England vs West Indies: 1st Test – Night and Day

In days past, a West Indies tour of England was one to cause a frisson of excitement among the fans, and a tremble of fear among the batsmen.  How times have changed.  The structure of international cricket; the concentration of power and money in the hands of the the three most powerful cricket boards; allied to the endless civil war in Caribbean cricket have weakened the game globally, and in the West Indies in particular.  If South Africa aren’t able to get their best team on to the park because of the financial considerations of the players, then it’s less surprising than ever to see the shadow team that will show up on Thursday afternoon.

The corollary of this depressing state of affairs is that from a ticketing perspective, the Windies aren’t the draw they were, and to that end the scheduling of a day/night Test match at Edgbaston makes sense – the curiosity value alone makes it worth doing from a financial perspective.  The popularity of day/night cricket has been well established in limited overs form, and the opportunity to see it in Test match mode has clearly piqued a lot of interest given the second day is already sold out, with days one and three possibly following. It’s certainly true that in other parts of the world they have proved popular, Adelaide in particular demonstrating that there is an appetite for starting later and making it a night out.

Where England have a particular problem is in the country’s latitude.  The summer evenings tend to be cool, and occasionally downright cold, apart from during the peak summer months of June and July.  But in June and July it doesn’t get dark until 10pm, meaning the night element would consist of slowly fading light and batsmen having nightmares about seeing the ball for more than the brief dusk that is prevalent in more equatorial climes.  With the timetable for this one, had it been played in June, floodlights wouldn’t be needed on a sunny day.

With that in mind, holding a day/night Test during the slightly shorter days of August makes sense, though from the spectator perspective the likelihood is that coats and blankets are more likely to be needed than shorts and T-shirts, particularly given the longer format.  That being said, the match isn’t scheduled to go especially late on each given day, meaning the night element will remain relatively short.  The problem of a longer dusk is still there though, and pink ball or not, it will be interesting to see just how challenging the batting is likely to prove – the experimental county championship matches earlier in the season were rather ruined by rain in many cases.

There have only been a handful of day/night Tests so far, too few to form any kind of judgement on how they will differ (if at all) from “normal” matches.  Certainly the first instance of it involved the ball hooping round corners and batting proving exceptionally difficult, but subsequent games didn’t continue that trend, as ball manufacturers constantly strived to ensure conditions would be as close to the default as possible.  Equally, the different locations in which the matches have been held make passing judgement impossible, and it is this more than anything that provides the intrigue as to how this one will unfold.

The West Indies have played under lights once before, in the UAE, but conditions there are totally different at the best of times, and this will be the first match where a pink Duke’s ball (rather than a Kookaburra) is used.  Given that tends to retain its shine longer, and offers a more pronounced seam, that could yet be interesting for the batsmen.  The possibility of dew in the evening has been mentioned, but this applies only so much as it does in the mornings of late season games, and the bulk of the day will be played during the same hours as a normal Test.  The question will be if conditions materially alter after tea.

Ah yes, tea.  The breaks will retain their traditional names of lunch and tea despite being much later.  Naturally this has attracted comment, but in truth it would have done had they changed it as well.  In Australia the breaks were changed to tea and dinner, which is barely any better, and probably provides amusement to non-cricket supporters who will wonder which other sports have a break for dinner.

To the surprise of few, Keaton Jennings was dropped from the squad, replaced by Mark Stoneman, as the revolving door of England openers not called Cook continues.  If luck in selection plays a part, then being called up to play the West Indies at home counts as being of the good variety, for it represents an opportunity to score rather easier runs than against South Africa or away in India.  What that doesn’t do is answer the question as to whether a player is good enough to play in Australia, but given the mess England have got themselves in over selection for opener, the reality is they are where they are.  It still wouldn’t be a surprise to see someone different opening in Brisbane.

