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.

South Africa vs England, 1st Test: Omnishambles (Slight Return)

This Test might have lacked one of England’s now iconic 50 all outs, but taken as a whole this match has highlighted once again the deep structural problems in the England team.  Yes, there has been illness, and as a result even those players who were fully healthy by the start of the game were likely undercooked, but as excuses go, this only offers up a plausible response if the team generally performs at a higher level than this.  England don’t, this is more of the same, more of the usual failings.

Putting the opposition in might have been a gamble, but this game wasn’t won or lost at the toss, but in the manner of the performances thereafter.  England had South Africa in trouble at 111-5 and let them get away to a workable total.  This happens all the time, to the point that England in recent times have the highest bowling average of any Test side for the last three wickets.  They followed that up with the normal abject collapse in the first innings losing their last 7 wickets for 39 runs.  Again, so customary, so repetitive.

Having conceded a sizeable first innings lead, England again bowled pretty well initially, only to utterly fall apart as the deficit grew, whether by accident (which lacks discipline) or design (which lacks brains).  And then when given a virtually impossible target, they batted pretty well, but were still needing to rely on a miracle of Headingley proportions to pull off the win.  Those events just don’t happen very often, which is why they’re considered miracles.

And here’s the rub.  We’ve written all this before.  You’ve read it all before.  You’ve screamed at the television watching another middle order player with their feet in treacle throwing their hands at a wide one and getting caught.  We’ve seen Jos Buttler end up holing out because he has no choice but to go into T20 mode when batting with the tail.  That doesn’t for a moment exempt him from the longer term problems of which he is part, but it is another repeat of the same old afflictions and the entirely predictable way this game ultimately panned out.

For South Africa came into this Test match in disarray, and England not only didn’t take advantage, but they were pretty heavily beaten.  Again.  Sickness throughout the squad can be pointed to as a factor, but patience has been exhausted with this team – there’s always a damn excuse for yet another capitulation.

It’s not so many years since England smugly discarded players with Test records the current lot could only dream of on the grounds of preparing for the future.  That future is now, and it really doesn’t look very good at all.  Individual players are still scapegoated, – Jofra Archer before his five wickets in the second innings was getting plenty of stick, a new, raw fast bowler ground into the dirt with a workload more suited to a stock bowler than a strike one; he was mishandled in New Zealand, and then berated for failing to put right all the myriad flaws in English cricket.

Broad and Anderson have been superb servants of English cricket, but they are coming to the end, and they aren’t, can’t be, at the same kind of level they were in years past, and the cupboard is pretty bare. For all their peculiar flaws upstairs for players with so much experience, it’s hard to believe things are going to get better once they’re gone. On the batting front, Rory Burns has shown there is something there to work with, but while the top scoring player should never be singled out, it’s still true that when that top score is 84, the team won’t be winning many matches.  Joe Root and Ben Stokes are the big names in the middle order, but the most solid player in the line up is a 33 year old who responds to a deficit in ability at Test level with sheer bloody-mindedness.  Joe Denly deserves immense respect for extracting every ounce of talent he has, but when he is the one most likely to dig in for the long haul, and a feeling of impending doom with his dismissal is present, it says everything about the level England are operating at.

Even those players who do have the ability have compromised their Test games in pursuit of white ball riches.  Joe Root, however frustrated a figure he cuts when he gets out, is a shadow of the Test batsman he looked prior to attempting to move into T20 leagues, Jonny Bairstow’s technique (never his strongest feature) has disintegrated to the point where the tactics against him have been simplified to either bowling straight or bowling wide and waiting for him to get out.  Jos Buttler shows little sign of becoming a fully fledged Test batsman after nearly 40 Tests.

If the players just aren’t that good, the thinking and the planning at every level of English cricket is worse.  The mentality of the approach is invariably wanting, epitomised by the tactics of bowling bouncers on a surface crying out for the ball to be pitched up.  England do this time and again, misreading conditions, making the wrong call in selection and at the toss.  They are less than the sum of their parts on every occasion, and the antithesis of a team like New Zealand who still manage to compete overall with a fraction of the resources despite their recent hammerings in Australia.  The difference between a side that has a strategy and one wildly thrashing about in the dark is apparent.

It isn’t just about the Test team either.  This is an endemic, systemic issue afflicting the whole of English cricket.  The Hundred in itself is just another form of cricket, the mentality and approach that resulted in its formation though, is another instance of failing to see the wood for the trees.  This is institutional incompetence from top to bottom, and while they can legitimately point to a World Cup victory as proof of a strategy, the response to that of effectively scrapping the domestic 50 over competition was most representative of the utter confusion throughout the administration.

