England vs New Zealand, 2nd Test – It’s The Batting, Stupid

Today marks the first time that England have lost a Test series at home since a Sri Lankan team starring Kumar Sangakkara and Angelo Matthews beat them in 2014. An historic event, the end of an impressive streak, but one that has been a long time coming.

The England Test team has been scraping series wins for a while now due to just two things: An excellent bowling attack at home, and an abundance of allrounders strengthening their batting. No reasonable person would look at the last seven summers and come to the conclusion that this was a halcyon period for a dominant England side. Here is a table of Test winning percentages at home (including neutral venues for Pakistan and Afghanistan) since the 2017 season:

TeamWinsLossesDrawsWin %
New Zealand1300100%
India121280%
South Africa147067%
Australia132365%
England168457%
Pakistan64250%
Afghanistan22050%
Bangladesh56142%
West Indies67338%
Sri Lanka59133%
Ireland0100%
Zimbabwe0420%

England are, and have been for a while, a mid-tier Test team. To think anything else is just self-delusion. As England is probably the only cricketing nation in which Test cricket is the most popular format, this should be a matter of huge concern for the ECB. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

England simply can’t bat. Not just against spin or in foreign conditions, although those might be particular areas of weakness, but a general and widespread lack of ability and application throughout the team. To put this into context: When England beat India in 2012/13, six of England’s team had Test batting averages which were over 40: Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Prior and Root (who made his debut in that series). In the last series against India a few months ago, Joe Root was the only one in the whole squad.

It would be easy (and fun) to blame the selectors, but the simple truth is that there aren’t really any county batters making an overwhelming case that they should be in the side. People talk about players like Tom Abell, Joe Clarke, Phil Salt, or Alex Lees, but none of them have a first-class batting average over forty. Every single England-qualified batsman who does has already been tried (with perhaps James Hildreth being the only exception). I don’t follow county cricket closely enough to determine the reasons for this paucity of batting ability. I’ve seen the schedule cited as a possible cause, with fewer games being played in the middle of the season. I would suspect that recruitment plays a part too, with counties perhaps being more inclined to pick white ball specialist batters than they might have been 10-15 years ago. Regardless of the issues, any changes to address this situation might take a decade to feed through to the England team.

England have decided to try and sidestep this by selecting young batters with high potential. Test cricket isn’t an easy place to learn your trade, and it is obviously preferable to begin more or less as the finished article, but players consistently don’t seem to improve once they are in the England dressing room. Sibley and Crawley both made their debut two years ago, and Pope has been in the side for three years. Are any of them noticeably better than they were on debut and, if not, what does that say about England’s coaching?

All of which leads me to the rather depressing conclusion that Joe Root might be the last England Test batter to average over forty for a generation. Maybe more.

If you have any comments about the post, the series, or anything else, please feel free to leave them below.

See Saw – 2nd Test Day One

All in all, both teams will be fairly content and also slightly annoyed with how that day’s play has ended up. England made a good start, suffered a collapse and recovered sufficiently well for their total to be, if not decent, then enough to be in the game. New Zealand ripped through England’s batting, but will be frustrated that Dan Lawrence, with the support of Ollie Stone and Mark Wood, got England back into it in the final session.

England’s batting has been a concern for a while, and nothing that happened today made any minds change about that. Rory Burns and Dom Sibley looked good – the former going on to 81, the latter frustratingly getting out when set. Once the first wicket fell, just after lunch, England suffered a familiar collapse. Both sides are missing players, and the loss of Watling and Williamson in this Test means that when New Zealand reply they are weaker than is normally the case, but for England it’s an ongoing issue.

Burns and Sibley attract plenty of criticism, and neither record is a stellar one, but they do look two of the more solid players in the England order, albeit far from being the kind of class seen in years past. The immediate problem is when they fall, and if Root doesn’t score heavily. It’s unsurprising that England lose wickets in clusters. Nor is it an obvious case of transferring players in and out of the side – there’s no queue of Test class players champing at the bit for selection. Stokes is missing, and he’s a loss, but Buttler is hardly a reliable performer, even with recent good scores, so it can’t be said that it is just the missing players that has caused that. Zak Crawley looks hideously out of form, but while one Test innings of note is no reason to give him a sinecure, it does at least suggest a sufficient aptitude to be worth persevering with. As for James Bracey, it’s hard to have any feeling other than sympathy at present – two consecutive ducks at the start of his career say little about how good he is, but a lot about how cruel cricket can be.

