A Little Learning Can be Dangerous

So there we have it, the second Test tour of the winter is over, and England are in rude health, having dispatched South Africa and found a team.  So runs the more optimistic take after what became a dominant performance in the second half of the series, following a floundering one at the start.  Reading too much into England’s performances at any given time is a perpetual danger, but failing to give them any credit for their successes when they have them is taking a curmudgeonly attitude too far.  There were good things to take from the tour, there were examples of players finding their feet in the Test arena and the kernel of a half reasonable team was more identifiable by the end of the Tests than at the beginning.

It must be noted that South Africa weren’t far short of a rabble by the end, either broken by England or by the circumstances in which they find themselves.  Triumphalism at England’s victory has been limited, given the problems afflicting both South African cricket and the wider game.  Few in the media generally have spoken about it in depth, partly for fear of damaging the product even further, partly because of a lack of detailed knowledge about the particular difficulties faced.  It’s wise not to pretend an awareness that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t make it any less concerning to see one of the game’s major powers in such disarray, and while there are always local factors or specific challenges (Kolpak in South Africa’s case being one), there is a pattern of struggle off the field among all the nations apart from Australia, England and India.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be good teams produced, but the financial reality of the world game is predicated on ever increasing wealth accumulation by those who already have it, and descent into penury for the rest.  When ideas are mooted to “help” Test cricket (just as there have been lots of initiatives to help the FA Cup that have gone swimmingly) they always fiddle around the fringes rather than examining the fundamental imbalance in world cricket that have led to this point.  Four day Tests are proposed as a means of saving money, supposedly supporting poorer national boards, but their advocacy is from one of the wealthiest – at least before the splurge to support the Hundred drained the bank account – and is indicative of the way absolutely every option must be considered apart from those that have created the major structural mess in which the sport finds itself.

The self-interest by those who have been tasked with acting as defenders of the game never stops.  South Africa’s own shortcomings on and off the field can’t be directly addressed by the world game, but it can provide a sufficiently level playing field that South Africa have a chance of succeeding, rather than continuing to undermine any prospect of a viable long term future.  This is why the repeated claims that Test cricket is the apex of the game, the highest form of cricket, are met with such scepticism.  It’s not that every action and proposal is intended to wreck Test cricket, it’s just that if that was indeed the aim, it would be hard to see how there would be a great deal of difference in approach.

It’s not as though there aren’t enough warning signs elsewhere, even if governance has been less than stellar in many nations.  The admission of Ireland and Afghanistan to Test cricket was greeted with delight as a rare instance of the game seeking to grow its international footprint, but Ireland have already cancelled scheduled Tests because they can’t afford them, such is the loss making nature of the five day game outside England and Australia.  That the other formats benefit from the presence of Tests is rarely factored into the global reach of the sport anyway, but the point is that concepts such as four day Tests don’t resolve this fundamental imbalance in any way, nor is there any prospect of someone who isn’t a fan of five day Tests becoming one by virtue of removing a day.

All of which is to attempt to provide some context for an England success that showed significant promise, but was against a cricketing nation in real difficulties.  The next tour to Sri Lanka will be against another country struggling to maintain its cricketing base, albeit there too there are substantial self-inflicted woes.  The England players aren’t responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves, and it can seem churlish to qualify their win by rationalising the circumstances of their opponents.  But as long as the gulf between the haves and the have nots continues to widen, the premier form of cricket is in peril, and the victories against those without the means to develop their own game to the same level has to come with an asterisk, as well as making clear the laughably awful administration in England that can’t even regularly make the most of its overwhelming financial and structural advantage.

This is unfortunate.  For England have a collection of likeable cricketers who may not all be exciting in the sense used all too often by boards determined to reduce every facet of the sport to variations of T20, but who have shown a willingness and ability to grasp the nature of Test cricket itself.  Of the batsmen, Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley and especially Ollie Pope enhanced their reputations as young players with the patience to play the long form of the game at the top level, while Zak Crawley showed flashes of potential that he might be able to do the same.  Added to a core group of players in Root, the estimable Stokes and Broad whose records, whatever the blemishes, speak for themselves and there is the basis for a half decent team.

In Mark Wood and Jofra Archer there is pace to burn, and if fitness is a concern over both of them, then that is still something of an improvement on not having pace at all which has been all too frequent.  The negative comment that Archer attracts continues to baffle, but he does receive a more questioning press, shall we say, than is remotely warranted.  There are suspicions aplenty about the kind of briefing that is being carried out – it may well be denied, it may well be not true, but that suspicion exists because of the track record of various ECB personnel doing just that to certain players.  As someone once said, this is a matter of trust.

Of the players deemed to be at risk for the Sri Lanka tour, two stand out, and for different reasons.  Jos Buttler is under pressure for his place following a fairly long fallow period in Test cricket.  He has his defenders, and his basic talent is not in question, more his aptitude for the red ball game.  He simply doesn’t have the track record in either county or Test cricket to suggest this run of “form” is an anomaly rather than a reversion to the mean.  A wicketkeeper batting at seven and averaging around 30 is no disaster, certainly.  But when that wicketkeeper is primarily a batsman anyway, and when at least one of his rivals is both substantially better in that role, and also probably as a batsman too, it is increasingly difficult to make a case for him.

