England vs. Pakistan – Champions Trophy 2017

Going into the first semi final, it’s hard to imagine two more different teams being involved. England’s selection and performances since the 2015 World Cup debacle have been incredibly consistent (“Predictable”, some might say) whilst Pakistan can most charitably be called “mercurial”. England rely on their strong batting to counter their weak bowling and win games, whilst Pakistan’s bowlers keep them in games that their lacklustre batting would otherwise forfeit. England sacrificed a little of their consistency in selection for this game, finally replacing Jason Roy with Jonny Bairstow as their opener. For Pakistan, former guest of the English penal system Mohammad Amir was forced to pull out of the game due to a back spasm.

Pakistan won the toss and elected to field first, a choice which surprised many who thought that Pakistan’s spin bowlers would favour bowling last on a pitch which had already being used twice in recent weeks. All eyes were on England’s new opener Bairstow, who was lucky to survive a second-ball LBW shout. He continued to ride his luck through two dropped chances before finally being caught on 43. A useful partnership between Root and Morgan followed, adding another 48 to the total. At the halfway stage, England were 118-2 and looked to be setting a total near 300.

The second half of the innings was dominated by Pakistan. Unable to deal with Pakistan’s tight bowling or the slow nature of the pitch, England’s run rate slowed to a crawl and whenever they tried to accelerate they inevitably lost their wicket. Ben Stokes managed to scrape together a score of 34 runs from 64 balls with no boundaries, but everyone else fell for 11 or less. England lost their last wicket with one ball left to go with a decidedly sub-par score of 211.

The second innings was a complete contrast to the first. Without facing any kind of scoreboard pressure, Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman seemed content to play safe whilst punishing the bad balls. They were helped by England’s bowling, which provided enough bad balls to always keep Pakistan well ahead of their required run rate. Unlike when England were batting, there were seemingly no dropped chances or false shots. Rashid eventually managed to get Zaman stumped on 57, but by then Pakistan were already too close to their target. Even Pakistan couldn’t lose from there, and they didn’t. Pakistan reached their target having lost only 2 wickets and with 13 overs to spare, capping a humiliating loss for England.

And so, like after every tournament exit, there will be a post-mortem by the great and the good of English cricket. And also us. Certainly much has been made during the game of the pitch, for which this was the third time it was being used within a few weeks. It definitely seems puzzling from the perspective of the ICC or ECB since you would assume they’d want batting-friendly surfaces which deliver tons of runs and sixes for TV audiences, particularly in the later knockout stages which attract the most viewers. This shouldn’t absolve the England team from blame, though. The conditions were the same for both teams and England just didn’t adapt well enough. It’s hard to see how this might be remedied, with England’s packed schedule there’s no time for many players to spend in different countries learning how to cope on pitches which don’t seam, or swing, or have uneven bounce.

There’s also the matter of personnel. Winning the Champions Trophy would have secured a lot of people’s jobs at the ECB, even if they lost the upcoming Ashes series. Following today’s result, I’d be surprised if Trevor Bayliss could survive losing the series down under this winter. That would in turn increase the pressure on the ECB’s Director Comma England Cricket, Andrew Strauss, as the man who hired him. In the short term Paul Farbrace, England’s specialist coaches and the selectors might be in trouble if the ECB wants to make an immediate change.

As for the players themselves, that’s a tougher one to work out. There doesn’t appear to be much debate about this England XI being the strongest team available. None of them are old enough that they might be out of contention for the next major ODI tournament in 2019 either, so I would guess that England will stick with them all. Certainly this game shows that England players as a whole need to spend more time playing in different conditions. Whether that means letting them play in T20 leagues (and not just the IPL), or more Lions tours, or training camps, something clearly needs to be done.

As always, please comment below.

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India vs. Pakistan – Champions Trophy 2017

The most hyped contest in this year’s Champions Trophy ended in a damp squib with Pakistan never seriously challenging India at any point in the game. It was certainly damp, with three interruptions caused by the rain in Birmingham. There are many fans around the world asking why a country with England’s climate is hosting an international competition at all, and particularly in June and not August.

Having won the toss and chosen to bat second, Pakistan were outplayed virtually from beginning to end. The game started promisingly, with Pakistan only conceding 15 runs from the first 5 overs. After that point, unfortunately for Pakistan’s fans and most neutrals, India never looked like losing the game for a second. Pakistan’s bowling was abject, with Wahab Riaz taking particularly heavy punishment. Only teenage legspinner Shadab Khan and former Portland Young Offenders Institute resident Mohammad Amir finished the innings with respectable figures. They certainly weren’t helped by the Pakistan fielders, who dropped two clear chances and were generally poor in their ground fielding.

It’s often said that teams can only beat what’s put in front of them. India certainly did this with a dominant batting display. Rohit Sharma laid the foundations with a slow and steady 91 from 119 balls whilst Dhawan, Kohli and Yuvraj all contributed quick-fire fifties to take India’s score well over 300. This was a really strong team batting performance which will worry a lot of teams going forward in the competition.

If the first innings was bad for Pakistan, the second was somehow even worse. Whilst Azhar Ali did a reasonable job providing the platform like Sharma did for India, at the other end it was slow-motion carnage. India’s bowlers did a great job keeping the Pakistan batsmen’s scoring below their required run rate, eventually making them go for risky shots or suicidal runs. If one thing might disappoint the Indian team, their fielding was the equal of Pakistan’s and that is certainly not a compliment. They dropped two relatively simple chances, and their ground fielding was also very poor. Of course these mistakes weren’t punished by Pakistan, but they will want to improve before facing any stronger teams.

If anything, only losing by 124 runs (adjusted by DLS) is a result which flatters Pakistan who were never competitive. The massive Net Run Rate differential from this game makes it seem like it’s virtually impossible for Pakistan to make the semi finals, and virtually impossible for India not to. The ICC will no doubt breathe a heavy sigh of relief that India seem destined to make the knockout stages and will keep all the Indian TV viewers (and broadcasting companies) happy.

Elsewhere, England have announced the replacement in the squad after Chris Woakes was sidelined by a side strain. His place will be taken by Steven Finn, which always seemed the most likely choice the ECB would make after revealing it was a three-way contest between Finn, Toby Roland-Jones and Tom Curran. If Roland-Jones or Curran were to actually play, it would be their second and first ODI caps respectively. With 69 ODIs under his belt, Finn is clearly seen as a safer choice.

Of course this puts an end to the rather amusing speculation that Stuart Broad would be brought into the team. To put this into context, the last ODI he played in England was against India in the 2013 Champions Trophy Final. To say that his selection would be seen as a panicked move by England’s selectors would be an understatement, and it’s not really clear how the groundswell of support for the idea in the England press box might have started.

As always, comments are welcomed and appreciated. It’s my first official post on the site after two guest appearances, so be nice! Or don’t. I’m pretty sure I can delete comments and ban people now.

