England vs India: Fifth Test, Day Four – The Long Farewell.

Inevitable really.  Once he’d survived the new ball, it was written in the stars that Cook would finish off with a century, and while fairy tale endings are rare in sport, this one just seemed like it was always going to happen.  Cook batted better than he has done for a couple of years, the mental freedom gained by the decision to retire lending a fluidity and, dare I say it, style that had been absent for even longer than his best form.

Of course, scoring a century meant that some were all too quick to say he shouldn’t retire at all, a superb missing of the context of this final innings if ever there was one.  Yet with Cook, this happens all too often – the determination not to allow his record to speak for itself, but to demand and insist that it be recognised as something far more has caused irritation where it was never required.  This peculiar demand that “greatness” be recognised without qualification, often by those who insist otherwise when it isn’t a player they are so keen on has managed to generate ill feeling where a final superb innings should have been cause for celebration for all, even those who may have objected to the media beatification of him over the years.

For Cook has been a truly excellent opener for England, with a record that reflects longevity, skill and mental strength.  He deserves the plaudits for an outstanding career as a batsman, and if his ability as captain wasn’t at the same level, he’s not the first and won’t be the last of whom that will be said.  His achievements do not need artificially inflating, and particularly not if the intention is to try to prove some kind of point about the moral rightness of past decisions rather than a player being judged on his own merits.  Any player.

For Cook, the best tribute that can be paid to him is the one he said himself – that he was the best player he could possibly be.  There have been many more talented, but few have extracted the maximum from their ability the way he has.  As both a statement of record, and indeed as advice and aspiration for any cricketer, at whatever level, it is profoundly important, and the one he may well be most proud about.   His weaknesses as a batsman were obvious, his flaws laid bare particularly when out of form and struggling technically.  Yet his strengths too were substantial, perhaps nothing quite so much as an extraordinary degree of concentration.  He will be partly defined by the fall out that led to the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, and the sides taken in that argument.  Both of those batsmen have departed the scene now, but the schism in English cricket remains, and is by far a more troubling and damaging issue than two players.  Perhaps both will reflect on their parts in that, perhaps not, but the personalisation of the whole affair reflected badly on all sides.

Today was a day for paying tribute to an excellent player, and deservedly so.  If few get the opportunity to go out in style, players of distinction do at least deserve to be recognised properly for their contributions.  This appears too much to ask, sometimes.

If Cook was all about saying farewell, for Root it was for smacking down those who complained about his clear pulling of rank in terms of batting at number four.  He looked more fluent and in command than he has all summer, and while a dead rubber is hardly the time to make definitive judgements, allowing England’s best player to bat where he feels most comfortable is surely the best way forward rather than trying to patch weaknesses elsewere with him.

The two of them took the game far beyond India, who were already going through the motions midway through the day and simply waiting for the England declaration.  The usual fun and games late on added to the total, and with the target an improbable 464, Root finally decided enough was enough.

If India were going through the motions with the ball, they had one foot on the plane home with the bat, as James Anderson threatened to steal some of Cook’s thunder by drawing level with Glenn McGrath on the all time list.  There’s an irony here – in the determination of some to do all possible to inflate Cook’s record, a particular line has emerged about him being worth far more due to opening the batting in England against the Duke ball.  Yet if that is accepted, it automatically lessens Anderson’s achievements on English pitches using the same Duke ball.  Watching certain observers attempt to square that particular circle could prove amusing.

Rahul and Rahane steadied the ship from 2-3, but this game is more or less done, and England are almost certain to win it 4-1.  India should be wondering how this has happened, England will just be relieved that it has.  The future is an unknown except that at the end of play tomorrow, there’s only one candidate for that Man of the Match award.

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England vs India: Fifth Test, Day Three – Just a Little Bit More

The mind is a funny thing.  It’s been said often enough that cricket is a game played in the head as much as on the pitch, and while this surface has been kinder to the batsmen that most in this series, it isn’t quite at the Melbourne 2017 levels of slow and flat.  Yet Alastair Cook has looked in both innings about as good as he has done for a couple of years.  That’s not to say that anyone should be begging him to re-consider his decision, but it is to say that the probable weight off his mind has led him to relax at the crease somewhat.  He batted well in the first innings, and he’s batted well here.  And those heading to the Oval tomorrow will get the chance to watch him tomorrow, which perhaps will help the attendance figures for a September Monday after the kids have gone back to school.  Nothing would quite highlight the way the ECB have managed the game recently as much as Cook departing for the last time in front of a couple of thousand people, and whatever the raging arguments about where he should be placed in the list of England batsmen, that would be an unedifying end.

