Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Victory

That was really quite impressive from England. From what was still a relatively unfavourable position overnight, and the concession of a small, but not irrelevant first innings lead, the tourists dominated day four and finished off the match as evening descended.

There are a few notable takeaways from the match and the series, but perhaps the most striking is that some of those players who had been on the receiving end of the harshest criticism responded well and had a good day. There is ever a call for players not performing to be summarily dropped, and while inevitably over a period it requires them to perform or be replaced, the instant nature of social media precludes the possibility that a player might learn and improve. There is a lack of experience in Asian conditions for obvious reasons, and on top of that players haven’t been able to actually get out on the field much other than in the Tests themselves. Leach and Bess both indicated that they were somewhat rusty, and that they weren’t happy with how they’d bowled in the first Test, but today they were much improved, taking all the Sri Lankan wickets between them and Joe Root, who chimed in with a couple at the end.

This doesn’t mean for a second that they are now the finished article, nor that they’ll perform well in India, but they have shown improvement in what are alien conditions. Both bowled extremely well today.

The same applies to Sibley, who had struggled badly in his first three innings of the series but took England home today with a measured and generally secure unbeaten half century. In his interview after the game he mentioned he had been working on various technical aspects and it will please everyone that in this innings it seems to have paid off. Few of England’s newer batsmen have much if any experience of Asian batting conditions generally, and there are no warm-ups to try and develop, it all has to be done in the nets or in their heads. When sledged by Dickwalla as to whether he would be opening in India, Sibley replied “I don’t know, I haven’t had a very good series” which is charming, disarming, and indicates a person extremely aware of not having done particular well up to that point. Again, it doesn’t mean he is nailed on to perform in India, but it does mean he’s working extremely hard to find a way of making runs. He is learning, they are learning. Zak Crawley’s innings was brief, but it too showed signs of him searching for a method that would work for him.

The captain will be important for this process – he fell cheaply in the run chase today, but his innings yesterday was more than good, it was sublime – one of those where a player appears to be operating on a different plane to everyone else. That provides a standard for others to aspire to, and shows that it’s possible to succeed. England might be considerable underdogs for the India series, but this tour of Sri Lanka has given the players an opportunity to prepare themselves for what they will face. It is not unreasonable to say that England’s chances now are better than they were a fortnight ago, it’s just that those chances remain comparatively slim. Of course, there will be significant changes to the team anyway, with the return of Burns, Arches and Stokes, and in those cases they will be coming in cold, while the loss of Jonny Bairstow is a pity, given that he did reasonably well in Galle.

As for Sri Lanka, they were faced with what is a common challenge in a close Test, that of the 3rd innings, where all the pressure goes onto the batting side who can lose the game in an afternoon, and they did. The batting was both reckless and excessively casual, and once again the curious psychology of a batting collapse took hold, whereby players will be sitting in the changing room wondering quite why their decision-making was so poor.

If an incentive were needed, it’s that England have closed the gap on Australia in the World Test Championship to half a per cent. They remain in 4th, but given the series coming up, they have the chance to change that. It’s a huge ask of them, but in any competition the most you can hope for is the chance to be in control of your own destiny. It’s therefore timely that today the ECB confirmed a two Test series against New Zealand in early summer. It would be ironic if that were to serve as a warm up for a final between the same two sides immediately afterwards.

SL vs England: 2nd Test, day one

A day of hard work for the bowlers, and something of a grind throughout. Shorn of the first Test scenario where the home team had an unadulterated nightmare, we had instead one of setting up the game and providing what should be a more interesting day two. It’s always a truth of Test cricket that the first day of an even encounter leaves everyone unsure of what to make of it, it’s both the beauty of the format and the bane of anyone trying to say anything vaguely interesting about it. But that shouldn’t be a negative, for a Test match unfolds, and the unspectacular setting up lends more to the intrigue. At the end of day one in the first Test, we had a fair idea of the likely outcome. At the end of this day, we don’t have much idea. What a pleasure that is.

