Rubble, Muddle, Toil and Trouble

England picked a good week to be bowled out for 58.  Whatever the embarrassment of their likely defeat in Auckland, it’s going to be overshadowed by the events at Newlands. Still, at the very least, they can point to their predicament being one of ineptitude rather than nefariousness, which in the current climate is an achievement of sorts. 

The only reason England aren’t already 1-0 down is because of the weather, and it is a reflection of how disastrous their match position was that the loss of nearly two days play still has them likely to lose.  They put up a fairly decent display overall, but by this point of proceedings it requires miracle days to even up the ledger.

Henry Nicholls, batting for the fourth day in a row in this Test, made his highest first class score to take New Zealand to 427-8 at the declaration,  while for England Stuart Broad bowled pretty well, keeping things tight and picking up wickets.  It always seems strange to praise a bowler for keeping things tight, but in the circumstance of trying to keep a deficit down and limit batting time for your own side, it turns all bowlers into negative containing types rather than wicket takers.  Given the pitch was still decent for batting – and after all only two days old in reality – they could have been forgiven for cursing their own batsmen repeatedly for their profligacy as they laboured to create any chance of note. When you’ve been bowled out for 58 in a good surface is not the time to criticise the lack of penetration in the bowling attack, reasonable general point though it might be.

One sided Tests are never particularly interesting, and they only become so when it gets to the meat of the second innings, watching the usually doomed attempts to stave off defeat.  Invariably, teams bat better second time round, equally invariably they still lose.  Thus it was that England certainly made a better fist of things, while at the same time still looking like there was only one outcome.  Cook fell early again to complete a poor Test match – note that much comment once again referred to Root’ s conversion problem rather than Cook’s lack of runs over the last couple of years.  Melbourne still looks like an outlier.

Stoneman and Root set about compiling a partnership, but fell late on, the captain to the last ball of the day one delivery after taking a painful blow on the hand.  Root is clearly deeply frustrated at his habit of not going on to make big scores when well set, but England’s problems are deeper set than one batsman failing to make the most of being in.

Assuming the weather stays fair, seven wickets should be well within New Zealand’s capability, and while it’s always possible that there will be a repeat of Matt Prior’s heroics last time, England neither deserve a draw nor do they give off the impression of a team capable of it.  

Naturally enough, the post play interviews spent as much time talking about the conduct of the Australian team as the match itself.  Stuart Broad was clearly itching to give them both barrels and barely contained his amusement at the predicament in which they find themselves.  He did manage to make a few pertinent points concerning hypocrisy and his own treatment at the hands of the crowd, which is neither here nor there, but at the behest of the Australian coach, which is. He also took the opportunity to imply that it isn’t the first time Australia have altered the state of the ball, couching it in a dig about being surprised that this is supposedly the first time they’ve acted this way by saying he didn’t see why they’d changed a method that had hitherto been working.  Broad is often good value in these circumstances, given that Aussie baiting is something he is unquestionably good at, but it doesn’t mean his words should be taken as being any more objectively true than those of Darren Lehmann. Yet it is also true that footage of Bancroft putting sugar in his pockets during the Ashes emerged overnight – which is something Australia are going to have to get used to as people scour the footage for evidence of previous attempts.

The reaction to the pre-meditated ball tampering has been interesting.  Australian supporters are aghast, ashamed and in shock, which perhaps highlights self perception of the way Australia are meant to play cricket in their eyes.  Outside the country it’s rather different, a deep sense of amusement and schadenfreude at the self-appointed arbiters of cricketing morality caught out deliberately cheating.

For the crime is not the worst that could have been committed, reflected in it being a Level 2 or at most Level 3 offence in the ICC disciplinary code.  One of the peculiarities of cricket remains the mobile moral code that considers some actions to be reprehensible and others part of the game, even when all are intended to gain an illegal advantage or deceive the umpires.  Ball tampering appears to be one of those where self righteous outrage is a common response to something most teams have been guilty of at various times.  Perhaps the greatest outrage is reserved for those who are caught.

There are a few exceptional circumstances to this one.  Many instances of it tend to be in the heat of the moment, rather than as here a deliberate plan concocted by the “leadership group” of the Australian team, the exception being in the legal dubious but impossible to police tactic of enhancing saliva through the sucking of sweets.  In that sense the mea culpa from Smith created more questions than answers.  His refusal to name names as to who was involved is not sustainable; the match referee and ICC will want to know who is to be punished, and a no comment won’t fly.  Equally, it beggars belief that Darren Lehmann wasn’t aware of any of it, the giveaway being the speed with which he radioed the 12th man to inform Bancroft he’d been caught.  Lastly on this particular element it is astounding that apparently not one player or staff member pointed out that this was a terrible idea, either for moral reasons or the simple practicality that being caught was so likely.  David Lloyd’s assertion that Australia are “out of control” is never more strongly supported than by the total absence of anyone with either a moral compass or a well developed sense of self-preservation. Above all else, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the leadership group are severely challenged in the mental department.

Smith is finished as captain, as is Warner as vice captain.  There is absolutely no prospect of them surviving this, the reaction from Australia has been so negative, and so angry, that it is merely a matter of time before both go, the only question being whether Cricket Australia will allow them to resign rather than sacking them.  There is simply no prospect of them remaining that is remotely sustainable – every time Australia gain reverse swing they will be alleged to be cheating, every time they claim a low catch they will again be called cheats, irrespective of the truth.  The stupidity of their actions means that for the next decade this will be thrown at them at every opportunity.  It is a PR catastrophe to which there’s only one response.

James Sutherland held a press conference overnight where he issued the usual platitudes about being aghast at what had happened, but he also made the interesting comment that he’d had cause to speak to Smith before about the behaviour of the team.  In the first instance this suggests either that it was hardly a bollocking or on the other that it was ignored by the team to the extent that they felt ball tampering was a reasonable response to the concerns.  Doubling up on things is an oddly impressive response in a sense.  Either Cricket Australia didn’t care about the stench of hypocrisy emanating from Australian cricket, or the team didn’t care what he thought.  Both reinforce the out of control criticism.

Few international sides are angels, and most have behaved poorly at different times, not least England.  But no others have taken it upon themselves to define how everyone else should behave and claim the moral high ground even when it is a laughable position.  Prior to these particular events, they had complained bitterly about the treatment of the players (and players’ wives) at the hands of the South African crowds.  And fair enough too, it was unedifying – but for the complaint to come from a side whose coach had openly called for Australian crowds to send Stuart Broad home in tears, it was another example of an extraordinarily lacking in self awareness perception as being the good guys, oblivious as to how they were seen elsewhere.