England just don’t learn, English cricket just doesn’t learn.  In this Test match the spirited attempt at a preposterously unlikely target is considered mitigation for the circumstances that led them to need such a low probability outcome in the first place.  Whether it be Stokes or Kusal Perera, the fact that every team is going to be nervous while they’re at the crease doesn’t make it any more likely they’ll turn once a career performances into once a series ones, and hoping for them to do so is a triumph of hope over reality.

Test cricket fundamentals haven’t changed, not even in an era of T20 dominance.  A big first innings score means a team will win a lot more matches than they lose, and for England a big first innings is now 300, not 500.  There are three tours scheduled this winter, as things stand, and even playing teams that aren’t all that great, the distinct possibility of losing the lot is a live issue.  South Africa are a long way from the powerful unit that they have been in the past, but in comparison (and in comparison is the important point here) they look cohesive, well drilled and simply superior.  They didn’t even have to play that well to hand out a drubbing this match.

If the performance of the team itself is a kick to the nether regions of increasingly annoyed supporters, the awarding of an honour to Colin Graves in the New Year list was more of a laughable joke.  The honours system is one that people either approve or disapprove of, and it’s always going to cause ructions when it comes to the individuals chosen.  Yet as usual, it’s a faceless suit that picks up the best gong going in English cricket (a knighthood for Clive Lloyd, a pleasure, isn’t a reflection on cricket in this country), and once again for no apparent reason apart from climbing the greasy pole of the establishment.  It’s not that it is reprehensible as such, it’s that it leaves a sour taste for all those up and down the land doing their level best to ensure the survival of their local club despite the official indifference towards their efforts and in a sport where they are fighting a losing battle, such has been the mismanagement from the top.

Over Christmas news leaked out that England were open to an Indian idea of an annual four way white ball competition, including Australia and one invited country.  There had been suggestions of an additional ICC tournament, nixed by the Big Three on the grounds of insufficient gaps in the calendar, yet suddenly the dollar signs appeared before the eyes of the administrators and at least two of those Big Three seemed to find a space in the diary for it to happen.  That this would be disastrous for the world game is fairly obvious.  That the mendacious, avaricious, self-interested cockalorums in charge of the world game would think it a magnificent wheeze equally unsurprising.

England head to Cape Town for the second Test.  Pope will presumably come in for Bairstow, and if England want to play a spinner it leaves an interesting decision as to which seam bowler to drop.  But it’s still likely to be more of the same – the personnel might change, the coaching staff might change, but the confusion and modest performances continue, along with the excuses.  If there’s one thing that’s improving in English cricket beyond all measure, it is the excuses.  Good work everyone.

 

South Africa vs England: 1st Test, Day 3

Why is an England away Test performance like a Christmas cracker joke?

Because the grim inevitability of disappointment has become so deeply ingrained that it would be infinitely more surprising if they were even remotely good.

One of the hardest things about writing an England match report here is trying not to repeat what you or the other writers have written in past posts. Days like today make this task so much more difficult as England, not unlike an 80s rock band, wheeled out all of their greatest hits.

The day began with South Africa reeling on 72-4, so naturally England’s bowlers all bowled short so that there was virtually no chance of hitting the wickets. It was only when they started bowling full, just before Lunch, that England actually managed to dismiss any South African batsmen. Unfortunately for the tourists, that adjustment was too late and they were already 300 runs behind.

After Lunch, England just had to dismiss the tail in order to chase their high and still-increasing target. So, obviously, they bowled anywhere but at the stumps and let the tailenders add another 98 runs for the last three wickets. This will not be a surprise for anyone who has followed England recently, as they have the second-highest Test bowling average (behind Afghanistan) when bowling for the last three wickets this year.

The third stage of the archetypal England performance, after a feeble batting collapse and a toothless bowling display, is the hope. Against all experience and reason, we still think England can pull off a miraculous rearguard and somehow win the game. Burns and Sibley played well, and put together the highest England opening partnership since Cook and Jennings in 2016. Sibley gave his wicket away with some gentle catching practice to Maharaj, but that was the only wicket the visiting team lost all day. From an impossible target of 376, England now need ‘just’ 255 runs with nine wickets remaining.

It really is the hope that kills you.

Comments welcome below.