The other player now under pressure, to the surprise of many, is Joe Denly.  He has certainly been consistent – consistently moderate perhaps, but consistent.  Plenty of starts, plenty of decent contributions, but he’s lacked a big score or two to go with it.  What he has done though is set the tone for those around him, absorbing the new ball, putting mileage into the legs of the bowlers, and providing a platform that the middle order , glory be, have started to turn into decent totals.  To that extent, Denly’s contribution to the team could well be viewed as being significantly greater than his run totals and average might suggest.  Even so, it’s not of a level that would normally make him a certainty to retain his spot, and if Burns was fit for Sri Lanka there might have been some support for thanking Denly and moving on.  It is that the reported change would be for Bairstow to come in at number three instead that provoked some disbelief, both given his own poor performance which led to his dropping, and a technique that isn’t often described as tight.  It is one report, so we shall see.

Prior to the series, indeed after the first Test, an analysis of what might constitute England’s best team, and what changes might be made would have been a problematic matter to debate.  Not because of limited options but rather despair as to where to begin, so many were the holes in the team, so varied were the disasters.  England are a hell of a long way from even approaching being the finished article, but perhaps there is the basis of something with which to work in the years ahead.  All that is needed is opposition comprising more than two other teams for them to measure themselves against.

 

South Africa vs. England, Fourth Test, Day 4 – The Final Cut

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The end came quickly for South Africa after their batsmen at least showed some application and fight in what was always likely to a forlorn cause chasing a World Record score to tie the series. Rassie van der Dussen led the way for the home team with a battling 98 that included some very decent stroke play and whilst England were never truly in trouble of losing the game, the odd doubt might have started to creep into the mind of more than one overly pessimistic England fan. The most disappointing thing for South Africa was that all of their batsmen made a start without being to push on and stick with van der Dussen though it must be said that Bavuma got an unplayable snorter from Broad whilst Faf after engaging in a bit of argy bargy with Buttler, got a ball that cruelly kept low. When De Kock got out trying to have a mow at Mark Wood the game had already gone by that point. South Africa were well beaten by that point and they knew it.

For England and Joe Root in particular, this has been as important series win as it has been for a while for England, despite South Africa looking particularly weak. To overcome a series of injuries alongside illness which affected the whole touring party and still win in South Africa is testament to some newly found fortitude and both Root and Silverwood should both be highly praised for instilling this. I also thought Root’s captaincy was far better than he has shown previously with him refusing to let the game drift or chasing the ball as he has done previously. England were inventive in the field with both their bowling changes and fielding positions without being funky for the sake of being funky and were often able to come up with a plan for many of the South African batsmen, with the dismissal of van der Dussen today a prime example even if it was a rotten shot from a batsman obviously distracted by the nervous 90’s. It does help when you can throw the ball to Ben Stokes when you’re desperately searching for a wicket mind.

There have been plenty of positives too for England with Ollie Pope, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley and Dom Bess all being young players who have put their hands up this series. Now is certainly not the time to go over the top in their praise as they are all still raw and not without the odd technical fault, but there is promise there and it was encouraging to see them do this away from the conditions that they are most used to. All of the above will have peaks and troughs over the next couple of years, but England will be happy that there is young talent coming through from the much maligned county ranks. Naturally one of the biggest positives aside from Ben Stokes being fantastic, is the re-emergence of Mark Wood, who has bowled with fire and purpose for the last two Tests after many of us, myself included, felt that we would never see him play in an England shirt again. The fact that Wood has got himself fit again after so many horrible injuries and has lengthened his run up is very promising; however the caveat is whether England can keep him fit and certainly there is a strong case for wrapping him up in cotton wool for the next couple of years (I wouldn’t have him tour Sri Lanka). If we can manage his workload and get 7-8 Tests out of him over the next 2 years, then I’ll be incredibly happy, but again this is very much in the lap of the gods. I hope for Wood’s sake that he has seen the worst of the injuries now as he is a joy to watch and is obviously an immensely popular member of the dressing room. There are negatives of course to come of out of the series, but that is for another time, it’s hard enough to win away from home and so England should be proud for winning in South Africa, even if their team resembled nothing like the South African teams of the not so distant past.

As for South Africa, I genuinely fear for them in the short to medium term (and maybe even longer). I appreciate no proud South African fan wants sympathy from an England fan, but it’s hard not to have sympathy for the fans. The South African board has spent far too much time arguing with local journalists and overseeing a T20 tournament that nearly bankrupted them than doing their job and concentrating on matters on the pitch. It is also not South Africa’s fault that some of the richer counties can go and sign some of South Africa’s best up and coming players or players coming towards the end of their careers as kolpak’s with higher wages on offer than they can receive playing for the Test team. I can’t blame the players for wanting to ensure their financial stability as you only have a short career as a cricketer; however it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth and has bled the South African team of their better talent leaving the domestic cupboard dry. It’s also clear that things are going to get worse before they get better with Philander retiring after this game and Faf and Elgar likely to follow suit fairly quickly. This could be a really rough few years for this side and I fear that without better governance and investment in the sport, we could be seeing a repeat of what has happened to the West Indies over the past 10 years. I genuinely hope this isn’t the case as Test Cricket needs a strong South African team, but the omens aren’t looking good.

I’d also like to say a quick word on Vernon Philander, who retired from international cricket today and is going to take up a kolpak role at Somerset. This series was probably one too far for Big Vern, but he has been a great servant to South African cricket over the years. He also helped dispel the myth that you need to bowl 90mph to be successful in international cricket as it was rare that he ever reached the 80mph mark; however his control of the ball and consistent line and length ensured that you could never relax when facing him and his record with the ball (and with the bat) shows what a good cricketer he was. Sure you can’t match the excitement of a genuinely fast bowler charging in and hurling it in and 90mph, but there is still a place in every Test team for a genuinely accurate pace bowler. He will be missed.

