India v England – 1st Test, Day 3 – I’ve Gotta Take A Little Time

Karun Nair. 303 not out.

OK, got that out of the way. Cricket is all about memories for me, and one of the most memorable test series I recall from my schooldays was the England tour to India in 1984-85. One of the most memorable matches was the 4th Test at Chennai, as England put on one of their most impressive and dominating display on the subcontinent – they bowled India out for 272, racked up 600+ with two double tons in the innings, then chipped away as Azharuddin made another ton but eked the wickets out, and then knocked off a very small target for what was a series clinching win. I remember it for the tour without Botham, when the prospect of that struck at your primal fear of what a post-Beefy era might look like. The rebel tourists would also miss this series, the last of their ban. I remember sneaking a listen to the radio during my Mock O Level exams, as we couldn’t shift Amarnath or Azharuddin on the 4th day. Our spinners were Edmonds and Pocock. Neil Foster was our seam bowling hero. Also, London was hit by a ton of snow, which this morning, despite the projections of a Beast From The East, we haven’t.

I recall these memories because it is always good to think about what has come before in test cricket, and also because, let’s face it, I’m padding the article out a bit because I didn’t get up until 9! The lyric in the title is from the song that was number 1 in that week in 1985, but I could have looked at those from Insomnia. England started the day on 555 for 8 and added another 23 to that formidable score. I was a bit surprised they carried on batting but not totally. While the commentators are going on about England having to win the series by quite a margin to make the World Test Championship Final, it looks like our strategy is to hang in there and then take a chance should it present itself. And hope that Joe Root makes mountains of runs. So the longer England bats, the less chance they have to lose.

Bess was dismissed for 34, pinned in front by the admirable Bumrah (and it is mad that this is his first test at home), and yet again this resourceful cricketer (Dom) has given a good account of himself with the bat. Anderson was LBW to Ashwin for 1, and England finished on 578. Four years ago, in the first test of that series, England made 537, with three centurions, and were on the brink of forcing a win (needed a little more time) so there is precedent for England starting well in India!

On that occasion Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara made hundreds and England toiled for a while as India made 488. Today they had Jofra Archer, and he got Rohit Sharma to nick off with his 9th ball to get England off to a great start. In came Pujara, who, if I may get all Ronay on you, I might want to call Antonine. Why? Because if Rahul Dravid was Hadrian’s Wall, Chet is a smaller, less impressive version, but a very good wall nonetheless. He had been resistant in Australia, and had blocked England to death before. Getting him early would be a real boost. But it’s easier said than done with Antonine.

India were clicking along at 4 an over when Shubman Gill checked a drive and was very well caught at mid-off by James Anderson. Archer again the wicket taker. Gill is being really pumped by the commentators and pundits, and it may well be that this series is his chance to break out, but I see, at the moment, a player that Gooch’s axiom applies to – he used to say, Gooch that is, that if he had two more shots he’s have averaged a lot less – and I see that in what I have seen of the talented left hander. Indeed, his fellow opener is probably the best example of that.

In came Virat. Now, among many England fans and people I am connected with on social media, I am again, not for the first time swimming against the tide. I really like him! Again, tempting a ton of fate, I think he’s lost a little bit of edge, and I pray to heavens he doesn’t find it for England’s sake, but it would be fun to watch him get it back. I’ve not seen his innings at all, so have no feel for how he batted, but 11 off 48 doesn’t suggest the imposing Virat of yore. He was also out to a defensive prod which was well held by Ollie Pope off the much maligned Dom Bess. With that dismissal, and India fell to 71 for 3. When Rahane hit a Bess ball he made into a full toss to a diving Joe Root at cover, and India were 73 for 4, England were in dreamland. Something I’m not bloody experiencing at the moment!

There was always likely to be a revival, as custodial sentences would probably be appropriate if India were bowled out for below 150. It came in the form of Rishabh Pant on the offensive, and Antonine doing his thing. Pant is going to split cricket fans down the middle. He’s fun to watch, has an abundance of talent, but he’s also going to play that really dumb shot at a really dumb time. In the same way that I grew to love Sehwag the more his career went on (and especially when he used to make hay against Australia) I suppose it will be the same with Pant. The bit of his innings I saw he rode his luck, top edging a sweep, hitting in the air where fielders weren’t, but he also hit some mighty blows, and took Leach to the cleaners. The part I also saw of Antonine (I’ll try to make it stick) was a more positive progressive approach so that at one point he overtook Pant’s score when he had got ahead of him. He may just have had more of a share of bad balls.

The partnership was broken in somewhat, well, not somewhat, very fortunate circumstances. Pujara hit a buffet ball straight into Pope’s body, the ball looped up and was caught at mid-wicket. England needed a breakthrough and the partnership, worth 119 was broken. Antonine made 73. We got to see Rory Burns straggly, sill hair cut again.