Dmitri #5 – Pakistan

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You can probably guess that the individual world player award is going to go to a non-Pakistani player given this collective award, and you would be right. Misbah-ul-Haq, Yasir Shah and Younis Khan all played really well, as did Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq (Ali making a double hundred as I write this piece), but I’ve decided to go elsewhere for that particular Dmitri. However, for an “award” founded on the influence and debate-stirring on a blog, to ignore the tourists of 2016 would be remiss. The good commenters on this blog showed plenty of excitement and happiness at the style of play, the quality of the matches and a somewhat unexpected tight contest. So for Dmitri #5 I am awarding this highly prestigious and awe-inspiring gong to the Pakistan team.

Once they get over their excitement let’s look at why. All through my cricketing life there’s been a special sort of loathing for Pakistan – they were the ones who were quite clear in calling for neutral umpires as they considered David Constant (and others) to be biased. However, we could call their umpires anything under the sun, and did, especially in 1987! They also had players who could be called abrasive – Javed Miandad, I’m looking at you – and would not take a step back, as they showed when winning here in 1987 and 1992. Then there was reverse swing, so lauded in our press now as a skill Anderson and others possess, but at the time of Pakistani mastery, was seen as cheating and ball tampering. There have always been murmurs, and louder, of corruption, match fixing et al, as well as the nonsense at the Oval in 2006. Relations between England and Pakistan have always been “difficult”. Then 2010 seemed to prove all the naysayers right. They were up to their eyes in spot fixing, and three big players were booted out. When their premier spin bowler was effectively booted from the game for chucking, it seemed as though Pakistan were dead in the water. Where was there to go? No home. No throughflow of players despite the talent, the regurgitation of the Akmals, and the presence, always of Shahid Afridi, for good or bad. Within their ranks, they had a true leader. He was just, well, old.

Under Misbah-ul-Haq Pakistan briefly reached the status of world number one in test cricket. Given the team plays no series in its home country, this is possibly the most remarkable achievement in recent times. Of course they are formidable in the United Arab Emirates, and play very well in those conditions, but they have taken some of their form outside of the cosy confines of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah to be able to top the rankings. While they are not unbeatable on their travels, as New Zealand showed, and Australia are going someway to doing so, they are capable of exciting and dashing cricket. They also have that steel in them as well. Azhar Ali has scored a triple hundred and double hundred this year, while converting from a number three batsman to an opener to fill a vulnerable position. Bookending the top order is unsung hero Asad Shafiq, a gutsy, game fighter of a batsman who has given England more trouble than they would have liked. They have another punchy keeper, Sarfraz Ahmed, who is threatening to become a front-line level batsman, capable of match turning knocks.

The bowling is a bit hither and thither. It can look good on its day, but also veer well of tangent. This applies to the seamers, who on paper look a more than useful battery of quickish bowlers, and with decent spare capacity in case of injury. The spin of Yasir Shah is lethal in suitable conditions. He is a clever bowler, not a massive turner of the ball, but constantly at you – more your Kumble than your Warne. They do seem to go through massive dry spells without wickets, perhaps allowing too many games to drift.

Which leads us to the old duo in the middle order – Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq. They cannot go on forever, and undoubtedly this will be the last time we will see them playing tests on English shores (or should I doubt that). For long spells of the test summer, Younis looked like someone had him on remote control and was playing him around like an idiot. He couldn’t keep still, got himself in dreadful positions, looked totally awful. Then, when his team needed an innings to punish England for their lax batting at The Oval, Younis came through with a double hundred. At times it wasn’t pretty, but the old stager wasn’t to be denied. Combining with Asad Shafiq, he took Pakistan to a dominant position, over 200 in front, and let Yasir Shah do the rest. Pakistan walked away with an honourable 2-2 draw and put to bed the rubbish emanating from some of the press corps about how fortunate they might have been to win at Lord’s.

Because it was at Lord’s that Pakistan made massive headlines with their play, and their celebrations. For most, the sight of Misbah doing press-ups after his hundred was a joyous one. It was a “I can still do it” moment (in my circle of mates we call this a Spacey, after his role in American Beauty), and most bought into it. When they repeated the celebration as a team at the end, in front of the Lord’s position, some wanted to make a point that it was “rubbing our noses in it”. I don’t know who could have thought, that, or why. But some did. Sport has a lot of growing up to do, and also needs to shed itself of its damn self-righteousness. Pakistan had been a joy for the four days, England contributed to a really good game of cricket, and the game was the winner. What might have been lost was the credibility of the 7-0 merchants prior to this summer’s test matches.

This blog appreciated the series, loved its competitiveness, including an excellent win from behind at Edgbaston by England, and had real empathy for the team’s characters and characteristics. So to Misbah and his team, thanks for a cracking series, and for the entertainment you gave us.

Dmitri #6 will be the International Player award. Coming soon.

England vs Pakistan: 2nd ODI

No form of cricket can guarantee close matches or excitement, and the first game somewhat petered out in a drizzly mess.  But even though England’s win was ultimately confirmed by Messieurs Duckworth Lewis and Stern, there was little doubt which way the match was going anyway.  It was a curiously old fashioned game, at least as far as Palistan were concerned, as their innings brought back memories of England under Flower and Moores as much as anything.  260 may even be a “winning score” as far as the statisticians are concerned (probably not) but England were in complete cruise control throughout.

The second match therefore will be interesting to see how the visitors look to approach it, for England look a real force in the one day format, one who seem quite capable of reaching another hundred on top of that.  That’s not to say they can’t fall in a heap, for the shorter the game, the higher the level of risk, and the greater the opportunity for collapse.  One of the more pleasing things about this England side is that when that does happen, they regard it as an occupational hazard, shrug it off and continue in the same vein.

Yet if the batting is doing well, it was the bowling, or more specifically, one element of the bowling, that caught the eye.  Mark Wood has shown he has ability and pace before, but his entire England career to date has been while labouring with the presence of an ankle problem.  Having been away for quite some time getting it sorted, he is now back – and my, how he is back.  His pace is right up there with anyone, and it was startling to read that he feels he’s not fully there yet and could get quicker.  It may yet be the best news of the summer providing he suffers no reaction.

In the days between these matches England confirmed that they will tour Bangladesh this autumn.  The ECB rarely earn praise from anyone – well, apart from one or two for whom they can do no wrong no matter what – but while it is impossible to judge the rights and wrongs of this particular decision, they do deserve praise for at least trying wherever possible to ensure these tours go ahead.  It’s not the first time, back in 2008 after the Mumbai terror attacks, England returned to the country, ensuring that normality was restored in sporting terms.

Again, we must trust the Foreign Office and the ECB’s own advisors that this particular decision is the correct one, but assuming it is so, it would still have been easy to use the security situation to cancel it.  Indeed, there must be a suspicion that other countries may well have done so, and thus with the proviso that we do not know the reality of the decision, the ECB do deserve credit for not using it as an excuse to avoid going.  Notwithstanding Pakistan’s wonderful rise to the top of the Test rankings, it would have been crippling to Bangladesh had it got the go ahead.

