Countering an Orthodoxy: Cricket in Schools

There are certain things everyone holds to be true. They are rarely challenged, and when they are, the views tends to disappear into a hole and be forever ignored. It’s therefore with no expectations at all that I decide to take on a known truth in cricket and argue that it doesn’t hold up. Namely that the major problem in cricket development is the lack of cricket in schools, and that things were so much better 35 years ago. It’s something you hear from every quarter, a lament for a golden age of youth cricket that has disappeared, to the detriment of the game overall and preventing the young from taking up the sport.

It’s a complex matter, open to debate, and isn’t, or shouldn’t be, clear cut. Yet it is always stated that the loss of schools cricket is a fundamental causal effect of cricket’s problems with engagement and rarely challenged. So I will.

I went to a state school, but one that played cricket. Even in those days that was fairly unusual – it was certainly the only school in the town that played, and matches were against others in the wider county rather than anyone in the immediate vicinity. Many of those were state schools, but by no means all – the idea that cricketing schools were a common thing isn’t true. Matters have got worse in the intervening years, that is not in doubt. Equally, the prevalence of school cricket varies dramatically by region and by degree of urban area. Yet in no sense in the state sector can it be argued that things have got better, cricket in schools is a much rarer sight than it was in the 1980s. To what extent that can be applied in an overall discussion of the state of play is a more complex matter.

Individual experience is not indicative of a wider truth, and nor is the plural of anecdote data, so when arguing any case it must always be borne in mind that experiences differ, and differ significantly. But it is also the case that the regular media commentary on schools cricket is driven by the fact that cricket journalism is driven by a largely privately educated reporting base. Their experience of school’s cricket is fundamentally different to that of the wider public, of whatever generation, and their fondness for their memories of their own experience is significantly out of kilter with the 93% not privately educated. It is simplistic to translate their own experiences and ethos to the wider topic, yet when they do so it is rarely argued with on the basis that it is stemming from a false premise.

While the private education sector often has exceptional facilities, focused coaching and the desire to develop ability, state schools are more prosaic about what is on offer, if anything. Teachers have neither the time nor (often) the skills to coach, and nor should they be expected to do so. In that supposed golden age of the 1980s school’s cricket it amounted to the odd session in the nets and representing the establishment in games. Little more. But the difference then was that relatively few clubs had an organised colts set up either as an alternative or a supplement. In my own case, when starting out only one club in the area had any kind of formal youth structure, and they played very few games a year. I saw the change happening – at 12 years old it was that one and only club in the area, by the time I was 19, there were half a dozen in the immediate vicinity, all with a youth section. For me, in order to play cricket, school was essential, the club exposure amounted to what will be a familiar process to many of starting out in the Sunday 2nd XI playing against men rather than regular age group cricket.

One area to note where school’s cricket did have a huge importance though, is that it was then the means for being put forward for the county age groups. Clubs were almost entirely ignored as a route into the county structure until eventually, in Kent at least, a structure was set up to allow that to happen.

This is entirely different to the position in the 21st century, where thousands of clubs provide a quite exceptional level of youth development, and also a pathway for the best into the county structure. Club coaches were non-existent 35 years ago, they are now widespread and able. To put it another way, and given that teachers were not filling that gap then or now, the standard and availability of coaching is so much better now that it barely qualifies as a debate. Equally, the number of youth games, whether internal to a club or against others, is vastly higher in 2020 (with allowances for Covid-19) than was ever the case when I was growing up. Equipment, always an expensive element of the game, is relatively plentiful and of good standard, compared to a school kitbag – if it existed at all – that was usually a relic from a decade or more earlier. And on a personal note, finding anything left handed was nigh on impossible.  If left-handers, or wicketkeepers wanted to play, they needed to beg their parents to buy them equipment.

By almost any measure you care to choose, for those who do play cricket, the clubs in the modern era offer a vastly superior experience than state schools ever did in the past. It therefore cannot be the argument that the nostalgia for some kind of golden era of cricket in schools was based on a better playing incidence, it has to be something else.

Cricket has faced a challenge in inspiring youngsters to take up the game in the first place, and it is here that the schools argument is on stronger ground. By exposing children to the game in the first place, it is suggested that more were inclined to take it up and to become cricketers, potentially life long ones. But although a firmer argument, it remains relatively flimsy when set against the opportunities now available. In my own case and those of my school team-mates, school didn’t introduce us to cricket, it was a pre-existing interest that school provided an outlet for. For children with that pre-existing interest, clubs now offer that much higher quality offering, but even for those who didn’t go on to play for either school or club, their initial exposure was less a matter of an organised games session and more a matter of using a bat and a tennis ball in the playground, the park or for those lucky enough, the back garden. The role of education in firing that initial spark of interest is a very open question. Even in my cricket playing school, organised activity for the wider pupils was highly limited; it did exist, but it couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be compared to sports like football or (in my case) hockey, which were established school activities. This will clearly vary from school to school, and personal experience to personal experience. Yet there are grounds for scepticism when even an established cricket playing school such as mine (and they still play, incidentally) didn’t provide the grounding for an introduction to the sport in any meaningful sense, only a focus for that wish to play.

With the truth that the number of schools playing has declined dramatically, one way that the clubs have attempted to pick up the slack is to go into state establishments to introduce the game to pupils. Where the question lies is whether this is because of a lack of opportunity, or because the game has become invisible with the retreat to showing the sport behind a paywall. Most surveys have indicated a general lack of awareness of cricket, but it is a leap to suggest that the primary reason for this is the lack of potential to play while being educated, it may be much more about the lack of access to seeing the sport at any kind of meaningful level to instil that first curiosity of cricket. And therein lies a related point, that even those in favour of subscription-based television coverage accept that free to air is a highly effective way of reaching people and inspiring interest, in their case, the argument is about the revenue loss involved were free to air to be the choice made. That being the case, while an argument can be made for hiding the game to generate income can be made, it is only acceptable if allied with a large scale push to create interest at youth level, and that has been entirely missing. The ECB continue to invest a relative pittance in youth cricket.

There is ever the temptation to see the past through rose tinted spectacles and assume a time where a particular circumstance was better. Times and our society has changed dramatically in the intervening years, but a simplistic view of where the problem lies doesn’t help anyone, particularly when the chances of that specific perceived flaw changing are minimal. Clubs have not only filled the gap, they have expanded the range of options exponentially. Anybody intrigued by cricket has a much greater chance to play, and more particularly, the range of abilities catered for is significantly enhanced beyond the position of around 13 people in a year group being given the chance to play.

