Sri Lanka v England,2nd Test Day 1

England were on a high coming into this game, and named an unchanged side from the first Test. The only minor alteration was Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali swapping places in the batting order. In terms of helping England’s top order batting order, this move very much echoes the saying “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”, as I don’t see how it will make any difference at all. Sri Lanka were forced into changes by Herath’s retirement and their captain Chandimal’s injury in the first game. Off-spinner Malinda Pushpakumara and batsman Roshen Silva were brought into the host’s team, with bowler Suranga Lakmal.

Crucially, England won the toss. Reports from the Sri Lankan camp had suggested that the team had ordered a spin-friendly pitch from the groundsmen, and England would have been desperate not to bat fourth on it. Luckily for them, Joe Root is a fantastic tosser. He won his seventh consecutive coin toss, and obviously elected to bat first.

Whilst it didn’t seem like a minefield, the spinning conditions on day one always suggested that most English batsmen would struggle. Jennings was first to go this time, hanging his bat outside off stump to Sri Lanka’s only seam bowler (and stand-in captain), Lakmal, and edging it to the wicketkeeper in just the fifth over. Jennings’ weakness against seam bowling (at the very least at the Test level) seems totally bizarre for an English opener. If England are looking to innovate their batting lineup, perhaps they can start with moving him to the middle order?

All eyes were on Stokes, who had been promoted to number three in the batting lineup. He never looked particularly comfortable on a spinning pitch, and he was soon undone by Perera, who spun the ball away from the left-hander and into the pads plumb in front of off stump. Scoring only 19, this was hardly an unqualified success for the England’s team latest ‘innovation’.

This brought captain Joe Root to the middle, although again not for long. Just a few months ago, people were complaining that he scored too many fifties and not enough hundreds. Root has passed fifty just twice in twelve innings since the start of the India series this summer, and today’s wicket was perhaps an indication of why. England’s captain played a forward defensive to off-spinner Pushpakumara, but was bowled through a gap between bat and pad. The whole point of the forward defensive shot is to eliminate the risk on the inside edge, so something has clearly gone wrong with his technique there…

Whilst all of this was happening at the other end, Rory Burns was slowly accumulating runs. This came to an end just before Lunch when Akila Dananjaya, the Sri Lankan off-spinner who was reported for a suspect action in the previous Test match, spun one away from England’s opener who edged the ball to slip. Buttler and Moeen hung on until Lunch, but England were left in the familiar position of being four wickets down at the break.

Moeen’s form, which had already seen him drop three places in the batting lineup, showed little sign of improving as he was dismissed shortly after Lunch. He was squared up by Pushpakumara as he tried to glance the ball into the leg side and was hit right in front of his leg stump.

Foakes and Buttler were scoring quickly until both fell in quick succession. First to go was Foakes, who was dismissed caught behind despite replays showing he never touched the ball. He went for a sweep and the ball hit both of his pads before being caught by slip, but crucially never hit the bat. England had two replays available, so clearly he must have thought he had hit it. Buttler’s dismissal was equally embarrassing, with England’s number five (it’s so hard to keep track of players’ batting positions now) skewing a mis-hit reverse sweep to backward point. I’m not a traditionalist, I’m perfectly fine with Test players playing reverse sweeps, scoops, etc… but the thing I didn’t like about it was he wasn’t playing that particular shot well today. He generally seemed to get nothing or perhaps a single every time he tried a reverse sweep, so I wish he had left it in his locker to use another day.

So England were in the familiar position of having too few runs for too many wickets, 171-7 to be exact, and needing the tailenders to bail them out again. With Buttler and Foakes already gone, there wasn’t much batting talent left. There was Sam Curran though, who played an absolute blinder. His three partnerships with Rashid, Leach and Anderson added another 114 runs to England’s total, with the Surrey allrounder scoring 67 of them himself. The stand-out partnership was the last one with Anderson which added another 60 runs, with Curran facing 82% of the deliveries and clearly doing a great job of farming the strike and extending the innings. Eventually he lost his wicket with a slog to long off, but it was a job well done.

285 is not, in most environments, a particularly good first innings score in Test cricket. The adage that you should wait until both teams bat before judging a total seems particularly apt on this ground. England’s early dismissal meant that the Sri Lankans had 12 overs left to face in the day, and after the initial spell of swing from Anderson and Curran passed came the spinners. Moeen and in particular Leach caused the Sri Lankan batsmen all sorts of problems with exaggerated spin and bounce off the pitch. It was the Somerset left-handed bowler who made the only breakthrough of the session, bowling Kaushal Silva past the batsman’s outside edge with a beautiful legspinner.

England will feel fairly happy after today’s play. Their tail once again pushed the total up to a point which puts some semblance of pressure on the Sri Lankans, and their unusually competent spin attack is obviously capable of getting them a lead at the halfway point in these conditions. Having won the toss and chosen to bat first on a pitch which seems likely to deteriorate fairly rapidly, they’re probably favourites to win this game now.

As always, feel free to comment on the day, or anything else, below.

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Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test Day 4 – Drops

There was another downpour overnight, to the point where many people thought that overs would be lost, and yet again play started on time and was uninterrupted throughout. It seems genuinely remarkable that we’ve had four full days of play, given the weather in the area.

The day began with Sri Lanka’s openers still at the crease from the night before. They both made it through the initial spell of seam bowling from Anderson and Curran with no incidents before Moeen and Leach began. Moeen created the first clear chance of the innings, drawing an edge from Karunaratne to first slip, which the usually safe hands of Ben Stokes spilled.