As ever, appreciate any thoughts or opinions on the game or series below.

Thinking Out Loud: 4th Test, Day Three

Test cricket can be a beautiful thing. A precious thing. A wonderful mixture of talent and pressure culminating in moments which are seared into our memories for life.

But it also unfortunately has days like today as well. The day began with England leading the series and dominating the game, and finished the same way. The bits inbetween, both batting and bowling, were thoroughly unexciting.

The day began with an early wicket, Vern Philander caught off a leading edge in the first over of the day, leading to some speculation that England might consider enforcing the follow-on. That possibility was quickly crushed by the partnership which followed between de Kock and Pretororius, which almost carried South Africa through to Lunch. A quick flurry of wickets from Stokes and Wood ended this spell of resistance and left South Africa with a 217 run deficit in their first innings total.

The less written about England’s batting performance, the better. They were in a position where the score essentially didn’t matter as they were basically giving the bowlers a rest, and they batted like it. Loose shots, scrambled thinking, and poor technique. Honestly, the scoreline quite possibly flatters them in this innings. The dismissals I found most disappointing were those from batsmen who should be fighting for their batting position. Crawley, Denly and Buttler haven’t scored enough runs in this series to cement their place in the side, and this was their last chance to do so. They scored 24, 8 and 8 respectively. Crawley and Denly will likely have until Rory Burns is fit again to press their case, but this feels like it was Buttler’s last chance saloon.

Root managed to hang around though, scoring yet another unconverted fifty mainly with the tail. England managed to post a score of 248, leaving South Africa needing to chase 466 runs to win.

Somerset’s Vernon Philander looks to have finished his Test career early, with a hamstring injury of some description. He left the field in just his second over, and didn’t return all day. Given that this left South Africa with four seamers and no spinners, it’s little surprise that the day finished about 8 overs short.

Castle on the Hill: 4th Test, Day Two

The first Test of this series seems an awfully long time ago, and as we approach the conclusion of the red ball part of this tour, England are tightening the screw and exerting ever greater dominance by the day. Having waited a couple of years to score 400 in a Test match, England did it again for the second game running, and on a pitch offering a little more to the bowlers than at Port Elizabeth. It was also something of a bonus – England had batted passably well – although no one scored more than the 66 that Zak Crawley managed – but following a mini-collapse leaving England 318-9, a rollocking last wicket stand between Wood and Broad raised England from a reasonable total to a good one.

Tail end partnerships invariably invoke diametrically opposed emotions from those watching, for the English it was a hoot, both in terms of Wood’s clean striking and also in providing an echo of the days when Stuart Broad was so nearly a genuine all rounder. His batting decline has been precipitous, and given England’s determination to pick bowlers who can score runs, there will come a time when his relegation to number eleven is the determining factor behind him being dropped. More than anything else, that feeling of slight melancholy (allied with giggles) when he hits the ball as superbly as he did today can’t be avoided. It remains mystifying that over several years his decline was accepted as one of those things by the various coaching teams. Ironically enough, in the last year he has looked just a little better, albeit from a low base.

For South Africa, that partnership was a shambles – up to eight fielders on the boundary bowling to numbers 10 and 11 was surely the wrong way to go, even if captaincy and bowler meltdowns when faced with tail end slogging are far from unusual. South African minds are showing all the signs of being thoroughly scrambled now.

If South Africa have been guilty all too often of gifting their wickets this series, England deserve plenty of credit for the way they left their hosts in tatters today. Sure, Dean Elgar will have nightmares about the way he slapped the ball to point, but in general it was English excellence that worked its way through the top order. It’s not to pretend that South Africa’s batting is at a level where it ought to resist, because it has been brittle to the point of disintegration, but today they were trying everything to survive, they just got stuck, strokeless and the pressure ramped up as the run rate plummeted. On this occasion, England did bowl superbly, extracting far more life from the surface than their counterparts and generally just being too good for the South African batting. Wood’s dismissal of Malan was clocked at 94.4mph – the second fastest wicket taking ball by an Englishman recorded (Steve Harmison holds that particular record, a desperately unfortunate Glenn McGrath failing to deal with one at 97mph). One thing England have lacked in some years is bowling variety; with a left armer in Curran, a tall and brilliant seamer in Broad, a genuine pace merchant in Wood (or Archer) and an all rounder at the height of his powers in the shape of Ben Stokes, they have a balanced enough attack. Woakes as the traditional English seamer fits in to this bowling line up in a way that he doesn’t with the four right arm medium quicks they have had all too often.

Stokes offers mongrel to the England side in more than one way, and today was fined 15% of his match fee and handed a demerit point for his curiously old school volley of abuse to a spectator last evening. It was a relatively minor transgression by the Ed Sheeran lookalike, and the punishment is appropriate enough, but it is another reminder that while he remains the MVP in the England team, things like this will be accepted. When he goes through a rough patch, or his powers begin to wane, keep an eye out for the stories starting to appear about him being hard to manage – the modus operandi of the ECB is too frequent to ignore.

England didn’t pick a spinner, to consternation in some quarters, but the evidence so far suggests they haven’t made a mistake. That may yet prove an oversight by day four, should we get there, but as things stand the seamers are being rotated, and rotated to effect. Perhaps the bigger miss was for South Africa, who had no options when Broad and Wood were frolicking in the middle.

