1st Test Intro – England v India: “Some Writers I Know Are Damn Devils”

England v India

Two of cricket’s “Big Three” meet in a five test series played over six weeks to determine who holds the Pataudi Trophy.

This is what the pinnacle of the game should look like. World Ranked number 1, against the sleeping giant waiting to give the top team a bloody nose. A contest in the offing.

There are many sub-plots to the ensuing drama, tempting, tantalising, invigorating and fascinating.

  • How will Virat Kohli cope after the failure in the tests of 2014 when one could be forgiven for thinking that he was out of his depth?
  • How will the old stagers of Anderson and Broad cope with the furious pace of this series with tests coming on top of each other with little chance of recuperation?
  • How will England’s batting cope with the Indian spin bowling, and seam too, after years of low output?
  • How will India’s batting cope with alien conditions, but potentially less alien given the summer we’ve had?

It should be great. Not only for the ECB coffers, for which this is a bumper year with the Indian TV money, but for the fans. They should be lapping it up.

But yet again there is a hollow feeling. A feeling that it might not just be the players going through the motions at the end of this series. A feeling that test cricket, shunted, like the county championship, to the end of the summer (and May), is going through the motions. And as I’ve said many times on this blog, a sense I am going through the motions too. There is only so much anger left to give. This series might epitomise all that is great in test cricket, but we’ve been let down before. This series might garner huge support for the game, but this is the ECB we are talking about, and while they say test cricket is the pinnacle and the long-form fans are their lifeblood, this doesn’t look like it to me. It’s August before this starts.

In their critique of the US emergency services, Public Enemy could well have been talking of the upper echelons of the England and Wales Cricket Board in this part of 911 is a Joke (which, believe it or not, was once covered by Duran Duran);

They don’t care cause they stay paid anyway
They treat you like an ace they can’t be betrayed

 

Well, the morgue truck, to quote the same song, is getting ready to “embalm the goner” if the stories emanating from the ticket sales outside London are to be believed. It appears as though the English cricket public is not exactly enthused with the test match upcoming and is voting with its feet. It may be prices, it may be an England team that appears in the doldrums, it may be the customer experience isn’t what they want, it may be the barmy scheduling, but there appears to be a serious issue if the world’s best test team, and a home team with a decent chance of beating them, can’t draw in the crowds. Remember when appointment to view was an important concept, you know with certainty of start dates? Good luck Edgbaston, with Days 4 and 5 at the weekend. Good luck all. Edgbaston on Wednesday, Lord’s on Thursday, Trent Bridge on Saturday, Southampton on Thursday, The Oval on Friday. These are your Day 1s. The Oval starts when the kids are back at school, which is terrific (I know it is not unprecedented). It’s little wonder the cricket fan is confused. We know who this schedule caters for, and it isn’t the punter at the gate.

But then, how can I exhort the punter to turn up and keep test cricket alive and so on, when I’ve not been myself. Well, after six years away from the Oval Test, which I attended every year for 15 years, many for multiple days (but not Day 5 in 2005), I am due to be attending the first day of the game, weather permitting, on 7 September. Any BOC’ers there that day, please let me know. This is a decision I’ve made because I’ve just not had the chance to see much cricket this year, and I need to stock up on my photo pool! That I’ve not gone has been due to the lack of comfort at The Oval, the exorbitant prices for food and drink, the increase in test prices (and restrictions on how many can be bought) and that instead of enjoyment, it became an ordeal. The ECB and the hosting grounds would do well to pay attention. Sure, you’ll sell out the Ashes if you held it in a car park, but you are seeing what happens with the other teams. Even India.

But that’s enough of that. You’ll probably get more when I can be bothered with my India series memories.

(Please note that piece was written before the team was announced. The perils of being a blogger writ large)

Focusing on tomorrow and the rest of the summer, this series is, as many are, key for a number of reasons. India do not look like a team that needs the endorsement of others to keep it’s inner assurance, and even a defeat here in England will not shake that. There’s a swagger they have which is in many ways something we should aspire to. There’s too much being the “nice guy” which the English media and many who watch want us to be while still winning.  To me this most manifested itself in the disparaging of the 2013 Ashes performance. Australia, if genuine, are going to find it tough balancing these two objectives.

The swagger, for want of a better word (confidence?), is embodied by Virat Kohli, their captain, but others have it too – Ashwin, Rahane, Dhawan, Rahul, Vijay and even Ishant. This is a really good team playing, possibly, in really alien circumstances. Pitted against English seam they will soon prove if they are the 1986 model, that came here in early summer and tore us apart, or the 2011 model, that disintegrated once the first test was concluded (Rahul Dravid magnificently excepted). The most recent series in England promised much after India’s sensational Lord’s win, but petered out in exhaustion and possibly lack of commitment. India are driven so hard internationally, that it really can’t be reasonable to expect them to have unbridled enthusiasm and unlimited energy for every series. This is what is holding test cricket back. Fresh teams bring fresh cricket. But it’s pile ’em high for boards around the world and damn the quality. The mug punters will still pay.

Back to the contest itself. From England’s standpoint it’s the batting. The bowling will have its question marks, of course, but it’s the batting that worries me. Starting with the captain. Joe Root is now in the land of needing to score centuries, and big centuries, to ward off the critics. We’ve been waiting quite a while, but then you look at Cricinfo and it was the first test of last summer’s series when he made 190. It was two years ago he made 254. There was a 136 in the West Indies series in 2017. Prior to that he made a 124 in India. He’s making a century in nearly every series, just going a couple without one over the winter, and never going more than three innings without making a 50, dating back to the end of the Pakistan series in 2016 and the start of the Bangladesh one that Autumn. Root knows and the pressure is on. But should it be?

England welcome back Ben Stokes for this test match having missed the Pakistan series, but, of course, he’s not going to be around next week for other reasons. Stokes is a key component in this team and will be welcomed back for cricketing needs, but his role also matters in that he will influence both ends of the card in terms of team make-up. Could he be the trusted third seamer to allow England to play two spinners, or do we need to add another seam bowler, possibly at the expense of a batsman.

Keaton Jennings, after the magic beans of the last test where all the pundits sagely nodded to confirm that his technical difficulties were a thing of the past, is the second opener, aka, The Hot Seat. Jennings has good memories of India, where he made a hundred on debut replacing Hameed, but has done precious little since. Another run of failures, and a few more scores for Burns if he gets a chance to play any cricket, might ramp up the pressure some more. I wish him well, if only so that Rory gets to lead Surrey to the championship!

Dawid Malan is the subject of whispers, as he’s not had a prolific summer. It would seem harsh to jettison him but I can’t help get the feeling is that he’s not quite up to it. I’d love to be proved wrong, because Perth didn’t appear a fluke, but there’s the cloud over him. Another century would be welcome.

Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler give the team exciting potential. It’s nice to have some buzz. Buttler was the star of the first series this summer, but he still has a lot to prove in the test game. Bairstow is about as near a thing there is to being a nailed on selection.

