Sri Lanka v England: 1st Test, 4th Day – Provincial Towns You Jog ‘Round

So. This is my first match report for a bloody long time. Yet today, at times, took me back to around the time I started doing match reports for a humble old cricket blog called How Did We Lose In Adelaide. I confess, when I wasn’t sleeping through the day’s play, I was getting flashbacks to the Sri Lanka test at Headingley in 2014. Mathews at the crease, unfancied tailenders with him, wickets hard to come by.

I’m not going to go into the context of THAT match, because we were living in more emotionally heightened times in terms of the England team, but there is something about Angelo Mathews that sets my senses on edge. He does seem (not sure if the stats bear it out) to play well against England.

The tale of the day was of hard work and attrition. I awoke at 5:00 am and went downstairs to watch the cricket for as long as I could survive. Bess had removed the nightwatchman, Embuldinya, who bunted a ball to Sibley to get England on their way. Thirrimane completed a well deserved and hard earned century, but fell to the new ball when Sam Curran induced an inside edge and Buttler held on to a reasonably difficult chance. Chandimal joined Mathews, who had been extremely watchful when I was watching, and started quite positively. At lunch it was 242 for 4. I thought I’d nab an hour’s sleep……

Fast forward and I wake up and Sri Lanka are 8 down!

Chandimal didn’t last long post lunch. Bess removed him via Joe Root at slip. Chandimal was the key wicket, arguably, but this isn’t quite like the not long passed days when Chandimal at 6 followed the likes of Jayawardene and Sangakkara. The weight of the position may be quite telling on him, for he can be a fine player.

Niroshan Dickwella also added a score in the 20s, but did not go on. Bess removed him, caught behind by Jos Buttler, who while not being in Foakes’s class behind the stumps, has not really let England down in this game. Dickwella had made the vast majority of the partnership, but as parity with England’s total was reached, six wickets had now fallen. Five runs later Shanaka was beaten by a Leach yorker and was bowled, then after another 18 was added, Leach got De Silva to nick to Root, who took an excellent high catch, and with the lead in the 20s, England had their control.

The partnership between Perera and Mathews added 48, but unlike Headingley, Mathews wasn’t scoring at a prodigious clip. The end of the partnership came when, what looked to me a pretty straightforward stumping decision, Perera missed a good Leach ball, but didn’t get into his ground. The 3rd umpire took a lot of time to see if there was any of his foot behind the line, and finally decided there wasn’t.

Mathews tried to farm the strike, but the score didn’t really accelerate at all, and in the end he nicked off to Root at slip from Leach when trying to farm the strike. England were set 74 to win. Simples.

Ha Ha Ha.

Ha Ha.

Ha.

Ooops.

The comparison to Headingley wasn’t over. While we remember the Mathews century, we forget the five wickets that went down that evening. So in a hat tip to nostalgia, Sibley decided to leave a straight one, Crawley tried to be aggressive and nicked off to Mendis, and then Bairstow prodded one into the offside, and calamity ensued as he took a hesitant single, Root bashed into Perera, Dickwella retrieved and threw the stumps down, Root’s bat stuck in the ground (well short) and then fell arse over breast. If it wasn’t so serious, you’d laugh. Well, OK, it was a bit funny. 14 for 3 and your double centurion captain out. Looking good.

Just a few things on the world at large with cricket. Anyone mildly amused that the press are having to do their reporting and writing as we do? At least they get paid to do that. Anyone thinking that hard-pressed, tough economic times, and the need to save costs, that the day of the touring journo is over as they can do 80% of the job (what we do + good journalism) from the comforts of their own living room and a Sky/BT Sport/whoever else subscription. Where would we be if Dean Wilson can’t do “That Is Out” on Twitter from the ground and instead from his chaise lounge? Those good journalism titbits can be easily whatsapped!

I hate cricket with no crowds, and I hate it more with dubbed sound. They haven’t been putting in the dubbed sound from what I am watching, but you can hear the tension and frenetic attitudes without the dubbing as this tense play continues. Sports broadcasters sometimes assume what is wanted when they really don’t have a clue. What this whole nine month (and counting) nightmare has proved is that sport without fans (any fans, even a small crowd brings some reactions) is a corporate nightmare – both in terms of how sport can’t do without the interaction and in terms of how those supporters are treated. Let the paying punters never be abused again. Just remember what has been missed in these past few months.