The ECB have told England’s players that they can drop out of the tour with no effect on their careers, but whilst this is a good thing to say, the truth of the matter is that for all but those absolutely certain of their place, it means nothing.  Players who do well are always going to be in pole position, the man in possession has the advantage.  It means that for some, there will be some soul searching about whether to make themselves available or not.  It is hard to think how else the ECB could have done things, they may be many things, but they are not fools, and they will be as aware of this as anyone.

Finally in other news Somerset have announced the prices for the T20 international between England and South Africa next year.  It is the first time they will host an international in 30 years, and they seem determined to make the most of it, by announcing ticket prices of between £60 and £80.  It’s not the biggest ground, it is a big event for them.  But it is still an outrageous price.  There seems little doubt they will sell out, and therefore in commercial terms it’s justifiable.  Yet once more it is those who support the game being used as a cash cow and nothing else.  Commercially sensible yes.  Grasping and greedy, also yes.  I trust they’ll use the financial bonanza wisely.

2nd ODI comments below

Around The World – Part One

An update on world cricket in three parts. Today, part one on India, Pakistan and Australia. A brief review of where we are, a look forward to the winter and other assorted comments.

The World Game… Test Cricket

This blogger loves test match cricket. You know that. But there is not enough time in the day, or the week, to keep up with it all. Not while holding down a full time job, and keeping up with all my sporting interests. But I can take an overall view of what’s happening, subjecting myself to the greater experts out there, but putting down a starting point for a discussion. Hopefully.

 

India (Latest Series – Leading 2-0 v West Indies (a))

The Indian cricket team, on paper, doesn’t strike fear in the hearts. This may be because I take a rose-tinted view of the past teams, with the Sehwag-Laxman-Dravid-Sachin-Dhoni axis at the top of the order, and with a quality seamer in Zaheer Khan. Spin also seemed more daunting with Kumble and Harby over the past couple of decades. The team is currently playing the West Indies in a four test series (and by the time this goes to print, it will all be over) and they have handled the hosts quite comfortably. The batting revolves around Virat Kohli, who has looked good on this tour at times, with solid citizens like Rahane to back him up. The opening slots look to be between 3 players – KL Rahul, Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan – while Pujara, who looked awesome a couple of years ago, seems to have really gone off the boil. In this series India have played Ashwin as a number 6 bastman (and he has rewarded them with two centuries) but that has to be an unlikely gambit to play at home against England, one would have thought. Saha appears to have nailed down the keeper-batsman slot, which leaves the bowling. We’ll see three spinners I would imagine (given the quality of Ashwin’s batting, we are talking a potential all rounder here) in the series against England, and hoping that Ishant and whoever else is doing the seam work can do their share.

Before England visit India, there is the small matter of a three test series for India at home to New Zealand. These will be played at Kanpur, Kolkata and Indore, with the first starting on 22 September. The five test series against England will start on 9 November in Rajkot, with the following four matches in Vizag, Mohali, Mumbai and Chennai all being wrapped up before Christmas. India are also scheduled to be playing a one-off test against Bangladesh at home – that’s taken them just the 18 years – at Hyderabad in February. I refuse to believe that India will then let their international players twiddle their thumbs until the IPL starts, but Cricinfo has not got them playing anyone until then (but it looks like Australia will be visiting – see below). Surely Sri Lanka are available for an ODI series?

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Zahee Khan – the last truly fearsome Indian seamer?

England fans are always going to wonder about India. It’s terribly hard to shake the memories of the Indians last two tours to this country. Firstly the 2011 tour, when a keenly fought first test gave way to a downward slide in performance was put down in part to a dying of the light of the old pros (although Dravid gave a lie to that), part due to Zaheer’s injury and part to boredom on the part of India – and a bloody decent England team playing just about as well as they could. 2014 was different only in that the performances lasted until the second test, before the remainder of the test tour descended into performances of atrocious quality. India will be back here in 2018, and with the different style of Kohli as captain, I don’t expect phlegmatic shrugs and devil-may-care attitudes. Not sure Kohli hasn’t seen a situation he doesn’t see as a competition, and I put the brilliant but undervalued Ashwin in the same category. Both are fine cricketers. Many love to watch Rahane, while I’m quite partial to the traditional opening skills of Murali Vijay. The bowling will always be a hostage to the conditions that home matches are played in.

Many think that the five test series will be played on similar surfaces to the ones that took South Africa down last winter. Some on here were particularly scathing of those wickets. We’ll get an idea when New Zealand visit. England know what is coming. India do to. They can reinforce the number one position in the world this winter against two good foes.

PAKISTAN (Latest Series – 2-2 away v England)

The English summer, as Chris said in his recent piece, was a magnificent one for Pakistan, and for England fans who craved a competitive series with committed and competent foes not from the Big Three. It wasn’t 18 months ago that New Zealand had provided an albeit short quality series, but Pakistan’s longer series was much to enjoy, and greatly received. They stand on the cusp of World #1, and yet this may be elusive as India may well reinforce their lead. Their core is quite old, with two key batsmen nearer pensionable age than school age (allow me some poetic license with Younus, eh) and the quite experienced tier underneath looking good at home, but not so much on the road. However, I mean Asad and Azhar in particular here, both adapted and made test hundreds in England to add to their excellent home records. Like many world teams, the openers are not settled, but they may have found a good one in Aslan (a lion heart – sorry), and I suppose Hafeez may come back for home conquests. It was interesting that Azhar opened in the final test, and whether this may be his new position we’ll see in the fullness of time. The bowling was up and down in England, but is going to be useful in its “home environment”. Actually, Yasir Shah is probably a bit more than “useful” in the UAE, while Amir will be good for the run-out in England, and Wahab, Sohail and Rahit all looked decidedly decent at times. They’ve got some great talent.

According to the cricinfo page on future series, Pakistan will not be playing tests in UAE this winter, but they have two test tours lined  up. The first of those is the abomination that is a two test series, which makes no sense still, in New Zealand, with the matches being played in Christchurch and Hamilton. These take place in November. This is followed by a tour of Australia for three tests – the first, in Brisbane, is a day-night match, with the second and third at the traditional Boxing Day and New Year’s venues of Melbourne and Sydney. International duties are fulfilled by the end of January in Australia, and there then seems a gap. Maybe the path is being cleared for the PCL, or whatever it is called? The ICC Future Tours programme (stop laughing Simon and D’Arthez) suggests they’ll be contesting a four test series in West Indies. As if. It also suggests that they’ll be playing a two test home series against the West Indies in October, but I haven’t seen a lot about that, have you?

Pakistan were impressive tourists, but we could see their flaws in the way they were thrashed at Old Trafford, and let a great position slip away, in my view due to an abundance of caution, at Edgbaston. When on the front foot they can be excellent foes, and at Lord’s they won a close game by keeping their heads when England were losing theirs. The team’s core is old, and when they go, which won’t be long, it’s going to need Azhar, Asad and Sarfraz in particular to take up the cudgels of senior pros and lead from the front. They have the ability, but whether they have the sticking power is debatable. But their ability, their flair and their personalities shone through and the long-awaited renaissance of Pakistan cricket looks to be on track. Whether it is sustainable, and whether it crosses into other formats, is a matter of wait-and-see. The world would be a better place for a firing Pakistan playing regular international cricket.

