World Cup Semi-Final: India vs New Zealand

After 45 matches, and into the third calendar month of the competition, we finally reach the semi-finals.  Three games to go, the secret tournament gets to the business end amid a frenzy of indifference in the host country.

The semi-final stage really ought to be the one where the anticipation is huge, and where the wider audience is tuning in far in advance ready to view a showpiece occasion.  In New Zealand, Australia and India, that could well be the case.

This has been repeated in numerous quarters ad nauseam, but it doesn’t make it any less true, or less concerning, nor is it a dig as Sky Sports, no matter how sensitive their employees are or how “outrageous” they consider articles on a blog lamenting the invisibility of the game to be.  That they are so touchy tends to re-inforce the truth of the complaints – no one gets so irate unless it has touched a nerve.

Still, while the viewing figures for today will be as miserable in this country as they usually are, it is a World Cup, it is a semi-final, and a big event for the cricketing world.  And the two teams involved today have had sufficiently contrasting recent form to make India overwhelming favourites.  Despite their defeat to England, they have looked every inch potential winners of the competition, whereas the Black Caps three successive defeats have resulted in them stumbling into the knockout stage on net run rate.  The outcome of this one ought to be obvious.

But underdogs though they might be, New Zealand’s malfunctioning batting order do have enough to cause problems, and have the bowling attack to make any opponent queasy.  Their slump has been a rather surprising one given the quality on offer, even if player for player, the Indian team would be reckoned superior overall.  New Zealand embrace their underdog status at the best of times, and with this one, when someone as notable as Sachin Tendulkar wishes MS Dhoni all the best for “the next two games” it will certainly provoke a wry smile in the Kiwi camp.

India should win.  New Zealand have been poor.  But it could be fun if they decide to show up for it.

Comments below.

 

Advertisements

World Cup Matches 44 & 45: Sri Lanka vs India, Australia vs South Africa (and a bit of TV, FTA and the ICC)

And so we arrive at the end of the group stage, and more by luck than judgement, there is even a little bit to play for in the last two games. Not in terms of qualification though, after Pakistan’s always likely to be vain attempt to gatecrash the top four ended in victory, but not by enough, against Bangladesh.

Thus, it’s merely the order of the top four that is in question, and the incentive, such as it is, of who plays whom in the semi-finals. The most likely outcome is that Australia will play New Zealand at Old Trafford, and that India will play England, once again at Edgbaston. It’s probable that India and Australia would prefer to play New Zealand, both because of their recent stumbles, and also because England are unquestionably a side everyone else fears somewhat, even if they would certainly feel they can be beaten. But it’s hard to see beyond victories for both the Big Three members playing tomorrow, and that the semi-finalists includes them plus England is unsurprising, if somewhat depressing. But then, the whole structure of cricket at a global level is intended to allow them to maximise their income and power, so it is exactly as desired in the corridors of power. In most sports, an unexpected outcome in a tournament is something to be celebrated, only cricket responds by trying to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Today Sky Sports announced that if England reach the World Cup final, it will be broadcast free to air. At present it isn’t quite clear what “free to air” would mean, but it appears highly unlikely it will be via a mainstream channel with a large reach. This isn’t so surprising, there are other major sporting events on the same day, such as the men’s Wimbledon final and the British Grand Prix (another outstanding piece of scheduling for cricket), and clearing the decks for six hours of cricket at short notice is somewhat impractical, albeit it would be amusing to see the response if a main broadcaster expressed interest in doing so. What seems more likely is for it to be on something like Sky Mix, or even online via Youtube or Sky’s own app and website – the BT approach to screening the Champions League final.

