West Indies, 3rd Test Day 1

In the lead up to this game, the momentum (if you believe in such things) had clearly swung decisively towards the West Indies. The Caribbean team were resurgent, inevitably heading towards a series win in England for the first time in 29 years. England were broken and reeling, both mediocre and at a low ebb. Most of the talk seemed to be about Anderson needing 3 wickets to reach 500 in his Test career. The day before, England captain Joe Root announced that Toby Roland Jones would replace an unfit Chris Woakes whilst the West Indies unsurprisingly named an unchanged side.

The morning began with the West Indies claiming the initial advantage by winning the toss. This summer, the team which won the toss has also gone on to win the game in 5 out of 6 opportunities. The only exception was the previous game, where good batting conditions and a sub-par first innings England batting performance conspired to allow the West Indies back into the game.

If it was meant to be a massive advantage to the West Indies, it certainly didn’t seem like one. The constant threat of rain and swinging conditions left the batsmen struggling to survive through most of the day. Cook dropped a slip chance early on, which might be the start of a worrying pattern for England if you consider his two drops at Headingley. Brathwaite and Kyle Hope both edged deliveries from Jimmy Anderson to the wicketkeeper either side of a rain break in the morning session, taking Anderson to the tantalising career total of 499 wickets.

After Lunch, the West Indies regrouped somewhat with Kieran Powell and Shai Hope sharing a partnership of 56 runs, until Shai Hope edged one from Toby Roland-Jones. What followed this dismissal was a remarkable display of bowling from Ben Stokes, or quite possibly a terrible display of batting from the remaining West Indies batsmen. From 78-3, they lost 7 wickets for a total of 45 runs. Stokes meanwhile claimed his best ever figures of 6-22.

Stokes’ first of the day was a sharp return catch from Kieran Powell, which removed the set batsmen from the middle. He also managed to bowl Chase with a beautiful delivery and induced an edge from Dowrich before Tea gave the visiting batsmen a brief respite. But unfortunately for the tourists, Stokes picked up where he left off after the break. Holder and Gabriel were both bowled by deliveries which hooped in from wide outside their off stumps, whilst Roach edged a good ball to Anderson. The innings ended with the West Indies standing on 123 all out, and England rampant.

Whilst in some ways the pressure was off England with such a small total to overcome, the conditions still favoured the bowlers and at least three batsmen were playing for their place. Stoneman didn’t do his case any good, edging a short and wide delivery from Kemar Roach after only scoring 1 run. Roach managed to get Cook the same way a few overs later, albeit from a much better delivery that Stoneman’s. Westley missed a straight ball from Holder and ended up being given out LBW, although Hawkeye suggested is was barely going to clip the stumps.

Root followed soon after with a dismissal bearing some similarity to Stoneman’s, edging a short and wide ball to the wicketkeeper. It was an unnecessary shot in the situation, his departure leaving England on the precipice at 24/4. Stokes and Malan managed to bat out the next five overs, at which point the umpires called it a day due to bad light.

So the day ends with the game still very much in the balance. What seemed like a catastrophic decision to bat first by the West Indies might turn out to be a tactical masterstroke. Stokes’ 6-22 lowered his career Test bowling average significantly, where he’s getting closer to the point of justifying his selection as a bowler alone. Stoneman and Westley both hurt their chances of playing in the Ashes this winter, but Malan has a great opportunity on his home ground to impress the selectors. Given both team’s fragility and moments of brilliance in this series, it would be a brave man to predict what will happen tomorrow.

As always, please comment below.

England v West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Five

Fabulous.  Despite the assorted efforts of governing bodies around the world to undermine it, Test cricket can still show itself to be the greatest exponent of the greatest game.  Those who want four day Test matches would rob us of days like these, they would remove the sheer drama, the extraordinary tension of cricket at its very best.  These people mustn’t win, they cannot win.  They cannot steal from fans, players and the game itself by removing the sheer drama of a fifth day run chase.  If this game doesn’t shut them up, then nothing will.  Yes, there are matches that don’t go to this point, but those that do tend to be the very best of all.  To coin a phrase or two, it’s time they piped down.  Moved on.