A further objection to this hypothesis is the degree to which the professional ranks are increasingly drawn from the private schools, and particularly so in the case of the batsmen, with that being evidence of the impact of lack of state school cricket. Perhaps. But it may also be a matter of the overall increase in a focus on coaching per se, with the private schools being the only education outlets to provide for that. In other words, it is less about the state school coaching offering, which hasn’t changed at all in the last decades and more a matter of a substantial uplift in private coaching provision, alongside the increasing coaching focus of the game more generally. If that were to be true, then a trebling of the coaching levels in the clubs would still be a relative drop when matched against a quadrupling of the same in the public schools.

Cricket does have a lot of problems, but the increased interest over the last 12 months thanks to a World Cup win and the current England team’s apparent ability to pull off successful but preposterous run chases has helped enormously.  Yet it cannot undo several decades of malign indifference. This piece gives no answers, and only asks questions, but it seems reasonable enough not to simply accept a truism purely because it is widely held. Very few complex matters invite simple solutions, and perhaps this is an example of that.  This is an argument made from a position of powerful uncertainty, Strong disagreement with the case being made here is welcomed, because this is a subject that needs considering more deeply than it has been if we are to find a way of bringing the game back to the young, and to provide the next generation to fall in love with cricket.

Underdog Day Afternoon: Test Cricket Does it Again

The ECB are the lucky organisation.  They’ve done remarkably well to get Test series on this summer, with the help of the two visiting sides, but over the last couple of years they have been rewarded with some quite extraordinary finishes to international matches.  Overall, it’s hard to make a case that they deserve their exceptional fortune, but this summer, perhaps they do.  For today was one of those days that cricket can throw up, and which few sports can match.  It’s not just the drama of sport, it’s the elongated nature of it that is, if not unique, unusual.  Tension builds over time, over days.  A five day Test match is a special beast, and one to be cherished, particularly in these times where the whole concept is under threat.

The lack of crowd means that it’s not quite the same, it is a facsimile of the sport we know and love, but it is entirely forgivable and a price worth paying for the time being to be able to see it on television or listen to it on the radio.  That it can raise spirits in a time that needs spirits raising is an added bonus, but perhaps speaks most centrally to the value of sport itself, whatever the money men may insist.

The narrative of a Test match twists and turns, winds and loops, offering succour to those who need it, and exacerbating the pain of struggle for those who are finding sporting life difficult.  That England owed their win most of all to the twin innings of Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes added a delicious twist to the summer, for Buttler has been rightly under pressure for his place, both due to a lack of runs and his indifferent keeping in this match.  One swallow never makes a summer, but irrespective of the wider issues about the best choice for the wicketkeeper/batsman role, today was very much his day.  He played with freedom, confidence and aggression – his natural game, certainly, but one he’s struggled to display throughout his Test, and indeed county, career.  It is forever the case that selection and choice is wrapped in the paper of a thousand dilemmas and agendas, but on the day a player performs like this, only congratulations are needed, and only pleasure derived – both for a player and a human being.

In the post match interviews, Jos Buttler said that he felt that if he didn’t get runs today, he might have played his last Test for England.  Professional sport can be brutal, and the truth is that he may well have been right.  The personal tales weaving through a team game are endlessly fascinating.  Irrespective of merit, Buttler can enjoy his moment, while Joe Denly never got to experience his.  Such are the narrow margins, and Buttler’s quietly spoken charming nature makes it hard not to be anything but delighted for him.

Chris Woakes hasn’t been under remotely the same kind of pressure, for he is a bowler first and foremost, but his lack of runs had been noticed, most particularly by Shane Warne who demonstrated his usual monomania on a subject he’s newly discovered.  If runs had been hard to come by for him, today he was exceptional, as though he’d shrugged off any doubts and simply decided to play his shots.  Sometimes it works, and today was one of those days.  As is so often the case, when a player succeeds so dramatically, it’s hard to understand why they’d been having problems up until that point.

Pakistan should have won this match.  They outplayed England for three days, and added sufficient useful runs this morning to be in a strong, if not quite unassailable position.  Yet even that should have been a disappointment to them, for at times during this game England looked outclassed by their opponents.  England had a shot at victory today alright, but they really shouldn’t have been that fortunate.  If there’s one side-effect of the Ben Stokes absurdity in the World Cup final and at Headingley, it is that this England team will genuinely believe anything is possible, that they can win from anywhere.  It is a heady mental state to possess, and one that can materially change outcomes in a tight situation.

At 117-5,  the game seem almost up, Ollie Pope had just received a ball that had burst through the top and exploded off the pitch to give him no chance of avoiding gloving the ball in the air.  With a deteriorating surface and only Buttler and the bowlers to come, Winviz sternly informed the world, who couldn’t possibly have seen the evidence with their own eyes, that Pakistan were strong favourites.  What happened though was that as the ball got older and softer, the turn was still there, the bounce still inconsistent, but much more slowly off the pitch.  It was enough for the batsmen to cope.

There will be regrets from the tourists.  England got closer to their total in their first innings than should have been the case, largely due to Stuart Broad taking the long handle at the end, and in Pakistan’s second innings their overwhelmingly dominant position was steadily thrown away.  England bowled well, certainly, and gained a toehold in a game they had little right to be considered an equal party.  It remained profligate to toss away wickets and offer up a chance that oughtn’t to have been there.

It remains to be seen whether this first Test will be Pakistan’s best chance and if they wilt in the remainder of the series, but they have the talent to defeat this England team, they arguably have the greater obvious talent of the two.  Perhaps with two such mercurial sides nothing should surprise anyone, and if they both live up to the reputations for cricketing madness they have garnered, the next two matches might be a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

England vs. Pakistan, 1st Test – Day 3 – You Spin Me Right Round, Baby Right Round

So at the end of Day 3, England are still in with a squeak, probably no more than that as a 4th innings score of over 150 has only ever been chased down at Old Trafford twice before, but a squeak nonetheless.

The nature of the line-up that England picked meant that in all reality both Pope and Buttler needed to go on this morning with at least one of them making them a ton; however the Pakistan bowling line meant that this was always going to be a tough ask. Too tough an ask as it proved to be. The morning session was one of those nip and tuck sessions where each of the Pakistani fast bowlers asked some serious questions of the English batsmen, who played and missed at more than a few deliveries. Eventually it took the precocious 17 year old quick, Naseem Shah, to get rid of Pope with a delivery that reared off the pitch and struck the top of Pope’s bat providing a comfortable catch for the slip fielder. I don’t know how and where Pakistan keep finding these young bowling superstars, but it’s a real breath of fresh air to watch someone so young, bowl with such hostility and maturity at this level. Let’s just hope Pakistan provide him with the right support and structure to let him grow and not ruin him like did with Mohammad Amir.