Such an initiative is to be welcomed, but the focus and pressure on Sky to allow it to be shown free rather lets the ICC specifically, and the ECB more generally given this tournament isn’t in their purview, off the hook. The World Cup is behind a paywall because the policy of the ICC, as instructed by its members, was to maximise revenue in their TV contracts. The moment that was the intention, pay TV was always going to be the only outcome. The principal contract for England, India and Australia is held by Star Sports, who paid $2 billion back in 2014 for the rights to ICC tournaments up to 2023. It was for them to then sub-contract to national broadcasters and, naturally as a business, to maximise their revenue accordingly. Everything stems from that, the drive for revenue at every stage, and the reason why such tournaments not only won’t be on free to air, but effectively can’t be.

This isn’t Sky’s fault, they too are a business trying to make money, but it is the ICC’s for making the financial aspect the key one. To suggest, as some notable employees of Sky have done, that this is down to the free to air broadcasters failing to bid is a specious argument – they simply cannot financially compete on the same level as pay TV, and see little point in spending money preparing bids, or even considering preparing bids, for something they cannot win. It almost certainly is the case that the kind of wall to wall coverage required is now only in the purview of the satellite broadcasters here, but it’s still a matter of justifying the status quo by pretending that the creation of this situation is entirely separate from the bidding processes in the current market.

Where it does get more interesting is in the argument as to whether some cricket on free to air would benefit Sky themselves. This is one of those that only those inside broadcasting (we’re outside that too) can answer, but holding expensive rights to a sport in major decline cannot be a healthy financial position for them either, even if the fear in the future is that cricket sinks so far that Sky will be able to buy all the rights for a song as no one else cares. It seems unlikely this will happen for as long as there is more than one pay TV broadcaster, for cricket is a boon for them, filling lots of screen time for comparatively little cost compared to, say, drama. In any case, to say no one else cares about cricket is a weak defence. Firstly, the single positive of the Hundred, that there will be some shown on the BBC, implies otherwise to at least some extent, but more than that, if more cricket is of no interest to the terrestrial broadcasters, it’s because cricket isn’t of sufficient interest to them. But it was, at one point. And now it isn’t. For the ECB to have failed to nurture their broadcast partnerships over the last 15 years has been an abrogation of their responsibilities to the game. At another time, a World Cup the majority were unable to watch would have provoked howls of outrage. Now it is largely indifference whether they can or they can’t, and limited awareness that it’s even on.

Equally, there is the wider argument about the role of the various governing bodies. It is simply wrong to argue that all the ICC can possibly do is sell the contracts to make as much money as possible, because it isn’t what other sports do at all. Wimbledon could certainly make far more from selling off their event to the highest bidder, but refuse to because they value the exposure they get on the BBC. More pertinently, World Rugby, for their own showcase World Cup, specifically talk about finding free to air partners. Indeed, their wording is very precise:

“Securing deals with major free-to-air broadcasters who are passionate about sport is central to World Rugby’s mission to make rugby accessible in a global context. With each Rugby World Cup we are broadening the sport’s reach and appeal through a broadcast and digital strategy that is aimed at reaching, engaging and inspiring new audiences within existing and emerging rugby markets.”

This is completely alien to the approach taken by cricket, to the point that it is diametrically opposed in almost every clause in that paragraph. Very few people are so single minded as to believe that everything should be on free to air, irrespective of contract value, and given World Rugby’s activities and attitudes in other areas, it’s hardly that they can be held up as notable supporters of the common man and woman in every aspect. But it is a striking difference in strategy, to intend the widest possible audience for their blue riband event.

It is highly noticeable that Sky appear to feel they are on the defensive about this whole subject. It’s not necessarily why they’ve made the decision to offer the final conditionally free, but also how some of their staff appear to be spending considerable time messaging cricket supporters and blogs with impassioned defences of their position. It’s a different approach, certainly, and perhaps not a coordinated one, but the righteous indignation, when it isn’t even them who are bearing the brunt of the annoyance, is interesting.

What the viewing figures might be for any final, broadcast for free, with England in it will be interesting. It really isn’t just the free aspect either – buried away on a minor channel that only subscribers are aware exists is not going to cause a dramatic change, although in a perfect scenario, a very tight, exciting final might just allow word of mouth to spread, and for non-adherents of the game to seek it out.