Dan Lawrence is an interesting player. Very bottom handed, he does move across the crease and appears an lbw candidate, but as he kept pinging Boult and Wagner through midwicket and not missing, it’s not a problem. There is a very long list of players who have batted that way and been successful, not least most recently Steve Smith. Looking ungainly matters little as long as he scores runs, and while it’s way too early to have any knowledge how things will go for him, he played really rather nicely here.

For the visitors, Boult and Wagner are known properties – high class quick bowlers who are a major reason New Zealand are in the World Test Championship final, but with Tim Southee missing this one, it was Matt Henry who came in and was the catalyst for England falling apart in the afternoon. It’s curious how often visiting bowlers look like they’re made for English conditions, and often much more successful than the “traditional English seamer” sometimes selected. But he might as well have been born in Christchurch, Dorset rather than Christchurch, Canterbury for how at home he looked.

Praise be, we got 90 overs in today. It went into the additional half hour, but that’s what it’s there for. Far too many excuses are made for teams not to manage it (umpire reviews, wickets), but today it was done. That it is worthy of note says it all.

And lastly, the crowd. 17,000 of them. How good was that? They clearly were enjoying themselves, and that snippet of normal life, an echo and a harbinger, was perhaps the greatest part of the day.

New Zealand’s Warm Up Series: Day One

Just thought I’d flick that around, given they’ve got a big date before too long and too many are viewing this as England’s preparatory series for India.

Test cricket is back, and with crowds. Not a full crowd, but a reasonably sized one, and enough to generate a background noise that is so much better than an artificial backing track. So let’s get something out of the way first, the over rate. It was poor. Again. By the time play came to a close we were four overs short. It’s not new, it’s never been tackled, and it’s abundantly clear the ICC couldn’t care less. It’s also true that a lot of cricket supporters aren’t that bothered either, so why be so annoyed about it? Because after the last 15 months where players and administrators have fallen over themselves to explain why spectators are so important and so valued, it is disrespectful to shortchange them like this, and doubly so to do it without the slightest sense of anyone in authority caring. There have been days when the shortfall has been worse than today, but it is still saying, on a daily basis, that the fans don’t matter, that what they’ve paid doesn’t matter. It is entirely fair enough for those who go and aren’t put out by it, but it’s not about that, it’s about the mentality of players, captains and administrators who don’t care in the slightest, and on the day Test supporters returned after such a long hiatus, it’s unforgivable. Don’t give us the bullshit about how much you value cricket fans and their presence at matches, when you can’t even be bothered to deliver what they paid (a lot) for. The media complain about it, but they barely ever confront the players about what their actions imply, and they should. Every single time. Enough.

As for the cricket, it’s as clearly New Zealand’s day, and they’re in a fine position to go on to dominate the Test. Devon Conway has been the star of the show, so look forward to all the “Devon’s got the Cream” headlines in the morning – and they’re deserved too. A late entrant to Test cricket, he’s taken his chance, and by demonstrating some decidedly old-fashioned skills – that of the patient opener. There’s something rather special about those who are nowhere near the Test arena until relatively advanced into their careers, who then grab the chance with both hands. As ever, one innings says nothing about the future, but a hundred on debut, at Lord’s, is no bad way to start. More to the point, he looks the part – slightly unsettled by Mark Wood’s pace at times, but able to adapt and cope.

His century is more impressive for the lack of consistent support until the arrival of Henry Nicholls midway through the afternoon session. England’s bowlers had chipped away and the innings could have gone in either direction. Digging in – for neither exactly dominated proceedings – and grinding down the England attack to push their team into, if not a dominant position, certainly a healthy one is how Test cricket used to be far more frequently than in today’s game. And it was a welcome return of such past values and skills.

It is a flat surface – there was some movement in the air, and the new ball carry through well enough to the keeper, but aside from one spell from the luckless Broad when he was all over Ross Taylor, it can’t be said New Zealand looked in a great deal of trouble.