In some ways, this has been the best Test of the series  (albeit a dead rubber which always removes the sense of jeopardy) perhaps because there’s at least half a chance it might reach the fifth day on its own terms, and perhaps because the bat seems marginally more on top than to date.  If anything, it appears to be getting easier to bat on, and a day on which only six wickets fell seems quite remarkable given all that’s gone before.  Yet the overall patterns continually repeat themselves, a very English set of pitches that produce generally similar cricket, and generally results inside four days.  It is less than surprising that teams struggle when they come here, or that England have so many problems overseas.  This time at the Oval, it’s the same, just slightly less so.

India had an excellent first half of the day, adding 118 runs to their overnight score with their remaining four wickets, largely thanks to an outstanding unbeaten 86 from Ravi Jadeja.  He farmed the strike expertly, the last three wickets adding 55, only 5 of which came from his partners.  Few would have begrudged him reaching a century, while in the match context, getting India within 40 made the match far more interesting than it looked like it was going to be.  England toiled manfully enough, with the biggest surprise being that Adil Rashid actually got a bowl.

India’s trials by DRS continued when they got hold of the ball, through managing to burn both of their reviews within 12 overs of England going out to bat. It was impressive too, given both reviews were palpably not out without so much as the benefit of a replay. One of the best decisions made by the ICC about DRS recently was to abolish the renewal of the two reviews after 80 overs, meaning that teams need to manage them far better than they currently are.  It matters less in England where surviving 80 overs in the first place appears to be a badge of honour, but the carelessness shown means both teams, but particularly India, will have to change their DRS ways on the flatter surfaces elsewhere.

If Cook was playing his final Test innings, many would have thought Keaton Jennings was doing the same, particularly after he left a ball that didn’t so much clip the bails as crash into middle and off stumps.  Leaving such a delivery is usually indicative of a scrambled mind, so he will be pleased to have heard Ed Smith indicate that he’s on the tour to Sri Lanka already.  Smith appears to have regarded this series win as huge vindication of his selections and his approach, which is fair enough as long as the team does win, though unusually strident to imply personal responsibility for that success. There is more than an element of hubris in his revelling in his unorthodox selections, and repeating a certainty that it is the right way to go.  Furthermore, he appeared quite relaxed about the top order difficulties, implying that he was quite content for the runs to come from the lower order.  For now, results are in his favour, but his supreme blithe confidence suggests he could probably do with someone on his shoulder whispering “Remember Caesar, you are just a man”.

Root at four showed all the signs of a man delighted to be batting where he wants to be, which in this England side does at least have a rarity value, as we know at least one of the top four for the winter tours.  Still, there has to be something said for the concept of batting your best player where he is most comfortable, in the hope of getting the best out of him.

154 ahead, two days to go.  England will want to be batting most of tomorrow, but there’s always that England thing of a collapse around the corner.  Even with that, another hundred oughtn’t to be beyond their capabilities, and a target of over 250 should be too much for India.

 

 

England vs India: 4th Test, Day Three: Same Old (Strangely)

England finish the third day in a fairly handy position all told, a lead well over 200, two wickets still intact, Indian bowlers struggling for penetration (a mild warning note there), and with a pitch that should be starting to deteriorate towards the back end of the match. Naturally, this being England, it’s been done the wrong way around – the top order struggling and the middle and lower order scoring the bulk of the runs.

If England’s defeats over the last 18 months are taken as a whole, it is generally when the middle and lower order fail to bail out the batsmen. Nor can they be expected to on a regular basis, for the normal way cricket works is that the top order score most of them, and the all rounders chip in some of the time. Trust England to develop an entirely different manner of playing. It isn’t a sustainable method for a team to generate continual success, and England’s problems at the top are something that they are going to have to resolve one way or another if they wish to make progress.

