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.

 

Gloom, Zoom and Rock and Roll it

After the suitably English opening day, where it was mostly a matter of watching the rain fall, at least there was a fair amount of play on day two, even if for England it didn’t go especially well.

There are a whole list of reasonable excuses for things that have happened or will happen in this match; the empty ground will be disconcerting for the players, the lack of match practice, the lack of a season – it all adds up to limiting any judgements that can reasonably be made of any of the players and teams.  The problem is that those judgements will be made anyway, that’s the nature of sport.

Thus, maybe it was always destined that a rusty England batting order would struggle somewhat in bowler friendly conditions.  Maybe it was always likely that a total of around 200 would be where it ended up.  Perhaps as much as anything luck played a part in England batsmen getting out, and West Indies batsmen managing to survive.  Certainly there was little the England bowlers did differently, and it can’t be said they bowled poorly at all.  But the West Indies did bowl well as a unit, and Jason Holder was particularly fine, leaving the impression that with sunny weather forecast for tomorrow, the visitors are well ahead in this game.  Holder said this evening that had he won the toss he would have bowled, which may be true, or may be him being mischievous to throw some extra responsibility onto Ben Stokes for his call, but either way, so far it’s working out for Holder’s team.

It can still change easily enough, this game is in its early stages despite being two days down and neither batting order engenders great confidence in their collective durability. There is an opportunity to put England under pressure, but there’s no reason England can’t bowl the West Indies out cheaply either, it’s all potential and possibility.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying God knows what will happen tomorrow.  At least with a decent forecast it’s unlikely that bad light will be as much a factor as it was today.  Objectively, the umpires applying the bad light rules are doing entirely the correct thing, but cricket’s ability to look idiotic to potential converts never ceases to frustrate, mostly because so few at the highest level of administration are bothered.  Or more specifically, they seem incapable of comprehending that it might be a negative in the first place.

Yet for the reasons outlined a few days back none of it matters overly, it’s just a pleasure to have any play, limited and flawed as it may be.  It does to the teams, of course, but the wider significance is that cricket is on at all.  It remains hard to be overly exercised this week with Joe Denly’s flaws against the ball coming back in, or Jos Buttler’s weaknesses outside off stump, but it is possible to derive huge pleasure from the way Holder has led his team both today and over a number of years – and arguably before he was captain.  Tomorrow it will be someone else’s turn.  It isn’t to say that those who point out the problems are in any way wrong, indeed they are quite right, but it feels like background noise right now.  Hell, even the umpiring decisions being overturned more often than a Reliant Robin taking a hairpin is a mild amusement rather than anything more.  It is an odd feeling, in the wake of a pandemic, to welcome the game into the living room, and care so little about the errors but enjoy the successes, from whomever, irrespective of team.

It probably won’t last long, but at present it is one of life’s pleasures, and there has been little enough of that for it to be more than enough.

Netflix and Chill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Little Learning Can be Dangerous

So there we have it, the second Test tour of the winter is over, and England are in rude health, having dispatched South Africa and found a team.  So runs the more optimistic take after what became a dominant performance in the second half of the series, following a floundering one at the start.  Reading too much into England’s performances at any given time is a perpetual danger, but failing to give them any credit for their successes when they have them is taking a curmudgeonly attitude too far.  There were good things to take from the tour, there were examples of players finding their feet in the Test arena and the kernel of a half reasonable team was more identifiable by the end of the Tests than at the beginning.

It must be noted that South Africa weren’t far short of a rabble by the end, either broken by England or by the circumstances in which they find themselves.  Triumphalism at England’s victory has been limited, given the problems afflicting both South African cricket and the wider game.  Few in the media generally have spoken about it in depth, partly for fear of damaging the product even further, partly because of a lack of detailed knowledge about the particular difficulties faced.  It’s wise not to pretend an awareness that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t make it any less concerning to see one of the game’s major powers in such disarray, and while there are always local factors or specific challenges (Kolpak in South Africa’s case being one), there is a pattern of struggle off the field among all the nations apart from Australia, England and India.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be good teams produced, but the financial reality of the world game is predicated on ever increasing wealth accumulation by those who already have it, and descent into penury for the rest.  When ideas are mooted to “help” Test cricket (just as there have been lots of initiatives to help the FA Cup that have gone swimmingly) they always fiddle around the fringes rather than examining the fundamental imbalance in world cricket that have led to this point.  Four day Tests are proposed as a means of saving money, supposedly supporting poorer national boards, but their advocacy is from one of the wealthiest – at least before the splurge to support the Hundred drained the bank account – and is indicative of the way absolutely every option must be considered apart from those that have created the major structural mess in which the sport finds itself.