Which brings me to Alastair Cook. Now I have to admit, the reaction to anything this guy does now is one of the reasons I have gone off blogging. Cook is the sort of individual player that attracts a reaction far beyond what he manages on the field. Cook should be opening the batting for England until he’s not the best opener there. Be it through bad form, or two others make a compelling case to leave him out, a la KP and Bell forcing out Thorpe. Anything I say on Cook now that isn’t part of the party line is jumped on. There is the Anti-Cook blog nonsense, the failure to recognise that 244 in a less than live rubber isn’t anywhere near the achievement of a 235* in the first test of the series, the back to his best when he isn’t. Cook needs to have a series where he makes more than one century, and the rest aren’t below 40. Cook and Root have a similar hundred problem, remember the former going the best part of two years without one, but Root strings scores together. Cook is still England’s number one opening bat. But me saying that will never be good enough because of how I reacted after Kevin Pietersen. Because I pointed out how long he was going without scores. That he wasn’t back to his best. That he wasn’t a terrific captain. It’s wearing on the soul, but I’m not going to back down.

I have no real comments on the bowling. Anderson and Broad are permanent fixtures until they either get injured or retire, and a third seamer in the absence of Woakes until he’s fit (certainly in England) has hardly put their hand up. Sam Curran might play, but I think it’s too soon. Jamie Porter might play, but isn’t he just another fast-medium home team bowler? If the wickets do something, or we revert to a proper English summer again, then all might be dandy. That’s to be seen.

So what do I want from the five tests? A really competitive series would be great. If this was 2-2 going into the Oval it would be brilliant. India can win overseas against teams stacking pitches in their favour, and Kohli seems right up for this one. Pujara has to have a decent series, and he’s in horrendous form. Dhawan might be too flaky for tests, while it would be great to see what Rahul can do. Then there is my main man, Mr 303, MTTTT (more test triples than Tendulkar), Karun Nair waiting in the wings. Love to see him get a game. The Indian bowlers need to stay fit and bowl well, something they haven’t done on the previous two tours for the duration. Then again, England’s rickety batting may keep India in all the games, and if it comes down to a battle on good surfaces, I think India are well in it. Last time we met at Edgbaston in a test, England posted 700, Sehwag got a king pair, and Pringle criticised Cook for being too slow in his 294, even though we won with a day to spare. We’ve moved on, but we haven’t.

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England v India – Symbolised by The Wall

Comments on Day 1 and the test preview below but for some fun, perhaps you’d like to respond to a few questions below in the comments to get your views. I’m not saying “Have Your Say” because I hate that.

  1. Who wins the series, what score (and why)?
  2. How many hundreds for Virat Kohli?
  3. How many hundreds for Joe Root?
  4. Key player for each team
  5. How many total centuries for England over the five tests?

Finally, Adil Rashid. He may not even play. I have been utterly appalled by the treatment of Rashid this last week. As I see it Ed Smith took the leap, asked Rashid if he wanted to play test matches, Adil said yes and Smith picked him. The county cricket impacts are on Smith, not Rashid. The moaning about Yorkshire is on Smith, not Rashid. The whingeing about stabbing county cricket in the heart are about Ed Smith, not Adil Rashid. You could have fucking fooled me.

The one thing that gets me with our media and pundits is that they never learn. The one thing that riles me is that they bully players, they have their favourites (not many pieces calling for Cook to be sacked, were there, yet Cook believes the media is against him), yet this is following yet another line. Look at who has been sorted out recently – Nick Compton for one. Kevin Pietersen polarised opinion but the media had made up their mind. Now Rashid, who has been in the cross-hairs for two years at least. This has been turned from Rashid picked by a selection committee to play for England when perhaps they shouldn’t have to Adil being a mouthy, mercenary, not all that cricketer who needs to shut up and know his place. By people in houses made very much of glass. I don’t absolve those now who latch on to the Fitzwilliam Foghorn’s piece and say that’s not what THEY mean. Leave off. It’s precisely what you mean, and you know it. Ed Smith has gone out of his way for Adil Rashid. Not good enough to do that, not respectful enough, speaks out when mouth on legs have a go at him, and worst of all, disrespects Yorkshire. It seems strange for Adil to be the hill that Ed Smith dies on, so let’s pick on Adil for a change. 

And he might not even play. (STOP PRESS – HE IS. AS THE ONLY SPINNER)

Comments below.

Crashing by Design – the Adil Rashid Controversy

In the age of social media, outrage is never too far away. Sometimes it’s over a big issue, but very often it’s not, as people work themselves into a frenzy over a matter that no one had considered before to any great degree, let alone got themselves into a moral fury. In such circumstances the usual approach is to shout ever louder, and certainly never consider that someone with a different opinion might have a valid reason for feeling that way. Debate goes out of the window in a cacophony of noise and tempestuousness, and a subject that all told has limited importance suddenly becomes a cause celebre entirely out of proportion to its significance.

So it is with the curious case of Adil Rashid’s recall to the Test team for the first match against India next week. It is perhaps a slightly surprising decision, but it’s not the first slightly surprising decision, and Ed Smith has probably raised more than a few eyebrows with his inclination to think beyond the narrow parameters employed by England selectors over the last couple of years. Certainly, if some of those currently screaming are to believed, he seems to have discarded the “good bloke” (in the opinion of the ECB hierarchy) qualification in England selection that has caused no end of rancour since 2014 and seemed to defy the natural conditions of every workplace in the land. To that end, it has to be said that Smith hasn’t made a bad start. Whether individual selections are agreed with or not is entirely beside the point, his refusal to follow the path of least resistance thus far is actually rather refreshing. Given the criticism Smith has had for his past troubles with other people’s work (and rightly so – the attempted ignoring of that issue is precisely why it keeps cropping up), it isn’t always easy to give credit where it might be due and, in this case as with any selection, no one knows whether it is inspired or destined to fail. But the point is that he has shown himself prepared to take that risk. And you know what? Well done Ed Smith.

Picking a nice safe England side is easy – we can all do it, who the hell needs selectors if that’s the intention? And if the results aren’t good, well, dump a couple and bring in the latest flavour of the month on the county circuit and see if he sinks or swims. Not the selectors fault if the team isn’t good enough, they’ve all had a crack at it. See? It’s easy.

That’s why the selection of first Jos Buttler and now Adil Rashid is in itself something to be praised. Not necessarily in terms of the players themselves, for that is an arguable point, but because it implies a willingness to do more than be confined by the exceptionally messy structure of the English professional game. And herein lies the rub. For the protestations about the supposed “integrity” of the County Championship are laughable when they come from those who have agreed to, and indeed supported, every diminution in importance of what is supposed to be the proving ground for the Test team. Over the last few years red ball cricket has been pushed ever more to the margins, to the point where the bulk of it is played in April, May and September, a situation only likely to deteriorate further once the heart of the summer is given over to whatever format the Hundred ends up with, alongside the T20 Blast that also too must be given priority.