Cook failed again, and whether or not he is backed from within, his lean run goes on, and even by the modest returns of the last few years (yes, yes, two double centuries and not much else) he is struggling badly. There remains little evidence against the supposition that he’s coming towards the end, and what he decides will be interesting to observe, for while the Cook of his best years would be a loss, it’s much harder to make a case for him more recently. Whatever the returns in terms of runs scored, he doesn’t look like he’s going to make a big score currently either, and that, perhaps, is the biggest indicator of his plight.

Keaton Jennings in contrast looked rather good today, comfortable against both seam and spin, only to then be palpably lbw when well set. There’s a degree of sympathy for him, for it does show the fine margins at this level, and for all his problems this series, his record isn’t particularly different to Cook’s – the problem for England is two-fold, not just Jennings. He may well join the list of openers tried and discarded permanently.

A surprise was sprung with Moeen Ali coming out at number three. Plenty of speculation ensued about Root dropping a place, with a consensus (which doesn’t mean it’s true) that Root had put his foot down in terms of his desire to bat at four. If so, he’s right to as well, for Root is England’s best batsman, and it is peculiar to use him elsewhere to attempt to cover up for the weaknesses of the team that way. If he scores most runs at four, bat him at four. The roles are slightly different, and if that means another is a slight sacrifical lamb to get the best out of him, so be it – it can’t be said that the current top order is working well at present after all.

Moeen may not be good enough to bat at three, but then who is? It’s not so many years past that plenty were complaining that Trott scored too slowly, even in Tests, but what England would give for that now is immeasurable. It’s also a lesson about those who happily waved off players who they didn’t like assuming that they were easily replaceable. As one selector memorably said of Graham Thorpe, “what does he bring to the side apart from runs?”. More runs. Runs England are consistently short of at the top, and the carelessness with which players have been discarded over recent times is a source of constant wry amusement.

The loss of Jennings just before lunch was compounded by the first ball dismissal of Bairstow immediately after. It can be a mistake to assume a causation that isn’t necessarly there, but it can’t be said that playing Bairstow with a broken finger has been an unqualified success. Perhaps it’s just one of things, perhaps not.

Root and Stokes batted patiently before Root was run out needlessly, and at 122-5 India were on top, and England wobbling. That they recovered is partly down to Stokes batting well within himself (again) but mostly Jos Buttler doing likewise. Buttler this summer can be put down as a success, and whether he truly makes a go of his Test career is rather beside the point right now – he’s doing well. He also found an able ally in Sam Curran. His dropping for the last Test was harsh at the time, but it is delightful to see a young player ramming the error down the selectors’ throats as he is doing presently.

For India, Mohammed Shami was the pick of the bowlers, but it was hard work throughout. They will feel the pitch has slowed and died somewhat, making taking wickets hard work. If they are correct, then a run chase is more than possible as long as they don’t try to force things, and that too should be at the back of England minds.

There’s every chance the day four crowd will be in for a treat tomorrow, for while England are now ahead in the game, it’s not so far that anyone will be feeling comfortable.

Game on.

England vs India:4th Test, Day 2 – Bowlers to the Rescue

First with the bat, and now with the ball.  England’s plethora of all rounders initially got them to at least some kind of score, and then today got them right into the game with the ball.  By the time India passed England’s total with 9 wickets down, Sam Curran’s knock had become ever more important, and for India, Cheteshwar Pujara’s century was every bit as critical – though in his case, at least it could be said that it is his primary role in the side.

Moeen Ali was the star man for England, which always provides plenty of entertainment between those who think he’s under-appreciated, and those who point to his away record (not good) as a reason why he shouldn’t be anywhere near an England team.  The problem is that both are correct, as far as it goes.  Moeen at home has a very decent record indeed, Moeen away does not. Replacing him for away tours is a perfectly reasonable response to that, but there is always a peculiar belief that if done then England’s spinning options will dramatically improve, despite all the evidence to the contrary over the last ten years when discounting Graeme Swann.  He bowled very well today, taking five wickets, which both suggested that England may have their hands full with Ravi Ashwin, and highlighted the oddity of England playing two spinners and then only giving Rashid seven overs.  Two spinners often looks a luxury in England, and in this instance appears to be more about shoe-horning additional batting all rounders into the side than any expectation about the pitch.  Still, it’s always possible the second innings will be more conducive to Rashid’s skills, though leg spinners do tend to need runs on the board to be most effective, something England have been singularly unable to provide recently.