Pant continued his assault on Leach, but then Jack got some revenge. Bess, yet again having a golden arm knack, induced Pant to launch into a ball outside off that turned a little, Pant belted it up in the air and Leach took a very good catch at deep cover. 91 was a very good return, but as he walked off I wondered what an English press would make of that dismissal should that have been one of our players doing it. Imagine KP at Edgbaston in 2008 – a shot so good they made him captain – for a hint of the furore. The commentators on the feed we get are all about accentuating the positive (does that doctrine of Indian media not criticising the team still exist, if it ever did) and want him to be what he is. After all he’s just played a pivotal role in winning a series in Australia, and is, at least, not a total cymbals player behind the stumps now. Anyhow, India were 225 for 6.

It would be the last success in the day. Ashwin is a really resourceful player, and a fighter to boot (get those cliches in) and played solidly. Washington Sundar was a little more aggressive, and should have been caught when skying a catch to long on and Jordan Archer dropped the pretty tough chance. I am a fan of Jofra, make no mistake, but the England team had snaffled some other tricky catches, and are going to need to take pretty much every chance. Sundar saw out the day on 33 not out, while Ashwin had made 8 off 58. India closed at 257 for 6. Bess currently has 4 for 55.

So, all set up for Day 4. India will obviously aim for 379 to avoid the follow-on, which is a little bit of an irrelevance. I can only see England enforcing it if India take 4 hours to get to 360ish, and even then I doubt they would. I can see India getting quite close, especially if England don’t shift these two early, but that’s the joy of the game. The possibilities are endless. Maybe I’ll reprise 1985 and sneak a look while working.

Elsewhere, and very much under the radar, in the test at Chattogram, we’ve seen someone make history. Chasing 395 to win, and with a history of Bangladeshi pitches becoming quite spin friendly towards the end of games, Kyle Mayers came out with his team at 59 for 3, and proceeded to become the second player in history to make a double century in a successful run chase in men’s test cricket (Gordon Greenidge being the other). When the winning runs came, with three wickets remaining and limited time, Mayers had made 210. If someone beats that as innings of the year, they would have played very very well. Who is Kyle Mayers? He’s not young, making his debut in this test at 28 years old, averages 33 in first class cricket after this innings! There is always the day it is your time to shine. Today, it is shining for Kyle Mayers.

Could a successful run chase also be on the cards in Rawalpindi, where, at time of writing, South Africa are 100 for 1 chasing 370? Test cricket is showing the naysayers just how wrong they are. Try that 4 day cricket thing, eh, Michael? Another couple of games making your 4 day lovefest look as damn stupid as it always did look.

Finally, unheralded yesterday, but I think worth celebrating, Being Outside Cricket was 6 yesterday. Founded on 6 February 2015 after I closed down How Did We Lose In Adelaide, I wanted to start afresh and more under the radar. There were other reasons! Chris came on board as I found the workload unmanageable and England (and the media) gave us so much to write about. From April 2015, the blog exploded, and had its most hit year! While it is a quieter place now, relatively, and I’ve seen other types of cricket writing go awry or get stale, along with Sean and Danny, this blog is still going pretty strong. The Twitter feed has a life of its own, and while the footfall from there to here is not as much as I would hope, it is still “our brand”. Our friendly, and not so friendly rivals, have fallen away, taken new roles, or changed tack, but I think we’ve stayed reasonably the same. I won’t pretend it has always been smooth sailing and good for my mental health (!), and yes, 2020 I took a break and the gang kept the ship moving forward, but I am deeply proud of what I started, I am proud of the friends I have made along the way, and while I might be taking too much of the credit for myself, the best writing now, and that which resonates, is by my colleagues, and I am proud of that too. The biggest risk to its future is boredom. The way test cricket is going at the moment, I am not sure there is much fear of that.

The snow is getting harder, and I’ve got to walk the dog in this. Happy days!

I think it is Chris tomorrow. It could be a very very interesting day.

(Song lyric – the awful “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner)

India vs England: 1st Test, Day Two

England have, just about, batted through the first two days and put themselves in a dominant position in this Test. In truth, they looked pretty comfortable through most of the day. The pitch still seems relatively placid, although more balls are starting to spin off the surface or bounce erratically through the day.

The day started with Stokes and Root riding their luck somewhat to avoid being bowled by Bumrah’s yorkers. Both managed to get just enough on the ball that it bounced over or away from the stumps, but it was a close thing. That is perhaps the cruel thing about great batsmen, that the difference between being out or not in Test cricket might be a few millimetres or a few milliseconds and some players consistently manage to get enough bat on ball to survive. Root looked very safe, past that early scare at least, but Stokes was significantly looser. Playing several slog sweeps and reverse sweeps, he survived a sharp caught and bowled chance to Ravichandran Ashwin plus an aerial drive in the covers which Pujara dropped.

Eventually Stokes did hole out, not long after the Lunch break, but not before scoring 82 runs. This brought Ollie Pope to the crease, who missed the Sri Lanka tour due to a shoulder injury. It was fair to say that his batting did seem quite rusty throughout his innings, and obviously the circumstances of these winter tours with no practice games won’t help batsmen in his situation. He didn’t last long, although he did manage to score 34 runs before being trapped lbw by Ashwin so it wasn’t a complete loss.