What might be said is that in these first two Tests Anderson and Broad have shown that their nous in Sri Lankan conditions has been quite evident, and perhaps is a good sign for the Indian tour. Bowlers with exceptional longevity often seem to develop in unfriendly cricketing environments, and while it’s far too much to ask of bowlers of this nature to run through an opponent, the skill on show can’t be denied by any but the most churlish. There is something special about the wily old fox coming towards the end of a career trying to outwit the batsmen, something that only Test cricket can really provide. As a child, the same experience was had watching the great Richard Hadlee, running in and bowling at a modest pace but it being abundantly clear the batsmen – the English batsmen at least – were struggling to cope with him. The records of Anderson and Broad overseas have been questioned often enough, and there’s no doubt that they are more effective at home, though this in itself isn’t a particularly unusual thing. But places like India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are never going to be their ideal conditions, any more than a spinner finds England their favourite haunt. A few do manage it, and that’s why they are amongst the very greatest of a given era, but it should not be a stick with which to beat a player that they aren’t quite the threat in some countries as they are in their own. With the notable exception of in India, over the last five years Anderson has a pretty strong record away from home, an indication of how he’s developed in the latter part of his career. Today, he was exceptional and led the attack throughout. As for the England spinners, they were much improved from the first Test, albeit without the same level of success. Both had pointed to a lack of match practice as a reason for their inability to maintain the degree of control expected of them last week, and while people may or may not accept that, there is a case that they should be granted the same degree of understanding that a batsman without many games should be.

Angelo Mathews is one of those players who seems to fly below the radar when discussions are had about the leading batsmen, but his record is good enough to be exceeded by only a handful over the last decade. It sometimes seems as though he particularly enjoys scoring runs against England, but the statistics suggest as much as anything a degree of consistency in all conditions. Either way, he was the centrepiece of a vastly improved batting display that leaves Sri Lanka with at least the potential for getting into a strong position. Since it’s so much better than the first Test, that’s all that was required at this stage. Dinesh Chandimal provided ample support, but the lower order are going to need to contribute to turn a reasonable position into a good one.

The media coverage is providing an interesting insight into both the shortcomings and merits of the normal cricketing circus. The commentary works well generally, though watching television pictures removes the wider context of seeing what is going on – Jonathan Agnew’s mildly embarrassing episode of commentating on a replay being one instance, Ian Ward not realising an umpire had given a player out another. But while commentators being at home is palpably obvious at times, in general it is acceptable. It’s not quite as unusual as might be thought, there are broadcasters in other sports who are happy to allow the listener to believe the commentator is in the stands when in reality they are in a broom cupboard watching a television feed. What’s notable in that instance, and perhaps it can only be the case with radio, is that few are aware of the fact.

Where there might be an issue for the media in future is with the written press. Unable to go to Sri Lanka, they too are confined to watching the television, and then writing up what they had seen. For a newspaper, the considerable savings on flights and hotels must offer a temptation to make the current enforced policy an optional one. There will undoubtedly be howls of protest that not being present will deny them access to the players or to question, and that’s true enough. But there are local options and pool feeds of which to make use. The damn virus is going to make a lot of changes for the future, and there must be a possibility that this will be one.

SL v England: 1st Test, Day Two

There are a few things different about this match in these Covid times. The lack of any media coverage at the ground hasn’t especially impacted the commentary, although being reliant on TV pictures means they miss things they’d otherwise see, but it doesn’t take long to forget they are all in their pyjamas at home. One thing that is very much absent is the repeated social media posts about how amazing their press box meals are, which is no bad thing. Nor is their realisation that getting up in the middle of the night to watch the cricket is an experience the rest of us are very much used to. It never stops being amusing to see them experience how the lesser half lives.

As for the game, well England could hardly be more on top. Sri Lanka’s abysmal first innings has probably lost them the game on the first day, a reminder to those who needed it that you can’t win the game on the first day with the bat, but you can lose it.

The hosts took only two wickets all day, Jonny Bairstow for 47 and Dan Lawrence for 73, a fine debut knock before being undone by one of the few deliveries that spat off the pitch. Initial strong scores are not remotely indicative of a good Test career, but they are equally much better than failing to get any, so he will be pleased and he looked the part. More than that can’t be said.

But the day was dominated by Joe Root. He’s had plenty of criticism for failing to turn his fifties into hundreds, but when he gets to three figures, he goes on to make a big one half of the time. It’s a curious anomaly in his career, and perhaps indicates that he’s thinking about his conversion stats and relaxes somewhat when he reaches his century. Either way, the only means of overcoming it is to do it more often, which sits nicely in the “easier said than done” category. Yet he averages 49 and so much of the debate surrounding him focuses on what he doesn’t do rather than what he does. He’s far from the first to suffer from this, indeed all those in recent times for England who have had averages just shy of 50 have gone through it to varying degrees, either with excuses made, or unfair criticism. Either way, it avoids a more rational examination of their strengths and weaknesses. For anyone over the age of 40, an England batsman averaging nearly 50 is a rare beast indeed, and one to be cherished.