With that being the case, the role of the selectors has become either extremely easy or extremely difficult, depending on which route they go down. If they choose to only select those players who commit to the County Championship, then they lose those who disappear to the IPL (as was the case with Buttler) because that’s when most of the county matches are played until September. Complaining about players doing that is senseless. Cricketers will go where their opportunities are, and this is particularly the case for those who aren’t central to the Test team for whatever reason. If it’s a Ben Stokes, his position is sufficiently secure that it doesn’t matter – he’s in, subject to Her Majesty’s Courts And Tribunals Service – but if it’s a Jos Buttler, by no means safe in Test selection terms, it is an opportunity to maximise the income from a short career given no security in a full central contract. What on earth do people expect? A player to plod along for a relative pittance in the county game in the vague hope of a call up? Perhaps that’s exactly what they expect, yet it is always the case that the expectations of prominent sportsmen and women among the wider public jar utterly with the way they live their own lives. Offer someone a job paying twice the money, and their own loyalty vanishes in a puff of air, with few suggesting they ought to have paid more attention to the social dimension or their responsibility to a wider group.

Thus, the selectors have a dilemma. Choose who they believe to be the best players, and they are open to the accusation of ignoring the County Championship. Fail to do so, and the side they select may not be the best one available. In the case of Buttler, selecting him worked spectacularly well, his batting proving to be a highlight in both Tests against Pakistan, which certainly set him apart from anyone else. Furthermore, his selection was welcomed by the great and the good, despite barely any first class cricket over a couple of years, and with little success on the rare occasions that he did so. Indeed, since 2015, Buttler had played only six Championship matches before his Test call up, yet this was considered more than sufficient to be selected for the England team – or rather, it wasn’t, but he was called up anyway. There was plenty of scepticism about that too, but he did well, and whatever happens with him in the future, Ed Smith can feel pleased and vindicated about his decision. And rightly so too. But here’s the point: Some were uneasy with what that said about the County Championship and those players involved in it, or more pertinently not involved in it. They were subsequently drowned out by the acclaim Buttler received but they weren’t wrong to raise that question, and when they do so about Rashid they aren’t wrong now either. The debate about the merits and indeed existence of the County Championship as constituted are entirely valid matters for discussion, particularly given the concerns over the future of Test cricket, but it needs to be done from a position of consistency and not a scattergun approach based on who the latest shiny toy is.

The ones who really are wrong, the ones who invite irritation and contempt, are those who cheered to the rafters the choice of Buttler as being creative thinking, while raging about the selection of Adil Rashid now on the basis that it undermines county cricket. This is preposterous cognitive dissonance, made worse by their inability to remember what they said the previous week. In that period when Buttler has played six Championship matches, Rashid has played twenty-four, and the last time both played a Championship match was at the same juncture. It is nothing but sheer hypocrisy to approve of one and decry the other. Ah, but Rashid gave up red ball cricket they say, that’s the difference. But is it? If Buttler isn’t playing County Championship matches, then what actually is the difference? Gary Lineker has retired from international football and I haven’t, but we’ve both played the same number of games in the last few years. It isn’t a matter of what people say, but what they do.

To add to that, the structure of the County Championship itself strongly discriminates against spin bowlers anyway. The early and late season fixtures tend to help the medium-pacers who do a bit with the ball (much as Darren Stevens is a legend, it’s not perhaps his particular skills we should be seeking to emphasise) , meaning that the likes of a Rashid are of limited value, and perhaps more importantly, may not even be selected. Why have a potentially expensive leg spinner in the side in a match where the seamers are going to do the bulk of the bowling? In the Division One bowling averages this season, you have to go down to 32nd place before you find a possible England spinner (Amar Virdi) who has bowled more than 100 overs this season. Given the structure of the County Championship now, spin as a choice is thoroughly marginalised, and Rashid is far from the only one pointing this out. English cricket has not been brilliant at producing top quality spin for a very long time – Graeme Swann was a wonderful anomaly – and the endless search for one who can measure up is only made harder by playing the game in conditions alien to spinners until it comes to the main Test matches where they are called upon to perform miracles, and then criticised when they don’t.

It is here important to note what Rashid himself said when he announced his sabbatical earlier this year:

“That [lack of high summer red ball cricket] was a big part of it. Early season, I may not bowl much. A couple of overs here and there. Doing that, I wouldn’t get my rhythm — two overs before lunch, a few overs before tea. That wouldn’t help my confidence. At the stage, I’d just be going through the motions.

“It’s not a permanent thing. It’s for this season, to see how it goes, how it unfolds and what happens. See what my mind says and what my heart feels. If it changes I could be going back to red ball cricket next season.”

Very, very little of the discussion around Rashid’s selection has focused on this issue, at least until today when Jason Gillespie wrote in the Guardian about the matter, implying there was far more going on here than the narrative about a player who simply didn’t want to play red ball cricket any more. What the truth of that is, is going to be a matter of perspective, but it is at least refreshing to read an alternate take on the character of Rashid, and from someone who is in a strong position to reject the lines of those who insist they know more than anyone else, always, just because.

This doesn’t exempt Rashid from blame, for his decision to quit red ball cricket was clearly a disappointment to Yorkshire, and explains some of their misgivings over his call up, with the proviso that as Gillespie says, this is not a straightforward matter. But it does provide a degree of context, as does the at times weird treatment of him by England. He has undoubtedly shown exceptional ability at carrying the drinks, and as a result England appeared to choose him for that role on a repeated basis. When he did play a full Test series, in India, the opprobrium heaped upon him for failing to win the series bordered on the bizarre, and caused more than one or two to question why he was singled out so specifically, particularly when even some members of the media have confirmed that there was a whispering campaign against him. Attacks on his character were many, in a way few others have received recently, and that too must have contributed to his decision to stand down from red ball cricket. There will be some who consider this confirmation of the supposed character flaws but there is little quite so distasteful as the feeding frenzy among certain quarters of the press with someone either they don’t like, or they have been briefed not to like. Casting aspersions as to the motivation behind such behaviour is easy, lazy and dangerous, but it didn’t need that for many to find the persecution of Rashid far beyond what was acceptable from supposedly professional observers.

Selvey is of course one of those – never slow to remind people of his in-depth knowledge, even of golf, and back in 2016 he wrote:

“Rashid, though, is sailing close to the wind with his club and career: there are sceptics about, some with a greater depth of knowledge than most, and his card has been marked.”

This is classic Selvey, the statement that he is far brighter than everyone else, and that he has the inside track. It is highlighted not because it is wrong, but because of how the repeated nature of the attacks are principally on character, with the cricketing ability being secondary to that. Players must fit into the prescribed format defined by others, or suffer public vilification on a repeated basis, and lest anyone try to pretend it’s just about Rashid, it’s been seen far too often with far too many “difficult” players to be coincidental. Naturally, if the player answers back, this is then considered further evidence of the character flaw, as has happened with Rashid for daring to respond to Michael Vaughan’s comments. This is the justice of witch dunking.

