New Zealand vs. England, 2nd Test, Day 2

It’s an odd experience, writing a match report for a game I’ve barely seen, hurrying to get it finished before I go to work in the morning.

The story of the New Zealand innings seems to have been one of slow, attritional batting against England’s seamers bowling dry. Probably not a bad one to sleep through, now I come to think of it.

Broad did most of the damage, getting rid of the dangerous BJ Watling and Daryl Mitchell (not that one). Archer, Curran and Woakes combined to take the last few wickets, dismissing New Zealand for 375.

One thing which truly angers me is that Ben Stokes bowled 11 overs today. Stokes is, after Anderson’s injury and Root’s dramatic loss if form, probably the first name in the team sheet for the Test team. Or at least would be, if England didn’t have such a maverick selector. Therefore, and I know this may sound crazy and nonsensical to Joe Root or anyone in England’s medical team, they should STOP TRYING TO FUCKING INJURE HIM. He has what seems to me to be a large amount of strapping on his leg, and frankly I don’t think I would even risk him fielding. He is the only Test-quality batsman England have right now, and losing that to an avoidable injury would be an absolute disaster.

Of course, the normal thing to do when a bowler is injured would be to lean more on your spinners. Leach’s exclusion from the team always made this unlikely though, and in the end Root and Denly only bowled 6 overs between them. It is a consistent thread through Root’s captaincy, and Cook and Strauss before him, that there’s almost never any inkling of long term considerations in their decisions on the field. They will drive a player into dust in order to increase their chances of winning the game in hand, when that player could make a greater impact through the whole season if they were handled with more care. The most obvious example would be the end of Flower’s tenure as coach, when the whole team virtually imploded, but England and the ECB don’t seem to have learned any lessons in the years since.

England had 18 overs to face at the end of the day, and battled through to the end without conceding…

Just kidding. Obviously, England lost two cheap wickets and will have to bat really well tomorrow to have any chance tomorrow of drawing this series. Sibley fell cheaply again, and (admittedly after only 3 innings) he isn’t impressing so far as a potential England opener. Denly, who seems likely to open in South Africa, didn’t do any better. Oddly, Zak Crawley didn’t come out to bat today. The batsman, who was apparently in contention to open the batting for England in this series, is down at 6 in the batting order. I just can’t understand that decision.

As will surprise no one after seeing only 6 overs if spin were bowled, the day ended 4 overs short. Nothing will happen, of course, but we do like to keep mentioning it.

On a positive note, at least we aren’t Pakistan fans, as they are watching Australia absolutely cream them. Smith and Warner have apparently both beaten some of Don Bradman’s records, and it’s looking like a really one-sided bloodbath over there.

If you have anything to add, especially if you actually watched the game last night and can offer some real insight, feel free to comment below.

Game Over – NZ v England, 1st Test, Day 4

Denly, Root, Stokes. Those three batsmen are basically all that stands between England and a crushing defeat characterised by poor batting on a pitch which is frankly every bit as dead as Melbourne in 2017. There is absolutely no reason that this Test should not have been a bore draw, except for England’s ineptitude in the middle.

The New Zealand innings, which lasted for just over two sessions last night, was pretty much a repeat of day 3. Watling and Santner batted through most of the day, with England’s bowlers causing few if any problems. The scoring accelerated after Lunch, with the two batsmen pushing New Zealand’s first innings lead beyond 250 until the hosts declared just after Tea. England’s bowling was flat, but so was the pitch and it doesn’t really seem fair to ascribe any blame to them when virtually every wicket which has fallen has been to a collossal mistake by the batsmen.

Which brings us to England’s innings. They needed to bat out 118 overs in order to save the game. Historically, that is seen as a very tough task. On a dead pitch where New Zealand’s numbers six and eight have just shared a partnership lasting 83.2 overs however, a solid batting lineup should at the very least fancy their chances. Burns and Sibley saw out the first hour from Boult and Southee, and then left-arm orthodox spinner Mitchell Santner came on.

Sibley was the first wicket to fall, edging a forward defensive prod to a ball which was about a yard wide of the stumps and spinning away. Four overs later, with England just three overs away from the end of the day, Burns top-edged a slog sweep which went almost straight up in the air before being caught at square leg by de Grandhomme. The only blameless wicket was right at the end, when nightwatchman Jack Leach was wrongly given out caught behind. A specialist batsman would almost certainly have immediately reviewed the decision, even if they thought there was a possibility they had in fact hit it. Leach, probably aware that the outcry for wasting a review in the England camp would almost certainly outweigh the potential congratulations if it was successful, chose instead to walk off.

Mitchell Santner has never taken more than three wickets in an innings, but seems poised to exceed that by at least a couple more tonight. I think it is remarkable how many mediocre (as Colin Graves might say) spinners excel when playing against England. Of the 24 spin bowlers (a number which includes quite a few part-timers) to have played against them in the last two years, seven made their career Test best bowling figures. New Zealand’s Santner and Astle; Chase in the West Indies; Sandakan, Pushpakumara and Dananjaya in Sri Lanka; Vihari in India. None of these are world-class bowlers who other teams seem to have trouble facing, and yet they run through England like a vindaloo through an incontinent grandpa. This is a consistent, clearly identifiable flaw in England’s Test batting which needs addressing.

There was an interesting conversation on Sky during the Lunch break, following an interview between Wardy and Ashley Giles about the changes the ECB has made recently in coaching and developing England players. In just two minutes, Key absolutely destroys the ECB’s National Cricket Performance Centre as a worthwhile endeavour.

Nick Knight: What about Loughborough? What about the Lions pathway? Ashley [Giles] spoke a little about it there. You’ve been through both those pathways. Have they worked over a period of time? The ECB have invested a lot of money and time in those pathways. Are players now more developed, having come through that pathway than they were before it existed?

