South Africa v England: 3rd Test, Day 1 – Flat

Pancakes. Flounders. Spare tyres. None of these things are as flat and soft as the pitch this Test is being played on in Port Elizabeth.

The bounce has been slow, restricting both scoring and wicket-taking opportunities, and there’s been virtually no sideways movement to trouble the batsmen. All of which made Joe Root’s decision to bat after winning the toss this morning a very simple one. You do have to feel sorry for du Plessis though, because this marks the sixth consecutive toss he has lost for South Africa. With the ability to bat first often being crucial in Test cricket, it’s no surprise that South Africa are on such a poor streak of form.

The first two sessions were a pretty turgid affair, like the pitch. South Africa were mainly ‘bowling dry’ *shudder* whilst England were slowly accumulating runs. Sibley and Crawley both eventually fell to mistimed clips which were caught by leg slip/gully, but losing just two wickets before Tea is still a welcome sign of progress for this England Test team. They are normally well into their tail by then.

Things livened up just after Tea, with Denly and Root falling in relatively quick succession. Root’s wicket in particular will interest England’s bowlers, because he was bowled by a ball which appeared to stay noticeably lower compared to other deliveries on a similar length. Stokes weathered a spell of strong bowling from Rabada and Maharaj, including several unsuccessful appeals, before settling down with Pope to see out the day with England finishing on 224-4.

One thing which has been enormously fun to see on Twitter is the suggestion (by idiots and trolls, mostly) that England’s top order have been scoring too slowly. This is very much a luxury problem, because English batsmen in recent times typically haven’t been at the crease long enough for people to worry about such things. To put this in context: This winter, England have lost their fifth wicket in their first inning for over 200 runs three times in the last five Tests. That’s the same number as they managed in the previous fifteen Tests over three seasons. This England top order, since the dropping of Roy and Bairstow, has been consistently scoring runs.

The key word here is ‘consistently’. Whilst it has been frustrating to see so many English batsmen fail to reach fifty, there have been far fewer collapses this winter than we England fans have become accustomed to. This has been especially important since England’s tail, particularly their non-Stokes allrounders, haven’t been scoring heavily with the bat recently. In 2019, England’s batsmen from 7-11 collectively averaged 13.96. That’s the first year since 2013 in which they’ve averaged less than 20, and their lowest average since 2006. England can no longer rely on their bowlers bailing them out with the bat, and so I think that this new-found cautious approach from the specialist batsmen is both warranted and welcome.

On our usual side note, South Africa actually managed to bowl all 90 overs in a day. With so few wickets and boundaries, and spin bowler Maharaj bowling a third of the overs, they actually managed to finish a few minutes early.

90 overs bowled, England comfortably batting out a full day. I could get used to this…

As always, comments on the game or anything else you fancy are welcome below.

Back to it, Once Again

A Test series of more than three matches – ideally five, but four will have to do here – allows the advantage to move back and forth without a single win appearing to be quite so decisive overall.  It’s an obvious truism, but no less acute for all that.  England’s levelling of the series with two to play kindled further interest in the outcome of a clash between two sides who have clear flaws, but are fairly well matched against each other.  Sometimes a lack of quality fails to affect the intrigue, for that is more a question of rational consideration than emotional response.

Thus the main consideration in terms of the outcome of the Port Elizabeth Test is which version of either side will turn up – the reasonably good or the very, very bad.  The batting of both teams is inordinately brittle, there are players within the line-ups who can turn the entire match in a session, and there are no guarantees about the fitness of the participants – albeit in that last instance England appear rather more vulnerable given the rate of sickness and injury they’ve incurred.

The loss of James Anderson for the rest of the tour (and that will raise some longer term questions as is always the way when a player is getting long in the tooth) limits England’s pace bowling decisions to either Mark Wood or Jofra Archer, with the whisper being that it will be the former who gets the nod, either because of doubts over Archer’s recovery from his elbow injury, or because Wood has impressed in the nets.  Which of those is the more accurate depends somewhat on whether you wish to see the choice as a positive or negative.  Wood was certainly outstanding in his last Test match, but that was a year ago and several injuries distant.  Wood is far from a rarity among England bowlers in struggling to stay fit for any length of time, and frequently has flattered to deceive in his Test career.  But few would begrudge him the chance to show what he can do, all the while keeping fingers crossed that he can stay fit, and do himself justice.  A fully fit Wood and a fully fit Archer is no bad selection decision to have to make, and in either case the thrill of watching a fast bowler remains ever present.

Dom Bess seems certain to keep his place given the return home of Jack Leach, and probably would have done even had there been a late recovery.  Nothing but sympathy and best wishes to Leach from all quarters, but even from the outside it looked a sensible decision to allow him to go back to England.

For South Africa, the only rumoured change is Dane Paterson for Dwaine Pretorius, a mooted selection that would suggest the pitch at Port Elizabeth will indeed have a bit more life in it than has been the case on previous occasions.  If so (and photos of the prepared pitch don’t suggest a batting paradise), then additional pace from both teams may make batting even more difficult than these two often manage to make it look.  A slow, low pitch is something that few want to see, for the cricket is turgid, but a contest between bat and ball is not an unreasonable expectation.

As for hopes for the game, if another one going to the wire on the final day is a little too much to ask for, some solid batting to take the game into the latter part of the game would be good to see, if only to prevent the four day Test brigade from starting up their campaign again.  On which subject it has been pleasing to note Test cricketers, player organisations and even the MCC come out firmly against shortening the format.  In normal circumstances this might be thought to be more than sufficient opposition, but in these times where the governing bodies care little for the integrity of the sport and everything for the currency exchange markets, nothing is certain.  A debate on equalising to at least some degree the game’s revenues would answer so many of the (true enough) concerns about the costs of hosting Tests,  but as ever with the avaricious Big Three, this is too much to ask.

Curiously, one justification for considering the move is that Tests haven’t always been five days in duration, ranging from timeless Tests at one extreme to three day matches at the other.  This is certainly true, but it is a bizarre rationale to suggest how the game was played in the first half of the last century is a template for the future direction, and not one that the likes of the ECB have ever made before.  It seems reasonable on the same basis to look out for other such returns to the past as valid matters for review.  Presumably fast leg theory is also up for a return, along with uncovered pitches and the banning of helmets.  There is nothing wrong with debate, there is everything wrong with mistaking moves over more than a century towards what the game itself felt the most suitable format with some kind of belief in the sanctity of the duration for its own sake.

The series is level, there are five days of Test cricket this week to enjoy in a match where either side can win.  Sport for sport’s sake is never a bad starting point.

 

 

Cape Town: The Five Day Test Strikes Back

Extraordinary finish.  If the advocates of four day Test cricket are feeling a bit stupid right now, it’s because their idea was stupid, is stupid, and they deserve calling out on it at every single opportunity.