There is no reason to assume that the ball tampering was a regular act – though equally the protestations that this was the first time it had ever happened were greeted with derision given this is the response every time Australia are caught out doing something wrong – but Australia’s behaviour during the Ashes left a lot to be desired, as did the pious manner in which they justified themselves.  This speaks to the heart of the difference between self image and outside observation, and explains precisely the glee with which this has been received outside Australia.  Ball tampering is a relatively minor matter, hypocrisy is not, and it is the hypocrisy that has resonated.  Furthermore, the outrage from the Australian media raises plenty of eyebrows given their unstinting support for every dig and complaint issued from the team.  They have been the propaganda arm of Australian cricket far too often to now react with outrage At the team going one step too far.

At the time of writing, news broke that Smith had been suspended from the fourth Test and fined his match fee.  This is merely the beginning for him.  For the sake of trying to gain a tactical advantage in one Test he has damned himself for the rest of his career as a cheat, and if Any sympathy is to be extended in his direction, it is that one crass decision is going to haunt his career, not because of his guilt, but because of the pre-planned, deliberate nature of the offence.  Any penalties he receives from the ICC or Cricket Australia pale into insignificance compared to the reputational damage to himself.  Some have commented that he deserves some credit for fronting up and accepting his guilt at the press conference, but he spent more time talking about being embarrassed than he did apologising, indicating he still didn’t realise quite what they had done.  Equally, Cameron Bancroft was largely thrown under a bus, making it somewhat apposite that Sutherland then did the same to Smith.

As for Bancroft himself, being a junior player is no excuse whatever.  Everyone knows the rights and wrongs of something like this, and volunteering to be the patsy suggests a complete lack of perspective and intelligence.  It comes back again to being astounding that no one appears to have objected to the plan.

Over the longer term this may well benefit Australia, serving as a correction to their recent overbearing nature.  For everyone else it doesn’t offer the slightest opportunity to jump on to the moral high ground so rapidly vacated.  All teams have been behaving poorly in one manner of another and none of them can claim to be the wronged party on a regular basis.  Equally, and taking into account that this still isn’t the worst crime to have committed on the cricket field, it provides an opportunity for the authorities to clamp down hard on some attitudes and confrontational acts that have been pissing off a lot of people all around the world.  

National teams are not a law unto themselves.  This represents an opportunity to reinforce that point 

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More Rain – And Putting The Ban Into Bancroft

All this scratching is making we twitch.

With all due respect to the very limited action available to the hardy souls in Auckland, the story of today is without doubt Australia being hoisted on their own petard. Let’s be charitable here and say let the investigation run its course and it would be premature to rush to judgement. Then remember back less than three months to Channel 9 and its shenanigans over a dubious looking moment with Jimmy Anderson. There was no measured calm, no looking for innocent explanations, no trying to get the facts. They were, quite blatantly, playing the 12th or 13th man for Team Australia, and the media out there duly followed. We see it, we get mad by it and yes, in just a small way, we might even envy their loyalty and support. But it’s not looking to secure justice and fair play.

Yes, I know, I am being hopelessly naive, and yes, I know, I’ve probably crossed a moral line or two playing sport too. But we are going to get nowhere if we start denying the obvious. Let’s wait and see what happens later in the day, but at the very least Bancroft is guilty of misleading the match officials, which is what Burge threw the book at Atherton for. I was at the Oval in 2006 when Pakistan were accused of ball tampering, and all we had to go on was announcement of a 5 run penalty. When we put two and two together, we thought there might be trouble. And trouble there was. This gets to be an emotive subject.

I know we have some Aussies who come on here regularly, and I know we can’t put this on all of them because it would be silly. But I do put it on large swathes of their media that allows, even laughs, at people like Malcolm Conn having a pop at England picking players with perfectly legitimate links to England, while ignoring Usman Khawaja or Andrew Symonds with less tangible birth links (and for the record, absolutely they should be playing for Australia). You can’t chuck this nonsense out and (a) not expect it back and (b) to be bloody ridiculed for it. For years the Australian team, and its dutiful press corps, by and large have been fine and dandy when they are dishing out the stick to the opposition. If it is because you are being beaten, you are crying. If it is because you are in a tough game, it is mental disintegration and what test cricket is about. If you are winning…..it’s Australian spirit, never say die etc. And by and large I really don’t care. But you don’t and never should, get the privilege of defining a line. Yet in this series they are telling us South Africa are crossing it.

(Update – Of course, I forgot Lehmann’s part in all this. Just like some football managers, when his boys do it, it’s fine. When his team does it, it’s within the line. But when an idiot South African fan dispenses it back, it’s off we go. You can’t run with foxes and hunt with the hounds. These things have a tendency to bite you on the arse. Which is why England should keep quiet because we definitely head butt the line too.)

Now Australia are faced with dealing with a really sticky situation with Cameron Bancroft. It does not look good. The press all over the world will be watching. In turn I’ll be watching the Aussie media. On Sky Graeme Smith put Allan Border on the spot about it, and AB, as loyal to the Aussie cause, as gritty and determined as they come, a player I admired (save that Dean Jones macho bullshit nonsense in Madras) was put in a spot. Did he jump to a conclusion and be berated as disloyal, or play it safe. He trod a careful path “it doesn’t look good, and if he’s found guilty he will have to pay the penalty”. Can’t say fairer than that. This is going to run and run. (Update – 2 hours on and Malcolm Conn is silent. Maybe it’s past his bedtime.)

Aside from all the nonsense, this is a cracking series, and this is another good match. A pity the two teams have acted like bloody children. It’s taking away from the spectacle, not adding spice. We know how competitive the two teams are.

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Beautiful Newlands…. Any excuse to get this picture out

A story is breaking that Virat Kohli is going to miss Afghanistan’s first ever test match to play three games of county cricket, probably for Surrey. Sadly for us Londoners the only home game he will play if he does is at Guildford, which although great for a day out, is not so great if there’s going to be a large crowd. Anyone fancy a day at the Ageas Bowl for his first game? I think this speaks much about the game – county cricket still has some attraction otherwise why would Kohli bother; some test matches aren’t quite as important as others; and England helping out an opponent by giving him early match practice is laudable, in my view now. I’ve changed my tune and would rather see a well prepared, in tune India play England than some outfit ill prepared and waiting to go home. I maintain my point. Test cricket really needs Virat Kohli. If he turns his back on it (and I know he sort of his for the Afghan test) then the game might be in trouble. He’s the world’s most important cricketer right now and it’s not even close.

We’ll probably come back to the Colin Graves and Glamorgan story. Again, if the story stands up, you’ll count us shocked. Really shocked.