AUSTRALIA (Latest Series – Lost 3-0 in Sri Lanka)

What on earth is going on? We know that for non-Asian teams, winning away on alien surfaces is a treasured prize, but the same goes for Asian teams on their visits overseas, and very little slack is cut for them (see my views on India in 2014). This Australian team is an absolute mess when it leaves the shores of their beloved home. It folded any time there was movement in England in 2015, and now, in Sri Lanka, a team rebuilding after star players have left the stage, who looked dreadful for large swathes of their previous series, turned over Australia in three hard fought matches. Their bowling didn’t let them down, it was the batting putting their bowlers into various states of Mission Impossible. On paper, with Warner, Smith and Voges an experienced trio anchoring the batting this should not happen. Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja are supposed to be talented batsmen. But there is something about Australian selection that is harking back to the hilarities of the Hilditch regime, where bits and pieces players are popping up at number 5 (Moises), and talents like Burns are given a couple of bad games before they are fired out of a cannon into limbo. Australia used to be the benchmark when it came to shrewd considered selection. I’m wondering if Ted Dexter is secretly running the show.

Australia will fall back on their success at home as they attempt to get over yet another Asian shambles. They go to South Africa for some ODI nonsense, before hosting the Proteas in Australia for three tests in November (South Africa want Boxing Day matches of their own, not bowing down to Australia, so it seems unlikely Sydney and Melbourne will see them much in the future). Those matches take place in Perth, Hobart and finally Adelaide (a day-nighter it seems) and will probably end up in a comfortable home win with lots of players looking really good. This will then be followed by another three test series against Pakistan (see above), where we will see if normal service is resumed, and Australia dish out a beating. After some ODI action, the FTP has them playing four tests in India in the early part of 2017. No details of venues yet, but Bengaluru, Dharamsala, Ranchi and Pune are mentioned as the potential hosts.

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Another Mitchell – Impressive in Sri Lanka. Can he stay fit?

But what of the team? The flow of ready-made, top quality batsmen, with almost flawless techniques seems to have passed. Australia, rated number 1 until recently, are a pale shadow of past number 1 teams – hell, if you need a benchmark from 10 years ago, they are it – and are something we’ve never associated with them, brittle. From losing the first test having bowled the hosts out for 117 in the first innings, to contriving to lose a test match in Colombo where the hosts were 26 for 5 in their first innings, and the visitors were 267 for 1 in their reply is staggering. These players appeared mentally bereft. The old tenets of international cricket were ripped up. Australia losing their composure? Really?

Selection for the first home test is going to be fascinating. Joe Burns had two ordinary tests and was replaced by Shaun Marsh, who promptly made a ton, but has let Australia down before. David Warner is secure, but he went another Asian series with no real success. Steve Smith was a centurion in Colombo, and made starts in the other two tests, but he’s not convinced as a leader as yet, and may find himself in a position that Clarke inherited, but without a Mitchell Johnson to bale him out. Voges had a low-key series, Khawaja, having looked a million dollars last winter, was dropped again as soon as he failed in a couple of games. The bowling was fine, although Lyon wasn’t the success that was hoped on wickets where Herath made hay. But it was Australia’s sense of throwing selectoral mud on the wall and hoping some would stick that mystified. Heaven knows what happens when they go to India next year. It might not be pretty.

One senses with Australia that they will maintain home dominance and still falter when not expected to away. Despite weaknesses against spin, and the apparent discomfort on Asian surfaces, no-one expected that latest reverse to be so dramatic. Their handy dismantling of the New Zealand good news story last winter is evidence that this is a quality side. Where they concern me, if I can be concerned about Australia, is that this team needs selection patience, and they aren’t doing it. It’s fine and dandy to have a hair trigger when your team is dominant and your 2nd XI would probably give you a better game than most test teams (as in the early 2000s), because the top boys need to maintain their standards. In a team bedding in new players, that’s not sensible. I mean, seriously, who envisages Moises Henriques becoming a test stalwart? We saw this in 2010-11, albeit a bit more laughable, but the portents aren’t good. Burns and Khawaja are quality players. Faith is needed. Perhaps the most interesting country to watch this winter. It might be bipolar in the extreme.

Hand me Down a Solution – Series Review

In the early 1980s when growing up, summer holidays meant tuning in to BBC1 at 10:55 to watch the Test matches.  Come the end of summer, the feeling of melancholy at the conclusion of a series was always strong, with the only subsequent cricket being the end of season Lords one day final, which was akin to pretending to enjoy the sloe gin from the drinks cabinet when everything else has been consumed.  Times change, and cricket now is unending, where the finish to the Tests is merely a pause before the one day internationals begin, and then England go on tour somewhere.  In the same way that the end of the football season is a mere pause in hostilities, the end of the Test match cricket summer no longer normally carries so much power to create sadness.

And yet with this one, perhaps there is a little more in the way of regret at the passing of the season.  This is probably as much as anything due to Pakistan, who have been exceptional tourists, and thoroughly merited their victory at the Oval to draw the series.  Four Tests also offered up the reminder as to why a five Test series remains the best possible format, provided the series is a competitive one.  Few cricket fans would object to a decider for this one, yet it is a lament that so often is heard and never acted upon.  It was at least better than the ridiculous two Test “series” against New Zealand last year.

What the drawn series did do was silence those who were quoting the article of faith about England holding all the bilateral trophies.  It isn’t that doing such a thing isn’t a meritorious achievement, it’s just that something that no one had ever noticed or paid attention to before somehow became the highest possible achievement in the game in their eyes.  As with so many things, the context is all, noting success is a good thing, going overboard about it is not.  Doubtless, the bilateral series record will now return to being what it always was – a minor matter.

Given their troubled previous tour to England, Pakistan clearly intended to win hearts and minds this time around, and in that they succeeded.  It is a remarkable turn around for a side who it is probably fair to say were one of the least popular touring sides in England; they played with a joie de vivre that reminds everyone that cricket – even in its modern, money is all important guide – is a game, a pastime, and above all fun; the reason all of these players first picked up a bat or a ball in the first place.  The repeated press ups may have irritated the England players, but it amused the spectators every time.  Quite simply, the Pakistan team looked like they were enjoying themselves.  One particular moment comes to mind, a catch by Hafeez (who didn’t exactly have many high points) caused a young boy in the crowd to wildly celebrate, being picked up by the TV cameras and leading the player to end almost doubled over laughing, and applauding his young supporter.  It was a delightful moment, and one that re-inforced the image of a team comfortable with where and who they are at last.

