South Africa v England: 3rd Test, Day 1 – Flat

Pancakes. Flounders. Spare tyres. None of these things are as flat and soft as the pitch this Test is being played on in Port Elizabeth.

The bounce has been slow, restricting both scoring and wicket-taking opportunities, and there’s been virtually no sideways movement to trouble the batsmen. All of which made Joe Root’s decision to bat after winning the toss this morning a very simple one. You do have to feel sorry for du Plessis though, because this marks the sixth consecutive toss he has lost for South Africa. With the ability to bat first often being crucial in Test cricket, it’s no surprise that South Africa are on such a poor streak of form.

The first two sessions were a pretty turgid affair, like the pitch. South Africa were mainly ‘bowling dry’ *shudder* whilst England were slowly accumulating runs. Sibley and Crawley both eventually fell to mistimed clips which were caught by leg slip/gully, but losing just two wickets before Tea is still a welcome sign of progress for this England Test team. They are normally well into their tail by then.

Things livened up just after Tea, with Denly and Root falling in relatively quick succession. Root’s wicket in particular will interest England’s bowlers, because he was bowled by a ball which appeared to stay noticeably lower compared to other deliveries on a similar length. Stokes weathered a spell of strong bowling from Rabada and Maharaj, including several unsuccessful appeals, before settling down with Pope to see out the day with England finishing on 224-4.

One thing which has been enormously fun to see on Twitter is the suggestion (by idiots and trolls, mostly) that England’s top order have been scoring too slowly. This is very much a luxury problem, because English batsmen in recent times typically haven’t been at the crease long enough for people to worry about such things. To put this in context: This winter, England have lost their fifth wicket in their first inning for over 200 runs three times in the last five Tests. That’s the same number as they managed in the previous fifteen Tests over three seasons. This England top order, since the dropping of Roy and Bairstow, has been consistently scoring runs.

The key word here is ‘consistently’. Whilst it has been frustrating to see so many English batsmen fail to reach fifty, there have been far fewer collapses this winter than we England fans have become accustomed to. This has been especially important since England’s tail, particularly their non-Stokes allrounders, haven’t been scoring heavily with the bat recently. In 2019, England’s batsmen from 7-11 collectively averaged 13.96. That’s the first year since 2013 in which they’ve averaged less than 20, and their lowest average since 2006. England can no longer rely on their bowlers bailing them out with the bat, and so I think that this new-found cautious approach from the specialist batsmen is both warranted and welcome.

On our usual side note, South Africa actually managed to bowl all 90 overs in a day. With so few wickets and boundaries, and spin bowler Maharaj bowling a third of the overs, they actually managed to finish a few minutes early.

90 overs bowled, England comfortably batting out a full day. I could get used to this…

As always, comments on the game or anything else you fancy are welcome below.

Back to it, Once Again

A Test series of more than three matches – ideally five, but four will have to do here – allows the advantage to move back and forth without a single win appearing to be quite so decisive overall.  It’s an obvious truism, but no less acute for all that.  England’s levelling of the series with two to play kindled further interest in the outcome of a clash between two sides who have clear flaws, but are fairly well matched against each other.  Sometimes a lack of quality fails to affect the intrigue, for that is more a question of rational consideration than emotional response.

Thus the main consideration in terms of the outcome of the Port Elizabeth Test is which version of either side will turn up – the reasonably good or the very, very bad.  The batting of both teams is inordinately brittle, there are players within the line-ups who can turn the entire match in a session, and there are no guarantees about the fitness of the participants – albeit in that last instance England appear rather more vulnerable given the rate of sickness and injury they’ve incurred.

The loss of James Anderson for the rest of the tour (and that will raise some longer term questions as is always the way when a player is getting long in the tooth) limits England’s pace bowling decisions to either Mark Wood or Jofra Archer, with the whisper being that it will be the former who gets the nod, either because of doubts over Archer’s recovery from his elbow injury, or because Wood has impressed in the nets.  Which of those is the more accurate depends somewhat on whether you wish to see the choice as a positive or negative.  Wood was certainly outstanding in his last Test match, but that was a year ago and several injuries distant.  Wood is far from a rarity among England bowlers in struggling to stay fit for any length of time, and frequently has flattered to deceive in his Test career.  But few would begrudge him the chance to show what he can do, all the while keeping fingers crossed that he can stay fit, and do himself justice.  A fully fit Wood and a fully fit Archer is no bad selection decision to have to make, and in either case the thrill of watching a fast bowler remains ever present.

Dom Bess seems certain to keep his place given the return home of Jack Leach, and probably would have done even had there been a late recovery.  Nothing but sympathy and best wishes to Leach from all quarters, but even from the outside it looked a sensible decision to allow him to go back to England.

For South Africa, the only rumoured change is Dane Paterson for Dwaine Pretorius, a mooted selection that would suggest the pitch at Port Elizabeth will indeed have a bit more life in it than has been the case on previous occasions.  If so (and photos of the prepared pitch don’t suggest a batting paradise), then additional pace from both teams may make batting even more difficult than these two often manage to make it look.  A slow, low pitch is something that few want to see, for the cricket is turgid, but a contest between bat and ball is not an unreasonable expectation.