The worst part of this is that his selection has been the excuse for this to start again. There is not the slightest thing wrong with considering Rashid of insufficient standard to play for the England Test team, but the highly personal flavour of some of the comment betrays a personal antipathy that is startling to see. Few will believe that Rashid represents the second coming of leg spin in this country, but most will accept that whether it is him or someone else, the cupboard isn’t exactly well stocked with alternatives. His tour of India has been portrayed in many quarters as an unmitigated disaster, which is a curious reading of events. Sure, he was a long way from being outstanding, but he did take more than twice as many wickets as anyone else. To put it into further context, Rashid’s 23 wickets in that series came at the cost of 37.43 per wicket. Not brilliant by any measure, yet the 17 wickets taken by every other spinner combined that England selected came at an average of 62.53. Not only is that a huge difference, but it’s also entirely symptomatic of likely England spinners’ performances in India with the exception of a single tour.

When considering the performances of England spinners in India this century it is hardly a tale of derring do. Rashid’s wicket-taking measures up perfectly well against most others, and his average is certainly not out of kilter with what should be expected. It appears – as with Moeen Ali all too often – that Rashid is berated for failing to perform above and beyond the level that should be expected of England spinners overseas not called Swann.

This still doesn’t mean that he’s the answer, and it absolutely doesn’t exempt him from debate over whether he is sufficiently good to be in the team. Nor does it mean that his selection having given up red ball cricket shouldn’t be worthy of scrutiny, but it does mean a few other things: Praising the left field selection of Buttler and screaming about the one of Rashid is nothing but rank hypocrisy. Failing to consider how we got to the point where a player who plainly wants to play Test cricket gave up the red ball version of the game is an abrogation of thinking and in a parallel universe, Adil Rashid is being praised for answering his country’s call. Lamenting the loss of integrity of the County Championship while simultaneously applauding every move the ECB makes to sideline it even further is both stupid and taking everyone else for a fool too.

Adil Rashid may be a successful pick. He may not. He may not even play, which would be an entertaining irony. Either way, Ed Smith has certainly stayed true to his expressed determination to bring a fresh approach to his role. And the ever lamentable section of the press corps have stayed equally true to their own lack of principles. Only one of those things is a pleasant surprise.

England vs West Indies: 1st Test – Night and Day

In days past, a West Indies tour of England was one to cause a frisson of excitement among the fans, and a tremble of fear among the batsmen.  How times have changed.  The structure of international cricket; the concentration of power and money in the hands of the the three most powerful cricket boards; allied to the endless civil war in Caribbean cricket have weakened the game globally, and in the West Indies in particular.  If South Africa aren’t able to get their best team on to the park because of the financial considerations of the players, then it’s less surprising than ever to see the shadow team that will show up on Thursday afternoon.

The corollary of this depressing state of affairs is that from a ticketing perspective, the Windies aren’t the draw they were, and to that end the scheduling of a day/night Test match at Edgbaston makes sense – the curiosity value alone makes it worth doing from a financial perspective.  The popularity of day/night cricket has been well established in limited overs form, and the opportunity to see it in Test match mode has clearly piqued a lot of interest given the second day is already sold out, with days one and three possibly following. It’s certainly true that in other parts of the world they have proved popular, Adelaide in particular demonstrating that there is an appetite for starting later and making it a night out.

Where England have a particular problem is in the country’s latitude.  The summer evenings tend to be cool, and occasionally downright cold, apart from during the peak summer months of June and July.  But in June and July it doesn’t get dark until 10pm, meaning the night element would consist of slowly fading light and batsmen having nightmares about seeing the ball for more than the brief dusk that is prevalent in more equatorial climes.  With the timetable for this one, had it been played in June, floodlights wouldn’t be needed on a sunny day.

With that in mind, holding a day/night Test during the slightly shorter days of August makes sense, though from the spectator perspective the likelihood is that coats and blankets are more likely to be needed than shorts and T-shirts, particularly given the longer format.  That being said, the match isn’t scheduled to go especially late on each given day, meaning the night element will remain relatively short.  The problem of a longer dusk is still there though, and pink ball or not, it will be interesting to see just how challenging the batting is likely to prove – the experimental county championship matches earlier in the season were rather ruined by rain in many cases.

There have only been a handful of day/night Tests so far, too few to form any kind of judgement on how they will differ (if at all) from “normal” matches.  Certainly the first instance of it involved the ball hooping round corners and batting proving exceptionally difficult, but subsequent games didn’t continue that trend, as ball manufacturers constantly strived to ensure conditions would be as close to the default as possible.  Equally, the different locations in which the matches have been held make passing judgement impossible, and it is this more than anything that provides the intrigue as to how this one will unfold.

The West Indies have played under lights once before, in the UAE, but conditions there are totally different at the best of times, and this will be the first match where a pink Duke’s ball (rather than a Kookaburra) is used.  Given that tends to retain its shine longer, and offers a more pronounced seam, that could yet be interesting for the batsmen.  The possibility of dew in the evening has been mentioned, but this applies only so much as it does in the mornings of late season games, and the bulk of the day will be played during the same hours as a normal Test.  The question will be if conditions materially alter after tea.

Ah yes, tea.  The breaks will retain their traditional names of lunch and tea despite being much later.  Naturally this has attracted comment, but in truth it would have done had they changed it as well.  In Australia the breaks were changed to tea and dinner, which is barely any better, and probably provides amusement to non-cricket supporters who will wonder which other sports have a break for dinner.

To the surprise of few, Keaton Jennings was dropped from the squad, replaced by Mark Stoneman, as the revolving door of England openers not called Cook continues.  If luck in selection plays a part, then being called up to play the West Indies at home counts as being of the good variety, for it represents an opportunity to score rather easier runs than against South Africa or away in India.  What that doesn’t do is answer the question as to whether a player is good enough to play in Australia, but given the mess England have got themselves in over selection for opener, the reality is they are where they are.  It still wouldn’t be a surprise to see someone different opening in Brisbane.

Mason Crane has been called up, which raises questions about Adil Rashid’s future.  England have developed a tendency in the specialist fields of seeking the finished article, discarding players for perceived failures rather than persevering with them.  Rashid hasn’t been exceptional, that is certainly true, but nor has he been a flop – his performance in India was in line with many England spinners there over the years.  Perhaps it might be that Crane is something special, but it’s hard to avoid the nagging doubt that whether or not he plays this time, his career will be one of high expectations and swift removal if he doesn’t win matches single handedly.  As has been observed all too often, it’s debatable whether England would have kept faith with Shane Warne had he been English.

One player returning to the ranks is Chris Woakes, and depending on fitness can be expected to play given how important he has been over the last 12 months.  That might be harsh on Toby Roland-Jones, but Woakes is clearly central to England’s first choice bowling line up.  As long as he is properly fit, and not ECB fit.

The disparity in resources, wealth and playing strength really should make this a foregone conclusion, but the day/night nature of it means that it is a little more uncertain than might be the case.  Whether it is a one off will depend on whether the game itself proceeds relatively normally.

Day/night Tests in England, in late August.  Who the hell knows?

 

 

India vs England; Fifth Test, Day Four

If the third day was chastening, bordering on disastrous, then day four was humiliation.  About the only thing that went in England’s favour all day was that they didn’t lose any wickets in the short session following India’s perhaps belated declaration.