What a day.  Few gave the West Indies much chance, and there’s certainly no claimed wisdom after the event from this quarter either.  Survival seemed remote, victory seemed impossible.  Those taking advantage of the superbly price final day tickets (well done Yorkshire CCC, take note London grounds) would have gone expecting to see an England win, and maybe James Anderson taking his 500th Test wicket.  Instead what they saw were a pair of innings of the highest quality from Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope.  Having done it in the first innings, and got their team into a position of dominance that was then thrown away late on the fourth day, they did it again, but this time under serious pressure.

Sure, England made mistakes – Cook has been a very reliable slip catcher after an iffy start to his career, but here dropped Brathwaite on 4, and late on dropped Hope when it was just about possible to claw something from the day.  These things do happen sometimes, and even Stokes dropped a fairly straightforward one late on, albeit when it was too late to matter.  England’s bowling wasn’t as good as it could have been, and certainly the pitch didn’t deteriorate as they had hoped for a fifth day surface.  The spin expected didn’t transpire, the ball didn’t swing as much as anticipated, and without question they lacked penetration all day.

One thing that shouldn’t be criticised (but almost certainly will be) was Root’s decision to declare.  Setting a team 322 really ought to be enough, in almost all circumstances, and when the opposition are a weak side who managed to lose 19 wickets in a day last time out, it was an entirely reasonable, if aggressive declaration.  What it might do is prevent Root from doing it again, and that would be a shame.  Conservative declarations have been the order of business for England captains in recent times, and Kevin Pietersen was pilloried for the defeat in Chennai for his declaration (even though it was 9 wickets down when he did so).  If the same happens to Root for this, then he’ll be even more unlikely to repeat it, potentially costing England a win in other circumstances.  Of all the reasons England lost this match, an early declaration isn’t one of them.  To his credit, after the match he stood by it.  He’s right.

For today was all about the West Indies.  When something special happens, it is always the case that one side can be criticised for their performance causing defeat, rather than the other being praised for winning.  By definition, if a side gets over the line, they have done better than their opponents, and it’s always a trade off between high performance on the one hand and underperformance on the other.  Let’s be clear here:  England were definitely not awful, they didn’t lose this game, the West Indies won it.

Shai Hope is beautifully named, for a young player who has for some time been very highly rated in the Caribbean hasn’t up until now shown that talent in the Test arena.  Headingley 2017 might just be the time when he announced himself.  His first innings hundred was exceptional, his second innings one truly memorable.  Alongside Brathwaite, he frustrated the England bowlers, slowly chipping away at the formidable total, eating up time and grinding down England.

No-one before has ever scored two centuries in the same match at Headingley, and yet here there were nearly two.  Brathwaite fell for 95, but his young colleague not only seemed entirely unfazed by the situation, but by his own personal milestones.  His muted celebration on scoring his hundred indicated a player focused on the win, not his personal achievement.  He is a talent.

As the target dropped below three figures, and with the departure of Brathwaite, the man England would really not have wanted to get in was Jermaine Blackwood.  Playing a shot a ball he made a mockery of the required run rate, removing any pressure that might have built up as a team entirely unused to winning became aware that they just might have a real sniff.  Of course, it could have gone wrong.  He could have got out cheaply and then the pressure might have told.  But the point with all of these things is that he didn’t and it didn’t.  He took a risk, backed himself and it paid off handsomely.  While the others may have got more runs, he was the one who led the charge home, and took the strain from Shai Hope.  That he wasn’t there at the end following a magnificently over the top wild swing at the ball is pure Blackwood.  May he never change.

The raw words can barely do justice to what occurred today.  Irrespective of what happened here, the West Indies are not a good side.  England might not be a great team, they’re not even consistently a good team, but they are a much, much better side than their opponents.  For three and a half days the West Indies dominated them, and then England’s power and depth turned the tables.  The Test match was gone, it had been thrown away.  To then recover from that, to and not just win, but win comfortably, is the stuff of dreams.