As for hopes for the game, if another one going to the wire on the final day is a little too much to ask for, some solid batting to take the game into the latter part of the game would be good to see, if only to prevent the four day Test brigade from starting up their campaign again.  On which subject it has been pleasing to note Test cricketers, player organisations and even the MCC come out firmly against shortening the format.  In normal circumstances this might be thought to be more than sufficient opposition, but in these times where the governing bodies care little for the integrity of the sport and everything for the currency exchange markets, nothing is certain.  A debate on equalising to at least some degree the game’s revenues would answer so many of the (true enough) concerns about the costs of hosting Tests,  but as ever with the avaricious Big Three, this is too much to ask.

Curiously, one justification for considering the move is that Tests haven’t always been five days in duration, ranging from timeless Tests at one extreme to three day matches at the other.  This is certainly true, but it is a bizarre rationale to suggest how the game was played in the first half of the last century is a template for the future direction, and not one that the likes of the ECB have ever made before.  It seems reasonable on the same basis to look out for other such returns to the past as valid matters for review.  Presumably fast leg theory is also up for a return, along with uncovered pitches and the banning of helmets.  There is nothing wrong with debate, there is everything wrong with mistaking moves over more than a century towards what the game itself felt the most suitable format with some kind of belief in the sanctity of the duration for its own sake.

The series is level, there are five days of Test cricket this week to enjoy in a match where either side can win.  Sport for sport’s sake is never a bad starting point.

 

 

Cape Town: The Five Day Test Strikes Back

Extraordinary finish.  If the advocates of four day Test cricket are feeling a bit stupid right now, it’s because their idea was stupid, is stupid, and they deserve calling out on it at every single opportunity.

Yes, England won this match, but that’s not remotely the point and never was.  Throughout this final day the twists and turns, the likelihood of South Africa heroically batting out a draw or England grabbing the needed wickets captured the attention, not because of hopes for one side or the other, but because it was the very essence of Test cricket.  There is simply nothing like the countdown of overs on the final day of a closely fought match, where the desperation of the batsmen to stay in or the bowlers to make the breakthrough turn the sometimes sluggish pace of Test cricket into a riveting gladiatorial contest.  England winning is irrelevant to the wider point – had South Africa clung on for another 8 overs, it would have been every bit as special.

It’s not that every game is like this, or even that it can be like this.  It’s that removing the possibility of the game reaching the extraordinary heights of which it’s capable is nothing short of epic vandalism from people who ought to know better.  Football has plenty of 0-0 draws, rugby has penalty-fests, but the value of extraordinary sport is in the mundane as much as the exceptional, for without the routine you cannot identify the special.

The memories of this day will be off Ben Stokes dragging England over the line through sheer force of will, ripping apart the tail in the final session.  Zak Crawley’s superb reaction catch to dismiss Anrich Nortje at the second attempt.  Quinton de Kock looking entirely at ease before a shockingly executed shot that opened the door for England to force their way through.  Vignettes of play linger, far more than the individual procession of what happened and when, and it requires the first four days in order to generate the circumstances whereby this can happen.  Stokes himself passionately defended the five day game in his interview afterwards to cheers from those present, and more cheers from those around the world watching.

If it sounds like a love letter to Test cricket, then it’s because it is.  There is nothing wrong with it that requires major surgery to the playing conditions.  It’s not to say there aren’t things that can be done to protect and nurture the game, nor that innovation shouldn’t be considered and implemented if it helps both the popularity and, most important of all, respects the way the game is played and any effect on it.  Day/night Test matches may not be something that appeals to everyone, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the sport itself in the way that amputating 20% of the play does, the way removing the drama of a pitch deteriorating on a daily basis over the full length of the game does.

Add in to that the pacing, whereby a match has space for Dom Sibley to score a patient, disciplined hundred, for Ben Stokes to tee off in pursuit of a declaration, or for Rassie Van Der Dussen to score a mere 17 runs, but over such a length of time and with such skill that so nearly got his team to a precious share of the spoils.

And let’s remember the crowd.  The Barmy Army, all too often the subject of criticism from those sat in front of their televisions, or watching in the ground and having got in for free, they play a part in ensuring the match is played in a lively, and ultimately raucous atmosphere.  They aren’t beyond reproach, they can be annoying to sit next to, but they also spend vast amounts of their own money supporting the team all around the world, and making a material difference to local economies wherever they go.  Those who travel in huge numbers who aren’t part of the Barmy Army, but who travel across the world to do the same thing.  England cricket fans who follow the team are a special breed, and they deserve days like these as much as anyone.

Cricket needs moments that raise it above and beyond the routine.  T20 has its place, and as a means of growing and developing the game it is the ideal vehicle.  But it cannot and must not be the only form viable to those who want to inhabit the game, who want to live the sport, get deep inside it and appreciate every facet of it.

South Africa played more than their part in making this a day of defence of the highest part of the game, they acted as ambassadors for the game of cricket.  The flaws in the international game, and in these two teams are evident, but today it doesn’t matter, for it was nothing more than a response by 22 cricketers to those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  The weaknesses of the two sides can be saved for another day, for right now what matters is the game, the sport, the very existence of and justification of Test cricket.

