England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, day two – rampant

There’s a strange contradiction in being the Grumpy Old Men of the cricket blogging world. At the time England were being well beaten in India there appeared to be some kind of denial in many circles about the weaknesses of the team and the personnel. Excuses were made, post facto predictions were changed to meet the reality rather than how it had been seen in advance. Yet with really bad defeats (such as in the last Test) the press piled in, slating all and sundry for an abject display and questioning the very ability of the team to play the game.

Mild observations that sides are never as good or bad in defeat or victory as they seem to be never quite fit the zeitgeist, with kneejerk responses always a more fitting way to meet events. Yet with England today having an exceptional time of it, doubtless the same overreactions will apply, despite little of material fact changing.

England have played well here, but in a similar manner to how they have done so when succeeding over the last few years. Cook batted beautifully yesterday, and drew the sting from some fine bowling. He didn’t carry on for too long today, but can count himself unlucky to say the least to be on the rough end of a marginal lbw call. He deserved a hundred, but as has been pointed out, context free discussion of Root’s conversion problem can apply equally well to an unlucky Cook.

With his removal, Stokes and Bairstow went on the attack. Ah, now there’s a thing. It came off. Both players took some chances, played their shots and changed the context of the day, South Africa unable to contain them as the runs flowed at 5 an over. Outcome is all, for had that calculated risk not succeeded, it really isn’t hard to imagine the plethora of comment about being unable to play at a Test match tempo, preferably blaming current shibboleth, T20. The point there is that those critics aren’t wrong, but nor are they right just to point it out when it goes wrong. Responding to every move on the basis of whether it works or not is no way of assessing whether the strategy is a sound one, it’s a far deeper question than that.

That Stokes batted beautifully is not the point, it’s a matter of whether he (and the rest of the middle order) are given the latitude to fail as well as succeed playing this way. Forgetting the bad days just because today was a good one is as flawed as the other way around. England haven’t changed, nor has that middle order, it’s just that today they batted well in a similar style to when they did badly, and not just when failing spectacularly to save a match.

That’s not to downplay how good today was for a moment, for 353 always looked above par, even before what followed. There were decent contributions most of the way down, it was – as often – a surprise that Bairstow got out, while Moeen Ali took his controversial dismissal on review remarkably well. Toby Roland-Jones will think Test cricket is easy given he scored his runs at a healthy lick before having something of a party in his primary role.  He may or may not succeed as a Test cricketer, but not every player gets to have days like this.

Stokes certainly knows how to be the showman, and the three consecutive sixes that raced him through the nineties to a well deserved century were simply marvellous to watch. Some players simply make you smile or gasp when you watch them. It is those who make the game special, even if the less eye catching tend to be the ones who are more consistent.

South Africa, who had bowled so well on day one, were certainly hampered by the absence of Vernon Philander, off the field to much amusement due to tummy trouble, only for that to die away as it transpired he’d ended up in hospital for tests. His absence was keenly felt on a day where his bowling seemed ideal for the conditions.

If runs and wickets are the obvious measures of success, Joe Root had a good day as captain too. It wasn’t just that every bowling change he made seemed to work, it was also that he appeared to assert his authority as captain. The new ball was being wasted, a succession of pleasant, swinging deliveries from Anderson harmlessly passing outside the off stump. Good for the economy rate, not so much for taking wickets. It’s an observation that has been made before, and all too often considered heresy given it concerns England’s leading wicket taker. It’s curious how some, and only some players are considered beyond criticism. An observation may be right or wrong, but it doesn’t dismiss an entire terrific career either way. Still, Root’s response was to remove him from the attack after just three overs, something Anderson didn’t seem overjoyed about looking at his body language.

But here’s the thing: when he returned later in the innings he was right on the money; hostile, threatening the stumps and the edge, and every inch the bowler any England fan loves watching torment opponents with his skill. Captain and senior bowler could be an interesting dynamic to watch over the coming months, but it seemed here to get the best from him.

It was of course Toby Roland-Jones’ day. The merits of an old fashioned England seamer are often overlooked (yet curiously someone like Philander is lauded for showing exactly the same kinds of skills, albeit at a very high level), and here was someone who, after initial nerves, pitched it up, made the batsmen play and did a bit off the seam. Where he led, others followed, and at 61-7, and with the absence of Philander effectively 61-8, the only question, and surely not a serious one, was whether England would enforce the follow on.

Temba Bavuma has shown himself to be a batsman with good temperament before, and the task of extracting his side from the wreckage was one he seemed to relish. In company with Rabada he at least stopped the rot, a partnership of 53 not enough to change the direction of the match, but one at least to narrow the gap from catastrophic to merely disastrous.

It’s possible Philander will be fit to bat tomorrow, but it will take something truly remarkable to move this game away from what appears an inevitable England win. With some inclement weather around, saving the follow on has to be the first and only aim, but only two days have gone, it’s hard to see how it can delay England long enough to prevent victory.

All of which leads back to the beginning. England have had a great day, but just as the fourth day at Trent Bridge didn’t alter the known strengths in the team, nor does this cover up the multiple flaws. Today went well, and they should win this game. It hasn’t re-written the book.

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day four – Shambles

England were always going to lose this match, the question was whether it would be today or tomorrow, and how they lost it.  The difference between the teams after the first innings was substantial, and probably meant defeat anyway, but with South Africa batting well on the third day, England’s target was always going to be far beyond them.  But how you lose is often as important as how you win, for it demonstrates the qualities of the team in adversity, and the character therein.  England’s abysmal collapse today was entirely predictable (indeed yesterday’s post did predict it) but it’s still disappointing to see the worst fears confirmed.

