I Came Across A Cache Of Old Photos

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Please, No. Don’t let this be the whole of our future (T20 night at The Oval v Glamorgan)

OK. Time to write.

I have had a pretty tough stretch at work, and as is the way with me, when the stress levels hit high, I have to make a choice to cut something out that might cause me some more. So, after a couple of weeks just looking at the comments, reading the posts and making a couple of observations, I thought I should contribute something. Thanks to Chris, Sean and Danny who kept the show on the road.

I’ve been investing the hard-earned on some new furniture, most notably bookcases. I have also been investing in lots of cheaper books to fill them up. I’ve acquired a number of B&H/C&G Yearbooks as they become available cheap on the Amazon secondhand market. I also cleared out some of the old cupboards, and it was there I came across the contents of the title. A load of pictures from the Ashes tour of 2002/3. Most notably the Brisbane pics I’ve not seen for a while (and also from my visit to the Nou Camp, or Camp Nou, that year too). Back then, pre-parents death and with a bit more disposable income, the dreams of seeing great sporting venues filled my head. I wasn’t a little old 20 year old, but a 33 year old cynic! The excitement was immense, even though we knew we’d get stuffed. The photos are a terrific memory. I’ve now located the video Sir Peter made of the whole adventure and laughing at it again. I’m currently ranting about Day 1 as I write.

Mark , in his comments on the piece below this, sort of strikes the current mood. 2002 was pre-T20 and so much an innocent world where no-one seriously questioned the primacy of test match cricket. Now, 15 years on, no series really seems to matter to the English cricketing psyche like the Ashes, as everything that happened this summer seemed to only matter in that context. The T20 world encroaches on the test scene more and more, where a great West Indies test win is buried under the Caribbean Premier League. The people want it. The cricket fan that sustained the game through the last three decades is cast aside.

This has, from my perspective, been a dull summer of test cricket. South Africa were meant to pose a huge threat to the inconsistent England team under a new captain, but instead capitulated poorly in three of the four games (but absolutely slaughtered us in the other). They seemed a team confused with themselves – a bowling line up that worked a charm when it fired, but a batting line-up as fragile, if not more so, than England’s. All this was played to a backdrop of AB de Villiers egging his team on from home, while sitting out the series to rest for some other appointment at some other time in the future. there seemed something symbolic about the state of test cricket. England, a team in flux, with key weaknesses at 2,3 and 5 were easily beating a team that had a great away record, but who had seen their best batsman sit it out because he needs to make money and T20 will do it for him. I might react to his tweets because it seemed like he was having his cake and eat it, but I don’t blame him for making the choice.

Joe Root got his captaincy off to the best possible start with a win and a big hundred. This was augmented by Moeen Ali taking ten wickets in the game, as the Lord’s surface took spin and South Africa’s batting took leave of its senses. The second test was an almost bizarre role reversal, as South Africa took a big first innings lead after one of the most skittish test innings I’ve seen from an England team – as if we were on a time limit. The third test at the Oval saw one of those great knocks from Ben Stokes that we are going to need more and more of, while South Africa fell away (despite a terrific century by Elgar on the last day) and Moeen took a hat-trick to finish the match. The fourth test at Old Trafford went much the same way. South Africa couldn’t nail England down with the bat, but were brought to their knees by good bowling.

The West Indies series was supposed to be 3-0. Good sides, in fact some not so good, would have hammered the visitors 3-0, but England infuriated us again by mailing in a test match at Headingley, and being done by Shai Hope and Kraigg Brathwaite. As someone rightly said, I’m not on the Shai Hope bandwagon just yet. It takes more than taking a couple of centuries off England to convince me he’s the real deal. He looks well organised, he looks to have the temperament, but he also looked at an 18 batting average pre this tour in 11 tests, I believe. Hope, Blackwood and Holder have made all their test centuries against England.

The first test was an embarrassment to test cricket. England piled on a ton of runs against a Division 2 county attack at best. The batting crumpled in a heap. It was over inside three days. That Headingley was a remarkable turnaround, and we could actually watch much of the play over a Bank Holiday weekend (it will never catch on), had some of us reaching for our memories and hoping for the best. But like those old photographs, they are just that. Nice memories. The amazement that the West Indies could chase down 300 in a day at Leeds of all places was a chimera. It was nice to have a pop at idiots who want 4 day test matches, two divisions et al, but those voices are listened to, and ours are not. We go to Lord’s, we get a test lasting 2 an 3/4 days, where a larrup stand between Broad and Roland-Jones made the lead meaningful enough after the Ben Stokes show, and the same old problems manifest themselves.

This is an era missing a great team. This is an era where if you have some level of talent you can accumulate some decent statistics. Jimmy Anderson, who has done superbly to reach 500 wickets, just to last that long to play all those games, was, at the beginning of the year a player who looked in terminal decline. He had pretty much fallen apart on the unforgiving surfaces of the sub-continent, but back home, probably a bit fitter, he made hay. But he wasn’t exactly up against the South Africa of Smith, Kallis and DeVilliers (and I would say an Amla not in terminal decline), nor the West Indies of a Chanderpaul being a constant pain. Jimmy does not need weak batting to feast – he used to have a lovely knack of getting out Sachin – but averaging 14 (?) this summer does seem to indicate the quality he was facing. A great bowler, and he is, feasting on the scraps.

England’s oddly organised team, comprising a brittle top and middle order anchored by the current and ex-captain, need to be rescued by a ton of all-rounders and a lower order that can cause some havoc. In the absence of top order batsmen, it is a plan that has to work. There’s not a lot else we can do. We really are putting our hopes in magic beans, that we can pluck a batsman out of our domestic game who may actually be better at test cricket than he is at the county level. It’s a bit like the alchemy sketch in Blackadder II, or Rodney suggesting to Del that they try to make money out of nothing. As SimonH has pointed out in the comments on the end of the test, there’s not a lot to go on, inspector. I look at the Surrey team, and I hear people say Jason Roy. A man dropped from the ODI team for technical problems. He’s not pulled up any trees in his return to Surrey.

To me, though, the test summer of 2017 will be the season I fell totally out of love with the social media side of the game. By that, I mean Twitter. It’s a very strange medium at the best of times, but this summer it has been rank. Utter garbage. People seem to want to take shots at each other, to be the smartest smart-arse in the room. Some have fully moved on to the journo side when they were fellow travellers not so long ago, and in some instances, forgotten where they’ve come from. Others just wind me up all day long with their need to be clever. I’ve muted more accounts this summer than in the past few years combined. People get irate when I say 5 out of 97 or 6 out of 103, when it’s a fact. People raved more about a 80-odd by Cook, as genuinely good as it was, than the 99 by Bairstow that played every bit as much of a role in a series clinching win. Cook has made one ton this summer. It was a mighty one, a long one, the first player in my memory to make four double hundreds for England. But we need a lot more from him as an all-time great.