Broad too bowled well, and tested all the batsmen, while Sam Curran was the one who snared the prize wicket of an oddly out of sorts Virat Kohli.  But England used seven bowlers, including Keaton Jennings, who must have dearly wished for a bonus wicket to cheer himself up, and it looked overkill, with Stokes too just bowling the seven overs.

Of course, having bowling options is a wonderful thing, and particularly so when labouring in the field.  It can absolutely be said that England have a pretty balanced attack, with only a real paceman missing from what ought to be a dream combination of seam, swing, left arm, off spin and leg spin.  Whether the personnel are all good enough is a different matter of course.

India’s small lead would have been a disappointment at lunch, and a serious bonus shortly after tea, as this game swung wildly one way and then the other.  A mid order collapse of England proportions followed by the tail providing immense support for Pujara when it had looked like England might gain the most unlikely of first innings advantages.  Pujara himself batted beautifully, in conditions that slightly favoured the bowlers, though not to the extent that these teams appear determined to portray.  His marshalling of the lower order eked out far more runs than it should have, to England’s frustration, but perhaps it should be looked at in terms of praise for him, Sharma and Bumrah rather than anything England did obviously wrong.

As to where this game is going, currently all the pressure is on England’s batsmen, faced with the infamous third innings tension in a tight game.  Jennings and Cook deserve credit for coming through a tricky 20 minute spell unscathed, but the deficit is still there, and England will need to bat extremely well to set India a target where they’ll feel confident in bowling them out.  For England to be warm favourites, they would need to set a target in excess of 250, and there isn’t too much confidence in the England batting order right now – at least not in the top order.

Jennings may well feel this is his last chance, while Cook’s declining returns have consistently left England a couple of wickets down early on.  Either way, if both fail tomorrow England will be in deep trouble, and it’s been a fair old while since England’s openers have truly set a platform for the rest of the team.  No time like tomorrow.

After two days, this is a competitive Test match, and may yet go on to be a truly absorbing one.  But for that to happen England will have to exceed expectations and get into a position where they have at least the prospect of a win, and a series win.  India may well be the more confident, and if they bowl well tomorrow, those with tickets for the fourth day could be cursing their luck once again.  These are two brittle sides, and if low scoring matches are often the most exciting, when it happens repeatedly it merely highlights the flaws in the teams.

Nevertheless, a far better second day for England.  Whether they can make it a good third day as well – that’s more open to question.

England vs India, 3rd Test, Day 4 – The Painful Reality

Firstly, it would be churlish not to praise India who have well and truly demolished England in this Test. They need one more wicket, but the game is over, the only small delight comes from watching Rashid and Anderson surviving and thus forcing everyone, especially England’s top order, to come back tomorrow.

Some, myself included, thought that India could be on verge of a damning series defeat after Lords as it felt that this tour was starting to descend into free fall. Not one bit of it, as much as England have been poor (and boy have they been poor), India have been very good with bat and ball. Kohli set the tone with the bat once again and showed why he is the quite simply the best batsman in the world and this time he was ably assisted by Rahane and Dhawan amongst others. With the ball, Hardik Pandya secured his first 5 wicket haul in Tests in the first innings with Sharma and Bumrah both bowling superbly in each innings, the latter securing his five-for in the second. Any thoughts of a whitewash have been completely wiped away, it is now India in the ascendency and with a very real chance of securing or at least sharing the series.