So to Day 4 at Auckland. England don’t deserve to be saved by the rain and they should at least have to have earned a draw by batting time – a thing we have been dead good at in recent years. The weather forecast appears better tonight. New Zealand should look to add 120-150 quick runs, get up to 350 if they can and stick us in. Some might say they should go earlier and I wouldn’t argue. Then England will need to earn some pride back. It’s by no means acceptable, and that 58 should be remembered for quite a while, but it would be a start. This team has been papering over cracks with its home form. There’s a lot about “no-one wins away” but we aren’t even competitive. That has to change.

Comments on all of this immediate, reactive nonsense below. Comments on the test should also follow.

UPDATE – They have confessed. It was a leadership group decision. Smith as captain has to go. Absolutely no questions asked. Warner as vice-captain cannot take that position up either. At the moment they are protecting Lehmann. That’s not going to work either.

UPDATE @ 10PM UK TIME…

Well, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the afternoon. Chris is possibly going to be on tomorrow to give his verdict on Day 4 and some comment on today’s events.

I genuinely believe that Steve Smith is dead in the water. If he survives this, I’d be genuinely shocked. The next in line would be David Warner, but he has to be part of the “leadership group” mentioned in Smith’s mea culpa. It’s not the ball tampering, which is ludicrous and to some extents serious enough. But it’s conspiring to do so, within a structure within the team, and then getting the sap with the fewest caps to carry it out. More will come out about the whys and hows, but this isn’t an international captain, nor a vice-captain showing leadership. Those who think this is purely about ball-tampering are off their minds.

Australia find themselves in a bind purely of their own making. They have been holier than thou in terms of their cricket for a good while, and the mask, however slightly, has slipped. People can abide cheats – players who have pushed the margins of the rules, who have appealed when they know it is not out, who have even pushed the line of acceptable banter – but they generally can’t abide hypocrites. Loads of people have sledged, but why do you think people go at Warner? Because he can throw, but he can’t catch. Smith and the whole “Baggy Green” ethos is in tatters, and he is the one at the helm of his ship. “Oooops, I’ve smashed this one into the iceberg, but I’m just the man to rearrange the deckchairs…”

The issue isn’t for me to say Steve Smith should be sacked – I think he should but that is a call for Cricket Australia. What this is also not about is the technical issue of ball tampering. What is in question is leadership and the way the game is played. Cricketers have cheated since the beginning of the day and always will. Much of it comes from the flow of the game. It isn’t pre-meditated over a lunchtime chat to take something out into the middle and blatantly use it on the ball. Some will say Smith shouldn’t be the one to take the fall. Let us see. Commercial and reputational interests conquer all, and this is not a good look, right or wrong, and they will decide the fate.

It’s been a funny old day….

New Zealand v England – 1st Test, Day 1

Your hard working writers have been working bloody hard recently, and so the articles on here are a little thin on the ground. We have always said we won’t post for posting sake, and that we know you understand this. A lot has got my interest recently, and even today there is barely concealed anger over the ICC Qualifiers for the World Cup. We’ve had the tiresome nonsense between two groups of adults acting like children in South Africa. We’ve had the KP retirement and the reaction (and lack of in some quarters). There was the schmozzle in Sri Lanka, there are the frequent laments over county cricket. If the game has nothing to moan about, then it can generate something in a heartbeat. Sadly, despite all these subjects we’ve just been crushed by our day jobs. So sorry, but that’s life. It’s especially tough when we see some of the stuff being put out there at the moment.

But we have some actual cricket tonight. I was going to say proper cricket, but I’m not sold on this pink ball stuff, but according to all and sundry I am supposed to be the one to get into line. This is a sad tour for me. New Zealand are attractive opponents, playing an exciting type of cricket, with some good bowlers, and we will be tested. So let’s just play two test matches, bunged on to the end of an extraordinarily long winter tour, which to the public at large is going to be as an invisible tour, straight out of the HG Wells novel. You can tell how important it is for all and sundry – no-one appears to give a toss that Ben Stokes is playing. It’s an interesting sub-plot rendered meaningless by it being so low key. Stokes is making a comeback in the country of his birth. Such courage, as Andrew Strauss said. Let’s play a game. Let’s see if it’s New Zealand-born Ben Stokes on the scale of South African-born Kevin Pietersen in days of yore.

The first test is being played at the world’s most Mickey Mouse playing area, with some primary school boundaries in play at Eden Park. It’s also being played under lights (you’ve said that already), and it’s a two test series. One wonders if the ECB don’t take this series seriously, why the hell should supporters? As I’ve said many times, England lost an Ashes series 4-0 and no-one really gave a shit. So why should we care about what happens in New Zealand?

We do need to start winning away test matches. It may not be something the ECB cares too much about, but there is a worrying trend of England folding when there are distances to travel. This is a big series for a lot of players coming off an underwhelming Ashes. Stoneman has a place to play for, and even then, I’d be dubious of his test longevity. Malan came out of the Ashes with rep enhanced, but it’s a fragile place to be, and he may end the winter being chucked in at number 3. Joe Root has a number of critics to placate, because he keeps making 50s but not 100s. Moeen Ali had a chastening Ashes, but he’s not allowed one bad series, while some of his teammates survive three or four. Alastair Cook thought about quitting, but then didn’t think about, made one massive knock amid the slim pickings, but he’s not under pressure. Why should he be? Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes also need to recover some of their mojo. Well, not Jimmy. He’s in the sainthood with Alastair. But both could do with good series to bring England a victory, if possible.

New Zealand are going to be formidable, one would think. Neil Wagner is particularly interesting, having run through the West Indies before Christmas. Boult and Southee need no introduction. Kane Williamson is a class act, and the fear is after the ODI series is that we have a red hot Ross Taylor to contend with. It’s got plenty to commend it, this match.

We also have Act Three in the Children’s Party in South Africa. Who will call each other the worst rude word? Who will come up with the unfunniest quip? Who will ask another player out for a fight after play has finished? Which team will be more cheeky to teacher (umpire or match ref)? Which player will actually shut up and play cricket? England as a team are no angels, that I know. But this series has seen some tense cricket, good performances and exciting periods of play. Hell, AB De Villiers has shrugged off his fatigue to be fabulous. They don’t need this needle, and for grown adults to say they do, they should grow up. I can’t say I perform better in work if my manager tells me to fuck off every five minutes, or it gets me going if I threaten HR every now and again. They don’t have the monopoly on tense working environments, so pack it in, you tedious bores.

Comments on both matches below. We’ll try to get day reports up as and when. No promises.

England vs South Africa: Fourth Test, Day Two

For a time during the afternoon, it looked as though at long last there might be a genuinely competitive Test match on the cards.  Sure, England had played well in the morning session, thanks to Jonny Bairstow’s masterclass in farming the strike with the tail, but with the tourists 141-3, and looking in reasonable shape to challenge the England total, the prospect of not knowing where the match was going after two days was a definite possibility.

