Sri Lanka vs England, 2nd Test: Victory

That England took the last three wickets to fall relatively quickly is not so surprising, that England have taken the series reasonably comfortably perhaps is. Sri Lanka certainly aren’t the side they were, and have a better justification for the usual excuse for defeat (“rebuilding”) than most do, but it remains a difficult place to go, as South Africa found to their cost only a few months ago.

England haven’t won an away series of any description for three years, and haven’t won in Asia/UAE for six, so there should be a recognition that this is a meritorious achievement. Perhaps most strikingly, they did so through their spinners, Leach, Rashid and Moeen all performing well, and perhaps surprising a few people. Nasser Hussain won a series as captain there, and observed afterwards that by creating pitches exceptionally conducive to turn, the hosts brought England’s more limited slow bowlers into the game – it may be that the same error has been made here again.

Certainly Leach has come out of the series to date with credit, but Moeen Ali for one has also to some degree answered those who maintained his away record was too poor for consideration. It’s just two Tests of course, and doesn’t alter what went before, but nor can it be ignored when he does do well. As for Adil Rashid, he remains a potent weapon, and if perhaps a luxury at times, that’s what wicket takers often are.

Perhaps the difference most of all was to be found in Joe Root’s century, as is often the case when a standout player raises himself to levels others cannot match. Pietersen did that in Colombo on a previous tour, appearing to be playing a different level to everyone else, and if not quite so startling this time, Root certainly showed he is a player of rare ability. There has been too much focus on his failure to convert fifties into hundreds and too little on his ability in the first place in recent times, a batsman being held responsible for the failures of others.

As for the openers, they have performed creditably enough. In neither case can they be said to have permanently cemented themselves, but equally neither has the Cook of the last few years been missed. In a match where it has been so spin friendly that England’s seamers failed to take a single wicket, to come out on top having made contributions counts as a win on more than one level.

England have endless problems off the field, but at times on it they simply deserve credit. This is one of those. A fine win, and a better series win.

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Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Day Four

The whole period between October and December passes in something of a blur for me, a succession of work trips and meetings meaning that opening the front door is vaguely reminiscent of greeting a long lost relative you kind of recognise. Thus it was that plans to wake up early to watch a Test match failed utterly – late to sleep, late to rise and the persistent nagging question as to whether it’s possible to suffer jetlag on a flight back from Belfast.

Day one of this Test happened without realising it, day two similar, day three, yep you’ve got it, and day four was more a case of “oh yes, there’s cricket on. Actually this looks quite a good game”. At such times, with obliviousness concerning the actual game, a fall back to general awareness seems to be the best approach, namely that a target of 300 is a very stiff one, and that in such circumstances the chances are that there’ll be a decent stab at it, before wickets start to fall and the batting side ultimately fall short after a “crucial” wicket falls some time deep into the run chase.

For Test matches do follow a pattern. Not in the same way that ODIs or especially T20s do, where the formula is repeated each time with little variance, but more an echo of the several thousand games over a century and a half, with certain tropes to be followed and specific truths to be obeyed. The other part of this is that the wider public insist on refusing to see the evidence before their eyes and taking an entirely different view of what is going on.

Thus it is that 300+ targets are considered not just achievable (which they obviously are) but not too much more than a walk in the park. To point out that 300 has been chased a mere thirty times in Test cricket over a couple of thousand matches is met with surprise, bordering on disbelief. Now, of course the nature of the game is that fourth innings run chases aren’t a given in a game, while setting or achieving lower targets takes out another bundle, and then there are the dull draws, the games where it rains throughout (and not just in Manchester) and where teams batter another by an innings, so it isn’t quite such a small proportion, but it is somewhat rare. The persistence with which 300 is considered eminently gettable remains one of the odder cricketing beliefs out there.

There are other contradictions to the perceived wisdom held – Moeen Ali taking wickets out here appears to be taking fans’ cognitive dissonance to a whole new level – but it remains endlessly striking that the desperation for a wicket with 120 runs to get coincides so often with that wicket falling. Today, the unlucky man was Angelo Mathews, the latest player to fulfil his role as the “if only” candidate of a run chase.