For this is a positive, without any question. How big a positive is more debatable. If the stars were to align, then just maybe it could grab attention, even with all the competition. This is what every cricket fan surely wants.

One other small item. It’s been reported that the other counties are displeased with Warwickshire for offering guaranteed contracts with the Birmingham Phoenix franchise in an effort to lure them to the county. This is the kind of esoteric, obscure item that barely anyone notices, but has a big impact. For the Hundred franchises are meant to be entirely separate to the counties. But what did the other counties expect? That this would be adhered to? That it wasn’t really going to go down the route of concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the chosen ones? We get accused of being cynical too often, but to not see this coming is extraordinarily naive on the part of those upset by it. It’s more likely to have been a deliberate strategic approach by a governing body that has long disliked having 18 counties to deal with.

Update: the article concerning the recruitment for the Hundred has been pulled, and according to George Dobell, a retraction sought. Curioser and curioser.

Comments as ever below.

World Cup Match 38 – England vs India

It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. Still in the group stage, England are near enough already playing the knock out stages, following Pakistan’s last gasp win over Afghanistan. It wasn’t meant to be this way, with the ECB expressing their determination four years ago to prioritise the one day side over the Test team, and with an undoubtedly powerful England batting order smashing teams to all parts in the years running up to the tournament. Whatever the cause, it’s gone rather wrong here, and instead of a serene march to the knockout stage, England instead will probably have to win against both India and New Zealand to get through.

There have been some items of misfortune – Jason Roy tearing a hamstring was less than ideal, but England have also brought much of it on themselves, both on and off the pitch. The removal of Alex Hales from the squad looks like so much hubris, and did so at the time. Certainly, a case could be made for it being principled, but since principles are a movable feast within the ECB hierarchy, it was hard to accept that at face value, particularly given the mess made of it. It smacked of expediency at the time and looks unwise now. It’s certainly not to say that England wouldn’t still be in this position with him in the side, but it is to say that assuming that England were so powerful it wasn’t much of a risk to kick him out has deservedly come back to bite them. Not for the first time either, and as ever, one is left wondering whether the same action would have been taken with a player deemed more critical to the team at the time.

Instead, James Vince played, showing all the shots, and getting out. His lack of permanence, the situation in which England find themselves in and the lack of a decent understudy all mean that England are quite likely to take a risk on playing Jason Roy today. He’s certainly needed.

Jonny Bairstow’s comments in the media did have a kernel of truth in them, for it is certainly the case that the media are always quick to leap on failure, but it isn’t the media that have lost three games already, and it isn’t the media who have put England under such pressure at such an early stage, they’ve managed that all by themselves. Failure is inevitably going to attract criticism, whether from former players, the media or fans, and particularly so when England’s tag as favourites at the start of the competition did have at least some grounds for it.

Now, England are perfectly capable of winning against India, and indeed against New Zealand too. Indeed, they’re quite capable of winning the next four and lifting the World Cup, but as things stand, and given the uncertainty in the side, it’s not something anyone would feel too confident about. Perhaps in some ways it benefits them to focus minds on the next game rather than any further than that. And should they win both group matches remaining, they’ll be battle hardened in a way that none of the other teams are. This is what’s known as taking the positives.

Should England lose though, there is the added awkwardness in the ECB’s decision to effectively abolish 50 over cricket as a top level domestic competition from next year, and if for no other reason the ECB will be praying that England pull the fat out of the fire this time around to avoid even more awkward questions about future World Cups. That’s one for the future, for today it’s simply about finding a way to win, on an Edgbaston pitch that may well be conducive to spin again.

Comments below

World Cup Match 15 – South Africa vs West Indies

When you’ve lost the first three matches, and need a win to have any realistic prospect of qualifying for the semi-finals, what you really need is a dodgy weather forecast.  Today in Southampton there are showers.  All day.  It’s not promising.