Much comment has gone around about England’s choice not to select a front line spinner, relying on Root to get through a number of overs. And while by the end of this match that may prove to have been an error, it can’t realistically be stated so baldly on the first day – the idea one would have been certain to pick up wickets on such a friendly surface at the start of the game is the epitome of a player showing huge improvement by virtue of not playing. Had one been picked, they would have done more or less the same role as Root himself, to get through a few overs as cheaply as possible while rotating the seamers.

Nor have England bowled at all badly – they’ve probed and kept things tight without resorting to anything as base as bowling dry, it’s just that on the day the batsmen, specifically Conway and Nicholls, have been better. It happens, and New Zealand are a good team – which is why they’re in the World Test Championship Final and England aren’t.

England also picked a pair of debutants, James Bracey and Ollie Robinson. The former kept tidily enough, and nearly nabbed a stumping off Root as well. So far so good in his case. Ollie Robinson will be pleased enough with his day on the field – a couple of wickets and bowling nicely. It will be slightly ruined by the realisation that some old tweets as a teenager have garnered attention and it is an issue that will need dealing with. One observation there is that it is something of a mystery why neither player’s agent (assuming he has one) nor the ECB think it a worthwhile idea to check these things properly in advance to ensure there’s nothing detrimental or embarrassing that can come up when a player is selected.

Tomorrow is another day. England may not have bowled badly, but they can bowl better. The modest run rate means New Zealand haven’t got away so this match hasn’t decisively tilted one way just yet. But New Zealand will be the happier, and they deserve it too.

India vs England – 4th Test, Day 1 – Pitch, Switch

Most of the pre-match chatter had been about the pitch. The previous game in Ahmedabad was the shortest Test match in the professional era, with most people blaming the groundsman (or whoever gave the groundsman their orders). England clearly expected more of the same, picking a bowling attack of three spinners (including Root) and just two pace bowlers (including Stokes). In hindsight, that may have been a mistake. There haven’t been any explosions of dust on day 1, unlike the previous two Tests, and India’s two pace bowlers have actually had success throughout the day. If anything, the conditions seem reminiscent of the first Test in the series.

Which brings us to England’s XI. Crawley, Sibley, Bairstow, Root, Stokes, Pope, Lawrence, Foakes, Bess, Leach and Anderson. The first thing that jumps out is the sheer depth in batting. Ben Foakes, with a Test batting average of 36.00 (The last two matches have knocked it down somewhat), at 8. The second thing is a lack of options with regards to pace bowling. Just Anderson and Stokes. England were clearly planning for a pitch where their spinners would do the majority of the work. That may have been a miscalculation. India’s fast bowlers were asked to bowl 23 overs today, as opposed to just 11 in the whole of the previous game, and there seemed to be good carry even with the old ball. Archer was unavailable due to an elbow injury, but Stone or Wood might have been helpful in these conditions.

Joe Root won the toss and opted to bat first again. It was all downhill from there. On a pretty benign pitch, with a little spin and bounce but still closer to a proverbial road than minefield, a competent batting line up should be expected to bat until well into Day 2. For a team like England’s which has essentially selected eight batsmen, a total of 400 might be considered their minimum target in these conditions. What we got instead was a rather pitiful score of 205 all out. Only a last wicket partnership from Leach and Anderson even got their total above 200.

England winning the first three Tests of the winter may have masked some of their issues, as all three victories were on the back of a big score by Joe Root. Few teams lose games where one of their batsmen scored 150+. In the eleven innings England have played against Sri Lanka and India this season, their batsmen have scored just ten scores of fifty and above, with Root accounting for three of those. There is simply no plan B if England’s captain doesn’t get a big score.

Anderson gave England a little hope in his first over, taking the wicket of Shubman Gill, but Pujara and Rohit saw India through to the close of play with few issues on 24-1.

Aside from the placid pitch, there has also been a big improvement in the position of third umpire. Anil Chaudhary has taken over from Chettithody Shamshuddin, and things are back to normal. An umpire, like a wicketkeeper, is arguably at their best when no one is talking about them and that is the case with the umpires today. No controversies, no steps skipped, and no rushed decisions. For all of England’s issues today, they certainly can’t blame the officials at all.