Amidst the storm of criticism England received after the denouement, it was interesting to note how many of the same people who castigated South Africa for not pressing on and playing shots yesterday now complained that England were reckless today.  The circumstances aren’t the same of course, but the selectivity with which one side can be criticised for playing decent Test cricket (and winning) and the other attacked for failing to do so is indicative of the confused approach so many have got into in this T20 era.

In the first innings England’s wickets didn’t fall because of too many reckless shots, but the attitude was one of a side that didn’t have too much confidence in their ability to defend.  It’s been a regular feature of the England side in recent times, but not exclusively so, they have on occasion batted defensively, even in defeat in India, but the reality is that the middle order are stroke players, and it goes against the grain for them to block.  That middle order is outstanding at counter attacking and ramming home an advantage and is more than capable of changing the direction of a match in a session.  But what looks terrific as a calculated gamble looks dire when a backs to the wall performance is required.  Yet it may well be that those who blame them are looking in the wrong place, for those players have particular strengths, and ones which have been evident as recently as the last Test match, when Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all plundered runs with their attacking approach.  Criticising Stuart Broad for being caught on the boundary this afternoon seems a peculiar line to take for example given the match was long dead by then.  The problems arise when they are exposed much too early, and the loss of early wickets in a paper thin top order is always going to generate disaster in such circumstances.

It’s not to say the middle order aren’t capable.  Moeen batted extraordinarily well in carrying his bat during another dire defeat – to Sri Lanka at Leeds – but having created a role for him in the lower middle order where he is to play freely, it is a bit rich to complain when he does the same thing with the game already lost.  That’s not to excuse him, for it wasn’t a great shot to say the least, but in the criticism of that middle order, there are some short memories about that working superbly only one Test ago.

It is true however that the innings as a whole was spectacularly spineless.  Cook did show how to do it early on, but with wickets falling about him it had the air of being in vain from half an hour into play.  It was a good ball that got him, and an even better one that got Root, but both of them could have survived on another day.  Good bowling yes, totally unplayable no.  In neither case does that make them responsible for what happened (to emphasise the point, they were definitely good balls), but it was still part of the pattern where no batsman (apart from possibly Dawson) came out with much credit, it is merely a matter of degree.  Cook at his very best exudes a sense of certainty missing here, and while others were infinitely more culpable, he will be as disappointed  as anyone not to have gone on.  Mentioning Cook today is in one sense harsh, but it is only from the perspective of him being about the only player in the side who has the concentration levels to bat for a couple of days.  That he doesn’t do it in the fourth innings to save a match that often (not many do) is rather beside the point.  He could, which is why the celebrations for his wicket are always the loudest.  But Cook has always been vulnerable to pace, and outstanding against spin, and South Africa have a terrific pace attack – his record against both them and Australia is markedly lower than against others.  That’s fair enough, for only the very best have no real flaws.  Cook is just below that level, but he is very good and the same applies to him as to others – to look at what he can do rather than what he can’t.

England have gone through opening batsmen not called Cook at a rate of knots in the past few years, and Jennings will be aghast at the gaping hole between bat and pad that led to him being bowled, while Ballance was once again stuck on the crease and lbw on review.  In the first case, England really do have to decide what they are doing with the opening position and show some faith that whoever they pick will learn the role.  In the second, whatever Ballance’s shortcomings at this level, England’s decision to put him in at three, a position he doesn’t hold for his county, and where he struggled last time he was selected, is throwing him to the wolves, irrespective of him apparently being injured this match.  Facing the new ball and being in the middle order are entirely different roles, albeit in this England side the middle order is getting used to it quite quickly.  England are hoping the square peg can be pushed in to the round hole.

If those two appear to be vulnerable to being dropped, the question is who could come in to replace them.  The new schedule for county cricket precludes county championship cricket during the meat of the season, meaning any replacements will not have played anything other than T20 recently.  This was of course pointed out at the time the schedule was agreed, but ignored.  Change will smack of shuffling the chairs on the Titanic, for it’s a big ask of anyone to come in and get used to different format from the off.

The other player who may give way is Liam Dawson.  He is victim of the extraordinarily muddled thinking that passes for selection – he hasn’t proved a success so far, but he’s done about as well as might have been expected given his record.  The dropping of Adil Rashid looked reckless at the time, to now give his replacement the boot so soon would make a nonsense of his initial selection.  It would also – along with the potential less likely removal of Mark Wood, be following the time honoured England tradition of blaming the bowlers for the failure of the batsmen.

Where to go from here?  It should always be said that a team is never so good in victory or as bad in defeat as they seem, and the euphoria of the first Test win was completely misplaced as some kind of barometer for following games.  England’s recent record is so poor that this effort today shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, yet apparently it has.  Putting the boot in when they’ve played as badly as today is nothing but rampant hypocrisy given the excuse making for the last tour, the home defeats last summer, and the pretence that all was well, fully exonerating everyone from the captain to the Chairman.  It’s already been the case that some of our media friends have decided to criticise Root as captain, a mere two Tests into the job, having made endless excuses to this point when it was Cook in charge.  That’s not to pick on Cook either, it is to say that these problems with the England side have been apparent for quite some time, yet some were too busy pronouncing all was well when it clearly wasn’t.  Equally, those problems don’t mean that it’s fine to rip into the whole side just because of today.  Failing to be aware that this happens to the current England – or more specifically, to pretend it hasn’t done because of some misguided cheerleading of those in charge – does a disservice to everyone both then and now, including the players.  This is how England have been for a while, with all the concomitant strengths and flaws.  It is this apparent new found freedom in the fourth estate to say what has been obvious for a long time that grates so much.