As for where the game goes from here, it’s moved on apace but we’ve only had two days, which is why it’s always puzzling to see some already starting to push for England to declare. There’s not remotely any need for it, they can bat the whole of tomorrow if they are capable of it without having a shred of effect on any risk of failing to win, short of the kind of biblical downpours that shouldn’t be factored in at this stage.

Which doesn’t make it very interesting, except in terms of seeing how the individuals go. Even if Sri Lanka have a miracle session, they are so far adrift as to be almost beyond the horizon. That’s Test cricket, and we should never apologise for the one sided games when the format has the potential for thrillers. What would be more of a concern is if this is how the whole series goes, though it’s hard to believe Sri Lanka will bat quite as badly again as they did yesterday. The differential in income around the world is an ongoing subject, but can’t be used as a justification for the abject shot selection that placed them in these dire straits. It is a separate, but valid matter to a team playing well below their capabilities, irrespective of the difference in resources.

Despite the immense time remaining, England’s scoring rate of nearly three and a half an over it’s entirely possible this game will conclude tomorrow. At a time when any cricket is good cricket, it’s not to be sniffed at, but everyone will hope for something more competitive in the Test to follow.

Netflix and Chill

The unsurprising news of the cancellation of England’s tour to Sri Lanka as the the Covid 19 virus continues its spread across the globe is not even the latest to be afflicted by the desire to limit contagion, as event after event, fixture after fixture is cancelled.

I’m not a scientist, comment on the virus and public policy by those with no knowledge of what is the right thing to do has been a feature of social media over recent days; screaming from a position of scientific ignorance is something I wish to avoid.

But the impact on multiple industries is going to be exceptionally severe, and sport is far from an exception.  The advice from the Chief Medical Officer that the peak level of infection is potentially 14 or more weeks away takes us into June, and thus from an English cricket perspective well into the summer.  This means that at best the Test series against the West Indies must be in major doubt, alongside the early rounds of County Championship and the T20 Blast.  Whether the cancellation of all such events over a lengthy period is sustainable is open to question, for few businesses can maintain shutdowns for any length of time, and whether the public will buy into an absence of much semblance of normal life is also a matter for debate.

The elective nature of the cancellations – as opposed to government compulsion – also means the question of whether insurance cover applies comes to the fore.  Few are likely to have direct knowledge, and by the very nature of it no one is going to want to admit the position publicly, but there must be considerable doubt as to whether the ECB or their counterparts are protected.  Such matters may be thought trifling in a public health crisis, but at some point things will return to normal, and the damage done to that normal life is important too.

It is clearly a big summer from the ECB’s perspective, the launch of the Hundred has been extraordinarily expensive, and while some might teasingly hope that cancellation of that unloved concept is a consequence, any curtailing or abandonment of it would provoke a major crisis in the finances of an organisation that is, like many others, already facing a highly uncertain future.  It is at times like these that the diminution in the ECB’s financial reserves over the last few years begins to look like a risk that has backfired badly.

Furthermore, there must be issues for Sky Sports, who have lost almost all of their content.  Subscriber cancellations seem the likeliest immediate impact of that, though what it means for the various sporting contracts must too be open to doubt.  Given the multi-lateral problems for all parties, one thing that probably can be assumed is that few will be looking to take a hard line.

Of course, the optimistic view would be that the return of sport in the coming months might attract much greater interest than would otherwise have been the case, and there is some reason to hope that once through the worst of this, entertainment may well pick up rapidly from a relieved and probably bored population.  The flip side of that is the financial hardship likely to be faced by many significantly reduces the disposable income for such things as sport.

If the central tenets of the ECB’s most lucrative activities face serious difficulties, it isn’t just the top level that will have questions to address in the coming months.  The amateur game too will be hit by some not wishing to participate, whether or not that is a reasonable response.  Clubs are always on a financial knife edge anyway, and it doesn’t take much to cause them serious difficulties, and with a governing body that even if inclined, would be financially unable to support them.

Supporters too are consistently overlooked.  The cancellation of the Sri Lanka tour was announced by the ECB with no reference to those who had booked to follow the team.  Worse than that, there was still no mention of those travelling in the email sent out to the England Cricket Supporter’s database.  It is clearly not practical for the ECB to offer refunds of their travel, but supporters are highly unlikely to be able to claim on their travel insurance for a destination that remains open to visit.  They are in an extremely difficult position, and it isn’t unreasonable to have expected the ECB to acknowledge that in their communication.  To have ignored it entirely smacks of an organisation that doesn’t care in the slightest about anyone else, and doesn’t even pay lip service to pretending that they do.