In the next over, Nadeem dismissed Joe Root with a very similar wicket for 218 runs. This whole winter so far has been remarkable by Joe Root. His first innings scores in the three Tests he’s played are 228, 186 and now 218. That is an average of 210.67. It is no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing greatness right now and, considering Channel 4’s coverage, probably the first time many UK cricket fans will have witnessed a batsman in this kind of form. It is traditional for sports fans not to appreciate what they have until its gone, and Test cricket fans are perhaps more traditional than most, but nitpicking Joe Root’s innings would be a petty and small thing to do.

Having said that, his second innings batting average this winter is 6.00 so clearly there’s some room for improvement there…

India had been in the field for two days, and so mistakes in judgement and fielding were bound to occur. The first were exemplified by their use of DRS reviews, wasting them in a vain effort to dislodge Root earlier in the day. Despite each team having three incorrect reviews per inning, India had used them all by the time Buttler was given not out despite edging the ball to the keeper. India, being overall a more balanced and sporting nation than Australia, didn’t attack Buttler’s character or accuse him of cheating and instead just got on with the game.

Tiredness in the field might also be the cause for Rohit Sharma’s drop of Dom Bess, which was one of the easiest chances you will see in Test cricket. Softly looped straight to him at head height, it is the sort of catch you’d give to a 10 year old during catching practice. Both this and Buttler’s edge were from Washington Sundar’s bowling, who finished the day wicketless on 0-98. Sometimes, it’s just not your day.

Buttler didn’t punish the Indians for their error, being bowled soon after by an Ishant Sharma inswinger. There are good leaves and bad leaves, and this was a very bad leave by Buttler. Sharma bowled Archer with his next ball, which triggered England fans’ fears of a quick collapse but Bess and Leach steadied the ship and saw England through to the close.

England finished the day on 555/8, which is a very good first innings score. Despite this, England fans seem determined not to be optimistic about their chances in this game. The word ‘Adelaide’ might well be trending on Twitter. To put this innings into context: No team has ever lost a Test match in India after scoring 500+ runs in the first innings. In the 99 times England have scored 500+ runs in their first innings, they have won 50 Tests, drawn 47 and lost just 2. Don’t panic. It’s fine. England have this.

Channel 4’s coverage improved on day 2. They had a segment with Simon Hughes at Lunch, of whom I’m not the biggest fan but they do need other people to bring into the conversation rather than having the same two people talking during every break in play for five days. They also started interacting with the audience by reading tweets using the #Channel4Cricket hashtag. This should remind viewers that Channel 4 had less than two days from the signing of the contracts to going on air to prepare, and that it will be a work in progress throughout the series. The coverage will hopefully continue to improve and evolve through the series, but it’s started pretty well. Even the Indian commentary, which many people were worried about, has been fine. Perhaps not amazing but, without the likes of Warne and Vaughan (amongst many other candidates), it is at least tolerable.

That’s all for today. If you have any comments about the game, Channel 4, or anything else, add them below.

India vs England: 1st Test, Day one

If England were to compete in this series, so the received wisdom had it, Joe Root would need to have an especially fine series. The early signs are promising, but not just in terms of confirming that widespread belief, but also because other than Root, England looked rather comfortable. Sure, the pitch looked flat, and with little turn (as it should be on day one), but given England’s status as serious underdogs, they looked far from out of their depth even early on. Rory Burns will be kicking himself for his dismissal, having done all the hard work, and the nature of that dismissal inevitably attracted criticism. It is a truism of the game that being out to an attacking shot is automatically deemed worse than being out to a defensive one (even if the players tend to have an opposite view when it happens to them), and something like a reverse sweep is going to result in considerable ire. Yet it has become a normal part of a batting repertoire in recent years, most recently highlighted by Joe Root in Sri Lanka, as he manipulated the field by judiciously playing the stroke throughout his twin hundreds.

There is often the temptation to judge the shot selection by outcome – if a ball just clears a man on the boundary for six, it’s a great piece of batting, but if caught on the line, the batsman should never have played the shot in the first place. It’s not to defend the execution of the stroke, for Burns himself made his views of what he’d done quite clear as he left the field, but it is to defend choosing to play the shot in the first place. Nevertheless, it was an unfortunate end to an innings of promise and placed England under early pressure, particularly when Lawrence quickly followed.

Thereafter, it was the Sibley and Root show. Root is in the form of his life, and just looks like he’s going to go big from the moment he reaches the crease. While it is far too much to hope that he can quite maintain this level of plundering, perhaps as he turns 30 he may be settling down into being a consistently high class performer after the dips of the last few years. Certainly it can be argued the biggest dent in his batting average (which for better or worse is how many tend to measure it) was his poor conversion rate between 50 and 100. If he overcomes that – and nothing helps quite so much as continually scoring hundreds – then a significant uplift is likely.