For South Africa, this match couldn’t have gone better – and in the absence of Kagiso Rabada as well.  The seam attack had England under pressure from ball one in both innings, and Keshav Maharaj was excellent in support.  Yet as in the first Test, the margin of victory disguised the fact that both teams had opportunities.  There is absolutely nothing to suggest certainty about the outcome of the next two games, although doubtless there will be much discussion around how England change the “momentum” of the series.

After a day like today, it’s hard to know what is more irritating – the performance, or the apparent amazement that it happened at all.  There has been far too much absolving of the past, and so far, far too much criticism today from those who previously stayed silent and pretended the flaws in the team didn’t exist.  This is where England are, and yes they can certainly do better in these circumstances than they have today.  But it’s not new, and it’s not unusual.  A degree of honesty all round about where England have been for the last couple of years wouldn’t go amiss rather than responding day to day.

 

 

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day 3 – Doomed

Barring the kind of sporting miracle that a few always cling to, England will lose this match, probably tomorrow, and it’s all down to their batting performance on the second day.  Today certainly wasn’t the worst England have played – they bowled reasonably enough – but the gap between the sides after the first innings meant that to have even the slightest chance they would have needed something exceptional, indeed to skittle a South African side entirely content to accumulate runs.

There are things England could have done better; certainly the delayed introduction of spin was highlighted by the way Dawson and in particular Moeen took wickets once they were finally used, but any suggestion that this was the difference between winning and losing would be rather extreme.  England toiled hard and bowled well enough in the morning session, but they were always going to be in a situation of trying to limit the damage as much as they could after the initial burst failed to bring results.  South Africa played it exactly right – not for them the abandon of attacking batting, they played as though it was a Test match, taking minimal risks and continuing to build on their already overwhelming advantage.  It was curious to hear the commentators criticising them for this fairly early on.  Despite at the time the best part of three days to go, the desire to see them throw the bat was present on both television and radio.  Perhaps it was a subconscious wish for England to get back into the game, for it is hard to comprehend why with so much time left to play it was remotely in the tourists’ interests to take risks with their position.  Perhaps the influence of T20 has become so pervasive that even observers can’t cope with a team playing decent Test cricket any more, for South Africa were hardly particularly slow – they were simply using the time honoured tactic of grinding England into the dirt.

Elgar and Amla did the damage early on, looking in little trouble as they made a strong position completely dominant.  By the time both were dismissed their team already had enough on the board to be strong favourites even if they’d stopped there, and neither dismissal was expected at the time given their level of comfort.  England did miss one opportunity, failing to spot a thin edge from Amla when on 25, but of their DRS problems this series, that was the least damning – players have missed hearing edges from the dawn of time.  They did get one right when Amla had reached 87, Dawson’s introduction bringing the overturning of a not out decision that was entirely understandable as he advanced down the pitch.

By this stage the surface was showing signs of some wear, if a long way from being unplayable.  The lbw of Faf Du Plessis will have sent tremors of uncertainty through England ranks given how low it kept from short of a length, but for the seamers at least, it was unusual to see the ball misbehave that much.  There was some spin to be had, as should be expected in the second half of a Test match.  Dawson had the advantage of bowling into the footholes to the left handers, but it was Moeen Ali who extracted more life, and looked the more threatening.  Part time offspinner England may consider him, but in the absence of Adil Rashid, he looks by far the more potent of the two spinners on show.  Dawson has done little to suggest he is the future, albeit from three Tests, and there are already whispers that his place might be under threat.  This is unfair because he hasn’t had anything like long enough to get used to Test cricket, or to learn, and should he not be retained then questions should be asked about his initial selection more than his performance, for if he isn’t deemed good enough, why was he thought good enough so recently?

Towards the back end of the innings, Philander and Morkel decided to attack, with Moeen bearing the brunt of their assault as he also took wickets.  In microcosm, this was a good sample of Moeen’s bowling career – expensive but taking wickets at frequent intervals.  His 4-78 represented unusually good figures for a spinner at Trent Bridge, albeit three of the wickets came from attempts to hit him out of the ground.  By that stage though, the target had exceeded world record levels, and with Philander’s departure, that was sufficient to invite the declaration and ask England to bat for a tricky 20 minute spell.

One thing is abundantly clear, short of an unexpected monsoon, this match is never going to be a draw.  England would have to bat 184 overs and if they did that they’d probably reach the target anyway.  Either they reach 474 (they won’t) or they will lose, and to that end to have even the slightest possibility (virtually nil) of winning then a good start was essential.  It so nearly got off to the worst possible start, Cook given out lbw first ball to Morne Morkel before successfully reviewing it.  In truth, it wasn’t a great decision, it always looked high and so it proved on Hawkeye.  But it must also be said it really wasn’t a great shot either – Cook was attempting to clip a good length straight ball through square leg.  He got away with it because Morkel is so tall, but it was a reminder that those who berated Moeen Ali for being caught at point tend to go much quieter when poor semi-defensive or defensive shots are played instead.

For the remainder of the four overs the two openers were under huge pressure.  Cook had another close lbw call against him when he again played across a pretty straight ball, while Jennings just about managed to control an outside edge and push it down in to the slip cordon.  Both these players could do with some runs.  Cook hasn’t been in the greatest of touch in Tests recently, but hardly disastrously so, while Jennings is suffering the murmurs of the press despite a more recent century of the two of them, and is only in his fourth match.  Cook quite clearly has a long fine record, but that observation is about him, it is about the seeming lack of patience with new players and the immediate pressure placed on them to succeed.  Cook had faith placed in him at various stages of his career, and perhaps dividends would be reaped if others received half that faith.  England are becoming very careless with opening batsmen.

