600: Rise of the Umpire’s Finger

Minimal play on the final day, a match ruined by rain and bad weather led it to peter out in a draw, and a 1-0 win for England.  In reality, that was always likely, and as much as anything else it was about whether James Anderson would have the opportunity to bowl and take that elusive 600th Test wicket.  It was more of an issue than would usually be the case, at 38 years old and with the world struggling under the load of Covid-19, there was always the possibility that he wouldn’t get another chance.  All things being equal, he will probably be around for a little while yet, but injury could have intervened, and no one can be entirely sure whether planned tours will go ahead.  Considered overall, it is better to have it out of the way now, both for him personally and to prevent any danger of selectors and public having an eye on him being stranded on 599.

There will always be debate about where particular players stand in the pantheon of leading performers.  It isn’t helped by the tendency in the modern world to assign labels of greatest ever far too frequently, leading to irritation and a push back against it.  It doesn’t matter.  It has never mattered.  Only one person can ever be given that epithet by any individual, making it by definition exclusionary and rarely a considered statement.  Anderson’s overall record is hampered by a difficult start to his Test career, his first hundred wickets coming at an average of 35 meaning that even as thereafter it dropped dramatically it wasn’t until ten years after his debut that it dipped below 30.   It has continued to fall ever since, best highlighted in a tweet from Tim Wigmore:

 

It’s 12 years since he took that 100th wicket, it’s 7 years since he took his 300th.  Longevity is an achievement in itself, particularly for a seam bowler for whom the physicality of bowling is in itself a major challenge, but his record over the last ten years or more is world class and world class over longer than the vast majority of whole Test careers.

His record is markedly better in England than it is overseas, but this is neither surprising nor should it be used as more than an observation, and certainly not a stick with which to beat him.  He is a product of English cricket and his skills are necessarily geared to where he plays most.  He’s not the first to have such a differential and won’t be the last – it is an extremely rare (and great) bowler indeed to be equally successful in all conditions, and as someone who relies on swing, being stuck with the Kookaburra ball abroad will necessarily reduce his effectiveness dramatically.

Moreover, in a time when Test cricket is under ever increasing threat, his only likely challenger as top wicket taker for a pace bowler is Stuart Broad, his long term opening partner.  England play more Test matches than anyone else, but even in England colours it is increasingly hard to imagine someone other than Broad from anywhere matching his longevity, fitness and wicket taking prowess.

Above all else, Anderson on song has been a joy to watch.  If the true pleasure of sport at the highest level is to witness human beings operating in a manner entirely foreign to ordinary mortals, then Anderson’s ability to have the ball on a piece on a string and to make accomplished batsmen look stupid is a rare one indeed.  There is nothing brutal about his bowling, although in his early years he was undoubtedly sharp, but there is the consistent ability to dismantle techniques and cause high quality batsmen to appear to be out of their depth.  Numbers don’t always explain that, but any who remember watching the intelligence of Richard Hadlee’s bowling will see a modern day echo of that in Anderson.

It would have been nice had there been a crowd to watch him do it, it would have been nicer still for him to have had his family there to share it with him.  But above all he got the chance to do it at all, and that is where endless thanks for the Test summer we have had must go to Pakistan and the West Indies.  A rarity on here it may be, but credit should also be paid to the ECB, for back in April any kind of cricket seemed a distant prospect.  Self-interest, of course it was, but self-interest that did provide a glimpse of a path back to some kind of normality, and that benefits us all.

There will be endless tributes to James Anderson from better people than me, some will go too far, some will cause irritation elsewhere in the world at the positioning of him at the head of a pack of great fast bowlers.  I don’t care.  Anderson has been grumpy, sometimes infuriating to watch (too short, too wide was a regular complaint), sometimes excused for actions other players would not have got away with.  But he’s also been a magician with a cricket ball, a player who has lasted when so many fell by the wayside, undoubtedly one of the greatest English Test bowlers of all time, and someone who has got a player out 600 times in Test cricket.  That’s one hell of a lot of raised umpire’s fingers.

 

Creeping to Domination

About ten years ago, England had days like these on a regular basis – a powerful top end would build a platform, and the middle order would exploit a tiring attack to lift England fairly consistently to 400 and 500+ totals.  Over the last six or seven years such days have been rare, with 300 more frequently the top end of their ambitions.  One match doesn’t signal a return to those more productive times, but nor should it be ignored when it happens.  England are in complete command of this Test match thanks to a record fifth wicket partnership between Zak Crawley and Jos Buttler, taking the team to a total of 583-8.  Oh heady days.