The plight of South African cricket – in which England themselves are certainly complicit – provokes a sense of gloom for anyone who loves this stupid game. It makes any praising of England laced with concern as they go about their business of beating up a national team who we desperately need in the world game. But it does need to be said that by one means or another, England are beginning to identify the core of what might be a half reasonable side. If Joe Denly is unlikely to have a long term future in the team, he has at least brought a degree of discipline that has rubbed off on those with more natural ability than him, and to that extent if nothing else, he’s performed a valuable service to English cricket. Likewise, the improved overall disposition has highlighted specific problem areas that were previously just part of an endless list of disasters to be dealt with. Jos Buttler’s struggles with the bat were disguised among everyone else’s – now they are abundantly clear.

We are two days in to this game, and the outcome of this match is pretty clear, barring miracles. The depression of South African cricket lovers, not at the state of this series but at the state of the sport, mitigates the degree of satisfaction their English counterparts at the way their team is progressing. England are not even close to the finished article, but they do at least look like they have a plan. After several years of circling the drain, that is welcome. If only the world game could develop a similar plan to allow all nations to compete on an even basis.

South Africa vs. England, Fourth Test, Day 1 – Storm In A Teacup

It’s rather a shame that a pretty good day’s play of Test Cricket will more be remembered for an indiscretion off the pitch rather than the actual play on it, but then that’s what happens when such a high profile cricketer such as Ben Stokes has a less than cordial chat with one of the fans. There have been people all over the place suggesting at what might have been said to Stokes, but this is pure guesswork as only Stokes himself know what abuse was hurled at him and really the player should know better in getting himself into a situation that was a lose-lose. I imagine Mr. Stokes will be getting an invite into the match referee’s room at some point whereby he’ll be a few quid lighter and a demerit point or two heavier. Anyway enough about that nonsense, no matter how much it’s serialised by the journos.

As for the game itself, it proved to be a rather entertaining day’s play once the rain had cleared with either side in the position to claim that they won the day’s play or not. There were both positives and negatives for England with the main positive being that Joe Root called the toss right on the fourth successive occasion and the main negative being the loss of Jofra Archer to injury with the reoccurrence of his elbow injury. The bad trot of injuries that England have suffered on this tour can’t just be put down to bad luck (except that of Rory Burns) but more the fact the players are being continuously ground into the ground with this crazy schedule. I think we’ll all be happy if England return home without contracting Ebola or something similar.

On a day when there was a bit of cloud cover over the ground, Root chose the correct decision to have a bat when he may well have been sorely tempted to bowl and was handsomely rewarded by his opening pair who scored the first century partnership for England since Chennai in 2016. That it has been this long really does highlight the struggles that England have had at the opening slot for more than a while and the reason why we have so often seen England at 50 odd for 4 on more than a few occasions in the not so distant past. The pair of Crawley and Sibley complimented each other particularly well, with the former playing some majestic strokes against a wayward attack with the latter compact and able to put away the bad ball of which there were many within the first session of cricket we got. Zak Crawley indeed looks like a real talent and a gem of a find as he has got better and more confident with every innings he’s played and now looks like he is starting to believe he belongs in Test Cricket. In fact, he looked nailed on for a century before being hit by a nasty bouncer by Nortje, which in turn gave him a rather ugly egg on his forehead and certainly affected his batting after this. It would not be a surprise to see him declared with a concussion tomorrow morning as he looked particularly shaky after that nasty hit on the head. This is very much in marked contrast with Joe Denly who has admirably tried with every sinew in his body to adapt to the Test game but has never really looked like he belongs at this level. With Rory Burns hopefully returning for the Sri Lanka tour, then Denly may find himself out of the team with Crawley replacing him at 3. It will be interesting mind to see how much sway Clever Ed puts in Denly’s leg spinning filth on pitches that are likely to turn.

For South Africa, the 2 sessions couldn’t have been markedly different. In the first session they bowled too short and too loose on a pitch that was offering bounce but not much else. Indeed it seemed fitting that the only time they made the batsman make an error and play at a delivery they shouldn’t have; it was wiped out by Big Philander overstepping the mark. It was a sloppy session from a team bereft of confidence. However any thoughts that England could steamroller them were so put to bed with 2 quick wickets, firstly a horrible strangle down the legside that seems to get Sibley out too often and then a nothing play or leave shot from the brain frazzled Crawley. South Africa then bowled extremely tidily for the rest of the session with Denly who had looked all over the place the first to go, closely followed by a rare misjudgement from Stokes, who played an overly ambitious shot early in his innings which led to the frank exchange of opinions that I spoke about above.

So onto Day 2 with the match evenly poised. If Root and Pope can take the lead up to somewhere close to 300 then England will be driving seat; however a couple of quick wickets for South Africa could lead to England struggling to get up to 250. The forecast isn’t particularly clever for tomorrow, so we are likely to have another rain interrupted day.

On a final note, I did find it incredibly surprising that neither team picked a front line spinner. I understand that Bullring hasn’t been a great hunting ground for spinners over the years; however the pitch does often break up on Day 4 or Day 5 and so not to pick a frontline spinner seems negligent to me. The only time I would ever consider picking a team without spinner is if the pitch resembled the St. Lawrence Ground in early April or Sabina Park back in 1998! Time will tell if I’m right or not, but I have a suspicion both captains might be rueing their selection decisions by the end of the match.