Then we come to England (clicks wrists) and it is extremely hard to compose anything that can actually cover how completely and utterly abject they have been in this Test. Sure Stokes and Buttler in particular, who thoroughly deserved his maiden century after showing the top order how to bat properly, managed to salvage a little bit of pride in the 2nd innings when the game was already truly lost, but as much as the media would like to paint the positives here, the damage had already been done. It is almost typical England (John Crawley made a living from this as the archetypal second innings Charlie) that they finally make some runs when they are so far behind the eight ball that it doesn’t matter aside from personal milestones. This hasn’t just been a sanity check or a bad day at the office, these things happen way to often just to be a bad day at the office, this has still been a thrashing –  something that anyone who is associated with this side should be embarrassed about given it was lost on day two. I’m going to give the bowlers a bit of pass here, as although they could have bowled better, certainly on day one by pitching the ball up more consistently, it is not they who have lost this Test for England, though the ironic thing is that one of them is most likely going to pay with his place in the team due to the sheer inadequacy of the England batting and fielding units. I think if you compared these two elements relatively to a village side’s expectations, then you would be doing village cricket a disservice, this was far worse. As I mentioned before, it’s not as if it has been coming, England have lost 10 wickets in a session 3 times more in the past 22 months than they did in the last 80 years, yet still we keep being told to take the positives and that the players are working hard to correct things. One question then, how long do these overpaid and mollycoddled individuals need? We’ve had gaping holes in our batting line up for more time than I remember, we have shown time and time again that we are more than capable of collapsing on the flattest of pitches against the most average of bowling attacks and quite simply things are getting worse not better.

You only have to show highlights of England’s batting in this Test to show quite how bad this unit is. The lack of technique against the new ball, the edging of deliveries to the slips which didn’t need to be played at, the lack of will and application to grind out a session in tough conditions and the general apathy about representing their country. This is not just the players’ fault, though they have to accept that they also have a big responsibility for this mess, but there just also seems to be no accountability in the coaching unit. Bayliss is babysitting the team until the next World Cup, Chuckles Farbrace normally only comes out in the media after a good session and we have a batting coach (whose contract has just been extended whilst England’s batting performances get worse) that averaged a jot over 27 with the bat and admitted that he was unable to deal with the intensity of Test cricket. Andy Flower is doing a great impression of not being remotely seen in public when England are performing badly and one dreads to think where Graves and Harrison are and what they are currently dreaming up. Joe Root, who in my opinion should not be captain being our best batsman by a mile, is the man who keeps getting hung out to dry in the media as the rest of the coaches and players hide behind their handsome salaries and hope no-one notices them.

Let’s not make any bones about it; this batting unit is a wreck. Cook’s eyes have gone and so has his hunger, the best thing Jennings could do is purchase a one way ticket back to Jo’burg, Root shouldn’t be batting at 3 with the added burden of the captaincy, Bairstow and Stokes (who played with some proper acumen today) often seem to play the same innings no matter what the match situation, Buttler (this innings apart as he played extremely well) has yet to show that he has the consistency to be a staple of the English batting line up and Pope is a young kid trying to find his way in the game. The batting line up of the 90’s was much maligned but they would absolutely stomp all over this line up. Can you imagine Jennings, Cook and Buttler et al facing Walsh & Ambrose or Wasim & Waqar, there would be absolute carnage. I bet this team wouldn’t make 100 between them most times. Time after time, collapse after collapse, this unit continues to fail apart from the odd ‘solo innings of excellence’ but here we are, still trying to fix the massive hole in the hull whilst the flood water continues to gush in, with a sticking plaster. Don’t even get me started about the fielding unit, if I have to see another ‘slack-jawed, derp-I-dropped-another-catch-face’ from either Cook or Jennings, then I’m going full ‘Michael Douglas – Falling Down’ on my way to the Oval. The fact that our brains trust can’t even successfully master how to catch a ball at slip, then what hope does the rest of the team have? We have dropped 15 slip catches in 3 games, do you know how hard that is to actually achieve? Now it’s well known that I’m not a fan of St. Jimmy of Burnley’s antics on the cricket pitch, but I would fully condone acts of extreme violence from Jimmy to either of these two butter fingered miscreants.

Do you know what though, this performance is exactly what England and the ECB deserve. The general incompetence and apathy that is the ECB, has manifested itself both on and off the pitch and to be fair the England cricket team now reflects its administrators; a team of greedy, shallow individuals who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. We have a former captain in the throes of batting decline, one who is so paranoid that he believes that the media is out to get him despite being the beneficiary of endless hagiographies during his career. We have just dropped a talented 20 year who was Man of the Match two games ago, because England’s thug of an all-rounder needs an arm round him after getting into trouble on a night out. We have marginalised county cricket so much that it is now irrelevant and unable to supply players to the national team anywhere near international standard, we have upset and marginalised the fans whose money is somehow not good enough, we have the Hundred too all in the name of a focus on white ball cricket by the ECB so that those at the top can still make a mint from the game, whilst the rest watch it burn to the sinews.