The Sky at home comms team has largely worked, as far as I can tell. They have gone with a solid team – assume the female commentators are all gainfully employed elsewhere. I can even put up with Bumble, because all I need to remember is a quote from the truly, legendary awful commentary team in Australia – Mark Waugh on this particular occasion – when he said, re Tim Paine “what’s better, a man who scored 70s or a man who scores nought?” (Paine, by the way, has passed 70 just three times in his 56 test innings). I mean, you have to have played hundreds of matches for insight and analysis like that.

Atherton, Nasser and Kumar taking us through that last half hour, with the tension and lunacy of it all were terrific. Treated their audience like adults, decent insight, not too hysterical but in the moment, and most importantly, not talking for the sake of bloody talking.

So England are 38 for 3 going into the final day. The weather forecast is not supposed to be crash hot, but I suppose Galle owes Sri Lanka one after 2007 when England followed on 400 behind and it rained to save them. Yep. I have a long memory, as if you didn’t know that.

Good to be back, and I hope the mojo is returning. Not sure who has Day 5. Good luck to who has. Sad to say with the way work is at the moment, I won’t be getting up at 4ish to watch it. At least, I don’t plan to. But sleep is an elusive beast these days, so I might wander downstairs. Will panic ensue again!

Sri Lanka v England: 1st Test, Day 3 – Reversal

To let you in on a little behind the scenes secret from BOC, everyone thought someone else was doing the match report today, hence the relative lateness. In the end I got the honour or drew the short straw, depending on your perspective.

Having done the report for day 1, today’s post might have been an almost copy-and-paste job with the names changed. The team batting first played somewhat loosely with the bat, gifting their wickets to the opposition, and then proceeded to bowl in a similarly generous fashion. That we are talking about England rather than Sri Lanka is the only difference in this broad overview of the day.

England began the day on 320-4, and by any measure would have hoped and expected to post a big score which would absolutely force Sri Lanka into batting last on this pitch. Whilst Joe Root met or exceeded this expectation, taking his personal total to 228 by the end, no one else stuck around to support him. Only Jos Buttler lasted more than a few overs to support their captain’s efforts, and even he wasn’t there for much longer. England number 11 Stuart Broad was the only batsmen in the bottom five to even reach double digits in the runs column, at which point Root was caught on the boundary.

The whole theory behind the selection of Jos Buttler, Dom Bess, and Sam Curran is that they are handy with the bat. They are not considered the best at wicketkeeping or bowling in the squad, particularly in Asia, but their contribution with the bat is supposed to offset these deficiencies. Buttler scored 30, whilst both Bess and Curran (at 8 and 9 in the order) didn’t manage a single run. Today was not a great showcase for their batting talents.

Even with their poor performance with the bat, England still posted a first innings lead of 286 runs. Scoreboard pressure, a wearing pitch and fresh legs for the bowlers having spent most of the last three days watching Joe Root bat should have meant that would be more than enough. Instead, Sri Lanka’s application with the bat combined with a lot of very innocuous bowling by England and a pitch which is still relatively benign meant that the hosts are still very much with a chance of salvaging the game.

England did manage to take two wickets, eventually. The first was Kusal Perera, who contrived to find a fielder on the boundary when dispatching a wide long hop from Sam Curran. The second was Kusal Mendis, who Leach managed to draw an edge from and (somewhat miraculously) Jos Buttler caught.

Perera’s wicket highlights the fact that almost all of the Sri Lankan wickets have been taken by what can only be called atrocious deliveries. A lot was made of Bess’s five-fer in the first innings relative to the quality of his bowling, but a couple of Broad’s wickets and the run out by Leach might also be considered somewhat undeserved. England will struggle to defeat Sri Lanka on that kind of form, and certainly wouldn’t be considered favourites to defeat India in their own back yard. This is important because England’s only chance of reaching the World Test Championship final this summer at Lord’s is to win at least five of their remaining six games this winter. On the evidence so far, I can’t see that happening.

Tomorrow’s action begins at 4.15am again, but I might be tempted to have a lie-in rather than watch this quality of bowling from England.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about the post, game or anything else, please post them below.

Sri Lanka v England – 1st Test, Day 1 – A Day Of Two Halves

After almost a five month break for England’s red ball team, there’s nothing like good Test cricket. And, to be clear, this match has not been an example of good Test cricket so far. Loose bowling competing with worse batting has meant that this game seems unlikely to last more than three days, let alone five.

Sri Lanka won the toss in the morning (4am to be precise. Who starts a cricket game at 4am??), which is usually very important in Sri Lanka. In the last 18 Test matches in they have hosted, 14 have been won by the team who chose to bat first. That includes the 3-0 series win by England two years ago.

