World Cup Match 15 – South Africa vs West Indies

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

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

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

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

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

Assuming there is any play today, comments below!

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments below.

World Cup Match 5 – South Africa vs Bangladesh

Much has been said and written about the start of this World Cup and the one sided games thus far. It’s certainly true that the only one with any real degree of doubt at the half way stage was the opener between. England and South Africa, and that uncertainty didn’t last overly long.

Yesterday Sri Lanka were demolished by New Zealand, while Australia comfortably overcame a spirited Afghanistan side. But we’re still waiting for a close game. This is sport, it happens, but it is relevant to highlight this when referring back to Dave Richardson using the argument of more competitive games as an excuse for booting out the Associates:

“Every match should be very competitive, and having 10 teams at the 2019 World Cup will ensure that’s the case”

He deserves all the stick he gets for the breathtaking stupidity of that remark, and to be reminded of it constantly. One sided matches happen, they always have and always will, but when used as a reason to turn the World Cup into a private club, opprobrium ought to follow.

And so today we have South Africa playing their second match, with India not scheduled to begin their World Cup until Wednesday, thanks to their insistence on a break from the IPL. Maybe today will be the tight, tense game we’ve been waiting for. Maybe.

Comments below as ever.

And There Upon A Rainbow, Is The Answer.. England v South Africa

First up, this is my first scribbling since 22 March. There are many reasons, one of which is laziness, another one of which is boredom with cricket, and especially the social media that surrounds it, and the authorities that run it. But through everything, cricket still matters. It is still a sport that means too much to too many for it to stay out of your conscience for too long. So last week I bit the bullet, had to turn down tickets for today, but thought I’d watch the opening match of the World Cup at home.

The Cricket World Cup is a curious thing. Unlike it’s football counterpart, it doesn’t have the sense of gravitas among the general public. Some of this is to do with its shorter history, another is due to the respect to which the format is held, and to some extent the priorities the ordinary fan has for this summer.

But let’s get to the game today. England are going into the tournament as favourites, and I note from the tedium of some of social media that they are supposed to apologise for having played well in the past few years. While the traditional media report back all that culture trust and other management speak garbage that you’d think we’d all be immune to by now (Steve Archibald had it right), the rest of the world read this as arrogance. I know few cricket fans who don’t think that the key weakness, namely the early collapse, won’t sink us at some point. Cardiff 2017 rings too many bells for too many England fans to think the name is on the trophy.

South Africa won the toss on a dry, but hardly tropical, day south of the river, and decided to insert England. The view is England like to chase, and that the real issues come when we are asked to bat first. South Africa decided to open the bowling with Imran Tahir. Nasser did his usual old nonsense about it designed to get Jason Roy (harking back to a previous World final) and then, once Roy had taken a single, saying that Jonny Bairstow was a good player of spin. To a general laugh at chez Dmitri, YJB nicked the first ball he faced and Tahir did that thing that makes me want to strangle him (that absolutely effing nonsense celebration – as I write, its on the screen. I really, really hate it).

Jason Roy looked a little iffy, with a tendency to drive in the air through backward point, while Joe Root looked much more solid (a cover drive for the first boundary was absolutely beautiful). These two didn’t consolidate, because consolidation isn’t five-to-six runs an over. Both fell just past their half centuries, wickets I missed, but Roy in particular will be disappointed by his dismissal. Roy, when he clicks, makes making those tons look stupidly easy, but he needs to be in rhythm, and I never felt he had that today. Even so, to make a 50 while not at his best is really still useful. England avoided the 50 for 3 that kills the test team, but at 100 for 3, the high 300s were really out unless Buttler clicked.

Morgan and Stokes put together another very decent partnership, with the captain looking in excellent nick. A partnership of 116 was ended in the 37th over when Morgan didn’t quite get hold of a lofted drive and was caught very well by Markram on the boundary. Morgan hit the only three sixes of the innings, but the target now looked nearer 350 than that all pervading 400 that England are supposed to get because they are arrogant, etc. etc. What looked to have happened was England assessed this wicket early and thought 350 was at the top end of what could be got at the halfway stage.