There will be more on Alastair later in the piece, as we have an Ashes series coming up, but he is symptomatic of the schism that still, really, exists. It’s moved on now to those who seem to live in a world where 2013/14 never happened, or at least the ECB and its nonsense needs to be forgotten, and those who can’t, or won’t forgive. The former seem to have gone back to being calm, observers of the game, only rising up when one of their own (a fellow England fan) has the gall to question. Blind obedience, or at least a recognition that you need to be in with the in crowd, is more important than critical evaluation. You have a point, and I will listen to it, and discuss. I won’t if you say my blog, and that of the team, has been put together solely to have a go at Alastair Cook. I don’t do blind obedience. I don’t do the “in crowd”. IMVHO, it’s a bit silly.

Instead what do those on the other side of this schism do? We fade away. We post less. We certainly care less about England. We worry about test cricket. We worry that T20 hasn’t come close to maximising its destruction of the long-form of the game. We see no-one giving a crap about what we say. In many ways we, and our ilk had more a voice post-2014 Ashes that got heard. Now we don’t matter, if we mattered at all. Other than a place where we can lick our wounds, remember the better times, and hope for a saviour or two who place the test match at the heart of the sport we love.

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This place has always had something going for it. Never Being Boring. The cache of old photos still bring a smile to my face, as do my rants on Sir Peter’s video (the one about the bloke behind me and the Michael Bevan Asia XI v Whatever XI knock). The sport has given us joy. It still can do so. But it’s tough to love at the moment.

Always leave ’em laughing.

“Someone said if you’re not careful
you’ll have nothing left and nothing to care for”

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England vs South Africa: 4th Test and Review

In common with the rest of the series, the fourth and last day of the final Test turned out to be a mopping up exercise, the outcome already beyond doubt, the uncertainty merely concerning the margin and how long it would take.  Early hopes for a spectacular Moeen century were dashed when Broad and Anderson were dismissed in short order, removing any argument about how long to bat on, perhaps fortuitously.  It made little difference to anything but a potential personal milestone, and by the end of the day it was hard to imagine Moeen would have been in any way disappointed with his lot.

South Africa fought hard, in a manner that has been in somewhat short supply this series, but a target of 380, on a surface that was deteriorating, was never feasible.  Both teams have been afflicted with top order fragility this series, the difference being that England’s middle and lower order are operating on a different level to their counterparts.  Moeen’s unbeaten 75 in the second innings probably wasn’t the difference between the sides, but it certainly gave a fair degree of breathing space.  The 90 runs added for the last three wickets turned a highly unlikely target into an impossible one, which given the tourists’ manful efforts with the ball to stay in the series was a case of hammering the final nail in the series coffin.

After a faltering start came a fine partnership between Amla and Du Plessis.  Neither have had outstanding series – that Vernon Philander is top of the batting averages makes that clear – though Amla has scored runs without ever going on to a match defining innings.  Broad and Anderson, particularly the latter, had bowled superbly early on, both swing and seam with the new ball making life exceptionally difficult.  For South Africa to reach 163-3 was a tribute to how well they had done, not that it was a time to worry about reaching the target.  Enter that man Moeen again, who must be feeling Test cricket is currently the easiest game in the world.  Three quick wickets and the game was just about done, as he finished with another five wicket haul, this time via the slightly less impressive manner of three wickets in four balls rather than three.  He was unsurprisingly named Man of the Series for England – Morne Morkel picking up the equivalent award for South Africa.

At the end of it, it was a comfortable enough series win.  England were the better side of the two, the depth in their batting and injuries, illness and voluntary absence hampering the visitors.  Yet the weaknesses identified in both sides at the start were no closer to being resolved by the end.  England’s new captain Joe Root did well enough, he was certainly more attacking than had been the case at any time during the Cook era, and if nothing else at no point where there obvious occasions where the tactics were utterly baffling, in itself a positive.  Where England tended to fall short, particularly but not solely at Trent Bridge, was in the top order batting, something not directly within the purview of the captain.   Ultimately England’s batting was slightly deeper and slightly less fragile than South Africa’s.

Cook had a reasonable series, like Amla not going on to make a really big score, but on one occasion for certain making a material difference to the match outcome with his fine 88 at the Oval.  Cook is without question England’s best opener, and can be expected to cash in against the West Indies later this month, but there are doubts beginning to surface about his ability to score big runs against potent pace attacks, particularly with the Ashes coming up.  He has always been a slightly odd opener, vulnerable to fast bowling but exceptional against spin, and with two series of highly contrasting outcomes down under, it really needs to be Good Cook for England to have a strong chance.  For this is the fundamental point: England are frail at the top, and overly reliant on their best players, of whom he is one, and the middle order as a collective.  Whether it be a matter of declining returns is an unknown, but the Ashes will likely provide a good answer to that question.

Who his next opening partner will be is up for debate, if not panic.  Jennings certainly didn’t show anything to suggest he’s the one, but it’s also true that whoever does the role next series has the opportunity to score heavily without answering the basic question as to whether they are good enough at the very top level.   Not being picked is becoming a useful means of advancing a cause, for Haseeb Hamed finally got runs today, which may be rather timely.  But it is all too easy to see the revolving door of England openers continuing for the foreseeable future.

Three and five are also still uncertain; Tom Westley did well enough to be persevered with, while Dawid Malan probably didn’t.  But England have got themselves in a pickle by running a lottery on three of the top five positions.  Dropping Malan after two Tests wouldn’t engender much confidence that the selectors know what they’re doing, because it implies the initial selection was a mistake.  There is a case for considering Alex Hales in that position, and his current bout of run scoring in that role might move things his way.

Further down is where England excel.  Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all got the same criticism for failing to knuckle down in the Trent Bridge Test as everyone else, but their strengths are elsewhere – and to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can (which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be more responsible on occasion) is to miss the point about the problems in the batting order.  They have bailed England out on many an occasion between them, but it is asking a lot for them to keep doing it from 120-4.  Have them coming in at 300-4 and it’s a different matter, for in those circumstances they will scare the living daylights out of any and every opposition.

Of the bowlers, Moeen of course has had an extraordinary series, on the back of a highly average one in India.  If there is a difference in his bowling, it appears less about the pace at which he is flighting the ball (though he is) and more about seeming to be bowling many fewer bad deliveries.   He’s always been a wicket taker, but this series he has also been much tighter.  It’s also true that India away is hard territory for an English spinner – few have been remotely as successful as Panesar and Swann – and although he wasn’t great, he’s certainly not the first to struggle there; something that should have been noted by those complaining about Adil Rashid too.  For the Ashes, expectations shouldn’t be too high either, even Swann has an average well north of 40 in that country.  If Moeen does the same, then he’ll have done extremely well, but after this series it’s rather likely it won’t be seen that way.  He’s a very useful performer who does takes wickets, but he’s not better than Swann and he’s not better than Panesar.  Which means his success should be celebrated, but with a proviso that it’s not going to be like this all the time.  Still, as things stand his bowling appears to have improved , and with his batting as well, he’s becoming one of this side’s key performers.