There is ever a temptation to go overboard about young players when they first make their mark, and Zak Crawley’s 267 will doubtless lead to gushing praise and comparisons to others that don’t yet need to be made.  It is enough to regard this innings as truly exceptional, and the player highly promising.  He remains inexperienced to the point that this was only his fourth first class century in little more than 50 games, with an average of barely 30.  Nothing at all to write home about.  But there is a difference between identifying a young player with a modest record and believing he will develop into a fully fledged Test cricketer and simply persevering with someone for the sake of it.  The modern day descent into besteveritis will likely mean that some of the praise is over the top in terms of the future career context, but that doesn’t, and shouldn’t take away from just how impressive he has been in this match.

It was an innings both of maturity and control – fluent throughout, solid in defence and despite admitting to nerves when in the nineties, seemingly unflappable as every milestone approached.  It is one knock, but a hell of a knock, and if cricket is a game played in the mind, it can only help him believe he has all the ability needed to succeed.  Rob Key, his mentor for many years is, and should be, extremely proud of him.

His partner throughout was Jos Buttler, a player whose own lack of a fine first class record made his initial selection a similar kind of punt, but with the difference that after nearly fifty Tests, he still had only one century to show for it.  His wicketkeeping in the first Test too had shown significant errors, suggesting that the pressure was starting to show.  Buttler isn’t an exceptional wicketkeeper by any stretch, but he is a generally competent one, albeit much less secure when standing up, as his lack of stumpings indicates.  His selection in that role is a choice, a slightly compromised wicketkeeper picked for the runs he can score and the way he scores them.  His shortcomings in his strongest suit were the main reason for his place coming under threat rather than his nominally primary role.

Here he was in control, his shot selection vastly improved compared to recently, and the pace of his innings suggested a player feeling in command for the first time in quite a while.  The calls for him to be replaced were not in error, for stick with a player long enough and eventually they will score runs.  But equally, when those calls are made, it needs to be acknowledged when he has come good, and as this series has gone on, he has looked much improved.  Keeping faith with him cannot yet be said to be the correct decision, but the signs of him learning at last how to compile a Test innings suggests it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it will need to be acknowledged as a good one.  Only time will tell, though there will be some players feeling that they too would have liked the degree of support given to Buttler, and the chance to repay that faith.

Two days, one innings; two players, two Daddy hundreds.  The future can take of itself for both of them, today was very much their day, and they deserve all the plaudits going.

With a fine sense of crowd pleasing (even if on sofas and in cars up and down the country), Joe Root sent Stuart Broad in for a slog towards the end.  Broad has become something of a national treasure over the last year or so, which is intriguing given that for so long he was a player who divided opinion so much, even when performing well.  It is perhaps the fate of players who can change a match in a session that all too often it is asked why they don’t do it more often than celebrated for what a rare ability it is.  But while his bowling has been of high quality (and seemingly increasing quality) for a number of years, his batting mojo seems to have returned, to some extent at least.

Broad’s batting decline led to it being both sad in itself and worthy of mockery.  His resurrection – not to the near all rounder levels of ten years ago, but to a thrillingly attacking tailender – has changed perspectives from him being a figure of fun to one of adoration.  Stuart Broad batting would empty the bars if they were open.

A short session attacking the Pakistan batsmen was available, and to the surprise of no one, inroads were made.  Anderson picked up three, to take himself to 596 Test wickets, and a decent chance of reaching 600 by the end of the match. At 38, there is always the chance the end could come suddenly, and only the most churlish would lament him reaching such a landmark this week.

If Pakistan are to get out of this one, they will have to bat out of their skins, or hope that the weather gods are smiling on them more than they were in the Second Test.  Conditions are one of the fickle factors that affect cricket, a random occurrence that can be utterly capricious.  The visitors had every chance of winning the last match, and now they will probably need the weather to restrict their defeat to 1-0.  No one ever said life was fair.

One last word on the weather.  For this match the umpires have been given increased latitude in making up time at the start of the day as well as the end, and in moving the sessions around to maximise cricket.  Some of the criticism in the 2nd Test was fully warranted, particularly around the inclination to go off the field rather than stay on.  Yet here they have been proactive, and have learned a lesson.  There was rain this morning, and lunch was pushed back to 2pm.  As it turned out, that probably cost some playing time, with the weather sunny and dry during lunch, inviting more pointed comment.  This was unfair, the umpires were doing their best to maximise play – they are not soothsayers when it comes to when the rain comes and goes.  It was just a trifle unlucky.  On this one, they should be cut a little slack.

Day of Frustration

No play, a Test most likely ruined by bad weather, but plenty of anger and irritation around at the perceived tardiness of umpires, groundstaff and cricket administrators generally.

A grey, damp, dismal day like today was always going to cause problems, and it’s certainly apparent that the irritation is shared by the cricket media, who provided continual sarcastic updates throughout the day at the lack of activity even when it wasn’t raining. Maybe it was a justified complaint, maybe it was a reflection of an awareness amongst all concerned at the ground that whatever they did it was going to make little difference.