Inevitably when a side receives a flogging of the kind that England did today, there will be a search for someone to blame.  Most likely, it will be the spin bowlers who receive most of it from the media, and of those, it will probably be Adil Rashid who gets it most of all.  The word for this is “scapegoating”, though it’s not the first time the most successful player in his discipline has been blamed for all the ills of a disastrous tour.  By way of illustration, in the last Test Rashid dropped a catch. It happens, it’s in the nature of the game.  As is the possibility that the drop may prove expensive.  But the response from some was to single out that spill as the reason for defeat – because that dropped catch “cost” 150 runs.  In the first place this is of course complete nonsense – if a team fails to create another opportunity then the fault is collective; in the second, Cook’s drop of Karun Nair has cost in the region of 270 runs so by the same method, and given England’s deficit, it must be entirely Cook’s fault.  Preposterous.  And fortunately for him, no one is making that case.

But here’s the point.  All those journalists who mentioned the cost of Rashid’s drop, but failed to do so for Cook’s are pushing an agenda.  There is no other reason and no justification whatever.  It would be grossly unfair on Cook to throw the consequences of a dropped catch on him, which is why this place won’t do it.  But it was and is equally grossly unfair to have done so to Rashid.  Those that did once when it suited but not the other time are a disgrace to their profession.  It is nothing but bullying, and many will wonder why they are doing it.

Cook does bear some responsibility for the debacle, but not so much for the fourth day’s play, where the wheels falling off is something that tends to happen to most sides facing such a battering and to far better captains than Cook.  It is as miserable an experience as can happen on the cricket field.  It was more for the third day, where the approach was one of containment and entirely of containment.  Again, this is not a matter of assuming different actions would have caused entirely different outcomes, for the flatness of the surface meant it was always going to be a difficult task to restrict India.  But by prizing economy over penetration England thoroughly played into Indian hands and made the fourth day even more painful.

Liam Dawson has bowled nicely.  He’s done reasonably well.  He’s certainly maintained a degree of control when looked at on an over by over basis.  But when the opposition rack up a record score of 759 against you, one has to ask what value that control brings.  Bowling a foot outside off stump routinely also offers control, but there’s a reason why it’s not a very popular tactic amongst the better teams.  It’s not to belittle someone who toiled manfully all day, but it is to question what the priority is and should be.

Likewise, it’s unlikely Moeen or Rashid will look back on this innings with fondness, but neither of them bowled especially poorly – though not well, that’s for sure.  The surface made spin bowling unprofitable to begin with – and it seems many have forgotten that Ravi Ashwin, the Ravi Ashwin England have had all kinds of problems against, went for 151 in the first innings for a single wicket. The suggestion that ANY of the England spinners should be taken to task for not vastly improving on that is idiotic.

Some years ago, when Shane Warne retired, Australia went through spinner after spinner in a vain attempt to replicate one of the game’s great bowlers.  Each one who failed to measure up to the impossible was summarily discarded, before eventually press, public and selectors woke up to reality and cut their cloth according to what they had.  Nathan Lyon has been in place ever since; he’s nothing exceptional, nothing special, but he is the best they have and a decent enough performer – and for that matter better than anything England have.

That doesn’t mean England should just give up on their spin options, but it does mean railing at the hideous truth is completely pointless.  Whoever had been selected, the outcome would have been fairly similar.  This is why beating up on the one bowler who has shown an ability to take wickets is more than just unreasonable, it is stupid.  When England won here four years ago, they had Graeme Swann, the best England spin bowler in 40 years.  They no longer have him, and that’s just way it is.  But would Rashid have performed better if Swann had been his partner?  Almost certainly.

One of the questions asked of this site is why we get so angry with sections of the media.  This is the reason why.  Rather than a proper analysis of the whole of the England set up – and yes, that does include the spin bowlers – they single out someone to blame who must never be the captain.  It is fundamentally dishonest.  No one believes Cook is responsible for the whole shambles, but balance does include talking about him too, and not excusing every error, every issue with the strategy, and fixating on players who for all their flaws happen to be the best we have, and without whom the England team will not be an improved one.

Ten years ago Ashley Giles was the England slow bowler of choice.  No one thought he was outstanding, no one thought he matched up to the spinners other teams possessed.  But the cupboard was bare and thus an awareness that the role he performed was done as well as could be hoped for took hold.  The recognition of that dearth of options was considered, certainly, but that is a different question, and one that could be talked about now as well.  George Dobell is one of few who have raised the wider issue.

India did delay their declaration until shortly before the close, seemingly primarily to allow Nair to reach his triple century.  Naturally, this did attract some comment, not the least preposterous of which was how much stick Cook would have got for delaying one for someone to get a triple century.  It perhaps was a little favourable towards an individual landmark than the team position, but at 3-0 and with still an outstanding chance of going 4-0 up, it’s rather easier to justify than in normal circumstances.  In either instance, whether it be Cook or Kohli, such criticism is not reasonable unless it actually costs a decisive win.  In any case, that Mike Atherton still receives criticism 20 years on for declaring on Graeme Hick on 98 demonstrates that all too often people want it all ways.  England have a minimum of 90 overs to bat tomorrow, and if they survive that eight wickets down, it’s unlikely too many Indian fans will be losing sleep over it given the series scoreline.

There is naturally some anger about today, but this hasn’t appeared out of the blue.  The problems have been there and growing all series, and attacking the bowlers rather overlooks that England have only managed to score more than Karun Nair three times as a collective all series.  Whether it be batting, bowling, fielding or captaincy, England have been second best – except perhaps ironically in the last instance, given Kohli’s curious approach.  But for the same reason some of Cook’s poor leadership has been excused when England have been winning (indeed, not just excused, wilfully overlooked or even perversely praised), so Kohli will get a free pass this time.  And to some extent, that is fair enough, for criticism of Cook was swatted contemptuously aside all too often as long as England came out of the game on the right side, so why hold Kohli to different standards?  A recognition that with the win the captain’s own leadership needs to develop is a different thing entirely.

No, the abiding feeling from today, and specifically today, is sympathy.  This was awful, and the England players looked like they felt it with every boundary, every misfield.  Any player is familiar with the feelings of complete powerlessness it creates, the desire simply to get off the field and away from the misery.  When it goes this wrong, everything goes wrong, and the captain is at his wits end.  The anger though, is better directed towards the build up to it, to the targeting of individual players by those who ought to know better (yes Nasser Hussain, you should know better), to the excusing of others to the point that they end up receiving more criticism from those outside cricket than is necessarily fair, in direct reaction to the whitewashing of the chosen one.

The pitch may be benign, but it is the fifth day, and there will be some assistance for the bowlers.  England are playing not so much for pride, but for their dignity, for a batting calamity will rightly evoke memories of the last away Ashes series.  They are certainly capable of batting out the day and claiming a draw, which would be a (very) minor triumph if they manage it.  To do so, they will probably need Cook to bat through much of it, as is often the feeling in such circumstances.  Curiously, he doesn’t have as great record in rearguards as might be expected, although his valiant attempt to stave off defeat four years ago in India remains one of his greatest innings – and not truly in vain given what happened subsequently.  Yet, he remains the prize wicket in these situations, and whatever people may think of him as captain, a skipper’s innings tomorrow would be welcome, and perhaps for himself most of all.