75 runs to get, 3 wickets to fall. This is the kind of scenario where people set the alarms in anticipation of a thriller, only to see two wickets fall in the first over, or to watch the rain fall for three hours while contemplating the lost comforts of a duvet. And yet, once in a while that thriller happens, just enough to ensure everyone thinks they don’t want to miss it, while at the back of the mind the nagging certainty that it’s going to be a waste of time keeps sticking up a hand and telling the viewer not to bother. And that is quite a special attraction, to know that it could just be worth it.

I’m not going to get up early to watch the denouement. Oh I might. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll oversleep. Oh who knows? But it’s fun when it gets like this anyway. See you tomorrow. Possibly.

Sri Lanka v England, 2nd Test Day 3 – Sweeps

There were three central themes to today’s batting performance by England: No one batting in the right position, sweep shots and terrible reviews.

The first of these was in large part caused by England’s 16th opener since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, Jack Leach. Selected for his lack of ability at batting, he had survived the single over he had to face the night before. Showing the kind of longevity most England openers in recent years have demonstrated, he got himself out for just one run having only faced four more deliveries. Missing a wild sweep, Leach was struck plumb in front of the stumps and was given out LBW.

This brought out England’s new number three, Keaton Jennings. Perhaps helped by the fact that Sri Lanka’s only seamer wasn’t facing him, he and Burns actually formed a useful partnership and added 73 runs before Jennings was dismissed gloving an attempted reverse sweep to slip.

At this point, most people expected Ben Stokes to bat next. He batted at three in the first innings, so it was surely his turn? As it turns out, Root is so comfortable batting at four that he still does it even if a nightwatchman messes up the order. Rory Burns continued his rapid accumulation of runs, making his maiden Test fifty at almost a-run-a-ball, before being given out LBW attempting a sweep shot. Unfortunately, Burns (with his captain’s full support) reviewed what appears to have been a contender for plumbest LBW decision in the history of Test cricket, utterly wasting a precious review.

Ben Stokes clearly didn’t take being demoted from three to five particularly well, because he was dismissed second ball in a very similar manner to Burns. Sweep shot, given out LBW, and wasting England’s second review. The tourists were in the familiar position of 109-4, although this time it did include a nightwatchman.

Root and Buttler continued playing aggressively and added another 74 runs until Jos Buttler jumped outside off stump to play a reverse sweep and the delivery from Akila Dananjaya spun behind him and he could only edge the ball onto the stumps. This brought Moeen to the crease as England’s number seven, and he hit his second ball for six. Unfortunately for him, and as heavily foreshadowed earlier in this post, he was soon given out LBW whilst sweeping despite the impact being clearly outside the line of the stumps. Unfortunately Burns and Stokes had already used up both of England’s appeals, so he had to go.

Moeen’s bad luck brought Ben Foakes to the crease, and together with Root they pushed England towards a total which might trouble Sri Lanka, particularly on this pitch. The ball had spun with variable bounce throughout the day, and it was starting to get very tricky to bat on. Root managed to get his century just after Tea, his first century away from home since the 2016 Test series in India, with a glance through the vacant third man region. Eventually, like the six players before him, Root’s innings ended with a sweep. This one was a reverse sweep which he missed, and was struck plumb in front of middle stump.

Sam Curran, England’s saviour in the first innings, came out to bat but left just as quickly as he was bowled first ball by Karunaratne. The Surrey allrounder could at least take solace in the fact that he was the first England batsman in this innings to not get out sweeping, and he played a back foot defensive shot inside the line to a ball which spun away from him and flicked his off stump.

Rashid was next in, and next out fairly quickly. He, like Moeen before him, was somewhat unlucky to be given out. Although struck in front of the wickets on the pads, he had managed to swing his bat down in time and edge it, but the umpire clearly thought otherwise and he was incorrectly given out.

Rashid was Akila Danajaya’s sixth wicket of the innings. Two of these were mistakes by the umpires, but even so it’s clear that the Sri Lankan offspinner has been a vital part of the host’s attack. It does stick in the craw somewhat that he has been cited for a ‘suspect bowling action’ but is still allowed to play in Test matches. One of the more frustrating facets of cricket for me is that punishments for offences almost always occur after the game. It is entirely possible for a player to cheat against one team, affecting the result in his team’s favour, and then be suspended against another team. In Tests it’s annoying, in competitions it’s downright unfair. I wish cricket was able to develop a quicker (or perhaps more severe) form of disciplinary action which actively prevented this delayed form of punishment.