But one thing can be noted – it was probably not today’s inaction that drove the annoyance so much as the keenness with which the umpires chose to leave the field on the first two days. Cricket constantly fails to show a determination to do all that is possible to ensure play, meaning that there is little sympathy for umpires or ICC when they might well have a point about it being unsuitable for getting a Test match on.

It’s self-inflicted, as so many things in cricket are. There is no benefit of the doubt, and no sense of earned trust that all are doing everything in their collective powers to get the players on the field. As with so many misfortunes, there are many authors, but none who are prepared to put their names to it. Insisting that cricket has to change, and has to be aware of its need for spectator engagement is true, but requires a lot more than just an edict from on high.

The umpires too often hide behind the regulations, the players rejected the chance to ease the requirements lest it affect the outcome of matches. The ICC rarely seem interested, and the sight of the poor bloody spectators short-changed has never been a subject that attracts much sympathy from within. It’s an inherent problem, and speaks to a core dismissal of those outside the bubble of the game. All too often that can include the journalists themselves – they and the fans are in alignment on this one, but it’s more a marriage of convenience than a deeply held alliance. It’s not new, it’s not likely to change, and it’s forever a symptom not a cause.

Maybe tomorrow will be better. But I wouldn’t put your mortgage on it.

Underdog Day Afternoon: Test Cricket Does it Again

The ECB are the lucky organisation.  They’ve done remarkably well to get Test series on this summer, with the help of the two visiting sides, but over the last couple of years they have been rewarded with some quite extraordinary finishes to international matches.  Overall, it’s hard to make a case that they deserve their exceptional fortune, but this summer, perhaps they do.  For today was one of those days that cricket can throw up, and which few sports can match.  It’s not just the drama of sport, it’s the elongated nature of it that is, if not unique, unusual.  Tension builds over time, over days.  A five day Test match is a special beast, and one to be cherished, particularly in these times where the whole concept is under threat.

The lack of crowd means that it’s not quite the same, it is a facsimile of the sport we know and love, but it is entirely forgivable and a price worth paying for the time being to be able to see it on television or listen to it on the radio.  That it can raise spirits in a time that needs spirits raising is an added bonus, but perhaps speaks most centrally to the value of sport itself, whatever the money men may insist.

The narrative of a Test match twists and turns, winds and loops, offering succour to those who need it, and exacerbating the pain of struggle for those who are finding sporting life difficult.  That England owed their win most of all to the twin innings of Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes added a delicious twist to the summer, for Buttler has been rightly under pressure for his place, both due to a lack of runs and his indifferent keeping in this match.  One swallow never makes a summer, but irrespective of the wider issues about the best choice for the wicketkeeper/batsman role, today was very much his day.  He played with freedom, confidence and aggression – his natural game, certainly, but one he’s struggled to display throughout his Test, and indeed county, career.  It is forever the case that selection and choice is wrapped in the paper of a thousand dilemmas and agendas, but on the day a player performs like this, only congratulations are needed, and only pleasure derived – both for a player and a human being.

In the post match interviews, Jos Buttler said that he felt that if he didn’t get runs today, he might have played his last Test for England.  Professional sport can be brutal, and the truth is that he may well have been right.  The personal tales weaving through a team game are endlessly fascinating.  Irrespective of merit, Buttler can enjoy his moment, while Joe Denly never got to experience his.  Such are the narrow margins, and Buttler’s quietly spoken charming nature makes it hard not to be anything but delighted for him.

Chris Woakes hasn’t been under remotely the same kind of pressure, for he is a bowler first and foremost, but his lack of runs had been noticed, most particularly by Shane Warne who demonstrated his usual monomania on a subject he’s newly discovered.  If runs had been hard to come by for him, today he was exceptional, as though he’d shrugged off any doubts and simply decided to play his shots.  Sometimes it works, and today was one of those days.  As is so often the case, when a player succeeds so dramatically, it’s hard to understand why they’d been having problems up until that point.

Pakistan should have won this match.  They outplayed England for three days, and added sufficient useful runs this morning to be in a strong, if not quite unassailable position.  Yet even that should have been a disappointment to them, for at times during this game England looked outclassed by their opponents.  England had a shot at victory today alright, but they really shouldn’t have been that fortunate.  If there’s one side-effect of the Ben Stokes absurdity in the World Cup final and at Headingley, it is that this England team will genuinely believe anything is possible, that they can win from anywhere.  It is a heady mental state to possess, and one that can materially change outcomes in a tight situation.