Still, it will give the opportunity for plenty to lament the unique phenomenon that rain only ever happens in England.

If a game is played, it looks a tough ask for South Africa to resurrect their World Cup, and the various pieces of information coming out concerning AB De Villiers late bid to be included in their line up implies a squad ill at ease with itself.  That he would have strengthened their line up is not in question, that it appears they bent over backwards to encourage him to be part of the side only to be knocked back until the 11th hour is very much the Cricket South Africa line.  Whatever the truth of it, it has been a distraction at best, though it doesn’t explain the supine performances to date.

Yesterday’s India – Australia match, magically assigned a Sunday when coincidentally Indian television audiences might be at their height, was far more one sided than the raw scores might suggest.  Australia were never in it, despite Malcolm Conn’s description of their chase as a “brave” one.  It was a curious innings from David Warner, who looked hideously out of sorts, and left the subsequent batsmen with a near impossible task.  Perhaps it would have been better if the bails had been knocked off early in his innings.

Ah, the bails.  On five occasions this World Cup the ball has struck the stumps hard without them being dislodged, the zing bails apparently being heavier and the stumps themselves heavier.  Since it’s the same for both sides, it perhaps doesn’t matter overly, except that it is remarkable that it has been ignored as an issue in favour of the bling of them lighting up.  In a wonderful example of the kind of daft controversy cricket can embroil itself in, there has been lengthy discussion of the depth of the grooves, the weight of the bails themselves and even how firmly the stumps are held in the ground, with Scyld Berry offering up the solution of watering the holes rather more to loosen the stumps.  On such subjects, it’s far from impossible to have no view on it whatever, but to be deeply amused that it has come up at all.

Assuming there is any play today, comments below!

Match 14 – India v Australia

Chris had his say about the events of yesterday, so I won’t add to them here. England move on to Cardiff with four points, the mark Australia find themselves on at the moment, with India having two points from their first game. The Oval is the setting for the first meeting of members of the Big Three, the organising countries who will keep the World Cup for themselves for the foreseeable future, who will keep most of the cash raised, and in many eyes, form the three principal threats of winning the competition. I think New Zealand, who won comfortably against Afghanistan yesterday, will also be in the shake-up, and possibly West Indies who ran the Aussies close last week.

Those same West Indies, who will be our next opponent, face South Africa on Monday, although the weather forecast is absolutely dreadful for both that day, and Tuesday’s clash between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, so this could, possibly be our last game for a few days. What a mouth-watering contest it promises to be. India lost to Australia in the 2015 semi-final, and Australia lost to India in the 2011 quarter-final. The batting line-up that posted 328 at Sydney included Finch (81), Smith (107), Warner and Maxwell, who should reprise their roles at the original home of England international cricket (accept no North London impostors) tomorrow. India will return Dhawan, Sharma, Kohli and Dhoni from the top 6 back in that semi. I suppose it goes to show that teams don’t evolve that much in the batting department!

Australia have won 3 of the last 5 head-to-head match-ups, are on an impressive winning streak, and strutting their stuff a little bit. India never seem to lack confidence, had a good workout in the first game where Bumrah and Sharma certainly hit the ground running, and Chahal proved his inclusion was well-merited. But both teams showed some frailties last time out – Australia getting out of a massive batting hole through Coulter-Nile, India taking care to make their total having let the tail wag for South Africa. It promises to be a good one.

Comments below, as always.

World Cup Match 10: Australia vs West Indies

Perhaps the trick to make a World Cup interesting is to add a pinch of Bangladesh – two games so far, a win and a defeat, and both eminently watchable. This is, of course, the nation that booted England out of the 2015 World Cup so unceremoniously and spectacularly.

Yesterday’s match against New Zealand was one of those where every time you felt the Kiwis had got control, they lost a wicket, often through that particular joy of cricket, the ridiculously daft shot out of nowhere. There were a fair few of those on display in the first game too, though Bumrah’s opening spell will deservedly get most of the headlines for that one. India looked decent enough elsewhere, as far as can be determined from a single game.