Toby Roland-Jones came in and did well, though as is so often the case he was hailed as the answer one match into his Test career.  It’s neither fair nor is it reasonable, but he can be pleased with his start, and once again the obsession with sheer pace (despite Philander clearly being a fine bowler anywhere at about 80mph) comes up against the reality that good bowlers can operate at any speed.  That being said, he was in the side because of the injury to Chris Woakes, who can be expected to return, and of course who strengthens the already absurdly powerful middle and lower order even further.

Stokes is Stokes, a player who is perhaps by the strictest of measures not someone who fully qualifies for the genuine all rounder role in that neither his batting nor his bowling alone are truly good enough in isolation.  But he tends to contribute in one discipline or the other (or by catching flies at slip) most matches these days.  It makes him a highly unusual cricketer, for in terms of raw numbers he could be termed one of those bits and pieces cricketers, but he clearly is far more than that.  It may be that in years to come he reaches even greater heights, but he’s the heartbeat of this team and he knows it.  And a matchwinner.

Broad and Anderson are now the old stagers in the side, and it’s probably worth appreciating seeing them in tandem, for it won’t last forever.  Broad bowled well enough without necessarily getting the rewards, while Anderson finished top of the bowling averages.  That in itself is interesting because there was a subtle shift in his role.  Root was quick to remove him from the attack whenever he wasn’t doing what he wanted him to, which clearly irked him, and he responded in the best possible way, by coming back and taking wickets.  Today was one of those where he had the ball on a piece of string, swinging it both ways and seaming it off the surface.  Some were quite simply unplayable by anyone.  Perhaps he is finally embracing his elder statesman role, in which case it is good news for England, for as he gets older and his workload necessarily needs easing, his sheer skill will remain.  He bowled beautifully, and it’s unlikely too many West Indies batsmen will be excited at facing him under lights in Birmingham.  Career wise, today was the day when his Test bowling average dipped into the 27s.  He’s been lowering it steadily for five years, and may well finish a point or two lower yet.

It was also striking how much time he spent at midoff, talking to the other bowlers, something that Joe Root was quick to say was no coincidence.  It’s distinctly possible Anderson might make a very good coach, not just because he’s been there and done it, but because he’s had his own career mangled at various points by those who follow technical strictures in preference to common sense.  Getting the best out of those already good enough to be picked could well be a future for him.

For South Africa the next Tests on the agenda are home ones against Bangladesh, which should at least provide the opportunity to make some changes in favourable circumstances.  Heino Kuhn has likely played his last Test but the brittleness has affected the team throughout the top order, in a side that relies on it far more than England do (not that England should, but that’s how it has transpired).  Elgar had a decent series, undone twice here by two balls that would trouble anyone, but Bavuma flattered to deceive too often, as he has done in much of his Test career, while the core middle order of Du Plessis and De Kock struggled.  The loss of De Villiers undoubtedly hurts them, and that is a symptom of a wider malaise in the game where players are paid little to turn out for their national team, and fortunes to play for a franchise.  But even without him, the returns from the batting will have been a serious disappointment.

Losing Steyn before the series was a blow, losing Philander during it may have been pivotal. But all of the seamers did reasonably well at different times, and Maharaj too looked a cut above the normal South African spinner.  Lamenting the losses in the bowling department may ease the irritation at the result, but it was the batting that ultimately cost them, along with too many dropped catches.

This hasn’t been a great series, despite the wishful thinking of the broadcasters.  Each match has been one sided, and the interest in the outcome has dissipated often within two days.  It is a problem for Test cricket without question, but there have been highlights such as Root’s 190, Stokes brilliant 112 and Moeen’s hat-trick.  Perhaps it’s not enough, but at the moment it’s all there is to hang on to.

 

England vs. South Africa, 4th Test, Day 3

Today was the sort of day that many of us Test enthusiasts love, a day where bowlers had the sort of conditions that actually gave them the upper hand and where the batsmen had to fight for every single run. Yes today was a bit of a grind and I must admit that the Old Trafford surface hasn’t been great, but I would rather see a proper fight between bat and ball than 600 play 650 on a flat, bowlers graveyard of a pitch. The day ebbed and flowed, with South Africa battling to stay in the match and England trying to eek out enough runs to feel comfortable in defending on a deteriorating pitch. By the end of the day, England managed to emerge on top; however it was tough going, which Test cricket is absolutely meant to be.

England’s batting was a tale of the downright poor and one absolutely superb innings. I think it’s safe to say that England’s top order still has more holes than a watering can, with the top 3 all getting out to woeful shots and Malan, although 2 Test’s into his England career, looking nervous and out of place in the Test arena. It would be harsh to drop Malan after only 2 games, but sometimes a player just doesn’t look international class I’m afraid. As for the Top 3, I’m afraid it looks like game, set and match for Keaton Jennings. He came out with some credit from his performance in the 2nd innings of the Oval Test, but has looked woefully short of form all summer. This is absolutely not helped by the fact that his feet look stuck to the crease, his head position is too upright on connection with the ball, which means that he doesn’t seem in control of the ball when it hits the bat and of course he genuinely doesn’t seem to know where his off stump is at the moment in the face of good, patient bowling. I think his reaction to his dismissal said a 1,000 words, he realises that its now back to Durham to try and work on his technique and to score some big runs. The opener cab rank is starting to look extremely bare.

Westley and Cook also both got out in the same way, launching ill advised flashes outside the off stump in what were very bowler friendly conditions. Westley is still learning the international game and whilst I worry about his ability against deliveries pitching outside off stump, I’ve seen enough of him in the last couple of Tests to give him the benefit of the doubt. The same can’t be said for Cook. I’m afraid that Cook looks to be in terminal decline, unable to fathom out how to score big runs now international bowlers have truly found out his weaknesses. A number of us have pointed out that he is now 50 not out since he last scored a century against either Australia or South Africa and indeed having done a little bit of digging (Nonoxcol had the same idea) it now reads that Cook has an average below 30 against these teams going all the way back to 2012 (some 26 Test matches). These cold hard facts may be difficult to swallow for those that have chosen deify Cook, but it is a fact that Cook really has been a flat track bully over the past 5 years. I will again reiterate again that I’m not advocating that Cook should be dropped, far from it, we can’t find one opener let alone two at the moment, but the fact that Cook is still easily the best opener in England is more a terrible reflection on county cricket, than it is a reflection on how good Cook actually is at the moment. Oh and just to annoy the Cook straw men on Twitter that’s 5 in 98 now.