Rob Key: There’s two different things there. Loughborough, I’ve always seen as a bit of a waste of money because I see Loughborough as a bit of a glorified indoor school. Where it’s the hub in the middle of Loughborough University. There’s an indoor net facility, a few other things, gyms, all of that type of stuff that I’ve spent many an hour in. Generally, Loughborough itself hasn’t really done anything to help cricketers. But what has, as Ashley Giles spoke there, which is a big difference, which I’m all for, is if someone wants to practice against spin. You’re not going to learn to play spin at Loughborough, but you will do if you get shipped out to Mumbai and you go and practice playing spin out there for three or four weeks. And then you want to play fast ones, they help people go to Australia. So then you can just send the players all around, it’s like a finishing school or it’s meant to be a finishing school, the Lions programme. Like he said, Ben Foulkes going out and playing in Sri Lanka. The Lions tours that they go on are absolutely vital, and they’re really good. The academy trip or the Lions trip I went on, we spent six months in Australia facing Simon Jones, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Chris Tremlett, Alex Tudor. Forget about coaches, you can’t not improve in that sort of environment. But that wouldn’t have been any good just being at Loughborough, in the middle of winter in an  indoor school.

So I have no idea how much money gets ploughed into Loughborough, there’s nothing against the coaches there or anything else. I just don’t see the point in having an expensive facility that pretty much every county has. Probably not as nice, put it that way, but every county has its own indoor school. But the Lions programme I think is actually very good. It gives the opportunity to players that you don’t get in counties, especially in the winter. So they have a whole pathway system where they have Daniel Vettori doing a bit with the spinners out in the UAE and places like that. So that I think is really vital. Loughborough itself… It was a pain having to go up there. Bowlers don’t want to bowl in an indoor school. So you’re going up there, you’re not doing any cricket. You just do fitness testing. That seems like an expensive thing to have for that.

Ashley Giles clearly thinks the problems at Loughborough lie with the staff, as major personnel chances have occurred since he took charge. I agree with Key on this. The core issue is in the concept itself, not its execution. No indoor net, no matter how sophisticated, can replicate the experience of playing overseas. Nor can it simulate an innings which spans more than a few overs. Fitness, whilst obviously important, in no way requires or justifies a multi-million pound annual investment in a specialist facility. County cricketers are, as far as I can tell, as fit as any international players. The main problems with England’s Test team in recent years have been lack of concentration and focus by the batsmen, and frequent spells of ineffectiveness from the bowling attack when overseas. Loughborough can’t and won’t do anything to clear either of these hurdles.

If you want to comment on the game, or anything else, feel free to do so below. Because, unlike Chris/thelegglance, I will never block comments on my posts.

Paradise (Not Quite) Regained – By Maxie Allen

I’ll get straight to it. Full disclosure. I’ve stopped hating England. I no longer support their opponents. Over the course of this summer, I even found myself wanting them to win, and was glad when they did.

At the grave risk of sounding self-regarding, I’ll quickly remind you of the backstory. I wrote a piece for this site a couple of years ago explaining my contempt for the England cricket team and why I both exulted in their defeats and cheered on their opposition. That was the position I’d found myself in after three decades of loyal support. It was because of Things That Happened in 2014 – which left me angry, alienated, and betrayed.

And then all of a sudden, early this summer, and after five years of that alienation, I began to feel differently. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Nor was it because of a specific performance, or player, or passage of play. It was before any of 2019’s standout stories unfolded. There was no fairy-tale epiphany after watching Stokes or Archer. It crept up on me. It was something I noticed and then realised must have been there for a while, like hair-loss or a suspicious lump.

What I do know is it began with the World Cup, even though I’ve never been wildly interested in white-ball cricket. But it wasn’t because of England winning the world cup. Success, in itself, didn’t win me round and never has done. No, it was because of England trying to win the World Cup. The distinction is important. England had lost three times in the final but never won the tournament. They were at home. They were favourites. Would they fulfil their elusive destiny? It was a good story. And that story slowly but inexorably reeled me in.

The thing I’ve always loved most about cricket is its narrative arcs. The twists and turns. The sub-plots. The drama with an unwritten script. And England’s World Cup campaign crafted itself into a narrative I found too seductive to quite resist. They started brightly, messed up, bounced back, and, well, you know the rest, but the point is, I began to sense I had personal equity in the outcome.

I found myself going out of my way to watch the final group games against India and New Zealand. I was on a family holiday abroad, but managed to get an iPad to hook up to Sky Go by the pool. I couldn’t face missing the games. What startled me – maybe even disappointed me – was that I realised I wanted England to win. I feared them losing. A feeling I hadn’t experienced for five years.

It was an unsavoury sensation, and hard to come to terms with. I didn’t want to want England to win, because I’d hated them so much, and for good reason. But there it was. And then came the final, with one of the greatest narratives of all, and when Buttler broke the stumps from Roy’s throw and I could see Guptill hadn’t made his ground, I yelled and screamed and leapt around the room. Which I almost felt ashamed of doing.

I suppose I’d never felt quite as much contempt for England’s white-ball side as their Test counterparts. They felt vaguely like a separate entity and less tarnished by what happened five years ago. So the ODI team were the soft underbelly of my enmity, a gateway drug which led me into the hard stuff. Because when the Ashes began a fortnight or so later, I still found myself not hating England. Found myself sucked into the narratives of the Edgbaston test. Found myself at the mercy of their fluctuating fortunes and having to admit to myself that I wanted them, not Australia, to prevail.

This persisted and consolidated itself through the course of the series. I was disappointed by their setbacks, pleased at their comebacks. Again, it was unconscious, and again, it wasn’t because of individual flashpoints. I didn’t warm to England because of good things the team did, because it wasn’t bad things the team itself had ever done which had put me off them in the first place. I had spent thirty years watching England lose and that had never made any difference then.

I categorically did not return to England because of Stokes and Headingley. But that match did have a significance. I spent the Saturday afternoon on parental duties at a splash park, but found myself compulsively checking my phone to monitor the Root-Denly partnership. I slipped back into my superstitious habits of old, such as deliberately not watching or checking for fear of triggering an England wicket.

When Stokes got England within fifty, I stopped looking at the score, for that specific reason, and just hoped my phone wouldn’t buzz with the dreaded wicket notification. When I caved in, checked, and saw just eight were needed, only then did I actually start watching again. Those reawakened neuroses, once more. A year ago I would have been enraged by England stealing an outrageous victory. But there I was, feeling the exact opposite. And at that moment, I knew that this was the way things were going to be. I had to give up the fight and accept that I wanted England to win again.