At 117-5,  the game seem almost up, Ollie Pope had just received a ball that had burst through the top and exploded off the pitch to give him no chance of avoiding gloving the ball in the air.  With a deteriorating surface and only Buttler and the bowlers to come, Winviz sternly informed the world, who couldn’t possibly have seen the evidence with their own eyes, that Pakistan were strong favourites.  What happened though was that as the ball got older and softer, the turn was still there, the bounce still inconsistent, but much more slowly off the pitch.  It was enough for the batsmen to cope.

There will be regrets from the tourists.  England got closer to their total in their first innings than should have been the case, largely due to Stuart Broad taking the long handle at the end, and in Pakistan’s second innings their overwhelmingly dominant position was steadily thrown away.  England bowled well, certainly, and gained a toehold in a game they had little right to be considered an equal party.  It remained profligate to toss away wickets and offer up a chance that oughtn’t to have been there.

It remains to be seen whether this first Test will be Pakistan’s best chance and if they wilt in the remainder of the series, but they have the talent to defeat this England team, they arguably have the greater obvious talent of the two.  Perhaps with two such mercurial sides nothing should surprise anyone, and if they both live up to the reputations for cricketing madness they have garnered, the next two matches might be a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

Babar So Really: England v Pakistan, Day one

The weather forecast for this Test is quite reasonable, so today’s curtailed play should hopefully be the exception rather than the rule for the remainder of the game.

What play did take place was something of a throw-back, at least in the first session.  England bowled well, Pakistan repelled all that was thrown at them.  The importance of opening batsmen who can soak up the pressure has been ignored all too often over the last few years in favour of assuming that Test cricket is the same as one day cricket, full of blazing strokes and where batting time is of lesser importance.  Shan Masood demonstrated the value of occupation of the crease.  He may be a relatively limited player, but that’s been of little consequence for many an opener who has gone on to a successful career.  Although Pakistan did lose a couple of early wickets he, in consort with Babar Azam saw Pakistan through to lunch at 53-2.  Barely over 2 runs an over, but unquestionably a fairly successful first morning in challenging batting conditions.

After lunch, things became easier.  England bowled poorly, Babar began to cut loose.  It’s intriguing to see articles written about how he should be considered the fifth member of the Test batting exceptionals, not because he isn’t worthy of being bracketed with those, but because the list invariably includes Joe Root, who hasn’t been performing at that kind of level for a couple of years now, and to many observers, isn’t even currently the best batsman in the England side.  Still, it might be nit-picking to make that observation instead of accepting Babar’s right to be considered in the upper echelons of Test batsmen at present, and he certainly looked the part today.

England did have chances to take a third wicket, firstly when Jos Buttler dropped Shan Masood off Dom Bess’s bowling.  For all the debate around Buttler’s place, his wicketkeeping has been perfectly acceptable for most of his time in the England team, and it is his batting that has been most under scrutiny.  The dropped catch can be put down to just one of those things – any keeper is disappointed when a fine edge goes down, but always for different reasons to those the non-wicketkeeping commentators state:  It’s a question of technique, not reactions, for no keeper reacts to edges when standing up, the ball hits the gloves before the brain is aware an edge has been taken.   The missed stumping he will be more annoyed with, for being hit on the shoulder with the batsman that far down the pitch tends to suggest he was caught watching the batsman rather than the ball – something he will work long and hard on avoiding at all costs.

Standing up to the spinners might be something we see a fair bit of this Test if day one is anything to go by.  Bess got reasonable turn and significant bounce from the start, which may well be of concern to an England team likely to be batting last, against a team who have selected two leg-spinners.  Whether the pitch quickens or dies over the coming days will define their effectiveness, but, forced to bowl spin by bad light, both Bess and Root looked mildly threatening on occasion in the short evening session.

Whether the light was poor enough for the umpires to have forced England to bowl spin in the first place is an open question and goes to the heart of the competing demands of professional sport – the potentially litigious nature of the modern world and the importance of duty of care, versus the requirement that play happens.  Cricket always seems to struggle with this – and too often gives the impression that being on the field is considered a nice to have rather than an imperative of the game.  All too often resumptions are leisurely rather than urgent, meaning there is scepticism in those circumstances there ought to be trust.  It appears to be a congenital problem afflicting the game in too many areas.  Yet the commentators by the end did state that even with floodlights it was rather dark, but going off for bad light on safety grounds when the fast bowlers are operating is one thing; doing so when the spinners are on is another matter altogether.  The defence is usually on the grounds of fairness, but it’s hard to see how that is any different to being put into bat on a green seamer or having to bowl in baking heat.  Unless the fielders are in danger, there’s little excuse for it.

With an unbroken third wicket partnership of 96, Pakistan are in decent shape going in to day two, and any total in excess of 300 has put the England of the last few years under significant pressure.  Choosing to bat may or may not have been a marginal call, but there enough observers urging the captain who won the toss to bowl to make it clear it can’t have been entirely clear cut.  As ever, day two gives a greater indication of where this game is going.

