West Indies vs England – Third Test Preview

It’s difficult to know what to write here, since so little has changed in the past week. The series is still 0-0. Wood and Robinson are still out injured. Matt Parkinson is still warming the bench. The only real cause for optimism comes from the photos of the pitch, which at least look like a little grass has been allowed to remain.

With the fragility of both teams’ batting lineups, that should be plenty to force a result. Whilst some people are talking in hopeful tones about a new era for English cricket, with Dan Lawrence and Jonny Bairstow helping Joe Root lead the team to somewhere near basic competence. They have done well, as did Mahmood in his Test debut, but these performances have to be placed in the right context: The pitches were incredibly flat, and the West Indies are not a good Test team.

As it stands, the West Indies are eighth in the World Test Championship table (England are last in ninth), having won just one Test against Pakistan in the current cycle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a team with England’s financial resources, England’s first-class depth, England’s unique focus on red ball cricket should be able to bat out a draw on benign surfaces. It should be a minimum expectation.

Aside from the players, the individual who has most obviously benefitted from England not losing two Tests in a row is Paul Collingwood. The interim head coach has apparently put his name forward for the permanent role, and not losing a Test series (as Silverwood failed to achieve four times in the past year) is clearly enough to at least be considered by the ECB. One notable aspect of this is that he has never worked as a coach in county cricket. He had several spells as a coach for Scotland, and has been with the England team for the past three years. This means that he has no experience as a head coach, and almost no track record for his potential employers to examine.

This is a very common trait amongst people who the ECB are considering for their vacant senior positions. It was reported today that Rob Key is in the running for the Director of Cricket position. I don’t have anything against him as a person, but he appears to have gone straight from his playing career to the Sky commentary booth. Whilst he might talk a good game (that is his job, after all), there’s absolutely nothing to prove that he can back it up. He has that in common with Andrew Strauss and Ed Smith, who both transitioned directly from punditry to senior ECB positions.

There are six candidates listed for the Director Of Cricket job in this article: Rob Key, Ed Smith, Tom Moody, Marcus North, Nathan Leamon and Mo Bobat. As far as I can tell, the only ones with any experience of coaching or managing a domestic cricket team are the two Australians, Moody and North. Smith, Leamon and Bobat have all only ever worked worked for the ECB as head selector, analyst and performance director respectively.

It is possible to look at this and say that the ECB are disrespecting county cricket by not recruiting people from that talent pool, but I have to question if there are any candidates who obviously deserve a shot with England. After all, Chris Silverwood was appointed by England after his team won the Championship but failed to make any impression in internationals. Peter Moores and Ashley Giles were also both county coaches before their spells with England. There is a long running and active discussion about how county cricket is failing to develop talented Test batters, but very little time is spent looking at the quality of the coaches and other staff. The two issues may well be linked. After all, poor coaching and management aren’t exactly helpful in helping the next generation of cricketers reach their full potential.

I honestly don’t know enough about county cricket to know if this is an entirely accurate picture, or what could be done about it. It doesn’t give me much optimism for any change in England’s fortunes over the next few years though.

If you have any comments about the Test, the ECB’s recruitment, or anything else, please leave them below.

West Indies vs England โ€“ Second Test Preview

There is a lot to be said for having low expectations, particularly as an English cricket fan. With a sufficiently poor outlook on the Test team, even the remotest evidence of adequacy comes as a pleasant surprise. You’d be forgiven for thinking, having read the press reports about the first Test, that a new dawn was on the horizon for England and the previous twelve months was just a transitional period. Zak Crawley is the successor to Cook, Leach is the successor to Swann, and Bairstow has finally refound his form.

Except obviously none of this is true. West Indies are a bad Test team, and the pitch was as dead as England’s chances of reaching a World Test Championship final in my lifetime. But such are the depths of the England team’s failings that not collapsing on an extremely batting-friendly pitch against a mediocre Test bowling attack is cause for celebration.

England have already announced the team for today’s game, with Saqib Mahmood coming in for the injured Mark Wood as the only change. It is a little surprising that there hasn’t been more rotation of the bowlers, with three Tests back-to-back, particularly with regards to Ben Stokes. Before the series began, the consensus seemed to be that Ben Stokes would only be used as a last resort bowling option and yet he ended up with 41 overs in the first test.

Alex Lees has the most to prove after a disappointing debut. Opening in Test cricket is always difficult, but he looked terrible in his two very short innings so far. Chris Woakes could also be bowling for his Test career, albeit having scored a useful 46 runs with the bat.

On the plus side for England, the photos of the pitch suggest that it will be very flat again. A cynical person might suggest that the grounds and boards benefit financially from the Barmy Army coming to the ground for five days, and they probably don’t care as much about whether there is an exciting match or result. It’s not a great business model for a sport, but it is what it is. Both sides certainly have the capacity to collapse twice on any pitch, so there’s still no guarantees of a bore draw.