Foakes and Anderson added another 19 runs before bad light ended play about an hour early. This gave England a lead of 278 which is, at the very least, a difficult target for a team to reach in the fourth innings on a spinning pitch. England’s tactics of batting aggressively and using the sweep very frequently seemed to have paid off, perhaps because it played to their strengths. No one thinks that England’s batsmen are capable of surviving for a day and a half on a spinning pitch, but they do have several useful limited overs players who are capable of getting quick-fire fifties on one. It’s not a perfect tactic, and can be vulnerable to collapses with low totals, but it is perhaps the best one this team has at its disposal.

So the day ends with the game yet again in the balance. If England’s bowlers play like they did in the first Test, they will almost certainly win. If they bowl like they did in the first innings, then things might be a bit closer. Either way, it should be interesting.

As always, if you have any comments about the game or anything else, please post them below.

Sri Lanka v England,2nd Test Day 1

England were on a high coming into this game, and named an unchanged side from the first Test. The only minor alteration was Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali swapping places in the batting order. In terms of helping England’s top order batting order, this move very much echoes the saying “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”, as I don’t see how it will make any difference at all. Sri Lanka were forced into changes by Herath’s retirement and their captain Chandimal’s injury in the first game. Off-spinner Malinda Pushpakumara and batsman Roshen Silva were brought into the host’s team, with bowler Suranga Lakmal.

Crucially, England won the toss. Reports from the Sri Lankan camp had suggested that the team had ordered a spin-friendly pitch from the groundsmen, and England would have been desperate not to bat fourth on it. Luckily for them, Joe Root is a fantastic tosser. He won his seventh consecutive coin toss, and obviously elected to bat first.

Whilst it didn’t seem like a minefield, the spinning conditions on day one always suggested that most English batsmen would struggle. Jennings was first to go this time, hanging his bat outside off stump to Sri Lanka’s only seam bowler (and stand-in captain), Lakmal, and edging it to the wicketkeeper in just the fifth over. Jennings’ weakness against seam bowling (at the very least at the Test level) seems totally bizarre for an English opener. If England are looking to innovate their batting lineup, perhaps they can start with moving him to the middle order?

All eyes were on Stokes, who had been promoted to number three in the batting lineup. He never looked particularly comfortable on a spinning pitch, and he was soon undone by Perera, who spun the ball away from the left-hander and into the pads plumb in front of off stump. Scoring only 19, this was hardly an unqualified success for the England’s team latest ‘innovation’.

This brought captain Joe Root to the middle, although again not for long. Just a few months ago, people were complaining that he scored too many fifties and not enough hundreds. Root has passed fifty just twice in twelve innings since the start of the India series this summer, and today’s wicket was perhaps an indication of why. England’s captain played a forward defensive to off-spinner Pushpakumara, but was bowled through a gap between bat and pad. The whole point of the forward defensive shot is to eliminate the risk on the inside edge, so something has clearly gone wrong with his technique there…

Whilst all of this was happening at the other end, Rory Burns was slowly accumulating runs. This came to an end just before Lunch when Akila Dananjaya, the Sri Lankan off-spinner who was reported for a suspect action in the previous Test match, spun one away from England’s opener who edged the ball to slip. Buttler and Moeen hung on until Lunch, but England were left in the familiar position of being four wickets down at the break.

Moeen’s form, which had already seen him drop three places in the batting lineup, showed little sign of improving as he was dismissed shortly after Lunch. He was squared up by Pushpakumara as he tried to glance the ball into the leg side and was hit right in front of his leg stump.

Foakes and Buttler were scoring quickly until both fell in quick succession. First to go was Foakes, who was dismissed caught behind despite replays showing he never touched the ball. He went for a sweep and the ball hit both of his pads before being caught by slip, but crucially never hit the bat. England had two replays available, so clearly he must have thought he had hit it. Buttler’s dismissal was equally embarrassing, with England’s number five (it’s so hard to keep track of players’ batting positions now) skewing a mis-hit reverse sweep to backward point. I’m not a traditionalist, I’m perfectly fine with Test players playing reverse sweeps, scoops, etc… but the thing I didn’t like about it was he wasn’t playing that particular shot well today. He generally seemed to get nothing or perhaps a single every time he tried a reverse sweep, so I wish he had left it in his locker to use another day.