Blue Eyes, Blue Eyes. How Can You Tell So Many Lies – Day 2 at the 1st Test (with update)

I warn you. I’m going to vent. For those of you who still care enough.

Because if you give more than two f***s for this test team, I applaud your faith. If you care how they do, I applaud your loyalty. I’m 50 now, too old for blind faith, or to be loyal to such an abusive partner.

The openers failed again. Sibley made his case in county cricket, and has made his case to show that in the top theatre, he ain’t up to it. We had to try. Burns averages, what, just over 30 and is as close as we have to a settled top order batsman. Speaks volumes. Denly battles hard, and is an exemplar for making the most of his opportunity, but it’s a bit like that time when your football team has been beaten 3-0 at home and the tannoy announcer says your defensive midfielder is the man of the match because he ran around a lot and kicked somebody. If Denly is your main positive, you are in trouble. 19 tests, average at 30.

Root can’t carry all before him in the batting, and even Nasser was losing his rag over the captaincy. Stokes, is the best cricketer we have, but he’s ill, his father is seriously ill, and he can barely bowl. Buttler is an enigma still, and probably still will be when he is in the side after 70 tests with two hundreds and a load of 20 not outs. Bairstow was dropped for being crap, then picked again rather than someone who went on a tour for which Bairstow was dropped (Crawley). Seems they’d rather not have given Zak one test too many. Sam Curran has no first class hundreds, so he’s not someone to rely upon. The team subsided from 140 odd for 3 to whatever all out. It’s not new. It’s happening all the time. Frequently. But hey, all we need to do is see an ECB stooge say we care about Test Cricket and the gullible idiots of the press lap it up, alongside the insipid media commentators who care more about looking scrumptious in front of the cameras than actually holding these fools to account – yes, Wardy, I’m looking at you.

Then there’s the Jofra Archer whispering campaign. Built up in July, Shot down by December, as Frank Sinatra might have sung. Pollock is especially all over him. Seems if you have crap body language and aren’t pinging it down at 95 every ball, you are a slacker. Jimmy and Stuart scowl all day at the fielders and have done for a decade, and nothing is commented on their poor attitudes. It’s getting worse, not better. That said, those last two balls from Jofra were naughty. Someone does need to get into his shell on that.

England don’t take test cricket seriously. This team proves it. This squad proves it. This selection process proves it. How can a wicket-keeper batsman with one century in 38 tests move sweetly into a spot when a better keeper, with a century, in Sri Lanka, on debut, is totally excluded for, well, reasons, and you bring back someone you dropped for technical reasons against pace. They’re laughing at us. Their twitter feed is mocking you. The press boys love their paid holidays too much to care whether the real fan is being short-changed. The TV media are goons, cutting costs (notice it’s the South African feed in its entirety), pushing Wardy to the front, and having three people commentating at the same time, when two might have been one too many. Pommie Mbangwa has no reason to make a living out of this, and Mark Nicholas on my screen is as welcome as the blue screen of death on my laptop.

I can’t watch this nonsense much longer. I can’t write the same old same old about a test team that pretends to care, but all messages are that they just want to maximise their earnings, without the increase in performance required. They are about as far away from the ODI team as is possible. We have come to this. South Africa are in utter turmoil. They’ve lost players and will lose more. They are handing us our arses on a plate, but it’s going to be more of the lessons learned, take the positives and play better cricket. Letting Philander bowl you to a stop is not learning. Getting nervous when a batsman hits you hard like QDK did isn’t learning lessons.

You carry on. There’s a lot more rage where this comes from. But maybe a finite supply because the time will come when enough is enough and I get out of this abusive relationship and hand the gig over to those on other feeds who got the journo gigs they so wanted, who turned into the media stooges they sometimes berated, and who look down on the likes of us as mugs who do this for no reward, no wanting a full-time job, and the abuse it sometimes gets us. Why care about something the protagonists, and the people that pay them, don’t give a shit about? Let’s have some more “Big Three + 1” series to make life so much better.

Yes, Amazon (if you followed my Twitter feed you’ll know) have riled me and made me angry, but there’s a lot more stored away. Who are the angry voices out there now, about this test team? Where are they? What are they doing? Why sniff at a five man bowling attack? Why whisper your disapproval of sticking a team in? Where’s the rage? Where is the caring? Do we want to go back to the 80s and 90s of being plucky triers? On the money these guys are getting now?

Have a good one. Comments, if you give a shit, below. I’m handing over to others for the rest of this farce.