Immediately after the first drinks break, Leach pinned Kaushal Silva in front of the stumps to take the first wicket. Moeen took a wicket soon after when Karunaratne attempted to loft the ball over the mid-off but instead hit it straight back to the bowler

The two spinners challenged both Sri Lankan batsmen, but it wasn’t until Stokes was brought in to bowl just before Lunch that England finally took another wicket. De Silva prodded at a ball just outside the off stump and edged it to Joe Root at slip.

Stokes continued bowling after Lunch with a great session of short-pitch bowling considering the slow pitch. With several edges, gloves and mis-hits falling safe, the best chance from the spell came when Mathews pulled the ball straight at Jimmy Anderson who was fielding at midwicket. In the first instance of catching karma, Stokes’ earlier drop was punished by the normally safe hands of Anderson instead not hanging on to the ball.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan batsmen continued to bat in a bizarrely aggressive fashion considering the benign conditions and their position in the game. In just the next over, Kusal Mendis sliced a lofted drive from Leach’s bowling to Moeen Ali at mid-off. In the over after that, Jimmy Anderson suffered his own catching karma as the typically flawless Foakes dropped an inside edge from an inswinger which fooled Chandimal. Inside edges are often the trickiest ones to catch for wicketkeepers, but Foakes did get his hand to it so it has to be regarded as a missed chance. The Sri Lankans didn’t show any inclination to punish England for these mistakes in the field though, and Leach bowled Chandimal a few overs later with a beautiful delivery which pitched on middle and hit the right-hander’s off stump.

This left Angelo Mathews and wicketkeeper Dickwella as the two remaining batsmen for Sri Lanka before the tail, and Moeen Ali dispatched both in his first two overs after the Tea break. First to go was Dickwella, who edged one to slip  where Stokes made no mistake this time. Mathews followed soon after being surprised when the ball spun and bounced, scooping the ball gently to Jos Buttler at mid-on.

With just tailenders remaining, the rest of the Sri Lanka innings felt like a slow crawl towards an inevitable defeat. Rashid was brought on to clean up the tail, which is usually a speciality of his, but was much looser and more frequently off-target than he was in the first innings. Moeen Ali continued at the other end and eventually drew another edge to Stokes at slip, this time from Dananjaya. Rashid took almost a mirror-image wicket soon after with Perera edging a loose drive to slip. Herath’s was the last wicket to fall, with an undignified run-out for the retiring Sri Lankan hero.

Whilst it is England’s first Test win at Galle, this might not be quite the achievement it first appears. For a start, they have only played there five times and lost just twice . Second, and perhaps this indicates Sri Lanka’s recent weakness, the last eight Tests at the ground have been won by the team which also won the toss.

More importantly for English fans, it’s the Test team’s first away win since October 2016 and only their fifth since the beginning of 2013. England are a long way from being even a competent side away from home, their top order being their most obvious flaw, but the bowling unit appears strong in these conditions and the lower order batting continues to rescue the team on a semi-regular basis. With just two games left to play, there’s reason to be hopeful that the tourists can win their first away Test series since South Africa in 2015/16.

England’s biggest problem going into the next week’s Test is perhaps that too many of today’s team performed well. Bairstow should be eligible for selection again after his football injury, but it’s difficult to see Bayliss and Root dropping Foakes after the debutant wicketkeeper was named Player Of The Match. There are also suggestions that the pitch at Kandy will be more conducive to pace bowling, but should they drop one of the spinners when they did so well as a unit in this game? It’s a dilemma for the management team, with no clear answers.

If you have anything to say about the game, the squad, or anything else that comes to mind, please comment below.

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test Day 3 – Consistency

Today’s play was so similar to England’s efforts on the first day that I was sorely tempted just to copy and paste my report from Tuesday with a few minor changes. The same players prospered, with the exception of Ben Stokes, and the same players struggled.

The day began with openers Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings at the crease on 38-0 . Like in their first innings, Jennings was by far the more comfortable of the two. Having survived a close LBW shout, Burns threw away his wicket again attempting a suicidal single to mid-off. Moeen’s top order struggles continued a few overs later with a chip straight to mid-on. Herath got Root out again, although this time with a good ball which moved away from the bat and caught the edge, and England were in the same position as Tuesday of being 74-3.

This brought the partnership of Jennings and Ben Stokes. Where Stokes had thrown his wicket away with an attempted sweep outside the line in the first innings, he was somewhat more circumspect this time around and was happy to run singles at the start. Jennings was lucky to survive an LBW shout just before Lunch where the ball hit the pad and bat (in that order), but the Sri Lankans decided not to ask for a review which would have dismissed the batsman.

Jennings and Stokes continued batting through the afternoon session with the allrounder accelerating throughout until he played inside the line to a Perera spinner which hit the top of off stump. Buttler came in and kept things moving briskly with a quick 35 runs before offering a sharp catch to Kaushal Silva at silly point. He was followed by Ben Foakes, who went even quicker with 37 runs from 35 balls before holing out at deep square leg. This dismissal drops Foakes’ average from a Bradmanesque 107.00 to a still-respectable 72.00, but it was a selfless innings from the debutant in the circumstances. Sam Curran came out for one more ball, but Joe Root declared at the end of the over with a lead of 461 runs.