As ever thoughts or comments are always welcome.

All I Got Was Cigarettes And Alcohol – The 4th Test Preview (of sorts)

Welcome to the 4th Test match to be played at the Wanderers, Johannesburg. Been there!

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I really enjoyed my time there, back in 2005, when I saw a badly rain affected Day 2 (where Vaughan batted very well and I got my first look in the flesh of the great Dale Steyn) and then Day 3, when Herschelle Gibbs made a century. I flew home that night and missed that match’s conclusion – you know, Trescothick, Hoggard, the South African coach smashing a ball at Smith’s head. That sort of thing. I’m not bitter.

But even recalling these days, a more innocent time in my cricket and life experience, is melancholy. Test cricket was the thing. Test cricket mattered. Two strong teams battling out a thrilling series. England in their pomp, on the crescendo up to the 2005 Ashes. South Africa in a little turmoil, but with players coming through, none more exciting than Steyn. T20 was an embryonic entity, just started in county cricket, with other versions similar to it in other countries. No-one worried about the future of test cricket – strong teams, great competition, many, many great players.

This series, for all its feel good moments in the last two matches for England, has not got that lustre. England are middle of the pack, inconsistent, with some match-winning performers, but all the while bedding in players, with a thinner reserve base to pick from. If the exit of the U19 team from the World Cup isn’t a canary in that particular gold mine, I don’t know what is. Sport doesn’t need to be top class to be entertaining, but an occasion does need to have top class performers. So while this is enthralling sport, it doesn’t have that sense of occasion. England are winning against a team being rendered from inside and out, and with, what looks to be, a bleak future. Yes, three weeks ago after winning in Centurion there were optimistic noises. They have evaporated now, with talk of Faf retiring, of Bavuma coming back despite not establishing himself on form, the bowling about to lose Philander, and whoever a county might want to take on a Kolpak. So while we have a crisis in confidence in England about the future of test matches, South Africa are staring down the barrel of a long wilderness, to mix a metaphor or two, and that’s not good. It really isn’t.

I thought I’d refer to the title of the piece here for some reflection. I’ve written many, many times about how my love for the game is ebbing away. Of how a test match devalued is a sport destroyed. Of how people in power only seem to care about the monetary side of the game, and not the future. They are not the same. A lot of my writing in the past six years, hell 11 since I started How Did We Lose In Adelaide, has been about my concerns, even hatred, at what has been going on. After 2014, writing became an addiction. HDWLIA was an addiction. Like the time I was a smoker, I enjoyed it, it was something I liked, even though I knew it was doing me harm. 2014-16 especially was like starting smoking. But then you realise what a toll it was taking. So you try to give up, but you can’t for long, and you start again, saying you’ll cut back, but then you go back to where you were. You get the tortured analogy. I finally stopped when I was coughing up blood in an overseas hotel, but in blogging terms, I’ve not had that moment!

Days like the last three, though, make me wonder what’s the point? There was the KP interview with Martin Samuel. I’m not sure if you’ve read it, but you know, many of the points we made here about the scandalous briefing against him, how he was the symptom, not the disease, are now entering the mainstream. You know how Flower’s regime was actually a destructive one at the end of the day. You know how the ECB leaked like a sieve, not being paranoid about it. And about how whether we liked it or not, KP was not going to constrain his earnings and now all follow behind him. There’s a lot wrong with KP, of course there is, but he blazed the trail others follow and yet don’t seem to want to acknowledge that. Many of the wounds are healing it seems, but for the Daily Mail, of all rags, to print that and for KP to give an interview to it (even with the sumptuous dig at “other writers at that paper”) is maddening. They did the most to get you out, and now you talk to that? I really do wonder.

Then there was this today.

He didn’t address him directly, but this is in reaction to Michael Vaughan saying Tom Banton should get first class experience and then be fast tracked into the test team, to bat at 6. To do this, he would need to not play in the IPL. Gurney, of course, turning rapidly into the Katie Hopkins of Cricket Twitter, thought he’d make one of his pointed observations about this, and in the process, slagged off county cricket fans once again. Whether it is being funny, or in this case, not, Gurney is being crass. We get it, big shot. There’s a market for your left arm seam in T20 cricket, with your changes of pace and so on. Some days it works, some days it doesn’t. You are more than entitled to earn your crust in the way you see fit. But you start this with supporters. Not us. You can’t have a pop at the pensioners, when they supported you in your early days, and then get wounded when they pop back. To claim the tweet is in response to Vaughan, a person we hold in the deepest contempt for his views post-playing career, is one thing. But when it comes to one moron having a pop at another, we aren’t required to take sides. We can, and do, think you are both morons who seem to have contempt for those that paid for tickets, played your game, and love it from before. Gurney doesn’t bother with the likes of us, and evidently wouldn’t give a shit if he does. But maybe, Harry, just maybe, show some class. You could have made your point without denigrating fans in the process. But you just can’t help yourself.

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This sort of thing makes me sad. It makes me, in some way, long for the day when the addiction to blogging will go, and a normal life not getting angry at these people can take over. Where I can just sit back, and watch the 4th Test, hope England win, hope I can see a special performance, and yes, hope to see one or two from South Africans too. Where I hope England resist the temptation and play a spinner. Where Jofra Archer might return, or have people briefing against him that the elbow injury is in his head. Where Sibley and Crawley make runs. Where Denly might get that elusive hundred to get the yoke off his back. Where Root or Stokes might take to the skies, run amok in Joburg, backing up their talent. Where Jos gets his mojo back, Pope flows like Bell Mark 2. Where Mark Wood bowls like fire, where Stuart Broad reprises the last time at this venue. And where we can enjoy cricket, and not the ceaseless rubbish that accompanies it. Of Crisp-less Hundred Shirts. Of talking about whether a suspension catered for under the rules is merited. Of anything but the game.