Should they manage it, it must not be portrayed as any kind of vindication.  England are now being hammered by India, and there are a whole series of reasons behind that – not the least of which is that in these conditions, India are simply much better.  But gathering the shreds of the self-respect is no reason for approval, nor is revisionism claiming a 3-0 defeat represents as good a result as England could have wished for.  The trouble is, it’s actually hard to see England managing even that.

Day Five Comments Below

India vs England: 2nd Test, day five

England did at least do cricket watchers at home a favour – in that they subsided so quickly the match was over before many had even hauled themselves on to the train or into the car to head to work.  No watching or listening with irritation, no lamenting a poor performance or berating a poor shot.  Having worked so hard to try and get some semblance of a chance on the final day, it all went wrong within minutes of the resumption.

It would be a mistake to view the events of day five as the reason for defeat; the hole England were in was so deep that it required virtual perfection even to take the game into the final session, but to collapse as badly as they did was not the end hoped for even in a match that they looked destined to lose from the second evening onwards.

There are a few things that can be taken from it though.  Firstly, India’s over rate was astounding, bowling ten overs in the first half hour.  While they were spin bowlers and England were not smashing the ball to all parts, if nothing else it should put to bed any justification whatever for tardy over rates in the wider game.  Teams can do it when they put their minds to it, there is no excuse whatsoever for failing to complete the necessary number in a day.

England seem quite likely to drop Ben Duckett for the third Test.  This smacks of the same kind of panic currently afflicting Cricket Australia.  He’s played only four Tests, and it’s only a couple ago that he was being lauded for how he played in scoring his maiden Test fifty.  If he was good enough then, he’s good enough now, or why pick a young player for the future to begin with if faith isn’t going to be shown? That doesn’t mean that a player is given licence to fail repeatedly, but it’s either a bad selection in the first place or it’s nothing other than panic from the selectors.  Neither reflects well on them, and Jos Buttler is no noted player of spin either.

Likewise, only two Tests ago the media were lamenting England’s spin bowling options and expressing a peculiar wish for them to try an all seam attack.  No matter what the situation there is always a suitable target for blame which never involves the captain, coaches, selectors or administrators.  They are above reproach.  Again, creating what David Warner so gloriously described as escape goats doesn’t help anyone, and it’s not a call to shift blame to others in any way.  England will lose Tests sometimes, and India is a challenging place in which to tour for English teams.  A rational and thoughtful approach in discussing where the shortcomings are is hardly a radical request.  Equally, that doesn’t mean people will agree as to what those are, it is a game of opinions after all.  But it would be far better if there was less flip flopping around and blame gaming towards some individuals and not others.

For this is what grates more than anything else.  It’s not traitorous behaviour to acknowledge that Cook isn’t the most acute captain in the world; he is what he is, and since he’s the skipper then it’s just a question of getting on with it – no one’s perfect.  But instead of any discussion around perhaps how India should not have got as many runs as they did in the first innings, instead everything that flowed from that is dissected and other individuals placed under the spotlight.  The point about the slating the spin bowlers received after Bangladesh is a case in point – the form of Adil Rashid is now being mentioned as a positive.  And so it is – but that was always a possibility anyway, for he’s a talented bowler trying to perfect a difficult art.  He deserves far better than having his character questioned repeatedly when things aren’t going well for the team, yet a pretence that it never happened now he’s doing well is quite obvious.

Consistency from the players is very hard to achieve.  Consistency from those commenting is not.  People can be wrong, and they often are.  Observers on cricket and economists could interchange on each others’ discipline with no discernible difference in accuracy, but it’s not asking too much to hope they would maintain a line and stick to it.

Of course, some will say that Cook gets plenty of criticism on this blog and is he not a scapegoat too?  Well no, because the whole point of that is that the cricket media never so much as whisper that he’s anything but perfect.  Cook is a fine batsman (though not a great, no matter how much some might try to claim it based on volume of games) and his captaincy is certainly better than it was.  But it doesn’t make him immune from comment either, and it is abundantly obvious that absolutely anyone else will be criticised before he ever is.  Virat Kohli received no end of stick for his captaincy from Nasser Hussain while Cook got none.  That’s simply bizarre and an avoidance of comment for reasons unknown, and as ridiculous as Shane Warne slating Cook while refusing to address Australian problems.  That doesn’t for a second mean he should be fired as skipper just because England have lost a game, but it does mean a reasonable analysis of all England’s flaws is the least anyone ought to be able to expect. That doesn’t mean a focus on Cook either, for the principal reason for the loss was the batting collapse, but it does mean that it is one of many areas that could and should be discussed.

Where do they go from here? Although there’s been an attempt to massage expectations so that anything other than a 5-0 defeat can be portrayed as a good tour, there’s not that much between the teams; the size of this defeat is slightly misleading.  England are well capable of winning against this India side, even in alien conditions.  This should be a highly competitive series, and in truth apart from one disastrous session with the bat (day five can be discounted to some extent because of the scale of the challenge) England have competed fairly well.  Cook observed that winning a couple of tosses would help, and although some will see that as making excuses, he’s actually quite right.  England did have the worst of the conditions here, and the toss is important.  It isn’t too hard to imagine that had England batted first here they could be now celebrating a win.

The bowlers have done pretty well overall; although England didn’t have a good day with the ball on day one of this match, that can happen and does happen. They don’t look out of their depth at all, neither the seamers nor the spinners.  Could they be better?  Absolutely they could, but there’s little point in engaging in wishful thinking – England need to cut their cloth according to what they have.  And what they do have is a leg spinner who is a definite weapon, two off spinners who are competent enough, and four seamers (one of whom sits out) who are actually very good.

The batting has been an issue, but not because of an inability to score runs, but because of the tendency – not at all new – to fall in a heap in combination once in a while.  That’s shown by the nascent series batting averages to date, four players averaging over 50, and only Duckett genuinely struggling.  The implication that it’s all his fault is ludicrous.  What England need to do – and there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever why they shouldn’t – is put together partnerships so they compile a good team score.  Easy to say, harder to do, but not something that they are incapable of achieving at all.

India haven’t lost at home since England’s last tour here four years ago, and while it’s a big ask for them to repeat the feat, the idea that England are hopelessly outclassed is nonsensical.  If they play well, they have every chance of levelling this series.  England are not even close to being a great side, but then neither are India.  The overreaction to England wins is nauseating.  The overreaction to England defeats deeply irritating.

All of which means the match review ultimately amounts to one sentence:  England ost the toss, had a bad day or so and it cost them the Test match.   Better luck next time lads.

