“Duck” – New Zealand v England – 1st Test, 1st Day Review

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Root, Stokes, Bairstow, Ali

“58 doesn’t look a good score right now, if that isn’t stating the obvious.” Scott Styris, who has to be the weak link in the commentary team, has just said this. 58 all out doesn’t tell the whole story. It could have been worse.

Let me tell you how my night unfolded. I had been at a leaving do last night, and had a couple of drinks so was expecting a nice night’s sleep. But I’m a light sleeper and woke up around 1:30 and looked at the phone. Opened up the Cricinfo app and saw we were 12 for 2. Saw that Cook was out, and thought how the fans in the media were going to explain it away (had to be a terrific ball), and that Stoneman was still in (and Root not so he wasn’t batting 4). OK, this happens a lot to England, nothing to see here.

Then the frequent noise from the phone vibrating to signify the comments on the blog kept me awake. I saw Sri’s comment saying 18 for 6, and thought he must be joking. Still lying in bed I couldn’t get back to sleep. At 23 for 8 I got up, went downstairs because history beckoned, and England were now relying on Craig Overton, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson to (a) get us above New Zealand’s test cricket record of 26; (b) get over England’s lowest score and (c) try to get it in the region of embarrassment rather than total humiliation.

I may be a major curmudgeon, but Stuart Broad’s attitude really peeved me. He flapped as he does when he thinks he needs to score fast, and played loose. When he edged one to Williamson, who took a blinder, he smiled. Great catch, but why are you smiling? I can’t remember ever smiling when I got out as a club player, so why now? I know, I know. It’s me.

Craig Overton was getting stick on Twitter for ruining everything with his 33. He played good shots without appearing to be as loose, with some selectivity in his shots. He made 55% of our runs coming in at number 9. From my perspective I have to say thank heavens. 30 all out would have really been a scar that this team would have to live with. The partnership took us from 27 for 9 to 58, and was ended with Jimmy Anderson trying to guide a ball over the slips, but instead prodding it to point. It summed up the hapless, hopeless nature of this team.

I’m watching Trevor Bayliss floundering under questions from Ian Ward, absolutely bereft of ideas, solutions, and thoughts. What could he say? Questioned on the “ridiculous” schedule by Ian Ward (I wonder if his Sky bigwigs will have a quiet word with him over that) he basically shrugged his shoulders. “What can you do? Don’t know? I don’t have the answers?” He faced up, I’ll give him that, but I hope this supposedly calm, methodical man threw the tea cups in that dressing room. I’ve just seen all the wickets, and his comment that our feet were like lead summed them up. Nick off, nick off, miss a straight one, nick off, miss a straight one, prod one back to the bowler. What a disaster.

Back to the action, I went back to bed early in the New Zealand innings, but still saw the chance off the first ball. Raval prodded a ball into the offside, and set off. Latham was slowish off the mark, our cover fielder (I think it might have been Malan) picked it up and with a clear view of the stumps, from 8 yards or so, missed. Latham was yards short. It was a missed opportunity, and to get out one of the form players, and getting Kane Williamson in second ball. But on such moments do fortunes pass. England got Raval early, but then struggled. Williamson batted superbly for 91 not out, and although Broad got his 400th test wicket, there was precious little to smile about. England’s test cricket, and especially its away test cricket is in a tail spin.

New Zealand finished the day on 175 for 3, already 117 runs ahead, seven wickets remaining, and a shot England team in their sights. England’s selection of five seam bowlers, if you include Stokes, seems muddled in itself. No-one is pining for the removal of James Vince, but to pick an additional seamer after the statements from the team about Ben Stokes and his ability to bowl is classic England. They are not confident in him being fit to bowl, so he is really in this team now as a batsman, and it puts Root at three, where he doesn’t want to bat (and we can discuss the mentality of this until the cows come home) and Malan one place too high (and please, let’s stop Malan at three in its tracks). Stokes is a bit bigger than the team these days.

Of course the New Zealand bowlers did a great job today. Both of them. Boult got 6 and Southee 4. They bowled full, they gave the ball a chance to swing, they exploited the weaknesses before them, and got their rewards. But as Rob Key said, this wasn’t a 58 all out day, this isn’t some green seaming menace, it was a combination of bowlers on form and batsman being out of it. (Also, a quick point, I thought Key was excellent today on Sky’s coverage. He was clearly fuming, and wasn’t going to let anyone get away with this being explained away by just good bowling, as ECBTV is given to do with its mild criticisms at best. He did it in a measured, pretty calm manner but always showed his frustration and anger.) The New Zealand bowling attack has a reputation that doesn’t always match its results, especially against the “big” teams. Maybe my arrogance is given away there, considering us a “big team”. We’re not. Nowhere near it.