As always, please post your comments below if you have anything to say about the Test or anything else.

Less Is Not Always More

As happens after every England Test series loss, an increasingly common occurrence these days, people have started proposing cutting the number of counties in English cricket to improve the development of Test cricketers.

Proponents of having fewer first-class teams are happy to concede that the County Championship used to be a much stronger competition, which would appear to contradict their argument from the outset as the number of teams hasn’t changed. Likewise, having eighteen teams hasn’t hurt the production of talented English white ball cricketers. In fact, it could be argued that England boasts the greatest depth in terms of T20 players of any country. This would suggest that the number of teams is not a key issue, although this does obviously not prevent people from suggesting it.

The first thing which must be acknowledged is that cutting the number of first-class teams would certainly improve the average quality of domestic red ball cricket in this country. In the short term. This is because it is a statistical trick. Imagine a school expelled the bottom half of its students. Even though the quality of teaching and the intelligence of the remaining children both remain the same, they could argue that their ‘average grade’ had risen sharply. The intrinsic flaw in this approach is that when a new batch of kids comes in, they are back where they started because they haven’t actually changed anything. Indeed, if the school had reduced their permanent capacity by half then there would presumably be half as many students with top grades once the original ones had left.

There are two obvious areas which could improve the number of high-quality county cricketers: Recruiting more junior players with high potential and improving the development of those players in order to meet that potential. At first glance, reducing the number of teams helps neither.

The greatest flaw with trying to adapt the Sheffield Shield format to England is the population density of the two countries. 16 million people, over 60% of Australia’s total population, live in the six cities which have first-class teams there. The number of people who live in the seventeen cities and towns which host county grounds is just 15.7 million, or 26.9% of England and Wales’s population.

In terms of developing Test players, the major effect is the number of children within each team’s catchment area. Looking at the three world-class Test players England currently has: Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson both grew up roughly 30 miles away from their respective county grounds, whilst Ben Stokes had to travel 90 miles each way to the Riverside Ground. This is one factor which restricts working-class kids from playing professional cricket, because they often need a stay-at-home parent with a car and the willingness to spend several hours a week just to attend county age group practice sessions and games.

If the number of teams was halved, that would mean many would have farther to travel and even more potential Test players would be excluded from the professional game. In that it disproportionately affects working-class children, reducing the number of teams might also be considered a diversity issue. Given the focus on that topic at the moment, both within the ECB and from Parliament, it would be a brave move for English cricket to take now.

Once they make their way through the junior teams, the issue then becomes whether these young players would get any opportunities to make the first XI if there were fewer places available. It seems unlikely that promising young cricketers such as Zak Crawley or Ollie Pope would have played as many Championship matches if there were significantly greater competition for places. Increasing the minimum standard of player comes at the expense of allowing youngsters to make their debuts early and gain valuable experience as a result.

The lack of chances to break through into a team was often cited by South African-born players as a reason why they came to England to play cricket, a situation admittedly exacerbated by racial quotas in the country. It is notable that Cricket South Africa have recently reverted from a six-team first-class competition (which ran from 2004 to 2020) to one featuring fifteen provincial teams. It would be interesting to see how those proposing a reduction in county teams explain why it apparently failed to work in South Africa.

So to summarise: Reducing the number of first-class teams in England and Wales doesn’t appear to solve any of the issues regarding developing Test cricketers, and will likely worsen some of them. It is a fundamentally self-destructive and pointless act which will be yet another step towards the end of Test cricket in this country.

The ECB are almost certain to do it then.

As always, please leave your comments below.

Grated Expectations

There’s been a lot of reaction to England’s latest capitulation, and what it might mean. The Australians are gleeful and fair enough too, the English would be the same if it was the other way around. As is ever the case in these circumstances, the more thoughtful think about the consequences of continued one sided encounters, hoping against hope that the English will get their act together. It’s not their problem, any more than it was 25 years ago when they were dominant home and away. What that decade or more of batterings did do was force the nascent ECB into action to do something about it. And with success too, albeit a fairly fleeting, complacent success. This time around, there’s no sense of a determination from the governing body to fix things, more just the opposite.

There are a few caveats to be offered up – that England getting trounced in Australia is far from new, and the Australians themselves haven’t won in England in 20 years, while a focus on the Ashes to the detriment of all else has long been an issue in the mentality of too many in England. It’s true of Australians as well, but the difference is that they see smacking England about as a delightful consequence of their overall aim rather than the aim itself. But the suited and booted at the ECB made lots of noise about their two year plan to deliver the Ashes and they have failed quite spectacularly, though it’s unlikely they’ll acknowledge that. This isn’t a surprise to anyone paying attention, England were always going to be lambs to the slaughter (how ironic that was the title of a cricketing book when the shoe was on the other foot) because they just aren’t very good, and are declining from a position of outstanding mediocrity.