That it didn’t happen was partly down to some excellent bowling – from James Anderson and Moeen Ali in particular – but also some woeful batting.  England received plenty of (justified) criticism for the way they rolled over at Trent Bridge, but with the series now likely to finish 3-1, South Africa have clearly demonstrated that however fragile England might wish to be, they can exceed it.

Both teams had faltered in the top order, and the difference in position wasn’t especially marked, but whereas England’s middle order had rescued the situation, first through Stokes, then through Bairstow, South Africa’s fell apart.  It doesn’t tell us that much about England, for the trio of Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen have rescued the team from calamity on a few occasions, but in this series at least, the same can’t be said about their opposite numbers.

Although England had lost a couple of early wickets, 312-9 in the context of the batting line ups didn’t look a bad score.  A rollicking last wicket stand with Bairstow turning a useful fifty into what appeared certain to be a remarkable century moved England into a position of likely dominance.  In itself that says a fair bit about these two sides.  There is some movement off the pitch and in the air, but this is a decent Test match wicket.  400, once the minimum expectation for the side batting first appears to be right at the top of the aspirations of these batting line ups.

Bairstow of course fell for 99, joining a substantial group who have managed to get themselves out in often peculiar circumstances in pursuit of that single extra run.  If ever there was an illustration needed that batting is done in the head, it is right there.  He was perhaps a trifle unlucky of course – not in the sense that it wasn’t out, but because it was a marginal call. In the world of DRS such calls are automatically considered “good” decisions as they are backed up by the technology, and perhaps the game is better for that.  But he may feel some chagrin for not getting that nebulous unwritten rule concerning the benefit of the doubt.  It’s the same for all.

If Bairstow had left England content at the change of innings, Anderson ensured that lunch was to be a happy place in the England dressing room, removing the obdurate Dean Elgar third ball to christen his newly named bowling end with a classical Anderson delivery, swinging into the left hander’s pads.

For the next couple of hours it was good Test cricket.  The loss of Amla to Toby Roland-Jones for the third time in succession cut short an innings where he looked in decent touch, an all too rare occurrence recently.  If he was fluent, Heino Kuhn was anything but.  Battling dreadful form and injury, he was eventually put out of his misery by Moeen Ali, but it should be said that if his team mates had batted with the same tenacity and determination as the under pressure opener, they might not be in the mess they are this evening.

Bavuma and Du Plessis then took over, not without alarms, but the match was fairly even.  And then it all fell apart.  Anderson removed both within three balls, and while they were decent enough deliveries, Bavuma’s decision to join his team mates this series in regarding the bat as an optional extra, and Du Plessis’ dreadful defensive shot that dragged the ball on to the stumps through the widest of gates was symptomatic of the difference between the teams – namely that brittle as England might be, they are tempered by comparison with their opponents.

With the exception of Elgar, every South African batsman this innings has got into double figures, yet none has made a fifty.  The tail did well, Maharaj, Rabada and Morkel being responsible for ensuring the 142 run deficit (with one wicket remaining) wasn’t even higher.  Yet De Kock was subdued, seemingly unsure how to play the deteriorating situation, and the procession of batsmen coming in and going out was of no surprise at all.

All of which means this match is following an identical pattern to the third Test (and similar to all the others this series).  England will have a huge lead, and with no rain to date the luxury of no time pressure whatever in setting a vast target – though doubtless some will be calling for them to push on and declare tomorrow night.

It’s not entirely clear why it is that matches, in England at the very least, have become so one sided in recent years, and the old truth that correlation doesn’t equal causation should make anyone wary of the easy blaming of T20 cricket.  But it doesn’t make for good viewing and it isn’t healthy for Test cricket.  The very concept of a battle unfolding over five days is undermined when the outcome is pretty much clear after two, every time.  This has happened in Tests since they began, but it is now sufficiently consistently the case as to cause even more worry about the health of the game than was already the case.  All sport thrives on uncertainty, for without it there is little point watching.  The up and down results England have had in the last couple of years is indeed quite uncertain, that is true, but the matches themselves are anything but.

Barring something preposterous, England will win this match, and with it the series.  But the feeling that the next two (probably not three) days are merely playing out the inevitable (yet again) is both frustrating and fundamentally lowers interest.  It’s to be hoped it is a phase, as can happen in sport, for if not the problems are even greater than has been supposed up to now.

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Day Three – Wet

The forecast wet weather duly arrived not too long after lunch, and that was that for the day. South Africa had managed to save the follow on, and given the rain that may yet prove to be vital in going to the final match of the series all square. Temba Bavuma deserves all the plaudits for getting his team into a position whereby with some help from on high, it’s just about possible to see a potential escape. He was helped in adding 50 to the team’s overnight score by Vernon Philander, fresh out of hospital, but clearly far from recovered given his repeated trips off the field during England’s second innings. He’s plainly still not well at all. 

Toby Roland-Jones was the man to take the final wicket, and in doing so completed a five wicket haul. Cricket history is littered with examples of players who shone brightly at the start only to fade, and while nothing should be read into his achievement in terms of his international career, if nothing else he will have this match. But he’s bowled well, and certainly added to the potency of the England attack in helpful conditions. 

With no follow on option, it was for England to follow the pattern of the first two Tests and go out in the third innings and build a lead. The overhead cloud still assisted the bowlers and Morne Morkel in particular made life especially difficult, accounting for Cook for the 11th time with a good one that left him and clattered into off stump. At the other end Keaton Jennings was struggling badly against Philander, escaping being caught in the slips via a cordon that couldn’t react in time as the ball flew off the edge. 

That he’s struggled this series is obvious, but all players need a bit of luck, and perhaps that was just what he needed. He also escaped being given lbw on review, but towards the end of the possible play he was starting to look more fluent and more assured. Should he go on tomorrow, on such fine margins can sporting careers be made. 

Tom Westley in contrast has looked like he’s been waiting to bat in a Test match for years. Both in the first innings and today, his stroke making has been notable, his ease at the crease remarkable. Once again, it means little in terms of the longer term, but on brief evidence, he does at least appear at home in the environment. 

With England 252 ahead, a better forecast for the next two days and a pitch still offering some assistance to  the seamers, it’s hard to see much other than England creating a huge lead and then asking South Africa to bat the best part of four sessions to try and save it.  As so often, it might be best if England were bowled out removing the need for a decision, but even if South Africa were to have a great morning, the chances are the target won’t be below 350.

The people most pleased with today will be those with tickets for tomorrow.