So, what is going on? What’s the reaction here? Being honest, I don’t really care that much, but yet I am angry as hell. A contradiction wrapped up in resignation. England deserve this. Totally deserve to have their test team humiliated. They paper over the cracks at home, and then fall apart away. In an era when the game is global, they seem the ultimate home cooking boys. In an era when the international calendar gives you the opportunity to play on many surfaces, we look all at sea when we cross the Channel. It goes for our Lions team too.

There’s a Doug Stanhope clip on the Grand National where he says “…and they die, horses die, and no-one gives a shit!” I keep thinking of that line when I recall the media reaction to the Ashes. No-one gave a stuff. The same squad with a couple of little changes, is exactly the same. Failure was rewarded. Analysis was for the fools. Any reaction would not be appropriate. The same players would go to New Zealand, which is always seen as a nice, comfortable, popular tour, go out and play themselves back into test nick. You can see this attitude a mile off. “It didn’t matter in the Ashes, it matters less in an after the Lord Mayor’s show tour of just two tests with New Zealand.” The England team should have had a major shake-up, to see if we can find someone with requisite ability and temperament to play for the forseeable future. Instead the only change is to bring back someone on an affray charge for fear of his lawyers suing the ECB for restraint of trade, and we all have to be happy about that (while ignoring several important double standards). There’s a lot of focus on the joke practice matches, and yes, I know the intensity can’t be replicated, but this was as far away from a proper match as you could get, on both occasions. I wouldn’t be too tough on this if it hadn’t been held up as a fig leaf for the less than difficult winter so far. But England and the ECB want it all ways.

So what now? England need to salvage some pride. The game isn’t quite gone, but it needs a miracle to salvage it. It will need England to probably score 500 minimum in the second innings, and that really looks unlikely. What they should be afraid of is the fact that people will stop getting angry, and instead laugh at them. It might, just might get to the worst stage of all, where we pity them. Stocks is usually a good gauge of the way the press are thinking, and their current solution is to sack Bayliss from the test role. While I am not going to die on the hill of keeping him, it’s the players. It’s nearly always the players. Creating a good environment appears to be now an environment of tolerating failure. If Root isn’t hopping mad, then he bloody well should be. If Farbrace isn’t tearing into people, then he bloody well should be. Bayliss looked like he was going to cry when he was being interviewed. He appears a really nice guy. I don’t think it’s time for a nice guy, he needs to make it really clear. Like him, their jobs should be on the line.

Your thoughts, as always, welcome. We’ve been through some crappy England days on this blog, but this one feels worse, for some reason. Not patronising or belittling New Zealand, who were great, but they looked like a team up for test cricket. We looked like a team who frankly, aren’t. That’s a disgrace.

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How To Make A Crisis In Four Easy Steps

In the past few weeks, all of the cricket media in England and Australia have been talking about England’s behaviour off the field. Two incredibly minor events, coincidentally in the same Perth nightclub, have overshadowed coverage of the actual Ashes.

I would argue that this whole situation has been caused by the ECB’s chronic failures in PR and management. Time and time again, they act in a way which actively hurts the team’s perception with fans and the media. It’s incredibly predictable, unfortunately, and here’s how they do it:

Step 1: Wait until the reporting hits fever pitch before releasing the full story

This allows the journalists to build up speculation through the day, ideally whilst England are playing cricket. Some people might suggest that this would distract the English players from performing at their best, but the management still want to perform a thorough investigation of any incident before they release it to the press.

So if we look at how the Bairstow incident was revealed, the Aussies were sledging England over the incident through the game and after hearing about it through the stump mics the Aussie media published the story on their back pages on Sunday. Speculation continued running through Monday, the fifth day of the Test, with a vague statement from Strauss confusing matters even more. Apparently it was “playfulness, no malice, blown out of all proportion.”

It wasn’t until after the game had finished that the full story came out, and then only because the Australian opener Cameron Bancroft explained it in great and amusing detail whilst Steve Smith was laughing his ass off beside him.

With Ben Duckett, the news came just before the toss in England’s two-day warmup game in Perth that he had been replaced by Joe Clarke. There was nothing else released, which led the assembled journalists to investigate the matter and about halfway through the day’s play the ECB finally released a statement. Even then, it only described the situation as an “alcohol related incident” with no details included. It was only through “good journalism” that the full facts of the matter came out later.