UPDATE – Colin Graves has been awarded a CBE. If you aren’t livid, you should be. Chris will be giving our reaction tomorrow, but in the meantime, a preview…

 

South Africa vs England: 1st Test, Day One

A fair to middling opening day to the series all round. South Africa won’t be terribly happy with their total, England won’t be terribly happy with their bowling performance.

If nothing else, it’s set up the rest of the match for anything to happen, for the host’s total is one to get them into the game without being in any way imposing. Equally, England’s ability to fall in a heap with the bat remains undiminished, despite a more patient approach in New Zealand that still resulted in series defeat.

England’s sickness throughout the team dictated at least some of the selection, and Ben Stokes was off the field requiring re-hydration for at least part of the day suggesting he has been suffering the same affliction, adding to what’s been a hard few days for him to say the least.

Two players can be particularly satisfied with their efforts: Quinton de Kock’s counterattack in the middle of the day got South Africa back into the game from a position where they could have disintegrated, while for England Sam Curran was the clear pick of the bowlers. He remains someone upon whom the focus is all too often what he can’t do rather than what he can – he might not be the quickest around, but he does swing it both ways, and does provide control as well. Vernon Philander, for whom this is the last Test series, has never remotely been quick, but he has been an unqualified success at Test level. If Curran were to have a similar impact over his career, he’ll have done alright.

That England had South Africa 111-5 represented their high point of the day. That they failed to take advantage of that position is all too familiar to watchers of England. Sure, illness and the consequent lack of good preparation may be factors in that, but it’s hardly an unusual state of affairs for them to let teams off the hook and today was no different. If there’s one thing that has been abundantly clear over recent years, it’s that a score of around 300 against England is not one that is often shown up to be sub par, and often is enough for a decent lead.

That said, the pitch offered some movement, but it was no minefield either. There’s no reason why England shouldn’t bat decently, except the constant doubt that they are able to put together a big total in any but the most benign circumstances. They have insisted that there is a different batting approach under Chris Silverwood – less helter skelter, more graft – and tomorrow is no bad time to make that obvious.

One constant does remain – despite the extra half hour to compensate for delays, 90 overs still weren’t bowled in the day, with only 82.4 being managed before the close. It is boring to keep highlighting the lack of care or interest from the authorities in enforcing this most basic of requirements, but they could do something about it if they wished, or they could just say what we all think is the reality and that they couldn’t give a stuff. It’s this pretence that 90 is the minimum when it plainly isn’t that grates most of all.

England have one wicket to take in the morning before it’s their turn to bat, and as ever, day two provides a better indication of the direction this match might be taking. After day one, it’s fairly even, albeit England could have had a much better one than they eventually did. Their brittleness with the bat as much as their profligacy with the ball may yet be the decisive factor.

One More Shot, Another Round – 1st Test “Preview”

First up, I hope you all had an excellent Christmas, and best wishes for 2020. The output on here has gone down with our increasingly busy lives, and, it has to be said, the inclination not to go over the same ground too often – the Hundred’s sheer ghastliness could sustain a whole blog, but others have that gig. We are, in the main, an international cricket blog when England play, and that’s what we will continue to maintain even if enthusiasm on repeating the same old same old on the ECB, while cathartic, diminishes.

Secondly, as I’m writing this on Christmas night, this isn’t going to be an in depth preview. The first test has been “switched” from the normal Boxing Day venue of days gone by of Durban to Centurion. My over-riding memories of Kingsmead tests were the pitch doing plenty very early, the team batting first getting skittled, the team batting second clinging on, and the wicket going very flat. I flew out to South Africa back in 2004/5 in the middle of such a Kingsmead test. It would bring hundreds for Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss (who had an amazing series) and the last for Graham Thorpe. England had won 8 straight tests going into that game, I believe. As soon as I touched down in South Africa, we drew. A few days later we lost in Cape Town and the jinx record was maintained. I digress.

There’s been a lot of talk about the wicket, thanks to George’s tweet on Tuesday, but let’s see how it plays. I’ve heard too often about duff wickets that turn out fine. My mantra is most people don’t have a clue what it is going to do – whether you are in Pretoria or in Peckham. Chris Silverwood, showing some early worrying signs, is outwardly saying that he might consider the wonderful no-spinner route that had them hurrah-ing in Hamilton (I’m of the thought that unless the pitch hasn’t been mown for months, or they are playing in an English spring, you consider not playing a spinner, then pick one). I would hope we won’t, but there appears to be a tendency among the England clan now to be the smartest guys in the room. If Leach has recovered enough from his illness, and is able to go five days, he’s the best spinner is available and should play.