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, day two – rampant

There’s a strange contradiction in being the Grumpy Old Men of the cricket blogging world. At the time England were being well beaten in India there appeared to be some kind of denial in many circles about the weaknesses of the team and the personnel. Excuses were made, post facto predictions were changed to meet the reality rather than how it had been seen in advance. Yet with really bad defeats (such as in the last Test) the press piled in, slating all and sundry for an abject display and questioning the very ability of the team to play the game.

Mild observations that sides are never as good or bad in defeat or victory as they seem to be never quite fit the zeitgeist, with kneejerk responses always a more fitting way to meet events. Yet with England today having an exceptional time of it, doubtless the same overreactions will apply, despite little of material fact changing.

England have played well here, but in a similar manner to how they have done so when succeeding over the last few years. Cook batted beautifully yesterday, and drew the sting from some fine bowling. He didn’t carry on for too long today, but can count himself unlucky to say the least to be on the rough end of a marginal lbw call. He deserved a hundred, but as has been pointed out, context free discussion of Root’s conversion problem can apply equally well to an unlucky Cook.

With his removal, Stokes and Bairstow went on the attack. Ah, now there’s a thing. It came off. Both players took some chances, played their shots and changed the context of the day, South Africa unable to contain them as the runs flowed at 5 an over. Outcome is all, for had that calculated risk not succeeded, it really isn’t hard to imagine the plethora of comment about being unable to play at a Test match tempo, preferably blaming current shibboleth, T20. The point there is that those critics aren’t wrong, but nor are they right just to point it out when it goes wrong. Responding to every move on the basis of whether it works or not is no way of assessing whether the strategy is a sound one, it’s a far deeper question than that.

That Stokes batted beautifully is not the point, it’s a matter of whether he (and the rest of the middle order) are given the latitude to fail as well as succeed playing this way. Forgetting the bad days just because today was a good one is as flawed as the other way around. England haven’t changed, nor has that middle order, it’s just that today they batted well in a similar style to when they did badly, and not just when failing spectacularly to save a match.

That’s not to downplay how good today was for a moment, for 353 always looked above par, even before what followed. There were decent contributions most of the way down, it was – as often – a surprise that Bairstow got out, while Moeen Ali took his controversial dismissal on review remarkably well. Toby Roland-Jones will think Test cricket is easy given he scored his runs at a healthy lick before having something of a party in his primary role.  He may or may not succeed as a Test cricketer, but not every player gets to have days like this.

Stokes certainly knows how to be the showman, and the three consecutive sixes that raced him through the nineties to a well deserved century were simply marvellous to watch. Some players simply make you smile or gasp when you watch them. It is those who make the game special, even if the less eye catching tend to be the ones who are more consistent.

South Africa, who had bowled so well on day one, were certainly hampered by the absence of Vernon Philander, off the field to much amusement due to tummy trouble, only for that to die away as it transpired he’d ended up in hospital for tests. His absence was keenly felt on a day where his bowling seemed ideal for the conditions.

If runs and wickets are the obvious measures of success, Joe Root had a good day as captain too. It wasn’t just that every bowling change he made seemed to work, it was also that he appeared to assert his authority as captain. The new ball was being wasted, a succession of pleasant, swinging deliveries from Anderson harmlessly passing outside the off stump. Good for the economy rate, not so much for taking wickets. It’s an observation that has been made before, and all too often considered heresy given it concerns England’s leading wicket taker. It’s curious how some, and only some players are considered beyond criticism. An observation may be right or wrong, but it doesn’t dismiss an entire terrific career either way. Still, Root’s response was to remove him from the attack after just three overs, something Anderson didn’t seem overjoyed about looking at his body language.

But here’s the thing: when he returned later in the innings he was right on the money; hostile, threatening the stumps and the edge, and every inch the bowler any England fan loves watching torment opponents with his skill. Captain and senior bowler could be an interesting dynamic to watch over the coming months, but it seemed here to get the best from him.

It was of course Toby Roland-Jones’ day. The merits of an old fashioned England seamer are often overlooked (yet curiously someone like Philander is lauded for showing exactly the same kinds of skills, albeit at a very high level), and here was someone who, after initial nerves, pitched it up, made the batsmen play and did a bit off the seam. Where he led, others followed, and at 61-7, and with the absence of Philander effectively 61-8, the only question, and surely not a serious one, was whether England would enforce the follow on.

Temba Bavuma has shown himself to be a batsman with good temperament before, and the task of extracting his side from the wreckage was one he seemed to relish. In company with Rabada he at least stopped the rot, a partnership of 53 not enough to change the direction of the match, but one at least to narrow the gap from catastrophic to merely disastrous.

It’s possible Philander will be fit to bat tomorrow, but it will take something truly remarkable to move this game away from what appears an inevitable England win. With some inclement weather around, saving the follow on has to be the first and only aim, but only two days have gone, it’s hard to see how it can delay England long enough to prevent victory.

All of which leads back to the beginning. England have had a great day, but just as the fourth day at Trent Bridge didn’t alter the known strengths in the team, nor does this cover up the multiple flaws. Today went well, and they should win this game. It hasn’t re-written the book.

The Third Test – Preview And Day 1 Comments

Dmitri (dangerously referring to himself in the third person) goes a little nostalgic and you will all pay…

England v South Africa at The Oval. It wasn’t that long ago that the day before the Oval test started would be a frantic one. Tidying up loose ends in the office, arranging the meeting places for the ticket collection, determining who was bringing what to eat. The day(s) at The Oval were one of the highlights of the year for me – the Oval test put on the calendar, leave booked early, anticipation rising.

But it was England v South Africa in 2012 that was the final straw – my angst pre-dating the Difficult Winter. I had missed the first day, as prices had increased and the purchasing power of my salary had diminished, so it was Friday and Saturday for me. I saw England collapse on the Friday and watched South Africa lose two wickets in the ensuing five sessions. I’d also left my camera battery in the charger for the Saturday, and was, how can I put it, “in a bit of a mood”. It wasn’t helped by England being smashed, feeling terribly uncomfortable all day in the Ryanair seating, and being surrounded in front and behind by people who annoyed the hell out of me, spilled beer over me, and just plain got on my nerves. With 30 minutes to go, and I never left early unless it was heatstroke, I got up and said to my mates #!k this, I’m off home. And I doubt I’ll ever come back. And I flounced. But I’ve never been back for a test match. The prices appear to have risen greatly, the amount of tickets members could purchase has been curtailed (some might think that a good thing) and the customer experience, piled on top of each other, is a joke. Harrumph!