While Root will rightly get all the plaudits, a partnership is always in two parts, and Sibley deserves huge credit for his knock. He struggled in Sri Lanka, and rather disarmingly openly wondered if he would be playing in India during his half century in the Second Test. There is often a reluctance from some quarters to allow for the possibility that a player can learn; instead calls for their head are common. But Sibley has been a fine example of a player highly inexperienced in these conditions finding his method wanting, and needing to think about how to adapt. Consecutive half centuries don’t prove he’s nailed it, but do show a degree of application that reflects well on him. The days of people complaining about his scoring rate are hopefully over – he is providing a level of solidity at the top of the order that has been absent since the relative decline of Alastair Cook.

What would have been a day of eventual total dominance was only slightly marred by the loss of Sibley in the final over, but England are in a very good position, and most positively of all, look at this stage like a team capable of matching India. But that “at this stage” is the most important rider – it’s one day, it’s one innings, and a Test series can be an arm wrestle where it starts off even before one team begins to twist and strain the other, but at this stage, that’s still a positive, and perhaps more than many hoped for. If it were to continue, well perhaps England might be a better team than they’re often given credit for, for while they have had success recently, this is perhaps the ultimate challenge in world cricket.

Today was also the return of Test cricket to free to air television in the UK for the first time since 2005. There is nothing in this world that is universally welcomed, and sure enough some were soon complaining about the quality being lower than Sky. It is something of a matter of personal preference in that – having favoured commentators for example, but Channel 4 are taking the feed from the host broadcaster, which is very normal for away series even when Sky have the rights, although on some tours they have additional cameras. The difference is in the commentators themselves, for Channel 4 are using that host commentator feed as well. Of course, in terms of practicality, they have no option, even if they’d wished to have their own there was insufficient time to arrange it. But if this tour had been to New Zealand, for example, would people have been queuing up to praise them for the exceptionally strong voices they would hear from one of the best commentary teams in the world game? It’s unlikely, and there is a temptation to conclude at least some element of internal bias in assuming that it’s only Sky who can provide the highest of standards. Irrespective of having a preference for Sky, which is reasonable enough, the very presence of Test cricket on free to air television or streaming is such an unusual experience that it feels slightly surreal. There will be people unable to afford pay TV, watching live Test cricket (or live Test cricket legally in many cases) for the first time since the early years of this century. It’s astounding and wonderful.

On to tomorrow – it is of course possible that England will fall in a heap and waste their good position, but the point of having such a good first day is to ensure that even if they do, they are in the game. And if they do take advantage, they might be in with a real chance of winning the Test. Day one is always the set up day, and day two the one that tends to dictate the rest of the game. A chance is there to be seized.

India vs. England, 1st Test – Preview

After what can be described as a fairly comfortable yet nonetheless satisfactory series win away in Sri Lanka, now comes the real test – India in their home conditions. It’s pretty much safe to say that this Indian team have pretty much put all comers to the sword at home over the past 7 years having lost only in that period and having won 29 out of the last 35 Tests during that period too. This will not be lost on an English team who were trounced 4-0 on their last visit to India.

If England are to have any chance in this series, then their batsmen are going to need to fire in the first innings and their bowlers are going to have create pressure on the Indian batsmen by not giving away silly runs. For the former, it’s obvious that Joe Root will need to score the bulk of the runs much like he did in Sri Lanka. Root is a brilliant player of spin, who is able to rotate the strike and keep the scoreboard ticking which is vital in the subcontinent where it is all too easy to get stuck in a quagmire. Naturally England can’t just rely on their Captain and it will be vital for the likes of Stokes, Pope and the two English openers to try and take some of the pressure off Roots shoulders; however this will easier said than done as this Indian attack not only has great spinners but some rather handy seamers, who showed their skills and worth in Australia. Of course, losing Zak Crawley to a freak wrist injury on the eve of the Test is hardly ideal, but at least we can be thankful it didn’t happen to Root or Stokes.

As for the latter, it will imperative that the English spinners exert some control and limit the scoring, something which they were unable to do in Sri Lanka. It’s not that Leach and Bess bowled awfully, as some social media pundits insisted as they ‘crowned them as the worst English spinners of all time’, at times they bowled well in Sri Lanka. However there were plenty of times when they were pretty innocuous and the inconsistencies were there for all to see. This is an area the Indian batsmen will likely target and punish if we don’t see an improvement in this department, after all we can’t just rely on Jimmy Anderson and Broad to be the only bowlers that can give England any control on the field.

It will also be interesting to see what the pitches are like, especially as India have introduced a new cricket ball with a more pronounced seam. Now whether this means the ball will more beneficial for the seam bowlers is something we don’t know yet, but it is at least something to think about when thinking about the make-up of the English team. All too often in the last Indian series, England were guilty of picking the team they wished they’d picked for the previous Test rather than on the merits of the pitch in front of them. If England continue to do this, then it could be a long series in the field for Joe Root’s men.