County cricket fans will have been pleased to see adverts for the T20 Blast during Channel 4’s live coverage of the Test. The cost is likely a pittance compared to what will be spent on promoting The Hundred this summer, but it’s nice to see any effort from the ECB with regards to promoting its other competitions. It often seems like the ECB forgets that they aren’t just responsible for the international teams (and now The Hundred). Any steps which show even a modicum of interest in county or recreational cricket must be seen as a sign of improvement from them.

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

Welcome to the House of Fun: India vs England, 3rd Test, Day 2

A ridiculous day of cricket. A ridiculous Test. One way or the other, the shortest Test match since 1935 isn’t a great advert for the game, even if the watching of it was intense, breathless and extremely exciting. There are two separate things here: firstly that low scoring matches of whatever format tend to be the most thrilling, and for the obvious reason that every single ball matters, but secondly when conditions are so far in favour of the bowlers, it makes batting something of a lottery, and brings things to a close far earlier than should be remotely the case. When the batsmen are in true peril, scavenging every run has a value, while the bowlers take on the aspect of pack hunters, circling their prey. Yet it’s always been the case that when conditions favour one discipline too much over the other, it leads to an unsatisfactory game, and finishing well within two days (and with slow over-rates) is not something to relish.

The question though is how much the pitch is responsible for that. Watching on television caused no end of head scratching as to just why both teams (at least until India’s second innings when the target was so small as to make little difference) struggled so badly. The Chennai surface in the second Test seemed to turn more, and the ball seemed to go through the pitch far more. But the players made it very clear that this was extremely difficult, and their view is the most important. What seems to have happened was that the ball skidding on made it impossible for the batsmen to cope with it – the number of bowleds and lbws indicated that particularly. It isn’t always the explicit turn or bounce that does for them, any more than a two paced pitch visibly makes it clear to the naked eye why drag ons on driven catches are so prevalent – the outcome dictates the reason to the observer. Therefore it can’t be a criticism of all the batsmen, quite clearly the conditions were such that everybody struggled, but it is possible to accept that point and also note that England struggled far more, and should have done much better in the first innings in particular.

England looked utterly out of their depth, a far cry from the first innings of the first Test, and part of a trend of England’s scores getting progressively worse. The lack of pressure in India’s second innings makes a judgment a little hard, for there is a huge difference between the heat and pressure of a live match and when both sides know which way the game is heading and are going through the motions.

While irrespective of result, the pitch, or the pitch in combination with the pink ball, weren’t good enough, it was still the same for both sides, and England should have had the best of the conditions on offer. They chose the wrong team, with three seamers and one spinner, and Joe Root was not only being forced into action, but also picked up five wickets. That is both a credit to him and an indictment of the team England had chosen in the first place. Equally, this match wasn’t remotely lost by the bowlers, but by the batsmen, especially first time around.

England’s slim hopes of making the World Test Championship final are thus extinguished, on the back of having made five successive scores below 200. It’s hard not to conclude that England are getting precisely what they deserve for increasingly abject batting displays. India might be better at home, indeed are better at home, but there’s a difference between being outmatched and being hammered. England are increasingly being hammered, and while they have the chance to square the series, few would bet on them doing so.

India vs England: 2nd Test, Day Three: Oh, I Wept

This match was over long ago, we are merely playing out the details. India ground England into the dirt, setting them a preposterous target, while England lost wickets in their vain pursuit of the impossible. It is distinctly possible this will be done and dusted by lunch tomorrow, so outplayed have the tourists been, so unable to compete with India this match. Today was all about a Ravi Ashwin century, as both he and Virat Kohli pummelled the England attack after a bright start.