Still England made it to lunch relatively unscathed and with Buttler and Woakes still at the crease there were some hopes that England could somewhere near Pakistan’s total. Unfortunately our ineptitude against leg spin again proved England’s downfall. Buttler, Woakes and Bess quickly fell to Yasir Shah and whilst there was a fun cameo between firstly Broad and Archer and then Broad and Anderson, it was only going to be a matter of time before England were bowled out. The way Buttler got out in particular is a reflection of his time as an International cricketer, failing to pick a straight delivery after a scratchy, but gritty 38. I have been fairly vocal on my thoughts on Jos as a Test player and nothing I saw today has changed that opinion, but I do feel a bit sorry for the guy; I mean he isn’t the one that keeps picking himself. Buttler is a world class white ball batsman, but in truth, even in county cricket, he has never shown much aptitude against the red ball, something that 6 career red ball centuries clearly shows and for me he simply doesn’t look like a Test player. This isn’t to say he isn’t trying as today’s innings showed, where he put away his natural game and tried to grind out a score, but I genuinely feel it’s got to the stage where it’s not doing the player or the team any favours. It naturally didn’t help that Mohammad Rizwan gave him a lesson in how to keep wicket to both the spinners and the seamers, especially considering he gifted Pakistan over 100 runs in the field with his poor keeping in the first innings. Buttler might be a great team man and Ed Smith is definitely a stubborn supporter, but something has to give and now is the right time to take him out of the firing line.

It would also be churlish of me not to give Yasir Shah some rightful praise. He can look innocuous at times and does bowl some absolute dross, but he always seems to have an impact in the game and regularly takes wickets. It just shows the different mentality both sides have with regards to their spin bowling options with Pakistan happy for their spinner to concede runs if he can bowl wicket taking deliveries often and England happy for their spinner to keep it tight and take the odd wicket. Unfortunately that’s always been our mindset and I can’t see it changing anytime soon.

So with a deficit of 107, England needed wickets and quickly and for once they actually got them. Broad strangled Masood down the leg side for a duck, a sobering reminder of the fickle nature of the Cricketing God’s after his first innings and then Bess had Abid caught on the boundary with the sort of hoick that even Shannon Gabriel would have been embarrassed with. Woakes then continued his fine form by removing both Babar and Azhar quickly leaving Pakistan wobbling at 63-4 before a decent partnership between Shafiq and Rizwan steadied the ship. Indeed they looked to be taking the game away from England before a typical suicidal run synonymous with the Pakistani team removed the former before they could do any more damage. Indeed England should rightly be disappointed that they didn’t have Pakistan in a worse position after yet more sloppiness in the field with both Abid and Shafiq the beneficiaries of dropped catches, though one could easily argue that the Anderson drop was a mighty tough chance. Still England will look back at those drops with more than a tinge of regret after Rizwan and Shadab benefitted from some poor bowling from both Bess and Anderson before England desperately turned to a half fit Ben Stokes who did what Ben Stokes does and trapped Rizwan LBW in his 2nd over. Broad then removed Shadab and a visibly limping Stokes removed Shaheen but a few lusty blows from Shah allowed Pakistan to take the lead to an improbable but not impossible total of 244 with 2 wickets remaining.

Pakistan are without doubt in the box seat and England need to take the last remaining 2 wickets in double quick time if they are to stand any chance of winning this match on a pitch that is taking serious turn. This should be Pakistan’s game to win but it’s not quite a done deal yet. We should have those answers on which way the game is going pretty early on Day 4.

As ever thoughts and comments are much appreciated.

Babar So Really: England v Pakistan, Day one

The weather forecast for this Test is quite reasonable, so today’s curtailed play should hopefully be the exception rather than the rule for the remainder of the game.

What play did take place was something of a throw-back, at least in the first session.  England bowled well, Pakistan repelled all that was thrown at them.  The importance of opening batsmen who can soak up the pressure has been ignored all too often over the last few years in favour of assuming that Test cricket is the same as one day cricket, full of blazing strokes and where batting time is of lesser importance.  Shan Masood demonstrated the value of occupation of the crease.  He may be a relatively limited player, but that’s been of little consequence for many an opener who has gone on to a successful career.  Although Pakistan did lose a couple of early wickets he, in consort with Babar Azam saw Pakistan through to lunch at 53-2.  Barely over 2 runs an over, but unquestionably a fairly successful first morning in challenging batting conditions.

After lunch, things became easier.  England bowled poorly, Babar began to cut loose.  It’s intriguing to see articles written about how he should be considered the fifth member of the Test batting exceptionals, not because he isn’t worthy of being bracketed with those, but because the list invariably includes Joe Root, who hasn’t been performing at that kind of level for a couple of years now, and to many observers, isn’t even currently the best batsman in the England side.  Still, it might be nit-picking to make that observation instead of accepting Babar’s right to be considered in the upper echelons of Test batsmen at present, and he certainly looked the part today.

England did have chances to take a third wicket, firstly when Jos Buttler dropped Shan Masood off Dom Bess’s bowling.  For all the debate around Buttler’s place, his wicketkeeping has been perfectly acceptable for most of his time in the England team, and it is his batting that has been most under scrutiny.  The dropped catch can be put down to just one of those things – any keeper is disappointed when a fine edge goes down, but always for different reasons to those the non-wicketkeeping commentators state:  It’s a question of technique, not reactions, for no keeper reacts to edges when standing up, the ball hits the gloves before the brain is aware an edge has been taken.   The missed stumping he will be more annoyed with, for being hit on the shoulder with the batsman that far down the pitch tends to suggest he was caught watching the batsman rather than the ball – something he will work long and hard on avoiding at all costs.

Standing up to the spinners might be something we see a fair bit of this Test if day one is anything to go by.  Bess got reasonable turn and significant bounce from the start, which may well be of concern to an England team likely to be batting last, against a team who have selected two leg-spinners.  Whether the pitch quickens or dies over the coming days will define their effectiveness, but, forced to bowl spin by bad light, both Bess and Root looked mildly threatening on occasion in the short evening session.