All of which is a bit like a Celtic fan waking up and thinking “You know what, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Rangers”. It was the reluctant acceptance of something I didn’t want and felt uncomfortable with. But the only alternative would be to force myself to hate England and pretend I still wanted them to lose, which even for me seemed a bit silly.

So what happened? I’ve already mentioned the stories, and the power of those. When the Tests began, the fact it was an Ashes series played a part. The history and heritage – the unique magic of the urn – proved seductive. More broadly, the sheer heft of my previous life as an England supporter exerted its gravitational pull. Perhaps it was inevitable that in the fullness of time that thirty years of good things would outweigh one year of very bad things.

The biggest factor, though, is that Alastair Cook has gone. That may sound petty and vindictive and bitter, but I don’t care. I would always hate England when he was in the side, captain or not. With Strauss also departed – for tragic reasons of course, but the fact remains that he left – virtually none of the culprits survive apart from Graves. The absence of Anderson also helped. Here was a new and relatively blameless generation.

Some things will never be as they once were. I can’t imagine supporting England in a patriotic way, if that makes sense. Supporting England purely because they’re England and I’m English and the other side happen to be from abroad. I still think of England as ‘they’ or ‘them’, not ‘we’ and ‘us’, and I doubt that will change.

I’ll never be remotely jingoistic about England, as I was before, or take pleasure in mocking and taunting their opponents, as I once did. Neither will I revel in an opponent’s failure or humiliation, or begrudge them success when deserved. I won’t hope that an opposition player will fail or embarrass themselves just for the sake of it. The last few years have taught me how ridiculous those attitudes really are. This summer, I enjoyed watching Josh Hazlewood bowl and admired Steve Smith for his achievements. In the past I would have loathed both those things.

I will never forget or accept what happened in 2014, because nothing has changed, or forgive those responsible, because they have no desire to be forgiven. That includes not just the administrators but also the large number of England supporters who displayed such ingratitude, ignorance and bigotry – and it was those “fans” who alienated me almost as much as anything else.

What I have done is something all my friends have told me to do for years, which is to suspend disbelief and separate, by a few degrees at least, the cricketers on the field from the governing body in whose name they play. Many splendid cricketing things have happened in England this year, and not one of them happened because of the ECB and how they operate. Whatever is good about English cricket is good despite them, not because of them.

And this is how I reconcile myself with a softening attitude to England. For five years I thought supporting England meant supporting the ECB. I saw it as an act of capitulation. I was wrong. It’s an act of defiance. I hated England because they’re the ECB’s team. I was wrong again. The ECB only claim it’s their team and to play along is to give them what they most want: ownership. And validation of their proprietorial sense of entitlement. They can degrade professional cricket, trash the fixture list, bully supporters, and lock cricket behind a paywall, but one thing they cannot do, however much the ECB crave it, is to steal the team or steal the game. They belong to everyone.

Tell Me To Relax, I Just Stare – Alas Smith and Roy

I have had a post on my mind for a while, and it’s never really presented an example by which to convey it accurately, (and having written the piece now, I’m still not sure I did – but stick with it). There’s a lot of stuff, random cricket stuff, that floats in the flotsam and jetsam that is now my brain. But this one has stuck with me. I have always hated the kneejerk reaction of fans – the sort that has one bad run from its football team and the manager has to go. Sport has always had winners, but for it to have winners, someone has to lose. Every time I criticise, I comment, I bemoan my team’s fortunes, am I not the same as those people. Yes, those people. As if I am not one of those people.

On my former football message board dalliances, I was always the one preaching caution and patience, of not wanting to sack the manager just as he was sacked, of knowing our place in the football firmament, at a time when there was still hope, just about, in the game. I wasn’t the impatient one with England football teams. I thought the 90s cricket team, the legendary bad years for England supposedly, mainly saw the team picked on merit, and players given opportunities, other than when Illingworth bought some half-baked, old fashioned out of date thinking to the position. I was passionate about sport, but didn’t get massively angry about it. I would not even contemplate airing opinions outside of a small cadre of like-minded supporters. and found the conflict I did encounter on that message board as something bloody scary. I didn’t think I was one of “those people”.

The stigma of being associated with kneejerk and loud opinions is that it is expected of you, and you need to play to the crowd. What’s your schtick if you aren’t coming in with some “hot take” explained at high pitch and with little to back it up? Why is my opinion the right one, and why is the man or woman being paid to make decisions always wrong, in my eyes? In the eyes of the one reacting. You don’t have the font of all wisdom, I don’t.

And you aren’t allowed to forget it. You aren’t inside cricket, so you can’t know. You don’t know the finances of the football club and how the manager works with the players he’s lumbered with, so how can you comment? What do you know? Who do YOU think you are? I genuinely thought about it like that every day of How Did We Lose In Adelaide’s existence (for those new here, or who don’t know, that was my previous blog on cricket, and was the personification of Mr Angry!). Why should I be angry? What do I know that others don’t?

This is a long intro into one selection this summer that should expose the myth that we don’t have a clue, while those highly paid experts are the font of all knowledge. Just like us, the experts are winging it, on the back of received wisdom, strategic leaks, a bit of cricket knowledge, and being a bit inside cricket. That myth was exposed in the selection of Jason Roy as a test match opener.

Jason Roy as a test opener was always a “magic beans” selection. Anyone with eyes knew he had technical difficulties against the moving ball, a decent issue with his technique and no track record of playing long innings in first class cricket. What was going to be inevitable was  “experts” citing two cases. The first would be David Warner, who came into test cricket on the back of limited first class experience, and if, I recall correctly, played a T20 for Australia before he’d played for NSW. The second would be Virender Sehwag, a dashing opener, who, when conditions suited, could flay attacks to all part. These two, of course, came into test cricket on flat, batting friendly playing surfaces and reasonably benign conditions. They are also freaks. Other limited over kings like Chris Gayle or Sanath Jayasuriya were playing the long form of the game at the same time as their white ball pomp. It would be disappointing if a selection was made purely on the comparison of the two recent examples. You’d expect people paid to be pundits to just do more than that.