And through the whole day, Keaton Jennings accumulated runs. Aside from the LBW scare, it was another accomplished innings from the opener. I must confess that I was hoping he would be dropped for this series after being very unimpressed with his batting during this past summer. It has been noted that he did well in India, so perhaps he is just well suited to Asian pitch conditions? It’s difficult to otherwise explain how he averages 17.72 in England but 71.80 in India and Sri Lanka. Conversely, his partner Rory Burns (according to CricViz) struggles against off-spin in county cricket. With grounds in the West Indies sometimes helping spinners, by the time England prepare for the Ashes it’s possible that Jennings will be undroppable and Burns unpickable. This could be a big problem if English conditions and a pace attack play into Burns’ strengths and Jennings’ weaknesses.

England’s declaration left Sri Lanka with 7 overs to survive, and their openers duly obliged. Curran, Anderson, Moeen, Rashid and Leach all had an over or two each to try for a breakthrough, with the only excitement being a close stumping chance from Ben Foakes and a bat-pad from Leach’s bowling which didn’t go to hand. There were a few aborted runs between the two batsmen though, which they will presumably have to discuss sometime tonight. Sri Lanka need another 447 runs to win, or to survive 6 sessions (barring rain). Dare I say it, I think England might win this one…

As always, your comments on the game (or anything else) are welcome below.

 

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test Day 2 – Spin Triplets

I wonder what the odds were before the game began of England being in such a dominant position at the halfway stage of the game. Probably about the same as the first two days being completely uninterrupted by rain.

The day began with yesterday’s hero Ben Foakes on 87 runs with just two tailenders left as partners. He scored another 8 runs before Jack Leach got out edging to slip, leaving him on 95 and just Jimmy Anderson as company. Clearly thinking his time at the crease was running out, Foakes hit three fours in the next over to reach his century on debut before skying a delivery from Lakmal. England finished on 342, a very competitive total in the circumstances.

The Sri Lankan innings played out very similarly to England’s innings yesterday. Firstly, their top order collapsed in the morning session. Anderson made the initial breakthrough on his second delivery, with opener Karunaratne getting a very fine edge to Foakes. Sri Lanka’s other opener, Kaushal Silva, only lasted a few more overs before being trapped LBW by Sam Curran.

After the first few overs the swing available died down, bringing England’s three spinners to the fore. First to get his chance was Jack Leach, who drew Kusal Mendis onto the front foot where the ball clipped the edge and Stokes caught it low at slip. Moeen came on soon after, and bowled de Silva round his legs in a dismissal eerily similar to Stokes’ from the first innings.

The experienced partnership of Angelo Matthews and Dinesh Chandimal took Sri Lanka safely to Lunch, and were making steady progress through the afternoon session. When you need someone to break a solid partnership, who would you turn to? Adil Rashid, of course, and he duly delivered by luring Chandimal down the pitch before it spun sharply to Foakes who completed the stumping.

Sri Lanka were 115-5 at this point, exactly the same position England found themselves in the day before. The major difference between the two teams is that the hosts do not have players capable of scoring fifties and hundreds in their lower order. There was a scare just before Tea as Dickwella hit the ball flush into the neck area of Rory Burns at short leg as the fielder ducked to try to avoid it, but after receiving medical attention on the field it appears to have just left a bruise.

Ali struck in the first ball after Tea, with Matthews edging a bat-pad to Jennings at short leg. He also dismissed Dickwella and Dananjaya before Leach and Rashid took the final two wickets of the innings. Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings came out to bat and made it safely to the close of play, although Burns still looked nervous and the more vulnerable of the two openers.

Today’s performance by England is perhaps the best one I’ve ever seen from them in Asian conditions. The spin unit appeared to have no weak links and the fielding was superb, with Ben Foakes doing well in his debut behind the stumps. Sri Lanka are not the strongest opponents, having not recovered from the loss of several great players in recent years, but then again the same could be said for England.

Moeen Ali’s figures of 4/66 take him to 149 career Test wickets, becoming the 7th highest wicket-taking spinner for England and overtaking two-time Rebel tourist John Emburey. Not only that, but his bowling average of 38.44 is better than both ‘King Of Spain’ Ashley Giles (40.60) and Pat Pocock (44.41), and is only slightly worse than Emburey (38.40), Phil Tufnell (37.68), Robert Croft (37.24). All five of these players were repeatedly picked as specialist spin bowlers, so it might be time for us to consider Moeen in those terms. He’s by no means a great spinner, as his bowling average of 49.67 away from home attests, but I think it would be fair to say that he would have walked into almost any England team as either an allrounder or specialist spinner in the last forty years or so. He’s just unlucky to have been the one to follow Graeme Swann.

As always, please comment on the game (or anything else) below.

Sri Lanka v England, 1st Test, Day 1 – Man Plans, God Laughs

Trying to predict the weather in Sri Lanka is a fool’s errand, and it seems to have caught most English observers out yet again. With a torrential downpour yesterday and rain expected through most of today, it was certainly a surprise to me when I woke up at 6am and discovered I’d missed most of the first session. Less of a surprise was the fact that England had already lost 3 wickets.

The game began on time, England picking their expected XI with Leach, Burns and Foakes replacing Broad, Cook and Bairstow. Joe Root also won the toss again for the 6th game in a row, and decided to bat first. With early indications that the pitch will be conducive to spin, I think it was the better option for England to deny Sri Lanka’s bowlers the 4th innings.