So England were in the familiar position of having too few runs for too many wickets, 171-7 to be exact, and needing the tailenders to bail them out again. With Buttler and Foakes already gone, there wasn’t much batting talent left. There was Sam Curran though, who played an absolute blinder. His three partnerships with Rashid, Leach and Anderson added another 114 runs to England’s total, with the Surrey allrounder scoring 67 of them himself. The stand-out partnership was the last one with Anderson which added another 60 runs, with Curran facing 82% of the deliveries and clearly doing a great job of farming the strike and extending the innings. Eventually he lost his wicket with a slog to long off, but it was a job well done.

285 is not, in most environments, a particularly good first innings score in Test cricket. The adage that you should wait until both teams bat before judging a total seems particularly apt on this ground. England’s early dismissal meant that the Sri Lankans had 12 overs left to face in the day, and after the initial spell of swing from Anderson and Curran passed came the spinners. Moeen and in particular Leach caused the Sri Lankan batsmen all sorts of problems with exaggerated spin and bounce off the pitch. It was the Somerset left-handed bowler who made the only breakthrough of the session, bowling Kaushal Silva past the batsman’s outside edge with a beautiful legspinner.

England will feel fairly happy after today’s play. Their tail once again pushed the total up to a point which puts some semblance of pressure on the Sri Lankans, and their unusually competent spin attack is obviously capable of getting them a lead at the halfway point in these conditions. Having won the toss and chosen to bat first on a pitch which seems likely to deteriorate fairly rapidly, they’re probably favourites to win this game now.

As always, feel free to comment on the day, or anything else, below.

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test Day 4 – Drops

There was another downpour overnight, to the point where many people thought that overs would be lost, and yet again play started on time and was uninterrupted throughout. It seems genuinely remarkable that we’ve had four full days of play, given the weather in the area.

The day began with Sri Lanka’s openers still at the crease from the night before. They both made it through the initial spell of seam bowling from Anderson and Curran with no incidents before Moeen and Leach began. Moeen created the first clear chance of the innings, drawing an edge from Karunaratne to first slip, which the usually safe hands of Ben Stokes spilled.

Immediately after the first drinks break, Leach pinned Kaushal Silva in front of the stumps to take the first wicket. Moeen took a wicket soon after when Karunaratne attempted to loft the ball over the mid-off but instead hit it straight back to the bowler

The two spinners challenged both Sri Lankan batsmen, but it wasn’t until Stokes was brought in to bowl just before Lunch that England finally took another wicket. De Silva prodded at a ball just outside the off stump and edged it to Joe Root at slip.

Stokes continued bowling after Lunch with a great session of short-pitch bowling considering the slow pitch. With several edges, gloves and mis-hits falling safe, the best chance from the spell came when Mathews pulled the ball straight at Jimmy Anderson who was fielding at midwicket. In the first instance of catching karma, Stokes’ earlier drop was punished by the normally safe hands of Anderson instead not hanging on to the ball.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan batsmen continued to bat in a bizarrely aggressive fashion considering the benign conditions and their position in the game. In just the next over, Kusal Mendis sliced a lofted drive from Leach’s bowling to Moeen Ali at mid-off. In the over after that, Jimmy Anderson suffered his own catching karma as the typically flawless Foakes dropped an inside edge from an inswinger which fooled Chandimal. Inside edges are often the trickiest ones to catch for wicketkeepers, but Foakes did get his hand to it so it has to be regarded as a missed chance. The Sri Lankans didn’t show any inclination to punish England for these mistakes in the field though, and Leach bowled Chandimal a few overs later with a beautiful delivery which pitched on middle and hit the right-hander’s off stump.

This left Angelo Mathews and wicketkeeper Dickwella as the two remaining batsmen for Sri Lanka before the tail, and Moeen Ali dispatched both in his first two overs after the Tea break. First to go was Dickwella, who edged one to slip  where Stokes made no mistake this time. Mathews followed soon after being surprised when the ball spun and bounced, scooping the ball gently to Jos Buttler at mid-on.