If Jason Roy wants a template on which to base his Test match career, he should look to his opposite number in England’s Ashes opponents this summer – David Warner.

Like Roy, Warner went from T20 cricket straight into the Test game and has made a stunning success of it – precisely because he adapted his game to the longer format. Watch Warner in a Test match now, and he doesn’t just try and whack everything. Instead, he takes his time, assesses conditions and plays the ball on its merits. Yes, he is still an attacking player, but that attitude is tempered by common sense.

Virender Sehwag was the same for India, taking the positive mindset which had served him so well in one-dayers into the Test…

Oh well. What do you expect? I’ll give you two guesses who wrote this. No analysis of Roy’s technique, no acknowledgement that when the ball moved around in the Champions Trophy, and indeed the Final, he looked lost. I love Jason Roy in one day cricket, and when he gets in on flat decks in the county championship. I really, really wanted Jason Roy to be a success, but I knew he wouldn’t be. All evidence pointed to him not being one. What possesses experts to write and speak this nonsense?

This neatly segues into the cracking piece by Simon Kuper on Ed Smith last week. There are many excerpts we could take from it. Let’s leave aside acknowledging Ed Smith’s intelligence, his confidence in himself, and his wide-ranging sources of inspiration. Let’s look at these statements in the context of selecting Jason Roy.

Anyway, he has never claimed to have the answers to selecting a winning team. All he tries to do is think hard about questions that torment the growing number of modernising decision makers in all sports. How do you select, manage and drop people? How and when to use the new mountains of data? How to build team spirit? Most basically, how to improve performance?

 

All this went out of the window in selecting Jason Roy. This was the ultimate “gut feel” and “ignore your eyes” and “analytics” selection. Now this is Kuper’s commentary on the interview, not Smith’s view, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, eh?

Smith says: “If you ask, ‘What is selection?’ What are the moments when your judgment diverges from what would have happened anyway? That’s what selection is.” The temptation for a clever person taking a new job is to assume that all past conventional beliefs in the field were mistaken. Dominic Cummings, adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, embodies this approach. Smith avoids it. He quotes his friend Howard Marks (the American investor, not the late Welsh drugs smuggler): “Just because most people think it’s a bad idea to stand in front of a bus and you’re a contrarian thinker, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to stand in front of a bus.” Smith adds: “If you rate yourself as someone prepared to challenge conventional wisdom, you also should know the moments when conventional wisdom is right.”

The truly interesting part about this is that who were the “most people” in the Jason Roy example? Was it the voices he was hearing from inside the camp, and from key pundits and talking heads that we’d tried “traditional” openers with no success, so we should try more attacking ones (and forget about Alex Hales and his trials). Was he the bus, or the individual standing in its way? Those who really thought about it, people like us, and took the evidence we’d seen, the way he played, the “when he comes off” feast or famine, the utter talent and bravado at ODI level he has shown no signs of reining in with success even if he could, and thought “this ain’t going to work”. Especially against a really top bowling line up the Australians possess.

Smith doesn’t mention the deeper problem: England’s squad isn’t prodigiously talented. To solve the puzzle of beating India last summer, England picked decent bowlers who could bat well enough to score runs at number seven, eight or nine. Smith says: “Lower-order runs made the difference. The solution didn’t derive from statistics. It derived from problem-solving. It was a resources question: what do we have and how can that add up to getting 20 wickets and more runs than them?” Then there’s team spirit. Smith, who is dismissive of motivational buzz­words, prefers to sit in the stands watching teammates interact. “A bit pretentious, but: ‘Trust the tale, never the teller’ — DH Lawrence. The truth is in the game.

Again, this countermands any thinking behind selecting Jason Roy. What do we have and how can that add up to getting 20 wickets and more runs than them. Let’s select a batsman, who has rarely, if ever, opened in first class cricket, who has a glaring technical issue against the moving ball and a quite ineffective defensive technique going hard at the ball, who will also just try to hit out of major corners, and hope he’s Marcus Trescothick, or heaven above, Sehwag or Warner (keep quiet now). Trust the tale, never the teller. What tale did Ed Smith trust? Or, heaven above, is he just bluffing?

Yet it wasn’t enough. Arguably Smith & Co made selectorial errors, such as picking Jason Roy as an opening batsman.

Kuper leaves this little nugget to the end, and Smith does not, or was not asked, to comment.

Throughout this summer I’ve bemoaned the team we’ve had. In the middle of the piece Smith points to the structure of the Australian team of the early 2000s – six batsmen, one wicketkeeper-batsman, three seamers, one spin bowler. He then says selection then became a rank order. Was the fourth best middle-order batsman a better selection than the next cab on the rank. Was the third best seamer better than who could come in – as Lee did for, say Bichel or Kasprowicz. Here Smith gives his ideas as being getting the best players and making it work. It’s a theory, but it isn’t a particularly new one – akin to the “why don’t we pick all the great Liverpool players qualified for England in the 1980s and fill in with out other top talent.” It isn’t particularly innovative, it’s just other received wisdom, but because you wear a cravat or something. As if it damn well matters/:

This morning he strides into a King’s Cross café in sunglasses and a wound scarf that scream Saint-Tropez, 1963.

There’s a great interview with Roy Keane on youtube, when he goes through how players bad mouthed him when he was Irish assistant manager. Roy Keane did not sugarcoat his contempt at all for them. He called one a “bluffer”. Great in the media, a great talker. While Keane is not without blemish, I listen to him. He comes across as someone who doesn’t sugarcoat his views, whether you like them or not. When it comes down to it, and I’ve only time to give a couple of examples, most of those out there as pundits are “bluffers”. They know as much as we do. They try to persuade you we don’t know. I’ve taken a ton of words to say your view is every bit as worthy as Michael Vaughan, who is the ultimate bluffer (and it’s his quote about Jason Roy above), and the rest. So while I’ll never lay claim to knowing the game, or knowing what it’s like to face 90 mph bowling, but knowing what it’s like outside my technical comfort zone, I won’t bluff. I’ll give my opinion, honestly held. And so should you.