I am not going to try to pick the England team. You can read that elsewhere. Leach is likely to miss out through illness, so count out what I said below. Pope has come down with it as well, so he may be replaced by Bairstow. Ben Stokes, and our thoughts must go to him with his father very ill (but appears improving) is likely to play. Anderson returns, but with him there must be a worry now as he breaks down more often than my brother’s old Vauxhall Cavalier (it is the 27th anniversary of that clapped out crate breaking down on the M62 on the way home from Tranmere tomorrow – note Tranmere away on Boxing Day, the bastards. It’s a “short” hop to effing Cardiff this year). Stuart Broad will keep his place, Jofra Archer will have the eyes of the “effort police” on him no doubt, and then it is a question of Woakes, Sam or some mystery spinner. The mystery being his identity, not what he will bowl.

Meanwhile South Africa, 20 or so months on from beating Australia so convincingly in the Abrasive Series, are a team in crisis. Their board has been a shambles, and while Graeme Smith has come in to the fold, with lots of the old greats trying to lend a hand, it remains to be seen if this is an impressive sticking plaster on a horribly infected wound. With things looking to have settled down off the field after a rocky December, the timing of Vernon Philander’s announcement that he will be retiring at the end of this series to take a “Kolpak”, probably at Somerset, is another punch in the gut. In England we’d probably sling him out of the team for that. South Africa probably don’t have that luxury. The irony isn’t lost on me. Back in the 1980s England were on tenterhooks for fear of their players supplementing insufficient income by going on rebel tours. Now, thirty plus years on, England are taking South African players for county cricket. The former had me angry at betrayal, the latter has me sad at the erosion of test cricket (and other international formats) in nations outside the Big 3.

So South Africa need new heroes. Firdose Moonda, who was part of the nonsense that started the demise of the previous head of South African cricket when colleagues were banned from attending South African cricket matches, lays out the new problems:

With two players, Rassie van der Dussen and Dwaine Pretorius, all but certain to make their debuts, and two others, Zubayr Hamza and Aiden Markram, with less than 20 caps to their names, South Africa’s batting is laced with inexperience. Though Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada have played 100 Tests between them, Anrich Nortje has only played two Tests and the back-up seamers, Beuran Hendricks and Dane Paterson, are uncapped.

So. A mightily flawed team, who travel as well as my border collie in a car, play a team being pecked at by an avaricious county structure taking the bribe money from the ECB for the Hundred and spending it on imports, and with rookies, young and not so young, in their ranks. It could be fascinating.

OK. That will do you. I have some thoughts for an end of year wrap up, but they can wait.

Before I go, I’ve not written much, if anything, since the passing of Bob Willis. There’s always something more painful at the loss of your childhood icons, and we all impersonated his run-up as kids. I will never forget watching THAT spell at Headingley. And I watched it all. He was part of why I loved cricket although I was never a bowler. Bob held our bowling attack together, stayed with England, and when he retired, turned into an acerbic, witty, funny commentator and pundit (and having read some of his tour and cricket diaries, he was a very good author/story teller). He introduced me to the phrase “Fred Karno’s Circus” regarding a run out in an Ashes test down under, which had me giggling uncontrollably despite not having the first clue who, or what, that circus was. He was The Verdict, and please, please, please God, don’t try to replace him with Dominic Cork. Please no. Most of all, Bob was a great England man, and why he was not knighted, given current standards, I do not know. He will be really, really missed.

Enjoy the cricket tomorrow, and tonight, when Australia play New Zealand in the Boxing Day Test on that notoriously lifeless MCG deck, and we’ll be trying to keep the reports coming during this test and beyond.

Enjoy the rest of the break. Comments below.

The Graves Who Stole Cricket

Graves1

Every fan down in Taunton liked cricket a lot.
But Graves, who lived in the cave above Taunton, did not!

Now Graves hated cricket! The whole cricket season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

It could be, perhaps, that his ties were too tight.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.

Or that he couldn’t fathom something you couldn’t buy in a store.
That cricket, perhaps, meant just a little bit more.

But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

But, whatever the reason, his heart or his ties,
The fans of cricket were who he did truly despise.

Staring down from his cave with a sour, Gravesy frown
At the warm lighted windows below in their town,

For he knew every fan down in Taunton below
Had a cricket game coming to which they planned to go.

“And they’re happy and joyful,” he snarled with a sneer.
“Tomorrow is cricket! It’s practically here!”