It’s Chris Woakes Day. Oh Alright, Stuart.

As it turned out, the weather held off just long enough for England to take the last of the 8 wickets they needed to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 series win.  Only just, for mere moments after the final celebrations, the heavens opened.  Whether that downpour would have been enough to curtail play for sufficiently long to cause West Indian chagrin is a moot point, for there was a sense of inevitability about the steady procession of wickets and little in the way of meaningful resistance.  Jermaine Blackwood had a hint of permanence about him, but he too was swept away in a tide of wickets as Chris Woakes destroyed the middle order to finish with 5-50.  If ever there was a day to come up with a Michelle and still play second fiddle, this was it, for Broad took all of the others to fall to a bowler, including both his 500th Test victim and also the match-winning one.  The boy sure knows how to seize the limelight.

Much will be written about how this series was more about cricket being played at all, and the generosity of spirit in the West Indies team to come at all; they deserve the plaudits coming their way.  Despite local outbreaks, the Covid-19 situation is much improved from where it was when they agreed to tour, and while at present playing cricket seems an entirely reasonable activity, it was far from the case when they first accepted the invitation.  Cricket boards may have many reasons for acting the way they do, but individual players are the ones who walk the walk.  It isn’t just England who should be expressing their gratitude, it is all of sport, both here and abroad.  It may not be easy, and without spectators it may only be a facsimile of Test cricket, but all journeys begin with a single step.  That it was the West Indies players who took that first step should always be appreciated.

For the players involved, there were the usual winners and losers.  Stuart Broad himself performed the admirable feat of not only being highly vocal in his disappointment at being left out of the first Test, but of backing up his words to the point he was duly anointed Player of the Series despite missing a third of it.  He’s been a peculiarly under-appreciated player throughout much of his career, his exceptional spells where he can destroy any batting line up often seeming to lead to irritation about his performances the rest of the time rather than appreciation of the box office displays themselves.  Yet his record is a fine one, and more intriguingly, he appears, at 34, to be getting better.  The lengths are fuller, the line straighter, and the sense of danger when he’s bowling is palpable.  Perhaps now he is being accepted for what he has become, and with a career much nearer the end than the beginning, taken to heart as someone to be enjoyed while he’s still around.

For much of his career he has been the foil to James Anderson.  At last, it appears to now be the other way around.  He’s the main man in the England bowling attack, and revelling in the adulation.  And why the hell not?  The stratified heights of the 500 Test wicket bowling club is analysed in terms of bowling averages and strike rate, but in Broad’s case both are continuining to fall.   In the last two years his average has been under 21, and his strike rate a quite exceptional 41 balls per wicket.  At his age, it cannot continue forever, but it is something to be thoroughly admired for as long as it does.  Nor is it any kind of accident, for his awareness of his age led him to make adjustments to his run up and action in the hope of extending his career.  It seems to be working.

Ben Stokes topped the batting averages, a Test series coming of age in many ways, for although his performances had become notable over the last few years, this was the one where few could argue with the statement that he’s now England’s best batsman.  And not a bad bowler either.

He wasn’t alone in having a series to look back on with some pleasure.  The opening pair of Sibley and Burns both made consistent contributions, lending the first wicket partnership a sense of permanence that has been absent from England for quite some time.  Those who complained about the scoring rate missed the point spectacularly; there are plenty in the England batting line up who can score quickly, but their repeated exposure to the new ball in a side all too often reduced to 30-3 suppressed their own ability to score, and laid too much pressure on Root.  It would not be in the least surprising to see his performances with the bat pick up as a result.

Neither Burns nor Sibley are the finished product, nor are either likely at this stage to scare bowling attacks around the world.  Indeed, their struggles to find scoring areas against spin made it clear there is work to be done. That isn’t the point, stability is sufficient in this England side after a period of anything but.  And a word here for Joe Denly, who has likely played his last Test innings: his scores were ultimately insufficient to maintain a Test career, particularly at his age.  Nevertheless, against Australia last year and South Africa in the winter, he did at least set a template for occupation of the crease that seemed entirely out of keeping with the helter-skelter (and markedly unsuccessful) England approach of recent times.  He brought a sense of calmness to an innings that was refreshing in its rarity in the current age.  There is no disgrace at all in not being quite good enough to make it in Test cricket, for very few do.  To have been moved on having at least made some kind of mark is to have some satisfaction.

The jury remains well and truly out on Jos Buttler’s place in the side.  His score of 67 in the first innings of the Third Test may be sufficient to keep him involved for the time being in the series against Pakistan, but he must surely be running out of time to be the man in possession.  It’s all been so predictable, for his batting career in Tests is more or less what would be exprected from his batting career in all red ball cricket.  Bairstow (if he can sort out his technical flaws) and Foakes are too good to be left on the sidelines by an under-contributing rival.