Mason Crane has been called up, which raises questions about Adil Rashid’s future.  England have developed a tendency in the specialist fields of seeking the finished article, discarding players for perceived failures rather than persevering with them.  Rashid hasn’t been exceptional, that is certainly true, but nor has he been a flop – his performance in India was in line with many England spinners there over the years.  Perhaps it might be that Crane is something special, but it’s hard to avoid the nagging doubt that whether or not he plays this time, his career will be one of high expectations and swift removal if he doesn’t win matches single handedly.  As has been observed all too often, it’s debatable whether England would have kept faith with Shane Warne had he been English.

One player returning to the ranks is Chris Woakes, and depending on fitness can be expected to play given how important he has been over the last 12 months.  That might be harsh on Toby Roland-Jones, but Woakes is clearly central to England’s first choice bowling line up.  As long as he is properly fit, and not ECB fit.

The disparity in resources, wealth and playing strength really should make this a foregone conclusion, but the day/night nature of it means that it is a little more uncertain than might be the case.  Whether it is a one off will depend on whether the game itself proceeds relatively normally.

Day/night Tests in England, in late August.  Who the hell knows?

 

 

England vs South Africa: 4th Test and Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

England vs South Africa: Fourth Test, Day Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Fifth Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Day Three – Wet

The forecast wet weather duly arrived not too long after lunch, and that was that for the day. South Africa had managed to save the follow on, and given the rain that may yet prove to be vital in going to the final match of the series all square. Temba Bavuma deserves all the plaudits for getting his team into a position whereby with some help from on high, it’s just about possible to see a potential escape. He was helped in adding 50 to the team’s overnight score by Vernon Philander, fresh out of hospital, but clearly far from recovered given his repeated trips off the field during England’s second innings. He’s plainly still not well at all. 

Toby Roland-Jones was the man to take the final wicket, and in doing so completed a five wicket haul. Cricket history is littered with examples of players who shone brightly at the start only to fade, and while nothing should be read into his achievement in terms of his international career, if nothing else he will have this match. But he’s bowled well, and certainly added to the potency of the England attack in helpful conditions. 

With no follow on option, it was for England to follow the pattern of the first two Tests and go out in the third innings and build a lead. The overhead cloud still assisted the bowlers and Morne Morkel in particular made life especially difficult, accounting for Cook for the 11th time with a good one that left him and clattered into off stump. At the other end Keaton Jennings was struggling badly against Philander, escaping being caught in the slips via a cordon that couldn’t react in time as the ball flew off the edge. 

That he’s struggled this series is obvious, but all players need a bit of luck, and perhaps that was just what he needed. He also escaped being given lbw on review, but towards the end of the possible play he was starting to look more fluent and more assured. Should he go on tomorrow, on such fine margins can sporting careers be made. 

Tom Westley in contrast has looked like he’s been waiting to bat in a Test match for years. Both in the first innings and today, his stroke making has been notable, his ease at the crease remarkable. Once again, it means little in terms of the longer term, but on brief evidence, he does at least appear at home in the environment. 

With England 252 ahead, a better forecast for the next two days and a pitch still offering some assistance to  the seamers, it’s hard to see much other than England creating a huge lead and then asking South Africa to bat the best part of four sessions to try and save it.  As so often, it might be best if England were bowled out removing the need for a decision, but even if South Africa were to have a great morning, the chances are the target won’t be below 350.

The people most pleased with today will be those with tickets for tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Test – Preview And Day 1 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Blame Game

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It’s been less than a week since what can only be described as a disastrous Test match for England. This coupled with the fact that England have now lost 6 of their last 8 Test Matches has seen the once compliant media turn into circling vultures around the team. Dmitri came in off his long run on Tuesday and covered many of these points with deadly precision, so naturally I don’t want to cover old ground; however once the dust has settled and people have regained their decorum, it does need to be examined why England are in a continuous cycle of mediocrity.

As we have covered in previous posts, the condemnation came quick and fast, after all this is no longer an Alastair Cook team so it’s game on for the hacks, but the two that particularly caught my eye were the reactions of Nasser Hussain and George Dobell, with 2 thoughts on completely different sides of the spectrum.