311 would seem, therefore, to be a disappointment. I tweeted with about 10 overs left that England would need to hope that 300 would be enough. Buttler didn’t fire, making 18 before chopping on. Moeen Ali, who hasn’t been at his best with the bat recently, also got himself out for 3. The England tail, that boasts a number 11 that has quite a few first class hundreds, stuck together with Ben Stokes who made a mature 89, before getting out in the penultimate over. 311 for 8 was the final score, but there was time for Jordan Archer to get out on the field of play, and hit a couple of very nice shots. He came out and looked like he belonged. Small signs of what was to come, maybe?

I was intrigued by the reaction to 311. There was a sense of gloom. Many thought it was 25 light, and there seemed a lot of “big-upping” what was a pretty routine bowling attack. Rabada is a fine test bowler, but I’m not sure of him in the ODI format (maybe I don’t see enough). Ngidi was OK, Tahir was his usual self, Phehlukwayo was the most economical, but the attack wasn’t fearsome. South Africa are caught between two stools – they don’t appear to have world class allrounders to call on, and that Duminy is in the team is great news for us, because D’Arthez loves him, but bad news for a nation with aspirations to go far.

I remembered a Champions Trophy game, I think, when Sri Lanka chased down a score like this at the Oval as if it were a walk in the park, and there are question marks that this ODI team is a little too dependent on the batting. The sense was that one of De Kock or Du Plessis was going to need to fire with a big hundred, or Amla would anchor the innings. Jofra Archer put paid to two of those three legs of the tripod – I missed the bouncer that took out Amla, who looks for all the world as if this tournament is one too far for the great man – but did force Du Plessis into a hurried hook shot which was pouched on the boundary. The hyperbole over Archer was stoked to white hot, which always has me recoiling in horror at the sheer lack of thought that goes into it. Because Faf was the second wicket in an exciting opening spell he removed key man. Because he was quick he’s different. Let’s simmer down. 

Archer had got Markram to nick a pretty pacy delivery to Root at slip prior to Faf. South Africa looked in strife at 44 for 2 in the 10th over. The tail looks to start early with South Africa.

Rassie van der Dussen had had a decent winter of ODI cricket (after today he still averages 80 in 10 games) and looked the part today. Together with de Kock, the South Africans went from consolidating, to rebuilding (whichever you want to take first, I don’t care) to beginning to threaten. de Kock had a great escape when the ball hit the off stump, the lights went off, but the bails didn’t. Perhaps FutureBrand could look into how these wonderful pieces of equipment could be enhanced so that genuine wicket-taking deliveries aren’t denied because the bails are too heavy. It’s a simple task compared to coming up with exciting names for Hundred team names. With that tenuous poke over with, the report can go on to say de Kock passed fifty, unfurling some excellent lofted shots, and just as I started to think there was a chance, he took one risk too many and was caught on the boundary after a Plunkett half-tracker didn’t get the punishment it deserved. I prefer my middle-order seamers to be lucky and good. And Liam is a good Surrey man (we won’t mention Edgbaston in this report).

129 for 3 brought in JP Duminy. As in JP Duminy is the future and always will be. I still have that innings of his against Australia all those years ago on DVD, and in trying to attain that superlative knock again has always been the holy grail. He’s an experienced campaigner now, and he always looks the part. Maybe his grizzled look, his steely nature, his potential could come to the fore. There was a beautiful dance down the pitch to Moeen and a whip over mid-wicket for a glorious boundary. He’s in, now. JP looks likely. Oh no. Oh no. What is D’Arthez going to think about that shot? Off you go JP. 142 for 4.

The Ben Stokes created a run out, took the last two wickets and took a catch, as the rest of the team, Rassie aside, subsided, and England won very comfortably by 104 runs. Archer took three wickets, and everyone can act very, very smugly. Lord, we can even ignore Denis channelling his inner Malcolm Conn.

Oh yes. The catch. Allow me this one little rant. As a sporting culture these days everything has to be the greatest ever. It’s the greatest ever batsman, greatest ever run out, greatest ever ODI player, greatest ever shot. Everything really, really good in sport has to be the greatest ever or its not worth bothering with. The thing with this is when something absolutely gob-smackingly awesome takes place before your eyes, and those people who have labelled things above the ordinary into the stratosphere go beserk over something, it has little effect. Discount the opinions of these fools. Judge by your own eyes, and put it into your own memory bank. Stokes took an awesome catch with the ball over his head – he admitted he’d made a mistake coming in too far – and yes, I was amazed. Remember something, people. Take the sport you watch, enjoy it your way, and trust your own judgement. Watch it on terrestrial TV (I know, an old name), tonight at the witching hour, or get it off social media. And don’t go on Twitter to say you want to marry that catch as if you are some edgy, top writer.