It changes very little.  The West Indies remain a weakened and often dysfunctional side run by a shambolic governing body.  The disparity in pay between the haves in England, Australia and India versus the rest is still there.  Test cricket is still in trouble, players are still leaving to milk the T20 cow.  But sometimes there is a game that can sit outside of that.  Acknowledging the problems and the challenges doesn’t mean ignoring the play, and this was a reminder of just why it can be so special.

Well done the West Indies.  You were truly, truly magnificent.  England batted badly first time around, but they were by no means awful. They were outplayed ultimately by a team that was for whatever reason, humiliation from the first Test perhaps, utterly inspired.  It won’t just be West Indies fans celebrating, it will be neutrals too, and many an England fan who loves West Indies cricket, and above all else loves cricket for the sake of it.  Of all the home series England have played in the last few years, who would ever have thought it would be the West Indies who achieved this acute emotional response?

Rarely has a defeat for England felt so enjoyable.  Not because of them, not because of anything they did, but because of how extraordinary the West Indies were.  Hoping that they build on it may be an aspiration too far, but for now they can celebrate.  Their long suffering supporters can celebrate.

Above all else, cricket can celebrate.  That has to be worth pausing for, surely?

 

 

 

 

England v West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Four

For three and a half days the West Indies have played well above themselves, indeed have played out of their skins.  But a side unused to winning, inexperienced, and ultimately lacking in quality anyway, finally wilted in the face of an England middle and lower order that is undoubtedly one that would cause a few tremors against much better sides than this.

There were chances missed, there’s no doubt about that.  The dropped catches ultimately added up to over 240 runs in England’s favour (though it should be mentioned that England have dropped a few themselves, which would balance that ledger to a degree), and the bowling discipline that was so evident in England’s first innings fell away alarmingly after tea, as Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes punished them for their indiscipline.

What might have beens are the stock in trade for weaker sides in every sport – the lower league football team that lets a lead slip in the closing minutes, the tennis underdog finally beaten in the fifth set – so to that end the turnaround in the match is one that could have been (and was) expected.  At the end of proceedings their performance over the first few days should be seen as the exceptional one, worthy of praise, and the return to the mean after tea on the fourth day more in keeping with where they are as a unit.  They have tried so desperately hard in this match, and the likelihood is that they will end up empty handed.

That there were errors made is beyond question.  Gabriel and Roach were overbowled in the morning session as their team strove for wickets, and by the time the new ball was due they weren’t sufficiently rested to take it before lunch, and weren’t that effective with it afterwards either.  But they are errors from over-enthusiasm in trying to force the win, and perhaps it is the hindsight that lends that judgement of it,  rather than how it was at a time when England were only 82 runs in front and four wickets down.  At that point the tourists were firm favourites, even as England were just beginning to get into a position where they had a chance in the match.

Dawid Malan did himself no harm in terms of selection for the tour to Australia with a gritty 61 over the first part of the day.  It lasted over four hours, he rarely looked fluent, and included a bit of fortune when being dropped at first slip; but above all else he wore down the seam attack and created the circumstances for Moeen to come in and flay a weary bowling unit around the ground.  Sometimes the less eye-catching innings are the important ones, and given the knife edge the game was on, he deserves considerable credit for his determination.  There is a great deal of focus on technique when appraising batsmen but the game is littered with those with excellent techniques who don’t succeed, and others with deeply flawed ones who do.  His 186 ball stay did more to suggest he has the aptitude than a bright and breezy innings of the same score could have done.  Whether he goes on to make it is of course unknown, but he played well today.

England’s total of 490-8 was their highest ever without anyone scoring a century, and had it not reached those levels, it’s not hard to imagine that a fair degree of stick would be coming in the direction of Stokes and Bairstow for the manner of their departures.  Stokes was caught on the boundary trying to hit a six, Bairstow bowled attempting a reverse sweep.  With Malan out too three wickets had gone down for 24 runs and England were seven down with a lead of only 158.  The game was unquestionably in the balance, yes, but some are no nearer to accepting players taking risks than they ever were.