With the dismissal of Malan and with England 77-4, with only a lead of around 200 ahead, there seemed to still be life in this Test, as whilst the pitch was doing a fair bit, if South Africa could limit the chase to fewer than 275, they still had a chance. Root played very well before getting a ball that kept low. One may be nitpicking and argue that he should have got forward to it; however equally you don’t generally expect the pitch to have demons in it on Day 3. Stokes and Bairstow both came and went, with the former getting a good delivery, which he nicked off to slip and the latter looking uncharacteristically out of touch. So enter the hour and enter the man. I admit that I’ve been particularly harsh on Moeen in the past winter, as I could see all the talent in the world, but couldn’t see any growth in his game. He has proved to be excellent with the ball in this series with 20 wickets and an innings to come and today he showed his class with the bat. England were still in a little bit of strife when Moeen came in, but boy did he play this innings to perfection. He was positive rather than being reckless, something that hasn’t always been the case, didn’t allow the South African bowlers to settle into their line and lengths and then launched a perfect counter attack with the bowlers tiring. Moeen’s counter hitting was truly a sight to behold, though Elgar will be kicking himself for dropping him on 15; however this cameo has firmly turned the dial in England’s favour. I would be amazed if South Africa can muster a batting performance on this pitch to win it from here. It is also worth noting that Moeen’s tally of 20 wickets and over 200 runs is the first time that this has been achieved since a certain Freddie Flintoff achieved it in a rather special Ashes series. Now I’m not going to try and compare apples and pears, but if Moeen can keep this level of play up in the next couple of series and beyond, then England have another true all rounder.

As for the South African bowlers, they can hold their heads up high. Morkel, Rabada and even Olivier, who looked a club bowler in the 2nd Test, bowled extremely well in conditions that suited them. They consistently made England’s batsmen play and miss and on another occasion could have easily wrapped up the England innings for under 150. The only bowler who will be slightly disappointed will be Maharaj, though whilst he looked dangerous bowling into the rough, especially against the left handers, he will be disappointed that he only took 1-92 in pretty helpful conditions, although he could do little whilst he was being smashed round the park by Moeen.

So onto Day 4 and barring a miracle or persistent rain, England should wrap up this game and the series 3-1 in the next day or so. Whether we have learnt anything more about the England line up however, is an extremely moot point.

Thoughts and comments on Day 4 below.

England vs South Africa: Fourth Test, Day Two

For a time during the afternoon, it looked as though at long last there might be a genuinely competitive Test match on the cards.  Sure, England had played well in the morning session, thanks to Jonny Bairstow’s masterclass in farming the strike with the tail, but with the tourists 141-3, and looking in reasonable shape to challenge the England total, the prospect of not knowing where the match was going after two days was a definite possibility.

That it didn’t happen was partly down to some excellent bowling – from James Anderson and Moeen Ali in particular – but also some woeful batting.  England received plenty of (justified) criticism for the way they rolled over at Trent Bridge, but with the series now likely to finish 3-1, South Africa have clearly demonstrated that however fragile England might wish to be, they can exceed it.

Both teams had faltered in the top order, and the difference in position wasn’t especially marked, but whereas England’s middle order had rescued the situation, first through Stokes, then through Bairstow, South Africa’s fell apart.  It doesn’t tell us that much about England, for the trio of Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen have rescued the team from calamity on a few occasions, but in this series at least, the same can’t be said about their opposite numbers.

Although England had lost a couple of early wickets, 312-9 in the context of the batting line ups didn’t look a bad score.  A rollicking last wicket stand with Bairstow turning a useful fifty into what appeared certain to be a remarkable century moved England into a position of likely dominance.  In itself that says a fair bit about these two sides.  There is some movement off the pitch and in the air, but this is a decent Test match wicket.  400, once the minimum expectation for the side batting first appears to be right at the top of the aspirations of these batting line ups.

Bairstow of course fell for 99, joining a substantial group who have managed to get themselves out in often peculiar circumstances in pursuit of that single extra run.  If ever there was an illustration needed that batting is done in the head, it is right there.  He was perhaps a trifle unlucky of course – not in the sense that it wasn’t out, but because it was a marginal call. In the world of DRS such calls are automatically considered “good” decisions as they are backed up by the technology, and perhaps the game is better for that.  But he may feel some chagrin for not getting that nebulous unwritten rule concerning the benefit of the doubt.  It’s the same for all.

If Bairstow had left England content at the change of innings, Anderson ensured that lunch was to be a happy place in the England dressing room, removing the obdurate Dean Elgar third ball to christen his newly named bowling end with a classical Anderson delivery, swinging into the left hander’s pads.

For the next couple of hours it was good Test cricket.  The loss of Amla to Toby Roland-Jones for the third time in succession cut short an innings where he looked in decent touch, an all too rare occurrence recently.  If he was fluent, Heino Kuhn was anything but.  Battling dreadful form and injury, he was eventually put out of his misery by Moeen Ali, but it should be said that if his team mates had batted with the same tenacity and determination as the under pressure opener, they might not be in the mess they are this evening.

Bavuma and Du Plessis then took over, not without alarms, but the match was fairly even.  And then it all fell apart.  Anderson removed both within three balls, and while they were decent enough deliveries, Bavuma’s decision to join his team mates this series in regarding the bat as an optional extra, and Du Plessis’ dreadful defensive shot that dragged the ball on to the stumps through the widest of gates was symptomatic of the difference between the teams – namely that brittle as England might be, they are tempered by comparison with their opponents.

With the exception of Elgar, every South African batsman this innings has got into double figures, yet none has made a fifty.  The tail did well, Maharaj, Rabada and Morkel being responsible for ensuring the 142 run deficit (with one wicket remaining) wasn’t even higher.  Yet De Kock was subdued, seemingly unsure how to play the deteriorating situation, and the procession of batsmen coming in and going out was of no surprise at all.

All of which means this match is following an identical pattern to the third Test (and similar to all the others this series).  England will have a huge lead, and with no rain to date the luxury of no time pressure whatever in setting a vast target – though doubtless some will be calling for them to push on and declare tomorrow night.

It’s not entirely clear why it is that matches, in England at the very least, have become so one sided in recent years, and the old truth that correlation doesn’t equal causation should make anyone wary of the easy blaming of T20 cricket.  But it doesn’t make for good viewing and it isn’t healthy for Test cricket.  The very concept of a battle unfolding over five days is undermined when the outcome is pretty much clear after two, every time.  This has happened in Tests since they began, but it is now sufficiently consistently the case as to cause even more worry about the health of the game than was already the case.  All sport thrives on uncertainty, for without it there is little point watching.  The up and down results England have had in the last couple of years is indeed quite uncertain, that is true, but the matches themselves are anything but.

Barring something preposterous, England will win this match, and with it the series.  But the feeling that the next two (probably not three) days are merely playing out the inevitable (yet again) is both frustrating and fundamentally lowers interest.  It’s to be hoped it is a phase, as can happen in sport, for if not the problems are even greater than has been supposed up to now.

England vs. South Africa, 4th Test, Day 1

The game started as most games seem to nowadays for England; with many people having no idea which players would be selected. Bayliss had again expressed his belief that England didn’t need to play 8 batsmen, which seemed to suggest Dawson or Finn would be coming in to replace Dawid Malan. Malan’s performance certainly didn’t fill watchers with confidence in the last game, but then again neither did Dawson. It eventually became apparent that despite the coach’s musings, England would announce an unchanged team. The same was not true of South Africa, who were forced to replace bowlers Philander and Morris with allrounders Olivier and de Bruyn due to injury.