That day, the last I saw, was memorable for the batting of Hashim Amla, who made 311. He never really looked flustered, and the fear is, linking into the upcoming battle, is that Trent Bridge has put him back into the groove. The partnerships between Amla and Smith, and Amla and Kallis were not thrill a minute joyrides, but 12 or so hours of grinding England into paste. They were there to make 380 odd, or whatever it was, look totally inadequate. It almost seems like a different era of test cricket. That ability to bat long in England seems from a bygone age. In fact, presented with a 637 for 2 wicket, in a game completed in 4 and a bit days remember, we’d probably see a ton of complaints about nothing in it for the bowlers.

From that test in 2012 there are precious few survivors. The rigours of international cricket took many a career, inflicted or decided by themselves. But key cogs remain. Amla is there with Morne Morkel, Cook is there with Broad and Anderson. It says a lot about their staying power that they are all very important parts of the teams, maybe even the most important. Cook made a hundred in that match, which is easily forgotten. While Kallis, through retirement, maybe the seminal figure lacking from the team that won, the Oval 2012 should always be about how Dale Steyn tore us apart on a dead wicket. International cricket well served then, and how Steyn has paid for it through injury.

Tomorrow England need to fight back from a defeat every bit as demoralising as the 2012 reverse at the home of English Cricket (the Original venue….), after the mauling they received at Trent Bridge 10 days or so ago. England have been given a thorough beating before, but this time this one seemed to encourage, if that is the word, the scything criticism lacking from more recent defeats. There seems to be more of an open season on the captain, and especially the coach, than before. This reaction, which should not be a surprise, has actually been one. It is as if the media community has found its voice, its teeth. It didn’t seem to give a steaming pile of crap like Chennai as hard a time as they did the Trent Bridge performance. You know I’m not going to get over Karun Nair getting a triple hundred don’t you?

England go into this match with a lot of questions, and now with two debutants. Mark Wood has failed his fitness test and Toby Roland-Jones is going to play instead. Given there’s been other confirmation that Liam Dawson will play, and boy that’s a lightning rod stuck up, right there, it looks very unlikely that Dawid Malan will make his debut (I think that was an odd choice in the first place). Tom Westley will take his place at number 3 (there you are son, bang in the hotseat for you, good luck). While the Essex media are certainly in paroxysms of delight over Tom finally getting the nod, I have to say that I don’t quite know why he was the slam-dunk selection (and no, I’m not carrying a torch for Stoneman either), but there is no harm in trying, and you never know. I will certainly be watching certain journos for double standards reporting on him.

The main criticisms coming out of Trent Bridge was that England had not shown enough respect to the test format, but quite frankly, by the end of it, I’ve no idea what Shiny Toy was up to, and Geoffrey, is well, Geoffrey. This was met by quite fierce return fire by the England team, and Stokes has relit that fuse with his comments. I’m not sure it’s respect for the format that’s the problem, but rather, funnily enough, ability. This just doesn’t look like a very good England team. So if you are going to go down, go down playing your shots, eh? I’m not sure this team can block it out, they certainly couldn’t when they’ve been asked to do it in recent years, and probably with better teams than this. We’ve tried to compensate for lack of true star power in depth (reading Trott’s book at the moment, and we went through a golden spell then with players, so we could accommodate Collingwood, by and large) with the bat. Stokes is a classic. All the talent, inconsistent delivery. I think that’s the message (if you had present day Stokes, and 2005 Freddie, who would you select?). I mean, Shiny Toy thinks this is one of the most talented England teams ever. I don’t.

So if the players are a bit of a moving target, what with all that talent and such, it therefore must be someone else, and now we come to Trevor Bayliss. We interrupt this message to point out that losing at home to South Africa is something Andy Flower did, Peter Moores did, Duncan Fletcher didn’t, David Lloyd didn’t and Ray Illingworth didn’t. Bayliss can be questioned, of course he can. Is he getting the most out of the team? Is he doing enough to find talent, if, indeed, that is in his job description? Can he do more? Can he do something different? Yes. They can all be answered and there can be critical evaluation of it. But in my view, and that’s where this could be really fun, any criticism of Bayliss draws a direct line to the man who appointed him, sets his job spec and acts as his line manager. After all, Comma, shouldn’t be above reproach and if you look at cold, hard, results the 2017 team plays with a lot more verve, but the 2013 team actually got to World Number 1 (Trott mentions this a fair bit in his book). Also, as we are never shy to point out, Farby seems exempt from all this. Good old Farby.

So 1-1. Perfectly poised for the 100th test match at The Oval. I went to quite a few, from 1997 to 2012 I went to at least one day of each test there, and as with the days you select to attend you do hit and miss. Here are five of my favourite days (a bit biased towards England)…

2003, Day 3 – England v South Africa. Thorpe makes a century on his return to the team. Emotional. Trescothick makes his highest test score of 219. Alec Stewart plays what would turn out to be his last innings in an England shirt. And so did Ed Smith! A terrific day from start to finish.

2005, Day 1 – England v Australia. Andrew Strauss plays one of the best innings no-one really remembers. Without him we would have been toast. Flintoff also plays a terrific hand and England finish the day relatively even. It was just the pure tension, the weight of expectation and anticipation of the match that made it a great day.

2011 Day 2 – England v India. Watching a 300 partnership is special, and I’ve seen two. You know who was the common denominator. His 175 was overshadowed by Ian Bell’s career best (completed the following day) but it was total domination against a poor attack. Still great fun to watch.

2009 Day 2 – England v Australia. Days 3 and 4 weren’t bad, but watching Stuart Broad demolish the Australians in one of those spells he is capable of was magnificent entertainment. I still recall, with us 3 down at the end of the 2nd day that we were still talking of how we could lose even though we were nigh on 300 in front.

1997 Day 2 – England v Australia – Nothing like your first day at test cricket. I saw lots of wickets (Tuffers took 7) and a tense battle as England tried to recover from a first day collapse. The atmosphere, the tension, the battle, the action was like no other cricket I had watched in the flesh. Oh to go back to the 1997 me.

 

Just missed out included a glorious Shiny Toy ton in 2002, the infamous walk-off by Pakistan in 2006, Herschelle Gibbs on day 1 of the 2003 test, Steve Waugh’s hundred on one leg in 2001 (just to prove a point), my brief glimpses of Murali and Jayasuriya in 1998 on Day 2, the rain-affected tension of Day 3 in 2000 against the West Indies.

Happy century of tests for the Oval, and as usual, after 1500+ words of waffle, comments below if you have any on the points raised, views on great Oval moments (you have been to, or witnessed – could have popped off another 1000 words) and more importantly on the action tomorrow.

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day 3 – Doomed

Barring the kind of sporting miracle that a few always cling to, England will lose this match, probably tomorrow, and it’s all down to their batting performance on the second day.  Today certainly wasn’t the worst England have played – they bowled reasonably enough – but the gap between the sides after the first innings meant that to have even the slightest chance they would have needed something exceptional, indeed to skittle a South African side entirely content to accumulate runs.