Test cricket is priceless.  It showed it yet again today.

Cape Town Test, Day Four: Hard Pounding, Gentlemen

There is a temptation to get bored with repeatedly pointing out to the ECB that if this was a four day Test, England would have had to pull out much earlier to try to force a win, and that we would probably be talking about a drawn game right now.  It is a temptation that should be resisted, for the fact that this match is going to go deep into the fifth day, or even finish as a draw is something they don’t want to hear, and will swiftly ignore in favour of their ludicrous plans to hamstring Test cricket once memories of this game have started to fade.  Technically, all results remain possible, and while a South African win appears to be the wildest of fantasies, that is hardly the point – this match is going to go more or less the distance, with the result uncertain.

There is not a single person currently uninterested in this game who would be more interested had there been one day fewer, and a hell of a lot of people who are interested who would be deeply frustrated this evening had this been the bastardised version of Test cricket the governing bodies, the guardians of the game, wish to see.  Never let them forget it, never stop reminding them how their plans have absolutely nothing to do with the health of the sport and everything to do with the health of their bank balances.  Banging on about the same subject is tiresome, but they are hoping for that ennui, that fatigue to be the predominant response.

Going into the fifth day tomorrow, England require 8 more wickets after a dominant first half of the play, and a fine rearguard from South Africa in the second.  If the abiding individual curiosity at the start of play was whether Dominic Sibley would reach his maiden Test century, no one told Ben Stokes, who launched a furious assault from the start, largely but not exclusively against Keshav Maharaj.  Three sixes, including one quite glorious punch back over Dwaine Pretorius’ head took all the pressure off Sibley, who was able to cruise fairly serenely to his century as Stokes smashed his way to 72 off 47 balls.  If his dismissal was a disappointment, the rest of the middle order attempted to maintain the impetus.  Buttler made only 23, but in the circumstances his score was less important than the rate of scoring, and Sibley himself began to up the ante as England closed in on a declaration.

One hundred doesn’t a Test player make, but nor should it be overlooked in a side where centuries have been somewhat rare in recent times.  Sibley might look awkward in his stance, but he played with discipline and to his strengths.  There have been enough players over the years with slightly awkward approaches who have been successful to not discount what he is trying to do, and if he maximises his returns through batting this way, then along with Rory Burns (this could be the crabbiest opening pair England have had in years) England might just have an opening partnership worthy of the name.  Certainly his innings of 133 in 313 balls represents one of the longest innings by anyone not called Cook in several years, and in a side crying out for permanence at the crease, this is welcome in itself.

England’s batting was placed slightly into context by the relative ease with which South Africa batted in their long haul to try and save the game.  While not totally discounting a freak outcome , a world record target of 438 is implausible to say the least, barring Stokes/Perrera levels of ridiculousness tomorrow.  It’s a world record for a reason.  The pitch didn’t remotely misbehave, with debate surrounding whether the ball did more in the sunshine than when cloudy, suggesting that general levels of utter cluelessness amongst absolutely everyone as to why the ball behaves as it does is just as strong in 2020 as all previous years.  Maybe there’s something in it, and if so, England will be pleased as the forecast for tomorrow is to be hot and sunny.

In trying to save a match, every team has at least one player felt to be the one needed to bat long in order to have a chance, and it’s not being too presumptuous to assume that South Africans would have felt that Dean Elgar was that man.  He looked entirely at ease against everyone except, surprisingly, Joe Denly, whose part-time legspin extracted some often vicious turn and bounce from outside the left hander’s off stump.  His dismissal was mildly controversial, England’s appeal for a catch behind being upheld, and on review the tiniest, less than conclusive squiggle appearing on snicko.  If Elgar had been given not out, you’d imagine there was insufficient grounds to overturn him, but he was and so the same principle applied, and realistically there was no other decision the third umpire could have made – which isn’t to say conclusively that he hit it.

It was Pieter Malan who instead became the wall England spent their day trying to breach, without success.  On debut, he batted beautifully, defensively, and rarely appeared troubled at all.  Only the late wicket of Zubayr Hamza gave England cause for celebration, and with 56 overs gone, but the ball just starting to reverse, they were fairly slim pickings in 56 overs.

England will have a second new ball to come, they certainly haven’t bowled poorly, and they continue to have a great chance of squaring the series.  But it hasn’t been easy, and as the man said, we will have to see who will pound longest.

South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Day 3

One of the things I’ve found when writing match reports here is that it can get pretty difficult not repeating yourself after a while. This has certainly been the main issue I’ve had, with the repetitive nature of England’s problems with the bat. All of which made it an incredibly pleasant surprise to watch a day’s play without England’s top order collapsing in a heap and leaving Stokes, Pope, or Buttler with the job of rescuing the game.

The day began with England needing two wickets to clean up the South African tail, and Anderson did so within a few overs. This efficiency is also uncharacteristic of England’s recent performance, with opposition teams scoring just over fifty runs on average against them fpr the last three wickets in the past two years. This was hugely important in the context of the game, because it allowed England a first innings lead and meant that England’s top order wasn’t stuck in the field through the morning session waiting for their chance to bat.