Yes, England won this match, but that’s not remotely the point and never was.  Throughout this final day the twists and turns, the likelihood of South Africa heroically batting out a draw or England grabbing the needed wickets captured the attention, not because of hopes for one side or the other, but because it was the very essence of Test cricket.  There is simply nothing like the countdown of overs on the final day of a closely fought match, where the desperation of the batsmen to stay in or the bowlers to make the breakthrough turn the sometimes sluggish pace of Test cricket into a riveting gladiatorial contest.  England winning is irrelevant to the wider point – had South Africa clung on for another 8 overs, it would have been every bit as special.

It’s not that every game is like this, or even that it can be like this.  It’s that removing the possibility of the game reaching the extraordinary heights of which it’s capable is nothing short of epic vandalism from people who ought to know better.  Football has plenty of 0-0 draws, rugby has penalty-fests, but the value of extraordinary sport is in the mundane as much as the exceptional, for without the routine you cannot identify the special.

The memories of this day will be off Ben Stokes dragging England over the line through sheer force of will, ripping apart the tail in the final session.  Zak Crawley’s superb reaction catch to dismiss Anrich Nortje at the second attempt.  Quinton de Kock looking entirely at ease before a shockingly executed shot that opened the door for England to force their way through.  Vignettes of play linger, far more than the individual procession of what happened and when, and it requires the first four days in order to generate the circumstances whereby this can happen.  Stokes himself passionately defended the five day game in his interview afterwards to cheers from those present, and more cheers from those around the world watching.

If it sounds like a love letter to Test cricket, then it’s because it is.  There is nothing wrong with it that requires major surgery to the playing conditions.  It’s not to say there aren’t things that can be done to protect and nurture the game, nor that innovation shouldn’t be considered and implemented if it helps both the popularity and, most important of all, respects the way the game is played and any effect on it.  Day/night Test matches may not be something that appeals to everyone, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the sport itself in the way that amputating 20% of the play does, the way removing the drama of a pitch deteriorating on a daily basis over the full length of the game does.

Add in to that the pacing, whereby a match has space for Dom Sibley to score a patient, disciplined hundred, for Ben Stokes to tee off in pursuit of a declaration, or for Rassie Van Der Dussen to score a mere 17 runs, but over such a length of time and with such skill that so nearly got his team to a precious share of the spoils.

And let’s remember the crowd.  The Barmy Army, all too often the subject of criticism from those sat in front of their televisions, or watching in the ground and having got in for free, they play a part in ensuring the match is played in a lively, and ultimately raucous atmosphere.  They aren’t beyond reproach, they can be annoying to sit next to, but they also spend vast amounts of their own money supporting the team all around the world, and making a material difference to local economies wherever they go.  Those who travel in huge numbers who aren’t part of the Barmy Army, but who travel across the world to do the same thing.  England cricket fans who follow the team are a special breed, and they deserve days like these as much as anyone.

Cricket needs moments that raise it above and beyond the routine.  T20 has its place, and as a means of growing and developing the game it is the ideal vehicle.  But it cannot and must not be the only form viable to those who want to inhabit the game, who want to live the sport, get deep inside it and appreciate every facet of it.

South Africa played more than their part in making this a day of defence of the highest part of the game, they acted as ambassadors for the game of cricket.  The flaws in the international game, and in these two teams are evident, but today it doesn’t matter, for it was nothing more than a response by 22 cricketers to those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  The weaknesses of the two sides can be saved for another day, for right now what matters is the game, the sport, the very existence of and justification of Test cricket.

Test cricket is priceless.  It showed it yet again today.

Cape Town Test, Day Four: Hard Pounding, Gentlemen

There is a temptation to get bored with repeatedly pointing out to the ECB that if this was a four day Test, England would have had to pull out much earlier to try to force a win, and that we would probably be talking about a drawn game right now.  It is a temptation that should be resisted, for the fact that this match is going to go deep into the fifth day, or even finish as a draw is something they don’t want to hear, and will swiftly ignore in favour of their ludicrous plans to hamstring Test cricket once memories of this game have started to fade.  Technically, all results remain possible, and while a South African win appears to be the wildest of fantasies, that is hardly the point – this match is going to go more or less the distance, with the result uncertain.

There is not a single person currently uninterested in this game who would be more interested had there been one day fewer, and a hell of a lot of people who are interested who would be deeply frustrated this evening had this been the bastardised version of Test cricket the governing bodies, the guardians of the game, wish to see.  Never let them forget it, never stop reminding them how their plans have absolutely nothing to do with the health of the sport and everything to do with the health of their bank balances.  Banging on about the same subject is tiresome, but they are hoping for that ennui, that fatigue to be the predominant response.

Going into the fifth day tomorrow, England require 8 more wickets after a dominant first half of the play, and a fine rearguard from South Africa in the second.  If the abiding individual curiosity at the start of play was whether Dominic Sibley would reach his maiden Test century, no one told Ben Stokes, who launched a furious assault from the start, largely but not exclusively against Keshav Maharaj.  Three sixes, including one quite glorious punch back over Dwaine Pretorius’ head took all the pressure off Sibley, who was able to cruise fairly serenely to his century as Stokes smashed his way to 72 off 47 balls.  If his dismissal was a disappointment, the rest of the middle order attempted to maintain the impetus.  Buttler made only 23, but in the circumstances his score was less important than the rate of scoring, and Sibley himself began to up the ante as England closed in on a declaration.

One hundred doesn’t a Test player make, but nor should it be overlooked in a side where centuries have been somewhat rare in recent times.  Sibley might look awkward in his stance, but he played with discipline and to his strengths.  There have been enough players over the years with slightly awkward approaches who have been successful to not discount what he is trying to do, and if he maximises his returns through batting this way, then along with Rory Burns (this could be the crabbiest opening pair England have had in years) England might just have an opening partnership worthy of the name.  Certainly his innings of 133 in 313 balls represents one of the longest innings by anyone not called Cook in several years, and in a side crying out for permanence at the crease, this is welcome in itself.

England’s batting was placed slightly into context by the relative ease with which South Africa batted in their long haul to try and save the game.  While not totally discounting a freak outcome , a world record target of 438 is implausible to say the least, barring Stokes/Perrera levels of ridiculousness tomorrow.  It’s a world record for a reason.  The pitch didn’t remotely misbehave, with debate surrounding whether the ball did more in the sunshine than when cloudy, suggesting that general levels of utter cluelessness amongst absolutely everyone as to why the ball behaves as it does is just as strong in 2020 as all previous years.  Maybe there’s something in it, and if so, England will be pleased as the forecast for tomorrow is to be hot and sunny.

In trying to save a match, every team has at least one player felt to be the one needed to bat long in order to have a chance, and it’s not being too presumptuous to assume that South Africans would have felt that Dean Elgar was that man.  He looked entirely at ease against everyone except, surprisingly, Joe Denly, whose part-time legspin extracted some often vicious turn and bounce from outside the left hander’s off stump.  His dismissal was mildly controversial, England’s appeal for a catch behind being upheld, and on review the tiniest, less than conclusive squiggle appearing on snicko.  If Elgar had been given not out, you’d imagine there was insufficient grounds to overturn him, but he was and so the same principle applied, and realistically there was no other decision the third umpire could have made – which isn’t to say conclusively that he hit it.