As for India, they’ve probably got one of the strongest lines ups I’ve seen for an Indian side in quite a while. The top 5 of Rohit, Gill, Pujara, Kohli and Rahane is up there in Test cricket as one of the most powerful top 5, that alongside a bowling attack of Bumrah, Shami and Ashwin, who is finally showing that he can has all the skills to be effective both at home and away from home, is going to be a real challenge for any touring team. India will be disappointed that Jadeja has been ruled out of the series as he adds much to this team with ball and bat; however in Thakur, Sundar and Axar Patel, India have plenty of other spin options to give the English batsmen nightmares. 

On a last note, it is wonderful to see cricket being shown on an FTA platform after 16 years locked behind a paywall and Channel 4 deserve a lot of credit for making it happen, especially as negotiating with Star Sports is akin to pulling teeth. It did make me smile yesterday when I saw people complaining on Twitter that it won’t be able to match the coverage of Sky’s production, which to me is like winning £10 million on the lottery and then complaining it wasn’t £12 million. Naturally the commentary feed will be taken from Star Sports who will do anything not to upset the BCCI in any way, shape or manner and naturally the in studio analysis won’t be able to match that of the well oiled Sky machine, but to have cricket on a free to air platform that anyone who is either a fan or just curious about the game can access, far outweighs any negatives.

Of course the view at the ECB might be a little different to the fans, with a prime series going for pretty much peanuts with neither Sky nor BT being inclined to bid for it, might indicate a switch in priorities for both broadcasters moving forward. What is certain is that the next TV deal is not going to look anything like the current one and the ECB are going to need to quicky realise that they’ve been to the well one too many times and plan accordingly. That conversation is for a different time and I for one am looking forward to seeing cricket back on a free to air, with hopefully the viewing figures to match Channel 4’s investment.

As ever feel free to comment on anything about the game below:

Return of the Mambo

It hasn’t yet been formally confirmed, but assuming all goes as expected, Channel 4 will be showing the India – England Test series. There are some interesting things about this development, beyond the pleasant surprise of the Test game returning to terrestrial television for the first time since 2005.

Strikingly, BT Sport and Sky failed to show much interest, while the mooted plan for primary rights holder Star Sports to distribute it via the Disney+ platform appears to have come to nothing. Amazon don’t seem to have tried terribly hard to get the rights either, and Channel 4 have bought them for a price below what might have been expected.

Certainly the time difference is less than prime time in the UK with starts around 4am, but there is a day/night Test in the schedule, while at weekends in particular at least half the day’s play is at a relatively civilised time.

What is of significant interest is the lack of intent by those channels who have in the last decade been the sole outlets for almost all cricket in this country. Given the relatively low cost, should it be a concern to the ECB that appetite is so thin? Perhaps. It also does emphasise that the oft-repeated line that terrestrial broadcasters are inherently uninterested in the Test format is untrue – and it will be a harder case for them to make in future.

This doesn’t mean that the ECB will see the light – their addiction to money ahead of all other considerations is unlikely to wane, because it would mean difficult decisions about priorities. What would be embarrassing for them would be for the Channel 4 audience to exceed that of Sky – for it would provide ammunition against the ECB who appear to revel in the concept that the public don’t care about the game and won’t watch it on free to air television.

The ECB might have no say at all about who shows this series, but the fall out from it could prove interesting to say the least. If broadcasters’ desire to show cricket has lessened, so will the amount of money they’re prepared to pay. Hiding the game away on satellite pay channels has come with immense costs to the wider game, but been supported by the governing body on the grounds that there is no alternative. Their expectation appears to have been that rights values were only going to go in one direction – upwards. It is distinctly possible that this upcoming series is a first indication that may not be so. If that were to be true, and we have little firm idea what is in the minds of the pay TV channels, it may yet be the ECB have backed the wrong horse even by their own standards of success.

For now, let’s just enjoy the return of the best form of the game to a place where all can access it. But this may well not be the end of the matter for the game in this country.

Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Lanka v England – 2nd Test, 3rd Day – I’m More Precise, To The Point I’m Nice

This is a report in two parts – one written 45 minutes before the close, and then, well, you’ll see when I changed the tone a bit. That’s test cricket. Never assume it is going to drift, it has drifted for the previous hour or so. You’d think I’d learn!

It was about fifteen years ago, to get all Ronay on you, that I found myself at Whitgift watching Surrey, I think playing Lancashire. It has been another day when a certain Mark Ramprakash had gorged himself on runs, and some wag, sitting near me uttered the line I remember, and use, to this day. “Ramprakash has carried more passengers this season than London Transport”. If Anderson is the bus network when it comes to the bowling in this test, Joe Root is both the Underground and Southeastern. Eat your heart out Barney!

This test match has emphasised just how really handy it is to have your best player, and since KP was ushered off the scene, Root has been that (yeah, yeah, argue about Stokes, but he just isn’t) in top form. This is seriously brilliant stuff, Cook in India 2012 stuff, where you are surprised he gets into any strife. So far he’s got out trying to hit out with the last man in, and been run out in a moment of supreme idiocy in the abbreviated run chase last time out. He’s look reasonably untroubled (as I start writing this a difficult chance at slip has just been missed) while accumulating, all in the hope someone might stay with him in this mission. He did have a fluent partnership with Buttler, and a dogged one with the impressive Bess (seriously like this guy’s temperament) to steer England out of imminent peril, although disaster looms in all directions. Such is the joy of test cricket.