Misbah ul-Haq remains under-appreciated in his homeland, but elsewhere he is approaching hero status for cricket fans.  The achievements are verging on the extraordinary, with Pakistan now having the most successful period in Test cricket in their history under his leadership.  It is quite exceptional in itself, and given his age, truly remarkable.  Misbah has made Pakistan competitive, and above all given his team their self-respect.  If it has to be that it is something more recognised for what it is abroad, then that is a pity, but it is still worth recognising.

So what of England?  The first part of the summer was routine enough, a Sri Lankan side shorn of its great players was despatched with little difficulty, but Pakistan proved to be something of a harder nut to crack.  This in itself came as something of a surprise to some, with many predictions of a comfortable England win before the series began.  Yet Pakistan were always going to be a threat, and in advance of the series the assessment of it being between two sides with good seam attacks, and patchy batting proved to be ultimately more or less right.  England had the advantage in the middle and lower order, while Pakistan had a (much) better spinner at their disposal.

Statistics can be gleefully misleading at the end of a series though: take the comparison between Moeen Ali and Yasir Shah, both of whom averaged over 40 in the series with the ball.  Yet Yasir was instrumental in both Pakistan wins, while Moeen – with the ball at least – certainly was not.  This isn’t a particular surprise of course, for Yasir is an outstanding bowler, and even the most adoring fan of Moeen would never make that claim.  But it does highlight the point that players can have an impact in a game disproportionate to their overall figures, perhaps we could call it the Ben Stokes effect.

England did have some real successes in the series, Moeen himself batted absolutely beautifully, that dreadful slog at Lords proving to be very much the exception.  It’s notable in his case that that particular dismissal didn’t stop him from using his feet to the spinners, most gloriously on that final morning at Edgbaston where in the first over of the day he served notice that England were going all out for the win.  That Moeen can bat is not especially surprising news, that his batting improves out of all recognition when given one of the batting spots rather than being in the tail perhaps is.  Either way, and given that England have limited spin bowling options – presumably Adil Rashid will come in for the India tour – his series will count as a success, albeit with a couple of major caveats.  One item of note with Moeen’s bowling is that although his average is certainly not the best, his strike rate is quite decent, comparable with Nathan Lyon for example.  Batsmen do try to attack him, and do get out to him.  In the absence of a truly top class spinner of the calibre of a Graeme Swann, replacing Moeen with another off spinner is unlikely to deliver markedly improved results.  It doesn’t mean defending Moeen irrespective, but it does mean cutting England’s cloth according to what they have.  A decade ago Ashley Giles received no end of criticism for not being Shane Warne, but he did a job, and did it well.  Chasing rainbows is not the means to a successful side.

Joe Root finished top of the batting averages, largely due to that astounding 254.  Aside from that it will represent a mildly frustrating series for him, getting in and getting out with annoying frequency.  An illustration of just how good Root has become is shown by the feeling that the series was a slightly unsatisfying one despite over 500 runs at more than 73.  Such is the penalty for excellence, for brilliance is expected every time.  But Root himself alluded to the irritation of getting out when set, so it is less a criticism, and more a matter of the player being so good now that he can deliver even more than he currently is.  He has a decent shout of being England’s best batsman in many, many years.

Cook too had a mixed time of it, despite a strong set of figures over the series.  He looked somewhat rusty in the first Test, but thereafter his biggest problem appeared to be that his form was too good if anything.  He rattled along, having the highest strike rate of anyone bar Moeen, a most un-Cooklike state of affairs.  He was fluent and even playing cover drives, which tends to be one of the best indicators of an in form Cook.  That would then bring about his downfall – seeing him caught at point off a skewed drive, or dragging pull shots onto the stumps is not something that is expected.  Most batsmen will tell you that they score the most runs when they are just shy of their very best, where there is a degree of caution in the strokeplay.  When feeling on top of the world, more chances are taken, and getting out is more likely.  It is impossible to measure, but the suspicion has to be that this was the case with Cook this time.  Still, a good series for him.

Jonny Bairstow was the other major plus point in the batting order.  He’s the leading run scorer in Tests in the world this calendar year (by dint of having played far more than anyone else, it has to be an Englishman) and scored heavily without ever going on to a truly match defining innings at any point.  Four fifties and no hundreds represents a decent return from a player in excellent form, but perhaps his most notable achievement was muting the comment about his wicketkeeping.  He hasn’t turned into a great ‘keeper overnight, and probably never will, but it is tidier, and with fewer errors than in previous series.  He pulled off a couple of decent catches too.  His wicketkeeping remains a work in progress, but the reality is that his runs balance that out; the age old debate about a specialist keeper versus an auxiliary batsman who keeps has long been settled, in favour of the batting.  Bairstow will make mistakes, but the more he keeps – and it does need to be remembered that much of his career he has been essentially part-time – the better he will get.  There have been some suggestions that he move up the order, effectively to compensate for the flaws in England’s batting, but it would be a big ask to expect him to do that, especially in the heat of India or Bangladesh.  Weakening another player to make up for the failures of others has never been a solution.

England have become something of a team of all rounders in the last eighteen months, and the player who was widely felt to be more of a bits and pieces player than a true example of the breed is Chris Woakes, who probably had the best series of anyone.  He batted well enough, making a maiden half century, but his bowling was a revelation to many.  Yet Woakes has an excellent first class record with both bat and ball, and he was hardly the first player to find the transition to Test cricket a challenge.  The demand for instant success clouds the reality that an immediate impact guarantees nothing, and other players can take time to adjust.  One fine series doesn’t mean that he’s a fixture for the next few years, but he’s started to look the part with the ball for a while; in South Africa he bowled with very well yet was spectacularly unlucky.  This time he got the rewards.  By all accounts he has worked exceptionally hard on his bowling, putting on an extra few mph and improving his control.  Players can and do learn – it is not unlikely that James Anderson is a rather useful resource – and Woakes’ success is a reward for being patient with him.

Stuart Broad is a bowler who attracts considerable ire and much comment, despite a record over the last couple of years that compares with anyone.  This series certainly wasn’t his best, and mutterings about his apparent habit of coasting resurfaced.  Yet 13 wickets at 28.61 is hardly a catastrophic return, and if that now counts as coasting, then it merely demonstrates what a fine bowler he has become.  It was a relatively quiet series for him because he didn’t have one of those spells where he becomes completely unplayable, rather than because he struggled at any point.  Broad is the focal point of the England bowling attack these days, despite Woakes having a better time of it this time.  Criticism of Broad is absurd, he is a fine bowler who had a series that was quiet by his standards.  The “by his standards” is the key.  Where there can be severe disappointment with him is with his batting.  It has completely fallen apart, and the pity of that is that for so long he looked like someone who, if never destined to be a true all rounder, looked a player capable of meaningful contributions on a regular basis.

Anderson too had a reasonably quiet but still moderately effective series.  He didn’t take a whole lot of wickets, but maintained excellent control throughout.  He made more headlines for having a preposterous strop at being rightly sanctioned for running on the track than anything else.  What can be said about him is that at 34 he remains an outstanding athlete, with few obvious signs of diminishing powers.  Assuming he carries on for another few years he will doubtless get slower, but he is a clever bowler, and one who will use the skill developed over a career to take wickets.  At the veteran stage of his cricketing life, he is still a valuable asset.