It was Pieter Malan who instead became the wall England spent their day trying to breach, without success.  On debut, he batted beautifully, defensively, and rarely appeared troubled at all.  Only the late wicket of Zubayr Hamza gave England cause for celebration, and with 56 overs gone, but the ball just starting to reverse, they were fairly slim pickings in 56 overs.

England will have a second new ball to come, they certainly haven’t bowled poorly, and they continue to have a great chance of squaring the series.  But it hasn’t been easy, and as the man said, we will have to see who will pound longest.

South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Day 3

One of the things I’ve found when writing match reports here is that it can get pretty difficult not repeating yourself after a while. This has certainly been the main issue I’ve had, with the repetitive nature of England’s problems with the bat. All of which made it an incredibly pleasant surprise to watch a day’s play without England’s top order collapsing in a heap and leaving Stokes, Pope, or Buttler with the job of rescuing the game.

The day began with England needing two wickets to clean up the South African tail, and Anderson did so within a few overs. This efficiency is also uncharacteristic of England’s recent performance, with opposition teams scoring just over fifty runs on average against them fpr the last three wickets in the past two years. This was hugely important in the context of the game, because it allowed England a first innings lead and meant that England’s top order wasn’t stuck in the field through the morning session waiting for their chance to bat.

When England did come out to bat this morning, something truly incredible happened: A competent Test batting performance from an England batting unit. Honestly, it was simply a better version of the first innings performance. The batsmen all got starts, but Dom Sibley applied himself and got a well-deserved 85*. When Crawley and Denly did lose their wickets, an Englandbattingcollapse didn’t immediately follow. It was not the most hostile conditions for batting, and the bowling seemed quite tame at times, but England’s batting has been so chaotic in recent years that this seems like definite progress.

A particular point of improvement over England’s past batting has been their performance against South Africa’s spinner Maharaj. Whilst not hitting him out of the attack, England’s batsmen did manage to keep the scoreboard ticking over when they were facing him and have yet to gift him a wicket in this innings.

With the recent proposals by the ICC to change the default format of Tests to four days, I’ve seen the argument made that today’s play would support that idea. A day with few wickets and little drama does nothing to make Test cricket more attractive and profitable around the world, some people have suggested. There is certainly something to this point of view. We’ve all seen flat pitches leading to boring draws which sap the will to live of anyone unfortunate to be watching.

The thing I like most about Test cricket, when compared to ODIs and T20s, is the lack of artificiality. More often than not, the better team in the conditions wins a Test match. Great bowlers are allowed to bowl as many overs as they are able, and place their fielders with few restrictions. Batsmen can typically bat to the farthest limits of their abilities, both mental and physical, rather than swinging wildly at a few deliveries and calling it a day. Allrounders can demonstrate their skills in both phases of the game to the fullest extent. Everyone bats, in every game.

England have been by far the better side in this game, in particular with their bowling which has been able to extract bounce and movement from this pitch. Therefore, it seems absolutely fair to me that they should be able to put themselves in a virtually unassailable position with this innings if they are able to. If this Test were shortened to four days, then they would be not be able to fully establish a winning position due to time pressure and would either have to declare early on day 4 or risk gifting South Africa an undeserved draw. This would not seem fair to me.

On the topic of four day Tests, there were another 4 overs lost from today’s play due to the bowling teams’ lethargy. On a day where South Africa’s spinner bowled almost 30 overs. If you think international teams will be able and willing to consistently bowl 98 overs in a day, then I’ve got a Nigerian uncle who want to get in touch with you about an exciting business opportunity…

Comments on the game, four day Tests, or anything else are welcome below.

Cape Town, Day 2 – International Rescue

In as far as England have been competitive over the last few years, it’s generally been on the back of the bowling attack resurrecting hopes despite modest batting performances.  It is because of those mediocre batting displays that the bowling attack having an off day intensifies the outcome because of a lack of runs in the previous innings, or a lack of anticipated runs in the one to come.  The running joke has always been that England respond to batting failures by dropping a bowler, a gag that has more than some basis in truth.

England’s total of 269 was disappointing, again, but the response from the bowlers was enough to dig England out of the hole of their own making, and while some of the South African wickets were every bit as self-inflicted as in England’s innings, that shouldn’t mean the efforts of the attack need be overlooked or diminished.  There is a notable difference between the negative tactic of bowling dry that England revert to all too often, and one of pressurised containment adopted today.  All of the bowlers were tight, hard to score off, while carrying a threat throughout.  Stuart Broad was outstanding early on, threatening to rip through the top order in his customary way when it’s a Stuart Broad Day, ultimately denied when on a roll by a big overstep that cancelled out a cheap dismissal of Rassie Van Der Dussen who went on to score 68.  Umpires failing to call no balls has become a significant issue in Test cricket, and at least a dozen examples of unpunished breaching of the line were cited around the period in which the wicket was overturned.  Where responsibility lies for this is an open question – clearly the bowler is prime villain as he needs to keep some part of his foot behind the line, but failing to call them unless a wicket falls is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.  It is true that there is greater scrutiny by television, but it seems like umpires are more reluctant to call them in the first place.  The outcome is that no one benefits, which is why it’s hard to comprehend the lack of concern or action by the authorities for something that’s a fairly easy fix.

If asking the umpires to call the no balls is not going to happen, then divesting that responsibility to a third umpire seems the obvious solution.  Bowlers could help themselves by abiding by the line in training, rather than practicing no balls, something they appear to do despite pleadings from the Test arena to the village nets.  But the game too could ensure the law is enforced, and is failing to do so.  Watching a third umpire endlessly replaying whether a fielder has touched the boundary rope while utterly ignoring a simple facet of cricket is a wholly unnecessary frustration.

Of the other bowlers, James Anderson looked far more like himself in this innings than at Centurion, and perhaps his rustiness there should have been forgiven more than it was.  Either way, here was a threat, especially against the tail late on.  Both he and Broad were economical without being wasteful of the ball or negative in line, which forever makes it a puzzle that they don’t bowl like this all the time.  It is always churlish to criticise a pair with a thousand Test wickets between them, but the suspicion that they could have been even better with a greater willingness to go for runs is far from a fringe view.

Of the support bowlers, Stokes was relatively indifferent, but made up for that with four outstanding catches (and a couple of drops, difficult chances though they were) in the slip cordon.  The difference it makes to any team when the close fielders pull off the kinds of snaffles that he routinely does is immense, and something England have been lacking recently.  But it was Sam Curran and Dom Bess who were the relatively unsung heroes – in the former case because he appears to be one of those players who makes things happen.  His dismissal of Quinton De Kock was a superb change of pace that made the left hander look rather silly as he sliced it up in the air.  Many a batsman will have winced seeing someone be so thoroughly outwitted – it never looks good.