They got through it, one way or another, and England can at least begin day four with all ten wickets intact.  It is hard to see anything other than a South Africa win, and a convincing one.  If England bat as they did in the first innings, it could be over in short order, but at least with Cook still there they have someone who could bat long and keep the game alive.  He’s not alone in that for the inexperienced Jennings has the temperament to do so, and so could Gary Ballance.  In the last case he really needs it.  Ballance does suffer in terms of perception from being anything but elegant, and this series he’s batted reasonably and not looked out of his depth, but without ever going on to make a score.

England could do themselves a big favour, even in defeat, by making a decent fist of their run chase.  There are question marks over their defensive techniques as a collective, and their ability to bat for long periods.  Falling over in a heap would make those criticisms louder and highlight to the opposition what they must already suspect – keep England subdued and they’ll get themselves out.  For England to come out of this match with their heads held high, they really need Alastair Cook to lead the way.

The trouble is, it’s all too easy to see England being all out by tea.

 

England vs South Africa: 1st Test, Day 3

Not a great deal has gone right for South Africa this Test. Much of it is self-inflicted, whether that be missed catches, missed reviews or players getting themselves banned for a game for swearing at poor, innocent Ben Stokes who has definitely never done anything of that kind himself. But when it rains, it pours (and no doubt they are scanning the heavens in hope), and the loss of Vernon Philander from the bowling attack due to a painful blow received from Anderson while batting has serious repercussions for a side that only went in to the game with four bowlers.

It is perhaps fortunate to some extent that spin looks the most likely wicket taking option, but JP Duminy, forced to bowl a lot of overs, is not the greatest threat the England batsmen will face this summer.

The third day of a Test is often known as Moving Day, for it is then that the direction of the match starts to become clear. That’s true enough at Lords too, but the movement has been slow and at times somewhat turgid. It’s not the fault of the players, in keeping with recent years this pitch is a slow one, and not conducive to exhilarating strokeplay, and the match position has forced the hands of the teams to a fair extent too.

England finish the third day totally dominant, 200 runs ahead, with nine wickets in hand and two days left to try and force a result on a pitch that is taking considerable amounts of spin – albeit slowly. That’s not to say that South Africa have had a disastrous day, more that they have been slowly throttled by an England team who have played the situation rather well. As much as it’s claimed that England will be an attacking side, it’s hard to do so if the surface makes that a risky option.

The tourists would have needed an almost perfect day to get right back into the game, and while they did fairly well, it still left a significant deficit after the first innings, especially given that it doesn’t look like batting last on this pitch will be easy, especially against spin. The value of the batting from Root, Moeen and Broad has been demonstrated by the England total looking to be well above par in the match context.

Bavuma and Rabada looked fairly untroubled for the best part of an hour, but their dismissals placed South Africa in some trouble. De Kock counterattacked, risky as that was given the pitch, and batted sublimely in the process, on his way to a belligerent fifty. With Philander in company, there was just a chance they could get sufficiently close to England to turn the pressure back on the hosts. As it was, a 97 run deficit is quite likely to prove critical, not least for the mindsets it creates for all 22 players from now on in. South Africa are trying to save the Test, England are trying to win it.

Moeen Ali is having a fine game, runs on the board and wickets too. His bowling weakness is less his ability to take wickets and more that he doesn’t always maintain control. But today he was excellent, probing away, restricting the runs and offering a consistent threat. Dawson was also much better, and rewarded with two wickets of his own. Six going to England spinners on day two of a Lords Test is certainly unusual, and perhaps ironic given the continual question marks over those in possession. They will be expected to win the game on the fifth day.

England’s second innings certainly hasn’t been an exciting one thus far. But that is reflective of the match position, a helter skelter approach could have let the visitors in. So while Cook, Jennings and Ballance didn’t excite, they did exactly the job that was required. Tomorrow is a little different, and expect them to increase the tempo as the day goes on, probably with a few to a declaration sometime in the last session.

South Africa have a mountain to climb to get out of this one. It’s hard to see how they can do it.

One final point. Today’s play finished more or less on time. Amazing.

Meet the New Boss

One of the more striking features of the ECB in recent years has been their ability to leak when it suits them, remain tight lipped when it doesn’t, and insist that they don’t leak at all at all times.  So while Cook’s resignation was kept under wraps right up to the point it was announced, there can be little surprise at the heavily trailed news over the weekend – confirmed today –  that Joe Root will be appointed England captain.  By all accounts this was agreed on Saturday or Sunday in a phone call with Andrew Strauss, who presumably was using the bugged phone the ECB provide when they want news to get out.  A day is a little slower than normal for it to reach the media – few will forget the way the supposedly private meeting between Strauss, Harrison and Pietersen ended up being reported in detail on Radio Five Live mere minutes after finishing for example.  Sharpen up fellers.

Still, while the ECB deserve all the cynicism that comes their way for their repeatedly duplicitous behaviour (OK, this one is hardly a crime – but they shouldn’t have it go past without comment), it didn’t take a cricketing sage to work out that Root was more or less the only name in the frame once Cook had finally decided to go.  Indeed, it is remarkable how the simple matter of the on-field captain has now been built up to become A Very Important Thing in a way that it never used to be.  Sure, resignations and appointments to the role have always been big news, that’s no different – what is, is how long is taken over the process, as though the Nobel Committee were ruminating on a choice between Einstein and Newton.  It’s natural to want to get it right of course, but it’s hard to get away from the feeling that pomposity and procedure is felt to directly correlate to importance – perhaps it is a direct response to the declining news footprint cricket now has in the British media.  It is a disease afflicting a lot of sports these days – but news management has now eaten itself by becoming more important than the news itself.