As for Steven Finn, his raw figures look horrible, but at times he bowled well and with pace.  He’s a difficult one to assess, forever making progress and then regressing.  At 27 he should be coming into his peak, but the nagging worry that he is not going to fulfil the potential he first showed is very much there.  Two away series (assuming Bangladesh goes ahead) in Asia are unlikely to show him at his very best, given that the rampaging, lightning fast Finn of the past now appears to be something we won’t see again.  He is once more at the crossroads, and which way his career goes is open to question.

The bowling overall looks in reasonable shape, the nucleus is there as it has been for some years, and if the spin side of it looks a bit thin, it’s an issue that applies to the English game as a whole more than anything.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the batting, for despite the good performances of those mentioned, that they were required to do almost all of it as the rest of the top order had poor series.

Ballance was the best of them, and he at least has a strong record to fall back on.  His return to Test cricket doesn’t appear to have shown any major changes in his technique, beyond batting a little more out of the crease than he used to.  He didn’t appear out of his depth, did get a few good deliveries and made one score of note.  Of all the players who had weak series, he still appears to be best equipped for Test cricket.  Yet the jury remains out on him, as to whether that slightly idiosyncratic style is going to allow him to make a true success of the longest form of the game.  He probably did enough to retain his place in the side, if only because others did worse, but he needs significant runs soon if he is not to be another to shine brightly but briefly.

Hales and Vince are the two who are most at risk, yet for differing reasons.  Hales doesn’t have the purest technique, but was brought into the side to provide a contrast with Alastair Cook’s accumulative style of batting.  Yet it was Cook who was by far the more fluent, while Hales appears to be attempting to bat like a traditional opener.  It’s hard to understand the thinking behind this, for Hales is never going to be as competent at that as others are, his strengths are in playing his shots, taking the attack to the bowling and giving England a fast start.  Once in, he is one of the most destructive players around, but whether it is his own decision, or it is pushed from above, it seems to be the worst of all worlds, a pedestrian style and a technique that doesn’t stand up to the rigours of Test cricket.  It would be easier to comprehend if he was trying to be England’s answer to David Warner, and whether that succeeded or failed, it would at least be an experiment worth trying.  As things stand, it’s hard to grasp what the intention is.

Vince in contrast looks lovely, full of gorgeous and stylish shots, only to fall repeatedly to a fundamental weakness outside off stump.  The health enforced retirement of James Taylor created a vacancy in the middle order, but it wasn’t a position that had carried much strength anyway.  Vince looks every inch the Test cricketer right up to the point he gets out, then rinse and repeat next time around.  Michael Vaughan for one has insisted that Vince be given more time but the ISM factor there lowers the credibility of someone whose views ought to be credible.

What that means is that there are three players in the top five not pulling their weight, an impossible situation for any team.  The only reason it hasn’t proved catastrophic is because of the strength of the middle and lower order.  When England’s top five (with two obvious exceptions) are collectively referred to as the “first tail” it’s clear there is a problem.  Of course, not for the first time the selectors have made a rod for their own backs.  As with the Pietersen situation it requires replacements to be notably better than those that have been dropped, and the discarding of Ian Bell can hardly be said to have been an unqualified success.  The problem here is not the dropping of a player, it so rarely is.  Bell had struggled for a while and not selecting him for the South Africa tour was a decision that could be justified.  Where England go wrong is in at the very least implying that at no point could they ever have made a mistake, and ignoring any and all criticism that they may have done so.  All teams have to create a space for new players to develop, the issue England have is that 60% of the top five are in that position, something completely unsustainable.  The rather transparent attempt to undermine the selectors in the media by the coincidence of several articles at once proposing the creation of a supremo (like we haven’t been here before) don’t alter the truth that the selectors themselves have a fairly patchy record.

Looked at that way, it is something of a miracle England managed to draw the series at all.  With the five matches in India to come, it is difficult to see how they could get away with these flaws.  The one bright spot is that Ben Stokes will return, and while his batting is not entirely reliable it is at least more so than some currently in the side.  It may well be that by bringing in Rashid and dropping one of the seamers (presumably Finn at this stage) they have a ridiculously strong middle order with Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes and Rashid comprimising numbers 5 to 9.  Whether that then compensates for the top is another matter.  There are whispers that Adam Lyth may be recalled to top of the order, or it could be that another young player is thrown in.  Eventually no doubt they will find the right player, but repeated discarding of batsmen doesn’t give too much confidence in the method.

A few last items: It has been a regular topic of complaint on here, but this was surely the summer in which poor over rates finally caused the ICC to take action and stop the theft of spectators’ money.  It would take an extraordinarily insular governing body who didn’t have an issue with it, one that considered paying spectators as nothing other than a resource to be exploited.  Perish the thought.

According to the press, should the Bangladesh series go ahead it will be left to the players to decide whether to go, with no adverse reaction should they decide not to do so.  Nice words, but the reality is always different; it may not be deliberate, but a player has a chance to get into the side by making himself available – equally few but the most comfortable will want to take the chance that someone else comes in and takes their spot.  It’s not meant to be critical, the ECB’s position on this is a reasonable enough one.  But reality intrudes on this – there will be some reluctant tourists.

After that comes India, and a huge challenge for the team.  While it is entirely for monetary reasons, it is still welcome to have a five Test series over there, but 2012 is a long time ago and England will do will to escape with a drawn series, let alone anything better.  Cook will need to be at his very best for one thing, but the batting will need to do far better than it has shown itself capable of in recent times in order to compete.

England are not a bad side at all.  The Test rankings show nothing more than that several teams are capable of beating each other on their day and (especially) in their own conditions.  But for all the talk about whether England could get to number one by beating Pakistan, it’s of no importance if they might drop down the series following.  There is no outstanding side in world cricket quite simply, and the focus on being the best is quite some way away.  Although there is necessarily going to be an England-centric focus on that, it’s no bad thing to have a number of competitive sides.  A bigger issue is the difficulty of winning away for anyone – which is why Pakistan drawing this series is such a creditable result.  They have been delightful visitors.

Oh yes one last thing.  It’s 8-8 in Director, Cricket’s  Big Plan To Make Cricket Relevant Idea.  You hadn’t forgotten had you?

England vs Pakistan: 3rd Test Day Five

Pakistan must be wondering how they contrived to lose this game. Having been 257-2 one ball before the close of play on day two, a mere 40 runs behind England, they would surely have expected to go on to win the match. Even though their first innings wasn’t as big as it could have been, it still left them with a lead in excess of 100.

Indeed, although England wiped off the deficit without loss, they were soon back in some kind of trouble at effectively 23-2 and again though less so at effectively 179-5. That turned out to be the final chance to win the game, from there Moeen and Bairstow took the match away from Pakistan and by the start of play today a draw was about the best they could hope for.