As for Bess, he bowled tightly and with discipline, and if he didn’t particularly turn the ball, then on a day two surface that shouldn’t be held against him.  What it did do though was allow the seamers to be rotated while he ensured control – a highly promising performance if he can maintain it.  He tied down Dean Elgar to the point that on 88, he had a horrendous swipe at one outside off stump and was caught at long off, departing the play distraught at his error.  In such cases it is a mix of a bowler earning the wicket and the batsman throwing it away, any observer can decide where they sit on that scale.  Berating the top scorer for getting out is a common pastime, but it did look the kind of mistake enough to cause hair to be torn out by team mates and supporters alike.

The match is relatively even after two days, with England perhaps slightly the ascendant; a tribute to England’s bowling today, and the often comedy batting of both sides.  Weak batting line ups can make for entertaining viewing, but the mooted suggestion of four day Tests isn’t going to be harmed by the inability of either of these sides to bat properly.  The suspicion that this series is going to be won by the least inept batting won’t go away.

South Africa will go into day three 54 behind with just two wickets remaining.  If the wickets fall quickly, that’s a decent lead for England, if the tail can close to within 20, it is of little relevance.  South Africa might have to bat last, but England have to bat next, knowing one more collapse will cost the series.  It is indicative of where we are that followers of both teams have sufficiently little faith in their batting that they all fear the worst.  But today was an enjoyable watch, in itself that is welcome.

 

I’ve Had Enough, I’m Getting Out – Day 1 at the Cape Town Test

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England: 262 for 9 (Pope 56*, Stokes 47 – Pretorius 2/26)

Day 1 at CapeTown always brings back memories for me. I had the absolute pleasure of attending the test there in 2005. It was actually sad to see the area in which I spent four of the five days of that game (yes, it went five days, but if it were a 4 day test, we’d have followed on midway through Day 3). now cordoned off for redevelopment. I do hope the grass bank returns there. It was a great way to watch the cricket.

Anyway, let’s shrug off those memories, and instead focus on today. England chose to omit Jonny Bairstow, while Burns and Archer missed out through injury. Zak Crawley came into open, Ollie Pope reclaimed his place at number 6 and back-up keeper, while Dom Bess gives England a spin option, while Matt Parkinson might be wondering if this paid up working holiday is going to continue with him being ignored. England won the toss and batted.

And within 3 overs Crawley was back in the pavilion, nicking a swinging delivery from Philander. Zak is going to sink or swim here – the last selection of Bairstow over him at Centurion indicated a lack of faith – and he looks like he might get a run if he can just show something in the second innings. I saw him, admittedly a small sample size, at the Oval last year and was really impressed how he handled Morkel. But Philander is a different kind of test animal….

Denly and Sibley then dug in for most of the morning session, before Sibley, who is gradually increasing his output each test, was taken just before lunch when he nicked off to Rabada.  England lunched at 67 for 2.

The afternoon session saw Denly become becalmed, while Root did the advancing of the score. I missed the immediate post-lunch session walking the border collie, and when I came back, Root was out, being undone by pace and gloving the ball to de Kock off the pretty impressive Nortje. He had made 35 of the partnership of 42. 105 for 3. Ben Stokes joined Denly, with those memories of 4 years ago and his double century in lots of people’s minds. But before we could get to grips with any of that, and with no hint, Denly played down the wrong line to Maharaj, left a gap between bat and pad, and was castled. Out for 38, and 127 for 4.

Stokes and Pope then put together a partnership – no not 100+ but at least over 50. Pope is one of those players that looks lovely when he hits it, but gives you a real chance, and he did at the start today. He seems to lunge at spin, play with firm hands, but man, when he drives it, it’s like watching Ian Bell. Stokes started to look really dominating, plonking Maharaj over long on for six, and a dismissive pull for four was a lovely shot. Then, bang, chipped to cover for 47. No reason, no hint, just a chip to extra cover. 185 for 5.

Jos Buttler came in, played aggressively, was dropped off a tough chance at silly mid-off, and then nicked off after a flowery 29. No excuses here, Jos. No protecting the tail and then getting out trying to get fast runs. He has the gloves now, so maybe has a bit more time to go, but there are whispers out there. 221 for 6.

Sam Curran played a good shot, then left one and had his off stump knocked out. 231 for 7. Dom Bess, picked partially for his batting, nicked off to the first ball with the new cherry from Vernon Philander. 231 for 8. Stuart Broad’s Embarrassing Dismissal DVD registered another entry when he was yorked by Rabada with bat behind his pad and his feet beating the retreat. 234 for 9.

Pope then added 28 with Jimmy Anderson, and passed his second test fifty with some deft and inventive shot making. The day after his 22nd birthday he played with great maturity and showed he is someone we can look to the future to. He had some luck when Rabada bounced Pope, who hooked it to Philander only for it to be judged a no-ball by the third umpire. The ball before, when Pope upper cut for four, it was an enormous no-ball I called on Twitter (Sky later confirmed it) and this wasn’t called. Umpires have a really tough job, but that was blatant. Maybe this should just be handed to the third umpire. Pope finishing the day on 56 not out. In the words of Atherton “the one bright spot”

What’s there really to say? Any sense in getting angry about this? A different type of batting failure. Instead of one contribution of 80, and another of 40 with single digits elsewhere, we now have numbers 2-7 all making scores between 29 and 47, with one exception. It’s different. All getting in and all getting out (except Pope, of course, but he got lucky spooning one over mid-on early in his innings).

South Africa bowled well, make no mistake about it, but England are going nowhere in test cricket, especially away from home. I go back, as I always do, to the Pakistan test about 20 months ago when we won, well, but the England innings was a lot like this. No-one was making the big centuries. We were relying on helpful bowling conditions and scratching out 250-350. I said then it wasn’t a template for the future. I shrug my shoulders these days.

You should never judge a pitch until both teams have batted, and bowled, on it, but this feels light. Very light. But let us see….

Over Rate Watch – One over light in the 6 and a half hour’s play today. I suppose we should celebrate that.

So, looking forward to Day 2 (although my watching will be curtailed for Teddy’s annual vet visit). And I will continue to watch wistfully. It is a really, really lovely ground. I miss those days. I certainly remember being well watered by the end of that first day, like the England fans appeared to be during that 10th wicket partnership!

Blatant self-promotion on the “Extra Bits” – On This Day for January 3rd. – I have the next six days covered as well.

Comments on today, and those for Day 2, below.

Five Days in January

Given the news that England are pushing for four day Tests, the worst outcome at Newlands for the ECB would doubtless be a match that went into the fifth day.  Or that would be the case if anyone truly thought that cricketing requirements made the slightest difference in their quest for short term cash.  Still, it would have the advantage of being mildly embarrassing to have them reminded yet again that at least half of Tests do go to the fifth day, and the groundstaff at Newlands are rumoured to be playing their part by preparing a batting friendly pitch.  That being said, unless it’s slow and low, England have shown plenty of aptitude in terms of backing up their board on the pitch by flopping badly with the bat whenever the opportunity arises, so guarantees are in short supply.