 

India vs England: 1st Test day three

This particular Test has caused a mild outbreak of panic at BOC Towers, falling as it does during a period when all three of us are snowed under with work during what tends to be our busiest time of the year in our respective jobs.  Add into that 4am start times, lots of travelling and full days and trying to keep abreast of goings on in Rajkot appear to be a little distant.  In my own case, this week has been spent at World Travel Market at Excel, where international goings on allowed me to play a small joke on various colleagues on Wednesday morning:  “Have you seen the news overnight?  Isn’t it extraordinary?”, “Yes it is, I wonder how all the people on the American stands are feeling this morning”, “Oh I doubt they care too much, but 311-4 is a really impressive start”.

England’s 537 all out undoubtedly created scoreboard pressure, on a pitch that was felt likely to deteriorate, but India’s response has been one of outstanding batting and perhaps slightly disappointing bowling.  The seamers have been tidy enough, without being especially threatening while the spinners have been short too often, and badly used in at least one instance.  The stand between Vijay and Pujara was both essential and deeply impressive, slowly getting India back into the match, taking few risks and batting time.  Having reached 277-1, what followed was something of a surprise, for England had shown few signs of being likely to take wickets, only to snare three in little more than an hour.  If nothing else it was a reward for plugging away, and for keeping the scoring rate under control.

High scoring matches often appear to drift for large parts of a given day, as one side slowly claws their way towards parity and the other fruitlessly tries to stop them.  It’s why low scoring matches tend to be consistently exciting throughout, whereas with ones like this the viewer can disappear for an hour or two and come back to see how little has changed in terms of the balance.  The three late ones don’t exactly amount to a clatter, more of a gentle rattle, but they will have caused a frisson of anxiety in Indian ranks and raised the hopes of the English ones.  The pitch so far hasn’t been a dead one by any means, and there is both spin available and some movement off the surface for the seamers and rather more in the air.  It may be simply that both sides have batted well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

While Stokes removed the fluent Pujara, it was Adil Rashid who got the obdurate, yet intermittently attacking Murali Vijay with a delicious googly in his first over back just before the close.  And here is where even Sky felt it reasonable to offer up some criticism of Cook (before Rashid took the wicket, note) for not making more use of him and going to him as the last possible option.  It’s a criticism this blog has made repeatedly, and it’s not a matter of being wise after the event, it’s because there’s absolutely no point in having a leg-spinner if he’s not to be used as an offensive weapon.  England’s plethora of all rounders frees up spaces for luxury players who can bring something different, and a leg spinner is about as different as it gets for an English team.  Yes, he will go for runs, yes, he will be sometimes inconsistent.  But he’ll also get you wickets, that’s the whole damn point.  England have six frontline bowlers in this side, there are plenty of fall back positions should the leggie have a bad day – for him to bowl the fewest of any of the spinners on a pitch that is offering purchase is a waste of resource.

As for the wider question of where this game is going, as things stand the draw appears the favourite, but that is based on how the bat has dominated to date.  The behaviour of the surface is going to dictate much, yet with few signs of radical change to date it’s perhaps wishful thinking to expect it to drive a result on its own over the next two days.  India have plenty of batting still to come but are also a sizeable 218 runs still in arrears.  Should they get remotely close then the pressure will transfer to England as they will be doing nothing other than playing for the draw with the time remaining, while even if they only add another hundred it’s hard to conclude that England would feel safe enough to declare until some time into day five assuming things went well.  But perhaps given the kneejerk response to defeat in the last Test in Bangladesh, that’s still a position England should be pleased with.  The old mantra that they are never quite as good or quite as bad as the press portray them is as true now as it ever was.  All things considered, so far it’s quite even.

Day Four Comments Below

 

Bangladesh vs England: Series Review

England’s defeat yesterday was the most disgraceful thing ever to befall the national team.  Losing to a side who had only previously beaten a much weakened West Indies and Zimbabwe is a new nadir in the national fortunes, for which there is no excuse.

Actually, Bangladesh are an improving side and will trouble most teams at home these days.

It was the spinners’ fault – especially that batting collapse.

Gary Ballance was at fault throughout.

It’s fair to say that there’s been no universal response to the result yesterday, and an awful lot of tiptoeing around the wider issues for the England team as they move on to face India in a five match series where they are very definitely the underdogs. Some of it goes beyond legitimate criticism about particular performances and moves on to existing prejudices in some instances, and what can only be seen as blatant attempts at deflection in others.

There are some things that can be safely said – that England do deserve credit for going in the first place, for a second tour after Australia’s aborted one cancelled for security reasons (even if justified) would have crippled Bangladeshi cricket possibly beyond repair.  Amid the joy of victory, it was notable that a significant number of home supporters made a point of thanking England for coming in the first place.  That it passed off without incident doesn’t in itself justify the decision to go, but it does mean we are able to talk about the cricket itself, and able to revel in the pleasure given to a country that doesn’t exactly get its fair share of good news stories.

It can also be safely said that Bangladesh are a much improved side.  Whatever the shortcomings of England, they will give many teams a hard time in their own conditions – particularly the non-Asian sides.  Cook deserves credit for rejecting an invitation to wallow in the excuse that the surfaces were difficult by brusquely saying “Why wouldn’t you?” in response to a question about the wickets suiting the spinners.  As it turned out, rather than being low and boring in an attempt to scrape a draw, the groundsmen produced result pitches.  And well done them, we had two exceptionally entertaining matches.  Rather obviously, Bangladesh’s bowling strength is in their spin attack, and while Mehedi Hasan’s glorious start in Test cricket is no more a guide to his longevity than Bob Massie’s early matches, it showed that they have the attack to put sides under serious pressure when conditions allow.  That means little when they go away from home, for not a single fast bowler took a wicket for them in this short series, and the prospect of the hard tracks of Australia or South Africa, or the green seamers of England or New Zealand would likely mean they were overwhelmed, but all sides have to begin somewhere, and winning at home is that somewhere.

It’s not just the bowling either; Tamim Iqbal may well love batting against England in particular, but he is a very good player full stop, as is Imrul Kayes, while Shakib Al Hasan is a potent all rounder.  The lower order was too often blown away, but there is plenty to work with here.  They are improving, and all they need is the opportunity to improve further.  If there were to be one good thing to come out of this England tour, then it would be that teams play them more often – for this was their first Test series in over a year.  Too long and simply not fair.

Perhaps in advance of the series there was a degree of underestimation about where they were as a side, although given the lack of cricket, and Test cricket in particular, it’s not too surprising that most observers were short of detailed knowledge.  That they had better players than in the past was known, but it didn’t mean that there was any kind of expectation they would draw the series.  It doesn’t alter the truth that having watched them play this time, there is a recognition that they aren’t a bad side at all now, and that they thoroughly, completely deserved what they got, indeed they perhaps should have won 2-0.  Having lost the first game it would have surprised no one if they’d been badly beaten in the second, a narrow defeat is always hard to take.  That they went after England with a vengeance instead was wonderful to watch.

That doesn’t necessarily let England off the hook for the result, and while it is true that England were beaten by the better side in Dhaka, it’s reasonable to ask whether Bangladesh should have been the better team, even with all their improvements.  It therefore comes down to a question of what England did wrong, how much was forced by Bangladesh, how much was their own shortcomings as players, and how much was underperformance.