So what to write about it? There is no shortage of outraged shock out there, no shortage of lamentations for the latest death of English cricket, and a fair degree of anger. But not so much from us. Which is why this tweet from a sports journalist allowed the writing of a post:

Lee is right. We’ve written far less, what we have written has been more with weary resignation than the molten steel of outrage.

Partly it’s that none of this comes as any kind of bolt from the blue. All of us have banged on about the way the policies of the ECB were going to lead us to this point, not because of our truly magnificent insight into the complexities of the game, but because it was utterly bleeding obvious to anyone paying more than cursory attention. England haven’t just been pumped in the Ashes, they’ve been beaten up by India and New Zealand at home this year as well. They’re two good sides, but that’s only an excuse if the expectation is for England to lose on their own patch to good sides, which is to set sights low enough to be subterranean. There is a fair element of the ECB justifying it precisely on this basis, which is to suspect they accept declinism.

It bears stating yet again that the Hundred is not to blame for this debacle, but the strategy that culminated in the Hundred is. We all salute and appreciate the might of Darren Stevens, but the issue is not a game that allows his longevity, but one where in his mid-forties he wouldn’t noticeably weaken the England team if he was selected. There are only so many times these points can keep being made without us being bored of our own voices, and fed up with screaming into the void given so little attention has ever been paid to it. Not to us, who cares if anyone listens to us, but to anyone in a more prominent position making the same points.

Talk to most cricket journalists and they’ll be saying similar things with varying degrees of emphasis, but little of this gets into the general media because the wider public isn’t interested in the detail of how a successful England team is created, but only that it happens. More than that, they don’t pay that much attention to them doing adequately, but they do tend to notice a complete shellacking and their relatives in Australia sending rude Whatsapps to them. In the specialist cricketing publications the frustration is clear, in the national press less so; it doesn’t get past the sub-editors and the general readership won’t invest the time in learning about the problems, and more pertinently, they shouldn’t have to. Broadcast media, particularly Sky, have revelled in their own domination of the right to watch English cricket, and as a commercial entity have spent more time talking about how good things are than they ever have the likely future coming. They are entitled to do that, for the disaster the ECB have created is not down to them, but it might affect how much they’re prepared to pay for the particular joy of covering England being crushed on a regular basis – their refusal to bid for this series could be a harbinger of the future.

It’s customary at this time to point to a post or a paragraph where we predicted this, but our output hasn’t been one of a couple of comments proclaiming Nostradamus level awareness, it’s been the whole bloody website for years, the whole set of responses in the comments from those who visit. The Pietersen affair, whatever the rights and wrongs, was about an organisation whose prime motivation was no longer putting out the strongest team possible onto the field, and that was the main reason for the rage involved, the justifications on any issue possible except whether the central one as to whether it made England stronger or weaker. It certainly wasn’t the personal tribulations of someone none of us know and aren’t in truth overly keen on.

That is in the past, the anger transmuting in the subsequent years as the ECB continued down a path of prioritising other things, anything, except the fundamental point of their existence in making the game of cricket – ALL of the game of cricket – as strong as it could possibly be. The removal of free to air cricket was a symptom of a complacent organisation that felt they were in a strong position to take financial advantage of their success, irrespective of whether it undermined the foundations or not. The refusal over many years to acknowledge that it might have caused other problems was symptomatic of that shift in focus, but once again, it is not the reason for this series and shouldn’t be said to be, not least because it was fifteen years ago that it happened. It is one of a myriad of decisions and policies that compound each other, year in, year out, progressively weakening the fundamentals of the game, no one item to blame or single out, all of them pushing the direction to where we are now. Even when some things change (such as the new found enthusiasm for letting the public see the sport) they are being responded to in isolation rather than with a strategic approach, a sticking plaster applied to a gaping wound.

The latest excuse for the abjectness of the Test team is that white ball cricket has been prioritised. It’s true, but it’s still not an acceptable rationale. Other countries have piled into the revenues created by T20 without destroying their Test teams, and while there is a wider issue at stake about the increasing domination of the short forms of the game, that doesn’t justify England going backwards relative to the others. White or red ball is a false dichotomy only the ECB seem to get away with. Australia don’t, India don’t, and with the disparity in income to the rest of the world, those are the nations England should be compared to. Only here is this given even the slightest credence. And that applies to all those years when England had a reasonable Test side and a piss-poor one day team too. It wasn’t an excuse then, it isn’t now, and winning World Cups is not a pretext for an inability to put 300 on the board in Tests.