What happens next no one knows.  But it seems likely that Netflix, Amazon Prime and similar platforms are doing a decent trade in sign ups, as people either self-isolate or simply don’t have a huge amount else to go and do, or sport to watch.  Sport is always the most important least important thing, and either way the consequences are going to be with us for some years to come.

One thing is for sure, it is far from only sport that is facing these questions, take it from me.  For I work in travel and tourism, and I have had a shit of a month.

 

World Cup Matches 44 & 45: Sri Lanka vs India, Australia vs South Africa (and a bit of TV, FTA and the ICC)

And so we arrive at the end of the group stage, and more by luck than judgement, there is even a little bit to play for in the last two games. Not in terms of qualification though, after Pakistan’s always likely to be vain attempt to gatecrash the top four ended in victory, but not by enough, against Bangladesh.

Thus, it’s merely the order of the top four that is in question, and the incentive, such as it is, of who plays whom in the semi-finals. The most likely outcome is that Australia will play New Zealand at Old Trafford, and that India will play England, once again at Edgbaston. It’s probable that India and Australia would prefer to play New Zealand, both because of their recent stumbles, and also because England are unquestionably a side everyone else fears somewhat, even if they would certainly feel they can be beaten. But it’s hard to see beyond victories for both the Big Three members playing tomorrow, and that the semi-finalists includes them plus England is unsurprising, if somewhat depressing. But then, the whole structure of cricket at a global level is intended to allow them to maximise their income and power, so it is exactly as desired in the corridors of power. In most sports, an unexpected outcome in a tournament is something to be celebrated, only cricket responds by trying to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Today Sky Sports announced that if England reach the World Cup final, it will be broadcast free to air. At present it isn’t quite clear what “free to air” would mean, but it appears highly unlikely it will be via a mainstream channel with a large reach. This isn’t so surprising, there are other major sporting events on the same day, such as the men’s Wimbledon final and the British Grand Prix (another outstanding piece of scheduling for cricket), and clearing the decks for six hours of cricket at short notice is somewhat impractical, albeit it would be amusing to see the response if a main broadcaster expressed interest in doing so. What seems more likely is for it to be on something like Sky Mix, or even online via Youtube or Sky’s own app and website – the BT approach to screening the Champions League final.

Such an initiative is to be welcomed, but the focus and pressure on Sky to allow it to be shown free rather lets the ICC specifically, and the ECB more generally given this tournament isn’t in their purview, off the hook. The World Cup is behind a paywall because the policy of the ICC, as instructed by its members, was to maximise revenue in their TV contracts. The moment that was the intention, pay TV was always going to be the only outcome. The principal contract for England, India and Australia is held by Star Sports, who paid $2 billion back in 2014 for the rights to ICC tournaments up to 2023. It was for them to then sub-contract to national broadcasters and, naturally as a business, to maximise their revenue accordingly. Everything stems from that, the drive for revenue at every stage, and the reason why such tournaments not only won’t be on free to air, but effectively can’t be.

This isn’t Sky’s fault, they too are a business trying to make money, but it is the ICC’s for making the financial aspect the key one. To suggest, as some notable employees of Sky have done, that this is down to the free to air broadcasters failing to bid is a specious argument – they simply cannot financially compete on the same level as pay TV, and see little point in spending money preparing bids, or even considering preparing bids, for something they cannot win. It almost certainly is the case that the kind of wall to wall coverage required is now only in the purview of the satellite broadcasters here, but it’s still a matter of justifying the status quo by pretending that the creation of this situation is entirely separate from the bidding processes in the current market.

Where it does get more interesting is in the argument as to whether some cricket on free to air would benefit Sky themselves. This is one of those that only those inside broadcasting (we’re outside that too) can answer, but holding expensive rights to a sport in major decline cannot be a healthy financial position for them either, even if the fear in the future is that cricket sinks so far that Sky will be able to buy all the rights for a song as no one else cares. It seems unlikely this will happen for as long as there is more than one pay TV broadcaster, for cricket is a boon for them, filling lots of screen time for comparatively little cost compared to, say, drama. In any case, to say no one else cares about cricket is a weak defence. Firstly, the single positive of the Hundred, that there will be some shown on the BBC, implies otherwise to at least some extent, but more than that, if more cricket is of no interest to the terrestrial broadcasters, it’s because cricket isn’t of sufficient interest to them. But it was, at one point. And now it isn’t. For the ECB to have failed to nurture their broadcast partnerships over the last 15 years has been an abrogation of their responsibilities to the game. At another time, a World Cup the majority were unable to watch would have provoked howls of outrage. Now it is largely indifference whether they can or they can’t, and limited awareness that it’s even on.