Step 2: After “investigating” the matter, declare the players involved as both simultaneously innocent and guilty

As we know on this blog, the ECB are not unfamiliar with the concept of confusing statements. The name “Being Outside Cricket” comes from a joint ECB/PCA press release (still available on the PCA’s website) surrounding KP’s expulsion from the England team in 2014, where they appeared to suggest that no one outside of the ECB had any right to question their decisions.

So in Brisbane, Trevor Bayliss described the Bairstow ‘headbutt’ as “blown out of all proportion” but also said that the players have “got to be smarter” away from the pitch. The Director Comma England Cricket also came out of hiding to talk about it, declaring that “It’s a minor issue but it highlights the fact that minor issues can become major issues.” I think that certainly is the case when the ECB are in charge.

Trevor Bayliss’s statement on Ben Duckett is a thing of beauty, if you find contradiction and incompetence beautiful that is.

“To be quite honest it’s fairly trivial but in the current climate it’s not acceptable. Everyone’s been warned about [how] even small things can be blown out of all proportion. The ECB has also been quite strict to the boys with their message, and it’s quite simply unacceptable.”

So let’s break that down. Duckett’s actions were simultaneously both “trivial” and “not acceptable”, to the point where his possible England future is being written off. Again, this seems fairly familiar to fans of the blog, with its regular references to staring out of windows and whistling being sacking offences. How would this affect a team’s morale, when they know that their team’s management will actively attack them over incredibly minor issues.

Step 3: Severely punish the innocent players

What would be the absolute worst thing to do after a team’s management categorically denied their players had issues related to drinking after the Brisbane Test? How could they utterly undermine themselves and put all of the team under huge pressure? If there was one surefire way to suggest that England are a team of violent drunken thugs who can’t be trusted, it was forcing a curfew and other restrictions on the players. So that’s what their management did.

Certainly I enjoyed the irony when Bayliss said that “even small things can be blown out of all proportion” about Ben Duckett, since the whole media circus was created by the ECB overreacting to a “trivial” incident and dropping the batsmen for the tour match and possibly the rest of the Lions series. As far as I’m aware no journalists had heard about Jimmy Anderson’s unscheduled shower before the warmup game, and so there’s no reason to suspect that it would have come out. Even if it did, without the ECB promising a full investigation from Andy Flower it would be a fairly minor and amusing story rather than another alcohol-fuelled crisis.

Step 4: Repeat

If there’s one thing you might admire about the ECB, they certainly have the courage of their convictions. Despite screwing up in the same ways over and over again, they never change. They never admit they were wrong. They never apologise. So it keeps happening, as regular as an England batting collapse and just as much fun for the fans.

No doubt this won’t be the last of this sorry saga. At this point, anything could become a full-blown international incident and many England players should contemplate not leaving their hotel rooms for the rest of the tour lest they risk their careers in some way. There are already reports that Bayliss wants to get rid of the people he considers troublemakers from the squad to face New Zealand, which certainly offers some interesting parallels to Andy Flower’s actions four years ago.

And… that’s it. Hopefully England can make it through to Wednesday night without another self-inflicted wound, but I wouldn’t bet on it. As always, feel free to share your views below.

Another Heart In A Different Scene

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About as high a point as I got to in my Ashes tours

Having said on Monday that it’s “all about the Ashes” in a less than happy way, I have to confront my own position. Now the home test series are over, the next task is the Ashes, and we know, still, it just about has some form of pull on the cricket world, and here. While we feel the general sense of disillusionment with all the game brings with it, it is going to be the proper 2 ½ years between the two old foes going at it, so allow me to get a little bit enthused. For me, and I suspect some others, this is test cricket’s last throw of the dice. If this is a poor quality, poor test series, I don’t honestly know where we go from here. Down to the T20 pier I fear. A new love is hard to find, after all.

After the test summer, we need to look at who might be going, and who might not. I’m not going to dissect the selection quandaries, rather make some observations. It was interesting to read the comments of some of the journalists regarding the selection for the upcoming Ashes. Interesting in that Bayliss has said that if he has anything to do with it, there will be no “flyers” from outside the squad or the playing pool from the last 18 months. This is an admirable approach so it seems, but where is it coming from?

Why would  you shut down other options at this stage? What if one of those mentioned in dispatches suddenly strings together a run of excellent scores at the end of the season? For example, if Liam Livingstone ran off a couple of big tons after his double a week or so ago, why would he be more a risky selection than Tom Westley or Dawid Malan who have not pulled up any trees against an opposition bowling line-up that won’t be in Australia’s league? What if Nick Browne outperformed his Essex colleague in the final games to get Essex over the line? How about if Sam Robson batted Middlesex to safety having been out of the England order since 2014? Ben Duckett could be considered due to this logic, but Sam Northeast, who consistently seems to score runs, reprises his role of the younger generation’s James Hildreth. Sam is averaging 55, yes in Division 2, but this is no spring chicken. Maybe someone has seen something in the past.