Likewise, the way the debate around the public school contribution to the England team is framed is to miss the point entirely. Having more or less the entire batting order over an extended period of time having been privately educated is not grounds to attack the private sector, but to point out the hideous failure of English cricket to maximise the talent available to itself. There is just no excuse for that – it’s not about the 7% who make up the 94%, it’s about the 93% who only comprise the 6%. It is a total failure of the coaching structure to so appallingly waste the resources available, an abysmal flop in turning young players from an extraordinarily large intake into good cricketers

Shifting the county championship to the margins of the season, on green or tired pitches, undoubtedly has an impact, but it’s not just the hardware of when and where it is played, but also the software of the mindset of those who play in it. It might well be the case that players are choosing to thrash a quick thirty rather than knuckle down and battle through, but calling out a single player for thinking that way is all about that player. When it’s true to an extent of an entire generation, it’s about those in authority who have created the circumstances to allow it to happen.

The England hierarchy have encouraged it, the media have amplified it. Jason Roy was selected to open in Tests and the selectors applauded for their daring by far too many. There are still those calling for Liam Livingstone to be in the side, not because he might make a Test cricketer (for all I know, he might), but because he plays sexy cricket, hits the ball a long way and gains the pundit plenty of column inches to push the case.

What did anyone expect? There is no plan, except to make as much money as possible, not for the wider benefit of the game of cricket, but for the bank balances of those involved in the game professionally. Don’t expect those who rely on it for their living to come out and be publicly angry about it, because their livelihood and comfortable income is dependent on more of the same. The ECB officers have seen huge rises in salaries (well, apart from the expendables at a lower level who they made redundant) and it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that lining their own nests is the principal reason for far too many ECB acolytes, as each big deal provides yet another large bonus, yet another big pay rise. Consequences? There are none. If they go, it’s with a fat cheque. If they play, they earn more and aren’t going to complain in a short career.

All of this was expected. All of it was coming. This is not accidental, it’s a consequence of repeated decisions made by those in power who remain entirely unaccountable to anyone outside the small circle of people for whom the mutual financial benefit overrides any other consideration. Sure, we can call out the players, who haven’t been good enough and have folded repeatedly. We can call out the coaching team who have made baffling selectorial decisions. And many of those will pay the price for this debacle, for sacrifices are demanded. What will it change though? What material difference will it make? England can get a better coach, but Duncan Fletcher had far more to work with than whoever takes over from Silverwood, and had the backing of an organisation that was determined to improve the quality of the player base.

Yes, I’m still angry. But not at the results, I’m angry it has taken this entirely inevitable shoeing for too many to wonder what has been going on. What the bloody hell did they expect to happen? What the bloody hell are they going to do about it? Because if the answer is to tinker around the margins, to call for the latest flavour of the month to be shoved into the team or to debate which bang average opener needs to replace the other bang average opener, then get used to more of this. Far too many people have been warning of what would happen and dismissed as cranks and extremists, well the ECB and all those who hang on to their coat-tails and line their pockets accordingly have made this. They should own it, they should take responsibility. But they won’t, and that, above all else, is why I might be still angry, but most of all, I’m contemptuous of them.

Down the Only Road I’ve Ever Known

I suppose it’s always possible England will pull this one out of the fire. I suppose it’s possible that for the rest of the series they’re competitive, and even in losing, do so while having their moments. Knee-jerk responses to a Test disaster can make fools of anyone, when in the following match a team roars back and batters their opponents. It’s always possible. It doesn’t feel that way here, but if that happens this time, feel free to thumb your nose at me.

Getting walloped in Australia isn’t especially unusual either. Anyone who is reminded of their advancing years constantly by being referred to as Covid-vulnerable (who knew that was going to a signifier?) is pretty used to it, the exceptions in ’78/9, ’86/7 and 2010/11 being glorious interludes in a regular diet of being flogged and receiving gleefully abusive messages from friends and family who have unaccountably chosen to identify as Australian. But there’s always been a particular narrative around the reasons why and the happenstance that led to it. Throughout the nineties England were a moderate team, but Australia were extremely bloody good, and consolation could be found (to a degree) by the way they rampaged across the planet hammering almost everyone – which is another reason why we were all West Indies fans.

By the early years of this century, England were losing, but they were fighting – they were merely completely outclassed. We can accept that, and the way England were progressing generally meant that there was hope things might change. The 2006/7 whitewash was infuriating, but that was a good England team against a good Australian team bent on revenge, and England imploded. Sporting meltdowns happen without having wider ramifications, and in a team environment that sense of doom can spread like wildfire. 2013/14 felt like the end of an era, and it proved to be as well, and in any case the fallout from that swiftly moved off the backpages and onto the front, as the ECB embarked on a civil war with their own game’s supporters. In that, the sheer sense of anger (on both sides) left everyone engaged in the fight and what would happen next. Whatever the wrongs of what happened – and we may have said one or two things at the time – it was a body of cricket followers thoroughly invested in what was happening.

There was a degree of hangover from that four years ago too, though the fire had faded. Some of the media clung to the wreckage as though a few floating planks comprised part of the ship of English cricket, but the emperor (nothing wrong with a metaphor transition) was as naked as the day he was born, the pointing of fingers amounted to demanding to know what was going to be done about it.