With just tailenders remaining, the rest of the Sri Lanka innings felt like a slow crawl towards an inevitable defeat. Rashid was brought on to clean up the tail, which is usually a speciality of his, but was much looser and more frequently off-target than he was in the first innings. Moeen Ali continued at the other end and eventually drew another edge to Stokes at slip, this time from Dananjaya. Rashid took almost a mirror-image wicket soon after with Perera edging a loose drive to slip. Herath’s was the last wicket to fall, with an undignified run-out for the retiring Sri Lankan hero.

Whilst it is England’s first Test win at Galle, this might not be quite the achievement it first appears. For a start, they have only played there five times and lost just twice . Second, and perhaps this indicates Sri Lanka’s recent weakness, the last eight Tests at the ground have been won by the team which also won the toss.

More importantly for English fans, it’s the Test team’s first away win since October 2016 and only their fifth since the beginning of 2013. England are a long way from being even a competent side away from home, their top order being their most obvious flaw, but the bowling unit appears strong in these conditions and the lower order batting continues to rescue the team on a semi-regular basis. With just two games left to play, there’s reason to be hopeful that the tourists can win their first away Test series since South Africa in 2015/16.

England’s biggest problem going into the next week’s Test is perhaps that too many of today’s team performed well. Bairstow should be eligible for selection again after his football injury, but it’s difficult to see Bayliss and Root dropping Foakes after the debutant wicketkeeper was named Player Of The Match. There are also suggestions that the pitch at Kandy will be more conducive to pace bowling, but should they drop one of the spinners when they did so well as a unit in this game? It’s a dilemma for the management team, with no clear answers.

If you have anything to say about the game, the squad, or anything else that comes to mind, please comment below.

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test Day 3 – Consistency

Today’s play was so similar to England’s efforts on the first day that I was sorely tempted just to copy and paste my report from Tuesday with a few minor changes. The same players prospered, with the exception of Ben Stokes, and the same players struggled.

The day began with openers Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings at the crease on 38-0 . Like in their first innings, Jennings was by far the more comfortable of the two. Having survived a close LBW shout, Burns threw away his wicket again attempting a suicidal single to mid-off. Moeen’s top order struggles continued a few overs later with a chip straight to mid-on. Herath got Root out again, although this time with a good ball which moved away from the bat and caught the edge, and England were in the same position as Tuesday of being 74-3.

This brought the partnership of Jennings and Ben Stokes. Where Stokes had thrown his wicket away with an attempted sweep outside the line in the first innings, he was somewhat more circumspect this time around and was happy to run singles at the start. Jennings was lucky to survive an LBW shout just before Lunch where the ball hit the pad and bat (in that order), but the Sri Lankans decided not to ask for a review which would have dismissed the batsman.

Jennings and Stokes continued batting through the afternoon session with the allrounder accelerating throughout until he played inside the line to a Perera spinner which hit the top of off stump. Buttler came in and kept things moving briskly with a quick 35 runs before offering a sharp catch to Kaushal Silva at silly point. He was followed by Ben Foakes, who went even quicker with 37 runs from 35 balls before holing out at deep square leg. This dismissal drops Foakes’ average from a Bradmanesque 107.00 to a still-respectable 72.00, but it was a selfless innings from the debutant in the circumstances. Sam Curran came out for one more ball, but Joe Root declared at the end of the over with a lead of 461 runs.

And through the whole day, Keaton Jennings accumulated runs. Aside from the LBW scare, it was another accomplished innings from the opener. I must confess that I was hoping he would be dropped for this series after being very unimpressed with his batting during this past summer. It has been noted that he did well in India, so perhaps he is just well suited to Asian pitch conditions? It’s difficult to otherwise explain how he averages 17.72 in England but 71.80 in India and Sri Lanka. Conversely, his partner Rory Burns (according to CricViz) struggles against off-spin in county cricket. With grounds in the West Indies sometimes helping spinners, by the time England prepare for the Ashes it’s possible that Jennings will be undroppable and Burns unpickable. This could be a big problem if English conditions and a pace attack play into Burns’ strengths and Jennings’ weaknesses.