When England did come out to bat this morning, something truly incredible happened: A competent Test batting performance from an England batting unit. Honestly, it was simply a better version of the first innings performance. The batsmen all got starts, but Dom Sibley applied himself and got a well-deserved 85*. When Crawley and Denly did lose their wickets, an Englandbattingcollapse didn’t immediately follow. It was not the most hostile conditions for batting, and the bowling seemed quite tame at times, but England’s batting has been so chaotic in recent years that this seems like definite progress.

A particular point of improvement over England’s past batting has been their performance against South Africa’s spinner Maharaj. Whilst not hitting him out of the attack, England’s batsmen did manage to keep the scoreboard ticking over when they were facing him and have yet to gift him a wicket in this innings.

With the recent proposals by the ICC to change the default format of Tests to four days, I’ve seen the argument made that today’s play would support that idea. A day with few wickets and little drama does nothing to make Test cricket more attractive and profitable around the world, some people have suggested. There is certainly something to this point of view. We’ve all seen flat pitches leading to boring draws which sap the will to live of anyone unfortunate to be watching.

The thing I like most about Test cricket, when compared to ODIs and T20s, is the lack of artificiality. More often than not, the better team in the conditions wins a Test match. Great bowlers are allowed to bowl as many overs as they are able, and place their fielders with few restrictions. Batsmen can typically bat to the farthest limits of their abilities, both mental and physical, rather than swinging wildly at a few deliveries and calling it a day. Allrounders can demonstrate their skills in both phases of the game to the fullest extent. Everyone bats, in every game.

England have been by far the better side in this game, in particular with their bowling which has been able to extract bounce and movement from this pitch. Therefore, it seems absolutely fair to me that they should be able to put themselves in a virtually unassailable position with this innings if they are able to. If this Test were shortened to four days, then they would be not be able to fully establish a winning position due to time pressure and would either have to declare early on day 4 or risk gifting South Africa an undeserved draw. This would not seem fair to me.

On the topic of four day Tests, there were another 4 overs lost from today’s play due to the bowling teams’ lethargy. On a day where South Africa’s spinner bowled almost 30 overs. If you think international teams will be able and willing to consistently bowl 98 overs in a day, then I’ve got a Nigerian uncle who want to get in touch with you about an exciting business opportunity…

Comments on the game, four day Tests, or anything else are welcome below.

Cape Town, Day 2 – International Rescue

In as far as England have been competitive over the last few years, it’s generally been on the back of the bowling attack resurrecting hopes despite modest batting performances.  It is because of those mediocre batting displays that the bowling attack having an off day intensifies the outcome because of a lack of runs in the previous innings, or a lack of anticipated runs in the one to come.  The running joke has always been that England respond to batting failures by dropping a bowler, a gag that has more than some basis in truth.

England’s total of 269 was disappointing, again, but the response from the bowlers was enough to dig England out of the hole of their own making, and while some of the South African wickets were every bit as self-inflicted as in England’s innings, that shouldn’t mean the efforts of the attack need be overlooked or diminished.  There is a notable difference between the negative tactic of bowling dry that England revert to all too often, and one of pressurised containment adopted today.  All of the bowlers were tight, hard to score off, while carrying a threat throughout.  Stuart Broad was outstanding early on, threatening to rip through the top order in his customary way when it’s a Stuart Broad Day, ultimately denied when on a roll by a big overstep that cancelled out a cheap dismissal of Rassie Van Der Dussen who went on to score 68.  Umpires failing to call no balls has become a significant issue in Test cricket, and at least a dozen examples of unpunished breaching of the line were cited around the period in which the wicket was overturned.  Where responsibility lies for this is an open question – clearly the bowler is prime villain as he needs to keep some part of his foot behind the line, but failing to call them unless a wicket falls is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.  It is true that there is greater scrutiny by television, but it seems like umpires are more reluctant to call them in the first place.  The outcome is that no one benefits, which is why it’s hard to comprehend the lack of concern or action by the authorities for something that’s a fairly easy fix.

If asking the umpires to call the no balls is not going to happen, then divesting that responsibility to a third umpire seems the obvious solution.  Bowlers could help themselves by abiding by the line in training, rather than practicing no balls, something they appear to do despite pleadings from the Test arena to the village nets.  But the game too could ensure the law is enforced, and is failing to do so.  Watching a third umpire endlessly replaying whether a fielder has touched the boundary rope while utterly ignoring a simple facet of cricket is a wholly unnecessary frustration.

Of the other bowlers, James Anderson looked far more like himself in this innings than at Centurion, and perhaps his rustiness there should have been forgiven more than it was.  Either way, here was a threat, especially against the tail late on.  Both he and Broad were economical without being wasteful of the ball or negative in line, which forever makes it a puzzle that they don’t bowl like this all the time.  It is always churlish to criticise a pair with a thousand Test wickets between them, but the suspicion that they could have been even better with a greater willingness to go for runs is far from a fringe view.