England did take early wickets, most notable for some fine wicketkeeping from Ben Foakes, but the match situation removes the pressure entirely – quite simply, it didn’t overly matter if India lost wickets, because they probably had enough runs before even starting their second innings. India had earned the right to play with England like a cat with a mouse, and did just that. So much has been said about the pitch being played on, and in truth it probably has deteriorated too quickly to be satisfactory – the chunks being taken out of it on the first day didn’t bode well for a long game. But that’s a matter of degree rather than anything else. The home team has the right to prepare surfaces that suit them, and everyone does it – yes, including you Australia. That England are incapable of coping as well is neither here nor there. Would England really have made a good total had they batted first? They probably would have been much more in the game, but it’s hard not to conclude that India would still have come out on top. England have said nothing negative about the conditions, it’s all come from outside. It was a slight gamble from India certainly, but far from an outrageous one given they were one down in the series. Fundamentally, they’ve not just played better, they’ve absolutely hammered England. The second innings is important not in the sense of England getting anything out of the game but to try to find a method of combating the Indian spinners, who are just far better than their English counterparts. This is a relative matter – on this pitch England are just not going to get 350 and walk off with their heads held high, they are going to lose by a lot. But an hour at the crease to learn and develop will have benefits later in the series.

1-1 is far from a disaster for England, it’s a better state of affairs than many expected half way through. It’s a challenge undoubtedly, and one that will have indicated to the hosts what kind of surfaces will do the job required, but it doesn’t mean England didn’t play superbly in the first Test, nor does it mean that India are only dominant here because of the pitch. There is a break after this match for England to reassess, but they are well in the series and that’s very much a positive.

Some other items from this game so far include the third umpire having something of a stinker and Virat Kohli berating the on field umpire for failing to give Joe Root out. In the latter case, there’s not a shred of doubt that he was extremely lucky to avoid being given lbw to one that looked extremely out, but the decision was (somehow) backed up by DRS, and arguing about it merely made him look a bit of an idiot, particularly given some of what has gone on this match. He can probably expect a fine to come his way.

Of the England batsmen, Rory Burns has looked most at sea, but he only joined the winter series in India, and his 25 in the second innings was a significant improvement. His form has tailed away considerably to the point that rather than looking like the answer as he did a year ago, his place will be coming under scrutiny. But it’s far from easy for him to arrive and look good, his partner Sibley struggled in Sri Lanka, only to come good in the first Test here. It’s always possible Burns will do the same. But he needs runs sooner rather than later.

There’s little more of substance to say. This one is done, let’s move on to Ahmedabad to a Test under lights and see how that one goes.

India vs England: 1st Test, Day Four

At around this time, there’s a decent chance my fellow writers on here will be waking up, having spent the early hours of the morning watching the Superbowl. Since this passes right over my head, to the point that not only do I not know who won as I write this, I don’t even know who was in the final. If it’s called a final. And that’s before I try and get my head around play-offs that aren’t play-offs. Or something. I could be wrong, and probably am, but if there’s something that both amuses and irritates them, it’s that I don’t care if I am. Still, they think it’s my loss. Anyway, it meant that I was duly elected as the one to say something today, and I can assure everyone that the others were unanimous in this view.

Back to the cricket, which is why we’re all here. England will go into the final day needing 9 wickets from 90 overs, and it’s something they ought to achieve. The pitch is still good for a fourth day surface, but it’s also showing disconcerting bounce from time to time, both low and high, and it only takes that to happen a few times to make all the difference. But if India were 8 wickets down and escaping with a draw, there will undoubtedly be fingers pointed at the approach England took in the final session, not being especially aggressive with the bat, and not declaring either.

It is forever the case that armchair observers, whether former players or the wider public, are much more aggressive in their thinking than captain and coach ever are. Alastair Cook did his best to try to explain what England might be thinking about (to have two goes with a fairly new ball both this evening and tomorrow morning) but it was fairly clear he didn’t entirely agree. Yet his own captaincy was littered with extremely conservative declarations, and few would deny that on balance Joe Root is much less so – not least given he had his fingers burned once with a bold declaration. That’s not a criticism of Cook in this instance, but it is to note that his evident frustration watching on was very different from his approach as captain. He was self-aware enough to acknowledge the contradiction, but also correctly pointed out that it was less about the specific timing as much as the very curious negativity in the batting.

India will overall be comparatively pleased – their position at the start of play was far enough behind that they could have ended up with a lot longer to bat than they will. That was down almost entirely to Washington Sundar, who batted with controlled aggression to narrow the gap somewhat. But 241 remained a huge lead for England, and meant that even losing early wickets didn’t materially affect that position. In such circumstances, it’s often most helpful to be bowled out in reasonable time while scoring quickly, and for much of their 2nd innings it was exactly how it seemed to be unfolding. Root and Pope in particular took chances and went along at not far short of a run a ball. With both their dismissals, that suddenly changed.