This time around we know what was done about it. To make things worse. It’s not just that this is a poor England team, because God knows we’ve seen enough of those, it’s that there is no way of thinking anything other than that this is likely to be routine. The Hundred isn’t to blame for England’s Test woes, let’s put that to bed right now. But the decision-making process and strategy (loosely termed) adopted by the ECB that led to the Hundred as the culmination of their intentions is, and those behind it will be moving on soon enough leaving the trail of wreckage in their wake.

What did they expect to happen? Increasing the focus on white ball cricket was a reasonable enough aim, as English cricket had certainly undervalued it for a long time. It gave us a World Cup, sure. It’ll likely give England a shot at another one in the coming years, and maybe a T20 World Cup or two as well. Fine. But the either/or mentality of it has never made a great deal of sense when other countries have managed to create good Test and short form teams, and in any case England’s historic ability to have truly crap Test teams at the same time as truly crap 50 over teams was a notable achievement in itself.

But this team can’t bat. The best bowlers, even taking into account the loss of key personnel through injury, aren’t that far off the point where they too move into more vulnerable Covid categories, which is a damn fine tribute to their longevity and skill, and maybe it is the case that when they are gone we’ll appreciate their replacements more. But it’s the batting, stupid. The batting. We can all pile into Rory Burns for his series to date, but it’s not like there’s an 8,000 Test run replacement obviously in the wings. Sure, some will read that and say Sibley was discarded too quickly, or that Sam Robson ought to be given another go (a fair point too), but it doesn’t change the material shortage in players who might be expected to turn into Test level batsmen entirely because the structure of English cricket isn’t going to create them.

We have Joe Root, a batter who is genuinely outstanding and deserves all the praise he gets, and that’s it. Ben Stokes? In a stronger team he would be the wildcard, someone to come in and devastate the opposition, to be that special cricketer who can change a game in a session. In this team he’s the second best batsman. Stokes is wonderful. He should not be head and shoulders above all bar one of the batting line up.

The same applies to the role of spinner. We keep moving from one to the next, and the next will always be the solution and never is. They’re all ok, looked at in the right light and playing in the right conditions. None of them are going to change the world, because English cricket isn’t going to produce anyone who does. Shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

And then there’s their heads. We’re one and a bit Tests into this series and England look completely gone. It’s not just the clear awareness of impending collapse when they bat. The dropped catches, the disparity in no balls bowled, the frankly weird tactics (let’s bowl Joe Root as dusk falls in a pink ball Test) are not indicative necessarily of anyone in charge having odd ideas about cricket as much as evidence of a team and coaching staff whose minds are in a whirl and unable to think straight. That kind of bewildered groupthink is easy to see from the outside, but very hard to get out of on the inside, until someone yells “Let’s get back to basics”, which always goes swimmingly anyway.

All of which means the most probable outcome here is that things are going to get worse. Not just this series, though if there’s something to truly envy about Australian sporting teams it’s their manner of emulating their local sea fauna by hunting down their prey once it’s flailing in the water remorselessly. But beyond this series, indeed for the forseeable future. Many a fan in past series has considered a thrashing by our warmest enemies as the price worth paying for change. It’s not the same as wanting the team to lose, which has always been a lazy accusation when this subject comes up, but it is about wanting to see action on resolving the problems.

The ECB aren’t going to change.

That, in a nutshell is the despair felt by many, and the more problematic indifference and ennui felt by others. If England get the kind of tonking that looks distinctly possible, we are unlikely to see a Lord McLaurin institute a root and branch reform in order to stop this happening in future, we’ll instead have an ECB expressing disappointment along with a fair supply of platitudes about the lessons that will be learned. It’s not that the cupboard is bare, it’s that English cricket governance took an axe to the cupboard and turned it into an iced water dispenser.

It’s what happens when that reality dawns more widely than among the hardcore cricket fraternity that is the big question. And that, in itself, is the fight to come.

England vs India: 4th Test, Day 2 – Hanging on the telephone

An abiding memory of this Test, for occasionally they happen, will be the increasing irritation within the household with the fall of every wicket, English or Indian. Perhaps this is not how most will see what has unfolded over the first two days of a match that has threatened to go at fast forward, but then not everyone lives with someone who has a ticket for day four. In the same way I recall a drive up to Edgbaston in 2015 listening to day two shouting at the radio as to whether any Australian, any Australian at all, could bloody bat. As it turned out, Mitchell Starc and Peter Neville could, somewhat, so we did get some play to watch. Still, with these two teams, hoping for a full fourth day is always going to be a bit of a gamble, and there remains the distinct possibiluty that tomorrow could see the game done and dusted. And there will be sulking if so, but the good news is that the pitch appears to be becoming easier to bat on rather than harder, certainly judging by fewer wickets falling today.