Of the support bowlers, Stokes was relatively indifferent, but made up for that with four outstanding catches (and a couple of drops, difficult chances though they were) in the slip cordon.  The difference it makes to any team when the close fielders pull off the kinds of snaffles that he routinely does is immense, and something England have been lacking recently.  But it was Sam Curran and Dom Bess who were the relatively unsung heroes – in the former case because he appears to be one of those players who makes things happen.  His dismissal of Quinton De Kock was a superb change of pace that made the left hander look rather silly as he sliced it up in the air.  Many a batsman will have winced seeing someone be so thoroughly outwitted – it never looks good.

As for Bess, he bowled tightly and with discipline, and if he didn’t particularly turn the ball, then on a day two surface that shouldn’t be held against him.  What it did do though was allow the seamers to be rotated while he ensured control – a highly promising performance if he can maintain it.  He tied down Dean Elgar to the point that on 88, he had a horrendous swipe at one outside off stump and was caught at long off, departing the play distraught at his error.  In such cases it is a mix of a bowler earning the wicket and the batsman throwing it away, any observer can decide where they sit on that scale.  Berating the top scorer for getting out is a common pastime, but it did look the kind of mistake enough to cause hair to be torn out by team mates and supporters alike.

The match is relatively even after two days, with England perhaps slightly the ascendant; a tribute to England’s bowling today, and the often comedy batting of both sides.  Weak batting line ups can make for entertaining viewing, but the mooted suggestion of four day Tests isn’t going to be harmed by the inability of either of these sides to bat properly.  The suspicion that this series is going to be won by the least inept batting won’t go away.

South Africa will go into day three 54 behind with just two wickets remaining.  If the wickets fall quickly, that’s a decent lead for England, if the tail can close to within 20, it is of little relevance.  South Africa might have to bat last, but England have to bat next, knowing one more collapse will cost the series.  It is indicative of where we are that followers of both teams have sufficiently little faith in their batting that they all fear the worst.  But today was an enjoyable watch, in itself that is welcome.

 

I’ve Had Enough, I’m Getting Out – Day 1 at the Cape Town Test

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England: 262 for 9 (Pope 56*, Stokes 47 – Pretorius 2/26)

Day 1 at CapeTown always brings back memories for me. I had the absolute pleasure of attending the test there in 2005. It was actually sad to see the area in which I spent four of the five days of that game (yes, it went five days, but if it were a 4 day test, we’d have followed on midway through Day 3). now cordoned off for redevelopment. I do hope the grass bank returns there. It was a great way to watch the cricket.

Anyway, let’s shrug off those memories, and instead focus on today. England chose to omit Jonny Bairstow, while Burns and Archer missed out through injury. Zak Crawley came into open, Ollie Pope reclaimed his place at number 6 and back-up keeper, while Dom Bess gives England a spin option, while Matt Parkinson might be wondering if this paid up working holiday is going to continue with him being ignored. England won the toss and batted.

And within 3 overs Crawley was back in the pavilion, nicking a swinging delivery from Philander. Zak is going to sink or swim here – the last selection of Bairstow over him at Centurion indicated a lack of faith – and he looks like he might get a run if he can just show something in the second innings. I saw him, admittedly a small sample size, at the Oval last year and was really impressed how he handled Morkel. But Philander is a different kind of test animal….

Denly and Sibley then dug in for most of the morning session, before Sibley, who is gradually increasing his output each test, was taken just before lunch when he nicked off to Rabada.  England lunched at 67 for 2.

The afternoon session saw Denly become becalmed, while Root did the advancing of the score. I missed the immediate post-lunch session walking the border collie, and when I came back, Root was out, being undone by pace and gloving the ball to de Kock off the pretty impressive Nortje. He had made 35 of the partnership of 42. 105 for 3. Ben Stokes joined Denly, with those memories of 4 years ago and his double century in lots of people’s minds. But before we could get to grips with any of that, and with no hint, Denly played down the wrong line to Maharaj, left a gap between bat and pad, and was castled. Out for 38, and 127 for 4.

Stokes and Pope then put together a partnership – no not 100+ but at least over 50. Pope is one of those players that looks lovely when he hits it, but gives you a real chance, and he did at the start today. He seems to lunge at spin, play with firm hands, but man, when he drives it, it’s like watching Ian Bell. Stokes started to look really dominating, plonking Maharaj over long on for six, and a dismissive pull for four was a lovely shot. Then, bang, chipped to cover for 47. No reason, no hint, just a chip to extra cover. 185 for 5.

Jos Buttler came in, played aggressively, was dropped off a tough chance at silly mid-off, and then nicked off after a flowery 29. No excuses here, Jos. No protecting the tail and then getting out trying to get fast runs. He has the gloves now, so maybe has a bit more time to go, but there are whispers out there. 221 for 6.

Sam Curran played a good shot, then left one and had his off stump knocked out. 231 for 7. Dom Bess, picked partially for his batting, nicked off to the first ball with the new cherry from Vernon Philander. 231 for 8. Stuart Broad’s Embarrassing Dismissal DVD registered another entry when he was yorked by Rabada with bat behind his pad and his feet beating the retreat. 234 for 9.