England’s batsmen were woefully under-prepared for this game, and unfortunately it showed. The touring team had only scheduled a couple of two-day warmup games, and due to the poor weather only batted 140 overs in total. Despite England’s notorious weakness against spin, it was Sri Lankan seamer Suranga Lakmal who made the initial breakthroughs in the third over. Debutant Burns was the first to fall with a fine leg-side edge to the keeper, and he was followed immediately by Moeen Ali who was bowled by a full, straight ball from around the wicket.

What followed was a bizarrely aggressive first session from England’s batsmen. I had seen it suggested on Twitter (font of all knowledge) before the game that the English batsmen should pretend they were playing limited overs cricket, a format they excel at even against spin, rather than attempting to defend and getting out cheaply. Trevor Bayliss has certainly stated several times that he prefers ‘aggressive’ batsmen in Tests. England scored 113 in the morning session at 3.9 runs per over, which is a good start but for one minor detail. They had also lost five wickets.

The three dismissals were all examples of over-aggression from England. First there was Root, who yorked himself by running down the track to an innocuous ball from Herath. Next was Jennings, who was bowled after missing an attempted cut to a ball heading straight at middle stump. Last, but by no means least, Stokes got himself out by going outside off stump whilst attempting to sweep the ball to fine leg and instead being bowled behind his legs. All of these shot selections would be fine in a T20, but seem utterly nonsensical in a Test match. You have to wonder what Trevor Bayliss and England’s batting coach (Is it still Mark Ramprakash? I can’t believe he hasn’t been fired yet) think about this display.

The afternoon session followed the typical script of England’s lower order rescuing their specialist batsmen. This time it was wicketkeepers Buttler and Foakes showing the top order how to bat, adding an extra 51 runs at a relatively sedate pace of 3.4 runs per over. Unfortunately for England, Buttler edged a ball from Perera to the keeper just before the drinks break, bringing in England’s inexperienced ‘tail’.

I use the quotation marks because England’s tail seems like their best batsmen. In fact, from the start of the summer England’s top five average 2.17 less than the bottom six. There’s a genuine argument to be made for reversing the batting order. Sam Curran outperformed the specialist batsmen yet again, scoring 48 runs including three sixes before edging one from Dananjaya to slip. Adil Rashid then added a quick-fire 35, including another two sixes, before also edging to slip. Jack Leach made it through to the end of play with a somewhat lucky 14 runs, surviving two edges through the slip cordon.

And throughout all of this was Ben Foakes, the second Surrey debutant and England’s new wicketkeeper. He came to the crease in the first session when the score was 105-5 and guided England to 321-8 at the close of play. It would be difficult to overstate how important his innings was in terms of the tourist’s chances of winning this game. He was calm and composed, and most importantly didn’t get himself out.

At the same time, his batting abilities shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Although regarded as a specialist wicketkeeper, Foakes has a first-class batting average of 40.64. That’s more than Jennings (33.95), Malan (36.98), Stoneman (35.03), Vince (38.44), Westley (36.31), Hameed (30.91) and Duckett (38.69). In fact, the only two batting debutants in recent years to have higher first-class averages than Foakes are fellow Surrey players Ollie Pope and Rory Burns. Now this might suggest that the Oval has been pretty batting-friendly in recent years, which is fair, but you have to question why it’s taken so long to get him in the team. Jonny Bairstow wants to be England’s Test wicketkeeper, and I can’t say I know how Foakes’ outfielding stands up, but there has to be a way for them (and Buttler if need be) to fit in the team? Surely as an alternative to picking Vince ever again…

So the day finishes with England in a position which is not bad. Sri Lanka in some ways let them off the hook with defensive fields and poor fielding, but you have to give credit once more for England’s bowlers and Ben Foakes for bailing out the team. It’s now set up for England’s bowlers to put some pressure on Sri Lanka with the ball tomorrow.

If they’re not too tired from carrying England’s batting unit all the time, of course.

Absence, Rain and a Forgettable Series.

Hello all, it’s been a while! As Dmitri pointed out in his last post, personal factors and work factors have made our activity scarcer than a good idea at the ECB and for this we naturally apologise. We know that a number of you log in regularly to the site and that our production has dropped dramatically, but we have all committed to increasing our activity for the Test series and beyond. A major reason for the scarcity of posts, alongside our own personal circumstances, is that the recent ODI series between Sri Lanka and England didn’t really set out pulses pounding.

As many of our parish know, we are not the biggest white ball fans and a series against what has been a poor Sri Lanka team in white ball cricket for some time doesn’t really rank as a must watch series; however the ECB managed to out do themselves with this particular series, yet excuses were quick to come:

The ECB said it had “very little wriggle room” over dates for the tour. After hosting England, Sri Lanka spend the rest of the 2018-19 season touring New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. “They play their first match in New Zealand on 8 December, which left very little wriggle room given our final Test in Sri Lanka finishes on 29 November”

Ah yes, the old future tours excuse, which has been trotted out more times in the past than the England batting unit has managed to make it to 400. Sri Lanka has 4 monsoons a year and despite the weather always being unpredictable there, whatever the time of year, the monsoon seasons rarely move. The ECB could have asked any travel specialist (Mrs TLG springs to mind), who could have told them that, but they decided to go ahead anyway without any thought for the fans who had paid less than an inconsiderable amount to be out there to see the tour. It is a classic case of greedy administrators having their cake and eating it and screwing the fans in the shorts at the same time (don’t even start me on the planned cost of £75 per day that the ECB are letting the Sri Lankan cricket board charge England fans for the Test series). Unless this is a ruse by Harrison to test underwater cricket as part of his whack job plans for the T100 (never rule that out), then it must have been an incredibly frustrating and anti-climatic experience for both the players and fans alike.