Equally, there is the wider argument about the role of the various governing bodies. It is simply wrong to argue that all the ICC can possibly do is sell the contracts to make as much money as possible, because it isn’t what other sports do at all. Wimbledon could certainly make far more from selling off their event to the highest bidder, but refuse to because they value the exposure they get on the BBC. More pertinently, World Rugby, for their own showcase World Cup, specifically talk about finding free to air partners. Indeed, their wording is very precise:

“Securing deals with major free-to-air broadcasters who are passionate about sport is central to World Rugby’s mission to make rugby accessible in a global context. With each Rugby World Cup we are broadening the sport’s reach and appeal through a broadcast and digital strategy that is aimed at reaching, engaging and inspiring new audiences within existing and emerging rugby markets.”

This is completely alien to the approach taken by cricket, to the point that it is diametrically opposed in almost every clause in that paragraph. Very few people are so single minded as to believe that everything should be on free to air, irrespective of contract value, and given World Rugby’s activities and attitudes in other areas, it’s hardly that they can be held up as notable supporters of the common man and woman in every aspect. But it is a striking difference in strategy, to intend the widest possible audience for their blue riband event.

It is highly noticeable that Sky appear to feel they are on the defensive about this whole subject. It’s not necessarily why they’ve made the decision to offer the final conditionally free, but also how some of their staff appear to be spending considerable time messaging cricket supporters and blogs with impassioned defences of their position. It’s a different approach, certainly, and perhaps not a coordinated one, but the righteous indignation, when it isn’t even them who are bearing the brunt of the annoyance, is interesting.

What the viewing figures might be for any final, broadcast for free, with England in it will be interesting. It really isn’t just the free aspect either – buried away on a minor channel that only subscribers are aware exists is not going to cause a dramatic change, although in a perfect scenario, a very tight, exciting final might just allow word of mouth to spread, and for non-adherents of the game to seek it out.

For this is a positive, without any question. How big a positive is more debatable. If the stars were to align, then just maybe it could grab attention, even with all the competition. This is what every cricket fan surely wants.

One other small item. It’s been reported that the other counties are displeased with Warwickshire for offering guaranteed contracts with the Birmingham Phoenix franchise in an effort to lure them to the county. This is the kind of esoteric, obscure item that barely anyone notices, but has a big impact. For the Hundred franchises are meant to be entirely separate to the counties. But what did the other counties expect? That this would be adhered to? That it wasn’t really going to go down the route of concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the chosen ones? We get accused of being cynical too often, but to not see this coming is extraordinarily naive on the part of those upset by it. It’s more likely to have been a deliberate strategic approach by a governing body that has long disliked having 18 counties to deal with.

Update: the article concerning the recruitment for the Hundred has been pulled, and according to George Dobell, a retraction sought. Curioser and curioser.

Comments as ever below.

World Cup Match 11 – Pakistan vs Sri Lanka

The weather forecast is grim. Truly grim. The chances of any kind of game today look minimal, with a sheet of rain across the south, and a venue that tends to be wet even when the rest of the country is dry.

It’s inevitable of course, and will cause some of the usual suspects to recoil in horror that there is such a thing as rain, but it probably doesn’t do too much harm to either side in the scheme of things given the format.

Yesterday’s game between Australia and the West Indies represented something of a triumph for the Aussies who recovered from 38-4, and indicated that they really are a threat to anyone this time around, without being quite convincing. It was the umpiring that caused the most discussion, Chris Gayle being given out wrongly twice, before a third slightly marginal lbw that should have been a free hit given the huge missed no ball the ball before.

It was poor, but umpires have bad games too, and the West Indies only got into the World Cup on the back of an umpiring error in the first place. Still, there will be two officials who will be unhappy with their own performances alright, even if blaming the umpires is an age old tactic.

Comments on the rain below.

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.

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.

Sri Lanka vs England, 2nd Test: Victory

That England took the last three wickets to fall relatively quickly is not so surprising, that England have taken the series reasonably comfortably perhaps is. Sri Lanka certainly aren’t the side they were, and have a better justification for the usual excuse for defeat (“rebuilding”) than most do, but it remains a difficult place to go, as South Africa found to their cost only a few months ago.