So, one win for England, probably another 5 needed out of 8 to get to the semi-finals, possibly 4. England didn’t seem near the very best with the bat, but were solid in the field and got the key men out before trouble befell them. There looked more in the locker. South Africa looked a little off the pace, but they are going to need to take early wickets and keep scores down with that batting line-up. England may not top 400 in this competition because this is proper cricket, not glorified friendlies, and whether they can go hell for leather when the intensity rises is going to be a key question. 311 was enough today.

A few other observations. The coverage didn’t annoy me. This may be because there was an absence of Slater, Nicholas, and others I’m not a huge fan of from the ICC cast list. Nasser was too enthusiastic, and needs to wind it in. Smith and Pollock are absolutely fine. Isa Guha is really good, she just needs to keep the shouty bits down, but she’s a real plus for me. Atherton fits in beautifully when he doesn’t have to bantz. Kumar Sangakkara could read me my Tax Demand, and make it sound like the finest poetry. Ganguly was neither here not there, and in this era of commentary, that’s fine by me.

We have an opening thread for tomorrow’s game, but any comments on today most welcome. As you can see, being away hasn’t induced brevity. Do follow our Twitter feed (although I’ve taken Twitter off my phone for my sanity) and our individual feeds. We are going to try to cover this 6 week epic. By the time it has finished, I’ll be in my next decade of life. It goes on that long.

Cheerio. Back soon.

Dmitri

England v South Africa – World Cup 2019 Open Thread

It’s been over three months since England’s most recent Test match, and almost two months until the next one against Ireland at the end of July. So far, they have had four T20Is, eleven ODIs plus two 50-over warmup games in that time. We now have at least another nine to look forward to in the group stages. All of which is to say I already feel a little burnt out and low on enthusiasm for the shorter forms of the game, even if the current England men’s ODI team is relatively likeable and fun to watch.

After the recent minor injury concerns for Morgan, Rashid, Woakes, etc. in the past couple of weeks, it seems likely that England will select their first-choice side with Vince, Wood, Curran and Dawson missing out. Surprisingly, the actual team news hasn’t seemed to have been discovered by someone in the print media through “good journalism”. They’ll be very confident, having won their last four ODIs (ignoring the two warmups) against Pakistan

South Africa are on an even better run, having won their last six ODIs. Five of those were against Sri Lanka at home, but still. They will be hoping that their bowlers, particularly Rabada and Ngidi, can take a few early wickets and force England to consolidate rather than trying for a score over 400. England are seen as favourites for the game, but I wouldn’t be an England fan if I wasn’t worried…

I missed the coverage of the opening ceremony last night, although by all accounts it was a damp squib (in more ways than one). Wet weather, low turnout and lacklustre production values all give us a glimpse of what we have to look forward to next year with the ECB’s launch of The Hundred.

Speaking of which, it appears that Will MacPherson of the Evening Standard has discovered the names for six of the eight The Hundred teams. They are, if you haven’t already read them:

  • London Spirit (Middlesex)
  • Welsh Fire (Cardiff)
  • Southern Brave (Southampton)
  • Birmingham Phoenix (Warwickshire)
  • Leeds Superchargers (Yorkshire)
  • Trent Rockets (Nottinghamshire)
  • Me Pissing Myself Laughing (Being Outside Cricket)

There’s a lot to look at there. It’s quite hard to pick out one thing to criticise, when they’re all so bad. “London Spirit” was the first to be leaked on Tuesday, and it was roundly mocked. Now, compared to the other five, it might honestly be the best of the lot.

I am, as I’m sure you’re aware by now, a pedant. Perhaps the one thing which annoys me most about these team names is that some of them are plural nouns (Rockets, Superchargers) and the rest are singular nouns (Spirit, Fire, Brave, Phoenix). This genuinely irks me. There are other inconsistencies which are almost as frustrating, not least the team’s locations with cities, regions, nations and (bizarrely) a river used for the team’s identity. The names are bland, generic and have little tying them to their host teams, which may well be the point.