Appointing Root was the blindingly obvious decision, and the possibility it wouldn’t be him only arose because the ECB, Strauss and Cook have taken so damn long over the matter in the first place.  When Cook resigned the papers dutifully followed the line that he’d been thinking about it since the start – the start note – of the India leg of the winter tour.  When the handover of the England captaincy takes longer than that of the US Presidency, something is a little peculiar.  To be fair to Cook, if they’re going to allow him to take an age, then why should he rush, but it still reaches levels of absurdity to place the role on that kind of pedestal, with the fundamental difference that the England cricket captain, who hasn’t been especially successful in the role by any measure, was allowed to do all that for himself seemingly with no outside reference on whether he should be permitted that freedom.

What will prove interesting in future years will be whether Root himself is elevated to that level of God-like status, or whether Cook is an exception.  For there are some similarities to Cook in the way that he has been groomed as most favoured son for some time now. It almost felt as though the only reason for a reluctance to move on more quickly was some lingering feeling that being a damn nice chap prevents any action in favour of the next damn nice chap.

Much has been made of Root’s inexperience in captaincy – a situation that is entirely inevitable in the modern game where playing county cricket is the exception rather than the rule for those who reach international level.  It isn’t remotely relevant for the simple reason that unless things change radically in future, this is likely to be the case with every England captain forever more.  Whether he succeeds or fails, it won’t be because of a lack of experience, it will be whether he is any good at it.  For the fundamental point is this:  There is no reason from the outside to assume any one player is a more natural captain than any other.  Root might well be the ideal choice for captain, but then so might Ben Stokes, or so might Mark Wood.  There is simply no reason to think one way or the other amongst those of us outside cricket beyond a certain kind of prejudice that we all carry within us.  Root being a clean cut generally good egg from the right background certainly makes him suitable for the ECB marketing department, but it doesn’t mean for a moment he is the best on-field captain.

Lest this be thought to be making a case for Stokes or anyone else, it isn’t, but it is to highlight that the choice of captain always tends to be from a rather narrow set of parameters.  As the years go on, the choice of Michael Vaughan stands out as being highly unusual from the usual mix of those whose nice background marked them out as being of the right stuff for the ECB. Again, it isn’t anything against Root himself, but it has been long made clear he was the heir apparent and no other candidates were ever put forward.  To put it another way, Moeen Ali has some captaincy experience at both England U-19 level and for Worcestershire as a stand in – not much, but no less than Root, yet there was never any prospect of him being the one, and given he isn’t certain of his place in the side, that could easily be argued as to why not.  This is where it gets into difficult territory, because there is no accusation whatever of discrimination on race grounds (Nasser Hussain belies that anyway), but more that it is simply rather hard to imagine the current ECB going with someone with such a normal personal history.  Not impossible, for it does happen (Vaughan), and nor is it advocating that someone like Moeen should – it’s merely the case that the ECB is constituted by a certain type of person from a certain type of background, and they by default look for a similar kind of person in their captain.  It’s probably unconscious, and echoed by a cricket media that is largely from the same kind of environment who have a tendency to approve of that line of thinking.  They’ll hate that and deny it, but we all do the same thing in our lives, we instinctively support those similar.  Let’s put it this way: how likely is it that the ECB would be keen to appoint a working class kid from the wrong side of the tracks as captain?  It’s a little hard to credit.

For Root himself, there is the fear that his being chosen as captain will automatically impact on his batting, yet there is no reason to believe so.  Cook himself didn’t suffer notably from being captain, his record before and during is fairly comparable; his batting problems when they occur are more a matter of him being a player at constant war with his technique than anything else.  Likewise, to take England’s Australian counterparts, the three most recent incumbents have all performed superbly with the bat as captain. The fear that he will lose form is nothing but seeing the glass as being half empty – why shouldn’t he do a Graham Gooch for example?

Then there’s the question of what kind of captain Root will be.  With so little experience it’s hard to know for sure, but the glimpses of him substituting for Cook tend to imply he’ll be rather more creative and attacking than was Cook, at least initially.  The truth is that we don’t know for sure and won’t find out until later this summer.  Having Cook to lean on should be an advantage, for whatever the merits or otherwise of his tenure, he will know what Root is going through better than anyone else.  Nasser Hussain managed the transition back to player better than most; if Cook can do the same it will be unquestionably an asset to the side and to Root personally.  It’s not an easy thing for Cook to do, and it’ll be hugely to his credit if he does it well.  Likewise, Cook the batsman should – all things being equal – be of far more importance to the England Test side than Cook the captain.  Being able to focus on that rather than the whole team may well liberate him to contribute heavily in the area that he is most valuable.  This too is a matter of uncertainty, precisely for the same reasons that his batting didn’t unduly suffer by being the skipper, but if those who believe Root will lose form from being captain are right, then it follows that Cook should significantly increase his contributions too – it can’t be had both ways.

Perhaps one of the more notable parts of the announcement is by omission – that Root has been appointed the Test captain.  As has been pointed out before, the England schedule over the next 2 years is bordering on the vicious, so it is at least good to see that he hasn’t been burdened with all the captaincy roles.  There are enough fears for the longevity of those players who play all formats already, without making one of them captain and thus unable to easily miss some of the tours – or at least parts of some of the tours.

The instinctive reaction is that Root is a good choice for the job.  There are never any guarantees, but he appears to possess the right blend of brains and mischievousness to make a go of it.  Cook wasn’t a great captain, and to that end he does have a relatively low bar to get over; whether he will get quite the hagiographical coverage that Cook did in the cricket press is a different question.  And in many ways, a deeply interesting one.  If he’s only ever “hung out to dry” to the same extent, he’ll do well enough.