England’s biggest doubt (at least until Rory Burns injured himself playing football) seems to be Jofra Archer, struggling with an elbow injury in the build up.  Should he not make it, then a one paced seam attack will be the outcome, and the Archer-meter will veer back to the “essential” side of the display, highlighting yet again that a player is never more valuable than when he’s not in the team.  If Archer is missing it will also postpone any decision about who to leave out from Centurion.  England made protestations about being happy to make the tough decisions over Broad and Anderson, which more than anything suggested they weren’t happy at all about it, though given the difference in performance between the two in the first Test, it’s curious that anyone would think it that hard a decision in the first place.

The main difference is potentially (though apparently not certainly) the selection of a spinner this time around, with the speculation being that Dom Bess is likely to get the nod in the continued absence of Jack Leach.  Not for the first time, selection policy is where eyes roll and heads shake, and in terms of how England handle their spinners, it’s more a permanent fixture over the last half decade or so, as they forever undermine their own processes and their own players.

Will MacPherson wrote a piece highlighting how the mismanagement of Moeen Ali has left England without the option of recalling him this series, and while Moeen’s dropping from the England team last summer was more a mercy than a blow, it is symptomatic of the inability of the management structure to treat players like valued staff instead of commodities that they managed to turn a necessary decision into a mess.  Moeen had and has severe limitations, but in that he is little different to any of the other options who don’t have even his level of Test success to fall back on.  This is forever the conundrum – awareness that the alternatives are unlikely to be any better shouldn’t be a reason to never make a change, but when making that change, to burn bridges with those who have had at least some success is the kind of ineptitude that England appear to specialise in.

That Leach has been poorly for a while is just unfortunate, though it should be noted that his main contributions in his Test career to date have been more with the bat than the ball – a particular irony given Moeen’s status as a batsman and part-time spinner converted into the main slow bowler – re-inforcing the central issue that the dearth of spin in the English game has no obvious resolution in current circumstances.  That those circumstances are self-inflicted by a board who prefer white ball cricket to the challenge of the longer game is a wider point that should never be overlooked.

The more immediate sour taste would be at the treatment of Matt Parkinson, the second spinner in the Test party until illness spread through the squad prior to the first Test resulting in Bess’s call up.  While it’s true that selection shouldn’t be automatic, to select a player in the original squad and then overlook them in favour of someone not even in it originally will hardly motivate Parkinson to feel he’s part of the set up.  That he’s a leg spinner is part of the problem, for England haven’t shown a great deal of faith or management skill in any of the options they’ve had for the hardest of bowling arts over many years, with Adil Rashid being the latest whipping boy all too often, in the press as much as elsewhere.  The revolving door of England spin selection for players not called Swann and over-expectation of what they might achieve has been a constant for a number of years now, with no sign that it will change any time soon.

The batting options were initially confined to a question of whether Ollie Pope comes in for Jonny Bairstow or not.  England have defended the latter with the age old “playing well in the nets” rationale, but Bairstow only played in the first Test due to Pope being ill, so it seems likely he will return to the middle order.  However, the news today that Burns had hurt his ankle playing football set off another round of comment about whether the team should be playing such a sport in advance of matches.  My own view on this is pretty simple – injuries happen in practice, warm ups are necessary in themselves, and  young athletes want to play games.  Wrapping them in cotton wool is neither possible nor desirable.  Players forced to sit around or do gentle sit ups for fear of breaking would go stir crazy anyway, and that’s before the likely increase in muscular injuries without regular and fairly intense exercise.  Shit happens.

For South Africa, the one probable change is the injury enforced omission of Aiden Markram, with Pieter Malan the man tipped to replace him at the top of the order.  Temba Bavuma has been released from the squad and told to go and make domestic runs, so the superbly named Rassie van der Dussen keeps his place.  Having progressively demolished England in the first Test, all is pretty well with the hosts’ camp, an illustration of how rapidly things can change in short order.  The fundamentals of this series haven’t particularly changed, South Africa’s batting is still brittle, and their back up bowling is as much a concern as it was before the series got under way.  But it is indicative of the way one side seized their opportunities and the other wilted under pressure.

Momentum is as irrelevant in a Test series as it’s ever been, but England will have to perform dramatically better in all facets of the game to get back into this, and while it’s possible that they may do so, another defeat will only increase the clamour from the stands and the press box for a plan to improve.  If only the problems afflicting English cricket had been in any way predictable.

He Created The Vibe, He Takes You For A Ride, As If By Design

First of all, Happy New Year. 2020 is off to a real old flyer if the antics of the people running the game are anything to go by. We could be in for a long year.

Specious – seeming to be right or true, but really wrong or false:

Yes, it is a simple post to write. A couple of years ago the four day test was mooted as a solution to a problem that we didn’t know existed – that test cricket was too long. We have not been blind to the fact that they are expensive matches to put on and they aren’t brilliantly supported in various parts of the world, but naturally the people at fault aren’t the schedulers who have knackered the players out from over-playing in all formats, it’s not the fault of the players who have brought the standard of the game down to levels I have a hard time remembering, and it’s not the fault of TV companies who will bid up the cost of TV rights, and want to maximise their advertising revenue. No, it’s your fault. The dyed-in-the-wool lover of test match cricket. YOU just don’t understand.

Look, I could possibly give four day test cricket a hearing if it wasn’t so flaming stupid, if the people proposing it were being honest with us. But that would never do. They would much rather insult our intelligence. All World Test Championship cricket is proposed to be four days, and hey, they are going to bowl more overs in the day. They are seriously proposing that the punters will get 98 overs in a day. If this had been imposed on the second day of the recent test match at Centurion, that would mean playing until two hours after the scheduled close. Ignore the absolutely obvious – you won’t be getting 98 overs in a day unless we have all day-night tests with the play scheduled to start as if it were a day test – but what is that going to do to the quality of play at the end of the day. 6 and a half hours has the players knackered if they’ve been out in 35 degree heat, so, hell, eff it, keep them out for a couple of hours more, why don’t you! And you, the long-suffering fan, you’ll be kept out for a couple of hours more too. Hell, that’s what we want!

Who is demanding this change? Is it the fans? Well, no. I don’t know many people out there who think the main problem with test cricket is its length. The main problem is it is uncompetitive, too in favour of the home team, poor quality, and not enough matches for lower ranked teams as the Big 3 hoover all the cash up and ignore the underlying game. The only thing that lures fans in many countries is limited overs and T20 cricket. Instead of trying to get both to co-exist with test cricket, the authorities deal in the only language they understand. Money. The players aren’t absolved of this too. They frequently state that they want to be test legends, but they wouldn’t trade it for an IPL gig, that’s for certain.

Test cricket does not move at the pace of County Championship cricket which gets in 98 overs most days it doesn’t rain. There are five minute drinks breaks, endless reviews, times to change stuck advertising hoardings. A need to get in the required adverts. England don’t make a secret that they never hope to bowl 15 overs an hour. Selecting five seamers for two tests on the trot showed they don’t care about a dog that doesn’t have teeth.