England did reasonably well with the bat, pleasingly so given the lack of any contribution from Joe Root this time around. Ollie Pope was the top scorer, batting fluently and with purpose, to the point that his dismissal, dragging one on to his stumps was a real surprise. Of all the more recent England batsmen, he is the one that looks most at home – when he’s going well. Or to put it another way, his trials and tribulations leading to him being dropped were perhaps the most disappointing, because his batting envelope looks a lot larger than many others who have come in. Still, there’s no harm in being dropped, it’s all about how a player comes back. Let’s see.

Primary support came from Chris Woakes, last man out for 50 to go with his 4 wickets in the first innings. Much discussion centres around the disparity between his performances at home and those away from home. His batting average in England is around 36, away it is 19. His bowling average at home is 22, while away it is 52. It’s hardly unusual for any cricketer to perform better at home, but the gap is so huge it is hard to understand. Sure, his style is very much that of someone you’d expect to do better in English conditions, but it’s extremely disappointing how poor his away record is. And yet another way of looking at this is to wonder why he isn’t a permanent fixture in the side at home, when fit. His away record might well be poor, but his home one is astonishing. So far this Test, he’s shown why.

Decent support came from Jonny Bairstow, before being trapped lbw to a ball coming back into him for 37 – a depressingly familiar weakness. Moeen Ali did what late career Moeen has done a lot, which is to say played some gorgeous shots, and then got out to one that was….agricultural. But from 62-5, a lead of 99 will have been in wildest dreams territory, especially so given the batting fragility so prominent in this series.

India’s turn to bat again, and surely they would do better than first time around. And so far they have done, it would be too much to say they saw the day out without any alarms, but nor did England look like they were about to run through them either. Which is why it’s fair to say they have batted well, and have reduced the deficit down to 56.

More of the same is required, in fact much more. To be in with any kind of chance in this game, India still have to be batting by at least tea tomorrow, and to be in with a realistic chance, they have to bat the day. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t seem the most onerous of requirements but both these sides have demonstrated a quite exceptional ability to fall in a heap with the bat, which is why a lead of 99 feels so significant. Still, it’s also true that most would have expected India’s batting line up to outperform England’s, so maybe this match will be the one where they show their capability. England are certainly on top, and India now lack any margin for error. But a normal day’s play tomorrow and it means a happy camper who can head up to the Oval on Sunday to watch some cricket. This, more than anything, is the priority in this corner of Outside Cricket Towers.

Oh yes. Short of overs. Again. No one cares, we get it.

England vs India: 3rd Test, Day One – Resurrection Joe

Cricket is a bloody weird game. Virat Kohli couldn’t win a toss, India’s tail-enders were smashing the England bowlers around the park, England (bar the captain) were unable to determine which end of the bat is which, and more of the same was due today. Except it didn’t happen. None of it happened. Instead we got a day of total English domination, and an India team in need of a something approaching a sporting miracle to get away with anything other than a defeat. After one day. The usual rules about not tempting fate applied to the eternally pessimistic England fans, but more than anything, as many were quick to note, this was most similar to the opening day of the Melbourne 2010 Test match, with the difference that here India chose to bat.

India’s batting hasn’t looked that hot in the series so far, but crumbling to 78 all out wasn’t on the agenda. Cue lots of complaining from the sub-continent about the pitch, which would have been a fair point had England not coasted past their total in the evening sunshine with all wickets standing. It was cloudy, there was some swing and some seam, but hardly excessive, and by Headingley standards, relatively tame. Though the injured Stuart Broad was quick to point out in the morning that it tends to get better for batting and that choosing to bat was a brave call. There’s a fair degree of mind-games in that of course, and it seems unlikely that Root would have sent India in had he called correctly. Cliches always abound in such circumstances, but “a good toss to lose” may well be a reasonable assessment.

In the morning session Anderson operated on that serene higher level that he can sometimes reach, especially at home. There are endless banal superlatives that can be applied to him, but at 39 years old and still able to crank it up to the mid eighties miles per hour (this perhaps is the most remarkable thing about him – his skill won’t wane, but his athleticism will) and with all the nous of a 20 year career, he was far above the level of any of his team-mates, and ripped out the heart of the India batting. He’s just someone to be enjoyed.

Four down at lunch, India had the chance to recover if they batted well, but if the morning had been about an exceptional Anderson, the afternoon was about some pretty ropey batting. Rishab Pant played a really poor shot, and then four wickets in six balls destroyed the innings entirely, kicked off by a shocker from Rohit Sharma.