The self-interest by those who have been tasked with acting as defenders of the game never stops.  South Africa’s own shortcomings on and off the field can’t be directly addressed by the world game, but it can provide a sufficiently level playing field that South Africa have a chance of succeeding, rather than continuing to undermine any prospect of a viable long term future.  This is why the repeated claims that Test cricket is the apex of the game, the highest form of cricket, are met with such scepticism.  It’s not that every action and proposal is intended to wreck Test cricket, it’s just that if that was indeed the aim, it would be hard to see how there would be a great deal of difference in approach.

It’s not as though there aren’t enough warning signs elsewhere, even if governance has been less than stellar in many nations.  The admission of Ireland and Afghanistan to Test cricket was greeted with delight as a rare instance of the game seeking to grow its international footprint, but Ireland have already cancelled scheduled Tests because they can’t afford them, such is the loss making nature of the five day game outside England and Australia.  That the other formats benefit from the presence of Tests is rarely factored into the global reach of the sport anyway, but the point is that concepts such as four day Tests don’t resolve this fundamental imbalance in any way, nor is there any prospect of someone who isn’t a fan of five day Tests becoming one by virtue of removing a day.

All of which is to attempt to provide some context for an England success that showed significant promise, but was against a cricketing nation in real difficulties.  The next tour to Sri Lanka will be against another country struggling to maintain its cricketing base, albeit there too there are substantial self-inflicted woes.  The England players aren’t responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves, and it can seem churlish to qualify their win by rationalising the circumstances of their opponents.  But as long as the gulf between the haves and the have nots continues to widen, the premier form of cricket is in peril, and the victories against those without the means to develop their own game to the same level has to come with an asterisk, as well as making clear the laughably awful administration in England that can’t even regularly make the most of its overwhelming financial and structural advantage.

This is unfortunate.  For England have a collection of likeable cricketers who may not all be exciting in the sense used all too often by boards determined to reduce every facet of the sport to variations of T20, but who have shown a willingness and ability to grasp the nature of Test cricket itself.  Of the batsmen, Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley and especially Ollie Pope enhanced their reputations as young players with the patience to play the long form of the game at the top level, while Zak Crawley showed flashes of potential that he might be able to do the same.  Added to a core group of players in Root, the estimable Stokes and Broad whose records, whatever the blemishes, speak for themselves and there is the basis for a half decent team.

In Mark Wood and Jofra Archer there is pace to burn, and if fitness is a concern over both of them, then that is still something of an improvement on not having pace at all which has been all too frequent.  The negative comment that Archer attracts continues to baffle, but he does receive a more questioning press, shall we say, than is remotely warranted.  There are suspicions aplenty about the kind of briefing that is being carried out – it may well be denied, it may well be not true, but that suspicion exists because of the track record of various ECB personnel doing just that to certain players.  As someone once said, this is a matter of trust.

Of the players deemed to be at risk for the Sri Lanka tour, two stand out, and for different reasons.  Jos Buttler is under pressure for his place following a fairly long fallow period in Test cricket.  He has his defenders, and his basic talent is not in question, more his aptitude for the red ball game.  He simply doesn’t have the track record in either county or Test cricket to suggest this run of “form” is an anomaly rather than a reversion to the mean.  A wicketkeeper batting at seven and averaging around 30 is no disaster, certainly.  But when that wicketkeeper is primarily a batsman anyway, and when at least one of his rivals is both substantially better in that role, and also probably as a batsman too, it is increasingly difficult to make a case for him.

The other player now under pressure, to the surprise of many, is Joe Denly.  He has certainly been consistent – consistently moderate perhaps, but consistent.  Plenty of starts, plenty of decent contributions, but he’s lacked a big score or two to go with it.  What he has done though is set the tone for those around him, absorbing the new ball, putting mileage into the legs of the bowlers, and providing a platform that the middle order , glory be, have started to turn into decent totals.  To that extent, Denly’s contribution to the team could well be viewed as being significantly greater than his run totals and average might suggest.  Even so, it’s not of a level that would normally make him a certainty to retain his spot, and if Burns was fit for Sri Lanka there might have been some support for thanking Denly and moving on.  It is that the reported change would be for Bairstow to come in at number three instead that provoked some disbelief, both given his own poor performance which led to his dropping, and a technique that isn’t often described as tight.  It is one report, so we shall see.

Prior to the series, indeed after the first Test, an analysis of what might constitute England’s best team, and what changes might be made would have been a problematic matter to debate.  Not because of limited options but rather despair as to where to begin, so many were the holes in the team, so varied were the disasters.  England are a hell of a long way from even approaching being the finished article, but perhaps there is the basis of something with which to work in the years ahead.  All that is needed is opposition comprising more than two other teams for them to measure themselves against.