There have been some quite exceptional run chases in recent times, and perhaps that is more in the minds of captains than it has been, but 381 more runs to set a world record on a day five pitch seems an absurd prospect. Yes, the likes of Rishabh Pant are aggressive players, but to worry about a world record chase at four an over would be to take caution to the most extreme of levels. If they were to pull off a miracle like that, there’s no point in factoring it in, it would be the freak of all freaks.

Having taken one wicket this evening, the draw is by far the bigger risk and it is that that would represent grounds for criticism. It seems likely the thinking was to preserve the freshness of the bowlers, and it’s a view. The outcome this time tomorrow will dictate the wisdom of it.

India vs England: 1st Test, Day one

If England were to compete in this series, so the received wisdom had it, Joe Root would need to have an especially fine series. The early signs are promising, but not just in terms of confirming that widespread belief, but also because other than Root, England looked rather comfortable. Sure, the pitch looked flat, and with little turn (as it should be on day one), but given England’s status as serious underdogs, they looked far from out of their depth even early on. Rory Burns will be kicking himself for his dismissal, having done all the hard work, and the nature of that dismissal inevitably attracted criticism. It is a truism of the game that being out to an attacking shot is automatically deemed worse than being out to a defensive one (even if the players tend to have an opposite view when it happens to them), and something like a reverse sweep is going to result in considerable ire. Yet it has become a normal part of a batting repertoire in recent years, most recently highlighted by Joe Root in Sri Lanka, as he manipulated the field by judiciously playing the stroke throughout his twin hundreds.

There is often the temptation to judge the shot selection by outcome – if a ball just clears a man on the boundary for six, it’s a great piece of batting, but if caught on the line, the batsman should never have played the shot in the first place. It’s not to defend the execution of the stroke, for Burns himself made his views of what he’d done quite clear as he left the field, but it is to defend choosing to play the shot in the first place. Nevertheless, it was an unfortunate end to an innings of promise and placed England under early pressure, particularly when Lawrence quickly followed.

Thereafter, it was the Sibley and Root show. Root is in the form of his life, and just looks like he’s going to go big from the moment he reaches the crease. While it is far too much to hope that he can quite maintain this level of plundering, perhaps as he turns 30 he may be settling down into being a consistently high class performer after the dips of the last few years. Certainly it can be argued the biggest dent in his batting average (which for better or worse is how many tend to measure it) was his poor conversion rate between 50 and 100. If he overcomes that – and nothing helps quite so much as continually scoring hundreds – then a significant uplift is likely.

While Root will rightly get all the plaudits, a partnership is always in two parts, and Sibley deserves huge credit for his knock. He struggled in Sri Lanka, and rather disarmingly openly wondered if he would be playing in India during his half century in the Second Test. There is often a reluctance from some quarters to allow for the possibility that a player can learn; instead calls for their head are common. But Sibley has been a fine example of a player highly inexperienced in these conditions finding his method wanting, and needing to think about how to adapt. Consecutive half centuries don’t prove he’s nailed it, but do show a degree of application that reflects well on him. The days of people complaining about his scoring rate are hopefully over – he is providing a level of solidity at the top of the order that has been absent since the relative decline of Alastair Cook.

What would have been a day of eventual total dominance was only slightly marred by the loss of Sibley in the final over, but England are in a very good position, and most positively of all, look at this stage like a team capable of matching India. But that “at this stage” is the most important rider – it’s one day, it’s one innings, and a Test series can be an arm wrestle where it starts off even before one team begins to twist and strain the other, but at this stage, that’s still a positive, and perhaps more than many hoped for. If it were to continue, well perhaps England might be a better team than they’re often given credit for, for while they have had success recently, this is perhaps the ultimate challenge in world cricket.