I thought I’d offer a brief personal comment on the Sun and Ben Stokes. The piece today, which I know the contents of but not read, has no merit. It has no shame. It has no thought of consequence. It is not in the public interest. It is very noticeable that in Ben Stokes’ book, I don’t believe it is mentioned (if it mentions his mum being married before, I can’t recall – I read it a while back). It is an extremely horrific thing, and I can’t for the life of me understand what possessed anyone to think this was a piece that should be published. When I think of the stick given to me by journos, and yet there is a large silence by those same people on this to their colleagues, it makes me sad. I’m not comparing myself in any way to Ben Stokes’ situation – before I get some clown who thinks I am – but at reactions.  It’s a complex argument, the Sun isn’t the only scumbag paper out there, but it only really has one rival for the top of that podium, but I hope that there’s an apology and a massive donation to a charity of Stokes’ choice. I shake my head at humanity, and the lack of it. I really do. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Up to others whether they think this is enough.

 

England vs Australia: 5th Test, Day Three

This is rather a strange Test match.  England are now hot favourites to square the series, barring a ridiculous Smith innings, which given his performances this summer only a fool would rule out entirely.  With the Ashes gone, the question of this Test being a dead rubber or otherwise is a fair one, but it is somewhat surprising to see how shoddy Australia’s performance has been at the Oval, given the series wasn’t won.  Catches dropped in the first innings, some poor bowling in the second, and while England’s problems haven’t gone away, they’ve played with by far the greater intensity of the two teams in this one.

Joe Denly was the star of the day, falling 6 runs short of a maiden Test century – his disappointment at getting out plain for all to see.  He has been perhaps the most interesting of the players tried in the England top order; he certainly hasn’t been a runaway success, but he has delivered more and more as the series has gone on. His technical flaws outside off stump were beautifully highlighted by Ricky Ponting, but he has been flashing at the wider ball on fewer occasions and seen his run returns improve as a result.  At 33 years old, he has set an example to some of the other – more experienced – players about how to learn and improve, rather than just repeating the same errors innings after innings.  He had some luck – being dropped last evening and getting away with an lbw not reviewed by Australia – their dire DRS performance continuing – but he earned it.  In the latter part of his career, he may not be considered a long term enough player for winter selection, but short term selections to fulfill a role – perhaps at 3 allowing Root to drop a place – aren’t necessarily bad in themselves.  Either way, his innings at Headingley gave England an outside chance of a win, his innings here has put England in a position where they should win.  It’s more than most in the top order have done.

Stokes and Buttler provided the most support.  The former looks to be the best batsman in the England side at present, given Root’s technical struggles.  Stokes has an uncomplicated technique, allied with ferocious power, and a concentration level that perhaps might not be expected of such a destructive player.  But while the sixes were still hit, this was a disciplined, focused innings in partnership with Denly that took England from a position of mild peril to one of strength.

Buttler capitalised on the foundation with a breezy knock taking England’s lead past 300.  He’s a funny one, he’s not had a good series overall, but has batted relatively well in the last couple of innings.  His defenders advance the case that to see him at his best the side need to lay a platform for him so he can play his shots, and while that’s probably true, if he’s in the side as a batsman then his job is to bat in all circumstances, not just to press an advantage home, or he’s simply a luxury player in a team that doesn’t have that freedom to select one.

Cummins and Hazlewood were again the pick of the Australian attack, without getting the rewards due, but Mitchell Marsh, given his first innings efforts, was curiously underbowled, and got more movement through the air than most others when he did.  Siddle picked up a couple of wickets, but was highly expensive, while Lyon was targeted early on by Denly and proved unable to fully contain the England batsmen thereafter.

As for tomorrow, England have a couple of wickets in hand, but are unlikely to add too many more runs, meaning Australia are likely to be chasing around 400 on a surface that’s still good, but offering a little more turn for Leach to exploit.  It is a measure of the fear Smith has instilled that England aren’t considered nailed on to win this.  Should they do so – and they really ought to, a 2-2 draw would represent something of a success in many ways – not in pure terms, but given how they’ve played.  Failing to regain the Ashes, certainly, but for much of this series the England batting order has been a mess, to the point that dropping a batsman for a bowling all rounder represented a strengthening of the order.  It would also be something of a failure for Australia not to win the series.  They’ve been the better team in three of the matches, denied by a freak performance from Ben Stokes.  Retaining the Ashes might have been the primary aim, but not winning a series that they really should do is falling rather short.

Lastly, the mandated number of overs to be bowled yet again weren’t.  Only two short today, but the running total for this Test now stands at 17 unbowled due to tardiness.  It remains unacceptable.

Why England Should Drop Everyone

England have now failed to win a home Ashes series for the first time in 18 years. Something clearly needs to change. Throughout the four Tests, England looked at least four batsmen short of even an average Test batting lineup, and their best bowlers were blunted by Smith’s annoyingly effective technique.

England’s reaction to failures in the past has been both incremental (changing only one player at a time even if several underperformed) and arbitrary (dropping a player whose face doesn’t fit rather than someone who did less well). As this series has proven, this flawed incrementalism has not worked.

With Bayliss leaving next week, now is the ideal time to make wholesale changes to what is currently a very poor team. If England don’t have a competitive Test side by the time they visit South Africa in December, they may well have to kiss any chance of success in the new Test Championship goodbye. So here is my reasoning, player-by player, for why no one should keep their place in the side:

Rory Burns – Why not start with the most controversial? He averages 40.37 in this Ashes (although just 28.86 in all Tests), and so has almost certainly assured his place in the side for the next year. The question the ECB really need to answer is who will be his partner. The quickest way to find another opener would be to try two candidates at the same time  in a few games and picking the best one.

There is an argument that England should field their strongest team, which would certainly include Burns at the moment, for the final Test. England can still draw the series and gain some Test Championship points, after all. I would argue, if the Test Championship is made a priority like the World Cup was four years ago, that this is the perfect opportunity to try new things in the team. Because the same number of points are divided up for each series, regardless of the number of Tests, a further loss at The Oval (Where you can only win or lose almost half the points available if it was a game in a three Test series) will have little impact on the league table. The next two Tests in New Zealand are not part of the Championship at all. This is, I would argue, the perfect time to try some new players in the team.