Even though the numbers suggested it was tight, the mini-collapse couldn’t dampen the feeling that England were starting to get on top.  The advantage of their exceptional lower middle order is not just that they can bat, but they score so quickly.  Moeen Ali is one of the best players in the world to watch when he’s in full flow, and here the array of exquisite cover drives and clips off his legs were fully to the fore.  He had one piece of real luck, when caught behind on 32 only to be reprieved by a no ball.  Devendra Bishoo has had a truly miserable match, his captain plainly doesn’t rate him at all, and bowled him only when he had to – ultimately he got a decent spell only when the fast bowlers were on their knees.  And while Shannon Gabriel in particular got away with endless no balls not called, Bishoo was called on field at the most crucial of times, and it was sufficiently tight to suggest it may have been harsh.

The question of on field umpires not calling no balls isn’t a new one, and the Sky commentary team were quick to complain that in a tight match the extra runs an extra workload could have proved crucial, but if it’s unfair to the batting team, it’s also unfair to the bowler, who all too often doesn’t know he’s been repeatedly overstepping until he takes a wicket and it’s sent to the third umpire to be checked.  There are suggestions the fourth umpire could do it every ball (a more dull, soul destroying job in cricket is hard to imagine.  Scoring maybe), and perhaps that is a solution.  But umpires have managed to check the front foot for decades without the aid of technology, it seems hard to understand why it is suddenly not possible.

At tea, England were 357-7, a lead of 188.  Before play Jonny Bairstow had expressed the hope that they might get a lead of 200, and England’s bowlers would probably have fancied their chances had the innings ended there.  But the tea break seemed to be the time the magnificently battling West Indies finally cracked.  From the first over on resumption it all went wrong – Kraigg Brathwaite of all people bowled it, nominally to allow Bishoo to change ends, but it was simply dreadful.  The first ball was a high full toss belted through the covers by Moeen, and it didn’t get any better from that point on.  Shannon Gabriel looked utterly exhausted, and his two overs went for 28 runs.  The balance of the match had finally tilted.

If Moeen did what Moeen does (and does so well), he was complemented by Chris Woakes, a batsman who is ridiculously good to be languishing at number nine in the order.  Indeed, he has a better first class batting average than Mark Stoneman, which demonstrates the ludicrous strength in all rounders England possess.  In many international teams, he’d be a number six.  His fine unbeaten half century, initially in a supporting role, latterly taking control shows how even when he’s been a trifle disappointing with the ball on his return from a long injury layoff, he has the skill to make a contribution.

England had been behind the game from the first morning, and so perhaps it was a slight surprise that before the close Joe Root decided to declare.  A welcome one, for although England’s lead was by then sizeable, few expected it.  There aren’t so many recent captains who would have taken the miniscule risk involved in doing so.

Brathwaite and Powell survived a testing six overs, and if nothing else, it showed the kind of fighting quality that their team has exemplified for much of this match.  If they can manage it for just one more day, then they will come out of the game with immense credit, even if they lose.  They aren’t completely out of it, but 322 is a huge target for anyone, let alone a side such as this.  It’ll take a special innings from someone to get close, and as Mark Twain once put it, “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that’s the way to bet”.

England vs West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Three

If one thing defined today, it was missed opportunities. Both teams were rueing missed DRS reviews, drops and misfields which, had they been taken, could have put them in the driving seat for this game.

The day started with the West Indies in the box seat after Day 2. They were already 71 runs ahead with only 5 wickets down (including a nightwatchman), and they had the chance to put England in an impossible situation with the bat. Jimmy Anderson put paid to that idea in the first two balls of the day, taking two wickets. If you were going to be critical, which would probably be harsh to Shai Hope in particular who amassed 147 runs the day before, both balls were short and wide enough to be left.