Cook has not been especially brave with his declarations during his captaincy but there could be few complaints (whatever the eventual result) with today. The plan was clearly to throw the bat and declare as soon as possible and Moeen rather helped by taking the first over from Yasir for 20. He might be a flawed player (albeit one who has had a great year to date with the bat) but he is exceptionally unselfish. He could have a better batting average than he does by quietly ensuring the red ink, but many a time he has got out desperately seeking runs when batting with the tail. Today his immediate assault ensured that it was quite clear England were going for the win.

344 was the nominal target, but despite a pitch that was still flat, and despite the usual panic about Pakistan making it, the history of the game makes it clear that such targets are unlikely in the extreme. But there was no reason at all the tourists couldn’t bat out the day, the surface showed no signs of breaking up – if anything the only concession to four days of play was for it to have got slower and lower.

When batting out time a key requirement is to have a good start, but Hafeez once again decided to give England a boost. Having slapped a long hop to point in the first innings, this time he decided to hook Broad straight to Woakes at fine leg. Batsmen make mistakes, it’s part of the game, but this was poor batting and given the circumstances, somewhat irresponsible.

Still, there was a recovery from there, Azhar Ali joining the hugely impressive youngster Sami Aslam. For a time, all seemed serene and England were, if not flat, somewhat subdued.

It was not long before tea that all hell broke loose, four wickets falling for a single run as Anderson, Finn and Woakes ripped through the middle order. Edgbaston is the most raucous, noisy ground on the English circuit, and when the home team gets on top – especially with the ball, it creates an air of expectancy and certainty that another wicket is round the corner. Enough sportmen are quick to say that the crowd can be the twelfth player for it to be obvious that this does make a difference, and it takes a strong team to resist that kind of atmosphere.

When Finn (who bowled at times with something approaching his old hostility) persuaded Sami to leave a ball that darted back in to the crash into his off stump, it was all over bar the shouting. An entertaining last wicket partnership merely delayed the inevitable slightly.

Make no mistake about it, this was a fine England victory. The lower order strength in batting rescued them from an unpromising position, and when the seamers get some shape through the air, they look lethally dangerous. England’s bowlers are superb exponents of making the most of favourable conditions, where they look toothless is when there’s nothing to help them, for they don’t have the raw pace or hostility to trouble opponents on flat and unhelpful surfaces/conditions. No matter, for all bowling sides can be criticised for the times they don’t succeed, but England do have a useful unit, one that might be completed by a truly Test class spinner. Ah yes, the Moeen question – he has a poor average but it’s worth noting that he also has a very similar strike rate to Nathan Lyon. It’s hard to see anyone else being a radical improvement, which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be tried of course.

Today they forced a win they had little right to expect. It was great to watch, and a perfect example of why those who talk about four day Tests are quite simply wrong. 

England can go to the top of the ICC Test rankings if they win the final Test. That is perhaps more reflective of a number of flawed sides in world cricket than anything else, for there is no outstanding team in the game, only ones who look good sometimes, dreadful others. A degree of uncertainty is not something to be unhappy about, though winning away in the modern era looks increasingly difficult to achieve.

This was a second good Test from three this series. If the final one of the summer approaches it then it will have been one of the better ones in recent years. It was therefore slightly disappointing that Edgbaston was barely half full for what was likely to be a good final day. This time it wasn’t about the pricing, as £16 for adults was well judged and good value.

It was a weekend, England had a good chance of winning and it was cheap. But not full or close to it. Perhaps this is having unreasonable expectations, misremembering a time when there were queues to get in; certainly the 80,000 spectators over five days seems a number the authorities are pleased with. It just doesn’t feel like cricket can ever again truly capture the public, and that’s a deep concern.

England 2-1 up, and no one has even thought about the score across the whole tour. I suspect most have forgotten about it. Which probably says it all.

One final point. The over rate today was excellent. Indeed had they needed to really push they might have been able to squeeze another in. Funny that. 

England vs Pakistan: 3rd Test, Day Three

This blog has been on something of a mission to talk about over rates over the last year or so, but even by the woeful and unpunished standards of that time today was something special.  Only 81 overs were bowled in the day, and that was thanks to the innings change being at tea, otherwise it would have been in the seventies.  That is 10% of the day’s play not completed, and rightfully there has been much comment about it.

Yet it is merely an extreme example of something that is considered acceptable.  In no other sport would this go on – can you imagine a football match finishing after 81 minutes for example?  People have paid good money to go to these matches, and they are being shortchanged repeatedly.  What normally happens is that the match referees take into account delays such as reviews, repairing the bowlers footholes and so on – but this is nonsense.  The additional half hour is there precisely to cater for such things, it is not part of the playing time.

No excuses, no justification.  Today is merely an extreme example of the game not giving a stuff about those who pay to watch.

During what play there was, England actually had an exceptionally good day, perhaps even more so considering it wasn’t one of those magic days where nothing can go wrong.  Instead, on a pitch that has shown no signs whatever of breaking up – indeed it appears to have got flatter – they worked hard and stayed in touch through the dint of those efforts rather than anything extraordinary.  The wickets were shared around with the exception of the luckless Finn who cannot buy one at the present and suffered yet another dropped catch towards the end.

Woakes again was excellent, Anderson was miserly, and Broad showed what he has added to his game in the last few years – namely the ability to keep things tight and pick up wickets even when not at his very best.  Broad in particular is one of those divisive characters who gets criticism despite having a truly outstanding record in recent years.  He has a bowling average of 22.69 in the last two years.  This isn’t just good, it is truly world class.  Yet he still gets stick when he has a less than perfect day.  It’s hard to know what more he could possibly do to win the detractors over.

For Pakistan, a lead of 103 might have been less than they had hoped for, but it would have still been an immensely satisfying outcome from the first innings.  Stats can be manipulated to express a desired outcome, but the one that only 3% of matches have been lost by a side taking a lead of 100 or more does emphasise the strong position in which they found themselves.

It could have been better still – Misbah continued his one man mission to give hope to all those over the age of 40 with another good innings, cut short rather unluckily from an inside edge that deflected off pad and heel back on to the stumps.  After his departure the innings began to fall away, despite the best efforts of the increasingly impressive Sarfraz Ahmed, ultimately left stranded on 46 as the tail fell away.

Flat as the surface was, England were in some difficulty with the match position, and Cook and Hales deserve immense credit for batting to the end of the day without either being dismissed.  Pakistan’s bowling could have been better certainly, but there’s always the temptation to lay the blame on the opposition rather than praising England.  Confining Cook by not bowling anything wide of the stumps for him to cut is extremely easy to say, and not terribly easy to do.  The way Australia managed it in 2010/11 was exceptional – but that is not normal, or cricket would be a far easier game than it ever has been.  Likewise, Hales may have a weakness outside off stump, but he batted with good discipline and reined his instincts in.  In some ways this was his most impressive innings to date in the Test side.