Whether the light was poor enough for the umpires to have forced England to bowl spin in the first place is an open question and goes to the heart of the competing demands of professional sport – the potentially litigious nature of the modern world and the importance of duty of care, versus the requirement that play happens.  Cricket always seems to struggle with this – and too often gives the impression that being on the field is considered a nice to have rather than an imperative of the game.  All too often resumptions are leisurely rather than urgent, meaning there is scepticism in those circumstances there ought to be trust.  It appears to be a congenital problem afflicting the game in too many areas.  Yet the commentators by the end did state that even with floodlights it was rather dark, but going off for bad light on safety grounds when the fast bowlers are operating is one thing; doing so when the spinners are on is another matter altogether.  The defence is usually on the grounds of fairness, but it’s hard to see how that is any different to being put into bat on a green seamer or having to bowl in baking heat.  Unless the fielders are in danger, there’s little excuse for it.

With an unbroken third wicket partnership of 96, Pakistan are in decent shape going in to day two, and any total in excess of 300 has put the England of the last few years under significant pressure.  Choosing to bat may or may not have been a marginal call, but there enough observers urging the captain who won the toss to bowl to make it clear it can’t have been entirely clear cut.  As ever, day two gives a greater indication of where this game is going.

Don’t Like It But I Think I’m Learning – A Series Preview That Isn’t

Hello everyone. I haven’t even told the fab three that I’m doing this, so please forgive me.

wp-1500506510756.jpg
Because I love this picture….

 

I’ve been in a bad place for a month. It’s getting better, but there are bad days still. People are going through much worse than I am, but it pays to remember that we are all individuals and cope with things differently. Look after yourselves, and, wait for this coming from me, don’t get too angry with life. Mental wellbeing is a crucial thing, and frankly, I’ve not been looking after myself. For a lot of late June and early July, it was a dark place to be in, and nothing was worth it. I certainly had no time for the West Indies series.

That said, I am sort of coming around to cricket being played in this time, having first been violently opposed to it. I’m still the good boy who when working from home does not have the TV on, so I don’t get to watch much other than at weekends (and then I am out and about), the last series was interesting probably only because West Indies took a 1-0 lead. The real tensions around the last two, certainly as the games wore on, were weather induced and England got their bowling on track.

Pakistan are going to pose a significant test, certainly on paper they look as though they will be up for this, but it is going to take runs from the batsmen to do so, and yet again, there’s not a massive track record in England. I actually just remembered they played a couple of tests here two years ago, but then I should have, because it brought a fan favourite of mine from a NorthWest regional paper out to have a pop and tell us he was the font of all knowledge! But I must be kind. Let it never be said I don’t hold a grudge.

The guys kept the site going through my issues, for which I am grateful, but I am sincere in saying that I think my voice, and my views, are only really for the rear view mirror now. A different kind of influence is out there now, and it isn’t my belligerence and anger any more, even if it was only limited in its impact at the time. Am I happy about that? No. There’s too much wanting to get along with people who don’t share our interests at all, as if that works. Cricket boards are going to be financially stressed and playing domestic first class cricket just isn’t going to work any more. We will be seeing multitudinous T20 competitions (and less) to make up for the gaps. India, Australia and our Bastard Hundred will hog the lions share of the proper money. Test cricket will fade. I hope I am wrong. If it does, I’ll be long gone.

Some observations from the early coverage:

  • Bumble needs to be put out to pasture. Some of his sessions are embarrassing. The Tea break where he was eating sandwiches and drinking tea while Athers gave serious analysis seemed to this grump as an eff you to cricket fans. We aren’t here to be his audience for a comedy routine.
  • BBC highlights. Oh my god. The advantage of an hour to have your highlights is to show more than Sky’s hour show that has two advert breaks. Instead we start with up to 8 minutes of chat before you see a ball bowled, a review at lunch in a highlights show, and about 10 minutes of chat it seems at the end. Now, this might be masterful given the commentary line-up can consist of Send You To Sleep BBC Idol Cook, Tuffers, who, frankly, is stealing a living, and Vaughan. Now you all know how much I love dear Shiny, but he’s not the worst here. He’s not good, he’s still rent a view, but he’s got more to him than some. Yes, Carlos Brathwaite was surprisingly decent, and Isa Guha has to be eyeing some wider sports roles to take this job, but whoever put that highlights show together, start again. More cricket, a lot less bunny. Does anyone tune in to highlights programmes to watch the presenters babble on?
  • Fake crowd noise doesn’t bother me at all.
  • Rob Key is the most frustrating commentator out there. I’m not humourless, honestly I am not, but when he’s actually commentating he’s not bad. He’s got the hyperbole thing, but he also seems to spark off others in the team. You get that he’s a good colleague. Turn the blokey, chirpy stuff down a notch, Rob. You are good enough, you don’t need to be a comedian. More like Athers, less like Bumble.
  • Cricket twitter is busted beyond redemption. I just don’t understand what’s going on out there. I really don’t. I wouldn’t read another blog on cricket these days. What I think we have that others don’t, and it is certainly my ethos, is that I never wanted to be loved by the cricket establishment, I never wanted to tone down views because it might get me more clicks or “respect”, and while I had some decent drinks with some journos at times, I never felt they thought I wanted to be them, whereas too many out there do. I also never faked my anger. I still won’t. I’m not that angry any more, believe it or not, because there’s too much to be angry about, there’s not enough time. There are too many out there looking for praise, looking to be loved, and not enough out there willing to provoke or provide alternatives. Too many who write for their audience, and not for themselves. As I said, I’m yesterday’s man, my stuff was for a time, and for a purpose. It might be that style comes en vogue in the future. I doubt it. But today’s stuff tires me out. Are you cricket fans, or do you just want to be noticed?
  • I don’t get the love for Barney Ronay. I just don’t. But it might be he’s just doing football at the moment. I’m confused. I have been for six weeks.

OK. Three test series v Pakistan. Enjoy it those who love it. I hope you get out of it what you want. Thanks so much to West Indies and Pakistan for playing in it, and for the England players who are taking a lot on, regardless of how much they get paid, to do this. I respect them enormously for doing so, thus I can’t get rattled too much about Buttler being picked regardless, Stokes worship, who bats three, why Jimmy is playing, why Broad isn’t. It doesn’t really matter. For those who miss cricket, and want it, this is great and who am I to say it shouldn’t happen.

My Irish friend has just whatsapped to claim they are now World Champions. I won’t bite.