Pope then added 28 with Jimmy Anderson, and passed his second test fifty with some deft and inventive shot making. The day after his 22nd birthday he played with great maturity and showed he is someone we can look to the future to. He had some luck when Rabada bounced Pope, who hooked it to Philander only for it to be judged a no-ball by the third umpire. The ball before, when Pope upper cut for four, it was an enormous no-ball I called on Twitter (Sky later confirmed it) and this wasn’t called. Umpires have a really tough job, but that was blatant. Maybe this should just be handed to the third umpire. Pope finishing the day on 56 not out. In the words of Atherton “the one bright spot”

What’s there really to say? Any sense in getting angry about this? A different type of batting failure. Instead of one contribution of 80, and another of 40 with single digits elsewhere, we now have numbers 2-7 all making scores between 29 and 47, with one exception. It’s different. All getting in and all getting out (except Pope, of course, but he got lucky spooning one over mid-on early in his innings).

South Africa bowled well, make no mistake about it, but England are going nowhere in test cricket, especially away from home. I go back, as I always do, to the Pakistan test about 20 months ago when we won, well, but the England innings was a lot like this. No-one was making the big centuries. We were relying on helpful bowling conditions and scratching out 250-350. I said then it wasn’t a template for the future. I shrug my shoulders these days.

You should never judge a pitch until both teams have batted, and bowled, on it, but this feels light. Very light. But let us see….

Over Rate Watch – One over light in the 6 and a half hour’s play today. I suppose we should celebrate that.

So, looking forward to Day 2 (although my watching will be curtailed for Teddy’s annual vet visit). And I will continue to watch wistfully. It is a really, really lovely ground. I miss those days. I certainly remember being well watered by the end of that first day, like the England fans appeared to be during that 10th wicket partnership!

Blatant self-promotion on the “Extra Bits” – On This Day for January 3rd. – I have the next six days covered as well.

Comments on today, and those for Day 2, below.

Five Days in January

Given the news that England are pushing for four day Tests, the worst outcome at Newlands for the ECB would doubtless be a match that went into the fifth day.  Or that would be the case if anyone truly thought that cricketing requirements made the slightest difference in their quest for short term cash.  Still, it would have the advantage of being mildly embarrassing to have them reminded yet again that at least half of Tests do go to the fifth day, and the groundstaff at Newlands are rumoured to be playing their part by preparing a batting friendly pitch.  That being said, unless it’s slow and low, England have shown plenty of aptitude in terms of backing up their board on the pitch by flopping badly with the bat whenever the opportunity arises, so guarantees are in short supply.

England’s biggest doubt (at least until Rory Burns injured himself playing football) seems to be Jofra Archer, struggling with an elbow injury in the build up.  Should he not make it, then a one paced seam attack will be the outcome, and the Archer-meter will veer back to the “essential” side of the display, highlighting yet again that a player is never more valuable than when he’s not in the team.  If Archer is missing it will also postpone any decision about who to leave out from Centurion.  England made protestations about being happy to make the tough decisions over Broad and Anderson, which more than anything suggested they weren’t happy at all about it, though given the difference in performance between the two in the first Test, it’s curious that anyone would think it that hard a decision in the first place.

The main difference is potentially (though apparently not certainly) the selection of a spinner this time around, with the speculation being that Dom Bess is likely to get the nod in the continued absence of Jack Leach.  Not for the first time, selection policy is where eyes roll and heads shake, and in terms of how England handle their spinners, it’s more a permanent fixture over the last half decade or so, as they forever undermine their own processes and their own players.

Will MacPherson wrote a piece highlighting how the mismanagement of Moeen Ali has left England without the option of recalling him this series, and while Moeen’s dropping from the England team last summer was more a mercy than a blow, it is symptomatic of the inability of the management structure to treat players like valued staff instead of commodities that they managed to turn a necessary decision into a mess.  Moeen had and has severe limitations, but in that he is little different to any of the other options who don’t have even his level of Test success to fall back on.  This is forever the conundrum – awareness that the alternatives are unlikely to be any better shouldn’t be a reason to never make a change, but when making that change, to burn bridges with those who have had at least some success is the kind of ineptitude that England appear to specialise in.

That Leach has been poorly for a while is just unfortunate, though it should be noted that his main contributions in his Test career to date have been more with the bat than the ball – a particular irony given Moeen’s status as a batsman and part-time spinner converted into the main slow bowler – re-inforcing the central issue that the dearth of spin in the English game has no obvious resolution in current circumstances.  That those circumstances are self-inflicted by a board who prefer white ball cricket to the challenge of the longer game is a wider point that should never be overlooked.

The more immediate sour taste would be at the treatment of Matt Parkinson, the second spinner in the Test party until illness spread through the squad prior to the first Test resulting in Bess’s call up.  While it’s true that selection shouldn’t be automatic, to select a player in the original squad and then overlook them in favour of someone not even in it originally will hardly motivate Parkinson to feel he’s part of the set up.  That he’s a leg spinner is part of the problem, for England haven’t shown a great deal of faith or management skill in any of the options they’ve had for the hardest of bowling arts over many years, with Adil Rashid being the latest whipping boy all too often, in the press as much as elsewhere.  The revolving door of England spin selection for players not called Swann and over-expectation of what they might achieve has been a constant for a number of years now, with no sign that it will change any time soon.