England’s declaration left Sri Lanka with 7 overs to survive, and their openers duly obliged. Curran, Anderson, Moeen, Rashid and Leach all had an over or two each to try for a breakthrough, with the only excitement being a close stumping chance from Ben Foakes and a bat-pad from Leach’s bowling which didn’t go to hand. There were a few aborted runs between the two batsmen though, which they will presumably have to discuss sometime tonight. Sri Lanka need another 447 runs to win, or to survive 6 sessions (barring rain). Dare I say it, I think England might win this one…

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

 

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test Day 2 – Spin Triplets

I wonder what the odds were before the game began of England being in such a dominant position at the halfway stage of the game. Probably about the same as the first two days being completely uninterrupted by rain.

The day began with yesterday’s hero Ben Foakes on 87 runs with just two tailenders left as partners. He scored another 8 runs before Jack Leach got out edging to slip, leaving him on 95 and just Jimmy Anderson as company. Clearly thinking his time at the crease was running out, Foakes hit three fours in the next over to reach his century on debut before skying a delivery from Lakmal. England finished on 342, a very competitive total in the circumstances.

The Sri Lankan innings played out very similarly to England’s innings yesterday. Firstly, their top order collapsed in the morning session. Anderson made the initial breakthrough on his second delivery, with opener Karunaratne getting a very fine edge to Foakes. Sri Lanka’s other opener, Kaushal Silva, only lasted a few more overs before being trapped LBW by Sam Curran.

After the first few overs the swing available died down, bringing England’s three spinners to the fore. First to get his chance was Jack Leach, who drew Kusal Mendis onto the front foot where the ball clipped the edge and Stokes caught it low at slip. Moeen came on soon after, and bowled de Silva round his legs in a dismissal eerily similar to Stokes’ from the first innings.

The experienced partnership of Angelo Matthews and Dinesh Chandimal took Sri Lanka safely to Lunch, and were making steady progress through the afternoon session. When you need someone to break a solid partnership, who would you turn to? Adil Rashid, of course, and he duly delivered by luring Chandimal down the pitch before it spun sharply to Foakes who completed the stumping.

Sri Lanka were 115-5 at this point, exactly the same position England found themselves in the day before. The major difference between the two teams is that the hosts do not have players capable of scoring fifties and hundreds in their lower order. There was a scare just before Tea as Dickwella hit the ball flush into the neck area of Rory Burns at short leg as the fielder ducked to try to avoid it, but after receiving medical attention on the field it appears to have just left a bruise.

Ali struck in the first ball after Tea, with Matthews edging a bat-pad to Jennings at short leg. He also dismissed Dickwella and Dananjaya before Leach and Rashid took the final two wickets of the innings. Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings came out to bat and made it safely to the close of play, although Burns still looked nervous and the more vulnerable of the two openers.

Today’s performance by England is perhaps the best one I’ve ever seen from them in Asian conditions. The spin unit appeared to have no weak links and the fielding was superb, with Ben Foakes doing well in his debut behind the stumps. Sri Lanka are not the strongest opponents, having not recovered from the loss of several great players in recent years, but then again the same could be said for England.

Moeen Ali’s figures of 4/66 take him to 149 career Test wickets, becoming the 7th highest wicket-taking spinner for England and overtaking two-time Rebel tourist John Emburey. Not only that, but his bowling average of 38.44 is better than both ‘King Of Spain’ Ashley Giles (40.60) and Pat Pocock (44.41), and is only slightly worse than Emburey (38.40), Phil Tufnell (37.68), Robert Croft (37.24). All five of these players were repeatedly picked as specialist spin bowlers, so it might be time for us to consider Moeen in those terms. He’s by no means a great spinner, as his bowling average of 49.67 away from home attests, but I think it would be fair to say that he would have walked into almost any England team as either an allrounder or specialist spinner in the last forty years or so. He’s just unlucky to have been the one to follow Graeme Swann.

As always, please comment on the game (or anything else) below.

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test, Day 1 – Man Plans, God Laughs

Trying to predict the weather in Sri Lanka is a fool’s errand, and it seems to have caught most English observers out yet again. With a torrential downpour yesterday and rain expected through most of today, it was certainly a surprise to me when I woke up at 6am and discovered I’d missed most of the first session. Less of a surprise was the fact that England had already lost 3 wickets.

The game began on time, England picking their expected XI with Leach, Burns and Foakes replacing Broad, Cook and Bairstow. Joe Root also won the toss again for the 6th game in a row, and decided to bat first. With early indications that the pitch will be conducive to spin, I think it was the better option for England to deny Sri Lanka’s bowlers the 4th innings.