I hope the next few days are entertaining, the weather looks great down here, so hope it is up North, and I can leave you again in the capable hands of Sean, Danny and Chris who have not missed my output one bit. In fact, I feel quite cheeky writing this!

All the best.

And I forgot. The Test starts today, comments below.

Peter

Interview with a Vampire II: The Corona Wars

A little while ago, and due to a complete absence of knowledge on the subject, we posted an interview with noted Twitter user and professional gambler Innocent Bystander about gambling in cricket, and more widely across sport. Given all that has gone on over the last four months, it seemed a good time to revisit some of those issues and find out how life is for someone who doesn’t just watch live sport, but relies on it for his living. So inbetween the usual words of abuse that pass between us, he agreed to be asked some more questions about cricket, gambling and the future of both.

I began by asking him about the last few months, and how it has affected him, especially given his job:

“Well it pretty much shut down everything. No sport means no trading, and no trading means no income. It’s alright for those who get all that Rishi [Sunak – UK Chancellor of the Exchequer] money, but for the rest of us who got nothing, not so much. Fortunately I had some money saved to fall back on, but it was a long 3 months to say the least”.

Yep, this is sounding all too familiar to me as well. There has been an assumption in too many places that no-one has been left out, but it’s far from the truth. Normal life is one thing, but the nature of gambling being addictive on the one hand, and also offering the dream of a way out for those who are in financial distress led to troubling thoughts on several levels. It hasn’t been greatly discussed in the mainstream, but it must have been noticeable when sport returned that there was a rush to place bets, with a spike in income for the bookmakers. Problem gambling too hasn’t been highlighted in the lockdown period, but it is impossible to imagine that it all stopped in that period, so what happened and where did they all go?

“I probably chat about it most on Twitter, and the one thing about gamblers (professional or otherwise) there is that apparently no-one ever loses! It is always interesting how gambling gets put in with obesity, drinking and smoking as the vices that the government has to clamp down on. Roll all those in with the pandemic and the only headline that I was surprised not to see was gambling gives you coronavirus. Everything else seems to”

If the shutdown had a direct effect on gamblers, it clearly had just as big an effect on the gambling companies, and on the sports that are supported by, or even rely on them. Many governing bodies detailed the scale of their potential losses, and if in some instances the figures were inflated by counting all revenue sources to all levels of sport, it clearly had and is having an enormous impact. Sport has started to return, but behind closed doors, and the postponement of the test events with spectators present has removed that potential revenue stream for the time being at least. There has to be the suspicion that the relationship with gambling was behind the rapidity with which certain events were scheduled as soon as they were permitted:

“Well it’s been pretty obvious that a lot of sports were rushed back. Something like horse racing has always been primarily about gambling, and 10 over cricket was created pretty much entirely for the benefit of the betting industry – there was only so much virtual sports they could show to give people their fix! Remember that when the Cricketer ran their virtual cricket tournament, people were even trying to bet on that as well”

Ah yes, the 10 over cricket leagues. Last time we spoke Innocent Bystander predicted that these would grow in popularity around the world, and while no one could have imagined a global pandemic coming along to give that change a particular turbocharge, It’s interesting to see that among the first returning cricket has been the likes of the European Cricket League – amateur sport, televised and promoted. In a pure sporting sense, it’s been intriguing to watch a highly variable standard, but from a betting perspective, no one knew anything about the teams or players in advance. Given the sheer volume of money that has been wagered on the outcome, there must have been some serious research needed into who was playing and how they were likely to get on?

“It was certainly very surprising to see the volume of money traded on essentially amateur sport, but then it was the only show in town at the time, so with hindsight it probably wasnt a shock. I actually found assessing the quality of the participants relatively easy. The teams, players and tournaments had quite a lot of previous seasons statistics available online to review. So, with a little bit of work it produced a good return. Without giving too much away I tried to assess the strengths and weakness in each side, and rank each of them based on that. But you’d be surprised how much a teams odds could shorten just because they had a name that appealed to be people such as Zalmi or the Super Kings”.

Obviously there has been a great deal of controversy about the Cyprus event, did that surprise you (here I put in a note to be careful about what he said, on the grounds of not particularly wanting to receive a nasty letter from a lawyer)?

“What did surprise me was how blatant everything was. Nothing was subtle, and it’s been swept under the carpet pretty quickly by the league – the very next day they expelled the side involved and expunged their record from their website; then reforming with the remaining teams and a new schedule. The shocking thing for me was the lack of any kind of statement from the league – it doesnt exactly send out a message about the integrity of their competition, if anything it says the opposite.”

Everyone is wondering at what point things will return to normal, but the disruption across myriad industries raises questions as to whether change is transitory for the period of the pandemic, or whether long term changes are likely. Sport is perhaps one of the most visible industries there is, and given gambling is ancillary to that, I wondered how the longer term would look?

“The only real differences are the changes to the calendar and the behind closed doors nature of pretty much all of them for the immediate future. The fake crowd noise makes football watchable but in cricket the lack of variance in the level of the hum means it can be more irritating than helpful. As for things returning to normal, nothing gets there until the virus is suppressed and under control. I certainly wont be travelling to watch cricket anywhere else in the world for a while now”

As someone who works in the travel industry, this is the last thing I wanted to hear, albeit it’s not so surprising for many, but when it is said from someone who travels to watch England so frequently, it’s pretty depressing. It would also signal that supporters are likely to become even less important in the future, and the mere lip service they are paid at present will become even more the exception, in favour of the broadcasters.

“I probably need to flesh that out a bit – when I go to events I always book well in advance, get the best seats I can and stay at nice hotels. Now with all the uncertainty I cannot be sure that what I’m booking will end up happening. It might be postponed, or rearranged, even late on when there is a major financial penalty for any changes. I have been caught up in disruption in the past – the Mumbai bombings when I was booked into the Mumabi Taj Hotel meaning I had to rearrange to Mohali, and the 2010 T20 World Cup in the Caribbean where an Icelandic volcano decided to mess with all the flights. I had no family back then so it didn’t really matter that much being messed around – but with a 2 year old now I am less keen with last minute changes.

“I always used to joke that fans were an inconvenience to cricket authorities what with having to schedule events well in advance and stick to them – they would prefer it without those pesky fans getting in the way in grounds….”