Today was also the return of Test cricket to free to air television in the UK for the first time since 2005. There is nothing in this world that is universally welcomed, and sure enough some were soon complaining about the quality being lower than Sky. It is something of a matter of personal preference in that – having favoured commentators for example, but Channel 4 are taking the feed from the host broadcaster, which is very normal for away series even when Sky have the rights, although on some tours they have additional cameras. The difference is in the commentators themselves, for Channel 4 are using that host commentator feed as well. Of course, in terms of practicality, they have no option, even if they’d wished to have their own there was insufficient time to arrange it. But if this tour had been to New Zealand, for example, would people have been queuing up to praise them for the exceptionally strong voices they would hear from one of the best commentary teams in the world game? It’s unlikely, and there is a temptation to conclude at least some element of internal bias in assuming that it’s only Sky who can provide the highest of standards. Irrespective of having a preference for Sky, which is reasonable enough, the very presence of Test cricket on free to air television or streaming is such an unusual experience that it feels slightly surreal. There will be people unable to afford pay TV, watching live Test cricket (or live Test cricket legally in many cases) for the first time since the early years of this century. It’s astounding and wonderful.

On to tomorrow – it is of course possible that England will fall in a heap and waste their good position, but the point of having such a good first day is to ensure that even if they do, they are in the game. And if they do take advantage, they might be in with a real chance of winning the Test. Day one is always the set up day, and day two the one that tends to dictate the rest of the game. A chance is there to be seized.

Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Victory

That was really quite impressive from England. From what was still a relatively unfavourable position overnight, and the concession of a small, but not irrelevant first innings lead, the tourists dominated day four and finished off the match as evening descended.

There are a few notable takeaways from the match and the series, but perhaps the most striking is that some of those players who had been on the receiving end of the harshest criticism responded well and had a good day. There is ever a call for players not performing to be summarily dropped, and while inevitably over a period it requires them to perform or be replaced, the instant nature of social media precludes the possibility that a player might learn and improve. There is a lack of experience in Asian conditions for obvious reasons, and on top of that players haven’t been able to actually get out on the field much other than in the Tests themselves. Leach and Bess both indicated that they were somewhat rusty, and that they weren’t happy with how they’d bowled in the first Test, but today they were much improved, taking all the Sri Lankan wickets between them and Joe Root, who chimed in with a couple at the end.

This doesn’t mean for a second that they are now the finished article, nor that they’ll perform well in India, but they have shown improvement in what are alien conditions. Both bowled extremely well today.

The same applies to Sibley, who had struggled badly in his first three innings of the series but took England home today with a measured and generally secure unbeaten half century. In his interview after the game he mentioned he had been working on various technical aspects and it will please everyone that in this innings it seems to have paid off. Few of England’s newer batsmen have much if any experience of Asian batting conditions generally, and there are no warm-ups to try and develop, it all has to be done in the nets or in their heads. When sledged by Dickwalla as to whether he would be opening in India, Sibley replied “I don’t know, I haven’t had a very good series” which is charming, disarming, and indicates a person extremely aware of not having done particular well up to that point. Again, it doesn’t mean he is nailed on to perform in India, but it does mean he’s working extremely hard to find a way of making runs. He is learning, they are learning. Zak Crawley’s innings was brief, but it too showed signs of him searching for a method that would work for him.

The captain will be important for this process – he fell cheaply in the run chase today, but his innings yesterday was more than good, it was sublime – one of those where a player appears to be operating on a different plane to everyone else. That provides a standard for others to aspire to, and shows that it’s possible to succeed. England might be considerable underdogs for the India series, but this tour of Sri Lanka has given the players an opportunity to prepare themselves for what they will face. It is not unreasonable to say that England’s chances now are better than they were a fortnight ago, it’s just that those chances remain comparatively slim. Of course, there will be significant changes to the team anyway, with the return of Burns, Arches and Stokes, and in those cases they will be coming in cold, while the loss of Jonny Bairstow is a pity, given that he did reasonably well in Galle.

As for Sri Lanka, they were faced with what is a common challenge in a close Test, that of the 3rd innings, where all the pressure goes onto the batting side who can lose the game in an afternoon, and they did. The batting was both reckless and excessively casual, and once again the curious psychology of a batting collapse took hold, whereby players will be sitting in the changing room wondering quite why their decision-making was so poor.