England haven’t won an away series of any description for three years, and haven’t won in Asia/UAE for six, so there should be a recognition that this is a meritorious achievement. Perhaps most strikingly, they did so through their spinners, Leach, Rashid and Moeen all performing well, and perhaps surprising a few people. Nasser Hussain won a series as captain there, and observed afterwards that by creating pitches exceptionally conducive to turn, the hosts brought England’s more limited slow bowlers into the game – it may be that the same error has been made here again.

Certainly Leach has come out of the series to date with credit, but Moeen Ali for one has also to some degree answered those who maintained his away record was too poor for consideration. It’s just two Tests of course, and doesn’t alter what went before, but nor can it be ignored when he does do well. As for Adil Rashid, he remains a potent weapon, and if perhaps a luxury at times, that’s what wicket takers often are.

Perhaps the difference most of all was to be found in Joe Root’s century, as is often the case when a standout player raises himself to levels others cannot match. Pietersen did that in Colombo on a previous tour, appearing to be playing a different level to everyone else, and if not quite so startling this time, Root certainly showed he is a player of rare ability. There has been too much focus on his failure to convert fifties into hundreds and too little on his ability in the first place in recent times, a batsman being held responsible for the failures of others.

As for the openers, they have performed creditably enough. In neither case can they be said to have permanently cemented themselves, but equally neither has the Cook of the last few years been missed. In a match where it has been so spin friendly that England’s seamers failed to take a single wicket, to come out on top having made contributions counts as a win on more than one level.

England have endless problems off the field, but at times on it they simply deserve credit. This is one of those. A fine win, and a better series win.

Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Day Four

The whole period between October and December passes in something of a blur for me, a succession of work trips and meetings meaning that opening the front door is vaguely reminiscent of greeting a long lost relative you kind of recognise. Thus it was that plans to wake up early to watch a Test match failed utterly – late to sleep, late to rise and the persistent nagging question as to whether it’s possible to suffer jetlag on a flight back from Belfast.

Day one of this Test happened without realising it, day two similar, day three, yep you’ve got it, and day four was more a case of “oh yes, there’s cricket on. Actually this looks quite a good game”. At such times, with obliviousness concerning the actual game, a fall back to general awareness seems to be the best approach, namely that a target of 300 is a very stiff one, and that in such circumstances the chances are that there’ll be a decent stab at it, before wickets start to fall and the batting side ultimately fall short after a “crucial” wicket falls some time deep into the run chase.

For Test matches do follow a pattern. Not in the same way that ODIs or especially T20s do, where the formula is repeated each time with little variance, but more an echo of the several thousand games over a century and a half, with certain tropes to be followed and specific truths to be obeyed. The other part of this is that the wider public insist on refusing to see the evidence before their eyes and taking an entirely different view of what is going on.

Thus it is that 300+ targets are considered not just achievable (which they obviously are) but not too much more than a walk in the park. To point out that 300 has been chased a mere thirty times in Test cricket over a couple of thousand matches is met with surprise, bordering on disbelief. Now, of course the nature of the game is that fourth innings run chases aren’t a given in a game, while setting or achieving lower targets takes out another bundle, and then there are the dull draws, the games where it rains throughout (and not just in Manchester) and where teams batter another by an innings, so it isn’t quite such a small proportion, but it is somewhat rare. The persistence with which 300 is considered eminently gettable remains one of the odder cricketing beliefs out there.

There are other contradictions to the perceived wisdom held – Moeen Ali taking wickets out here appears to be taking fans’ cognitive dissonance to a whole new level – but it remains endlessly striking that the desperation for a wicket with 120 runs to get coincides so often with that wicket falling. Today, the unlucky man was Angelo Mathews, the latest player to fulfil his role as the “if only” candidate of a run chase.

75 runs to get, 3 wickets to fall. This is the kind of scenario where people set the alarms in anticipation of a thriller, only to see two wickets fall in the first over, or to watch the rain fall for three hours while contemplating the lost comforts of a duvet. And yet, once in a while that thriller happens, just enough to ensure everyone thinks they don’t want to miss it, while at the back of the mind the nagging certainty that it’s going to be a waste of time keeps sticking up a hand and telling the viewer not to bother. And that is quite a special attraction, to know that it could just be worth it.

I’m not going to get up early to watch the denouement. Oh I might. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll oversleep. Oh who knows? But it’s fun when it gets like this anyway. See you tomorrow. Possibly.