Immediately the momentum had swung towards England, West Indies going from 329/5 to 329/7 in two balls and they would be lucky to stretch their lead much past 100. They had that stroke of luck when Moeen Ali dropped an incredibly simple chance to dismiss Jermaine Blackwood from Broad’s bowling in the next over. This drop allowed the West Indies to bat through the rest of the session, and by Lunch they had increased their lead to 169.

England’s innings started with an unusual change of pace, with Stoneman looking more dangerous and fluent than the more experienced Cook. Together they posted the first 50 partnership for this duo, and only the second of this summer for England, before Cook edged a ball from Holder to the wicketkeeper. With the West Indies now feeling on top, Stoneman and Westley did well to survive until Tea.

In the first over of the evening session, Jason Holder managed to get the ball to cut into Mark Stoneman, hitting him on the hand and dislocating his finger. The England physio ‘relocated’ it (I suggest you don’t look at the photos), and Stoneman continued. Shortly after that, Westley was lucky to survive a run-out when he was ballwatching whilst Stoneman was running for a second, with only Bishoo’s failure to safely gather the ball saving him. Westley didn’t manage to cash in however, instead choosing to chase a wide swinging ball in the next over but edging it to the keeper.

Stoneman was bowled by Shannon Gabriel soon after, although replays suggested that Gabriel was lucky not to have conceded a front foot no ball with perhaps just the smallest fraction of his boot behind the line. Perhaps. This brought in Dawid Malan, who was fortunate to survive early on when he got a very faint edge which wasn’t given out on the field and the West Indies elected not to review. Clearly Dawid Malan is a shit bloke. A few overs later they spurned another chance, as Kyle Hope dropped a sliced shot from Joe Root which went right at him at gully. Root also survived being given out LBW after he reviewed the decision, as well as an unsuccessful LBW review by Holder.

The strangest cricket was left for the end though. In the penultimate over of the day, the West Indies’ specialist spinner Bishoo was brought out for what was only his second over of the day. This seems a particularly odd decision when England’s frailties against spin bowling are considered. Following that, the final over from Shannon Gabriel began with two wides, one of which also went for 4, and a no ball. These free runs meant that England finished the day leading by 2 runs with 7 wickets remaining.

For anyone keeping count, there were 6 overs short today, as well as 5 on the first day. I know a lot of people don’t care, but it bugs me that Stokes will likely be banned for swearing a few times whilst there’s no punishment for not fulfilling a fairly basic requirement of the game. I wrote a post here recently about it, which I’d love you to read and comment on even if you disagree.

As always, comments welcome below.

England vs West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Two

Remarkable.  Outside of the team itself, barely anyone would have picked the West Indies to have a day like this.  It wasn’t just that they were dominant, it’s also that it was on the back of a good day yesterday too – consolidating their position, and by the close of play creating one of strength.  Kraigg Brathwaite has shown for some time he has the right mental approach and patience for Test cricket, not least a mere two Tests ago against Pakistan.  In a struggling side he’s the one batsman of experience and ability, but even with that said, the omnishambles of the first Test made this a particularly impressive innings.  Shai Hope, in scoring his maiden Test century, was perhaps even more exceptional, not least how he didn’t allow the excitement of the achievement to distract him from his greater purpose, of getting his team in the ascendant.  Few would have blamed a young player had he got out soon after the landmark, but instead he carried on, and overnight is closing in on 150.

England could have bowled better for sure; although they took two early wickets, neither Anderson and nor particularly Broad got it quite right, the tendency to bowl short and admire the ball prettily whistling past a raised bat being much too frequent.  It wasn’t until Woakes came on for a decidedly unlucky initial spell that the batsmen were given cause to have to play forward rather than staying comfortably on the back foot.  Thereafter, Woakes was fairly unthreatening, perhaps not altogether surprising in a player returning from injury.  But these were good bowling conditions across the day, which made the 246 run fourth wicket stand all the more impressive.  The ball seamed and swung throughout the day, unsurprisingly lessening as it got older, but still with something in it for the pace men throughout.