In that sense the game’s position hasn’t really changed for the action of today. England started it in a position to post a lead, or to subside, and to dominate with a strategic partnership or have a weak (on paper) tail subside quickly. It sort of still sits like that. England lost Bairstow early, Lawrence didn’t last long either, both falling to Embuldeniya, who looks impressive but also ought to be asking questions about worktime directives and overtime with the bowling load he has had to carry. Buttler came in to steady the ship, while Root continued to his 19th test century in his 99th test.

While never totally dominating, it wasn’t a minefield either and both players took England away from the rocky shore of a 200 deficit to calmer waters. Buttler passed his 50, and of course the commentators started on the “how great is he doing now” schtick before our talented one reverse swept a shot straight into his boot and straight up in the air giving Ramesh Mendis his first test wicket. I watched the replays – front on nailed Buttler, but the side on made it look, to me, that it hit the ground then hit the boot, which it didn’t. It was an optical illusion. It was given out out out by the 3rd umpire, and England looked vulnerable. 229 for 5 with a reasonably long tail. A 97 partnership that threatened a lot more, and in truth, we probably needed it.

I muttered to myself “I’ll take a deficit of 70 from here”.

Curran hung about for a while, coinciding with my walk of Teddy over the park to beat the snow. He fell to Embuldeniya, nicking the new ball to slip, and the deficit was still 129. Enter Dom Bess! I remember back when he made his debut at Lord’s that he got to 50 and then appeared sick to be out. He looked similarly peeved at Headingley. I like that. As Root, understandably, visibly tired, playing a few rash shots, looking desperate to reach the close, Bess was solid and kept his wicket.

But as time expired and we passed 5pm local time, and he nicked one to gully. The soft signal was out. The replay made it look, as always, as if it hit the grass then the hand. This was the only shot. Not out. But not to be denied Embuldeniya induced the edge and Bess was nabbed at slip. A vital 81 partnership was broken. Bess went for 32.

Mark Wood went down with all guns blazing, and brains held in suspension when he nicked to slip. Thirimanne pouching his 5th. But in the last over of the day, Root perished. 186. Run out as he hit the ball to short leg, who threw the stumps down before a knackered Root could make his ground. The last half hour saw England lose 3 wickets for 6 runs, and finish the day at 339 for 9.

What can you say about that Joe Root innings? Let’s put some things in perspective, this isn’t a vintage Sri Lankan attack. But this is gruelling work, no England player had made more than 151 in a test innings in Sri Lanka prior to this tour. The 228 was good, very good, but this was better. The 228 rammed home a massive advantage the bowlers had given him. This innings kept England within touching distance. A deficit of 44 is not negligible, but it is not large either. Root struggled at the end. He is our captain, and isn’t new to the role when some skippers seemed to get a boost – he’s very much in the worn down by the role zone others encountered. He looked in very little trouble until he got massively tired and limbs and muscles seized up. To quote the song that the lyric in the title is from, he felt like he was going to sweat until he bleeds. This was an amazing physical and mental effort. I was privileged to watch a fair bit of it.

So having prepared a “game has not changed that much in context” piece from 45 minutes out, now it has a little. Sri Lanka are probably going to have a small lead, worth around 45 minutes of batting time. The third innings will be interesting here, as the home team have to make the running. They will need to take risks to set the game up to give them enough time. The 4th innings is not usually England’s friend when batting out to draw, but maybe more interesting given a teasing total to chase. Embuldiniya will be a major obstacle, turning it away from our predominantly right handed batting order. His 7 wickets in just his third test bodes well (let’s hope he doesn’t become a T20 dart thrower). The wicket will deteriorate. It’s the beauty of test cricket, and why I love it.

Needless to say, England have won a test match and Ed Smith can come out and do a victory lap masquerading as high-performance selection. I might go into this more after this test match, but how can one argue with logic like this…

 “We’re not traveling by boat, we don’t go away five months at a time. We need to be more nimble. And if we need to break a tour up so we can get people in and get people out for their good and for England’s good, we’ll do it.”

I mean, you need a Double First to work that one out.

Looking forward to Day 4 which I will not be able to watch as I have to work. Enjoy!

Little Stattage… Last 186 in test matches was made at Galle. Karunaratne in 2015 against the West Indies. 186 is the joint 501st highest score in test history. Two other players have made 186 for England. Paul Collingwood at Lord’s in 2006 (I was there when he brought up his ton) and Kevin Pietersen in Mumbai.

Other Postscripts – 5 overs short. All that spin. Hmmm. We’ve been there before. Also, never met many opposition keepers I liked, they mostly spoke nonsense and bored me senseless. As Michael Vaughan might put it, just saying (with a hashtag).