sri-lanka-v-england-odi-5-rain-delayed-672x372

As for the series itself, the constant rain interruptions meant that we learnt even less than we thought we would, unless that plan is to chase down low scores under the DLS rules in the 2019 World Cup. The batting line up is pretty stable with only injury or a dramatic loss of form from one of the top 7 likely to result in any change. When we did change the batting line up in the dead rubber game, we got well and truly stuffed (who knew, England losing a dead-rubber). The seam bowling unit looks like it has some depth with Woakes, Plunkett, Tom Curran and Stokes all able to take wickets at regular times and our spin bowling attack looks settled and potent whatever the surface. Rashid may cop a lot of stick from the journo’s and some of the fans (remember his card has been marked) for his less than stellar returns in the Test arena; however he is a truly world class leg spinner in the white ball game. As for the T20 squad, it looks like Root might be on the outside looking in for some time and whilst Denley’s deadly non-spinning leg spinners accounted for a rather meek Sri Lanka batting line up, I have a feeling that this was more a horses for courses game.  The only major downside (from a playing point of view and not a fan point of view, as one can only really visit the Dambulla caves once before seeing everything Dambulla has to offer) is the injury to Bairstow, which could well rule him out of at least the first game of the series and maybe more, alongside the fact that Stokes looks less than fit at the moment. It may be that Stokes is simply carrying a knock at the moment, but if so, it seems less than wise to play him in a pointless series when we already know what Stokes can offer to the team.

As for the Sri Lankan team, one who has a pedigree of fielding fine ODI sides (just think of the 1996 side), this side looked a pretty horrible rehash of a team. Their tactics seemed to have been borrowed from Peter Moore’s 2015 book of how not to play white ball cricket and of course, dropping their captain and probably best ODI player because their administration needed another scapegoat, was never a great idea in retrospect. In previous years, Sri Lanka would have been favourites for both the Test and White ball series, but they looked anything but a competent white ball side, especially in wet conditions where their spinners struggled to grip the ball. The Test series could be very different mind..

There have also been a few things that have happened in the interim which no doubt we shall cover in more depth in the coming week or so. The Director, England Cricket has stepped down for personal reasons, so no doubt there will be a tranche of individuals linked to the job before the ECB hire some friendly goon who will publicly support their plans to ruin cricket, sorry the T100. There has also been the fall-out from Australia, where its culture report into the sandpaper incident has labelled Cricket Australia’s actions as ‘arrogant’ and ‘controlling’. There are probably a few other words that I can think to add to this, though I hasten to add that any cultural report into the ECB would find exactly the same thing. Of course, not everyone agreed with these findings as a certain ex-Australian captain, not known for his commitment to the spirit of the game commented:

“You know they push the boundaries a bit by throwing the ball into the rough on the ground, which they shouldn’t do and then it’s escalated from there. It’s a shame how it got to the point that it did but I guess the authorities let that happen. There have been captains in the past who have been done for tampering with the ball and the penalties have been very lenient so there was no penalty for doing something wrong and it was always going to get to the case where it got out of control”

There is still nothing more Australian, than trying to pin the blame on somebody else, when you’ve been caught cheating red handed! I’m half surprised that they didn’t blame it on the ball for allowing itself to be sandpapered!

With the Test Series against Sri Lanka coming up, despite the threat of more rain throughout this series, we do plan to be a lot more active on the site. So please do feel free to comment below on any thoughts on anything above and thanks for bearing with us during our recent quiet time.

Wallcharts at the Ready

If ever there was a day for multi-screening, yesterday was it. Four World Cup matches, a succession of rugby internationals, the US Open golf, a Test match in the Caribbean, and the small matter of an ODI.

At the end of it, Australian sport had suffered the kind of day that England fans tend to be grimly accustomed to, with defeat to France at the World Cup, defeat to Ireland in the rugby, and defeat to England in the cricket. Schadenfreude may not be the most attractive character trait, but amusement was both widespread and frankly enjoyable.

Enthusiasm for this series against Australia appears limited, not least among those buying tickets. As much as it was claimed the game was sold out, there were plenty of empty seats on show in Cardiff. Either the Welsh have an awful lot of money to throw away, or someone is gilding the lily. Still, disappointing crowds are not that unusual for internationals at that venue, and it was hardly deserted. But the sense of going through the motions is unsurprising given both the timing of the series and the sense that this nothing other than a financial obligation tour.

England are 2-0 up without giving the impression they are remotely playing at their best, and with Australia missing so many key players there is little to engender a feeling of this being much more than practice for either side. Those players who look dangerous in the short form continue to do so, those who appear to be struggling show little sign of answering the questions about them.

A football World Cup always dominates the sporting environment, and a Test series during it would struggle for attention too, but despite being as relatively inaccessible (pay TV) as the cricket, the rugby summer tours have a greater sense of occasion to them. The sarcastic description of one day games as JAMODIs (Just Another Meaningless One Day International) has rarely felt as apposite as here. The pretence that this is about the build up to next year’s cricket World Cup doesn’t cut it, especially given the absence of Pakistan from the schedule despite being here for two Tests.