In a shock to many, it was dry and the game started on time. In Manchester. England won the toss, which given the rest of the series virtually guarantees that they will win, but apparently they still had to play a game of cricket first and so they elected to bat. Keaton Jennings fell quickly after edging a delivery from Olivier to the keeper for 17. It feels like this might be the last game for Jennings if he can’t make a score in the next innings, particularly if Trevor Bayliss can see Mark Stoneman play in the next week or two.

Westley came in to partner Cook, and the pair made slow and steady (emphasis on slow) progress to the lunch break and beyond.  The partnership came to a sudden end when Cook got a thin edge on a straight ball from Maharaj after playing a loose drive to a wide ball. As people who read below the line on the preview post will already know, this means that Cook now has 49 innings against South Africa and Australia since his last century.

Three overs later, Westley lost his wicket after hanging his bat well outside the line to a short and wide delivery from Rabada. This meant the fluent Root was joined by Dawid Malan, another batsman playing for a place in the next series. Malan seemed to be in better shape than in the previous game, or perhaps the conditions being less conducive to swing helped him somewhat. Either way, it was an improved but still unconvincing second game with a few loose shots and near-misses before he eventually fell edging a wide drive to second slip just before Tea.

Root and Stokes piled on the runs fairly quickly, but not without some risk. Root in particular was lucky to survive an edge which South African wicketkeeper de Kock watched go past. Fortunately for the tourists, Root only added another 12 runs as he fell for 52 runs to an LBW appeal. Root unsuccessfully appealed the decision, which suggests his judgment of such things is just as poor in front of the stumps as it is behind them. This put England in the familiar situation of having lost their last specialist batsmen for less than 200 runs, relying on their lower order to build an imposing total. Stokes and Bairstow obliged, putting on another 65 runs before Rabada bowled Stokes in the penultimate over of the day. Toby Roland-Jones came in ahead of Moeen Ali as nightwatchman but amusingly didn’t face a ball, leaving England on 260/6 at the end of the day.

All of which leaves the game fairly evenly poised going into the second day. A quick collapse tomorrow and South Africa will be well ahead, if England’s tail can add another 100 runs or more then they will be happy. Either way, perhaps there will finally be a closely contested game in this series. Comments as always welcomed below.

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Fifth Day

Another Test, another one sided result.  England go 2-1 up in the series with the expected thumping win, even if they had to work for it just a little bit today.  Each match in this series has been competitive only for the first couple of days, before playing out with one team dominating the other completely.  To date it’s been reminiscent of the last Ashes series, where despite some rather hopeful comment about how good it had been, the reality was that it was frustratingly predictable after the opening exchanges in each match.  It was topsy-turvy as a series for sure, but the individual games simply weren’t close.  Since that point the pattern has continued, and even the Guardian noticed this morning how few England matches of recent vintage have been remotely close.  It’s something that is begining to become prevalent in the Test game these days, and something to note when singling England out for not showing fight in the fourth innings – they aren’t alone.  Certainly as far as this series is concerned, much the same can be levelled at South Africa at times, albeit Dean Elgar has shown everyone how to do it over the last couple of days.

That this match got as far as it did was down to him.  Despite repeated blows to a damaged finger, he showed character, fought hard and took the runs when on offer with attacking fields.  In short, he played a proper Test innings of the kind that appears to be going out of fashion.  His clear disappointment when walking off the field to a standing ovation for a determined 136 was evidence if it were needed that he’d been intent on batting the day, if only anyone could have stayed with him.

For South Africa to have had any chance at all, they needed Elgar and Temba Bavuma to bat deep into the day, and the dismissal of the latter, and the exposing of the bowlers in the South African line up rather signalled the beginning of the end.  Joe Root has had difficulties with the Decision Review System this series – too keen to send it upstairs for speculative appeals (or too prepared to listen to Jonny Bairstow according to one reading of it), but that’s the nature of a new captain learning who to trust and when to take the review option.  Here was an example of using it supremely well, a straight ball jammed between bat and pad, but looking rather straight.  Aleem Dar made the correct decision in giving it not out, for there was no way he could be sure whether it was bat or pad first (the temptation with the arrival of DRS must be to give those not out routinely anyway), but with it clear it was pad first on replay, it was no surprise to see it overturned.

If Bavuma’s lbw was tight, Vernon Philander’s was an omnishambles.  A ball that didn’t swing or seam in, but was gunbarrel straight from the start, was unaccountably left alone.  One of the easier decisions any umpire will ever have to make, and Toby Roland-Jones was on a hat-trick.   He nearly got it too, the ball flying off the outside edge to a slip cordon diving in all directions to try and get a hand under it.  Roland-Jones has had a fine match – not just with the ball either – and the eight wickets  he took were good reward for the virtues of bowling line and length and nibbling it about a bit.  Maybe it’ll catch on.  Whether he will make a successful Test career or not is open to debate, but the England hierarchy often appear thoroughly obsessed with all seam bowlers being capable of high pace.  It is a curiosity when in the opposite ranks this series there is someone who rarely gets above 80mph but causes teams everywhere no end of difficulty.  That’s not to say for a moment that Roland-Jones can reach those kinds of levels, but it is peculiar that England don’t seem to notice when opposition players who don’t fit the established template succeed.

Elgar’s dismissal came just three balls from the end of the match, given he was the first of a hat-trick taken by Moeen Ali to finish proceedings in a rush.  It was a fine delivery too, slower, loopy and angled into off stump before turning away to take the edge and be caught by Stokes at slip.  The second to Rabada appeared almost a carbon copy, but the ball wasn’t quite as good, though given the difference in batting skill perhaps it didn’t need to be.  Moeen then had to wait for Stokes to complete an over before being the third bowler to bowl a hat-trick ball in the match.  This time, it came off, a straight ball to Morkel defeating the half lunge forward and crashing into the pad.  It looked out live too, though the verdict was in the negative.  The review was clear cut and with that he became the first England off spinner since 1938 to take three in three.  It was also the first ever Test hat-trick at the Oval, only the third time a hat-trick has been taken to win a match (the last example being in 1902), and perhaps most remarkably of all this was the first instance in Test history of four batsmen being dismissed first ball in an innings.  Finally, in the cricketing world of esoteric stat mining, a favourite has to be that it was also the first Test hat-trick where all three victims were left handed.  If the outcome of the match had been beyond doubt for quite a while, it remained an astonishing way for it to finish.

With hindsight the difference in the match was probably England’s first innings.  What appeared to be a reasonable total turned out to be a good one, and South Africa’s bowling not as consistent as perhaps it had seemed to be at the time.  The loss of Philander to illness may well have been critical, for the others didn’t quite manage to fill the gap he left.  South Africa may well have had the worst of the batting conditions under heavy cloud and floodlights, but the alternative to that is to go off the field when there is artificial light.  If it’s not dangerous, then play should go on, and being on the receiving end of that is just bad luck of the same nature as being put into bat on a green seamer.