The batting options were initially confined to a question of whether Ollie Pope comes in for Jonny Bairstow or not.  England have defended the latter with the age old “playing well in the nets” rationale, but Bairstow only played in the first Test due to Pope being ill, so it seems likely he will return to the middle order.  However, the news today that Burns had hurt his ankle playing football set off another round of comment about whether the team should be playing such a sport in advance of matches.  My own view on this is pretty simple – injuries happen in practice, warm ups are necessary in themselves, and  young athletes want to play games.  Wrapping them in cotton wool is neither possible nor desirable.  Players forced to sit around or do gentle sit ups for fear of breaking would go stir crazy anyway, and that’s before the likely increase in muscular injuries without regular and fairly intense exercise.  Shit happens.

For South Africa, the one probable change is the injury enforced omission of Aiden Markram, with Pieter Malan the man tipped to replace him at the top of the order.  Temba Bavuma has been released from the squad and told to go and make domestic runs, so the superbly named Rassie van der Dussen keeps his place.  Having progressively demolished England in the first Test, all is pretty well with the hosts’ camp, an illustration of how rapidly things can change in short order.  The fundamentals of this series haven’t particularly changed, South Africa’s batting is still brittle, and their back up bowling is as much a concern as it was before the series got under way.  But it is indicative of the way one side seized their opportunities and the other wilted under pressure.

Momentum is as irrelevant in a Test series as it’s ever been, but England will have to perform dramatically better in all facets of the game to get back into this, and while it’s possible that they may do so, another defeat will only increase the clamour from the stands and the press box for a plan to improve.  If only the problems afflicting English cricket had been in any way predictable.

South Africa vs England, 1st Test: Omnishambles (Slight Return)

This Test might have lacked one of England’s now iconic 50 all outs, but taken as a whole this match has highlighted once again the deep structural problems in the England team.  Yes, there has been illness, and as a result even those players who were fully healthy by the start of the game were likely undercooked, but as excuses go, this only offers up a plausible response if the team generally performs at a higher level than this.  England don’t, this is more of the same, more of the usual failings.

Putting the opposition in might have been a gamble, but this game wasn’t won or lost at the toss, but in the manner of the performances thereafter.  England had South Africa in trouble at 111-5 and let them get away to a workable total.  This happens all the time, to the point that England in recent times have the highest bowling average of any Test side for the last three wickets.  They followed that up with the normal abject collapse in the first innings losing their last 7 wickets for 39 runs.  Again, so customary, so repetitive.

Having conceded a sizeable first innings lead, England again bowled pretty well initially, only to utterly fall apart as the deficit grew, whether by accident (which lacks discipline) or design (which lacks brains).  And then when given a virtually impossible target, they batted pretty well, but were still needing to rely on a miracle of Headingley proportions to pull off the win.  Those events just don’t happen very often, which is why they’re considered miracles.

And here’s the rub.  We’ve written all this before.  You’ve read it all before.  You’ve screamed at the television watching another middle order player with their feet in treacle throwing their hands at a wide one and getting caught.  We’ve seen Jos Buttler end up holing out because he has no choice but to go into T20 mode when batting with the tail.  That doesn’t for a moment exempt him from the longer term problems of which he is part, but it is another repeat of the same old afflictions and the entirely predictable way this game ultimately panned out.

For South Africa came into this Test match in disarray, and England not only didn’t take advantage, but they were pretty heavily beaten.  Again.  Sickness throughout the squad can be pointed to as a factor, but patience has been exhausted with this team – there’s always a damn excuse for yet another capitulation.

It’s not so many years since England smugly discarded players with Test records the current lot could only dream of on the grounds of preparing for the future.  That future is now, and it really doesn’t look very good at all.  Individual players are still scapegoated, – Jofra Archer before his five wickets in the second innings was getting plenty of stick, a new, raw fast bowler ground into the dirt with a workload more suited to a stock bowler than a strike one; he was mishandled in New Zealand, and then berated for failing to put right all the myriad flaws in English cricket.

Broad and Anderson have been superb servants of English cricket, but they are coming to the end, and they aren’t, can’t be, at the same kind of level they were in years past, and the cupboard is pretty bare. For all their peculiar flaws upstairs for players with so much experience, it’s hard to believe things are going to get better once they’re gone. On the batting front, Rory Burns has shown there is something there to work with, but while the top scoring player should never be singled out, it’s still true that when that top score is 84, the team won’t be winning many matches.  Joe Root and Ben Stokes are the big names in the middle order, but the most solid player in the line up is a 33 year old who responds to a deficit in ability at Test level with sheer bloody-mindedness.  Joe Denly deserves immense respect for extracting every ounce of talent he has, but when he is the one most likely to dig in for the long haul, and a feeling of impending doom with his dismissal is present, it says everything about the level England are operating at.

Even those players who do have the ability have compromised their Test games in pursuit of white ball riches.  Joe Root, however frustrated a figure he cuts when he gets out, is a shadow of the Test batsman he looked prior to attempting to move into T20 leagues, Jonny Bairstow’s technique (never his strongest feature) has disintegrated to the point where the tactics against him have been simplified to either bowling straight or bowling wide and waiting for him to get out.  Jos Buttler shows little sign of becoming a fully fledged Test batsman after nearly 40 Tests.