England’s batsmen were woefully under-prepared for this game, and unfortunately it showed. The touring team had only scheduled a couple of two-day warmup games, and due to the poor weather only batted 140 overs in total. Despite England’s notorious weakness against spin, it was Sri Lankan seamer Suranga Lakmal who made the initial breakthroughs in the third over. Debutant Burns was the first to fall with a fine leg-side edge to the keeper, and he was followed immediately by Moeen Ali who was bowled by a full, straight ball from around the wicket.

What followed was a bizarrely aggressive first session from England’s batsmen. I had seen it suggested on Twitter (font of all knowledge) before the game that the English batsmen should pretend they were playing limited overs cricket, a format they excel at even against spin, rather than attempting to defend and getting out cheaply. Trevor Bayliss has certainly stated several times that he prefers ‘aggressive’ batsmen in Tests. England scored 113 in the morning session at 3.9 runs per over, which is a good start but for one minor detail. They had also lost five wickets.

The three dismissals were all examples of over-aggression from England. First there was Root, who yorked himself by running down the track to an innocuous ball from Herath. Next was Jennings, who was bowled after missing an attempted cut to a ball heading straight at middle stump. Last, but by no means least, Stokes got himself out by going outside off stump whilst attempting to sweep the ball to fine leg and instead being bowled behind his legs. All of these shot selections would be fine in a T20, but seem utterly nonsensical in a Test match. You have to wonder what Trevor Bayliss and England’s batting coach (Is it still Mark Ramprakash? I can’t believe he hasn’t been fired yet) think about this display.

The afternoon session followed the typical script of England’s lower order rescuing their specialist batsmen. This time it was wicketkeepers Buttler and Foakes showing the top order how to bat, adding an extra 51 runs at a relatively sedate pace of 3.4 runs per over. Unfortunately for England, Buttler edged a ball from Perera to the keeper just before the drinks break, bringing in England’s inexperienced ‘tail’.

I use the quotation marks because England’s tail seems like their best batsmen. In fact, from the start of the summer England’s top five average 2.17 less than the bottom six. There’s a genuine argument to be made for reversing the batting order. Sam Curran outperformed the specialist batsmen yet again, scoring 48 runs including three sixes before edging one from Dananjaya to slip. Adil Rashid then added a quick-fire 35, including another two sixes, before also edging to slip. Jack Leach made it through to the end of play with a somewhat lucky 14 runs, surviving two edges through the slip cordon.

And throughout all of this was Ben Foakes, the second Surrey debutant and England’s new wicketkeeper. He came to the crease in the first session when the score was 105-5 and guided England to 321-8 at the close of play. It would be difficult to overstate how important his innings was in terms of the tourist’s chances of winning this game. He was calm and composed, and most importantly didn’t get himself out.

At the same time, his batting abilities shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Although regarded as a specialist wicketkeeper, Foakes has a first-class batting average of 40.64. That’s more than Jennings (33.95), Malan (36.98), Stoneman (35.03), Vince (38.44), Westley (36.31), Hameed (30.91) and Duckett (38.69). In fact, the only two batting debutants in recent years to have higher first-class averages than Foakes are fellow Surrey players Ollie Pope and Rory Burns. Now this might suggest that the Oval has been pretty batting-friendly in recent years, which is fair, but you have to question why it’s taken so long to get him in the team. Jonny Bairstow wants to be England’s Test wicketkeeper, and I can’t say I know how Foakes’ outfielding stands up, but there has to be a way for them (and Buttler if need be) to fit in the team? Surely as an alternative to picking Vince ever again…

So the day finishes with England in a position which is not bad. Sri Lanka in some ways let them off the hook with defensive fields and poor fielding, but you have to give credit once more for England’s bowlers and Ben Foakes for bailing out the team. It’s now set up for England’s bowlers to put some pressure on Sri Lanka with the ball tomorrow.

If they’re not too tired from carrying England’s batting unit all the time, of course.

England vs India: 5th Test, Day 5 – Fin

In a remarkable Test match where Cook and Root both played innings which were reminiscent of days past when England had a functional batting unit (if you can remember back that far), it seemed that India had decided to do their own tribute to a previous era of cricket. At the start of today’s play the tourists were 58/3 and, with Kohli already dismissed, almost everyone expected a fairly quick end to the day. What almost no one expected was for India to take the game down to the wire and almost grind out a draw.