 

 

 

India vs England again. Preview

So England are back, for the money element of the tour.  Players have cut short their Big Bash contracts and flown over, and the cricketing world sighs and tries to muster up the slightest interest in affairs.  It is always the case that if the ODIs are placed after the Tests they feel like an afterthought in terms of the itinerary, yet for England it’s all there is for the next six months in the run up to the Champions Trophy. Much of the domestic comment has centred around the return of Eoin Morgan as  captain having elected not to go to Bangladesh, with the usual barbs aimed at him for that decision by those can often pick and choose their tours as journalists without anyone noticing or offering comment.  More than one senior cricket correspondent has sent someone else to cover a series they didn’t fancy in the past.

Hales too returns to the side, with none of the criticism that Morgan received, but with the same degree of media pressure to perform having taken the same decision.

The ECB created and agreed an itinerary over the next 18 months that only a sadist could take satisfaction in, so it’s rather startling to see two warm up matches before the relatively short three ODI series (plus 3 T20s).  Given the lack of anything approaching a warm up before the Test series – unless the Bangladesh Tests were considered so – it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Of course, at the same time there is the matter of Alastair Cook’s captaincy to be resolved.  Nick Hoult at the Telegraph has a good record of calling things correctly in recent times and seems of the opinion that Cook will go.  Equally, all the indications are that it is Cook’s decision, which remains a peculiar state of affairs for someone for whom captaincy has been anything but a natural skill.  When the decision finally comes, it seems almost certain that the press coverage will be vaguely equivalent to that for a deceased monarch, and nothing else quite sums up the total disconnect between the ECB media corps and reality, to that created by talking about a captain in awed tones who has done nothing to warrant it.  Some may love him, some may hate him, but by no objective measure can his tenure be called any kind of unqualified success.  The adoration remains what it always has been – deeply strange.  The difference in media approach to Cook and Morgan is all the more striking given that of the two captains, the latter has had much the better record over the last two years.

For the ODI series itself there are few surprises, the squad currently more or less picks itself, and the interest will be in seeing whether they cope with Indian conditions any better than their Test playing colleagues.  In their own conditions India must be favourites, but England remain a threat to anyone in one day cricket.  The question is whether anyone here will even notice.  The Big Bash coverage has been mostly on BT Sports but with some matches on Channel 5.  To date no viewing figures have been announced, but it has to be likely those numbers will be higher than anything the England team get locked away on subscription TV.  In one sense, it is to be hoped they are, for it would at least demonstrate there’s an interest in the sport.  If not, cricket really is doomed in Britain.

English cricket is in something of a holding pattern this week.  Whatever happens, there’ll be a lot more to write about soon enough.

 

A Christmas Carol (of sorts)

Kevin Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the Director (Cricket), the Chairman, the Chief Executive, and the chief Guardian Cricket Correspondent. Ebenezer “Scrooge” Cook signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to’. Old Kevin was as dead as a doornail.

It was a cold and bleak winter in Essex – has been for years – and the lambs were bleating nearby.  Ebenezer Cook was in his rooms, counting up his runs, when there was a knock at the door.  “Bah” he exclaimed, “I’d just got to to 8,142 as well.  Jimmy!” he called to his faithful servant, Jimmy Cratchit, “Go and see who is at the door”.  Jimmy, puppy dog eyes as ever, returned a moment later.  “There are two men at the door, sir, it’s about Christmas”.

Scrooge got up and went to the door, to be met by Mr Bumble and Mr Beefy, carrying champagne.  “Merry Christmas!” they cried, and explained they were there to collect money for the peasants of Isleworth.  “Humbug” said Scrooge, attempting to close the door.  “But sir, this is for the poor folk of Sky, they need this desperately.  How else will they be able to sell the company for vast profit to Mr Rupert?”

“Bah” said Scrooge again, as he shooed them away only to find his nephew Adil waiting behind them.  “Hello Uncle, come and join us for Christmas!  It’s a wonderful time of the year”.  Cook frowned, “Hang on, you don’t celebrate Christmas”.  “Er.  Ah yes, good point, but it’s too good a character to ignore, so let’s celebrate” said Adil.  “Quite frankly young man, this is another example of you having a weak personality.  I’m going to have nothing more to do with you, and to prove it I’m going to have you running in until your fingers are falling off  and you’re the most successful worker we have.  I don’t think there’ll be any doubt at all about your weakmindedness after that”.

Slamming the door, Scrooge turned to find Jimmy Cratchit in front of him.  “As it is Christmas sir, and I’ve been bowling non-stop for three years now, I was wondering if I could have Christmas Day off?”.  “Don’t be absurd,” Scrooge replied “You’ve had a couple of months off with that shoulder problem of yours, you must be fully rested.  And as far as I can work out, you’ve not done anything on the India work at all.  Oh very well,  but just one day”.

“Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. What a load of nonsense.  It’s been only good for one thing, and that’s the historic birth of a noble creature, one who has changed the world.  One who is known for being the greatest and most important of all, especially in the eyes of the Miller.  Presents?  Celebration?  Humbug!  Runs is all it is good for, lots of runs”.

That night, Ebenezer Cook got ready for bed.  To the side were tomes of articles, praising Cooky for his steel, for his gimlet-eyed approach to the accumulation of runs.  All was well, he read the latest adoring billet doux, sent in the Mail, and he gazed into the mirror to see if the bit about doe eyes was true; they became heavy, and he drifted into sleep.