Then he growled, with his Graves fingers nervously drumming,
“I must find some way to keep cricket from coming!

For, tomorrow, I know, the fans all around,
Will wake bright and early. They’ll rush to their ground!

And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
There’s one thing I hate! All the NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!

They’ll sit close together, in tens and in twelves.
They’ll sit in the stands, enjoying themselves!”

And the more the Graves thought of this cricket fan crowd,
The more the Graves thought, “This can’t be allowed!

Why, for seventy-one years I’ve put up with it now!
I must stop cricket from coming! But how?”

Then he got an idea! An awful idea!
The Graves got a wonderful, awful idea!

“I know just what to do!” The Graves said with a hoot.
“I’ll just make a quick ECB tie and a suit.”

So he went to the ground, suitably dressed,
And the foolish cricket bigwigs were very impressed.

Graves said , “There are people who aren’t yet cricket fans,
And to convince them, I have some very cunning plans.

The problem, you see, is that cricket’s too long.
You’ve been playing for centuries, but doing it wrong!

The people think that too much cricket is played.
So the less you play cricket, the more you’ll be paid!”

So Graves sold his idea. Lesscricket, he called it.
And he explained to the bigwigs how they all could afford it.

“There’s less balls, less games, less teams and less players!
But more money!”, Graves added, to answer their prayers.

For the cricket bigwigs all had the same small, slight flaw.
Whatever they had, they still wanted more.

They wanted their hands on all they could get,
Including the bank’s money, so they were all in huge debt.

Graves promised them riches, he promised them cash,
And so the bigwigs did something quite rash.

They gave Graves their key to the players’ room,
Not knowing that Graves meant to cause them their doom.

Graves snuck in to the ground later that night,
With his Gravesy bag and his Gravesy light.

He saw all the Taunton players, all in a row.
“These players,” he gravesed, “are the first things to go!”

Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant,
Around the whole room, and he took everyone present!

It was quarter of dawn. All the fans still a-dream,
All the fans still a-snooze, when he packed up their team.

He went everywhere that night, to Hove and to Kent,
Taking all of the players from wherever he went.

Graves stroked his chin, he was lost deep in thought.
“Where can I hide all of these players I’ve caught?

Perhaps where there are no fans of cricket?
That would be the perfect place to stick it.

No cricket fans to make their horrible noise,
No happy children, no girls and no boys.”

So Graves took them all to Cardiff in Wales,
And he told all the players some incredible tales.

Graves told them, “Ignore the empty stands,
You’ll all make more money without those pesky fans!”

Graves laughed as he returned to the scene of his crime,
As the fans down in Taunton reached waking-up time.

“Pooh-pooh to the fans!” he was gravesily humming.
“They’re finding out now that no cricket is coming!

They’re just waking up! I know just what they’ll do!
Then the fans down in Taunton will all cry boo-hoo!

That’s a noise,” grinned the Graves, “that I simply must hear!”
He paused, and the Graves put a hand to his ear.

And he did hear a sound rising over the hills.
It started in low, but was giving him chills.

But this sound wasn’t sad!
Why, this sound sounded mad!

Every fan down in Taunton, the tall and the small,
Still somehow liked cricket without players at all!

They were angry, and upset, and looking to blame,
The person responsible for taking their game!

He hadn’t stopped cricket from coming! It came!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

The fans all gathered, in their clubs and their porches,
Then went looking for Graves with pitchforks and torches.

Graves, being clever, turned tail and ran,
And he hid in his cave, as only Graves can.

This really wasn’t going the way that he’d plotted.
Graves was really quite sad until something he spotted.

The children in Taunton weren’t playing cricket at all.
They looked puzzled if you gave them a bat and a ball.

With no team to love, no players even near,
Those kids would be fans of something else this year.

Perhaps tennis, or rugby, or hockey, or netball,
But cricket won’t enter their young minds at all.

“Eventually there will be no new fans of cricket,” Graves foresaw,
“The few fans left, I can easily ignore!”

The Graves was so happy. He had cheated and lied,
And now got to watch as cricket slowly died.

His grin was enormous, and some people say,
That his heart grew three sizes that day.

For cricket’s demise filled Graves with great joy,
As he started to think what was next to destroy.

The moral, dear children, is to guard what you hold dear,
And don’t believe all the promises you hear.

Because every single person in an ECB suit and tie,
If their lips are moving, is telling a lie.

 

Merry Christmas from Dmitri, Chris, Sean and myself!