With such huge swings in fortunes both in this series and recently, especially involving England, it would be a brave pundit who would predict the outcome of the final match in the series at Old Trafford starting Friday.  There is no reason to assume the frailties of the England side on show at Trent Bridge have been solved, indeed South Africa’s fourth innings resistance here was several order higher than England’s capitulation last time out.  Judging by current patterns, it would seem mostly likely one team will thrash the other, with no real reason to be sure which way around that will be.

The England debutants had a mixed time of it – Roland-Jones was excellent, Tom Westley promising, while Dawid Malan didn’t get to make much of a contribution.  In all three cases a single Test match explains nothing.  Roland-Jones’ eight wickets in the match equalled the debut performance of Neil Mallender for example, not necessarily the career trajectory he would hope to duplicate, while plenty of batsmen who have had good careers didn’t do so well first time out.  Whether Keaton Jennings did enough with his second innings 48 to retain his spot is more open to question, but the increasing frustration at the revolving door of England openers means that at some point they have to make a decision and keep to it for a time.  Mark Stoneman is talked about as the next option, mostly because Haseeb Hameed has had a poor first class summer – but with little first class cricket to change that, it will still end up being about having an opener against the much weaker West Indies who has the chance to cash in and earn a place on the Ashes tour, with no one any the wiser as to whether it’s the right call.  England are in the same position with uncertainty over an opening batsman that they were three years ago following the premature discarding of Michael Carberry.

For South Africa, and given the usual nature of the Old Trafford surface, they will be confident they have the bowling weapons to bowl England out cheaply twice.  Morris was less effective (and more expensive) here than in Nottingham, but a fit and healthy Vernon Philander could make the difference.  What they do with the batting order is perhaps of more interest.  Quinton de Kock’s elevation to number four didn’t pay dividends here, and while anyone can have a quiet game, the doubts about the wisdom of over-working the wicketkeeper must continue.  A number four will be fully padded up and preparing to go in at the fall of the first wicket, and De Kock would have been at that point after eight overs and five overs of the respective innings, having kept for over a hundred overs and eighty overs just previously.  It’s asking an awful lot of his mental resilience no matter how physically fit he might be.

One thing does seem likely: with these two sides few would feel that a draw (unless rain affected) at Old Trafford is the obvious result.  Both are flawed, both are prone to collapses and have brittle looking batting orders, and both have decent bowling attacks. It really is anyone’s guess what will happen, but it would be a pleasant change if at least it could be reasonably close.

 

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Day Four

With England leading by 250 runs overnight and two whole days left to play, there were only two questions people were asking about the day’s play: “When will England declare?” and “How many wickets will South Africa have lost by the end of the day?”. The answer to the first question was a lot later than a lot of people would like, especially for Australian former leg spinners employed by Sky. England were clearly in no rush to build up their lead, slowly accumulating runs through the day.

Jennings was the first wicket to fall, having added 14 more runs to his overnight total before edging a short ball from Rabada to gully. This brought out Joe Root, who together with Westley batted carefully through to the lunch break. Today’s innings from Westley showed great promise for people looking for a successor to Jonathan Trott at 3 for England. In a position where many pundits and fans would have wanted their batsmen to score quickly to leave more time to bowl out South Africa, Westley scored his 31 runs today at a glacial strike rate of 30. In an innings where he was the top scorer in England’s top 6 and in a game which his team is likely to win with at least a session to spare, Westley will likely be attacked for being too slow. You can’t get more like Trott than that.

After Lunch, England tried to increase the pace with mixed results. Westley added another 9 runs before being stumped after misreading a spinner from Maharaj, quickly followed by Root hitting a slog sweep straight to the man on the boundary and Malan being given out LBW on review after an inswinger from Morris. This has probably been a debut to forget for Dawid Malan, only scoring 11 runs and both dismissals being to similar full inswinging balls which he couldn’t get forward to. Between the three debutants, Malan seems the most vulnerable for being dropped in the next Test.

In a now familiar story England’s lower order outshone the specialist batsmen, scoring big runs and quickly. Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, and Roland-Jones scored a combined 125 runs in the session from only 119 balls. When Bairstow lost his wicket for 63 just before Tea, England declared with a lead of 491.

With such a massive target, South Africa’s only hope was to bat out the evening session. Those hopes were given an early blow by Stuart Broad, who bowled Heino Kuhn in just the sixth over. Hashim Amla followed soon after, edging a delivery from Toby Roland-Jones to slip. In a remarkable statistical feat, Roland-Jones has dismissed Amla in all 3 international innings he has ever bowled, both innings of this game and an ODI before the Champions Trophy. Bunny doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In the very next over, Stokes took another two wickets from two balls. De Kock was bowled by a quick full ball, whilst du Plessis was given out LBW after not playing a shot for the second time in this game. Elgar and Bavuma negotiated the remaining 21 overs in the day without major incident, leaving England with six wickets to take tomorrow or South Africa with an incredibly unlikely 375 runs to score.

As always, comments on the game (or almost anything else) are welcome below.

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, day two – rampant

There’s a strange contradiction in being the Grumpy Old Men of the cricket blogging world. At the time England were being well beaten in India there appeared to be some kind of denial in many circles about the weaknesses of the team and the personnel. Excuses were made, post facto predictions were changed to meet the reality rather than how it had been seen in advance. Yet with really bad defeats (such as in the last Test) the press piled in, slating all and sundry for an abject display and questioning the very ability of the team to play the game.

Mild observations that sides are never as good or bad in defeat or victory as they seem to be never quite fit the zeitgeist, with kneejerk responses always a more fitting way to meet events. Yet with England today having an exceptional time of it, doubtless the same overreactions will apply, despite little of material fact changing.

England have played well here, but in a similar manner to how they have done so when succeeding over the last few years. Cook batted beautifully yesterday, and drew the sting from some fine bowling. He didn’t carry on for too long today, but can count himself unlucky to say the least to be on the rough end of a marginal lbw call. He deserved a hundred, but as has been pointed out, context free discussion of Root’s conversion problem can apply equally well to an unlucky Cook.

With his removal, Stokes and Bairstow went on the attack. Ah, now there’s a thing. It came off. Both players took some chances, played their shots and changed the context of the day, South Africa unable to contain them as the runs flowed at 5 an over. Outcome is all, for had that calculated risk not succeeded, it really isn’t hard to imagine the plethora of comment about being unable to play at a Test match tempo, preferably blaming current shibboleth, T20. The point there is that those critics aren’t wrong, but nor are they right just to point it out when it goes wrong. Responding to every move on the basis of whether it works or not is no way of assessing whether the strategy is a sound one, it’s a far deeper question than that.