Yet back to this series and so poor has the display been that some of our friends in the media might write about their surprise at such a poor performance, even though this has been happening with alarming regularity. There may even be the odd murmur about Cook’s form, which has been consistently on the wane for the past few years. However, don’t expect it to last, before the week is out we’ll be talking about how ‘Cook can decide his own time to retire’ and ‘how important it is for England to hit back after Trent Bridge’ narratives and soon enough this game will be but a distant memory.  Just like every single horrific collapse and every single away tour has been over the past few years. Besides, what would motivate the ‘old boys’ at the top of the chain and their compliant media friends to make waves by doing what’s best for the team when malignant mediocrity pays exactly the same amount?

It’s just one Test.  But it’s not just one Test is it?  And short of a surprise monsoon tomorrow, being 2-1 up doesn’t alter that.

England vs India: 3rd Test, Day Three – The Calm Before the Storm

The worst part about one sided Test matches is that long periods of play can amount to going through the motions, at least for the team that is adrift in the match.  Today was certainly in that category, for it wasn’t until the last 9 overs of play that the match perked up somewhat, as we arrived at the business end of events.

Not that any of this is remotely India’s fault, if fault is even the right word.  From the beginning of play it was clear that India’s lead of approaching 300 was already likely to be enough, but with three days of the match to go, they could afford a leisurely day of run building, whilst needing to take few risks in doing so.  The morning was largely soporific, India adding just 72 to their overnight score, whilst England were content enough after the initial burst to opt largely for containment.  Pujara and Kohli accumulated nicely, with the latter much the more fluent, which perhaps surprises no one.  All in all, it was that rarest of beasts in recent times – Test match batting.

Had the outcome of the match been in question, it would have been far more interesting to observe, for certainly England got some life in the air and off the surface, and even created the odd chance, though Buttler dropped one and Jennings another before the innings was done.  It’s not been a happy time of it in the slip cordon, and most have been culpable at one time or another.  A catching success rate against the seamers that amounts to roughly  one in two is going to make life harder than it need be, if nothing else, but it also indicated that a team less generous than England were going to take wickets.

That there was movement in the air was indicated by how one that moved after passing the bat caught Jonny Bairstow on the end of the finger.  It’s always worth finding an old wicketkeeper and asking them what that’s like – the wincing and head shaking rather gives it away.  Little concentrates the mind about catching technique quite as much as being entirely aware of how much it hurts when you get it wrong.  With Bairstow off to hospital for an X-ray that would reveal a fracture, Buttler took over behind the stumps – perhaps the one bright spot of the day being that England at least do have more than one wicketkeeper in the side

The dismissal of Pujara came as something of a surprise, not least to him, but given it was his first fifty in 16 first-class innings, he can be forgiven for taking his time over it, and the extended net that this second innings had become was ideal for playing himself back into form, which may yet be pivotal in the series.  England didn’t give up, they kept at him, and certainly didn’t offer up many freebies, which is probably as much as anyone could ask for in the circumstances.  What is notable is how few commentators were kidding themselves before the start of play that one fantastic session would get England back into the game.  There’s an air of resignation about this match.

Kohli’s dismissal for 103 brought a nice statistical quirk, acutely observed in the comments here by Arron (nonoxcol), that he now has match totals of 200 runs in two Tests this series.  A rarity indeed, and nearly enough to cause people to pay attention to what was going on.

Post tea, the urgency began to increase somewhat, at least in the mind of Hardik Pandya, while Rahane at the other stirred himself once in a while to score a run or two.  India have entirely earned this right, and keeping the England bowlers out there while the pitch wears and the bowlers tire is as much a part of the game as anything else.  But it lacks jeopardy, perhaps the most important element of a game of cricket and the reason to keep watching.  For there was simply no need for India to worry about it; the runs were coming freely enough, and there was no time constraint to cause calculations to be made about time remaining.   Nevertheless, a half hearted effort at a late injection of pace allowed Hardik to complete an enjoyable run a ball half century, and that was that, time for the declaration.