Nothing gives a batting order quite so much confidence as knowing you’ve skittled the opposition for peanuts; nothing makes a bowling attack less incisive than knowing you’ve barely any runs to defend. Ishant Sharma hardly helped things with a dire first over of no balls, wides and boundaries, and the tone was set. Burns and Hameed batted with confidence and some panache at times, but you could almost see the hope draining out of the Indian team, as fielding errors were made and catches dropped. In the time honoured style of a side in trouble, India tried to get the ball changed, and eventually succeeded, only for Burns to pull it into the stands for a rare six. If ever a metaphor for how bad a day India have had was needed, there it was. Both Burns and Hameed passed fifty, in the case of the latter in particular, a welcome return to Test runs. Few will be anything other than delighted for him.

Oh yes. Over-rate. Again. It’s doubtful many of the crowd felt shortchanged by once again falling far short of the required 90 overs, and equally India are hardly going to hurry given the match position. But it’s now routine not to bowl the minimum mandated overs and nothing is ever done about it. Today won’t matter, hell, it probably won’t matter in this match, but it’s situation normal these days.

India need to have an exceptional morning tomorrow just to recover the situation to one of being in deep trouble. If they could bowl England out for another hundred or so, then just maybe they could turn it around. But that would still require an exceptional 2nd innings on their part. India might win every remaining day and still lose the game heavily. One day into this match, and England are closing on a win. Final point: The Hundred wasn’t the reason for England’s capitulation in the 2nd Test, and today doesn’t mean that the structure of the domestic game isn’t damaging the Test side. It’s not that hard to avoid kneejerk reactions, but too hard for some even so.

England v India: 2nd Test, Day Three – It’s All Too Beautiful

Today might have been England’s best day of Test cricket in a fair while – not in the sense that they were entirely dominant, because (Root apart), it was a workmanlike performance rather than flaying the bowling to all parts. But in terms of the application and intent, it was as impressive as it was unlikely in the minds of many. Perhaps an indication came from the woefully out of touch Jos Buttler. He only scored 23, and it was a quite exceptionally ugly 23 too, but he fought to stay there, scratched around for an hour, added 50 with his captain, and above all made a contribution. Given England have all too often fallen in a heap when placed under any kind of pressure, this is worthy of note, and in this particular game situation also deserving of some praise. Questions around selection or worth in terms of a place are separate to this, it showed a determination that has often been lacking in the England batting and was most welcome.

Bairstow had earlier looked a million dollars in making 57, before rather peculiarly struggling badly against the short ball, and then falling face first into the most obvious of traps. It was annoying, given how telegraphed the plan was, but it was also odd to see; he had terrible difficulties with the short ball when he first arrived in international cricket, but since then (and he did get bombarded in his early matches, so had to learn quickly) he’s looked in little difficulty. Indeed, his technical issues were around anything but the bouncer. Still, he made a score, looked the part, and supported the peerless Root impeccably.

Moeen Ali too scored runs, again not a match defining number, but again enough to allow Root to score freely at the other end and to contribute to a partnership. Moeen’s batting weaknesses are well known, and his dismissal with an edge to the slips entirely predictable, but the aesthetics of his batting also means that few players evoke such a desire from the watching public to see him do well. He did enough today in the match context, which answers nothing about the wider questions, but in terms of today, it was fine. It just would have been nice to have more of it.

And then there’s Root himself. If there’s one thing that unites us all on this blog it’s the descent into greatesteveritis that afflicts the media on a daily basis, and most certainly not just for cricket. Root isn’t a greatest ever anything, and the likely forthcoming articles and polls asking whether he is can be guaranteed to rile everyone, but at this point in his career, with a Test average hovering around that 50 mark, we can start to place him in some context in the more recent England era. And when we do so, what can we say? We can certainly say he’s worthy of being talked about in the last 30 or 40 years with Cook, Pietersen, Gower, Boycott and Gooch, and has a better Test average than any of them for what that’s worth. Beyond that, it’s subjective, not least because comparing bowling and batting is reliant on the function of the two – or to put it another way, a great bowling era would look identical if it was instead a poor batting era. Players can only exist in their own environment, and Root has become one of England’s best in a long time. Perhaps it could be argued that it’s even more so given that a fair chunk of his career has been spent in a pretty poor England batting side. He’s carrying the batting in a way few have needed to in quite some years in England colours. We can, at the least, start thinking about where we place him in the England recent pantheon now he’s past 9,000 Test runs with more to come.

Today he was majestic. Other players hit the ball harder, further and more often, but Root’s manipulation of the field and speed of scoring is impressive generally, but when he’s in the kind of form he currently is, it gives the impression of a player in total control not just of himself, but of the opposition too. He must be driving an otherwise vastly superior Indian batting order up the wall.

As for the match situation, we have a game on. England have a first innings lead, albeit a modest one, and while it’s true that a fourth innings chase is the hardest way to win, the Lord’s pitch tends not to deteriorate too much, indeed it often gets slower, lower and harder on which to take wickets. One ball in the afternoon session scuttled along the ground, so we will have to see if that’s an indication of what is to come.