With 13 white ball matches across the heart of the summer before the Tests get underway again, we have barely got going. This becomes troubling for a number of reasons – the press themselves in unguarded moments will confess to struggling to write anything new about them, and while that isn’t especially an issue in itself, the translated ennui among cricket followers is. Andrew Strauss obliquely referenced the lack of context with his concept of a points system, which while widely derided does at least draw attention to the fundamental problem.

Ironically, cricket had its solution to this in the past, by making the ODIs part of the build up to what most still consider the main event. The last but one England tour of New Zealand comprised three T20s, then three ODIs, then three Tests. The sense of a build up towards a sporting climax was inescapable, and provided that much needed balance and importance. The same applied to the 2005 Ashes series, where there was certainly no shortage of white ball cricket scheduled, but it felt like part of a wider whole, and by the time the first Test came around, anticipation was at fever pitch.

The problem with this Australian tour is that winning or losing is instantly forgettable for both sets of fans and success or failure doesn’t matter – except to make Malcolm Conn look an idiot, and he doesn’t usually need help with that.

The more dramatic cricket news has still happened in the Test arena, firstly with Afghanistan’s debut, and secondly with the ball tampering allegations concerning the Sri Lankan team in the West Indies. In the former heavy defeat inside two days matters little in the wider sense of welcoming a new team to the Test game, and if the cricket boards show little inclination to support expansion, the same can’t be said of the Indian team. They conducted themselves in an exemplary manner, showing every indication of being fully aware what an extraordinary achievement it was for Afghanistan to have reached this point. They deserve credit for recognising it in such a classy manner.

In contrast, the refusal of the Sri Lankan team to take the field after being accused of changing the condition of the ball offered up plenty of reminders of Pakistan’s similar action at the Oval in the forfeited Test. The problem here is the failure to support the umpires in their decision-making. Already whispers of legal action have begun, which is precisely why umpires are so reluctant to take action in the first place. Whether they are ultimately right or wrong is beside the point, if officials aren’t allowed to make decisions and receive support, then they won’t make them. Darrell Hair’s ostracism and belittling remains a stain on the game whatever his character flaws. The umpire’s decision is not final, and it should be.

England’s next match takes place on Tuesday, the day after their football counterparts open their World Cup campaign. Whatever the result, it is undoubtedly the case that the football will be all that receives extensive coverage. Of course, a World Cup is truly special, but it’s also on free to air television, making it a community event. The audience figures for the Spain-Portugal match are simply astonishing, reaching a peak of over 10 million across TV and online. Cricket may not be able to match that kind of reach, but it highlights for the umpteenth time the absurdity of claiming that free to air doesn’t matter.

Peter Della Penna tweeted that the BBC had made an offer to Sky to broadcast the Scotland-Pakistan T20 on the red button which was declined, as Sky didn’t want it distracting from the England Women’s ODI they were showing. To begin with, the realisation that the Scotland matches were under the umbrella of the ECB contract came as a surprise – in return for England playing them, it had been outsourced. As a result, Scotland’s match wasn’t shown anywhere in the UK when it could have been. Yet it makes explicit the position that a low key international not involving England could be more popular with the viewers, even when online or interactive TV, than a pay TV one that does. The very importance of that can’t be overstated, given it is exactly what is repeatedly denied by those who propound the pay TV model.

Assuming no more shenanigans, there will be Test cricket on later. But let’s be honest, we’re going to be watching the World Cup.

Around The World – Part 2

In part 1 of the World View I looked at the fortunes of the three teams up there with England at the top of the World Rankings. In this part I’ll be looking at those in the mid-division and having a peek at their future series and where they might be going in the next year. This, I must stress, relates to test matches, not other international cricket. It was also written earlier this week, before the conclusion of the South Africa v New Zealand test. Hope you enjoy it.

South Africa

The Proteas were the top dogs of test cricket for quite a while (since 2012?) without ever seeming to have that aura of a dominant team. That was amusing because whichever way you looked at it, the 2-0 win in England to take the top slot was mightily impressive. It is hard to fathom that England have ever been more soundly beaten in a test match at home as they were at The Oval in 2012. South Africa’s reign at the top was assisted by the fact they rarely lost away from home, so that when they did lose at home, as they did to Australia in 2014, the away wins kept them top (along with the inconsistency of all the other nations).

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The South Africans fortunes have waned recently, culminating in a horror winter of 2015/16 when they lost at home to England and were thrashed in India on what one might call some interesting surfaces. As they did so their cracks became clear. The first is at the top of the order. Walking into an England series with Elgar and Van Zyl looked like it was asking for trouble. Elgar is a solid citizen, and played well for a century in Durban, but he’s no Smith or Gibbs. Van Zyl was a middle order test player stuck up the order and did not produce. The middle order solidity of Amla, Du PLessis and DeVilliers let them down in the two series, and when that was breached, problems in other areas got exposes. DeVilliers in particular is sending out warning signals about his workload that some Saffer fans are not too happy about. DuPlessis did not score as heavily and his average dropped down to the low 40s. Amla cannot go on forever. Cook coming into the top order (some saying long after he should have been) added some strength and Bavuma has a lot of promise, but this doesn’t strike you as World Number One batting. What they seriously must hope is that Quentin de Kock is going to work as an opener. He’s great to watch in the one day matches and the South Africans would love to see him do that for them. He’s opened in this recent match, made an 80, but you suspect this is a Hales like experiment. Probably doomed to fail.