I was looking for some action, of magnificent shots, and fantastic bowling. It don’t scan, but who the hell cares?

I am away from Day 4 onwards, having a work trip to South East Asia, (much of which will be spent in legal offices), so I will be leaving you in the capable hands of Sean, Danny and Chris. As always, comments on the first day’s action below. Thanks as always to the readership who keep me going, and are the equivalent of my 20 Silk Cut. Do they still even exist?

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Clap Along If You Feel Like A Room Without A Roof….. The Third Test Ends

The team who write this labour of love sometimes get together to set out the strategic direction this blog should take. They are painfully infrequent, we haven’t all attended one meeting at the same time, and they usually descend into reminiscing about our bad playing days (or in the case of Chris, slightly better). Strategic direction is determining who is purchasing the next round. But on one thing we all agree. We are, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, ’til death, boredom or editorial differences do us part, The BAD NEWS BLOG.

A test like Port Elizabeth isn’t our remit. It isn’t what we are read for. Whether we like it or not. When good things happen, and they have for England, there’s no sense looking for a dark cloud when there isn’t one there.

Like all of you out there, we know the problems with the way cricket is run, the future for counties, the idiotic pursuit of four day cricket, where the public is being gaslighted, should that be a word, by muppets still exist. It’s not gone away because England have summarily dismissed a team that beat them well three or so weeks ago. The fault lines haven’t disappeared due to hugely promising performances by Ollie Pope and Dom Bess, to name two. The rancour and bitterness can be put away for another day to recognise the skills of Ben Stokes, and the return of Mark Wood. Hell, we can even consider Ed Smith on another day when the team now looks like it has something to build upon.

England started the day needing four wickets, and got them before lunch. Sure, there was a breezy 99 run last wicket partnership to set off curmudgeons and bores on Twitter raving on about team over individual performances, but the result wasn’t in doubt unless it rained, and it didn’t until it was too late. Root did not get his five-for, which seemed to be upsetting people that he should actually go for it, but it was neither here nor there. It amazes me that people like Selvey could get that wound up about THIS, but on 2014 he was but a supportive flower, appealing to everyone’s better nature for the saker of England. Root trying to achieve something he will probably never do again… Hang him, flog him! The priorities and things that they get concerned about will never be understood by this mere blogger.

England won by an innings and whatever. They are 2-1 up in the series. They have turned around a difficult start to look very good in their last two outings. Much will be focused on the home side’s inadequacies, but inadequate teams have beaten England before, and will again. What we are seeing is development, and yes, I like it. I thought Sibley looked out of his depth, but I was massively impressed by that hundred in Cape Town, not least he didn’t get to a hundred and pack it in. I think Zak Crawley is growing into the game, he’s nowhere near there yet, but persevere with him, please. There is no need to call back Keaton Jennings. None. Joe Denly is now mentioned as someone to drop, when he continues to blunt attacks and occupy the crease. Sure he’s not someone who should be an automatic choice, but he’s hardly letting the side down at the moment. And a word of caution on Ollie Pope. This will, I hope, be the first of many, but he’s still a work in progress, and I would caution patience. He’s going to go through a trot of some very bad looking dismissals in his career.

Someone else can comment on bowling. As a former very bad batsman, I am now qualified. All I know is that there is healthy competition. You can’t help but want Mark Wood to do well (I loved that catch yesterday off Root, the sort all club cricketers can relate to, the climbing the ladder hamstrung by your own relationship with gravity….). Archer’s elbow is a cause for concern, so rest it some more if you aren’t 100% sure. But this is for another day.

From my angle this wicket was part of test match cricket’s rich tapestry. Wickets had to be earned, scoring wasn’t easy unless you were very well set. The bowlers got something out of it, half of the hosts wickets falling to spin speaks volumes. There were excellent hundreds, and yet wickets could fall. I think, sometimes, we react to quickly to this stuff, but also recognise that other opinions are available and valid.

So on to Johannesburg. There’s already talk of quicker pitches, not picking a spinner, playing the surface, not the opposition. Stuff that. I think for this England team it’s imperative we bat first – I have a lot more faith in them doing that than responding to any sort of total – and that we make runs. They are already talking about leaving out a spinner and playing five seam bowlers. I genuinely hope not.

But, in conclusion, it has to be said, I liked this win. I liked how the team played. I like a fair number of the players within it, and I am genuinely happy how they got this win in a rain-affected match on a slow wicket. It’s nice. But as always, let’s act like we’ve been there before, let’s know that a poor performance could be just around the corner, and let’s not poll this as “greatest away win ever” as the BBC did for something that happened very recently.

England won’t lose in South Africa again. That’s a good record dating back to the Leather Jacket tour. Away wins, however they come, are good. This one made me happy. So clap along….. and ask yourself, if your room didn’t have a roof, wouldn’t you be mad? Especially when it rained this afternoon in PE!