Joe Denly – This is perhaps a bit harsh, having just scored a valiant 53 in a losing cause, but he isn’t going to be England’s opener for the next two years of the Test Championship. He has demonstrated some application in the last two games, which is more than many others can say, but it feels to me like we’ve seen him reaching his potential in Test cricket and it still isn’t good enough.

Joe Root – The England captain’s batting average in 2019 is 28.56, which is perhaps good enough for England (he’s the third-highest runscorer this year behind Stokes and Burns), but far below what he is capable of. He has been on the England treadmill for the last five years, playing a key part in the Test and ODI sides, not to mention the burden of captaincy. All of which might suggest that he is burned out, and in need of a rest. Hopefully that is the case, and his poor performances aren’t the result of something more serious, and harder to solve.

Jason Roy – Played 5 Tests. Batting average of 18.70. I was honestly surprised it was that high.

Ben Stokes – England’s player of the series (and summer), but reportedly carrying an injury. Given his importance to the team, I don’t think England should risk him for the relatively meaningless next few games. Anderson’s series-ending injury in the first Test of this series shows the folly of playing a talismanic player when they aren’t fully fit. It would be better for England’s chances in the Test Championship if he comes into the South Africa series this winter without any lingering health issues, and well-rested.

Jos Buttler – Averages 22.00 with the bat in 2019. As a specialist batsman. Enough said, really.

Although I will add that Jos is an unbelievable T20 batsman. We have all seen what has happened to England’s best Test batsmen when they’ve attempted to adapt to ODI and T20 batting. Cook, Root and Bairstow’s Test batting techniques all seemed to suffer as a result of incorporating a more aggressive style. I worry with Buttler that the opposite might also be true, that batting in Tests might blunt his awesome power hitting.

Jonny Bairstow – Averaging 20.56 in 2019. Also not as good a wicketkeeper as Ben Foakes.

Craig Overton – 2 wickets at an average of 53.50 in his first game after a recall is hardly a ringing endorsement. Nor is his career Test bowling average (from only four games) of 44.77. George Dobell, who has probably seen quite a few Somerset games, actually rates his brother Jamie as the bowler more likely to succeed for England. Despite having the better first-class bowling average of the two, Craig might not even be the best bowler in his family (as Jimmy Ormond might say).

Jofra Archer – Whenever the ECB stumble upon a quality bowler, they typically have one of two responses. First, they seek to improve them by tinkering. This doesn’t seem to have worked once in the past few years, but they try anyway. The second thing they do is to grind any promising Test bowler into dust by overbowling them. This is clearly what is happening to Archer right now. Despite being the quickest bowler available to England, and only playing three Tests, Archer is only behind Broad (who has played four Tests) in terms of overs bowled in this series. He desparately needs time off, before England turn him into just another fast-medium bowler.

Stuart Broad – 33 years old, and has bowled by far the most overs of any English bowlers in this series. Without a rest, and soon, this story only ends one way…

Jack Leach – Perhaps the hardest player to drop of the XI. A series bowling average of 30.37 is pretty good for a spinner in England, although an economy rate of 3.29 per over is probably a touch higher than he’d be happy with. Crucially, there aren’t a lot of players who could take his place. Rashid is injured, Moeen has only played one first-class game since been dropped, and the rest haven’t consistently shown the ability to step up to Test cricket. Not to mention, Leach’s batting has been quite useful for a tail ender. I have to admit, I may have made a mistake dropping all eleven. He can stay.

Any thoughts about who you’d pick for the final Test, or on any other subject, are welcome below.

England vs Australia: 4th Test, Day Three: Snakes and Ladders

It was all going so well.  Surprisingly well, albeit if two batsmen in the top order were going to get set, settled and score runs, Burns and Root were by far the most likely.

Overton was an early loss, but while having him hang around would have been a bonus, he’d done his job last night.  The bulk of the day was all about the partnership of 141 which, if not comfortable, certainly looked in relative control.  It wasn’t easy, Cummins in particular bowled with pace, aggression and plenty of skill, while having very little luck.  But the two batsmen took England to the point where wild fantasies dreamed of a total decent enough to take England to some kind of position of safety.  Should have known better.

If nothing else, it demonstrated for the second innings in a row a greater level of batting responsibility from the England batsmen since the shambles of Headingley first time around.  To that extent, credit is due to them, for if 200-5 at the early close forced by bad light is some way of being a triumph -it did at least offer a relatively responsible example of batting at Test match pace, against challenging bowling.  It is to praise without context, for the times when England might be expected to respond to a big total by posting one of their own are receding rapidly into the past.

The late flurry of wickets, with both set batsmen departing and Roy joining them back in the pavilion wrecked a lot of the hard work that had been done, and with just 6 overs to go until the new ball, the possibility of a full blown collapse in the morning is distinct, but England’s first target of avoiding the follow on, which will take some time out of the game at least, is less than 100 away, and failing to get at least that far would represent a failure and a let down of the batting work done today.

Having been utterly dire yesterday, the problem England have is that they can’t afford a bad half hour for the rest of the Test, and that’s exactly what they suffered late after tea.  No one threw their wicket away, Burns and Root were both got out by excellent bowling, while Jason Roy had looked vastly more at home in the middle order than opening, before being undone by his technical looseness against a high quality Test match bowler. Perhaps if he’d been asked to bat in the middle order from the beginning, he’d have had a chance of getting into Test cricket, but his defence looks far too loose to allow him to stay in long enough to capitalise on his undoubted stroke making skill.  Even so, that he might never have been good enough to hold down a place is one thing, it is another altogether to select him as an opener which undermined fatally any chance he might have ever had.  There’s no disgrace in getting out to the ball that did for him, but how he got out, utterly beaten with stumps splayed everywhere wasn’t a good look.

Root will be picked up again for failing to convert a fifty into a hundred, but both he and Burns probably deserve credit for how they batted today more than criticism for not going on.  Losing them together was a huge blow for England’s chances of an escape, but the pressure had been increasing for some time, with Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon turning the screw ever tighter.  For once, England’s predicament is less about the batsmen, though the flaws inherent in the order make handling facing a big total more daunting than it was and than it should be.