I’ve been writing some “On This Day” pieces for the Extra Bits (first one here), and really enjoying going through some of the history. Tests have never really been fixed in length, and I’m coming across timeless tests and shorter test matches – but they actually bowled many, many more overs than now. The history makes the sport. The legends. I’ve got Arthur Mailey tomorrow (the only Aussie to take 9 wickets in an Ashes test innings), Kapil Dev on Monday and many stories in between. Test cricket runs through it. Endurance. Toughness. Poor records, great records. Never really forced, most earned. It’s great, but it doesn’t make money here and now. It’s all Premier Leagues. How did that South African one finish? Anyone give a flying one other than their nearest and dearest? Won’t be much T20 in “On This Day”.

It’s easy to poke holes in four day tests, and the logic behind it, but as my colleagues said on Twitter, this is a principle we should adhere to:

Vaughan has been the most prominent proponent of this utter horseshit for a while now, and he is saying it will die without these benefactors coming in to save it. It is dying now because your beloved benefactors and administrators are starving it of oxygen with incessant T20 bilge (yeah, I know people like it, but is it memorable if there are millions of bloody games). If you are struggling to attract people to it due to the change in working environments now, then get creative. People want to see Virat bat in any conditions. Give them a chance. Throw the gates open. Yes, SUBSIDISE it, and if you aren’t subsidising it enough, use the money to prop it up in all countries, not pay players even more for less.

I have no doubt that in 20 years, test cricket will be on its knees. I would hope the authorities would actually care and try to save it, but they are too money obsessed to bother. The Ashes would be an anachronism, maybe carrying on as some peculiar spectacle until we get bored of that. And the authorities, with the ECB pushing over themselves, and not, of course, listening to their paying customers who can just get to hell in their eyes, to say Yes, Yes, Yes (they need these players to play in their lovely Hundred vanity project), we’re stuffed. As I have said for many, many years, I told you so. Do you really think Graves (CBE) and Harrison give a shit what you think? Do you think old #justsaying gives an absolute stuff about anyone who tells him he is wrong. Imagine a supposed 98 over day in Abu Dhabi? A long day in Chennai or Durban? We might be a bit better off with our long summer days, if it doesn’t rain, but the closer to the Equator, or for northern hemisphere teams who play in cooler months, are we thinking this through? Of course not.

Rainy Days – Oh yes. Rain. So we have a closely fought test match. Team 1 has spent Day 1 accumulating tough runs, and finish the day at 245 for 8. They get dismissed for 270-odd but then skittle out the opposition for 180 the following day, but are 50 for 3 at the end of Day 2. It then rains all day on Day 3. 150 ahead with 98 overs to bowl on Day 4. You think the team with the advantage is going to throw that up the wall by allowing the other team a sniff? They’re going to make the game safe first. They’ve worked hard for an advantage so why give it away. Giving advantages up are not what test cricket is about. So they’ll play it safe, and get 300 ahead and give themselves a session to bowl the opposition out. Whereas a Day 5 keeps the game going.

Four day tests would have ended the How Did We Lose In Adelaide test in a bore draw – unless England declared on 450. Old Trafford 2005 would have been killed by Saturday’s rain. The Oval? KP? No, rain on days 2,3 and 4 would have rendered an historic occasion a damp dull washout. Those famous rearguards at Cardiff, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Centurion… no interest. The great theatre of test cricket is time – the pressure of how long you have left, and the immense feats of endurance. I can’t put it any better than Jack Russell. If you cut the marathon to 20 miles it doesn’t make it a marathon. Test cricket should remain five days. You know it, and deep down, if the authorities cared about the game and not money, they know it too. These are specious people. We’ve known it for ages.

New Zealand and Australia also appear on board. This has the hallmarks of a global stitch-up. You ever feel like we aren’t wanted anymore? Those who support the game now. Because I sure as hell do. The insidious question back will be “do you want it to survive” and I’m inclined to say “no”. Not at this price. Those who claim to be its saviours are its killers. Job’s Comforters. Snake Oil Salesmen.

We’ll be back for a preview of the next test match…. Also on “The Extra Bits” see my “On This Day piece for 1 January ( click here). I’ve written the first seven already, Got a bit of a writing bug today.

Happy New Year….

Sometimes I Love, Sometimes I Hide – A Review of 2019

There used to be traditions around here. I used to do a readers’ poll.  I used to give out Dmitris to those deserving of praise, and opprobrium. I used to do a media review. I used to do a lot of things on this blog, and now I don’t. It’s part evolution, part necessity, part the way the cricket world is shaping. I thought in 2014 that the attitude of the ECB was alarming to people like me. Now everything I’ve seen since has convinced me I am right. I wrote with anger fuelling me at it. Sometimes it burns stronger than other times. The quiet periods on here reflect a lack of anger, an unwillingness to say the same thing many times over, and time. Lack of time. My job is intensely busy at times, and the blog takes a back seat. It has to. One has to stay relatively sane, and this blog has driven me mad many times. Far fewer this year, it has to be said.

One tradition is I don’t write short posts. So this one isn’t, but covers, I hope, a lot of ground.

2019 On Being Outside Cricket

As I have written over those nearly six years now, I have seen friends come and go, posters surge in their intensity, and then leave to either take their disenchantment with them, or to go to other places where the heat may be less intense, or there may be more comfort in presenting there. I have seen blogs I like die (particularly sad for 51 all out’s demise, as they were a real inspiration at the start of this long run), and others become something I hoped they wouldn’t. At the end of the day you have to make your own choices, based on your own aims and desires for your blog, and any career. I don’t have to like what you do – but then, increasingly like cricket itself, a curmudgeonly blogger, with an angry streak rarely suppressed, wailing at the dying of the light of the game he love(s)/(d) is not the target audience any more – but it doesn’t mean I’m right and you are wrong.

On preparing for the review of the year one thing did really surprise me. We wrote more posts in 2019 than 2018 – 165 to 140 if you include this post. While comments are down, and hits down a little, we have had many more individual visitors – almost up to peak 2015 levels – which indicates that more people visit, but stay for less interaction. I think a lot of the interaction is taken up by our massively increased follow rate on the Outside Cricket feed, which started the year at around 400, and is now at nearly 2000. Much of this increase fed around one post that resonated beyond belief, and is by a long way the most hit post on this blog in its history. More on “Clubbing A Seal” later.

We passed 1 and a quarter million visits this week, in the middle of the test. While test cricket drives the engine of the blog, and our reviews seem really well received, I think some of the other work, outside of “Clubbing A Seal” has more lustre for the writers. We are usually the worst judge of our own perceived best work, but there seems to be specialisms in all four of your writers here that work to a certain audience. Danny’s madcap Hundred Things Wrong With The Hundred is out of this world for diligence, content, thought process and sheer, utter, madness. Sean’s scoop to get Nick Compton’s pieces, and the sheer agony you have to go through to make those things a reality, as well as his rage at stupidity and injustice add fire and brimstone when it is needed. Chris is the sharper, laser implement, written with elan and reason, and without sounding like a fanboy, I’m dead envious. But I know I can’t write like that, even if I wanted to, which I do. I’m me. Slightly unhinged, extremely thin-skinned, moody and insecure, and yet utterly convinced in what I write, and yet willing to accept I’m wrong. I’m also bloody protective of this blog.