For the bowlers, England have something of an embarrassment of riches, at least on paper.  Anderson is no longer the attack leader in anything but name, but he remains a highly potent weapon, even if one used more sparingly than in the past.  Archer, Wood, Curran and Stone offer variety and potency – it is a greater selection from which to choose than appeared likely a couple of years ago when the bowling stocks post-Broad and Anderson looked frighteningly bare.

And then there’s Chris Woakes.  It is always a temptation to note the weaknesses of a player rather than their strengths, and while his overseas record isn’t too special, his one at home is quite exceptional.  There’s nothing particularly wrong in noting that as part of an overall strategy.

For the West Indies, there were few batting pluses, and those there were are couched in a sense of frustration they weren’t greater.  Jermaine Blackwood, Shamarh Brooks, Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase, Shai Hope – all flattered to deceive, all looked like they could bat, all got themselves out when set.  Some are young and can improve, for some it’s likely this is just who they are.  For the West Indies to turn from being a competitive side into series winning one (overseas, in particular), they need to find a couple of batsmen who can suggest they will be around for more than a session.  It isn’t a plea for a world class one to come along – although they would doubtless be appreciative of that – but one who the others can learn from and bat around.  Ironic it may be, but perhaps they need a Joe Denly to set the tone.

They have the bowling.  If they ran out of steam by the third Test in quick succession with no rotation, it’s not too surprising, but they are a decent unit and complement each other well.  There is enough with which to work, and their team ultimately falling short this tour wasn’t down to the bowlers failing to perform, but the batsmen.

There is a danger of being patronising in approach when lauding the improvement of the West Indies, and they remain some distance from being good enough to be regular (or even semi-regular) victors abroad, but the difference now is that it does at least look like there is a plan and a strategy for getting there.  They may not succeed, but if now at the point where Caribbean cricket is making the most of the talent at its disposal, that is something.  There is not the sense of desperation at watching a West Indies team losing that has been present for all too many years.

The West Indies leave for home tomorrow, with gratitude and thanks, and doubtless with some relief on their part to be in a warmer environment than Manchester.  For England, an ODI series against Ireland follows before the Pakistan Test matches begin.  Some more cricket to watch, and a perhaps a better sense of where this England Test team are going and how they’re developing.  In April, this seemed like a pipe dream on so many levels.

 

Add the Buttler to the Popery

A pretty good opening day from England, and one that seemed unlikely mid-way through the afternoon when Rory Burns was (superbly) caught by Rahkeem Cornwall to leave England 122-4.  Not tottering as such, but having left out a batsman to account for Ben Stokes’ questionable bowling fitness, certainly vulnerable to subsiding to an inadequate score.  Having put England into bat, four wickets in the day is a mean return for the tourists, who looked somewhat jaded with the ball with the notable exception of Kemar Roach, a threat throughout.  Indeed, Shannon Gabriel left the field in the morning, causing considerable alarm bells to ring.  He returned, and bowled, but without real fire or penetration, though nominally up to his normal pace.  Three back to back Tests is a real ask for any bowler, and while the first day tells little about the remainder of the game, it could be that the lack of rotation will cost them dear.

If there’s a certainty about cricket, it is its ability to level players, and thus it was that Dom Sibley, after his century heroics at Old Trafford, found himself plumb in front at Old Trafford, for a duck.  A rather lazy run out accounted for Joe Root and Ben Stokes was removed in spectacular style by a superb delivery from Roach, swinging in, seaming further and bowling him through the gate.  It’s too trite to suggest that it required something of that order to get rid of Stokes, exceptional though he has been, but it hasn’t been a feature of his game in a while to be so thoroughly beaten playing a defensive shot.

That wicket was the high point of the West Indies day.  Ollie Pope joined Burns and after the latter’s dismissal it was Jos Buttler, under serious pressure for his place, who came to the middle.  When bad light caused an early end to play, the pair had added 135 runs for the 5th wicket and were looking increasingly at home.  Buttler is the intriguing one – his performances have been sub-par not just in Test cricket, but in all red ball cricket, with few signs he was coming to grip with it.  The English game has changed to the point where a strong county record isn’t necessarily required in order to develop into a Test cricketer, albeit it’s a significant help to have a decent record to fall back on.  No, in Buttler’s case it isn’t just that his county record doesn’t suggest he’ll make himself into a Test batsman, it’s that his Test career hasn’t suggested he’ll make himself into a Test batsman.  It’s not unreasonable to suspect that this match was his last chance, Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow are too good to be ignored forever.