I suspect that’s right, but if we move to a situation where fans won’t travel because of uncertainty, and governing bodies feel the freedom to change because fans aren’t travelling, it would likely signal the end of the kinds of mass following we have become used to seeing. The needs of travelling supporters have rarely been a priority, but they badly need to be now. Moving on, when last we talked, we discussed the whole matter of TV advertising, and since then there have been moves to remove pre-watershed live sports gambling commercials. Yet it doesn’t seem to have happened, so I asked what what was his understanding of the position there:

“To be honest I’m not too sure. I thought that football was banning adverts during matches but that doesnt seem to have taken place. In fact, it does seem to be wall to wall betting adverts again – only now they seem to have lost Ray Winstone’s large head…maybe that was the trade off! Either way, not much has happened, maybe there are only so many pressure groups headlines to go round”

As ever, my thanks to Innocent Bystander for being patient with my silly questions, and still not objecting to the titles I give these pieces – you can find him and follow him on Twitter @InnoBystander

It’s Chris Woakes Day. Oh Alright, Stuart.

As it turned out, the weather held off just long enough for England to take the last of the 8 wickets they needed to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 series win.  Only just, for mere moments after the final celebrations, the heavens opened.  Whether that downpour would have been enough to curtail play for sufficiently long to cause West Indian chagrin is a moot point, for there was a sense of inevitability about the steady procession of wickets and little in the way of meaningful resistance.  Jermaine Blackwood had a hint of permanence about him, but he too was swept away in a tide of wickets as Chris Woakes destroyed the middle order to finish with 5-50.  If ever there was a day to come up with a Michelle and still play second fiddle, this was it, for Broad took all of the others to fall to a bowler, including both his 500th Test victim and also the match-winning one.  The boy sure knows how to seize the limelight.

Much will be written about how this series was more about cricket being played at all, and the generosity of spirit in the West Indies team to come at all; they deserve the plaudits coming their way.  Despite local outbreaks, the Covid-19 situation is much improved from where it was when they agreed to tour, and while at present playing cricket seems an entirely reasonable activity, it was far from the case when they first accepted the invitation.  Cricket boards may have many reasons for acting the way they do, but individual players are the ones who walk the walk.  It isn’t just England who should be expressing their gratitude, it is all of sport, both here and abroad.  It may not be easy, and without spectators it may only be a facsimile of Test cricket, but all journeys begin with a single step.  That it was the West Indies players who took that first step should always be appreciated.

For the players involved, there were the usual winners and losers.  Stuart Broad himself performed the admirable feat of not only being highly vocal in his disappointment at being left out of the first Test, but of backing up his words to the point he was duly anointed Player of the Series despite missing a third of it.  He’s been a peculiarly under-appreciated player throughout much of his career, his exceptional spells where he can destroy any batting line up often seeming to lead to irritation about his performances the rest of the time rather than appreciation of the box office displays themselves.  Yet his record is a fine one, and more intriguingly, he appears, at 34, to be getting better.  The lengths are fuller, the line straighter, and the sense of danger when he’s bowling is palpable.  Perhaps now he is being accepted for what he has become, and with a career much nearer the end than the beginning, taken to heart as someone to be enjoyed while he’s still around.

For much of his career he has been the foil to James Anderson.  At last, it appears to now be the other way around.  He’s the main man in the England bowling attack, and revelling in the adulation.  And why the hell not?  The stratified heights of the 500 Test wicket bowling club is analysed in terms of bowling averages and strike rate, but in Broad’s case both are continuining to fall.   In the last two years his average has been under 21, and his strike rate a quite exceptional 41 balls per wicket.  At his age, it cannot continue forever, but it is something to be thoroughly admired for as long as it does.  Nor is it any kind of accident, for his awareness of his age led him to make adjustments to his run up and action in the hope of extending his career.  It seems to be working.

Ben Stokes topped the batting averages, a Test series coming of age in many ways, for although his performances had become notable over the last few years, this was the one where few could argue with the statement that he’s now England’s best batsman.  And not a bad bowler either.

He wasn’t alone in having a series to look back on with some pleasure.  The opening pair of Sibley and Burns both made consistent contributions, lending the first wicket partnership a sense of permanence that has been absent from England for quite some time.  Those who complained about the scoring rate missed the point spectacularly; there are plenty in the England batting line up who can score quickly, but their repeated exposure to the new ball in a side all too often reduced to 30-3 suppressed their own ability to score, and laid too much pressure on Root.  It would not be in the least surprising to see his performances with the bat pick up as a result.

Neither Burns nor Sibley are the finished product, nor are either likely at this stage to scare bowling attacks around the world.  Indeed, their struggles to find scoring areas against spin made it clear there is work to be done. That isn’t the point, stability is sufficient in this England side after a period of anything but.  And a word here for Joe Denly, who has likely played his last Test innings: his scores were ultimately insufficient to maintain a Test career, particularly at his age.  Nevertheless, against Australia last year and South Africa in the winter, he did at least set a template for occupation of the crease that seemed entirely out of keeping with the helter-skelter (and markedly unsuccessful) England approach of recent times.  He brought a sense of calmness to an innings that was refreshing in its rarity in the current age.  There is no disgrace at all in not being quite good enough to make it in Test cricket, for very few do.  To have been moved on having at least made some kind of mark is to have some satisfaction.

The jury remains well and truly out on Jos Buttler’s place in the side.  His score of 67 in the first innings of the Third Test may be sufficient to keep him involved for the time being in the series against Pakistan, but he must surely be running out of time to be the man in possession.  It’s all been so predictable, for his batting career in Tests is more or less what would be exprected from his batting career in all red ball cricket.  Bairstow (if he can sort out his technical flaws) and Foakes are too good to be left on the sidelines by an under-contributing rival.

For the bowlers, England have something of an embarrassment of riches, at least on paper.  Anderson is no longer the attack leader in anything but name, but he remains a highly potent weapon, even if one used more sparingly than in the past.  Archer, Wood, Curran and Stone offer variety and potency – it is a greater selection from which to choose than appeared likely a couple of years ago when the bowling stocks post-Broad and Anderson looked frighteningly bare.

And then there’s Chris Woakes.  It is always a temptation to note the weaknesses of a player rather than their strengths, and while his overseas record isn’t too special, his one at home is quite exceptional.  There’s nothing particularly wrong in noting that as part of an overall strategy.

For the West Indies, there were few batting pluses, and those there were are couched in a sense of frustration they weren’t greater.  Jermaine Blackwood, Shamarh Brooks, Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase, Shai Hope – all flattered to deceive, all looked like they could bat, all got themselves out when set.  Some are young and can improve, for some it’s likely this is just who they are.  For the West Indies to turn from being a competitive side into series winning one (overseas, in particular), they need to find a couple of batsmen who can suggest they will be around for more than a session.  It isn’t a plea for a world class one to come along – although they would doubtless be appreciative of that – but one who the others can learn from and bat around.  Ironic it may be, but perhaps they need a Joe Denly to set the tone.