So while Chris wrote so brilliantly about club cricket, while Danny tore the Hundred to shreds, and Sean got Nick Compton to open up, my “finest” hour was arguably the time when I got Russell Jackson, Andy Bull and Mike Selvey to slag me off all on the same day – having got Jim Maxwell to tweet approvingly of the same post. It showed I could still do it, if “it” is getting under the skin of journos. I also still do rage, and following this England team, and this administration, and this media, and this attitude of the collective, then there is no place else for me to go.

On The Field

England won the Cricket World Cup and didn’t lose the Ashes series, although they never looked realistically like regaining them. The World Cup was an oddity. England went into it as firm favourites, with our main fear really being the silly collapse game our high-risk tactics sometimes threw up (see one of the ODIs in West Indies as a prime example). What happened was a seat of the pants end to the group stages, where one defeat in the last two group games against India or New Zealand would have spelled trouble, seemed to focus the mind and two impressive wins were posted. The fear that the final four would be England, India, Australia and one other (probably out of New Zealand or Pakistan) manifested itself, but I know I’m in a minority here, I enjoyed the format. There was enough jeopardy here for England, especially.

The Semi-Final was a joyful romp, and the Final. Well, enough has been written about it and talked about it, that I can’t usefully add to, other than, that, my friends, is sport. It had the occasion, it had the tension, it had the thrilling conclusion, and it would have been great on any stage, but to happen in the Final. Well. You can’t bottle it and release it when you want. It happens. Congratulations to Eoin Morgan and his team, and commiserations to New Zealand. Indian and Australian fans…. you need to get to the Final before complaining about formats. 🙂

The test team have been a bit of a joke, albeit a not very funny one. The first series of the year in the West Indies was laughable, going two down with two shocking displays, and then winning a dead rubber when some of the batsmen decided to turn up, and the West Indies didn’t. The four day test against Ireland was a farce – bowled out for shirt buttons by Tim Murtagh on Day 1, a nightwatchman making 90-odd, and then the visitors being skittled for 38, wasn’t a great advert for test cricket. Sorry, not interested in that sort of cobblers.

The Ashes were entertaining, but in the end we did not make home advantage tell. The first test was classic England. Australia were repeatedly let off the hook, the player we feared took us apart, and then we made an abject effort at batting out time. The second was even-steven until Jofra put the wind up Steve Smith, and Stokes/Buttler made batting look comfortable on Day 5 to ensure the draw, and then a potential win. The lost day’s play will be rued. It should also be an example to the cretins talking about four day tests about how a day’s washout would ruin the games. The third test saw England skittled again for shirt-buttons, just about cling on, and then relied upon a miracle knock, and some keystone cops fielding, reviewing and umpiring, to fall over the line. Theatre of the highest order, test cricket at its best. Sheer, gut-wrenching, gnawing excitement. T20 can’t replicate it. It just can’t.

That result levelled the series, but Australia steamrolled England at Manchester, with Smith taking another double hundred off us. The bowling was relentless, and although England did fight hard, Australia won. The fifth test saw a good England win, but it was a bit after the Lord Mayor’s Show, and still does give us the fig leaf that we haven’t lost at home to Australia for 18 years, even though losing the chance to regain the Ashes should feel like a loss to all England fans, because given form, the next series out there is going to be a whitewash unless something strange happens.

England picked a more progressive looking side for New Zealand, and handed out debuts! The first test was again classic England – let the home side off the hook, let the bottom half of the order run rampant against woeful bowling, and then unable to bat out time to save the game. The second test was hampered by rain, but again, we weren’t really looking like winning it. The first test in South Africa again followed the Edgbaston/Bay Oval formula – get the oppo in trouble, let them off, bat well, then collapse, let the oppo get too many, subside woefully to lose.

I award a Dmitri to the England player of the year, and it’s not a tough choice this summer. Ben Stokes played the two miracle innings, he gave his all, he is the only England player within a sniff of being in a World XI (Root, no). He’s clearly the next captain, he’s the talisman of the side, and I suspect if he were leader his batting would fall of a cliff, he would bowl himself into exhaustion and we’d be wanting him out within two years tops.

You have read my thoughts on the test team, but I’ll leave it at this. We went for a cheap option to replace Bayliss, and he’s looking like a poor imitation of Peter Moores in these early days. Joe Root is not an England captain while there is a hole in my backside, but he’s too important to upset. The decision to prioritise test cricket is a funny one, given it forms the backbone of the TV deal just signed, and the one just concluded, if I were Sky I’d ask why it hadn’t been a priority before (given Australia seemed to balance the two well when they ruled the test world and won three World Cups). 2020 sees us play three more tests in South Africa, two in Sri Lanka, two home series against West Indies and Pakistan, a T20 World Cup, and a tour to India.

The Hundred

I warned you the ECB were like this. I warned you. Convinced of their own magnificence, mistaking diktat for “leadership”, and consensus appears to be if Graves and Harrison agree with each other. Many words have been written on what is wrong with the competition, but that is the red herring here. The issue is your governing body does not give a flying flock what you think about the game. They are evangelical, convinced od their own brilliance, and you, my dear men and women, are mere peasants. You need to be shown the light. That that light will be sponsored by a savoury snack company, will upend the laws of the game, and spend money on advertising that could be going into the grassroots that they are so concerned about, is neither here nor there. This is a power grab by people I wouldn’t trust to turn on a light. The same ethos that ejected Pietersen, popped Cook on a pedestal as a lightning rod, that marginalises the first class game while pretending to revere the sanctity of test cricket, is now selling YOU a pig in a poke, and if it goes wrong, it will be YOUR fault for not buying it, and YOU will be to blame if the game collapses in on itself. Which brings me to Dmitri Number 2….

Harry Gurney

Yes. If I could award a bellend of the year gong, he’d win it. First of all, he’s funny. Just ask him. Secondly he’s right, because he can throw down a few left arm slower balls, and you’re wrong because you want to be him. Thirdly, and this will come as a relief to Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins, your tweet opinions and views are more important and correct because you have more Twitter followers than the person you are arguing against. Fourthly, what Harry writes as a man earning in his bread from T20 and his left arm slower balls, and needs sustaining to maintain his worldwide lifestyle (and fair play to him – if you get paid, go for it) is definitely NOT propaganda, but views from fans who quite like the long-form game, or club cricketers who don’t want to play T20 each weekend is! I mean, you have to get a long way down the periodic table to find something more dense than that proposition.