A noise made him sit bolt upright, and reach for the light.  In front of him was a figure, chained by the hands and feet, carrying a bat and hidden in shadow.  “Who are you?” Scrooge asked.  “Better to ask who I was”, the apparition replied.  “Who were you then?  You’re very particular, for a middle order player”.

“In life I was your batting partner, Kevin Marley.  Most notably against India you might recall. I have been cursed to wander the world, picking up only T20 contracts, banished from my life irritating the hell out of that old telegraph operator, Pringle.  I am here to warn you that you must change your ways, lest you too find the future filled with despair – although admittedly you won’t get the T20 contracts and your Twitter account will be a lot duller.  Should you fail to do so, I fear you too will be forced to spend your days pretending Piers Morgan is your friend”.

“You were always a good friend to me”, Scrooge lied, “tell me how I can avoid your dreadful fate”.  Marley paused, and looked at Scrooge, knowing his old habits were still present.  “You will be visited by three captains.  The first tomorrow night will be the captain of Christmas Past, then it will be the captain of Christmas present, and finally the captain of Christmas to come.  Beware Ebenezer, you will not like what they say”.

The vision of Kevin Marley began to fade, and Scrooge returned to bed.  “Humbug” he exclaimed, and went back to sleep.  By morning, he was convinced it had all been a terrible dream, frightening, but no more real than the time some fool put the city clerk Downton in charge of the livestock.

The following night, convinced it was all his imagination, Scrooge went to sleep, content that he had spent his day wisely, making Jimmy Cratchitt say nice things about their best customers, something he knew he hated.  In the early hours, his repose was interrupted by a presence in the room, a gentle figure, who spoke to him, quietly, calmly and with all the assurance of someone who had a degree in people.

“Who are you?” asked Scrooge.

“I am the captain of Christmas Past.  I am here to show you things”.  “What things?” cried Scrooge.  “Come with me” came the reply.  The bedroom disappeared, and a field came into view.  “What is this dreadful place?  I can’t bear it”.  “It is Leeds”.  “No, no, no don’t make me live through it again” begged Scrooge.

As tears rolled down his cheeks, he watched Angelo Mathews hitting balls to all parts, he saw himself stood at slip, unable to change anything.  He saw people in the distance, appalled at the sight in front of them.  “Can I change it?  Let me change it, what can I do?  Don’t make me wait to talk to Mr Moores again, I can’t cope with it”.

Puzzled, the ghost of the captain turned to him: “I have done nothing, this is who you are and what you did.  Nothing can be changed, nothing can be altered.  It is you, it is what you became”.

The scene dissolved, and Scrooge peered through the mist as it cleared, wondering what punishment would be next.  A face appeared, one who had been precious to him, but who he had not seen for a long time.  Scrooge’s heart leapt, and he called out “Bell! oh my precious Bell, we have spent so much time together, so many wonderful years”.  “He can’t hear you” observed the ghost, “watch closely”.

As Ebenezer observed, he could see Bell was happy, and his heart was filled with joy, and some puzzlement.  For the last time he had seen him, he was not, he was anything but.  As the scene expanded, he saw Bell laughing with other people, full of the joy of life.  Scrooge turned to the ghost and said “but what is this?”.  “It is the happiness of being with friends, it is how he now is, since he moved on from you”.  “This is down to me?” cried Scrooge, “but I thought he was my friend”.  “So he was” came the answer, “until you turned your back on him”.

Before he could reply, Ebenezer Cook found himself back in his bed, but not bathed in sweat for it was well known he didn’t sweat at all.  As he thought about his dreadful experience, he shuddered.  “At least that’s the worst part out of the way” he thought, and eventually he drifted off to sleep.

He spent the following day distracted, his paperwork untidy, finding that the slips were numerous and his pen often simply went down the wrong line.  Increasingly apprehensive, he readied himself for bed, and eventually, sleep overcame him.

Mere moments later, he sat upright.  Another vision was at the end of the bed, one vaguely familiar, yet with an undercurrent of threat that made Scrooge recoil.  The dark face was in shadow, but the beard was visible, as was the shining reflection of the earring, and the sound of thousands of people cheering could be heard softly in the background.  As the hood was pulled back, he gasped, for although the eyes were kind, he did not dare to meet them.

“I am the captain of Christmas present.  Look upon me”.  Scrooge reverently did so, the feeling that this was a presence he had been close to seemingly for weeks strongly in his thoughts.  Nagging at the back of his mind was that he somehow knew there was no way he could get him out, even if he wanted to.

“Touch my robe” commanded the dark, coaly vision.  Scrooge dutifully did so, and found himself in the Cratchits front room.  Christmas was being celebrated, Jimmy Cratchit pouring the drinks.  “A toast to Mr Ebenezer Cook” cried Jimmy.  “I shall do no such thing” answered his wife Broady Cratchit.  “For we all know he is simply obsessed with counting his runs, and gives you nothing.  Here we are at Christmas, you’ve worked all year for nothing, and here am I, preparing everything and getting no credit for it whatever.  No, I shan’t toast him.  And what about the boy?  What has he ever done for him?”

Jimmy’s eyes moved to the corner of the room, where the broken child sat with his crutches.  His eyes were bright, but the pain in them was clear.  “Bless you Markwood Cratchit, it will all be well.  We’ll get you the treatment you need, don’t you worry.  Mr Ebenezer knows all the right people and he’ll see you right”.  “He will not Jimmy and you know it perfectly well.” said Mrs Cratchit.  “Look at how the Prior was treated.  All he needed was a rest, and he wouldn’t have it, even though it was obvious to everyone.  ‘It’s up to him’ he said, and before we knew it that was the end of him”.