Hussain was quick to put the boot into county cricket, which is not too much of a surprise considering he probably rarely watches it, stating:

The lads that are coming in aren’t doing anything for them – they won at Lord’s because of Joe Root, not Jennings, Dawson or Ballance.

“You name some lads who have come in – [James] Vince, [Ben] Duckett, [Gareth] Batty, [Zafar] Ansari, [Alex] Hales, Ballance – there is no-one coming in and doing well. “It is a sad indictment in county cricket that they are getting runs there and not for England.” 

Dobell took another line and was keen to understand what Bayliss was actually doing to address these problems:

Bayliss has clearly pushed an ‘aggressive’ mindset (remember his comments about wanting two “attacking-style batters in the top three”?) but, without knowing the red-ball ability of his options – he admits he has never seen Mark Stoneman, outstanding candidate for top-order promotion, bat in the flesh – he has instead tried to turn limited-overs talents into Test players. Jos Buttler was recalled to the Test team despite having played one first-class game in a year and, as a result, being given no chance to correct the faults that led to him being dropped; Alex Hales was promoted to Test opener and Liam Dawson has been selected largely on the grounds of being a ‘good bloke’. By such criteria, Nelson Mandela would have opened the batting for South Africa for 50 years.

Bayliss isn’t much of a technical coach, either. The players refer to him as “a man of few words” who leaves the technical work to others and is more interested in creating a positive, settled environment in which the players are able to perform to their optimum.

That’s important, of course. But if he doesn’t have much say in selection and he doesn’t have much say in coaching, it does rather beg the question: what does he do? If he’s just creating a relaxed environment, he could be replaced by a couple of scented candles, a yucca plant and a CD of ambient whale noises.

 It’s not that I wholly disagree with either of these quotes, it’s just that I think they fail to see the long term issues that England have glaringly had and have been swept under the carpet for so long now. It is easy to have a knee jerk reaction after another England collapse, but it’s far more positive to take a step back at properly look at the underlying causes rather than throwing mud at anybody not named Alastair Cook.

If I look at Hussain’s comments around County Cricket, I feel that he has taken the easy route of assigning blame without doing much research. We all know that County Cricket isn’t perfect, but then show me any national set up that has the quality of domestic league to keep churning out Test quality players (the Australian Shield Cricket in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was the exception rather than the rule). We are also in an era where cricket has become a marginal sport, so to try and find circa 540 professional players across the counties who all play at a high level is mission impossible. Of course it could be argued that by merging counties or introducing 3 divisions (the latter of which I’m actually in favour of) to increase the quality on offer is a nice idea, but even the counties aren’t stupid enough to vote themselves out of existence. This is verging on Mission Impossible. Hussain also argues that players coming through the counties should have had their techniques honed by playing County Cricket, and whilst it is a lovely idea, it is not exactly practical. The County coaches are under as much pressure to win as with any other professional game, so they’re not exactly going to take Ballance or Vince aside when they are plundering county attacks to work on their technique on the off chance that they may get recalled. It would be lovely if they did, but that is purely a pipe dream. It is also worth remembering that the counties often work on a shoestring budget, so they’re not exactly in a place to be able to employ the best coaches in the system and if they did so, then they would probably have to sacrifice players, robbing Peter to pay Paul in other words. Whilst we can all agree that County Cricket isn’t without fault, to lay the full blame on it’s doorstep is lazy journalism in my opinion.

The same could be said about laying the blame fully at the door of England’s coaches; after all they can only work with those who have been selected to play for England. Whilst of course there can be a portion of blame assigned to Bayliss, who fully admits that he doesn’t have a working knowledge of County Cricket (though that doesn’t mean that he can’t watch videos of every English player) and appears to foster a culture whereby there is a lack of accountability amongst the players; it would be foolhardy to hump the blame completely onto his back. Could Bayliss be more forthright, yes certainly and could he stop using phrases such as ‘positive brand of cricket’ (up there with ‘difficult winter’) absolutely yes, but it does feel slightly that his Australian upbringing has upset one or two of the media corp. There are questions around his backroom staff, which Dmitri pointed out in his last post, such as what does Farbrace actually do and why would you employ a batting coach, who was known to freeze in the Test Cricket arena? These are valid questions, but my view is that the England coaches should only be there to tweak techniques and mindsets and not have to start from scratch with players who aren’t either ready or good enough for Test Cricket. My question would be why are we having to pick players with poor technique or subject temperament in the first place? Surely there is a failsafe within the system to guard against this? Yes is the answer; however it is failing in its very basic goal:

According to the Lords website:

Loughborough University has a long tradition and is world renowned for its role in the development of sporting excellence. It is a key site for the new English Institute of Sport – and the ECB’s National Academy. The MCCU allows additional support to be invested in a squad of elite young cricketers, who benefit from Loughborough’s expertise and provision for the development of sports performance.

The Cricket-specific facilities and services are reinforced by access to Loughborough’s wider provision of high-performance sport support services, including fitness testing and development, technical analysis of skill acquisition, physiological and biomechanical analysis, sports nutrition, sports psychology, and sports medicine services.

Loughborough has been a failure on an immense scale. It is the place where aspiring fast bowlers and batsmen go to have their technique ripped apart and changed to what the ECB coaching manual dictates and to be turned from exciting young cricketers into ECB corporate drones. After all, we know that as long as you say the right things and suck up to Mr. Flower, then a Test place is all but guaranteed (more on him a little later). The crux of the matter is that we are not producing enough players of a high enough quality to play Test Cricket; we’re not drilling into them the mindset of protecting your wicket, batting time or bowling line and length instead of promoting the so-called so-called ‘X Factor cricket’. The basics seemed to have been replaced with how fast can you bowl the ball and how far can you clear the boundary by, which is nice for hit and giggle cricket but leaves players totally ill-equipped for the longer form of the game; hence the phrase positive brand of cricket now being bandied about, which roughly translates as our batsman have no clue on how to defend against quality bowling.

So then we dig a little deeper and shine the light on the two individuals who have the keys to the England Development Programme, Andy Flower and David Parsons. There has been very little written about David Parsons, England’s National Spin Bowling Coach, and that’s just probably the way that he likes it. Parsons has been England’s spin coach since 2006 and how many international class spinners have we produced since that time, yes you guessed it, a big fat zero (Swann was playing County Cricket long before Parsons was appointed). This is a clear example about how the ECB rewards those that are ‘inside cricket’ irrespective of the aptitude of said individual. If I had been in a job where I had one task but failed to deliver on it, then I would have been out of a job an awfully long time ago, but there Parson’s is, clinging onto his position for 11 years whilst contributing virtually nothing during this time, no doubt he’ll be knighted soon. My thoughts on Andy Flower are well known, I wrote a piece last year about his tenure with the Lions – https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2016/11/23/englands-missing-lions/comment-page-1/ and very little has changed since then. Flower has never had a particular aptitude of bringing through young cricketers, with only Steven Finn bought into the England set up under the age of 27 (Trott and Bresnan were extremely experienced county operators by this time) and clearly values good personality rather than talent. England are still criminally under utilising the Lions in the red ball format, which is madness, considering this should be the very vehicle where England’s aspiring Test players iron out their techniques, test out their temperaments and play against high quality players. It would naturally be impossible to mimic the England set up, but surely it’s not past the administrators to organise 4/5 red ball games a year for those that have been identified as next off the cab rank?? Surely Director Comma understands that the very definition of madness is doing the same things again and expecting a different outcome? The fact that we have consistently seen white ball cricket favoured over red ball cricket constantly rankles with me but it appears that this decision has come from the top.

We could also easily blame the selectors, whom many of us believe should have been sacked straight after the India tour and some even before that. There have been too many selections where they have tried to put round objects into square holes or have completely misjudged an individual’s readiness for the Test arena. The balance of the side has looked completely wrong for a while now and they continue to jettison those who don’t fit their mould as personified by the media luvvies (see Rashid, Carberry, Compton etc). The fact that James Whitaker still has a job is like the ECB is playing one massive practical joke on the rest of England, hell I’d rather have John Whitaker making the selections.