It makes tomorrow a designated Big Day for the destination of the Ashes – England are going to have to bat out of their skins to get remotely close to Australia’s total, and bat long enough to take sufficient time out of the game to put pressure on Australia to try to force the win.  But it’s hard to see England having to bat less than a day second time around at minimum in order to get a draw, and by the time day five rolls around, on a surface that’s taking ever increasing amounts of spin.  Rain and bad light might yet intervene, and provide England with a salvation that they will scarcely deserve, for although they are battling hard, and doing about as much as might be expected of them with the bat, they are looking a doomed team.  The performance of Smith has been the difference between the sides, and England are wilting in the face of the repeated pummeling.  Bairstow and Stokes are still at the crease, and given the latter’s preposterous predilection for pulling off the impossible, all hope is not lost, but it’s not just uphill from here, it’s getting steeper by the minute.

Late on today came the announcement of the sad death of Abdul Qadir, swiftly followed in the rugby world by that of Chester Williams.  Two sportsmen who were iconic in different ways, the latter an icon of the rainbow nation that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the former for carrying the banner of leg spin bowling at a time in the 1980s when it appeared virtually extinct, especially in England.  Shane Warne a decade later would gain the plaudits for being truly extraordinary, but for a certain age group, Abdul Qadir was leg spin bowling – a man who would demonstrate something that was sufficiently rare and exotic as to send a thrill through the observer in an age where pace bowling dominated.   His record is a fine one, but his impact around the cricketing world can scarcely be underestimated.

 

England vs Australia, 4th Test, Day 2

There are days where the four writers here fight each other in order to get the chance to write the post at the end of play, and there are days when none of us want to write it. Today was very much from the second group.

The game started with people (particularly in the England team and the English media) suggesting that the Australian players would have been shaken and mentally scarred from Stokes’ heroics at Headingley. After two days, that would not appear to be the case. On the other hand, England’s bowlers and fielders looked tired. Perhaps they had spent the previous week on the lash, celebrating their unlikely win. Or perhaps the cold and wet Manchester weather had sapped any enthusiasm and energy they had for the game. Whatever the reason for England’s performance, it was an absolutely dire day for the home team.

The story was a familiar one. Steve Smith was in, and he stayed in until he put the game beyond England’s reach. England’s bowlers seemed powerless to stop him, bar a delivery from Jack Leach which Smith hit to slip. Unfortunately for England, Leach had overstepped the bowling crease and so the wicket was rescinded by the third umpire. Mitchell Starc and Tim Paine played supporting roles to Smith, each getting a fifty. Australia ended up posting a first innings total of 497/8d, leaving England requiring 297 runs just to avoid the possible follow-on.

Australia’s declaration left England with a ‘tricky 10 overs’ to face at the end of the day. As is traditional for tricky periods at the end of the day, no barrage of wickets fell. Instead, Australia were only able to pry Denly out with a sharp catch at short leg. On paper, Denly’s dismissal for 4 off 24 balls seems like an absolute failure. And, to be clear, it is. Any number of county openers must be looking at the performance of this England team’s top order and wondering if they have wronged any particular deity to be passed over so unfairly. But, compared to Roy’s performance in recent games, it was a defensive tour de force. Of Jason Roy’s 7 Test ininngs as opener, only one lasted more than 24 deliveries (His 28 (58) at Edgbaston). Particularly for an opener, who typically has a responsibility to get through the new ball more often than not, that is a shocking record. Let’s just hope that his Test batting improves when he comes in at five tomorrow.

But, and here’s the problem for me as a writer, what can you write about this game from an England perspective? There were no great performances in a losing cause which deserve highlighting, nor was there anyone who stood out as being significantly worse than their teammates. It was all just uniformly, predictably, mind-numbingly poor from all eleven players. The bowling, the fielding, and (for the 10 overs at the end of the day) the batting were diabolically bad.

It’s not like the ECB are going to sack the coach with just a few weeks left on his contract. Nor is any selector, even Ed Smith – Maverick Genius, going to drop all eleven players from a Test team. I’m genuinely stumped. Barring the rain making a significant contribution to proceedings (and given England have chosen to play in Manchester in September, it’s not an impossible scenario), I can’t see how England can avoid losing this game and conceding the Ashes.

And, for those of you keeping count at home, I think there were 4 overs unbowled today. Presumably, like every other day in this series so far, no punishments will be forthcoming.

Comments on the game or anything else below.

England vs Australia: 4th Test Preview

Yesterday’s preview that wasn’t a preview rather removed anything that’s not a preview from this preview.  Or something.

Anyway, here we are, 1-1 in the series, a genuinely epic conclusion to the last Test match and everything to play for. England have replaced Woakes with Craig Overton, continuing the glorious English tradition of making a bowler pay the price for the failures of the batsmen to score enough runs.  Woakes was used sufficiently sparingly in the last couple of Tests to cause speculation about him having an injury.  That England insist he’s fit rather makes it worse – as it means Root didn’t bowl him through choice.  Overton is clearly intended to come in and be the workhorse, which is all very well as long as he keeps it tight and looks mildly threatening sufficiently to allow Broad and Archer to not be ground into the dirt.  Nice plan, let’s see if it happens.

The other change England are making is to swap the positions of Denly and Roy, a tacit admission that despite the insistence that being a white ball opening batsman is sufficient preparation and similarity of role for doing so in Test cricket, they’ve got it wrong.  Who could possibly have seen that coming?  Roy has plenty of talent, that much isn’t in doubt, but a refusal on the part of the selectors to accept the differences in the roles gave him little chance of succeeding.  Whether he has the technique to bat at four is equally in doubt, but England’s insistence on defining attacking cricket as being able to smack the ball around in a limited overs contest means that short of an open admission that the selection was entirely wrong, this was likely the only change they could make.  It looks a touch more stable at the top, albeit it now places Denly at a disadvantage, but his innings at Headingley did at least show he was more likely to last the first five overs than Roy.  Denly’s innings in Leeds was needed for his own sake, and while he likely isn’t quite good enough for Test level (few are) he is at least approaching his innings with a desire to occupy the crease, something in perilously short supply in the England order

Australia have responded to their bowlers failure to defend 359 by dropping a batsman, which would be rather more amusing were it not for being an obvious necessity in order to bring the returning Smith back into the batting order.  Khawaja is the unlucky one, and in his case it might be that he really is unlucky.  He’s not shone this series, but nor has he been a particular failure either – he’s certainly looked the best of the top three to date – Australia’s reluctance to drop Marcus Harris after one game being the primary reason for sitting him out of this one.  Marnus Labuschagne has taken his chance expertly enough, but there’s something a little strange about making Khawaja captain for the tour match and then dropping him for the Test.