What invariably happens when a team is faced with a preposterous target is that various lists are put up about the highest run chases in history, and when the required runs are vastly in excess of the world record, the timeless Test between South Africa and England is mentioned.  It’s a rite of passage for any cricket fan to be educated on what has happened nigh on a century ago to allow them to pretend that a given Test is not going in one direction only.  Still, it passes the time.

A short session to bat isn’t easy, and Cook and Jennings did well to survive it, albeit with an element of fortune from time to time.  But such circumstances often occur with a day remaining, as one side fights desperately to keep their wickets intact to have a chance of salvaging a draw on the last day.

There are two days to go.

They’re stuffed.

OK, it’s theoretically possible that England could offer some decent resistance, but the problem is twofold:  It’s not just that the player-who-might-conjure-up-a-brilliant-rearguard-in-the-fourth-innings-but-hardly-ever-does looks either hideously out of form or in terminal decline depending on whether someone is an (extreme) optimist or otherwise, it’s that the rest of the batting line up have no sense of permanence about them whatever.  Even if they score runs, they do so quickly.  This is a team without the slightest prospect of hoping to bat 150 overs (let’s be generous and assume some rain).  Indeed, the absurdity of England’s position is such that they probably have a better chance of winning the game than they do of drawing it, and probably in about 120 overs too.  Clearly this is pure whimsy, for there’s not a cat in hell’s chance of that happening, but it’s illustrative of an England side for whom the art of batting in a Test appears to be a receding memory.

The expectation must be that this is done tomorrow.  And then the inquest can begin, with particular prizes on offer to all those in the media expressing surprise that this has happened again.

England v India: 3rd Test, Day Two – Same old Song

Let’s start with the good news.  The series is still alive, and barring something supremely improbable, India will win to make it 2-1.  Given the fug of depression about how cricket is being managed in this country, that amounts to a small mercy – a Test series that will at least go to the fourth game with the outcome in the balance.

That’s pretty much it, from an English perspective at least, as this looks nailed on to be a second Test in the series that is hopelessly one sided, although this time in favour of the tourists.  That tight Edgbaston Test seems a long time ago now.

Play might have started late, but there is time added on at the end.  Wickets might have fallen, but there is half an hour to make up for delays.  And yet still, by the time of the close, the required overs were well short.  Yesterday was three overs, today was a quite staggering ten adrift.  For long enough the authorities have shown no interest in making the players complete the minimum of 90 in a day, and in truth a lot of fans aren’t that bothered either, but if they can get away with this without punishment, then this is only going to get worse.

The one advantage England have is that they are extremely good at compressing play into what’s available – certainly losing all ten wickets in a session for the third time in two years demonstrates an uncanny ability to take time out of the game and ensure that it doesn’t matter.

Indeed, a morning session where England rattled through the Indian lower order presaged what was to follow quite well.   It didn’t take a soothsayer to forecast a batting shambles, the only suprising thing was that Cook and Jennings batted really rather well initially to take England to the break unscathed.  The horror show that followed on the other side of lunch was utterly predictable, for all morning the ball had swung, and all morning India struggled against it.  That much was likely to be obvious for there has been endless coverage about how India’s batsmen have difficulty against movement through the air.  What gets less mention is that England’s batsmen do too.  It’s hardly the first time, whether home or abroad in recent times.  The Kookaburra ball may not retain its shine as long as the Duke, but it doesn’t stop England’s top order falling over in a heap on anything but a low flat surface (hello Melbourne).

Hardik Pandya may have taken all the plaudits with a well earned five-for, but it could have been any of them in truth, such was the total command over the England batting line up.  And yet, how many of the dismissals were down to what was excellent bowling?  Most of the wickets were down to poor shots, playing at deliveries they didn’t need to, edging behind ones that needn’t have been played at.  Cook could have been out three times immediately after lunch, driving loosely, being dropped at slip before finally being put out of his misery.  This isn’t even new – he has found problems with this line of attack for a long time now, and occasional big scores on a flat deck don’t counter the increasing evidence that his decline is looking terminal. Nor do repeated claims that he’s been undone by a wonder ball, when his technical shortcomings are making them look far better than they are.  He’s had a few good balls, sure, but a Cook in form would have coped with them.  This blog is constantly accused of being down on Cook, but it isn’t that he ought to be jettisoned, for there is no evidence at all that anyone else would do better – see the rest of England’s batting for an example.  But it would be nice if some balanced coverage noted that he has had, and is having serious difficulties.  Instead what is more likely is that after having spent a long while refusing to accept the obvious, they will pile on to him now suggesting retirement.  It is, after all, exactly what happened before Melbourne, after which it suddenly became all hagiography.