New Zealand vs. England, 2nd Test, Day 5 – Inevitability

It only took me around 2 overs last night to realise there was more chance of Colin Graves turning into a forward thinking and pragmatic administrator than there was in seeing some sort of positive of result in the 2nd Test. Some may rue the early missed opportunities on the morning of Day 5 with Ollie Pope putting down what would be a regulation catch for a full time wicketkeeper (which he is not and should never have been put in that position) and then Joe Denly dropping a sitter off Jofra Archer, but in all reality it wouldn’t have mattered. The pitch was the type of pudding that makes those cricket administrators that actually value the Test game have sleepless nights and of course England’s decision not to play a frontline spinner was made to look just as stupid as we all thought it would.

It’s difficult to know what England have got out of such a small Test series, other than another defeat and it drives me mad that we had 5 games of hit and giggle when a 3rd Test would have been far preferable but that’s what we get these days, a load of pointless white ball games to try and make the tours profitable. It’s a sad indictment of the health of the game. The main headline is naturally that England have failed to win a Test series in 2019 for the first time in 20 years. Again this should be a damning indictment on the ECB, as a so called member of the Big 3; however the ECB have made it plainly clear that they simply don’t care about the longer format of the game, they’d rather con fans into attending a white elephant of a competition that will make a small few richer and many more much poorer. In reality this series was simply a carbon copy of the New Zealand tour of 2018 with the hosts dominating a rather feeble touring team who have yet to work out how to take 20 wickets away from home (hint – dropping your frontline spinner isn’t the answer) and a batting unit that is both inexperienced and shorn of confidence. There may have been talk before the series about learning to bat properly in Test’s again instead of playing an aggressive brand of cricket which can be best described as reckless, but in the end the results have been the same. The best batsmen in the world know how to time their innings in Test cricket and know when to attack and when to defend, but unfortunately England don’t have very many of these, hence the need for the coaches to come up with sweeping statements in how they should approach their innings.

If this seems overly gloomy then I apologise, but I do feel as I did with the Ashes which resulted in another defeat, that the glass is half empty with this team rather than half full. Sure, there were positives that can be taken out of this series such as Joe Root finally regaining the hunger and application to make big runs in Test Cricket. Rory Burns has also cemented his spot at the top of the order and is beginning to look like a proper Test opener, even if he does seem prone to the odd brain fart at times. It was also good to see Ollie Pope make some runs in Test cricket as I do believe he has the talent to be one of our best batsmen in the future, though I would naturally prefer it if the selectors didn’t try and make it even harder for him to succeed by giving him the gloves or moving him up the order away from his natural position. C’est plus change! I can’t though buy into the captain’s statements after the Test series mind, with Root commenting after the 2nd consecutive defeat this year:

I feel like we’re a more rounded team for being out here, we got ourselves in a position in that first game where we could have gone on and put them under huge amounts of pressure, made a big first-innings score just like we did this week.

“It could have looked very different. But one thing I’m really proud of is the way we learned the lessons quickly from that.”

I personally don’t buy into being proud of a team that has just lost another series unless you were running the 1980’s West Indian team or the early 2000’s Australian team close. New Zealand are a good side with a decent bowling attack, 1 world class batsman and a couple of other international class batsmen, but certainly not a team I’d be proud to lose against. Sure, Root has got to say the right things on camera, but I’d have preferred him to look at what they didn’t do well and commit to do these better. Indeed, there were a number of weaknesses that this team displayed and areas that they can improve on. We still can’t perform with the Kookaburra ball away from home, with the England quicks (probably excluding Stuart Broad) looking less than potent; Jofra Archer has in particular had a poor tour and I do wonder whether Root’s overuse of him during the Ashes has led to the fact that his pace has been down all series. England also need to decide on a frontline spinner and to stick with him. I have no problem at all with it being Jack Leach as he is a tidy bowler with the ability to keep things tight and pick up the odd wicket. He isn’t going to run through a team at Test level, but then again, I’m not sure whether we have one of those spinners in the English setup, but we simply can’t be picking 5 seamers in future. There has to be questions around Sibley, Buttler and Denly, whilst the former should be given the rest of the winter despite his struggles in this series, Buttler definitely needs some competition as his statistics don’t smack of Test Match batsman (Ed – Pick a bloody reserve wicket keeper for South Africa for the love of god!) and whilst the latter is improving in the Test format of the game, he is 34 and needs to turn these 60’s and 70’s into a big century to fully justify his inclusion above a younger talent.