So with England now in the lead with all 10 wickets in hand, it could be argued that the match is now level, and numerically this is so.  But psychology plays a funny role in cricket, and an effective 17-0 it may be, but the effort in getting to parity cannot be overlooked.  England have made a very good start, but 120-0 can all too easily become 150-3; still not a bad innings but in the match context 50-3 is back in trouble.  Therefore for England to get into a good position they will need to bat exceptionally well tomorrow too, they are the vulnerable team in this match still.

The draw is now a good possibility though, with two days remaining it’s hard to see circumstances where England are sufficiently comfortable to be in a position to declare, so at worst Pakistan will likely have less than a day to bat should things go perfectly for England.  Pakistan remain the most likely winners, and perhaps England’s best chance of victory is to be bowled out, sometime towards the end of play tomorrow.  Another 300 would represent a perfect fourth day and be a stiff target.  But another 300 would also require England to bat out of their skins.

This could yet become an exceptionally good Test match.

Day Four Comments Below

 

 

 

 

England vs Pakistan: 3rd Test Day Two

Predicting sporting contests is a fool’s game much of the time, though it remains fun to do.  The very essence of sport is that the unexpected happens, otherwise there’d be no point watching or participating.  Nevertheless, the degree of certainty so many had that England would prevail in this match before the start was rather peculiar, apparently based on the undoubted hiding that England dished out at Old Trafford.  When Pakistan put England into bat, it was called defensive, when England were bowled out on day one, it meant that England would do the same to the tourists on day two.  It is as though Pakistan’s victory at Lords never happened, as though they were merely cannon fodder for an all conquering home side to swat aside.  Some even predicted a 7-0 Test summer, as though Pakistan were no more of a threat than Sri Lanka.

England are not out of this game by any means, the late wicket of the excellent Azhar Ali made the day slightly less dreadful than it would have otherwise been, and with Pakistan still 40 runs behind the possibility of early wickets in the morning with a still fairly new ball remains.  But England desperately need those early wickets for if they don’t get them they are in serious trouble, even if Pakistan are the ones having to bat last.  All things being equal, by the time England are batting again, there should be a little more help for the spinners, and one of the notable things about Moeen Ali’s bowling today was that while it wasn’t hugely effective, he was getting bounce occasionally, and bounce is a considerable danger when utilised by an outstanding spin bowler.

It had all started so well, Mohammed Hafeez slapping a wide long hop straight to Gary Ballance at point, but after that it was all Pakistan.  Sami Aslam impressed mightily in only his third Test match – and startlingly, he hasn’t played a first class match since December.  He looked every inch the Test opener; compact, technically sound and perhaps as important as anything else, he left the ball superbly.  England didn’t look like getting him out, so his partner did it for them, running him out with a dreadful call, albeit Sami could have backed up a little more.

Should Pakistan bat well tomorrow, England have another potential problem, for Anderson has received two warnings for running on the pitch and another will see him banned for the rest of the innings.  Anderson himself didn’t behave terribly well, and subsequently said that he’d apologised to both umpires.  Whether that is enough to distract the match referee remains to be seen.

The not out batsman overnight is Younis Khan, and it is hard to decide whether it is amusing or painful to watch his batting travails at present.  He looks hideously out of form and is fighting with himself every ball he faces.  His batting technique is all over the place, jumping in the air constantly, weight distribution somewhere around the inverse of what it should be – yet he is still there.  To see such an elegant player battling this way is both impressive and worrying given his age.  As ever, when a player gets older he is given little time to simply be out of form.

One other small point:  the 90 overs were completed today.  That it is worthy of comment should in itself highlight the problem.

By the close of play tomorrow England could be in serious trouble, if they aren’t batting soon after lunch it will be a difficult match to win; if they aren’t batting by tea they are in dire straits.  Tomorrow is a big day for both teams, but Test cricket can and does turn on a session.  England will need the morning to be one of those.

Day Three Comments Below

 

England vs Pakistan: 1st Test, Day Four

Given the troubled and fractious relationship over many years between England’s and Pakistan’s cricket teams, perhaps the most startling outcome from this Test has been the realisation that they have become a likeable side.  The celebration at the end of a match they have thoroughly deserved to win made most onlookers smile, for it signified a team seemingly united and also enjoying their cricket.  Although that might have been the most obvious example, there were plenty of others, from Misbah’s century celebration to the adorable reaction of Mohammed Hafeez to the sight of a young Pakistan fan in the stands celebrating his catch to dismiss Alex Hales.  Rather obviously, over recent years Pakistan have had something of a PR problem, but under Misbah’s exceptional leadership and example, they have demonstrated themselves to be very welcome tourists.

It does of course help player demeanour when matches are won, and although England swiftly wrapped up the Pakistan second innings in a few minutes this morning, 283 was a big ask in the fourth innings of a match that had already showed declining batting returns.  Reaching such a target is quite possible, but it does require a fine batting performance, with few mistakes and bowling opposition that isn’t on top of its game – none of that was the case today.  Some were got out, but all too many of them were self-inflicted.  Cook certainly got a good ball, but his technique is looking ever so slightly awry again, his head moving over to off and ending up squared up by the bowler much too often.  In contrast, Hales and Vince were loose, Root and Ali downright careless, as England went helter-skelter at the target.  It wasn’t until Bairstow was joined by Woakes that a calmer mindset was brought to proceedings, and although the two of them battled hard against some exceptional bowling from Wahad Riaz in particular, much of the damage was already done – unless they were to pull off something magical, an end was always going to be open the moment the partnership was broken.  So it proved, from the moment Bairstow to his utter horror managed to miss a long hop to the end of the match was a mere five overs.  The final nail in the coffin came with the loss of Chris Woakes, who batted longer in the game than any other England player, for 58 runs and once out to go with his eleven wickets.  Seldom has an England player in recent times been more unlucky to finish on the losing side.

Yasir Shah’s ten wickets in the match will receive the plaudits, but the seam bowling today should give England pause that they are going to be up against an attack with no weak links.  As was suspected before the start of the series, the strength of the two sides is in the bowling, albeit Pakistan have a spinner on a different level, and both batting line ups look brittle.  For England the return of Anderson and Stokes will improve the side, with Finn and presumably Ball the likely ones to make way.  That would certainly improve the batting in the middle order, but that’s not the area where England look vulnerable. Vince doesn’t at this stage look likely to contribute more than a few breezy runs,  while Hales at the top still doesn’t exude reliability.

From a series perspective, Pakistan’s win is probably the best thing that could have happened; England now have to show they are capable of more than beating up weakened opposition.  But if nothing else, three more Tests as enjoyable as this one certainly won’t harm interest in the game.  These are two fairly well matched sides, both flawed, both capable of brilliance.  Pakistan won this Test rather than England losing it, because when it came down to it, their key players stepped up and delivered to a greater extent than England’s did.  That may not be the same next time, but for now they can reflect on a fine performance, that had the added side effect of winning over some hearts and minds.  Not a bad day’s work.