It’s no better elsewhere in the top order, with the exception of Root, who is at least scoring runs much of the time, even if conversion is an issue.  Five catches to the wicketkeeper and three to slip tell its own story of England utterly at sea against the moving ball.  The victory at Lords wasn’t built on a dominant top order any more than England have had that for the last few years, it was all about the all rounders rescuing the team from a position that was only competitive because of how badly the opposition had batted.

This is the position in which England find themselves time and again, and the pretence that a big score from someone like Woakes (however welcome) covers up the flaws means a failure to recognise that being consistently 80-4 is not just part of the problem, it a major problem.  There’s just no sign at all of any learning going on, or more likely, they aren’t capable of taking that next step.  In the hubbub over the selection of first Buttler and then Rashid from outside the county championship, few noted how the effective abolition of first class cricket from the heart of the season made those kind of decisions more likely, and how the concomitant difficulties of the Test team should come as a shock to no one whatever.  If it had been in rosy health in the first place, it wouldn’t have happened.  England have focused on short form cricket, and done so at the expense of Test cricket.  The odd victory here or there doesn’t mean that the trajectory is any less downward, and while the team may have successes, the game of Test cricket itself looks in ever more fragile health, in one of the two countries who really do value it.  At least the supporters do.

That England got as many as they did was largely down to Buttler, who was ironically freed of the requirement to bat like a Test player by the batting meltdown going on around him.  A few lusty blows at least saved the follow on (not that it would have been enforced) and showed what he is good at.

As is invariably the case when a team has a huge lead, India’s batsmen made it look far easier when they got their go.  Equally invariably, the questions over England’s bowlers surfaced, as if it was their fault that England can’t bloody bat.  Sure, there are always things they can do better, and some things that frustrate, but it remains laughable to focus on the bowlers who are consistently having to try and rescue a catastrophic position defending a pathetic total.  England’s bowling is a concern, and England’s bowling post Anderson and Broad is a serious concern, but it’s still not going to make that much difference if the batsmen are shot out repeatedly by anything more than medium pace, on any surface that offers movement or bounce, or any atmospheric conditions that allow the ball to swing.

It’s not new.  It’s not unusual.  It’s every single damn time, unless one of the all rounders has a golden day.  A strategy of hoping the opposition are even more abject with the bat than England can only work some of the time, while the question marks over five day Tests in England are symptomatic of a total inability to stay in the middle for any length of time rather than anything else.

England are getting stuffed.  And the excuses will come out yet again, preferably ignoring the huge body of evidence for how this has been going on for years without any sign or hint that anyone has a clue why.  At some point, it might be mentioned that they aren’t that good, and that they’ve been carried for a few senior players who are all at varying degrees of being near the end, no matter how much some have stuck their heads in the sand and asserted that there are no problems.  England being 2-0 up has led plenty to assert that all is well, in total defiance of what is in front of them.  England’s position today is not an excuse to go on the attack, but it is to cause a reminder than none of this is new, and none of it is unexpected.

We’ve had two days of this match.  India can bat for as long as they like (which would actually be a pleasant surprise if done by anyone this series), and grind England into the dust.  So they should too, for while it might not make riveting viewing, it is the logical requirement for a team in their position.  If they don’t, then this game might not go three days.  And that is undoubtedly the worst part.  This pitch is not a minefield, impossible to bat on.  The ball is hardly moving extravagantly.  These are slightly favourable to the bowlers Test match conditions of the type seen in this country for decades; the inability to cope in any way with them is what is new.

 

England vs India: 2nd Test, Day Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain, rain go away…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs India: Day Four, Live Blog

Morning everyone…

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

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

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

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

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

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

11:00 – Here we go.  Atmosphere sounds great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11:45 – Stokes into the attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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