South Africa on the other hand have one foot already on the aircraft home – three defeats out of three doesn’t put them out of the tournament, quite, but it does leave them needing to win at least five of their remaining six games to have any realistic kind of chance. Given the entire format of the World Cup is to maintain it for as long as possible, this might well be the earliest a team has managed to get themselves on the brink of elimination in decades. In their favour, it can be pointed out that they have played England and India, rankings wise the two best sides in the world, and perhaps teams the Proteas might be expected to lose to. But then they lost to Bangladesh as well, have batted badly, bowled worse and caught abysmally. The loss of Dale Steyn is a blow to the tournament, and to cricket fans everywhere, but South Africa’s problems are deeper.

Today’s game is Australia vs West Indies, and one that might just be an intriguing one. Australia with their returning bad boys look a vastly stronger outfit, while the West Indies have arguably the most potent pace attack in the competition, and the possibility of a Chris Gayle Day leaves every opponent slightly nervous.

Is it too much to hope from this World Cup a tournament where everyone beats everyone else? Perhaps. And perhaps in the long term such a hope would be the most damaging, as it would re-inforce the ICC’s claimed motivation for making it a 10 team World Cup. That’s the trouble with cricket these days – wanting good cricket has to be with an eye kept on how the bastards will use it.

Comments as ever below!

World Cup Matches 8 and 9 – India v South Africa & Bangladesh v New Zealand

So enter the giants. Bring on the gladiators. Bow down to the titans. India belatedly join the “party that is gripping a nation”, and in front of them is a team that if it loses, might as well ensure they are on that flight to Johannesburg prior to July 14. The stakes are high.

You’ll be thankful that this isn’t a 1000 word epic. There are two games scheduled for 5th of June, and India are on first in Southampton. Highly favoured, they won’t be overly concerned that they have had to wait, or really what they’ve seen from their opponents. Their’s will be a more intense campaign, but not that much. A tournament where there is still four weeks of the qualifying competition to run allows such indulgences like waiting a week to start!

The second game puts together two unbeaten teams up against each other. Bangladesh return to the scene of their triumph on Sunday with a hope to repeat the formula. New Zealand blew Sri Lanka away on a lovely green surface in Cardiff and look a formidable unit. While you have to favour the Black Caps, Bangladesh aren’t to be taken for granted. One of my favourite cricketers, Mushfiqur Rahim, is always a key man for the Tigers, and his lovely knock on Sunday got a little overshadowed by Shakib, but was utterly valuable (going to a country like Bangladesh makes me want them to do well. I loved my time there). By all reports their fans were brilliant on Sunday and brought a great sense of occasion to the match. Good on them.

The match between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan was the first one that was weather affected, and yet there was still a pretty gripping contest (due to disruption in London, I had to work from home, but I’m not going to watch cricket, sadly, if I have to work – honestly). Sri Lanka got off to a great start, collapsed in a heap, eked out something competitive, and then Afghanistan got off to a half decent start, collapsed in a heap, rebuilt a little, but then fell short. The bowling attack may sneak them a game during the tournament, but the batting looked a little short for Afghanistan today. They are by no means outclassed. I am watching the highlights and what a really good comms team they had on today. Doull, Smith, Mitchell, Sanga and even Pommie was OK today too. Nothing pants on fire enthusiasm, no screaming and hollering, just adult commentators treating their audience as adults. It will never catch on.

As we have seven games under our belt we have two hundreds. One suspects India might add to that total today. Let’s see if they are for real. South Africa are in turmoil, and it will be a huge upset if they win. It is especially sad, though sadly not unexpected, to see Dale Steyn won’t be playing a part. I saw him in his first series back in 2004/5, and he had an action and pace to die for. He’s been an amazing player, but time stands still for no-one, not even a warrior like Dale Steyn. It’s terribly disappointing.