Sri Lanka were missing captain Dimuth Karunaratne to a hairline fracture and bowler Suranga Lakmal with a hamstring injury, but otherwise were able to field a full-strength team with three spinners. England had to do without Moeen Ali due to the spinner still being isolated with coronavirus and opted for two spinners and three seamers.

The theme of Sri Lanka’s innings was atrocious batting. You would expect an international team to be confident and reassured in home conditions, but they batted like… Well like England typically have done in spinning conditions. Trying to smash balls from well outside the off stump, playing a large number of slog sweeps and reverse sweeps, and generally having no control or consistency whatsoever. Broad started things moving with a few early wickets whilst Bess cleaned up the tail and claimed a five-fer, but it’s difficult to give England’s bowlers or fielders much credit on a day when their opponents seemed very happy to fall on their own swords.

England tried to imitate Sri Lanka’s comedy wickets with Zak Crawley doing his best to run himself out early on, but the host’s fielding was as bad as their batting and they failed to convert their chance. The openers didn’t last too much longer though, with both Sibley and Crawley falling in quick succession. Crawley’s wicket in particular was poor, going down the pitch before mis-hitting a lofted drive to mid-off. His previous Test innings was 267 against Pakistan though, so I’m prepared to cut him some slack on this one.

From that point on, with Bairstow and Root at the crease, the game was actually pretty good. Solid, cautious test batting from England’s batsmen and patient, probing bowling from Sri Lanka. Young left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya in particular was very useful for the hosts, taking the wickets for both openers and drawing a few edges which didn’t go to hand. Whilst Dom Bess was wildly fortunate to take five wickets, Embuldeniya was arguably as unlucky not to take more than two. Root and Bairstow were both a lot more cautious than Sri Lanka were in their first innings, keeping shots along the ground. The captain made 66* whilst Bairstow finished the day on 47*. Jonny’s success might cause a headache for the team if they intend to bring Rory Burns back into the team against India. One of Sibley, Crawley, or Burns will have to miss out, if he stays in the team. England finished the day just 8 runs behind and with 8 wickets in hand. It’s hard to imagine how the day could have gone any better for them after they lost the toss.

As a bit of comedy relief, BBC’s Test Match Special aired an interview during Lunch of Australia’s coach Justin Langer by Alison Mitchell. There’s a clip of it on Twitter here. It really is an incredible mixture of delusion, arrogance, stupidity and outright lies. To be clear, the incidents in question (Tim Paine swearing at the umpire and Steve Smith scratching at the crease whilst fielding) are fairly minor. Both were caught on camera (by their own broadcaster, no less) and both are undeniably against the laws of the game, but the fact that Langer feels the need to vociferously defend either by making the argument that both Smith and Paine are wonderful and virtuous people is both unnecessary and hilarious. He also makes the claim that Tim Paine is “the best wicketkeeper in the world” and that he hopes Paine will still be captain next year in the Ashes. As an England fan, I hope that is what he genuinely believes.

All in all, a good start to the new year for England.

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

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Jos Buttler?

Jos Buttler is an absolutely incredible white ball cricketer. That is a statement which even the most contentious or unorthodox cricket pundit would find impossible to disagree with. No player in the history of one day cricket has scored more runs than Buttler at a faster strike rate. Only Shahid Afridi and Glenn Maxwell even come close. A destructive and dominating batsman who instils fear into the hearts of his opponents.

In Test cricket, the picture is more nuanced. A Test batting average of 33.90 is not particularly impressive for a 30 year old after 47 Test matches, especially having played 20 of those games as a specialist batsman. It’s not a terrible record either, but it places him significantly below the top tier of Test wicketkeeper-batsmen (de Kock, Watling, Pant and Rizwan, for example). Nevertheless, Joe Root has come out in the press this week vehemently backing Buttler not only as a batsman but also as the Test wicketkeeper for this winter’s tours.

Buttler’s batting statistics last summer were exemplary. He was England’s second most prolific run scorer in the six Tests, scoring just one run less than Zak Crawley, and finished with a batting average of 52.00. A wicketkeeper with that kind of scoring ability is essentially undroppable.

So here is my argument for why I would drop him from the Test team.

For a start, it might be worth considering why Buttler performed so well this summer. One notable aspect is that he didn’t play any white ball cricket in the months leading up to or during the Test summer. With the IPL postponed, his last T20 was in February against South Africa and his last fifty-over game was the 2019 World Cup final. That represents almost six months with no distractions from preparing for Test cricket.