That Stokes batted beautifully is not the point, it’s a matter of whether he (and the rest of the middle order) are given the latitude to fail as well as succeed playing this way. Forgetting the bad days just because today was a good one is as flawed as the other way around. England haven’t changed, nor has that middle order, it’s just that today they batted well in a similar style to when they did badly, and not just when failing spectacularly to save a match.

That’s not to downplay how good today was for a moment, for 353 always looked above par, even before what followed. There were decent contributions most of the way down, it was – as often – a surprise that Bairstow got out, while Moeen Ali took his controversial dismissal on review remarkably well. Toby Roland-Jones will think Test cricket is easy given he scored his runs at a healthy lick before having something of a party in his primary role.  He may or may not succeed as a Test cricketer, but not every player gets to have days like this.

Stokes certainly knows how to be the showman, and the three consecutive sixes that raced him through the nineties to a well deserved century were simply marvellous to watch. Some players simply make you smile or gasp when you watch them. It is those who make the game special, even if the less eye catching tend to be the ones who are more consistent.

South Africa, who had bowled so well on day one, were certainly hampered by the absence of Vernon Philander, off the field to much amusement due to tummy trouble, only for that to die away as it transpired he’d ended up in hospital for tests. His absence was keenly felt on a day where his bowling seemed ideal for the conditions.

If runs and wickets are the obvious measures of success, Joe Root had a good day as captain too. It wasn’t just that every bowling change he made seemed to work, it was also that he appeared to assert his authority as captain. The new ball was being wasted, a succession of pleasant, swinging deliveries from Anderson harmlessly passing outside the off stump. Good for the economy rate, not so much for taking wickets. It’s an observation that has been made before, and all too often considered heresy given it concerns England’s leading wicket taker. It’s curious how some, and only some players are considered beyond criticism. An observation may be right or wrong, but it doesn’t dismiss an entire terrific career either way. Still, Root’s response was to remove him from the attack after just three overs, something Anderson didn’t seem overjoyed about looking at his body language.

But here’s the thing: when he returned later in the innings he was right on the money; hostile, threatening the stumps and the edge, and every inch the bowler any England fan loves watching torment opponents with his skill. Captain and senior bowler could be an interesting dynamic to watch over the coming months, but it seemed here to get the best from him.

It was of course Toby Roland-Jones’ day. The merits of an old fashioned England seamer are often overlooked (yet curiously someone like Philander is lauded for showing exactly the same kinds of skills, albeit at a very high level), and here was someone who, after initial nerves, pitched it up, made the batsmen play and did a bit off the seam. Where he led, others followed, and at 61-7, and with the absence of Philander effectively 61-8, the only question, and surely not a serious one, was whether England would enforce the follow on.

Temba Bavuma has shown himself to be a batsman with good temperament before, and the task of extracting his side from the wreckage was one he seemed to relish. In company with Rabada he at least stopped the rot, a partnership of 53 not enough to change the direction of the match, but one at least to narrow the gap from catastrophic to merely disastrous.

It’s possible Philander will be fit to bat tomorrow, but it will take something truly remarkable to move this game away from what appears an inevitable England win. With some inclement weather around, saving the follow on has to be the first and only aim, but only two days have gone, it’s hard to see how it can delay England long enough to prevent victory.

All of which leads back to the beginning. England have had a great day, but just as the fourth day at Trent Bridge didn’t alter the known strengths in the team, nor does this cover up the multiple flaws. Today went well, and they should win this game. It hasn’t re-written the book.

The Third Test – Day 1

Before play started it was widely circulated that the injured Wood and Ballance would be replaced by Roland-Jones and Westley. Less certain was the fate of Liam Dawson, who had failed to impress with bat or ball in the previous two games despite being notionally considered England’s “number one spin bowler”. On one hand, the Oval has generally been considered helpful to spinners this season. On the other hand, Lord’s was very helpful to spinners and Dawson didn’t really justify his place in the team there.

That mystery was quickly resolved as Dawid Malan was handed his Test cap by Phil Tufnell in the pre-match huddle. England won the toss and chose to bat first, bringing Cook and Jennings to the crease. Cook started well against Morne Morkel but Keaton Jennings seemed hopelessly out of his depth whilst facing Vernon Philander at the other end. After managing to survive the previous 8 balls, Jennings inevitably edged his ninth ball to Elgar at third slip for a duck.

This brought out the first of England’s three debutants, Tom Westley. He appeared to be more confident and composed than Jennings, perhaps helped by Philander having to leave the field soon after with a “stomach bug”. Content to punish deliveries straying onto his legs, Westley and Cook built a partnership of 52 before a rain shower brought a premature end to the morning session.

Unfortunately after his promising start, Westley fell 4 balls into the session after edging a swinging ball by Chris Morris to du Plessis at second slip. This wicket brought together England’s two most experienced batsmen, Cook and Root. Together they fought against a very strong South African bowling spell, riding their luck at times until Root edged another swinging ball (this was very much the theme of the day) from Philander to de Kock.

England’s second debutant, Dawid Malan, did not seem as confident as Westley did earlier in the day. Malan batted out 14 dot balls before managing a single. Two balls later, he was bowled by a vicious inswinging yorker from Rabada which left Malan sprawled on the floor. Ben Stokes came in at 6, ahead of Jonny Bairstow, and together with Cook managed to last until tea. The tea break was extended due to another rain shower, and after that Cook and Stokes batted out 7 overs before dark clouds and rain brought an end to the day.

So the day ended with England at 171/4 and Alastair Cook unbeaten on 82*, in a prime position to score a vital century for England. Elsewhere in the team, things are looking less rosy. Jennings, Westley and Malan all failed to make decent scores, and will have to bat well in their next three innings to be confident of selection against the West Indies in August. Tomorrow England will hope that Cook, Stokes, Bairstow and Ali can wrest control of the match and take the total over 300, but this was very much South Africa’s day.

As always, please comment below.

The Third Test – Preview And Day 1 Comments

Dmitri (dangerously referring to himself in the third person) goes a little nostalgic and you will all pay…

England v South Africa at The Oval. It wasn’t that long ago that the day before the Oval test started would be a frantic one. Tidying up loose ends in the office, arranging the meeting places for the ticket collection, determining who was bringing what to eat. The day(s) at The Oval were one of the highlights of the year for me – the Oval test put on the calendar, leave booked early, anticipation rising.

But it was England v South Africa in 2012 that was the final straw – my angst pre-dating the Difficult Winter. I had missed the first day, as prices had increased and the purchasing power of my salary had diminished, so it was Friday and Saturday for me. I saw England collapse on the Friday and watched South Africa lose two wickets in the ensuing five sessions. I’d also left my camera battery in the charger for the Saturday, and was, how can I put it, “in a bit of a mood”. It wasn’t helped by England being smashed, feeling terribly uncomfortable all day in the Ryanair seating, and being surrounded in front and behind by people who annoyed the hell out of me, spilled beer over me, and just plain got on my nerves. With 30 minutes to go, and I never left early unless it was heatstroke, I got up and said to my mates #!k this, I’m off home. And I doubt I’ll ever come back. And I flounced. But I’ve never been back for a test match. The prices appear to have risen greatly, the amount of tickets members could purchase has been curtailed (some might think that a good thing) and the customer experience, piled on top of each other, is a joke. Harrumph!