A couple of late wickets seemed to herald an England fightback.  The dismissal of Brathwaite brought Roston Chase to the middle, and having been sat in his pads all day, it was the most predictable thing in the world that he would fall cheaply.  Any possibility of a late in the day collapse was however stemmed by Jermaine Blackwood meeting triumph and disaster in the way he always does – with a flurry of shots.

England are perhaps deservedly paying for their profligacy with the bat on day one.  Maybe it was complacency, and while that may never be acceptable, it could be deemed understandable given the turkey shoot of the first Test.  For the tourists to take advantage of that should warm the cockles of anyone who truly loves Test cricket, not just for the sharp reminder to England but more importantly for what it might do for this West Indies team.  The appalling disparity in resources between the rich and poor in world cricket hasn’t gone away; the fears for the future of the game outside the Big Three are still there, but over the last two days the West Indies have played with defiance, heart and considerable skill.  It is a joy to see.

There’s another element here too.  After two days of this Test the West Indies are on top, but the outcome of the match is uncertain.  Over 140 years of Test cricket this wasn’t worthy of comment, for a five day Test match could seesaw for some time before the outcome became apparent.  But in recent times this hasn’t been the case – the second day has consistently been the one where one team decisively took charge, with the remainder of the match being played out to an inevitable outcome.  This could yet become a real, proper Test match.  One where both sides strive to defeat the other, not go through the motions with the result known to all long in advance.  When cricket is like this, it justifies the belief of those who care about it that Tests are the greatest form of the greatest game, where every session, every bowling spell, every wicket holds the greatest of importance within the wider pattern of the unfolding match.

Is it possible we might just get that?  England are by no means out of it, the difference between the sides is such that they will feel they can manage a sizeable deficit and still win, but the visitors will know that they have a prime opportunity to take this chance and square the series.  There will be many cheering them on, and not just fans of the team.  Cricket West Indies might not deserve it, the ICC might not deserve it, but this inexperienced shadow side who have performed so valiantly in this match do.  And perhaps more than anyone, those who love cricket for the sake of cricket and not for what it can do to the bank balances of the already wealthy deserve it.

Day three might well be a fantastic day of Test cricket.  Extraordinary.

 

England vs West Indies: 2nd Test, Day One

The West Indies come roaring back.  Test cricket is alive and well!  All the doom-sayers can get back to their caves and all is well in the world…

It’s not hard to see today’s play used as a counter whenever someone mentions the state of this series and the disparity between the sides evident in the first Test, and there’s no question but that the West Indies had a much better time today, and perhaps most importantly of all, played with a sense of pride entirely absent at Edgbaston.

As far as the match position goes, bowling England out for 258 and finishing 19-1 at the close represents a decent return on their efforts for the visitors, and tomorrow they’ll have the chance to push on, get a good total going past England, and put the hosts under serious pressure…

That’s not going to happen is it?

Seeing the West Indies play like this and praising them for it has the hint of condescension about it, for England were pretty woeful against spirited, but hardly lethal bowling.  It is true however, that but for dropped catches, England could and probably should have been dismissed for 100 fewer than what is anyway a fairly unimpressive total.  Those who did score runs – Root and Stokes primarily – were dropped at least once, and early in their innings, while others played some fairly average shots as the batting order displayed all the faults that have been glaringly obvious for so long.

None of the top eight were properly got out, the nearest being Cook who did at least receive a half reasonable delivery.  The others played variations on poor shot selection or execution, and once again the top order flopped to the point they were four down a long way short of having 100 on the board.  As tiresome as it is to write the same thing about the same problems time and again, it remains the case that with this England team, unless Cook and/or Root go on to big big scores, the undoubtedly powerful middle and lower order is going to be coming in to try and rescue the situation yet again.  And they simply aren’t going to do it every time.  With the Ashes tour looming, these problems are coming home to roost, and an air of panic around the media seems to be taking hold.  Stoneman was on the receiving end of this too, a player batting for only the second time in a Test match.  Whatever his likelihood of making it as an international cricketer, to be questioning him at this stage is palpably absurd, except as an illustration of the mess England have got themselves into.