If an incentive were needed, it’s that England have closed the gap on Australia in the World Test Championship to half a per cent. They remain in 4th, but given the series coming up, they have the chance to change that. It’s a huge ask of them, but in any competition the most you can hope for is the chance to be in control of your own destiny. It’s therefore timely that today the ECB confirmed a two Test series against New Zealand in early summer. It would be ironic if that were to serve as a warm up for a final between the same two sides immediately afterwards.

SL vs England: 2nd Test, day one

A day of hard work for the bowlers, and something of a grind throughout. Shorn of the first Test scenario where the home team had an unadulterated nightmare, we had instead one of setting up the game and providing what should be a more interesting day two. It’s always a truth of Test cricket that the first day of an even encounter leaves everyone unsure of what to make of it, it’s both the beauty of the format and the bane of anyone trying to say anything vaguely interesting about it. But that shouldn’t be a negative, for a Test match unfolds, and the unspectacular setting up lends more to the intrigue. At the end of day one in the first Test, we had a fair idea of the likely outcome. At the end of this day, we don’t have much idea. What a pleasure that is.

What might be said is that in these first two Tests Anderson and Broad have shown that their nous in Sri Lankan conditions has been quite evident, and perhaps is a good sign for the Indian tour. Bowlers with exceptional longevity often seem to develop in unfriendly cricketing environments, and while it’s far too much to ask of bowlers of this nature to run through an opponent, the skill on show can’t be denied by any but the most churlish. There is something special about the wily old fox coming towards the end of a career trying to outwit the batsmen, something that only Test cricket can really provide. As a child, the same experience was had watching the great Richard Hadlee, running in and bowling at a modest pace but it being abundantly clear the batsmen – the English batsmen at least – were struggling to cope with him. The records of Anderson and Broad overseas have been questioned often enough, and there’s no doubt that they are more effective at home, though this in itself isn’t a particularly unusual thing. But places like India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are never going to be their ideal conditions, any more than a spinner finds England their favourite haunt. A few do manage it, and that’s why they are amongst the very greatest of a given era, but it should not be a stick with which to beat a player that they aren’t quite the threat in some countries as they are in their own. With the notable exception of in India, over the last five years Anderson has a pretty strong record away from home, an indication of how he’s developed in the latter part of his career. Today, he was exceptional and led the attack throughout. As for the England spinners, they were much improved from the first Test, albeit without the same level of success. Both had pointed to a lack of match practice as a reason for their inability to maintain the degree of control expected of them last week, and while people may or may not accept that, there is a case that they should be granted the same degree of understanding that a batsman without many games should be.

Angelo Mathews is one of those players who seems to fly below the radar when discussions are had about the leading batsmen, but his record is good enough to be exceeded by only a handful over the last decade. It sometimes seems as though he particularly enjoys scoring runs against England, but the statistics suggest as much as anything a degree of consistency in all conditions. Either way, he was the centrepiece of a vastly improved batting display that leaves Sri Lanka with at least the potential for getting into a strong position. Since it’s so much better than the first Test, that’s all that was required at this stage. Dinesh Chandimal provided ample support, but the lower order are going to need to contribute to turn a reasonable position into a good one.

The media coverage is providing an interesting insight into both the shortcomings and merits of the normal cricketing circus. The commentary works well generally, though watching television pictures removes the wider context of seeing what is going on – Jonathan Agnew’s mildly embarrassing episode of commentating on a replay being one instance, Ian Ward not realising an umpire had given a player out another. But while commentators being at home is palpably obvious at times, in general it is acceptable. It’s not quite as unusual as might be thought, there are broadcasters in other sports who are happy to allow the listener to believe the commentator is in the stands when in reality they are in a broom cupboard watching a television feed. What’s notable in that instance, and perhaps it can only be the case with radio, is that few are aware of the fact.

Where there might be an issue for the media in future is with the written press. Unable to go to Sri Lanka, they too are confined to watching the television, and then writing up what they had seen. For a newspaper, the considerable savings on flights and hotels must offer a temptation to make the current enforced policy an optional one. There will undoubtedly be howls of protest that not being present will deny them access to the players or to question, and that’s true enough. But there are local options and pool feeds of which to make use. The damn virus is going to make a lot of changes for the future, and there must be a possibility that this will be one.