SL vs England: 2nd Test, Day Two – Jimmy Jimmy

For the first time in this series, the England team are under real pressure. Overnight, the position of the game was very much in the balance. Sri Lanka had only lost four wickets, but England had restricted their scoring to just 229 runs. When two wickets fell in the first five overs this morning, including centurion Angelo Matthews, that should have swung the games decisively in England’s favour. Instead, a lot of innocuous bowling from England allowed Sri Lanka to bat through to Tea and set a challenging first innings total of 381.

Jimmy Anderson and Mark Wood bowled well, and claimed nine wickets in this innings between them. At this point in Anderson’s career, every wicket is becoming something of a milestone. With another three wickets today, including the crucial one of Matthews, his 6-40 marks his best ever bowling performance away from home. At 38 years old, he is the oldest pace bowler to take a five wicket haul in Asia. (SF Barnes holds the overall record for fast bowlers, and Anderson need to keeps going for another two and a half years to challenge that one) He extended his lead as the pace bowler with the most wickets in the history of Test cricket, and is now just thirteen wickets short of overtaking Anil Kumble and becoming the third highest wicket-taker overall (including spinners). To watch Anderson bowl now is to watch history in the making. Even in conditions where there is little swing, little seam, and little pace, Anderson gets the job done. He can’t work miracles, and perhaps a few Sri Lankans will blame themselves for their shot selections against him, but his line and length is so awkward that any attempt to score is fraught with risk.

The only other England bowler threatening to take wickets through the day was Mark Wood. His extra pace and bounce clearly discomfited the Sri Lankan batsmen, drawing edges and aerial shots whilst taking another two wickets today. He’s been unlucky so far in this series, and has more than demonstrated his worth as a strike bowler in batting-friendly conditions. Not as good as Anderson, but then who is?

The other three bowlers, Sam Curran, Jack Leach, and Dom Bess, were just poor. Curran seemed to bowl a lot of bouncers, perhaps trying to emulate Neil Wagner’s technique, but he lacked the New Zealander’s control and he was the least economical of England’s attack. He did at least manage to take a wicket though, with a mis-timed hook being caught on the boundary. England’s two spin bowlers, Jack Leach and Dom Bess, bowled a combined sixty-four overs without anything to show for it. Aside from a dropped caught-and-bowled chance to Bess and an inconclusive edge from Leach’s bowling, neither even looked remotely like dismissing a Sri Lankan batsman. This should be a huge worry for England. These two are expected to carry the weight of the England attack in Asia, not least to spare the workloads of the pace bowlers. Both Anderson and Wood bowled more overs than Bess in this innings, and that simply shouldn’t happen.

England’s options to replace either spin bowler aren’t great either. Moeen Ali, the only other spinner in England’s ‘main’ squad hasn’t played in a single first-class game since 2019 due to being in England’s white ball team last summer. There are an additional three reserves currently on tour with the team in Sri Lanka and India: Matt Parkinson, Mason Crane and Amar Virdi. Parkinson didn’t play any first-class matches last year either whilst Crane has a career first-class bowling average of 45.16. That leaves off spinner Virdi as perhaps the ‘strongest’ option of the three on paper, a 22 year-old with promise but not much experience. If Bess and Leach are hit out of the attack by India, England really don’t have any depth behind them to cover.

Rory Burns has missed this series because he wanted to be home with his wife when his first baby was born. Much of the talk before the first Test was about whether he might replace Dom Sibley or Zak Crawley when he returned for the India series. There’s always a risk when players voluntarily skip tours that the stand-ins given a chance in their place might take the opportunity and keep them out of the side permanently. Fortunately for Burns’ job security, if not England’s batting, neither young opener has pressed their case so far as both fell cheaply yet again in the first few overs today. With batting averages of 2.00 and 7.33 respectively this series, some people have begun to suggest that neither Sibley nor Crawley should be selected in India. That would be harsh, as this is both batsmen’s first time in Asia and they might learn from the experience. On the other hand, international cricket is a harsh game sometimes and England’s best chance of winning Tests in India might not involve either opener.

Yorkshiremen Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root settled the ship for England, as they did in the first Test, and both made it to the close of play (after surviving a couple of close LBW calls). They are England’s two top runscorers in the series and, along with debutant Dan Lawrence, the only ones of the batting unit to look comfortable against the Sri Lankan attack. That makes Ed Smith’s decision to rest Bairstow for the next two Tests somewhat awkward, although understandable. England cricketers playing in all three formats definitely need time away from the England camp, especially when restrictive ‘bubbles’ are in pace. With a T20 World Cup in India this coming October, it would also be foolish to deny English players like Bairstow the opportunity to play T20Is in the country a few months beforehand or to force them to skip the IPL for their rest. His batting will be missed in Chennai though, not least because he is one of the most experienced batsmen in Asian conditions in the squad.

England finished the day on 98/2, 283 runs behind the hosts. If the first day’s winner was ambiguous, today’s wasn’t: Sri Lanka are in a great position. They punished England’s lax bowling and have put the tourists in a position where a couple of mistakes could turn this game into a thrashing. England need their middle order to bat very well tomorrow to keep their hopes of a 2-0 series win alive.