56 not out isn’t a career saver by any stretch of the imagination – or shouldn’t be, but it is a solid foundation on which to build.  When his notable scores have been so few and far between, there’s no reason to think either that he’s suddenly cracked it, but credit needs to be given where it is due; he started carefully before unleashing a few shots as his confidence increased.  His technique did look tighter than normal, and his judgement outside off-stump much improved.  Who is to say what will happen tomorrow or beyond, but he batted well.

Ollie Pope has had a fairly dry series so far, but today he looked outstanding.  His supposed similarity to Ian Bell seems to be based on his stature as much as anything, but his cover drive is also an attractive shot, and he is busy at the crease, turning over the strike and scoring at a comfortable pace.  In his interview after play he didn’t sound like a man struggling at being left in the nervous nineties overnight, his entire demeanour is one of confidence, boding well for the future.

Rakheem Cornwall’s selection excited much comment before play.  There are a few issues here, his size certainly is going to be noticed, but what was less talked about was his ability.  His record is an impressive one, and while he doesn’t have a particularly active action, he also managed to turn the ball before lunch on day one.  He wasn’t overly threatening, but not many spinners are at the start of a match on a fresh pitch, but he was controlled, and at 6’6″ clearly has the added weapon of getting significant bounce.  We will have to wait and see how he performs in the second innings on a more worn surface, but the dismissiveness in some quarters before seeing him was neither fair nor reasonable.

What can be said is that it’s very hard to imagine England selecting a player with his physique, irrespective of ability.  Cricket is certainly a game of fitness, but it is more a game of skill.  The immediate suggestions on commentary that he would be improved as a player by losing weight were troubling, partly because it ignores the person, partly because it is faintly patronising about his talent, and partly because it implies that fitness is an aim in itself for a spinner rather than one factor of many.  It is perhaps true, but it is not so self-evident it can pass unchallenged.

England are by no means out of sight, and the thin batting order means that falling in a heap in the morning is far from out of the question.  But today was a good day, one player continuing to the look very much the part as a Test cricketer, and one hoping to remain one.  The West Indies haven’t had a great last couple of sessions, and do look flat, but day two is usually the day to define the rest of the Test, and both teams are in this one.

The Fifth Day Element

Well, that wasn’t a bad old day, was it?

There are some things that are tiresome to keep repeating, yet repeat them we must.  For yet again, a Test match went deep into the final session of the final, fifth day,  and those who continually lobby for four day Tests should again be hiding their faces.  They won’t of course – they stay completely silent on these occasions where their chosen affectation looks absurd. And nor is it any excuse to say the same applies in reverse to those who oppose shortening the game when it doesn’t go that far.  It’s not remotely the same, for we all know that Tests can finish in short order sometimes, it’s that it removes the option when they don’t that is the objection.

Losing a day’s play to rain, as happened here, would have killed off a four day Test completely.  All that we saw over the last two days wouldn’t have happened; Stuart Broad rattling through the West Indies batting, Ben Stokes launching himself into the role of opener in a way that Ed Smith dreamed  of Jason Roy achieving.  It wasn’t normal, no, but it was fun.

From the latter part of day four, it seemed inevitable that England would win the game, one way or another, not because of the overwhelming dominance of their position as much as the feeling that the West Indies were swimming against the tide.  They were ragged in the field this morning, faced with a Stokes assault, but they’re not the first team to fall apart when being pummelled to all parts of the ground by a fully liberated batting order.  If England’s plan was to leave themselves 85 overs to take ten wickets and dangle a slight carrot in front of the West Indies batsmen, it was slightly undermined by the pace of scoring that meant instead of a challenging but gettable 280 to win, it had become an extremely steep 312.

For a brief period in the West Indies 2nd innings when Brooks and Blackwood were together for a partnership of 120, there may have been thoughts of a truly special run-chase, but unless a team falls over completely, there’s usually a partnership in all doomed pursuits that raises hopes, only for them to be extinguished.  It was little more than a mild consideration to note it needed to continue for another couple of hours for there to be any genuine prospect of an upset.

It’s not to say the West Indies batted especially badly, but England unquestionably bowled well enough when it mattered.  It’s easy enough to fall into the trap of criticising England’s opponents as the justification for England’s victories, but it shouldn’t be a reason to forego the credit due to the likes of Stuart Broad – who had a point to prove, and did so – and Sam Curran, forever damned with faint praise by those who would focus more on what he can’t do than what he can.  As for Stokes, he chimed in with key wickets to add to his runs in both innings.  He’s England’s best batsman over the last year, England’s key slip catcher, and the bowler to whom they turn when nothing is going right.  Inevitable comparisons to other all rounders in the global game can be ignored for the time being; for this England team he’s a special player, and possibly the only one who is truly feared for what he can do.