SA v England, 3rd Test: Day Four – Spiralling Down

There is a long standing tendency in some quarters to never give England any credit for their successes – it’s always that the opposition have been poor, or missing players, or some other conspiracy causing the freak outcome of England winning a game, or God help everyone, a tournament.  It’s not just a cricket thing either, it can be any sport at all, where any achievement can only be explained by a confluence of freak events to change the right and proper outcome that any team but England should win.  Naturally, the idea of England winning anything is an unpopular one around the world from their rivals, so it’s unsurprising enough, but no less tiresome in its repetitiveness.

Weather permitting, England will win this match and go into a 2-1 series lead with one to play.  Indeed, no-one should ever refrain from reminding those who wish to shorten the Test game that the rain over the last two days would have likely caused this match to end in a draw.  England have been much the superior side from the start, and have shown promising signs of understanding how to build a Test total and exploit that subsequently.  They have had the advantage of winning the toss (again), and the best of the conditions, but they have made use of their advantage well, both with bat and ball.

With that said, and paying all due respect to England’s display, it cannot be denied that South Africa have been poor all game, and utterly woeful today.  The truncated morning session saw the last 4 first innings wickets fall for a single run, with a succession of dreadful shots that re-defined the description “loose”, and a lack of application that in the circumstances astounded.  The pitch surface has remained slow, the bounce continues to be fairly even with relatively little sideways movement, and while South Africa have been outplayed, a draw was far from out of the question, particularly so given the poor weather forecast, which might still come to the hosts rescue despite a day as abject as even the worst South African pessimist might have feared.

The principal members of the England attack bowled well enough to be rewarded with wickets, that it was Joe Root who proved to be the nemesis for the South African order with his Test best bowling figures is a serious indictment on their own performance.  One or two batsmen can feel they were got out – the look of complete confusion on Dean Elgar’s face as his off stump cartwheeled out of the ground was a picture – but most dismissals were either soft or reckless, Quinton De Kock falling very much into the latter camp twice in the day.

It remains a curious truth that being out to a defensive shot is often forgiven more than when dismissed to an attacking one, but so many of the attempted defensive strokes were sufficiently poor in thinking and execution that in themselves they will have infuriated the supporters and coaching staff alike.  Which is unfortunate on two counts, firstly that it does take away somewhat from the praise England are due, but also that having adopted a thoroughly defensive approach to their second innings, to fail to manage the basics is extremely poor.  The collapse in the morning session ensured that any realistic prospect of batting long enough to overhaul England’s first innings and take time out of the game that way, but it remained a strange approach to saving the game all round, making De Kock’s dismissals in particular look even worse.

Saving the match isn’t out of the question if it rains heavily, but in truth South Africa just don’t deserve the kind of luck that would involve.  Had England played in the same way (and they have done on many occasions in recent years), the fury would have been palpable and justified.  England do deserve the credit coming their way and don’t always receive it when they should do.  But today was a dreadful, appalling performance from the home team, one that deserves the opprobrium they will locally receive.  To that extent, it’s a pity, because England have (whisper it) shown one or two signs of learning this series.  Yet it can’t be denied that today in particular was more about one side giving up than the other exerting its superiority.  One sided cricket is rarely engaging, and if England exhilarated in their catching at times – Pope in particular – all too often they merely had to wait for the error that invariably came.  Faf Du Plessis made no excuses afterwards for their performance, which is to his credit, and the wider problems of South African cricket are well known.  But it was a batting performance that fundamentally lacked pride, and for any observer, that is the one thing they won’t forgive.

 

South Africa vs. England, 3rd Test, Day 3 – The Conditions Strike Back

With South Africa 208-6 and still needing 91 runs to avoid the follow on, England can still win this Test; however as more time is taken out of the game with tomorrow’s forecast looking less than clever alongside a dud pitch, a draw is where the smart money now lies.

England started the day looking for quick wickets and indeed got them with Dom Bess taking 3 wickets to add to his 2 yesterday evening to leave South Africa 109-5 and in a bit of strife; however that’s when the weather gods intervened wiping out the whole of the afternoon session and reducing the momentum that England had created in the first session. South Africa then batted resolutely aided and abetted by some woeful English fielding including five dropped catches to end the day looking fairly comfortable on what is a stick dog of a wicket. Naturally praise should also be given to first De Kock and then Philander, with the former the beneficiary of England’s careless fielding and the latter looking in pretty good form against England’s full time and part time spin merchants after the umpires decided it was too dark for any of England’s quicks to bowl. The most praise however should go to Anrich Nortje who batted as determinedly as any front line batsmen and kept England at bay for well over a 100 balls. I haven’t seen as good a job done as a night-watchman since well Jack Leach, but that was in a very different situation. The fact that he looked as happy as Angus Fraser chewing a wasp in doing so was even better!

As for England, Dom Bess aside, they toiled in what were less than ideal conditions for bowling. Wood bowled with fire but was naturally held back by Root bearing in mind that he could break down at any moment, Broad bowled ok and Curran was again disappointing, showing that the latter needs a lot of work if he is going to be successful in the Test arena in unhelpful conditions. Stokes came on and immediately got the wicket of the tiring Nortje leading many to question why he hadn’t be bowled earlier with the simple answer that he is not a workhorse bowler and certainly not someone we can afford to injure by bowling him too much. England were always going to leave themselves in somewhat of a conundrum by picking both Wood alongside Stokes as you wouldn’t want either of them shouldering the brunt of the bowling for fear of injuring either of them.