That day, the last I saw, was memorable for the batting of Hashim Amla, who made 311. He never really looked flustered, and the fear is, linking into the upcoming battle, is that Trent Bridge has put him back into the groove. The partnerships between Amla and Smith, and Amla and Kallis were not thrill a minute joyrides, but 12 or so hours of grinding England into paste. They were there to make 380 odd, or whatever it was, look totally inadequate. It almost seems like a different era of test cricket. That ability to bat long in England seems from a bygone age. In fact, presented with a 637 for 2 wicket, in a game completed in 4 and a bit days remember, we’d probably see a ton of complaints about nothing in it for the bowlers.

From that test in 2012 there are precious few survivors. The rigours of international cricket took many a career, inflicted or decided by themselves. But key cogs remain. Amla is there with Morne Morkel, Cook is there with Broad and Anderson. It says a lot about their staying power that they are all very important parts of the teams, maybe even the most important. Cook made a hundred in that match, which is easily forgotten. While Kallis, through retirement, maybe the seminal figure lacking from the team that won, the Oval 2012 should always be about how Dale Steyn tore us apart on a dead wicket. International cricket well served then, and how Steyn has paid for it through injury.

Tomorrow England need to fight back from a defeat every bit as demoralising as the 2012 reverse at the home of English Cricket (the Original venue….), after the mauling they received at Trent Bridge 10 days or so ago. England have been given a thorough beating before, but this time this one seemed to encourage, if that is the word, the scything criticism lacking from more recent defeats. There seems to be more of an open season on the captain, and especially the coach, than before. This reaction, which should not be a surprise, has actually been one. It is as if the media community has found its voice, its teeth. It didn’t seem to give a steaming pile of crap like Chennai as hard a time as they did the Trent Bridge performance. You know I’m not going to get over Karun Nair getting a triple hundred don’t you?

England go into this match with a lot of questions, and now with two debutants. Mark Wood has failed his fitness test and Toby Roland-Jones is going to play instead. Given there’s been other confirmation that Liam Dawson will play, and boy that’s a lightning rod stuck up, right there, it looks very unlikely that Dawid Malan will make his debut (I think that was an odd choice in the first place). Tom Westley will take his place at number 3 (there you are son, bang in the hotseat for you, good luck). While the Essex media are certainly in paroxysms of delight over Tom finally getting the nod, I have to say that I don’t quite know why he was the slam-dunk selection (and no, I’m not carrying a torch for Stoneman either), but there is no harm in trying, and you never know. I will certainly be watching certain journos for double standards reporting on him.

The main criticisms coming out of Trent Bridge was that England had not shown enough respect to the test format, but quite frankly, by the end of it, I’ve no idea what Shiny Toy was up to, and Geoffrey, is well, Geoffrey. This was met by quite fierce return fire by the England team, and Stokes has relit that fuse with his comments. I’m not sure it’s respect for the format that’s the problem, but rather, funnily enough, ability. This just doesn’t look like a very good England team. So if you are going to go down, go down playing your shots, eh? I’m not sure this team can block it out, they certainly couldn’t when they’ve been asked to do it in recent years, and probably with better teams than this. We’ve tried to compensate for lack of true star power in depth (reading Trott’s book at the moment, and we went through a golden spell then with players, so we could accommodate Collingwood, by and large) with the bat. Stokes is a classic. All the talent, inconsistent delivery. I think that’s the message (if you had present day Stokes, and 2005 Freddie, who would you select?). I mean, Shiny Toy thinks this is one of the most talented England teams ever. I don’t.

So if the players are a bit of a moving target, what with all that talent and such, it therefore must be someone else, and now we come to Trevor Bayliss. We interrupt this message to point out that losing at home to South Africa is something Andy Flower did, Peter Moores did, Duncan Fletcher didn’t, David Lloyd didn’t and Ray Illingworth didn’t. Bayliss can be questioned, of course he can. Is he getting the most out of the team? Is he doing enough to find talent, if, indeed, that is in his job description? Can he do more? Can he do something different? Yes. They can all be answered and there can be critical evaluation of it. But in my view, and that’s where this could be really fun, any criticism of Bayliss draws a direct line to the man who appointed him, sets his job spec and acts as his line manager. After all, Comma, shouldn’t be above reproach and if you look at cold, hard, results the 2017 team plays with a lot more verve, but the 2013 team actually got to World Number 1 (Trott mentions this a fair bit in his book). Also, as we are never shy to point out, Farby seems exempt from all this. Good old Farby.

So 1-1. Perfectly poised for the 100th test match at The Oval. I went to quite a few, from 1997 to 2012 I went to at least one day of each test there, and as with the days you select to attend you do hit and miss. Here are five of my favourite days (a bit biased towards England)…

2003, Day 3 – England v South Africa. Thorpe makes a century on his return to the team. Emotional. Trescothick makes his highest test score of 219. Alec Stewart plays what would turn out to be his last innings in an England shirt. And so did Ed Smith! A terrific day from start to finish.

2005, Day 1 – England v Australia. Andrew Strauss plays one of the best innings no-one really remembers. Without him we would have been toast. Flintoff also plays a terrific hand and England finish the day relatively even. It was just the pure tension, the weight of expectation and anticipation of the match that made it a great day.

2011 Day 2 – England v India. Watching a 300 partnership is special, and I’ve seen two. You know who was the common denominator. His 175 was overshadowed by Ian Bell’s career best (completed the following day) but it was total domination against a poor attack. Still great fun to watch.

2009 Day 2 – England v Australia. Days 3 and 4 weren’t bad, but watching Stuart Broad demolish the Australians in one of those spells he is capable of was magnificent entertainment. I still recall, with us 3 down at the end of the 2nd day that we were still talking of how we could lose even though we were nigh on 300 in front.

1997 Day 2 – England v Australia – Nothing like your first day at test cricket. I saw lots of wickets (Tuffers took 7) and a tense battle as England tried to recover from a first day collapse. The atmosphere, the tension, the battle, the action was like no other cricket I had watched in the flesh. Oh to go back to the 1997 me.

 

Just missed out included a glorious Shiny Toy ton in 2002, the infamous walk-off by Pakistan in 2006, Herschelle Gibbs on day 1 of the 2003 test, Steve Waugh’s hundred on one leg in 2001 (just to prove a point), my brief glimpses of Murali and Jayasuriya in 1998 on Day 2, the rain-affected tension of Day 3 in 2000 against the West Indies.

Happy century of tests for the Oval, and as usual, after 1500+ words of waffle, comments below if you have any on the points raised, views on great Oval moments (you have been to, or witnessed – could have popped off another 1000 words) and more importantly on the action tomorrow.