It is clear that many elements could be blamed for England’s consistently poor decision making and massive inconsistency in the Test arena (though one could argue that losing 6 out of 8 Tests isn’t inconsistency and just the sign of a poor side); however there does seem to be one constant running through all of these gripes. Yes, our purported savior, the Director, England Cricket.

Now many might say that it is unfair to put the blame squarely at Strauss’ door and some will even go further and say that I am purporting an agenda against Strauss, and whilst it’s true that I have little time for Strauss, the one common element is that all roads lead to him. Graves is being kept in a cupboard under the stairs, only allowed out to wine and dine the County chairmen, Empty Suit is too concerned with the TV deals and the Cockroach is still trying to infiltrate the ICC, so that really only leaves us with Director Comma. When appointed, Strauss’ supposed remit was:

Strauss, will will be responsible for “the long-term strategy of the England men’s cricket team” and for developing “the right coaching and management structure to support it”.

Strauss knew that Bayliss was more of a white ball specialist when he appointed him and that he had very little knowledge of county cricket; however it still seems that the key to Strauss’ appointment was to push the white ball game and to ensure a certain South African born player wasn’t picked. If Strauss didn’t know that Bayliss was a hands-off coach, then that is a damning indictment of his research and judgment. Strauss is also in charge of the selectors, so why has there been no accountability with bust after bust coming from Whitaker and co? Any fool could see they’re not up to the job, hell I would make Peter Moores chief selector, he might not be able to coach at International level, but he was the most successful in bringing young cricketers through to the England set up. I would certainly remove Flower from any formal or informal position on the panel, a conflict of interest there most certainly is, but whether Director Comma actually has the cohones to do it, is another matter.

Another damning aspect of all this has been Strauss’ insistence that white ball cricket was more of a focus across all of the age groups, very much at the detriment to the red ball game. We can of course question the mindset and attitude of England’s Test batsmen, but when they and the next generation are not being given proper exposure to the red ball game early in their career against high quality players, then of course we leave ourselves open to being undercooked at this level. It is astoundingly incompetent to have the Lions playing 6 red ball games over a 3-year period, with an England Test line up crying out for new talent. Whilst it would be unfair to directly apportion blame to Strauss for Loughborough’s consistent failure, it doesn’t appear that he is too keen to do much about it, after all that’s Mr. Flowers remit and one doesn’t go about sticking his nose into Darth Mood Hoover’s ‘oeuvre d’art’.

So what have England actually achieved in Director Comma’s tenure, we have a white ball team that is better than it was but still hasn’t won anything, a Test team with the same glaring holes and lack of talent in the system as we had in 2014, which makes it impossible to make England a constantly competitive Test Team, oh and a new domestic T20 competition that nobody wants. It wouldn’t be unfair to surmise in my opinion, that in the three years since Strauss took over as Director, England Cricket, English cricket hasn’t moved forward an iota and that for me is the most damning statistic of them all.

 

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day four – Shambles

England were always going to lose this match, the question was whether it would be today or tomorrow, and how they lost it.  The difference between the teams after the first innings was substantial, and probably meant defeat anyway, but with South Africa batting well on the third day, England’s target was always going to be far beyond them.  But how you lose is often as important as how you win, for it demonstrates the qualities of the team in adversity, and the character therein.  England’s abysmal collapse today was entirely predictable (indeed yesterday’s post did predict it) but it’s still disappointing to see the worst fears confirmed.

Amidst the storm of criticism England received after the denouement, it was interesting to note how many of the same people who castigated South Africa for not pressing on and playing shots yesterday now complained that England were reckless today.  The circumstances aren’t the same of course, but the selectivity with which one side can be criticised for playing decent Test cricket (and winning) and the other attacked for failing to do so is indicative of the confused approach so many have got into in this T20 era.