There are things England could have done better; certainly the delayed introduction of spin was highlighted by the way Dawson and in particular Moeen took wickets once they were finally used, but any suggestion that this was the difference between winning and losing would be rather extreme.  England toiled hard and bowled well enough in the morning session, but they were always going to be in a situation of trying to limit the damage as much as they could after the initial burst failed to bring results.  South Africa played it exactly right – not for them the abandon of attacking batting, they played as though it was a Test match, taking minimal risks and continuing to build on their already overwhelming advantage.  It was curious to hear the commentators criticising them for this fairly early on.  Despite at the time the best part of three days to go, the desire to see them throw the bat was present on both television and radio.  Perhaps it was a subconscious wish for England to get back into the game, for it is hard to comprehend why with so much time left to play it was remotely in the tourists’ interests to take risks with their position.  Perhaps the influence of T20 has become so pervasive that even observers can’t cope with a team playing decent Test cricket any more, for South Africa were hardly particularly slow – they were simply using the time honoured tactic of grinding England into the dirt.

Elgar and Amla did the damage early on, looking in little trouble as they made a strong position completely dominant.  By the time both were dismissed their team already had enough on the board to be strong favourites even if they’d stopped there, and neither dismissal was expected at the time given their level of comfort.  England did miss one opportunity, failing to spot a thin edge from Amla when on 25, but of their DRS problems this series, that was the least damning – players have missed hearing edges from the dawn of time.  They did get one right when Amla had reached 87, Dawson’s introduction bringing the overturning of a not out decision that was entirely understandable as he advanced down the pitch.

By this stage the surface was showing signs of some wear, if a long way from being unplayable.  The lbw of Faf Du Plessis will have sent tremors of uncertainty through England ranks given how low it kept from short of a length, but for the seamers at least, it was unusual to see the ball misbehave that much.  There was some spin to be had, as should be expected in the second half of a Test match.  Dawson had the advantage of bowling into the footholes to the left handers, but it was Moeen Ali who extracted more life, and looked the more threatening.  Part time offspinner England may consider him, but in the absence of Adil Rashid, he looks by far the more potent of the two spinners on show.  Dawson has done little to suggest he is the future, albeit from three Tests, and there are already whispers that his place might be under threat.  This is unfair because he hasn’t had anything like long enough to get used to Test cricket, or to learn, and should he not be retained then questions should be asked about his initial selection more than his performance, for if he isn’t deemed good enough, why was he thought good enough so recently?

Towards the back end of the innings, Philander and Morkel decided to attack, with Moeen bearing the brunt of their assault as he also took wickets.  In microcosm, this was a good sample of Moeen’s bowling career – expensive but taking wickets at frequent intervals.  His 4-78 represented unusually good figures for a spinner at Trent Bridge, albeit three of the wickets came from attempts to hit him out of the ground.  By that stage though, the target had exceeded world record levels, and with Philander’s departure, that was sufficient to invite the declaration and ask England to bat for a tricky 20 minute spell.

One thing is abundantly clear, short of an unexpected monsoon, this match is never going to be a draw.  England would have to bat 184 overs and if they did that they’d probably reach the target anyway.  Either they reach 474 (they won’t) or they will lose, and to that end to have even the slightest possibility (virtually nil) of winning then a good start was essential.  It so nearly got off to the worst possible start, Cook given out lbw first ball to Morne Morkel before successfully reviewing it.  In truth, it wasn’t a great decision, it always looked high and so it proved on Hawkeye.  But it must also be said it really wasn’t a great shot either – Cook was attempting to clip a good length straight ball through square leg.  He got away with it because Morkel is so tall, but it was a reminder that those who berated Moeen Ali for being caught at point tend to go much quieter when poor semi-defensive or defensive shots are played instead.

For the remainder of the four overs the two openers were under huge pressure.  Cook had another close lbw call against him when he again played across a pretty straight ball, while Jennings just about managed to control an outside edge and push it down in to the slip cordon.  Both these players could do with some runs.  Cook hasn’t been in the greatest of touch in Tests recently, but hardly disastrously so, while Jennings is suffering the murmurs of the press despite a more recent century of the two of them, and is only in his fourth match.  Cook quite clearly has a long fine record, but that observation is about him, it is about the seeming lack of patience with new players and the immediate pressure placed on them to succeed.  Cook had faith placed in him at various stages of his career, and perhaps dividends would be reaped if others received half that faith.  England are becoming very careless with opening batsmen.

They got through it, one way or another, and England can at least begin day four with all ten wickets intact.  It is hard to see anything other than a South Africa win, and a convincing one.  If England bat as they did in the first innings, it could be over in short order, but at least with Cook still there they have someone who could bat long and keep the game alive.  He’s not alone in that for the inexperienced Jennings has the temperament to do so, and so could Gary Ballance.  In the last case he really needs it.  Ballance does suffer in terms of perception from being anything but elegant, and this series he’s batted reasonably and not looked out of his depth, but without ever going on to make a score.

England could do themselves a big favour, even in defeat, by making a decent fist of their run chase.  There are question marks over their defensive techniques as a collective, and their ability to bat for long periods.  Falling over in a heap would make those criticisms louder and highlight to the opposition what they must already suspect – keep England subdued and they’ll get themselves out.  For England to come out of this match with their heads held high, they really need Alastair Cook to lead the way.

The trouble is, it’s all too easy to see England being all out by tea.

 

England v South Africa: 2nd Test Preview

It’s curious how a single win can change both the narrative and the expectations for the next game.  England won at Lords at a canter, but South Africa certainly had their chances, and better catching and the ability to stay behind the popping crease could have made a material difference to the outcome.  Test matches are all about that kind of thing – the key moments that swing the game, although very often they are apparent afterwards rather than at the time.  Few remember the errors of the side who wins the game.  But the feelgood response to England’s win has led to an expectation of more of the same, and this is by no means a certainty.  England have a new captain, and that always engenders feelings of a fresh start, but with a recent record before this match of losing five of the previous six Tests, it is hardly a recent history to terrify the opposition, notwithstanding India being a tough place to tour.

One of the most interesting comments Trevor Bayliss made after the first Test was that Moeen and Stokes allowed the side to be balanced in almost all conditions, meaning that England quickly confirmed the same team for Trent Bridge and thus will play two spinners while at the same time having four seam bowlers.  There’s certainly a logic there, and handled properly, it could grant England the ability to ease new players into the side without taking risks as to the bowling attack.  This is a rare privilege for any side, a single all rounder tends to be the hope, as it allows a five man attack with seven batsmen.  England have three, including (and he certainly should be included) Jonny Bairstow.  Whether the selectors make best use of the opportunity afforded is a different matter.