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

SL vs England: 2nd Test, day one

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

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

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

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

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

Should Bouncers Be Banned?

The series between Australia and India has been something of a bloodbath. India have had to field a team in the fourth Test consisting of many players who weren’t even in contention for a place in the first game. The injuries which have befallen them fall into two categories: Strains, perhaps in part caused by restricted training due to quarantines, and broken bones caused by bouncers.

India have had five players either unavailable for selection or had to leave the pitch due to injuries sustained from very fast, short-pitched bowling. Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja were hit in the hand by the Australian bowlers, missing the following games, whilst a blow to the elbow kept Rishabh Pant off the field for an innings. In addition, KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal were unavailable for selection after injuries in the nets whilst they were (correctly) preparing for a barrage of bouncers from the Australians. If you count every time the Indian physio has had to treat a batsman who has been struck on the helmet or body by a short ball, I’m not sure a single Indian has been unscathed. Cheteshwar Pujara in particular suffered, taking 14 blows to the head and body in the series according to CricViz. He was hit on the head, hand and ribs four times just on the last day at the Gabba.

Given the apparent high risk of injury and teams’ inability to substitute an injured player (outside of a suspected concussion), you probably won’t be surprised to learn that there is a law regarding this kind of bowling. Specifically, Law 41.6.1:

“The bowling of short pitched deliveries is dangerous if the bowler’s end umpire considers that, taking into consideration the skill of the striker, by their speed, length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on him/her. The fact that the striker is wearing protective equipment shall be disregarded.”

This law is also included in the ICC’s playing conditions for international cricket. Despite this, I don’t believe that I have ever seen it enforced. If the umpires aren’t going to warn or penalise a bowler even after an actual injury has occurred, as has happened multiple times in this series, they probably never will.

One fallacy around this law is that it is intented to protect tailenders, whose lack of skill leaves them more vulnerable to this kind of bowling. Certainly the law mentions “the skill of the striker”, but that is only meant to be only one of several factors in the umpire’s decision. As the list of Indians injured on this tour demonstrate, with three batsmen and an allrounder, it is typically the players with the most batting ability who are injured in this way. The same pattern follows for players needing concussion substitutes in international cricket. Ravindra Jadeja, Rishabh Pant, Liton Das, Dean Elgar, Darren Bravo, and (of course) Steve Smith have all had to leave the game after blows to the head since 2019. None of these are unskilled batsmen. The only specialist international bowler to have needed a concussion substitute which I could find was Bangladesh’s Nayeem Hassan.

The simple explanation is that batsmen face significantly more balls than bowlers, and therefore are more likely to face these dangerous deliveries. It does also seem to demonstrate that their skill level in no way protected them from injury. Most of the bowlers involved in the incidents are capable of reaching over 90mph, at which speed even the best batsmen evidently can’t always cope.

The reluctance of the cricketing authorities to reduce the number of injury-causing deliveries seems incredibly strange to me. In every other sport I watch, every effort seems to be made to actively discourage players from injuring each other. In football, two-footed tackles or head-high kicks are a straight red card with a suspension afterwards. In rugby union, tackles which either hit the head or cause the tackled player to land on their head are a straight red card with a suspension afterwards. In baseball, pitchers are ejected from the game after either two accidental or one intentional pitches in the direction of the batter. Even in American football, which is more or less a full-contact sport, blows to the head (and many other ‘dirty’ techniques) are a penalty and often also result in fines and suspensions. It is a curious anomaly that cricket, which considers itself a gentlemanly and gentile sport, allows a bowler to send an unlimited number of 90mph bouncers at the ribs of opposition batsmen with absolutely no restraints whatsoever.

Making cricket safer for batsmen isn’t necessarily an easy problem to resolve. If you ban bouncers aimed at the batsmen altogether, that also potentially eliminates the pull and hook shots from the game and much of the incentive for having fielders on the leg side with it. You may be left with most deliveries pitching wide outside the off stump with packed off-side fields, which sounds like a very boring tactic for spectators to watch. Extending the concussion substitute so that replacements for any injured cricketer can bat and bowl as needed has the potential for abuse. Many Australians were up in arms when Chahal replaced Jadeja in a T20I last month because they felt that it had strengthened India’s team. Some even seemed to imply that Jadeja had feigned a concussion in order to allow the substitution to take place. If any injury allowed such a substitute, these controversies could crop up in almost every game.

On the other hand, the status quo may not be tenable either. If another high profile series is beset by avoidable injuries, the pressure to address this issue will continue to mount. Had India lost this series, for example, the BCCI might well have been pressing for some kind of action by the ICC. Perhaps the best way forward, at least in the beginning, is to enforce the laws that are already in place. Allow international umpires to make the decision on what is or is not ‘dangerous’ bowling, except with guidance that this should be implemented more often.

If that doesn’t work then more stringent measures might have to be brought in, and cricket would be a poorer game for it.

If you have any comments about bouncers, or Australia’s losing streak at the Gabba, or anything else, please leave them below.