 

Castle on the Hill: 4th Test, Day Two

The first Test of this series seems an awfully long time ago, and as we approach the conclusion of the red ball part of this tour, England are tightening the screw and exerting ever greater dominance by the day. Having waited a couple of years to score 400 in a Test match, England did it again for the second game running, and on a pitch offering a little more to the bowlers than at Port Elizabeth. It was also something of a bonus – England had batted passably well – although no one scored more than the 66 that Zak Crawley managed – but following a mini-collapse leaving England 318-9, a rollocking last wicket stand between Wood and Broad raised England from a reasonable total to a good one.

Tail end partnerships invariably invoke diametrically opposed emotions from those watching, for the English it was a hoot, both in terms of Wood’s clean striking and also in providing an echo of the days when Stuart Broad was so nearly a genuine all rounder. His batting decline has been precipitous, and given England’s determination to pick bowlers who can score runs, there will come a time when his relegation to number eleven is the determining factor behind him being dropped. More than anything else, that feeling of slight melancholy (allied with giggles) when he hits the ball as superbly as he did today can’t be avoided. It remains mystifying that over several years his decline was accepted as one of those things by the various coaching teams. Ironically enough, in the last year he has looked just a little better, albeit from a low base.

For South Africa, that partnership was a shambles – up to eight fielders on the boundary bowling to numbers 10 and 11 was surely the wrong way to go, even if captaincy and bowler meltdowns when faced with tail end slogging are far from unusual. South African minds are showing all the signs of being thoroughly scrambled now.

If South Africa have been guilty all too often of gifting their wickets this series, England deserve plenty of credit for the way they left their hosts in tatters today. Sure, Dean Elgar will have nightmares about the way he slapped the ball to point, but in general it was English excellence that worked its way through the top order. It’s not to pretend that South Africa’s batting is at a level where it ought to resist, because it has been brittle to the point of disintegration, but today they were trying everything to survive, they just got stuck, strokeless and the pressure ramped up as the run rate plummeted. On this occasion, England did bowl superbly, extracting far more life from the surface than their counterparts and generally just being too good for the South African batting. Wood’s dismissal of Malan was clocked at 94.4mph – the second fastest wicket taking ball by an Englishman recorded (Steve Harmison holds that particular record, a desperately unfortunate Glenn McGrath failing to deal with one at 97mph). One thing England have lacked in some years is bowling variety; with a left armer in Curran, a tall and brilliant seamer in Broad, a genuine pace merchant in Wood (or Archer) and an all rounder at the height of his powers in the shape of Ben Stokes, they have a balanced enough attack. Woakes as the traditional English seamer fits in to this bowling line up in a way that he doesn’t with the four right arm medium quicks they have had all too often.

Stokes offers mongrel to the England side in more than one way, and today was fined 15% of his match fee and handed a demerit point for his curiously old school volley of abuse to a spectator last evening. It was a relatively minor transgression by the Ed Sheeran lookalike, and the punishment is appropriate enough, but it is another reminder that while he remains the MVP in the England team, things like this will be accepted. When he goes through a rough patch, or his powers begin to wane, keep an eye out for the stories starting to appear about him being hard to manage – the modus operandi of the ECB is too frequent to ignore.

England didn’t pick a spinner, to consternation in some quarters, but the evidence so far suggests they haven’t made a mistake. That may yet prove an oversight by day four, should we get there, but as things stand the seamers are being rotated, and rotated to effect. Perhaps the bigger miss was for South Africa, who had no options when Broad and Wood were frolicking in the middle.

The plight of South African cricket – in which England themselves are certainly complicit – provokes a sense of gloom for anyone who loves this stupid game. It makes any praising of England laced with concern as they go about their business of beating up a national team who we desperately need in the world game. But it does need to be said that by one means or another, England are beginning to identify the core of what might be a half reasonable side. If Joe Denly is unlikely to have a long term future in the team, he has at least brought a degree of discipline that has rubbed off on those with more natural ability than him, and to that extent if nothing else, he’s performed a valuable service to English cricket. Likewise, the improved overall disposition has highlighted specific problem areas that were previously just part of an endless list of disasters to be dealt with. Jos Buttler’s struggles with the bat were disguised among everyone else’s – now they are abundantly clear.

We are two days in to this game, and the outcome of this match is pretty clear, barring miracles. The depression of South African cricket lovers, not at the state of this series but at the state of the sport, mitigates the degree of satisfaction their English counterparts at the way their team is progressing. England are not even close to the finished article, but they do at least look like they have a plan. After several years of circling the drain, that is welcome. If only the world game could develop a similar plan to allow all nations to compete on an even basis.