Comments below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs India: Fifth Test, Day Three – Just a Little Bit More

The mind is a funny thing.  It’s been said often enough that cricket is a game played in the head as much as on the pitch, and while this surface has been kinder to the batsmen that most in this series, it isn’t quite at the Melbourne 2017 levels of slow and flat.  Yet Alastair Cook has looked in both innings about as good as he has done for a couple of years.  That’s not to say that anyone should be begging him to re-consider his decision, but it is to say that the probable weight off his mind has led him to relax at the crease somewhat.  He batted well in the first innings, and he’s batted well here.  And those heading to the Oval tomorrow will get the chance to watch him tomorrow, which perhaps will help the attendance figures for a September Monday after the kids have gone back to school.  Nothing would quite highlight the way the ECB have managed the game recently as much as Cook departing for the last time in front of a couple of thousand people, and whatever the raging arguments about where he should be placed in the list of England batsmen, that would be an unedifying end.

In some ways, this has been the best Test of the series  (albeit a dead rubber which always removes the sense of jeopardy) perhaps because there’s at least half a chance it might reach the fifth day on its own terms, and perhaps because the bat seems marginally more on top than to date.  If anything, it appears to be getting easier to bat on, and a day on which only six wickets fell seems quite remarkable given all that’s gone before.  Yet the overall patterns continually repeat themselves, a very English set of pitches that produce generally similar cricket, and generally results inside four days.  It is less than surprising that teams struggle when they come here, or that England have so many problems overseas.  This time at the Oval, it’s the same, just slightly less so.

India had an excellent first half of the day, adding 118 runs to their overnight score with their remaining four wickets, largely thanks to an outstanding unbeaten 86 from Ravi Jadeja.  He farmed the strike expertly, the last three wickets adding 55, only 5 of which came from his partners.  Few would have begrudged him reaching a century, while in the match context, getting India within 40 made the match far more interesting than it looked like it was going to be.  England toiled manfully enough, with the biggest surprise being that Adil Rashid actually got a bowl.

India’s trials by DRS continued when they got hold of the ball, through managing to burn both of their reviews within 12 overs of England going out to bat. It was impressive too, given both reviews were palpably not out without so much as the benefit of a replay. One of the best decisions made by the ICC about DRS recently was to abolish the renewal of the two reviews after 80 overs, meaning that teams need to manage them far better than they currently are.  It matters less in England where surviving 80 overs in the first place appears to be a badge of honour, but the carelessness shown means both teams, but particularly India, will have to change their DRS ways on the flatter surfaces elsewhere.

If Cook was playing his final Test innings, many would have thought Keaton Jennings was doing the same, particularly after he left a ball that didn’t so much clip the bails as crash into middle and off stumps.  Leaving such a delivery is usually indicative of a scrambled mind, so he will be pleased to have heard Ed Smith indicate that he’s on the tour to Sri Lanka already.  Smith appears to have regarded this series win as huge vindication of his selections and his approach, which is fair enough as long as the team does win, though unusually strident to imply personal responsibility for that success. There is more than an element of hubris in his revelling in his unorthodox selections, and repeating a certainty that it is the right way to go.  Furthermore, he appeared quite relaxed about the top order difficulties, implying that he was quite content for the runs to come from the lower order.  For now, results are in his favour, but his supreme blithe confidence suggests he could probably do with someone on his shoulder whispering “Remember Caesar, you are just a man”.

Root at four showed all the signs of a man delighted to be batting where he wants to be, which in this England side does at least have a rarity value, as we know at least one of the top four for the winter tours.  Still, there has to be something said for the concept of batting your best player where he is most comfortable, in the hope of getting the best out of him.

154 ahead, two days to go.  England will want to be batting most of tomorrow, but there’s always that England thing of a collapse around the corner.  Even with that, another hundred oughtn’t to be beyond their capabilities, and a target of over 250 should be too much for India.