If the players just aren’t that good, the thinking and the planning at every level of English cricket is worse.  The mentality of the approach is invariably wanting, epitomised by the tactics of bowling bouncers on a surface crying out for the ball to be pitched up.  England do this time and again, misreading conditions, making the wrong call in selection and at the toss.  They are less than the sum of their parts on every occasion, and the antithesis of a team like New Zealand who still manage to compete overall with a fraction of the resources despite their recent hammerings in Australia.  The difference between a side that has a strategy and one wildly thrashing about in the dark is apparent.

It isn’t just about the Test team either.  This is an endemic, systemic issue afflicting the whole of English cricket.  The Hundred in itself is just another form of cricket, the mentality and approach that resulted in its formation though, is another instance of failing to see the wood for the trees.  This is institutional incompetence from top to bottom, and while they can legitimately point to a World Cup victory as proof of a strategy, the response to that of effectively scrapping the domestic 50 over competition was most representative of the utter confusion throughout the administration.

England just don’t learn, English cricket just doesn’t learn.  In this Test match the spirited attempt at a preposterously unlikely target is considered mitigation for the circumstances that led them to need such a low probability outcome in the first place.  Whether it be Stokes or Kusal Perera, the fact that every team is going to be nervous while they’re at the crease doesn’t make it any more likely they’ll turn once a career performances into once a series ones, and hoping for them to do so is a triumph of hope over reality.

Test cricket fundamentals haven’t changed, not even in an era of T20 dominance.  A big first innings score means a team will win a lot more matches than they lose, and for England a big first innings is now 300, not 500.  There are three tours scheduled this winter, as things stand, and even playing teams that aren’t all that great, the distinct possibility of losing the lot is a live issue.  South Africa are a long way from the powerful unit that they have been in the past, but in comparison (and in comparison is the important point here) they look cohesive, well drilled and simply superior.  They didn’t even have to play that well to hand out a drubbing this match.

If the performance of the team itself is a kick to the nether regions of increasingly annoyed supporters, the awarding of an honour to Colin Graves in the New Year list was more of a laughable joke.  The honours system is one that people either approve or disapprove of, and it’s always going to cause ructions when it comes to the individuals chosen.  Yet as usual, it’s a faceless suit that picks up the best gong going in English cricket (a knighthood for Clive Lloyd, a pleasure, isn’t a reflection on cricket in this country), and once again for no apparent reason apart from climbing the greasy pole of the establishment.  It’s not that it is reprehensible as such, it’s that it leaves a sour taste for all those up and down the land doing their level best to ensure the survival of their local club despite the official indifference towards their efforts and in a sport where they are fighting a losing battle, such has been the mismanagement from the top.

Over Christmas news leaked out that England were open to an Indian idea of an annual four way white ball competition, including Australia and one invited country.  There had been suggestions of an additional ICC tournament, nixed by the Big Three on the grounds of insufficient gaps in the calendar, yet suddenly the dollar signs appeared before the eyes of the administrators and at least two of those Big Three seemed to find a space in the diary for it to happen.  That this would be disastrous for the world game is fairly obvious.  That the mendacious, avaricious, self-interested cockalorums in charge of the world game would think it a magnificent wheeze equally unsurprising.

England head to Cape Town for the second Test.  Pope will presumably come in for Bairstow, and if England want to play a spinner it leaves an interesting decision as to which seam bowler to drop.  But it’s still likely to be more of the same – the personnel might change, the coaching staff might change, but the confusion and modest performances continue, along with the excuses.  If there’s one thing that’s improving in English cricket beyond all measure, it is the excuses.  Good work everyone.

 

South Africa vs England: 1st Test, Day 3

Why is an England away Test performance like a Christmas cracker joke?

Because the grim inevitability of disappointment has become so deeply ingrained that it would be infinitely more surprising if they were even remotely good.

One of the hardest things about writing an England match report here is trying not to repeat what you or the other writers have written in past posts. Days like today make this task so much more difficult as England, not unlike an 80s rock band, wheeled out all of their greatest hits.

The day began with South Africa reeling on 72-4, so naturally England’s bowlers all bowled short so that there was virtually no chance of hitting the wickets. It was only when they started bowling full, just before Lunch, that England actually managed to dismiss any South African batsmen. Unfortunately for the tourists, that adjustment was too late and they were already 300 runs behind.

After Lunch, England just had to dismiss the tail in order to chase their high and still-increasing target. So, obviously, they bowled anywhere but at the stumps and let the tailenders add another 98 runs for the last three wickets. This will not be a surprise for anyone who has followed England recently, as they have the second-highest Test bowling average (behind Afghanistan) when bowling for the last three wickets this year.

The third stage of the archetypal England performance, after a feeble batting collapse and a toothless bowling display, is the hope. Against all experience and reason, we still think England can pull off a miraculous rearguard and somehow win the game. Burns and Sibley played well, and put together the highest England opening partnership since Cook and Jennings in 2016. Sibley gave his wicket away with some gentle catching practice to Maharaj, but that was the only wicket the visiting team lost all day. From an impossible target of 376, England now need ‘just’ 255 runs with nine wickets remaining.

It really is the hope that kills you.

Comments welcome below.