Where the cracks are really showing is in the Proteas’ main strength; their seam bowling attack. They simply can’t get their top four pacemen fit at the same time. Imagine an attack of Steyn, Morkel, Rabada and Philander in England next Summer? That is all we will do because Steyn is breaking down more than a 40 year old Trabant, Morkel is rickety, Philander has been out for quite a while and only just back, and Rabada is shouldering a large workload. South Africa have little spin threat, although Dane Piedt isn’t bad, but that’s something they are used to. The bowling just below test level is unproven – as it is most everywhere – but this doesn’t seem to be at the depth of England’s for example.

South Africa’s winter is a bitty one. They play this series against New Zealand, and look like they might win the test at Centurion, then play a five game ODI series against Australia at home. They then travel to Australia for a three test series in Perth, Hobart and then a day-nighter at Adelaide. Given Australia’s recent travails in Sri Lanka, that looks a potentially exciting series. Sri Lanka visit South Africa for three tests starting at Port Elizabeth on Boxing Day (followed by Cape Town and Johannesburg).and then a whole host of limited overs bilge. Then South Africa jet off for a series in New Zealand, playing copious amounts of ODIs before settling in to a three test series starting in early March in Dunedin – the other two matches are at Wellington and Hamilton.

With that workload their chances to get to England with the four pace bowlers intact looks limited. 11 test matches I make it, and bundles of hit and giggle. Those people sniping at AB for the workload comments (and yes, that is rich when you make the IPL your be all and end all) may need to revisit it. South Africa are at the crossroads, like so many, with younger players not really establishing themselves in blocks, but with enough green shoots to be tantalising for the future. They need to eke out as much as they can from AB and Amla before they ride off into the sunset. That may not be far away.

Sri Lanka

The legends are bowing out, one by one. Holes in the test team need to be filled. By common consent, from what you read, the authorities running the game in Sri Lanka are beyond the ECB in ridiculousness. There are perennial financial crises. The nation that brought  us Murali, Vaas, Kumar, Mahela, Sanath, Aravinda et al looked firmly on the downslope of their test match fortunes. They seemed the poster children for the travails of the test game worldwide. They played a frankly miserable series in early summer England (and I use the word summer with due poetic licence) where they lost 2-0, may well have lost the final one but for rain, and all seemed doom and gloom.

Then Australia visited Sri Lanka and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, a month later, they had whitewashed the supposed World Numbe One team (and when have we ever seen a number one team thrashed like that in Asia. That never happens) despite batting weaknessess that have been opened up wherever they go.

The reasons for the Sri Lankan demise, if that is what it is, is that maybe in this modern era of test cricket, having oven ready longform players is not going to be the norm. These players are going to take time to adjust, to gel, to form decent careers. In many ways this means selectors and senior pros are going to need to take time and not a little skill to identify who the top prospects are. Sometimes they will thrill you, play the innings of their life and give you a glimpse of their ceiling, but that is just what it is, a glimpse. We’re not talking about a James Vince cover drive in a dashing 30, but a matchwinning, Mark Butcher 173-esque zone of a lifetime knock. A Chandimal. A Kusal Mendis. A Dananjaya De Silva.

For Chandimal, who also keeps wicket, that’s not such an issue, but Kusal and Dananjaya have given us a tempting look at the future. All around there is uncertainy, save for the trojan captain Angelo Mathews, who can’t go on forever. The fleeting sights of a Karunaratne ton are outweighed by maddening inconsistency. Kaushal Silva shows flashes of brilliance. There seems no shortage of those flashing lights, but they aren’t as world savvy as their predecessors, and aren’t coming into a team protected by the genius bowling of Murali. And while Herath is a lovely bowler, a joy to watch, and of full of width as your author (actually, I wish), he isn’t Murali and we can never hope to see another.

That 3-0 win was a shot in the arm for test cricket. In each test they won the scraps. When it got tight, they got out of it. In each match they exposed the visitors’ weaknesses and held sway. In doing so they threw Australia into crisis. The spin bowling was brilliant, and although the seam bowling, despite Sanath’s cries, is not the best in the world, it has enough going for it. Will it be worldly wise enough to carry them through the next few years? Only time will tell. But watching Sri Lanka will be fascinating going forward. I think they are the bellwether for tests (along with the West Indies). When Sri Lanka’s production line is strong, then there’s warmth in my heart for tests.

This winter Sri Lanka seem to have no test cricket until December when they travel to South Africa for the three tests mentioned above. They outstrip England for a stupid tour (our’s to the West Indies for 3 ODIs) with one to Australia for three T20 internationals in February. And that is it. There is nothing on Cricinfo suggesting they will be going anywhere else. Are they going to Zimbabwe? Their future tour programme shows a massive blank up until five tests at home after the Champions Trophy (2 v Zimbabwe, yeah right, and 3 v India).

So how can you develop with a patchy program like this? So those that shout from the rooftops that Sri Lanka’s win against Australia vindicates test cricket, should look at the bigger picture and wonder why they are spread so thin this winter? Sri Lanka are one of those teams to nurture, not shun. We won’t be any further forward in knowing what we have in 9 months. Staying strong in South Africa would be an achievement, and then…. we may have quite a wait.

New Zealand

With those two series defeats, home and away, against Australia, together with the retirement of their talisman, Brendon McCullum, it really looks like an end of an era for New Zealand. Such as it was. The most patronised of international cricket teams might still be ultra competitive in the shorter forms with their explosive, brutal batting, but in tests the flaws are too great for them to march forward, and you don’t sense a production line of Kane Williamsons are there to keep them afloat.