Trent Rockets is clearly the most ridiculous name of the bunch. It just sounds like a parody. ‘Rockets’ is a fairly typical team name, the most famous example being the NBA’s Houston Rockets, and there’s no obvious connection to Nottingham. Choosing something from a major American sports team has to be one of the lazier choices available for an overpaid consultant. But “Trent”? I guess it was their attempt to extend their reach outside of Nottingham, but it may well be so vague and meaningless as to alienate even some cricket fans in their home city.

“Southern Brave” would be another major embarassment for the ECB. It’s a vague nonsense of a name for an English sports team, but it would work well for an American band. Texas Country band Southern Brave certainly think so, which is why they currently have the @SouthernBrave Twitter handle (and likely much more besides). Choosing a name where you can pick up the social media accounts is almost the first consideration for companies nowadays, and it’s funny to see the ECB and the counties fail to clear even the lowest of hurdles.

It was reported last night by Lawrence Booth that Surrey had rejected four options from brand consultants FutureBrand: London Fuse, London Rebels, London Union and London X. A wise choice, given the options. There’s no word yet on Lancashire, the other host county yet to choose a team name. It bears pointing out that Surrey and Lancashire are perhaps the two best host counties in terms of commercial success, and that they are therefore arguably better equipped than the other teams to stand up to the ECB if they think a mistake is being made.

One thing the names appear to overlook (not unlike virtually all aspects of The Hundred so far) is the women’s competition. Whilst all of the names are gender-neutral, it appears unlikely that many (if any) of the games for The Women’s Hundred will be played at the same grounds as the men’s. Welsh Fire at least makes some sense when played in Cardiff, less so if they are playing their home games at Taunton. If the Trent Rockets women’s team are in Derby or Leicester, neither of which are on the River Trent, how will that help attract local fans?

If you have any thoughts, on the World Cup or The Hundred team names, please post them below.

Hey, it’s Test cricket. Remember me?

The unlikely is the heart of sport and the currency by which it sucks in new adherents, how it grabs hold of a child and retains them for life. All those who love Test cricket can remember the match that first got them well and truly hooked on the sport, and in cricket’s case, it really is Tests that do that more than any other format, even now.

Sri Lanka’s extraordinary victory today over South Africa has had social media ablaze, trending across different countries not involved in the series, but reaching those who care greatly, and beyond them to the casual viewer who will see that and wonder what the fuss is all about.

A Test that in this country at least was at the margins of niche interest exploded into the realms of fascination as an unlikely run chase sank towards failure; just another game and another defeat for a nation struggling against almost all opposition. No one told Kusal Perera, who responded with one of those once in a lifetime performances to snatch an utterly extraordinary victory, with the unlikely assistance of Vishwa Fernando at the end in an unbroken last wicket partnership of 78. And for cricket fans all around the world, a relatively low key Test match became required viewing as word went around that something incredible was happening.

The details barely matter, there are plenty of match reports to read through to vicariously experience the whole thing once again. But the sensation of witnessing something amazing in any sporting contest cannot be beaten, while in Test cricket the unique tension as it unfolds is something that can’t be replicated in many other arenas. The long form that so many suppose is the problem is precisely why even those without a dog in the fight feel their heart thumping in their chest and experience the gnawing tension that grows with every ball. The possibility of something epic, the fear that any second it might be snatched away, the drawn, pinched expressions on the faces of players for whom realisation is dawning that defeat and despair may be coming.

And this is why those who are responsible for the game, who denigrate Test cricket rather than embrace it, are loathed and despised by the strange obsessives who continue to proselytise that this form of the game is the one. Whether it be Edgbaston 2005 or Durban 2019; or even Barbados 1999 when Brian Lara finished with the same score as Kusal Perera in another acutely stressful finish, Test cricket can produce sheer magic, a degree of intensity that few sports can match.

If Test cricket is in trouble, it also falls to those of us who love it to tell everyone else why. If the governing bodies won’t do it, then someone else has to. It doesn’t compensate, it doesn’t begin to make up the shortfall, but in a small way, it helps a little.

And yes, this is an exceptional example. But most sports have their routine outcomes, we watch because of the unexpected, because of the amazing. Because hitting Dale Steyn into the stands in a T20 is routine, but doing so in a thrilling Test match with one wicket standing raises the hairs on the back of the neck.

Because it matters. Because it’s a Test match. And because it is utterly bloody wonderful.

There are highlights on Sky at 6pm this evening. If you missed it, do watch if you can.

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 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.