In the first innings England’s wickets didn’t fall because of too many reckless shots, but the attitude was one of a side that didn’t have too much confidence in their ability to defend.  It’s been a regular feature of the England side in recent times, but not exclusively so, they have on occasion batted defensively, even in defeat in India, but the reality is that the middle order are stroke players, and it goes against the grain for them to block.  That middle order is outstanding at counter attacking and ramming home an advantage and is more than capable of changing the direction of a match in a session.  But what looks terrific as a calculated gamble looks dire when a backs to the wall performance is required.  Yet it may well be that those who blame them are looking in the wrong place, for those players have particular strengths, and ones which have been evident as recently as the last Test match, when Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all plundered runs with their attacking approach.  Criticising Stuart Broad for being caught on the boundary this afternoon seems a peculiar line to take for example given the match was long dead by then.  The problems arise when they are exposed much too early, and the loss of early wickets in a paper thin top order is always going to generate disaster in such circumstances.

It’s not to say the middle order aren’t capable.  Moeen batted extraordinarily well in carrying his bat during another dire defeat – to Sri Lanka at Leeds – but having created a role for him in the lower middle order where he is to play freely, it is a bit rich to complain when he does the same thing with the game already lost.  That’s not to excuse him, for it wasn’t a great shot to say the least, but in the criticism of that middle order, there are some short memories about that working superbly only one Test ago.

It is true however that the innings as a whole was spectacularly spineless.  Cook did show how to do it early on, but with wickets falling about him it had the air of being in vain from half an hour into play.  It was a good ball that got him, and an even better one that got Root, but both of them could have survived on another day.  Good bowling yes, totally unplayable no.  In neither case does that make them responsible for what happened (to emphasise the point, they were definitely good balls), but it was still part of the pattern where no batsman (apart from possibly Dawson) came out with much credit, it is merely a matter of degree.  Cook at his very best exudes a sense of certainty missing here, and while others were infinitely more culpable, he will be as disappointed  as anyone not to have gone on.  Mentioning Cook today is in one sense harsh, but it is only from the perspective of him being about the only player in the side who has the concentration levels to bat for a couple of days.  That he doesn’t do it in the fourth innings to save a match that often (not many do) is rather beside the point.  He could, which is why the celebrations for his wicket are always the loudest.  But Cook has always been vulnerable to pace, and outstanding against spin, and South Africa have a terrific pace attack – his record against both them and Australia is markedly lower than against others.  That’s fair enough, for only the very best have no real flaws.  Cook is just below that level, but he is very good and the same applies to him as to others – to look at what he can do rather than what he can’t.

England have gone through opening batsmen not called Cook at a rate of knots in the past few years, and Jennings will be aghast at the gaping hole between bat and pad that led to him being bowled, while Ballance was once again stuck on the crease and lbw on review.  In the first case, England really do have to decide what they are doing with the opening position and show some faith that whoever they pick will learn the role.  In the second, whatever Ballance’s shortcomings at this level, England’s decision to put him in at three, a position he doesn’t hold for his county, and where he struggled last time he was selected, is throwing him to the wolves, irrespective of him apparently being injured this match.  Facing the new ball and being in the middle order are entirely different roles, albeit in this England side the middle order is getting used to it quite quickly.  England are hoping the square peg can be pushed in to the round hole.

If those two appear to be vulnerable to being dropped, the question is who could come in to replace them.  The new schedule for county cricket precludes county championship cricket during the meat of the season, meaning any replacements will not have played anything other than T20 recently.  This was of course pointed out at the time the schedule was agreed, but ignored.  Change will smack of shuffling the chairs on the Titanic, for it’s a big ask of anyone to come in and get used to different format from the off.

The other player who may give way is Liam Dawson.  He is victim of the extraordinarily muddled thinking that passes for selection – he hasn’t proved a success so far, but he’s done about as well as might have been expected given his record.  The dropping of Adil Rashid looked reckless at the time, to now give his replacement the boot so soon would make a nonsense of his initial selection.  It would also – along with the potential less likely removal of Mark Wood, be following the time honoured England tradition of blaming the bowlers for the failure of the batsmen.