England’s best performer was naturally Dom Bess, who bowled some good lines and with a few different variations to ensure that the South African batsmen could never relax when facing him. There is no doubt he deserved his first five wicket haul for England and could have had a couple more if it wasn’t for the butter fingered English slip corden. England though might have a conundrum approaching with Dom Bess in the near future mind, as Bess is most definitely 2ndchoice to the spin bowler who has had unfortunately been sent home due to a horrid illness – Jack Leach, who Joe Root clearly doesn’t fancy much. With Moeen’s self-selected exile and his ‘woe betide me’ PR campaign splitting many England supporters as much as his inclusion in the team, it is quite possible that England’s first choice spinner might not have played any first team cricket by the time the first series of the summer comes around. If I were Dom Bess, I would be on the phone with my agent trying to secure a new club over the winter and for England’s sake a move to somewhere like Yorkshire could be beneficial for all concerned.

A quick word on the pitch, which I will kindly refer to as substandard. I don’t like to give groundsmen a hard time as their job is a difficult one especially in changeable conditions; however this pitch is a sticky dog of a wicket and one that is totally unacceptable for Test Cricket. There is nothing there for the quick bowlers and whilst there is spin, it is generally slow spin which gives the batsmen plenty of time to play against the turning ball. It is also not an easy pitch to score runs, hence much of the play could be classed as turgid throughout these 3 opening days. Now of course the pitch could change in Day 4 or Day 5, which is the beauty of 5 day Test Cricket, but it does seem somewhat unlikely and instead we could be in for 2 more days of attritional cricket, weather permitting.

So if England are going to win this, then we’re going to have to hope that the weather forecast for Port Elizabeth is wrong tomorrow and that the new ball can conjure something a bit different from what we have seen recently; otherwise Day 5 could be nothing more than an irrelevance.

As always thoughts and opinions on the game much appreciated.

South Africa v England: 3rd Test, Day 2 – The New Pope

At the end of Day 1, this game was in the balance. 224-4 was a solid foundation, but one we England fans have seen the team collapse from several times in recent years. Instead, Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope both made impressive hundreds as England took charge of this game and potentially the series too.

The day began later than normal, after a rain shower delayed the start of play. The South Africans probably wish the rain lasted quite a bit longer though, as Stokes and Pope absolutely dominated the bowlers. The pitch seemed better to bat on than the previous day, as perhaps the rain had left the pitch a little quicker whilst still not generating any movement from the pace bowlers. Even so, it was a very impressive batting from the pair, and they made it all of the way past Lunch before Stokes eventually hit one in the air to point.

Stokes’ batting in the past year has been absolutely tremendous. Since the start of 2019, he is England’s top Test runscorer with 1060 at an average of 50.47. Not only that, he looks like a ‘proper’ Test batsman when he’s at the crease. Confident and assured, making smart decisions, and being able to play both a counter-attacking and dominating innings depending on the situation. His bowling is, at this point, basically a bonus. In this innings he passed 4000 Test runs, and you wouldn’t necessarily bet against him doubling that in his career.

If Stokes has had a great year in the Test team, the next batsman in has had an anus horribilis [sic]. Jos Buttler came in, scored one run and then chipped the ball tamely back to Maharaj for a simple caught and bowled. Since the start of 2019, Buttler has scored at an average of just 24.13, playing in 8 of those 12 Tests as a specialist batsman rather than wicketkeeper. This marks a huge drop off from his initial comeback in 2018, where he averaged 44.70 from 10 Tests. I have no idea what might have caused such a huge drop in form, but it’s increasingly difficult for him to justify his place in the side for the next series in Sri Lanka.

Fortunately for England, the tail weren’t as loose as Buttler with their batting. Helped by the tired bowling and older ball, not to mention Pope’s batting, Curran and Wood both added quickfire 40s which really crushed the hopes of a South African win. Wood’s innings in particular was a joy, with him being given out caught before being reprieved by Rabada being shown to have overstepped the bowling crease in the delivery.

What made this even more delightful for English fans and neutral observers is that Root declared on the fall of the wicket, before rescinding his declaration when the dismissal was reversed. As some have pointed out, this technically would be against the laws of the games which clearly state that: “A captain shall notify the opposing captain and the umpires of any decision to declare or to forfeit an innings.  Once notified, the decision cannot be changed.” Not for the first time in the past year, England have been fortunate with umpiring going in their favour.

Pope and Wood added another 31 runs before South Africa finally managed to dismiss Wood. On a day of milestones, perhaps the most important will end up being Ollie Pope’s 135*. His first Test century, this innings also pushes his career Test average to 51.85. This makes him the only English batsman with a Test average of over fifty since Ken Barrington’s last game in 1968. (Joe Root’s average fell below fifty in the West Indies last year, and sadly doesn’t look in danger of regaining that milestone on recent form) It’s obviously ridiculously early for such comparisons, but this innings by Pope was impressive for someone so young.

England’s spell in the field field did not start well. Stuart Broad and Sam Curran both failed to make any chances with the new ball, and it wasn’t until Dom Bess and Mark Wood came in that the South African batsmen seemed in any peril. Wood’s quick bowling caused real issues for the South African batsmen, causing edges and blows to the body, but Bess took the wickets. First a caught and bowled by Malan, followed by a bat and pad to short leg by Hamza.

The day ended a little early due to another shower, with South Africa still 439 runs behind on 60/2. It’s been a hugely impressive performance by the English batsmen, and now England have to hope that the rain stays away long enough to take the 18 remaining wickets they need.

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