I’m not lobbying for Northeast, but the fact that Bayliss seems unwilling to work with what he doesn’t know, just because it is the Ashes, doesn’t compute to me. Australia blew up their batting line-up after Hobart last year, and came across Renshaw and Handscomb. This against a tough South African bowling line-up, albeit a little on the downward curve after clinching the series. Both are now ensconced having made runs. We will be playing three players who have had a few tests each and not really, in truth, looked like nailing it down at all. Westley played a few nice shots early on, a number of the media fell in love quicker than a repressed teenager, only to have their ardour thrown back in their face in what should now be called Hameed Syndrome.

Oh, and on to young Hameed. Again, I have to say this, I really, really want to see the kid succeed. Nothing would give me more pleasure. But agonising over every painstaking, woefully out of nick, half century isn’t going to do it. It’s like revisiting the woes of Ben Hollioake all over again. Let him get on in peace, get himself back to form, and become a player in his own time. In his recent piece Newman insists that “Hameed has to be on the plane” which defies all logic. You want to take a player along who has made two (is it) half centuries all season? Why? Magic beans based on a competent debut against India? Take his age out of it – is he selectable in a way that, say Steven Finn wasn’t despite also proving his test class time and again? I simply don’t know why HH has got them all giddy. I saw one commenter on the Guardian say, within two lines, that Rashid could not be picked for England because of his poor summer, but that HH should go as the third opener!

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12 months ago…just a name on a page. Now so much more.

Newman is nailing his colours to the Alex Hales mast. I am not actually as rabidly against that per se, but he did have his chance over quite a period of time and didn’t take it. That was opening, and it may be he thrives down the order.

On the bowling front, the debate is pretty settled. Clearly Broad, Anderson, Woakes and TRJ will be going (to drop TRJ would be incredible given his start). Moeen is the one spinner, and probably Crane will be the other (Aussie state experience and the fact that Adil is persona non grata). There might be room for another – Wood or Ball given we can’t go outside the last 18 months – and Finn hasn’t exactly staked a claim for recall. This leaves the excitement to a back-up keeper. Why we would choose anyone other than Jos Buttler, despite not pulling up any trees, given the constraints on selection I don’t know.

There remains a sneaking suspicion, though, that to go for a wild card, one of those hunch selections that sometimes come off in Ashes tours down under (but more frequently don’t), might infer weakness or incompetence. The selectors have not pulled a batting rabbit out of the hutch since Gary Ballance, and he soon succumbed to cricketing myxomatosis when he stopped scoring runs, and possibly as more of an indicator, siren voices mentioned technical flaws and GB’s unwillingness to countenance changing them. Ballance suffered from having a batting style only his mother and James Whitaker could love, and while racking up 6 tons in 103 test innings has you a stalwart of the side, 4 centuries in your first 10 tests doesn’t prevent you from getting the axe. So given Ballance is rabbit stew now, the rest of the batting hopes haven’t been as good as him. To punt for someone else may lead people to believe our selectors don’t know what they are doing. Perish the thought.

For me, and I know some of our other scribes, the position of Trevor Bayliss seems rather odd. He’s actively, or maybe passively, made it clear he knows little about county cricket. He seems a little resistant to get out there, like the old school, and run the rule over players. He seemed reticent over Mark Stoneman, but then when he has worked with him, made comments about how he likes him as an unfussy, organised cricketer. Bayliss, and Farbrace the Untouchable, have presided over a maddeningly inconsistent England team. Their fielding has fallen off a cliff. They can play matches of unutterable nonsense, lose the plot every bit as much as the Moores teams of yore. There seems, though, barely a murmur from the media about him. It’s as if his invisible man nature is a virtue. No-one is writing Flower-like eulogies for him in the press. No-one seems to think that he’s a liability either. Maybe people don’t care as much. I’m really not sure.

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The 2017/18 Ashes are going to pit two floored teams together. Who will survive? I think England will lose, potentially heavily depending on how fit the Aussie bowling attack will be. The team is too flawed, and the talent pipeline is drying up. Newman can say we have a world class spine, but the problem with this team, frequently, is when it is behind it has no backbone. Blaming that on three players making their way is one thing. But look at some of the established players, and their inconsistency and you have the nub of the issue. However, we will be watching on BT Sport, and not Sky, which brings me on to my next piece in the next day or so.

TV coverage (don’t worry Bogfather, you can have your go soon as well!)

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Got to find a way….