Where to go from here?  It should always be said that a team is never so good in victory or as bad in defeat as they seem, and the euphoria of the first Test win was completely misplaced as some kind of barometer for following games.  England’s recent record is so poor that this effort today shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, yet apparently it has.  Putting the boot in when they’ve played as badly as today is nothing but rampant hypocrisy given the excuse making for the last tour, the home defeats last summer, and the pretence that all was well, fully exonerating everyone from the captain to the Chairman.  It’s already been the case that some of our media friends have decided to criticise Root as captain, a mere two Tests into the job, having made endless excuses to this point when it was Cook in charge.  That’s not to pick on Cook either, it is to say that these problems with the England side have been apparent for quite some time, yet some were too busy pronouncing all was well when it clearly wasn’t.  Equally, those problems don’t mean that it’s fine to rip into the whole side just because of today.  Failing to be aware that this happens to the current England – or more specifically, to pretend it hasn’t done because of some misguided cheerleading of those in charge – does a disservice to everyone both then and now, including the players.  This is how England have been for a while, with all the concomitant strengths and flaws.  It is this apparent new found freedom in the fourth estate to say what has been obvious for a long time that grates so much.

For South Africa, this match couldn’t have gone better – and in the absence of Kagiso Rabada as well.  The seam attack had England under pressure from ball one in both innings, and Keshav Maharaj was excellent in support.  Yet as in the first Test, the margin of victory disguised the fact that both teams had opportunities.  There is absolutely nothing to suggest certainty about the outcome of the next two games, although doubtless there will be much discussion around how England change the “momentum” of the series.

After a day like today, it’s hard to know what is more irritating – the performance, or the apparent amazement that it happened at all.  There has been far too much absolving of the past, and so far, far too much criticism today from those who previously stayed silent and pretended the flaws in the team didn’t exist.  This is where England are, and yes they can certainly do better in these circumstances than they have today.  But it’s not new, and it’s not unusual.  A degree of honesty all round about where England have been for the last couple of years wouldn’t go amiss rather than responding day to day.

 

 

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day 3 – Doomed

Barring the kind of sporting miracle that a few always cling to, England will lose this match, probably tomorrow, and it’s all down to their batting performance on the second day.  Today certainly wasn’t the worst England have played – they bowled reasonably enough – but the gap between the sides after the first innings meant that to have even the slightest chance they would have needed something exceptional, indeed to skittle a South African side entirely content to accumulate runs.

There are things England could have done better; certainly the delayed introduction of spin was highlighted by the way Dawson and in particular Moeen took wickets once they were finally used, but any suggestion that this was the difference between winning and losing would be rather extreme.  England toiled hard and bowled well enough in the morning session, but they were always going to be in a situation of trying to limit the damage as much as they could after the initial burst failed to bring results.  South Africa played it exactly right – not for them the abandon of attacking batting, they played as though it was a Test match, taking minimal risks and continuing to build on their already overwhelming advantage.  It was curious to hear the commentators criticising them for this fairly early on.  Despite at the time the best part of three days to go, the desire to see them throw the bat was present on both television and radio.  Perhaps it was a subconscious wish for England to get back into the game, for it is hard to comprehend why with so much time left to play it was remotely in the tourists’ interests to take risks with their position.  Perhaps the influence of T20 has become so pervasive that even observers can’t cope with a team playing decent Test cricket any more, for South Africa were hardly particularly slow – they were simply using the time honoured tactic of grinding England into the dirt.

Elgar and Amla did the damage early on, looking in little trouble as they made a strong position completely dominant.  By the time both were dismissed their team already had enough on the board to be strong favourites even if they’d stopped there, and neither dismissal was expected at the time given their level of comfort.  England did miss one opportunity, failing to spot a thin edge from Amla when on 25, but of their DRS problems this series, that was the least damning – players have missed hearing edges from the dawn of time.  They did get one right when Amla had reached 87, Dawson’s introduction bringing the overturning of a not out decision that was entirely understandable as he advanced down the pitch.