Few batsmen seem able to seamlessly swap between white ball cricket and Tests, with the transition usually having a negative effect in at least one of the formats, and this is borne out in the statistics. Jos Buttler averages 38 when he has played a Test in the previous 30 days, but only 18 when he hasn’t. Buttler is without doubt one of the best white ball batsmen in the world, with ODI and T20I strike rates which are amongst the best of all time, and there is a T20 World Cup due to be played in India this October. Is it a good selection policy to keep him out of T20Is and the IPL this year in order to have him playing at his best in Tests?  I don’t think so.

Another key aspect to my preference on not selecting Buttler in Tests is his wicketkeeping ability. Specifically, his keeping when up to the stumps is just plain bad. According to CricViz, Jos Buttler was by some considerable distance the worst Test keeper to spin in the period from the beginning of 2018 to the first Test against Pakistan in 2019. I must confess that I don’t exactly understand how CricViz quantifies ‘Fielding Impact’ as their models are intentially opaque, but it is presumably some combination of missed wicket-taking chances and preventable byes and wides being conceded.

One clear example of Jos Buttler’s abilities (or lack thereof) with regards to spin bowling is his record of Test stumpings. In 27 Tests as England wicketkeeper, Buttler has not taken a single stumping. Not one. In fact, in the history of Test cricket only one wicketkeeper has played as many Tests as Buttler without taking at least three stumpings: Former ICC CEO and South African international Dave Richardson (who still took two more than Buttler). This could be a crucial weakness because England’s next two Test series are in Sri Lanka and India.

England have won only one Test series in Asia over the past eight years, and that was their 3-0 victory in Sri Lanka two years ago. The key to this rare overseas whitewash was their spin bowling: 49 of the 60 wickets England took were from their spin attack of Leach, Ali, Rashid and Root (18, 18, 12, and 1 wickets respectively). Seventy-nine percent of England’s overs were delivered by these four bowlers. It is patently ridiculous to me that you would even consider selecting Jos Buttler as wicketkeeper in conditions where he seems almost certain to struggle.

It is worth noting that Buttler was selected as a specialist batsman in the previous Sri Lanka series, and performed very well. He scored the second most runs for England, amassing 250 runs in six innings and was behind only Ben Foakes’ total of 277. There is certainly an argument for including him this winter in that role, but that isn’t necessarily clear cut either.

For one thing, ‘demoting’ Buttler to a mere batsman would lead to him replacing one of the existing batting lineup. I can’t see him playing in the top order, although England did try Moeen Ali once as an opener in the UAE so I can’t entirely rule it out either. England’s middle order comprises of the captain, the best batting allrounder in the world, and Ollie Pope. Pope is currently returning from a shoulder injury, so won’t even be available for the Sri Lanka series. If he does return in time to play in India, Pope is clearly the most vulnerable. He has never played a Test in the subcontinent, and also had a lacklustre summer for England. On the other hand, he is only twenty three years old and he already has a career Test batting average greater than Buttler’s. I’m not sure I’d necessarily opt for experience in this scenario, although Buttler might have the Sri Lanka series to press his case for inclusion.

Perhaps the most important factor regarding Jos Buttler’s selection would be managing his workload in 2021. If Buttler is selected for all of England’s Test cricket this year in addition to the IPL in April/May and the T20 World Cup in October, it is not unreasonable to think that he would only spend a few weeks outside of the England camp all year. In normal times, this would be mentally and physically draining for any cricketer. These are not normal times however, and there seems a fair chance that a large portion of this time will also be in some form of quarantine or bubble.

If three-format players like Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer aren’t given series off, they might well be burned out by the end of the year. You only have to look at England after they had been driven beyond their limits by Andy Flower to see how that might decimate a team. I like my cricket management like I like my TV: Without repeats of the shit stuff.

There is a strong argument that Stokes and Archer are essential picks in the subcontinent. In England’s last series in Sri Lanka, Stokes took five wickets whilst the swing and seam bowlers (Anderson, Broad and Sam Curran) could only manage two between them. Pace and bounce are clearly more effective weapons in those conditions, therefore I would probably look to rest those two during during the English summer instead. Whilst you can certainly make a case for Buttler’s inclusion as a specialist batsman in Sri Lanka and India, his place in the squad doesn’t feel anywhere near as necessary to England’s chances of success as those of the pace bowlers.

Joe Root has publicly backed him though, so he’ll probably keep wicket in all six Tests this winter.

If you have any comments about Jos Buttler, the upcoming Tests, or anything else, add them below.