Pattinson is rested for the fourth Test, presumably for Peter Siddle to return.  Australia are in the pleasant position of having sufficient stocks of fast bowlers that Mitchell Starc still hasn’t appeared in the series, and few of the journalists are suggesting he will in this one.  Maybe a surprise will happen.

Smith’s return does set up the prospect of he and Archer renewing hostilities, and there’s little doubt that England will look to target him with the short ball utilising Archer’s extra pace.  Smith would be less than human if he weren’t a little apprehensive about that, but the bigger danger for England is in over-doing a tactic and forgetting that a good ball is a good ball, whoever it is bowled at.  It will still be pure theatre when they face off against each other and he will be more than aware of what is coming.

As for the way the game will unfold, the return of Smith is undoubtedly a boost for Australia, but other than that not a huge amount has changed in terms of the weaknesses of both sides.  The top orders still look exceptionally brittle, the middle orders still get exposed too early, the bowling attacks still look to be on top.  But England are level in this series because of a completely outrageous performance from one player.  They have looked second best in the series for the majority of the time, and relying on Stokes to pull off the ridiculous doesn’t seem a strategy likely to yield consistent results.  Australia will certainly be wary of a player who can do that kind of thing, no matter what the match position, it’s just that it’s asking far too much for him to do it on more than an occasional basis.

Australia should be the favourites, both for this match and for the series, based on what we’ve seen so far.  But England can certainly play better than they have, even with a flawed batting line up.  They’ve had a lifeline, a hail Mary of a win – whether they can use that to raise their game collectively is a different matter.  But a finish as good as the last one, that would indeed be welcome.  Already, as is the wont of those who delight in the clickbait, some are suggesting this series could be as good as 2005.  To put it mildly, the last two Tests would have to be extraordinary for that to be the case, even discounting the standard of the two sides in this one compared to 14 years ago.  It’s silly, it’s always silly.  But it carries on, for that is the journalistic world in which we now live.  A decent game, that goes the distance, that’ll do here.

Comments, as ever, below.

Ashes 3rd Test, Day Four: Utterly Ridiculous

Where do you even begin?  Perhaps with stating, no, insisting with the re-affirmation of what cricket fans have known all along – that Test cricket is the absolute pinnacle of the sport.  That the extraordinary World Cup win earlier this year had drama aplenty, but there is nothing, not in one day cricket, not in T20 cricket, and definitely not in Hundred cricket that can begin to match the slow burn intensity, the ever increasing pressure of a Test match.

The heart is pounding not in the final over, but an hour, two hours before the eventual finish.  The heart of the players, the heart of the spectators – in the ground, watching in England or Australia, listening to the radio.  Even more than that, it would have been for those watching in Chittagong or Colombo, for this is what this game can do.  Where every ball can bring a decisive swing, where all outcomes, even the vanishingly unlikely ones suddenly loom into view.

The endless sub-plots, a wicketkeeper as captain (and it is persistently understated just how hard a combination that is) losing the plot along with his team under the relentless pressure of a game already seemingly won beginning to get away from them.   The name Test cricket implies the scrutiny of not just ability, but the mental side of the game.  Keith Miller’s famous quote about real pressure being a Messerschmitt up his arse speaks to another world and a reminder of the realities outside a sporting contest, but it remains a truth that the tension of a Test match is unlike almost anything else, the gladiatorial individual contest in a team environment.

Stokes being an all rounder will always invite comparisons to the greats, and in England’s case Botham particularly.  He might be a different type of player in so many respects and ability wise it remains a pointless debate, but in the sense that he can seize an occasion, they are one of a kind.

There were of course plenty of moments where Australia could have won it.  Marcus Harris dropped Stokes in a manner eerily reminiscent of Simon Jones at Edgbaston in 2005, Cummins wasted Australia’s last review with a ludicrous lbw appeal that came back to bite them the following over when Stokes was given not out to Lyon with one showing three reds on DRS.  And right at the end, Australia missed a run out chance that was anything but difficult – the frantic moments of a game coming to a climax.

Ben Stokes’ hitting was beyond extraordinary.  The switch hit into the western terrace for six will live long in the memory, so bold the thinking, so exquisite the execution.  Length balls were disappearing over long off and deep midwicket, shorter ones smashed back past the bowler for four.  Jack Leach was the calmest man in the ground, defending his wicket and eventually scoring the priceless run to draw the scores level.

The earlier innings from Root and Denly gained in stature purely because of the outcome of the game, the problems in England’s cricket will be put aside for another day.  They shouldn’t be, for one freak innings from a player who knows how to seize the moment better than almost any does not alter the truth of the fragility of the English game.  The ECB will breathe a sigh of relief, that the focus will not be on them for another day.  But England will collapse again, the weaknesses Australia are exposing will come to the fore once more.  But just for today, just for now, it’s ok to bask in the brilliance of a player, and of the game of cricket.

It has to be said some have succumbed to the Greatest of All Time trap – emphasising why this remains such a stupid line to go down, because they’ve said it before.  And they’ve said it before so often.  It’s meaningless.  This was special, it doesn’t need to be ranked.

In the aftermath of the game, the Sky pundits talked about how this would inspire kids to play in the park, pretending to be Ben Stokes.  It hasn’t changed the invisibility of the sport, and if Stokes has a recognition factor, it’s because the World Cup final was available for all to see, while this final day remained a niche viewing opportunity.  Cricket needs exposure because a Ben Stokes can reach the parts hardly anyone can, as long as they see him.  This was something special, if only the nation truly had been gripped.

Somehow, ludicrously, this series is 1-1.  And now I need a lie down.