If South Africa shot themselves in the foot repeatedly in the first Test, the cost of that is still to be found in the second.  The loss of Rabada is unquestionably a blow, and as self-inflicted as the future loss of Ben Stokes is likely to be when he falls foul of the same regulations.  Timing is everything, and if Stokes can ensure he gets himself banned for a couple of end of season ODIs then few will complain – except the ticket holders of course, and they never count.  Rabada may be out, but the return of Faf du Plessis certainly strengthens the batting, and of course having the captain back should in itself allow some stability within the side.  Rabada will certainly be replaced by Duanne Olivier, but there have been suggestions that two quicks could come in instead, with Chris Morris becoming the fourth seamer.  Should they do that, Theunis de Bruyn would most likely miss out and South Africa will go into the match with only six batsmen.

Du Plessis himself comes in to replace JP Duminy, a player who recently has provided more work for the umpires than the scorers.  It may be the end of his Test career, but he has come back before, and South Africa are rather light on batsmen this tour should there be injuries. Still, even with the unsurprising news of that particular change, six batsmen would represent something of a gamble.

Trent Bridge has a reputation for offering swing and seam to the bowlers, but in recent times the pitches have tended towards the slow, and sometimes downright turgid.  Two spinner in the England team may not be as unusual as might initially be thought to be the case.  Recent rainfall may have lessened the dryness of the ground beneath the immediate surface, and should the pitch assist the seam bowlers, then South Africa will feel confident they have the weapons to challenge England.

It is 20 years since South Africa last lost a series in England.  Lose this match and that proud record is under serious threat.  But despite missing the likes of Steyn and De Villiers, for differing reasons, they are a good enough side to cause England problems.  Quite simply, they just need to play better than they did at Lords.

Comments on Day One below:

England v South Africa – Game Over

It’s been a fun four days. I don’t usually have test matches scheduled around my birthday (it was on Friday but I don’t want to talk about it) as the second series usually starts in mid to late July. So it was nice to watch a lot of cricket as I took time off, didn’t have a celebratory drink and chilled out after another traumatic and hectic week. What I saw was a very good England performance, with flaws of course, but still a resounding start to the Root regime. It was, also, good to see the return of some perennial blog commenters who seemed to have gone into hibernation as the hit rate increases massively in the longer form of the game.

It is often said by the editorial board that we are a “Bad News Blog”. It is true to a degree but that’s because the writers are a dreadful bunch of cynics. One thing we always say is that we should not over-react to a victory, because the team has major flaws. It is a test team that lost 6 out of the last 8 matches, which can be partially explained away, but not totally by alien conditions etc. Any turn in form, and home wins are a good way to start, has to be welcomed.

We started the day with England 119/1 and well on top. There had been a number of comments made about the pace of the response – I think we sometimes become  a little passive when we are on top – but many will also point out that the loss of 19 wickets in a day is justification for the decision to be ultra careful. Whenever the name Alastair Cook is raised, we see the temperature go the same way. Note the return of an old favourite today because I had the sheer gall to mention HIM. Cook’s 69 was, in the end, with the judgement of the scorebook, the match and the day’s play, was vital to steady the ship. Some, not me, think he puts pressure on the team-mates when he does that – the same thing was frequently levelled a Geoff Boycott – but the main evidence is how the game plays out, and without it, we might have been in trouble. Jonny Bairstow, a totally different player to Cook showed you could prosper if you took an aggressive attitude, so it wasn’t one size fits all. I just point out, repeatedly because facts are so damn awkward that:

  • Cook has made 5 hundreds in his last 92 test innings.
  • Cook has converted just 5 of his last 30 half-centuries into hundreds, but yet again Nasser mentioned Root’s conversion rate after the end of the game.

So when Cook was the first to fall, after a nothing sort of shot was well caught by Bavuma, the house of cards fell around him. Ballance nicked off, with Morkel bowling really well, Root was loose with Maharaj and was bowled. Stokes fell LBW to a Rabada delivery, which kept a little low but wasn’t the shooter that the pundits were wibbling on about. Suddenly 131/1 was 149/5 and some nerves were detected. A little stabilisation, with 20 odd runs added on by Bairstow and Moeen stemmed the bleeding, and it was at 180 that Moeen fell. A little tail wagging between Wood and JB took the score past 200 (after Dawson had completed a pair) and England wangled their way up to 233. Imperceptibly, Maharaj had taken four wickets, including the stumping of Bairstow to complete the innings. It was a portent of things to come.

England had set the visitors 331 to win, and it was evident from early on in the piece that they were never going to get anywhere near it. A great legside catch by Johnny Bairstow got rid of Kuhn, and a caught and bowled by Ali did for Elgar. Dawson saw off Amla, and then Moeen pretty much did the rest. South Africa looked like they might not get to three figures, but they did. Moeen took six wickets, for 10 in the match, and Dawson nabbed two.

England ended up winning by 211 runs. But for many of us on the blog, the highlight of the day was JP Duminy holing out at mid-wicket the last ball before tea. Duminy is one of those frustrating characters who appear to have most of the shots, but not most of the gumption. He’s not in the frame to be dropped as I listen to the Verdict (and what the hell has happened to that?) yet one of our number is adamant that he should be. We awaited his response, and it came…..

South Africa have a huge reputation for digging in and fighting. This was an awful surrender. The team looks quite weak in batting on paper. Elgar was dealt an inexperienced hand with no Faf, and with a player who could definitely help giving his committed support to the team, on Twitter! They missed chances, but they also appeared to lack resilience. With no Rabada in the second test, with Faf able to replace about four batsmen in the line-up, and with Philander nursing a damaged bowling hand, the prospects look dodgy indeed.

England must be very happy. A captain making 190 puts to bed early fears about the role affecting his form. Our pundits have memories like goldfish for some things, and like elephants don’t forget others. Root has banished one of the memes instantly. Moeen taking ten is great, adds to his confidence, but this was also the same man who was cannon fodder in India. He’s not as great as today’s figures, and not as bad as the confidence-shot man from last winter. His batting, at 7, is becoming like a mini-Gilchrist, albeit with a velvet smooth swing, for England, with him hitting fast runs to bail us out, or to make us strong. He’s a key weapon. For the rest, this was a pretty nothing test match. Good in parts, proved not very much, but also not done a lot of harm. The media are itching for Ballance to fail (don’t ever give me the agenda crap when this is as clear as day to me).

We’ll have some more considered thoughts in the week, perhaps, but for now England are 1 up, test matches have started, and I feel the season is now in full flow. Isn’t that something to be thankful for.

Finally, congrats to the England women’s team for their World Cup victory over Australia. Well done! Always good to beat the old enemy,