Tom Westley received plenty of plaudits in his first couple of matches, for although he didn’t go on to make a big score, he was busy and played his shots.  How quickly the opinion of the pundits turns.  Another straight ball, another angled bat, another lbw and suddenly the knives were out for him.  Dawid Malan too, inside edging a fairly innocuous delivery from Jason Holder back on to his stumps, and the question marks over 60% of the top order were now being vocally discussed.

It’s too late.  The casual discarding of established players is what got them to this point, not because they can’t bring them back, but because they won’t.  Does anyone really think a 35 year old Ian Bell with all those Test runs under his belt would be a worse option than these two?  But no, they’ve dispensed with his services, and the swallowing of pride involved in recalling him (yes, he’s not had a great season – the question above is the pertinent one) is unlikely in the extreme.

So once again the core strength of the England batting order as a unit had to drag it back.  Root scored another fifty and got out again, and of course the muttering about conversion rates popped up again.  It’s clear enough that it’s winding up Root more than anyone, but at least he is scoring runs, which is more than can be said for most.

Stokes has batted a great deal better in his career than he did here, for he had a fair bit of luck on his way to his sixth Test century (passing Andrew Flintoff’s five, interestingly enough) but it bears repeating that Stokes’ style of batting carries significant risk.  Sometimes he will get away with it, sometimes he won’t, and edging over a vacant slip area is a freedom he earns by forcing fielding captains to re-inforce elsewhere.  A magnificent Stokes knock it wasn’t, but his innings was still full of extraordinary shots, and the manner in which he manipulated the bowling by stepping across to off and pinging the ball through midwicket was reminiscent of another highly destructive England middle order batsman of recent vintage.

For the West Indies, Kemar Roach’s 4-71 must have been one of the hardest working non-five wicket hauls in some time.  Every catch that went begging appeared to be off his bowling, but he was undeniably the pick of the attack, though the return of Shannon Gabriel added some potency missing last week.  Quite why Bishoo was brought back and then hardly bowled (while Roston Chase got twice as many overs) was harder to comprehend.  Still, he had more chance to contribute just before the close when coming in as nightwatchman.

The West Indies do have a chance here, but well as they played on day one, they’re going to have to bat out of their skins to get into a winning position.  It’s still hard to see beyond an England win, and after a day as sloppy as this one, that’s quite an indictment.  Maybe tomorrow will surprise.

Oh and one last thing: I don’t care if the Marketing Department have issued an edict that the official name is the Windies.  That’s a load of old bollocks.  West Indies they were, are and will ever be.  Windies is a nickname, got that?

 

 

England vs West Indies: First Test, Day 2

The West Indies were poor yesterday and England, specifically Cook and Root, took full advantage of this. England were on 348/3 at the start of the day and were in a prime position to kick on and post a huge total and chase personal milestones. For the West Indies, only an old-fashioned England Test collapse could really rescue any hope of winning this game.

Unfortunately for the West Indians, both teams continued in the morning session as they had played the day before. The bowling continued to be generous to the batsman, and England continued taking full advantage of that generosity. Cook and Dawid Malan batted through the whole first session adding another 101 runs before Malan edged part-time offspinner Roston Chase in the last over before Lunch. Malan’s 65 was clearly the best of England’s three new batsmen in this game, but he also did have by far the best conditions to bat in of the three so there probably won’t be a groundswell of support for him keeping his place on the back of this performance.

After Lunch, England’s lower order were faced with a completely alien situation for them: A sizeable platform built by the specialist batsmen. To put England’s 449/4 in perspective, it is their highest 4th wicket total since they played against India at the Oval in 2011. Between 2012 and 2017, it is only the second time they have posted a 400+ total for their 4th wicket. Between 2008 and 2011, in what we now must consider a golden age for England’s batting unit, they managed it 7 times.