The day began with the press talking about Jimmy Anderson standing on the precipice of greatness, having taken the same number of career wickets as Australian great Glenn McGrath. The notion of an Indian rearguard effort seemingly occurred to no one. It was up to Rahul and Rahane to teach them otherwise.

In fairness to England’s bowlers, the conditions were not anywhere near as bowling-friendly as previous games in this series had been. Stuart Broad was also bowling with a cracked rib, although that shouldn’t have been an issue considering England had five other bowlers in their eleven. Nevertheless, it was impressive and surprising when Indian managed to make it through the first hour of play unscathed. Teams nowadays rarely seem to show any application or resolve when faced with a whole day to bat, and this was a welcome change.

In the end, it was a mishit sweep by Rahane from Moeen’s bowling which created the breakthrough England desperately craved. Debutant batsman Vihari fell soon after a faint edge from a Ben Stokes bouncer (not the one from his trial), and India were shaken going into Lunch five wickets down and facing yet another defeat.

Rishabh Pant has been getting some stick this series, in large part deserved, for his performance as a wicketkeeper. There have been so many byes that it is almost unbelievable. This was somewhat expected, but what he is supposed to be very good at is batting. Having a first-class average over 50, India would have been disappointed with his average of 9.6 going into this final innings. Perhaps batting for his position, Pant stood up and played a tremendous and entertaining 204-run partnership with Rahul.

With the Indians making it past Tea and in sight of rescuing a draw, it will be little surprise to most readers here that it was Adil Rashid who broke the partnership. In fact, he took both centurion’s wickets in successive overs. His delivery to take the wicket of Rahul was possibly The Ball Of The Century, or would have been had he not already earned that accolade two months ago against Kohli. It will also not surprise readers to note that, despite Rashid’s penchant for breaking partnerships, Joe Root bowled him very little indeed. In fact, Root bowled himself for six overs compare to Rashid’s seven by Tea.

With both established batsmen gone (and Rashid taken out of the attack after a mere three wicketless overs), it was finally the endgame. India only had an hour more to survive, but England had taken the new ball and the tailenders were no match for Sam Curran’s swing and seam.

But, as the scriptwriter who has been writing this Test’s storyline no doubt planned, the final wicket went to Jimmy Anderson. Whilst bowling a number 10 is usually fairly anticlimactic, this one took Anderson beyond Glenn McGrath as the highest Test non-spinning wicket-taker. It’s been a long time coming and, although he has a higher average and strike rate than McGrath, there is absolutely no doubt that he is a genuinely great bowler.

Of course, the Player Of The Match (not Man Of The Match, as some pundits would claim) was Alastair Cook. He wasn’t particularly involved today, taking no catches and not having the opportunity to add to his one wicket tally as a bowler, but it’s a deserved honour. 218 runs typically gets you the award in any Test, and allowed it him to have one more goodbye from the podium.

As they celebrated Cook and England’s past, there was also a look to the future in England’s Player Of The Series, Sam Curran. In just his fifth Test, he already seems vital to England’s chances at home. It is saying something that, of England’s four allrounders, it is the ‘world-class’ Stokes who had the worst figures. Woakes, Moeen and the young Curran all had better batting and bowling averages than the New Zealand-born allrounder in this series. With a unit like that, and the continued problems England’s new batsmen have had, it is far from inconceivable that selecting six or more bowlers might become the norm at home.

And so ends another English summer. Going into it, I would never have predicted the vital part Jos Buttler and Adil Rashid would play. Nor, quite frankly, would I have predicted England beating the number one-rated team 4-1. It is an achievement tempered somewhat by the fact that the only new specialist batsman to excel did so batting at seven. Between now and next year’s Ashes, England need to find at least one opener (and please God, let’s get rid of Jennings too) and a number three. At a minimum.

So thanks from everyone here for reading our posts this season, even those of you who only do it to mock the vitriolic ‘Cook-hating blog’. I’m kidding of course, virtually all of the people criticising the writers and commenters here have read little or nothing from the site and so have (ironically) jumped to their conclusions with no evidence to base them on.

If you have any thoughts on the game, Cook, England’s future, or anything else, please comment below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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