The teams will stay at Old Trafford for the Third Test beginning on Friday, which leaves some interesting selection decisions.  Jason Holder’s post-match comments indicated that, if possible, the tourists would retain the same bowling attack, but England’s policy of rotation is going to come under considerable scrutiny.  Stokes appeared to tweak a muscle at the conclusion of the Test, and while he’ll surely play purely as a batsman if not fit to bowl, it does change the team balance somewhat.  If Bess as spinner is retained and England play with four rather than five bowlers, then Anderson, Archer, Wood, Broad, Woakes and Curran are all pushing for the three seam bowling places.  Dropping Broad might add comedy value, given the likely explosion of rage following his performances this week, but it seems he is the one bowler who ought to be confident of retaining his place.  Beyond that, there will be some extremely nervous bowlers.

We’ve had two fairly decent Tests, and we’re lucky enough to have a decider.  There are flaws in both of these teams, but whatever the outcome of the series, the West Indies are in better shape on the field than they have been for some years.  That it is a shadow of the great teams of yore is to ignore the progress they have made in terms of personnel and leadership.  Their record overseas may be a poor one, but they’re being competitive in England.  That is pleasing to see.  Perhaps it is true that we are so delighted to see cricket, and Test cricket in particular, return that we may make allowances that in other circumstances wouldn’t be granted.  So be it if that’s the case, there is time enough for that to revert to normal.

 

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

It is, as some people seem incapable of grasping in these divisive times, possible for many things to be true, without being contradictory, or even remotely a criticism.

Thus, it is entirely the case that this was not an exciting day’s cricket.   Turgid, largely.  Absolutely it is true that Sibley scored slowly and was some way short of being a delight to watch.   But nonetheless there’s not the slightest thing wrong with any of that.  England plodded along after losing early wickets, setting a platform, taking the sting out of the West Indies bowling attack, and generally batting pretty well on a surface that looks (at this stage) hard to score on.

It’s hard to know what is expected at times.  An England batting order that all too often has carelessly thrown away wickets (and there was some of that today too, Joe Root notably in his first innings this summer) with reckless abandon also receives criticism when a player digs in.  Not only has he done nothing wrong, he’s batted very well, on day one of a five day Test.  It’s genuinely hard to understand what, apart from a lack of sixes, it can be imagined he’s failed to do today, or how he has hindered England’s chances.  It’s so clearly the opposite.  That Stokes hardly provided an array of dazzling strokeplay either ought to make it clear it wasn’t a day for that.   It’s not exciting to watch.  True.  And?  Sometimes that’s how it is.

Jofra Archer’s late removal from the starting line up due to breaching the bubble rules (which can be added to the list of phrases never heard before 2020) was a perfect storm of outrage and criticism, with Michael Vaughan leading the calls for him to be dropped for the third Test, while at the same time saying he needed to be looked after.  This is an insane overreaction.  Why is it that every error needs to be met with a brutal clampdown?  Archer has made a mistake, he’s a young man, and for entirely sensible reasons has been removed from the team for this Test.  That isn’t a punishment, it’s a rational response to the requirements of playing a Test match in isolation from those outside.  It’s a minor infraction that could have had serious repercussions had it not become known until the Test had begun, for it’s entirely possible it would have required both teams to self-isolate rather than play.  OK, so all can be in agreement it was a truly daft and thoughtless thing to do, that’s not in question.   But it doesn’t help him or anyone else to continue smacking him over the head until he begs for mercy on this.  He probably feels embarrassed enough as it is  – if he doesn’t, then it can be conceded there is a problem, but there’s no reason to assume that at all.

Covid-19 has been a challenge for everyone, a determination in some quarters to hammer a young man purely to express outrage is utterly distasteful, counterproductive and rather childish.  Put him in the stocks for all the good it will do.

There is one further area where England have got themselves in something of a pickle.  Sam Morshead from the Cricketer raised the point that it could be suggested one reason for Jos Buttler’s continued inclusion is that he isn’t in the ODI squad, meaning if he was dropped from the Test team, he would be playing no cricket at all.  Morshead wasn’t pushing this idea as a full explanation, he was idly musing on whether it might be a factor, but it is to be hoped not for it is more akin to ensuring a player at least gets a game in the Sunday 2nd XI rather than an instance of choosing the best Test line up.  Equally, with the removal of Archer from the side, England refused to countenance the idea of Wood, rested for this match, being brought back in as a like for like replacement.  This is simply odd – for it could be seen as a reluctance to try and pick the best team, but instead to focus entirely on the planned rotation for the sake of it.  Perhaps not, perhaps the belief was that the best player to be picked wasn’t a fast bowler at all, but at first sight it seems a strange way of going about things, more wedded to principle than strategy.

All in all, a decent day’s play for England, and a frustrating one for the West Indies after an excellent start.  Unless it goes monumentally badly for one team, it’s always a setting up day, and so far so good for the hosts.  What happens tomorrow either way doesn’t alter that.