Faced with something they hadn’t faced before, and perhaps with instructions to bat quickly and prepare for a declaration, England’s allrounders failed to do their customary trick of more than doubling England’s run total. Stokes and Ali both fell quickly to part-time spinner Chase, whilst Bairstow chopped on from Holder. Roston Chase managed to get Cook out LBW via a DRS appeal soon after, and England declared on 514/8. With Chase taking 4 wickets, there will probably be some questions about why the West Indies didn’t select a specialist spinner in their team.

Obviously our editorial policy at BOC is to slag off Alastair Cook at every possible opportunity, but even we have to concede that a score of 243 is impressive. The West Indies bowling attack might carry all the threat of a pink sparkly rubber knife, but the powers of endurance and concentration required to bat for 9 hours against any opposition must be admired. He might not be quite as good as he was earlier in his career, but England are lucky to have him and he would be sorely missed if he retired in the near future.

West Indies’ innings started poorly for the visitors, with Kraigg Brathwaite edging an Anderson outswinger to the wicketkeeper without any runs on the board. Three overs later, Kieran Powell was lucky to survive after Ben Stokes dropped what for him would be considered a regulation catch at gully from Broad. After that scare, the West Indian batsmen regrouped and managed to score 44 runs before the English weather brought the day to a premature end.

Just to remind everyone, play will start half an hour earlier tomorrow at 1.30pm (BST) due to the rain today. The West Indies will need to bat through all of tomorrow to have any hopes of saving the game, whilst England might have to rely on scoreboard pressure, funky captaincy and tight bowling to take wickets on a flat pitch with a largely unresponsive pink ball.

As always, please feel free to comment below.

England vs West Indies: First Test, Day 1

In the lead up to today, most of the discussion has been about anything but the actual game. Will spectators and TV audience enjoy a day/night game in England? How will the pink Dukes ball perform? Which players will secure their place for the Ashes? The result appeared to be foregone, even West Indies fans seemed to have given up before a ball was bowled.

At the toss it was confirmed that Roland-Jones would keep his place in the team, with Mason Crane and Chris Woakes missing out. Joe Root won the toss and chose to bat first, which came as no surprise to anyone. Certainly it feels like the bowlers appreciated the chance to see how the new pink balls performed from the pavilion rather than working it out on the field.

The conventional wisdom about pink cricket balls is that they tend to move in the air for a few overs, then become more batsman-friendly after that. All England’s top order had to do was survive the first hour and then they could cash in through the day. To no one’s surprise, this was not how things played out. Alastair Cook’s latest partner, debutant Mark Stoneman, was bowled through the gate in the third over. It was a very good delivery from Kemar Roach which both swung and seamed, but at the same time you’d probably hope that an opener would at least get something on the ball. Westley returned to the dressing room soon after, having being given out LBW via DRS after playing down the wrong line.

This brought together the familiar partnership of Alastair Cook and Joe Root, both of whom have had difficulties converting their good innings into centuries but are still a class apart from the other English batsmen at present. Helped by slow, wayward bowling and flawed, defensive tactics from the West Indies, Cook and Root dominated the visitors past the Lunch interval and through the whole second session. It wasn’t until almost an hour into the third session of the day that the West Indies managed a breakthrough, with Kemar Roach managing to bowl Joe Root, but not before England’s captain and former captain both managed to score their respective deserved centuries. For those keeping count (you know who you are), that means that Cook has scored 100+ ‘only’ 6 times in his last 99 innings. This is more than his respective partners, but still a marked decline from his prolific earlier years. It has also been noted that Cook has struggled against strong pace attacks in recent years, and the West Indies bowling unit is definitely not a strong pace attack.

Root’s wicket brought the third of England’s auditioning batsmen to the crease, Dawid Malan. He rode his luck early on, flashing an edge from Kraigg Brathwaite just past slip, but recovered to finish the day on 28. Having reach double digits, Malan will probably feel better than Stoneman or Westley overnight about his chances of playing the whole series. At the other end, Cook had managed to bat through the whole day scoring a somewhat impressive 153. At the end of play England are 348/3, and seem to be in a great position to put the West Indies out of contention.

As always, feel free to comment below!