What can certainly be said is that by agreeing to play 7 Tests in 8 weeks, and skipping a warm up fixture in India to boot, they brought some of their problems on themselves.  This is the ECB’s responsibility rather than the captain or the coach, for they do their masters’ bidding in terms of the itineraries.  But with no match between this second Test and the opener in India, they were certainly forced to treat this one at least to some extent as a warm up match for India.  That meant resting Broad and bringing in Finn for one of his periodical appearances on surfaces for which he couldn’t be more unsuited.  Whether that made all the difference is neither here nor there; Broad didn’t have an exceptional first Test, but he is an exceptional bowler, and dropping him did weaken the side, no matter how necessary that decision might have been, and how wise it might turn out to have been over the next month and a bit.

The other change was dropping Gareth Batty for Zafar Ansari, and it is here we get to the thorny question of the England spin bowling.  England played Moeen Ali, Batty, Ansari and Adil Rashid across the two matches.  Ansari was on debut, and allowances have to be made for that, while the others have been the recipients of exceptionally strong criticism for their performances.  This is grotesquely unfair for a number of reasons.  Their returns were not bad at all overall, Moeen averaged 22 with the ball, while Batty and Rashid were a touch under 30.  They’re not fantastic figures of course, and certainly nothing like the wicket-taking levels of Hasan or Shakib, but it has to be asked what is expected here.  Bangladesh should be expected to have better spinners than England, in the same way that England can expect to have much better fast bowlers than Bangladesh (which they do).  Likewise, when they get to India, they’ll be facing better spin bowlers than they possess themselves – this is normal and to be expected.  Complaining about it is akin to wishing for golden elephants.  The last time England toured India they had the best spinner England have had in 40 years bowling from one end, and another who in another era would have been a fixture in the team for being the best we had by a distance.  Indeed, a fit and healthy Panesar right now would be a major upgrade on all of the alternatives.  England does not often produce quality spin bowling, and while that is a criticism of the coaching and structure that can and should be made, whining about the positioning of the deckchairs on the Titanic is what it always has been – pointless.

Therefore the only option is to work with what is there.  Rashid is a leg spinner; they have always been prone to bowling a bad ball an over, it tends to be in the nature of them with the rare exception of the very best like Shane Warne.  Even one as good as Stuart MacGill was relatively expensive.  That isn’t to defend his performances, but it is to make the point that if a legspinner is going to be selected in the first place, then some understanding of how to manage that legspinner is needed, plus a decent and realistic level of expectation about what they can and can’t do.  You simply don’t pick a leg spinner if the aim is to dry up the runs, it’s not going to happen.  Cook has shown little sign of understanding how to captain Rashid, who should be considered a wicket taking weapon, who will go for some runs (rather like Finn come to that).  Betraying a complete lack of confidence by having as at one stage six players on the boundary hardly helps the bowler or the team and removes the whole point of having a leggie in the side in the first place.

This is a common attitude problem in the English game, one that goes all the way down to Sunday village cricket, where a seam bowler who gets smashed around the park comes back for another spell later – a spinner suffering the same is lucky to get another bowl three weeks afterwards.  It takes an astute and clever captain, sympathetic to his bowlers to manage it and to make the best use of their assets.  Cook, unfortunately, is not the man to do that.

Moeen overall bowled passably well – he is what he is, a batsman and part time off spinner converted into being the senior slow bowler.  He does let the odd bad ball go down, but the truth of the matter is that people need to deal with that, he’s quite probably the best England have, and is someone who is doing relatively well given where he’s come from bowling wise.  Batty’s recall was frowned upon or approved of depending on perspective, and while he didn’t bowl as well as he might have hoped, even at his best he simply isn’t going to run through an Asian side in Asian conditions.  These players are very used to facing spin – something else that hasn’t been taken into account when berating the bowlers for not being better than they are, while imagining that left at home is a miracle worker who would have repeated Laker’s feat.

If that reads like an extended defence of the spinners, it’s only partially meant that way. They could certainly have bowled better, they unquestionably could have been captained better, but they are players limited by their English upbringing and learning.  The truth is that those who don’t play find their reputations enhanced by virtue of missing a defeat; whoever England select would not change things dramatically, and complaining that they aren’t Graeme Swann is as futile as the years Australia spent discarding spinner after spinner for the crime of not being Shane Warne.

More to the point, if the spinners were average but not appalling – in other words pretty much what could be expected of them, then the attempt to blame them for the match loss and the drawn series is downright peculiar.  It certainly wasn’t the cause of collapsing from 100-0 to 164 all out in little more than 20 overs.  The pundits have a real habit of demanding the heads of the bowlers for batting problems, and it’s much more realistic to point to the batting failures as being key to England not winning this series.  Not one of the top 5 averaged even 30 and they managed just four fifties between them in the series from a combined 20 attempts, with a top score of 68 from Moeen Ali as he and Bairstow attempted to rescue the team from the wreckage of the first morning of the first Test.  Only Woakes, Bairstow and Stokes managed to even score 100 runs over the four innings,while just behind those three in the averages was Adil Rashid, who with Woakes performed another recovery act from the shambles of the upper order.

Put simply, blaming the bowling is simply an attempt to project from the reality of where England went badly wrong – the top order batting.  Cook was poor, Duckett was brand new, Ballance was lucky to be in the team and was extremely poor, Root was poor.  Not many sides can handle the core of their batting malfunctioning repeatedly and go on to win.  And here is the problem for India, for it is hardly a shock to anyone to know that they have superior spinners, but for England to have a chance they need in particular for Cook and Root to step up and score runs – and lots and lots of them.  They are more than capable of course, Root is a fine player and Cook is an exceptionally good player of spin, and for an opener a phenomenal one.  But they could and should be feeling particularly uncomfortable with the way the spinners are getting the blame for not winning a series that was fundamentally about the inability of the England batting to reach 300 in any innings – and only once getting close because the middle and lower order got them there.

Furthermore, of the England players Ben Stokes is the one who can really hold his head up, his bowling was outstanding and his batting was good enough to score more runs than anyone else.  Yet the comment about him largely concerns his behaviour in getting into a spat with opponents.  Stokes is a fiery character alright, but it is peculiar to say the least that this gets attention and criticism ahead of the failures of those above him.  This blog has expressed concern on a number of occasions that a few media types are waiting for him to fail so they can properly put the boot in – nothing has happened which changes that worry, for we know all too well that it has happened before.

Bangladesh can bask in the glow of a successful short series, while England go to India with a lot of questions to answer.  It is to be hoped that some spend time on the questions that matter rather than wishing things were different than they are.  That is nothing but carping.  Whinging.  And if it’s unfair on some of the England players, it’s more than just unfair when it comes to the Bangladesh ones – it’s disrespectful.  This was an enjoyable and hard fought series, and one where a deciding Test would be just perfect.  Bangladesh would be quite strongly fancied to win it.