The third innings brings with it its own pressure with each wicket taken adding to it, a position England have highlighted on all too many occasions. But with the weather set fair, a result seems distinctly possible, and more to the point, England have a chance of coming out on top. Most people would have taken that given the rather low expectations from this series. England may well be accused of being a one man team in the batting, and it’s not an unreasonable jibe. But when that one batsman is playing as well as this, it evens up the contest no end. The captain is very much leading from the front. The last ball of the day provided the conclusion that a terrific day of cricket really deserved, with Anderson dismissed (notably upset with himself too) and England bowled out. It really is now over to the Indian batsmen and the England bowlers.

Expectation Management

India will probably win, but England have had a pretty good day. Given where they began, and given expectations for a batting line up for whom the word brittle was coined, to set India 209 was a fair few levels above what may have been anticipated by the perpetually pessimistic with good reason England fans. That first innings deficit was both a psychological and and a physical barrier for England to overcome, and that they did so and set a reasonable target was almost entirely down to Joe Root. This was one of his best hundreds, looking in complete control and driving both sides of the wicket with fluency and outstanding footwork. He is nothing short of a joy to watch when he’s in this kind of form.

It is obvious just by looking at the statistics, but it really is quite startling just how far ahead of the rest of the line up he is. It’s not quite the case that when he fails, England fail, but it’s not far off. England got a total that was quite passable, and a target to defend that is big enough to allow for some degree of hope that they might win the match. From 183 all out in the first innings, that’s no bad place to be, for they looked thoroughly out of it and facing a humiliation before Anderson ripped the Indian top order out. Indeed, although the Indian tail wagged irritatingly well, to bowl the visitors out for 278 was a fine performance from the England attack, particularly Robinson and Anderson. Without any hope of putting real pressure on, they maintained control and whittled their way through the Indian order. Conceding a 95 run deficit might not seem like a triumph, and certainly the late runs damaged England’s prospects, but it was still a sterling effort given the match situation.

Two early wickets in England’s second innings made it all the more likely that a day of disaster was on the cards, but Root and Sibley put together a partnership that steadied matters, and allowed England to erase the deficit and start to build. Sibley’s dismissal was a poor shot having done all the hard work, but he does at least give the impression of a work in progress, able to occupy the crease for long periods as often as not. Given the state of England’s batting, and that he’s their second highest run scorer (behind Root) this calendar year, he’s not the most pressing of England’s concerns. Getting out when set is not a great thing to happen, but he is at least getting set in the first place. His slow scoring rate is neither here nor there in the current circumstances. If England need quick runs to set up a declaration or win, he’s not the man – oh to be in a position where that is a consideration. That isn’t to defend him especially, it’s that he’s not the biggest problem right now, and there are quite a few of them.

Bairstow looked rather good but managed to middle the ball straight to Jadeja at deep square leg. Curran played an important little innings and again looked one of the more technically accomplished batsmen in the England team. Technique is only one element of batting, but while at present he may be one of those players who isn’t quite good enough in either the batting or the bowling department to nail down a consistent place, his batting still looks promising. That’s perhaps part of the issue, he’s all promise and at some point needs to turn that into results on a regular basis. Becoming a genuine all rounder remains a hope and a dream, and time is still on his side. But such a hope doesn’t mean it will come to pass – at one time Stuart Broad wasn’t that far away from all rounder status, and his batting decline has been vertical.

Part of the feeling of being relatively pleased with England’s efforts is the suspicion that India, even in English conditions, are a far superior team, and that this could well be a long and chastening Test series. The bowling attack, particularly in the shape of Bumrah, looks more threatening, the batting so far superior to their English counterparts that it is barely in the same equation. Although Robinson got the rewards in the first innings, a feeling persists that the old warhorses of Anderson and Broad aren’t just going to have to lead the attack, they’re going to be trying bail out the batting on a semi-permanent basis. And that’s too much to ask time and again, especially when there are injuries to potential replacements.

Into the evening session and England trying to dislodge the Indian top order. It can’t be said that KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma were under any pressure, because they weren’t, right up to the point that Stuart Broad, with headband on parade, took the former’s outside edge. It had been an oddly low key period of play, the crowds weren’t exactly roaring England on, and the team looked a bit flat, particularly given that bowling conditions were entirely in England’s favour. Once the wicket was taken, things went up a notch, especially with the arrival into the attack of the somewhat unlucky Robinson.

India are warm favourites to win tomorrow, weather permitting, and as a reflection of the match, so far, that would surprise no one. But England did at least fight today, and their captain showed how exceptional a batsman he is, and how far superior to anything else the team has. Given the forecast, we got more play than we expected, and England played better than expected. It’s probably not going to be enough, the old truism applying that you can’t win the game with the bat on the first day, but you can lose it.

It’s Test cricket though, and the most special thing about this finest version of the game is that you just never know. Roll on Sunday.

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.