They have the bowling.  If they ran out of steam by the third Test in quick succession with no rotation, it’s not too surprising, but they are a decent unit and complement each other well.  There is enough with which to work, and their team ultimately falling short this tour wasn’t down to the bowlers failing to perform, but the batsmen.

There is a danger of being patronising in approach when lauding the improvement of the West Indies, and they remain some distance from being good enough to be regular (or even semi-regular) victors abroad, but the difference now is that it does at least look like there is a plan and a strategy for getting there.  They may not succeed, but if now at the point where Caribbean cricket is making the most of the talent at its disposal, that is something.  There is not the sense of desperation at watching a West Indies team losing that has been present for all too many years.

The West Indies leave for home tomorrow, with gratitude and thanks, and doubtless with some relief on their part to be in a warmer environment than Manchester.  For England, an ODI series against Ireland follows before the Pakistan Test matches begin.  Some more cricket to watch, and a perhaps a better sense of where this England Test team are going and how they’re developing.  In April, this seemed like a pipe dream on so many levels.

 

England vs. West Indies, 3rd Test, Day 2 – Is Broad Batting

The rain did us all a favour today by deciding to head South rather than sit at its normal location which normally is right above Manchester and to be fair we’ve had a bonus day of good cricket, even if it was cut short abruptly by the Umpires.

England will naturally be the happier team right now even if they were hoping for a bigger score than 369 all out, though they would have bitten your hand off for that score at 280-8 after a significant collapse against the new ball. It is always hard starting again when the bowlers are fresh and have a new ball in their hand and it has to be said that the West Indies bowled superbly for the first half hour; however that being said it was a real shame that neither Buttler or Pope could go on and make a match winning hundred after the graft they put it yesterday. When Woakes and then Archer also went cheaply, the former is really struggling for form with the bat and the latter looks more and more like a number 11, the hearts of most England fans would have sunk. Enter Sir Stuart Broad.

This was not an innings for the purists to say the least and the time when Stuart Broad could be potentially viewed as an allrounder are long gone, but on my was it effective. Whilst Dom Bess played patiently as a proper batsman, Broad was given licence to have a swipe and swipe was exactly what he did with some great and then some fairly fortuitous shots to the boundary. It’s a real shame that Broad is unable to replicate the batting talent he had as a young cricketer, after all he has a higher Test score than a certain Mark Waugh; however when he bats, people watch. He may come off only once a series, but when he does, it certainly is compulsive viewing. England are just mighty glad that it was in this game that Broad managed to come off with the bat otherwise they’d be rueing another costly collapse.

So the West Indies, who had originally thought they’d be chasing under 300, looked pretty deflated when they came off the field and it showed in their batting. The sad thing is that I don’t England bowled all that well, except for Broad’s and Anderson’s spells after tea, which is a weird thing to say when they have a side 137-6. After getting the dangerous Brathwaite out early, England bowled far too short allowing the woefully out of form duo of Hope and Campbell to settle in nicely. Ironically it was a nasty bouncer by Jofra Archer that finally got rid of Campbell and allowed England to open the door. Anderson and Broad then took charge straight after tea, with the former bowling 2 unplayable deliveries that the batsmen did well to nick and the latter celebrating an LBW with an outrageous celebrappeal and probably a trip to the Match referees office too. Blackwood and Holder then looked to gain some semblance of momentum back for the West Indies before the former decided to go for an overambitious drive from a good ball from Chris Woakes that nipped back off the seam.

So we head onto Day 3 with a decent forecast and already talk of declaration speculation, especially as Monday could well be a total write off with the weather. I suspect England will bat again even if they do bowl the West Indies out short of the follow on target, but they probably won’t be hanging about knowing the forecast for Monday and wanting at least a day to bowl at the West Indian batsmen a second time.

One major moan though has to be the continued insistence of the umpires coming off for bad light at around 6pm each night. I even joked that they must have room service booked for 6:15pm every night. The light was murky but no way was it dangerous and we have also invented these crazy new things called floodlights to keep the game going. It’s crazy that in this day and age that we allow cricket to keep shooting itself in the dick and if the light is going to be a problem, start the damn Test half an hour earlier! The umpires are probably grateful that there aren’t any fans in the ground, because if you’d have paid the best part of £70 for the day, you’d be mighty pissed off at seeing the players trudge off the ground with the floodlights standing there. Anyway, slight rant over.

As ever do feel free to share your thoughts on the game or anything else below:

Add the Buttler to the Popery

A pretty good opening day from England, and one that seemed unlikely mid-way through the afternoon when Rory Burns was (superbly) caught by Rahkeem Cornwall to leave England 122-4.  Not tottering as such, but having left out a batsman to account for Ben Stokes’ questionable bowling fitness, certainly vulnerable to subsiding to an inadequate score.  Having put England into bat, four wickets in the day is a mean return for the tourists, who looked somewhat jaded with the ball with the notable exception of Kemar Roach, a threat throughout.  Indeed, Shannon Gabriel left the field in the morning, causing considerable alarm bells to ring.  He returned, and bowled, but without real fire or penetration, though nominally up to his normal pace.  Three back to back Tests is a real ask for any bowler, and while the first day tells little about the remainder of the game, it could be that the lack of rotation will cost them dear.

If there’s a certainty about cricket, it is its ability to level players, and thus it was that Dom Sibley, after his century heroics at Old Trafford, found himself plumb in front at Old Trafford, for a duck.  A rather lazy run out accounted for Joe Root and Ben Stokes was removed in spectacular style by a superb delivery from Roach, swinging in, seaming further and bowling him through the gate.  It’s too trite to suggest that it required something of that order to get rid of Stokes, exceptional though he has been, but it hasn’t been a feature of his game in a while to be so thoroughly beaten playing a defensive shot.

That wicket was the high point of the West Indies day.  Ollie Pope joined Burns and after the latter’s dismissal it was Jos Buttler, under serious pressure for his place, who came to the middle.  When bad light caused an early end to play, the pair had added 135 runs for the 5th wicket and were looking increasingly at home.  Buttler is the intriguing one – his performances have been sub-par not just in Test cricket, but in all red ball cricket, with few signs he was coming to grip with it.  The English game has changed to the point where a strong county record isn’t necessarily required in order to develop into a Test cricketer, albeit it’s a significant help to have a decent record to fall back on.  No, in Buttler’s case it isn’t just that his county record doesn’t suggest he’ll make himself into a Test batsman, it’s that his Test career hasn’t suggested he’ll make himself into a Test batsman.  It’s not unreasonable to suspect that this match was his last chance, Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow are too good to be ignored forever.