While being called a muppet by Michael Vaughan was one of my yearly highlights (alongside Andy Bull telling me how it is), and Vaughan is bellend emeritus for his Shiny Toy, Which Way Is The Wind Blowing, Phoenix Insights, Gurney has had a spectacular year. Harry Gurney gets a Dmitri for being himself, his twitter feed is an example of self love, and he thinks pissing off fans is a long-term strategy. Note how many likes I got for a Tweet highlighting Mitch Marsh taking him apart got. Speaks volumes. It wasn’t many for Harry, but it was a lot for me.

Other Dmitris

A Dmitri is an award for being notable, annoying, the best, the worst, or something that hit a nerve. It can be a person or an event, a team or a concept. We have the Mount Cricketmore for permanent residency (semi-permanent as you can be voted off), so I try to make things new, so we don’t have repeat winners of the media and cricketing awards.

This year I have the following Dmitris:

Overseas playerRohit Sharma, who played superbly in the World Cup, and has established himself in the test team, albeit at home against less than the best, but it is pleasing to see. He has young tyros nipping at his heels, but for now he is the man in possession. His batting is also sublime on the eye. As much as Steve Smith was our nemesis, and Shakib-al-Hasan was a beacon in the World Cup (but not so much afterwards), I think Rohit deserves it for his form in both red and white ball cricket.

Best JournoNick Hoult – Another new recipient. Now, cards on the table, I’ve met him twice this year and he’s a really decent chap. Really decent. He is also a damn fine journalist, and I can’t award it to George and Andrew Miller again because I like to mix it up. He gave us cracking insight into the end of the World Cup for press folk, which actually made me have 1% of sympathy for them rather than zero. So good stuff, and an example of how conversing with us, and being open to it, can pay dividends, we hope, to both sides of the coin without either side “giving up their thing”.

Worst Journo – Christ, this is tough. Here’s who it isn’t. Paul Newman. Not this year. I don’t read so much of the stuff put out now, so it is hard for me to call out too many, and the behemoths of Selvey and Pringle are out to pasture, relatively speaking. As Sam Moreshead of the Cricketer knows, when he gets my monthly DM, I despise everything about the Michael Henderson column in The Cricketer, and I learned this weekend, the old bastard is writing a book. I can’t give it to Andy Bull because he at least came on and had a pop. Simon Hughes made an awful faux pas over Sean Abbott, and is a pretty dreadful journo, but I just don’t have the heart. I’m not a fan of Ronay and Liew, but it’s not the cricket writing per se that gets me there. So, I’m going to cop out and not award it unless I get help from you lot. This one is open.

Kusal Perera’s 153 not out – Those who know, know. The innings of a lifetime, and thrilling to watch as a neutral. It may even be beyond Stokes’s effort because it was away from home, although Stokes has the more difficult attack to face. But in itself this innings should never be forgotten, because it was test cricket at its excrutiating, painful, lovely and artistic best. Power and grace as only left-handers seem to be able to do.

Clubbing A Seal – Self reverential maybe, and maybe slightly embarrassed Chris might be, but stuff it. This was important – this post  holds the record for most hits ever on Being Outside Cricket. There were a number of reasons. It was brilliantly written. It struck a nerve with club cricketers across the country (our Twitter follower surge, and feedback proved it). It answered the ridiculous twaddle coming from Harry Gurney and others, eloquently and powerfully. Club cricket isn’t theirs to mess around with, the recreational game isn’t for pros to sneer at. It is there for people to enjoy the game in whichever way they choose, and for the varied people who want to play to get out of the game precisely what they want, with all specialisms (sort of) catered for, which the T20 format just does not allow. Many good parts from it, but this struck a chord.

“The central theme of Gurney’s argument that all club cricket should be T20 or Hundred provoked a strong reaction, and one that he first tried to defend, and then became progressively more sneery about contrary opinion while stating it was just a view. But what it did highlight was a complete lack of connection or empathy with those who play the game for pleasure, and an inability to separate his own career from the wider game. This isn’t terribly unusual, sportsmen who have reached a professional level often have a sense of superiority over those amateurs and a lack of awareness that cricket may not be the central activity in another person’s life – or to put it another way, success in cricket isn’t more important than success in life just because it is their life. It is an odd social phenomenon, and hardly a new one, but the belief that this extra ability allows both greater insight and a position of authority is downright weird. “

In the words of Carly Simon, Nobody Does It Better.

Tom Harrison – It takes a special kind of person to enrage me to such a degree that I record his interviews on TV to enable me to undergo a 15 minute hate session to prep me to write articles on here. I’m only half joking. He’s an evangelical, self-centred, preacher, a man unable, it appears, to brook no counter-argument, no factual evidence to the contrary. If Tom believes it, then it will happen. And if it doesn’t, well we just didn’t understand. If there was one moment that summed up my rage it was the “Well, Wardy” start to a set-piece interview. In two words we knew a number of things. This was going to be soft toss stuff, and Wardy being on nickname terms was intended to show that Wardy had ECB approval to ask the questions. You knew who wore the trousers from then on. Secondly, Harrison knows he as to soften down the rough edges for media consumption, but he can’t stop meaningless management gobbledygook, about pathways, culture and other third rate bullshit. It’s not new. He’ll do it again. He’ll carry on doing it. Graves is stepping down as the boss this year, so let’s hope the new boss gets shot of the CEO, or whatever the hell he is. The Hundred is his folly. He may win the audience war, but was it worth the bad faith, the ignorant besmirching of existing loyal fans to do it? Only time can answer that.

This is more than enough for you to be getting on with, so it leads me to the end of this piece. As usual I would like to thank all those who comment on here, unless they don’t listen to friendly advice, who make the blog what it is. I know fewer of you comment, and it can seem our output is a little bit more sparse, but we all remain committed to write while you read what we say. That’s why we aren’t so discouraged by the hit level, when we see the number of unique visitors each day. I have said many times that I write because I enjoy it (not all the time, but mostly) and that there are people who want to read it. I used to namecheck you all, but I just don’t have that time any more. So thanks to all of you, and hope some of our long lost friends, or those who now comment only on The Full Toss, return.

On that note, and I received an email from him this morning, thoughts out to our commenter in Hawaii, Tom, on the loss of his partner of 21 years. Tom, take your time to grieve mate, and we’ll still be here. It is a sense of pride that we can reach the other side of the world with our posts, and I hope my best wishes (and those of all of us here) can reach too. Take care, mate, and I’ll get back to you on e-mail. I hope you don’t mind, but this was the best way of letting others who have conversed on here with you know.

My thanks also to all the contributors this year, those who wrote guest posts, or who signed up to our Twitter feed, or who just lent us support. I think we still matter, if we ever did. I don’t know how we’ve done nearly five years on here, six including the kick-off with How Did We Lose In Adelaide, but we have. Content drives it. My thanks go to Sean, Danny and Chris. We might not agree on much. We might not like doing that night’s report on the test match. We might wonder why someone else isn’t writing. We may even fall out from time to time. But we keep going, and proud to call them friends and colleagues. I still think we’re the best blog out there, and while I do, I’ll still keep on going on.

So, finally, best wishes for 2020. I’ll do the best of the decade stuff at the end of next year, because that is the end of the decade. We will keep trying until we have no more to give.