By this stage the surface was showing signs of some wear, if a long way from being unplayable.  The lbw of Faf Du Plessis will have sent tremors of uncertainty through England ranks given how low it kept from short of a length, but for the seamers at least, it was unusual to see the ball misbehave that much.  There was some spin to be had, as should be expected in the second half of a Test match.  Dawson had the advantage of bowling into the footholes to the left handers, but it was Moeen Ali who extracted more life, and looked the more threatening.  Part time offspinner England may consider him, but in the absence of Adil Rashid, he looks by far the more potent of the two spinners on show.  Dawson has done little to suggest he is the future, albeit from three Tests, and there are already whispers that his place might be under threat.  This is unfair because he hasn’t had anything like long enough to get used to Test cricket, or to learn, and should he not be retained then questions should be asked about his initial selection more than his performance, for if he isn’t deemed good enough, why was he thought good enough so recently?

Towards the back end of the innings, Philander and Morkel decided to attack, with Moeen bearing the brunt of their assault as he also took wickets.  In microcosm, this was a good sample of Moeen’s bowling career – expensive but taking wickets at frequent intervals.  His 4-78 represented unusually good figures for a spinner at Trent Bridge, albeit three of the wickets came from attempts to hit him out of the ground.  By that stage though, the target had exceeded world record levels, and with Philander’s departure, that was sufficient to invite the declaration and ask England to bat for a tricky 20 minute spell.

One thing is abundantly clear, short of an unexpected monsoon, this match is never going to be a draw.  England would have to bat 184 overs and if they did that they’d probably reach the target anyway.  Either they reach 474 (they won’t) or they will lose, and to that end to have even the slightest possibility (virtually nil) of winning then a good start was essential.  It so nearly got off to the worst possible start, Cook given out lbw first ball to Morne Morkel before successfully reviewing it.  In truth, it wasn’t a great decision, it always looked high and so it proved on Hawkeye.  But it must also be said it really wasn’t a great shot either – Cook was attempting to clip a good length straight ball through square leg.  He got away with it because Morkel is so tall, but it was a reminder that those who berated Moeen Ali for being caught at point tend to go much quieter when poor semi-defensive or defensive shots are played instead.

For the remainder of the four overs the two openers were under huge pressure.  Cook had another close lbw call against him when he again played across a pretty straight ball, while Jennings just about managed to control an outside edge and push it down in to the slip cordon.  Both these players could do with some runs.  Cook hasn’t been in the greatest of touch in Tests recently, but hardly disastrously so, while Jennings is suffering the murmurs of the press despite a more recent century of the two of them, and is only in his fourth match.  Cook quite clearly has a long fine record, but that observation is about him, it is about the seeming lack of patience with new players and the immediate pressure placed on them to succeed.  Cook had faith placed in him at various stages of his career, and perhaps dividends would be reaped if others received half that faith.  England are becoming very careless with opening batsmen.

They got through it, one way or another, and England can at least begin day four with all ten wickets intact.  It is hard to see anything other than a South Africa win, and a convincing one.  If England bat as they did in the first innings, it could be over in short order, but at least with Cook still there they have someone who could bat long and keep the game alive.  He’s not alone in that for the inexperienced Jennings has the temperament to do so, and so could Gary Ballance.  In the last case he really needs it.  Ballance does suffer in terms of perception from being anything but elegant, and this series he’s batted reasonably and not looked out of his depth, but without ever going on to make a score.

England could do themselves a big favour, even in defeat, by making a decent fist of their run chase.  There are question marks over their defensive techniques as a collective, and their ability to bat for long periods.  Falling over in a heap would make those criticisms louder and highlight to the opposition what they must already suspect – keep England subdued and they’ll get themselves out.  For England to come out of this match with their heads held high, they really need Alastair Cook to lead the way.

The trouble is, it’s all too easy to see England being all out by tea.