56 not out isn’t a career saver by any stretch of the imagination – or shouldn’t be, but it is a solid foundation on which to build.  When his notable scores have been so few and far between, there’s no reason to think either that he’s suddenly cracked it, but credit needs to be given where it is due; he started carefully before unleashing a few shots as his confidence increased.  His technique did look tighter than normal, and his judgement outside off-stump much improved.  Who is to say what will happen tomorrow or beyond, but he batted well.

Ollie Pope has had a fairly dry series so far, but today he looked outstanding.  His supposed similarity to Ian Bell seems to be based on his stature as much as anything, but his cover drive is also an attractive shot, and he is busy at the crease, turning over the strike and scoring at a comfortable pace.  In his interview after play he didn’t sound like a man struggling at being left in the nervous nineties overnight, his entire demeanour is one of confidence, boding well for the future.

Rakheem Cornwall’s selection excited much comment before play.  There are a few issues here, his size certainly is going to be noticed, but what was less talked about was his ability.  His record is an impressive one, and while he doesn’t have a particularly active action, he also managed to turn the ball before lunch on day one.  He wasn’t overly threatening, but not many spinners are at the start of a match on a fresh pitch, but he was controlled, and at 6’6″ clearly has the added weapon of getting significant bounce.  We will have to wait and see how he performs in the second innings on a more worn surface, but the dismissiveness in some quarters before seeing him was neither fair nor reasonable.

What can be said is that it’s very hard to imagine England selecting a player with his physique, irrespective of ability.  Cricket is certainly a game of fitness, but it is more a game of skill.  The immediate suggestions on commentary that he would be improved as a player by losing weight were troubling, partly because it ignores the person, partly because it is faintly patronising about his talent, and partly because it implies that fitness is an aim in itself for a spinner rather than one factor of many.  It is perhaps true, but it is not so self-evident it can pass unchallenged.

England are by no means out of sight, and the thin batting order means that falling in a heap in the morning is far from out of the question.  But today was a good day, one player continuing to the look very much the part as a Test cricketer, and one hoping to remain one.  The West Indies haven’t had a great last couple of sessions, and do look flat, but day two is usually the day to define the rest of the Test, and both teams are in this one.

The Fifth Day Element

Well, that wasn’t a bad old day, was it?

There are some things that are tiresome to keep repeating, yet repeat them we must.  For yet again, a Test match went deep into the final session of the final, fifth day,  and those who continually lobby for four day Tests should again be hiding their faces.  They won’t of course – they stay completely silent on these occasions where their chosen affectation looks absurd. And nor is it any excuse to say the same applies in reverse to those who oppose shortening the game when it doesn’t go that far.  It’s not remotely the same, for we all know that Tests can finish in short order sometimes, it’s that it removes the option when they don’t that is the objection.

Losing a day’s play to rain, as happened here, would have killed off a four day Test completely.  All that we saw over the last two days wouldn’t have happened; Stuart Broad rattling through the West Indies batting, Ben Stokes launching himself into the role of opener in a way that Ed Smith dreamed  of Jason Roy achieving.  It wasn’t normal, no, but it was fun.

From the latter part of day four, it seemed inevitable that England would win the game, one way or another, not because of the overwhelming dominance of their position as much as the feeling that the West Indies were swimming against the tide.  They were ragged in the field this morning, faced with a Stokes assault, but they’re not the first team to fall apart when being pummelled to all parts of the ground by a fully liberated batting order.  If England’s plan was to leave themselves 85 overs to take ten wickets and dangle a slight carrot in front of the West Indies batsmen, it was slightly undermined by the pace of scoring that meant instead of a challenging but gettable 280 to win, it had become an extremely steep 312.

For a brief period in the West Indies 2nd innings when Brooks and Blackwood were together for a partnership of 120, there may have been thoughts of a truly special run-chase, but unless a team falls over completely, there’s usually a partnership in all doomed pursuits that raises hopes, only for them to be extinguished.  It was little more than a mild consideration to note it needed to continue for another couple of hours for there to be any genuine prospect of an upset.

It’s not to say the West Indies batted especially badly, but England unquestionably bowled well enough when it mattered.  It’s easy enough to fall into the trap of criticising England’s opponents as the justification for England’s victories, but it shouldn’t be a reason to forego the credit due to the likes of Stuart Broad – who had a point to prove, and did so – and Sam Curran, forever damned with faint praise by those who would focus more on what he can’t do than what he can.  As for Stokes, he chimed in with key wickets to add to his runs in both innings.  He’s England’s best batsman over the last year, England’s key slip catcher, and the bowler to whom they turn when nothing is going right.  Inevitable comparisons to other all rounders in the global game can be ignored for the time being; for this England team he’s a special player, and possibly the only one who is truly feared for what he can do.

The teams will stay at Old Trafford for the Third Test beginning on Friday, which leaves some interesting selection decisions.  Jason Holder’s post-match comments indicated that, if possible, the tourists would retain the same bowling attack, but England’s policy of rotation is going to come under considerable scrutiny.  Stokes appeared to tweak a muscle at the conclusion of the Test, and while he’ll surely play purely as a batsman if not fit to bowl, it does change the team balance somewhat.  If Bess as spinner is retained and England play with four rather than five bowlers, then Anderson, Archer, Wood, Broad, Woakes and Curran are all pushing for the three seam bowling places.  Dropping Broad might add comedy value, given the likely explosion of rage following his performances this week, but it seems he is the one bowler who ought to be confident of retaining his place.  Beyond that, there will be some extremely nervous bowlers.

We’ve had two fairly decent Tests, and we’re lucky enough to have a decider.  There are flaws in both of these teams, but whatever the outcome of the series, the West Indies are in better shape on the field than they have been for some years.  That it is a shadow of the great teams of yore is to ignore the progress they have made in terms of personnel and leadership.  Their record overseas may be a poor one, but they’re being competitive in England.  That is pleasing to see.  Perhaps it is true that we are so delighted to see cricket, and Test cricket in particular, return that we may make allowances that in other circumstances wouldn’t be granted.  So be it if that’s the case, there is time enough for that to revert to normal.