So, we head to South Africa and whilst their board are doing the best impression of the ECB, the cricket on the field isn’t going to get any easier. In fact, this winter schedule seems to have been designed to break some of our cricketers especially Ben Stokes (who was asked to do his best impression of David Saker’s bowling manual at times last night), so there is a good chance things could get worse rather than better.

Another series and another defeat is not what we wanted or hoped for to start the winter with; however, it could easily be argued that ECB have got exactly what they deserved. It’s not a particularly pleasant feeling for fans of the national team mind.

Feel free to share any thoughts on the series below.

Curating a Better Egg

Barring a collapse from New Zealand of the kind that England have so often managed to conjure up in these circumstances, this match will probably end in a draw, not least because the weather forecast isn’t overly promising.  The hard facts will then be that England have lost a second successive series in New Zealand, albeit with only two Test in each instance the term “series” is barely justified.

The surface in Hamilton is slow to the point of being turgid, and England have demonstrated they can definitely bat on such pitches, so assuming this game to be a benchmark for the future would be unwise to the point of recklessness.  But it is also the case that in both matches England have at least tried to play more like a Test team with the bat, and if that went rather badly wrong in the first match, it was at least an attempt.  As Dr Johnson once said about a dog walking on his hind legs, it’s not that it is done well, but you are surprised to see it done at all.  Perhaps this is a new approach, perhaps it is indicative that England are taking Test match batting more seriously and without the carefree approach that has seen them fall in a heap all too often.  Or perhaps it’s just a very slow pitch with minimal movement that has allowed them to plod to big total.  Whether the glass is half full or half empty probably depends on how many times someone has cursed at the television over recent years when England are playing away from home.

The upside is that Joe Root will unquestionably be better for a long innings and a big hundred.  Sure, conditions for batting were benign, even if upping the tempo was difficult, but Root’s relatively poor run in recent times appeared less down to a technique that couldn’t cope with faster tracks than someone who appeared to have lost his patience to play long form cricket.  To what degree this was down to his pursuit of T20 contracts is a matter for debate, but it certainly can’t have hurt to be reminded of what it felt like to play a long Test innings and make the kind of personal score almost forgotten by English batsmen.

In the same spirit, Ollie Pope’s 75 is also highly welcome, especially so given his additional role this match as emergency wicketkeeper.  He is a player of promise, and at such a young age there is no reason to assume he won’t learn and develop, meaning his occasional extravagant shots can be forgiven at the present time.

The new coaching set up had insisted that England were going to bat properly in Tests and these two matches have at least shown a willingness to try.  That doesn’t mean the first Test collapses aren’t indicative of pre-existing faults, but at such an early stage, perhaps a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt towards the intention is worthwhile.

What it doesn’t fix is England’s ongoing problems using the Kookaburra ball overseas, but then there are many reasons behind it that are unlikely to be fixed in a couple of Tests in New Zealand, even if there was a firm intention to fix them at all, which remains doubtful.

Slow, low pitches provide the least entertaining conditions for watching cricket, and if the setting is stunning, the cricket has not been.  The game can ever surprise, but anything other than a draw after tonight will be a major one.  Test series should never really be just about learning for the future, but neither should it just be a case of looking at outcome and ignoring at least the possibility of progress, however limited that might be.

The problem is invariably a complete lack of faith in the ECB to truly mean any of what is needed to provide a genuine pathway, but if the ECB’s duplicity in talking up Test cricket while acting at every stage to undermine it, at least they’re not alone in that.  Cricket South Africa have provided an object lesson in Dennis Healey’s first law of holes – having removed the accreditation of cricket journalists for the crime of daring to criticise a highly dysfunctional governing body, they have subsequently tried to justify it, apologised for it while justifying it, mentioned that cricket journalists should only be talking about events on the field, and even got in the ECB favourite of thanking the stakeholders.  They haven’t so much backtracked as crabbed sideways before flipping over and waving their legs in the air in a vain attempt to get back upright.  It remains endlessly fascinating how cricket administration is so appallingly inept that it even fails to reach the limbo level low bar of sports administration generally.

With England due to arrive in South Africa in a fortnight, it offers up the enticing prospect of playing against a team whose governing body is even more crassly incompetent than their own, although in their favour they haven’t yet come up with an entirely new but unnecessary playing format.

Still, first things first – England do have a match to win this evening, and unlikely as it may be, the old favourite of a couple of quick wickets making it interesting will certainly apply.