The upcoming winter, if you include this series, sees New Zealand play 12 test matches, which is a considerable number compared to recent years and probably going to test them well. Two in South Africa, (well one given what happened in Durban) is followed by a series in India with three tests (see India section in previous post for venues). Then New Zealand host Pakistan in a two test series, have South Africa at home in three, and according to the FTP, Bangladesh visit as well with two tests in Wellington and Christchurch in January.

Of course, as English-centric as we are, we can only refer back to the last series between our two teams as a marker. Some have claimed it to be the most important series of test cricket played in recent years, which is lachrymose nonsense. It was a two test series contested between two evenly matched teams, and the cricket reached very good quality at times. It produced excellent performances, and it also contained some absolute nonsense (Day 4 at Headingley again…). The key message should have been that a two test abomination at the start of a summer treated a good team with contempt. Instead it was Stokes and Cook.

So what do we have with New Zealand now? In common with pretty much all test teams (India aside?) there are problems with openers. Latham and Guptill don’t seem to be that secure but they don’t appear as though they are going to be left out. The replacement is Rutherford, I presume. The next two batsmen are plenty solid enough – Kane Williamson is in the top echelon of players, and as I write he’s the only one not falling apart against South Africa. Ross Taylor has had some top innings in the past year, and is a major player. After that we have promising players, unproven players and insecurity. That is except BJ Watling, who is one of the most unsung cricketers I’ve ever seen. I’m a huge fan, and it is always a sense of consternation to me that his innings at Headingley is hardly ever mentioned. He’s a total pest to shake off when he is in.

Then there is the bowling. Trent Boult and Tim Southee are a good opening pair, and there is back up in the seam department with Wagner, Bracewell, Henry and Milne. The spin bowling is taken care of by Santner at the moment, but like many others, the lack of mystery spin, or even a Swann-type hinders many teams these days. New Zealand are no exception. Will we have any more idea where New Zealand will be in the next 12 months? There is a feeling of a slightly managed decline, with the odd top performance being countered by continued problems against foes they struggle against. Pakistan at home for two games, and South Africa for three look to set the tone for the next couple of years.

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The Final Part will be around in a week or so, dealing with West Indies, Bangladesh and England. Zimbabwe? Why bother? Who knows when they play?

Dubai – Day 2 (and a bit on today)

Dubai Millennium

With things looking to be in the visitor’s favour on the departure of Shan Masood, the experience of Younus Khan and Misbah, together with Asad Shafiq pulled the day back round to Pakistan’s favour. Misbah completing his ton in the final over was the icing on the cake.

England are not out of it but that does depend on ridding us of the turbulent 41 year old and seeing off his young tyros. That’s not easy but not impossible. Beware of the use of “two quick wickets” in the pre-game show.

Being at work today I didn’t get to see much of the action, trying to follow it on the Cricinfo site and Guardian OBO. It seemed, from the little bit I watched, that the wicket had a bit more carry and a bit more life, which, frankly, isn’t hard. But no-one is confusing this with Day 1 of the 3rd test in 2012.

Simon and others have made many really good comments on Misbah’s ton. The obsession on The Verdict over that last over is making me chuckle, because it really appears as though they have nothing else to talk about. I’m not sure it’s the world’s best debate, and as Dominic Cork is on it, the tariff of difficulty is much raised, to get up there.

282 for 4 is a good start, especially given the ground statistics I cited yesterday. England will be doing well to keep them under 400 and then the scoreboard pressure routine begins again.

In the other matches played today, Sri Lanka were skittled out for 200 at P Sara, with West Indies 17 for 1. Again, let’s see how both teams bat on this before we make a judgement but this is still a very decent rebound from the tourists. The main damage was done by debutant Jomel Warrican, described on cricinfo as a slow left arm bowler (again, not had a chance to see any of it) who took four wickets. Innocent Bystander on Twitter was saying that the spread odds on the number of wickets for Herath in this match would be 10.5/11.5 and so we’ll see how much assistance Warrican got from the wicket (anyone who might have caught it, could they comment?). Because if there is assistance, Herath is pretty damn good at getting the most out of it.

India won the ODI in Chennai, and still kept up there record of not making 300 there (just). Virat Kohli made his 23rd ODI century with a score of 138. Despite AB’s heroics in another audacious 112 (I’ve just watched some of the shots… wow) the series is now tied, ready for the decider in Mumbai.

Another series going to a decider is the Zimbabwe v Afghanistan contest. Afghanistan won today’s contest by three wickets with Mohammed Shahzad making an almost run-a-ball 80. Obviously there’s been no coverage I’ve seen, but this is promising for the associates and a little bit worrying for Zimbabwe. Tim Wigmore’s piece in the recent Cricketer magazine explains the new Zim admin’s philosophy, to play more frequently, and I’d recommend reading it (despite being surrounded by a lot of tut).

So two tests tomorrow to concentrate on. Comments welcome.

Anyone guess the horse?

2015 World Cup Quarter-Final – Sri Lanka v South Africa

Feel free to comment, and that includes all the journos who had to fly home because their newspaper budgets don’t stretch to watching the denouement of a major world tournament because England have been knocked out. You want an indication of how cricket is falling out of our fabric of sporting life?

Still, never mind. We were never any good at this one day lark.

Enjoy proper players playing properly because they aren’t paralysed with fear and their coaches aren’t in love with Moneyball. Well at least until South Africa come out to bat, but then again, they are there at least.

Comments below.