Scrooge watched on, knowing in his heart that Markwood would get no help from him.  “What will happen to him?” he asked the ghost.  “I see a vacant seat, at the Finchale End, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved”.  “No, no” cried Scrooge, “say he will be spared”.  The ghost turned to him “If these shadows are unaltered by the future, there is nothing that can be done”.

With a flash of light, Scrooge was back in his bed, and he gazed down at his palms, amazed at the first sight of flecks of sweat on them.  Unsettled, he thought about all he had seen, and resolved to change his ways.  Probably.  When he got round to it.  He went to sleep.

That following night, he resolved to stay awake, to ensure no more visitors.  But try as he might, he could not do so, and moments after he dropped off, a third figure appeared.  “And you are?” said Scrooge.  “I am the captain of Christmas future” squeaked a voice.  “You’re very young” said Scrooge.  “I’m not you know, everyone just thinks so – look at this whisker on my chin.  I’m a proper adult, and I can do a really good Bob Willis impression to prove it.  I am here to show you your future”.

Scrooge peered once again into the gloom, and an office appeared.  The ghost led him through the door, marked ‘Dobell and Son’ into the space beyond.  A group of people sat there, quietly talking among themselves.  He moved in closer, wanting to hear what they were saying:

“Do we have to write about this?  No one cares any more”

“We’d better be getting paid.  I hope these drinks are included”

“He just went on too long. It all went wrong in the end.  Apart from us, everyone is celebrating”

“The only one actually crying is that new man, and no one pays attention to him anyway”

“Good riddance I say”

Scrooge turned to the apparition, “who are they talking about?  This person sounds terrible. Awful.”  The ghost turned his baby face, beckoned, and led him over to a corner, an open booth, with half consumed cans of bitter and a nasty letter from his clerk pinned to the wall.  There on the table was a headline “Cooked!  At last”.  Scrooge fell back, shocked.  “It’s me!  They’re talking about me”.  He began to sob, and looked up at the ghost.  “I will change.  I will be a different person.  I will make sure that everyone remembers me for the right reasons.”  The captain of Christmas future smiled.

The following morning, Christmas Day and his birthday, Scrooge leapt out of bed.  “Merry Christmas” he cried.  He went out to buy a duck, and visited the Cratchits.  “Jimmy my friend, allow me to give you this gift for today!  Young Markwood, I have a gift for you – a small horse for you to ride so you will no longer be confined to those crutches.  Mrs Cratchit, there is nothing more that you could want except to be given the credit for carrying us all even when it all goes wrong.  And the password to a secret Twitter account.  Merry Christmas one and all!”

And so it went on, from house to house.  Scrooge had told everyone he would no longer spend all his time counting runs, that he would help everyone and ensure press conferences were the place to praise others and not himself.  And the spirit of Christmas moved through the whole area, as all gaped at the change in Ebenezer.  The joy he felt was shared by one and all, and he skipped like a newborn lamb through the neighbourhood.

In the churchyard was the grave of Kevin Marley.  Scrooge paused in his celebrations, looked across at it and deliberately turned his back.  For not even a fairy tale can create the impossible…


 

Deep and sincere apologies to the ghost of Charles Dickens, and I will spend Christmas in the hope I receive no visitations from his angry spirit for butchering his work of genius, or from the various characters (apologies to them too!) who have been shamelessly libelled for the sake of a smile or two.  Maybe.

From Dmitri, Sean and myself – have a wonderful Christmas and best wishes to all our readers, commenters and detractors, may it be a time of celebration for you all.

 

 

 

 

India vs England: Fifth Test, Day Five

Predictable.  That has to be the overriding reaction to England’s epic collapse in the evening session.  Defeat in the final Test and a 4-0 series hammering was expected by more than just the most pessimistic, irrespective of the pitch remaining a good one.  England have looked mentally shot for a while now, and perhaps that’s to be expected.  Indeed, the slightly bigger surprise was that for much of the day they appeared to be on track for a draw, before losing 6 wickets for 16 runs post tea and gaining an outstanding if unwanted record for scoring the largest first innings total when suffering an innings defeat in Test history.

In truth, although Cook and Jennings had reached lunch unscathed, it wasn’t a comfortable stand, Cook being dropped early on, and various other near misses for them both.  That they survived to give England a sniff of what some were waiting to write up as a valedictory draw is actually rather to their credit. Immediately post lunch was where it started to go wrong, 103-0 becoming 129-4 in less than an hour.   Alastair Cook is a curious player in that when he starts to struggle, the technical glitches become ever more apparent, in a way that is less obvious with – say – Joe Root.  Over a five match Test series players getting out in the same way try ever more visibly obvious means of countering the problem.  Cook is getting too far over to the offside, which is leaving him both prone to lbw and to the legside catches off the spinners as in the case here.  No one will be more aware of it than him, and it is not offered up as a criticism of his batting, more an acute illustration of the difficulties of a good batsman under severe pressure, both mental and from the bowlers.

Even then, a decent partnership between Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes had taken England to a healthy position, and on reaching tea four wickets down, must have fancied their chances of saving the game.  What happened thereafter will mark a new entry into the charts of England’s most glorious collapses, and had the merit of style points by being largely self-inflicted.

Moeen’s dismissal in particular will be one that gets replayed, for there is little more embarrassing than getting out coming down the track attempting to go over the top when trying to save the game.  And rightly so too, for it looked awful.  There are caveats to this – it is easy to see some praising the approach for throwing the bowling off line and length if it succeeds; likewise, playing a natural game to try to save a match is thoroughly approved of when it succeeds – Matt Prior’s entirely correct – for him – counterattacking rearguard in Auckland in 2013 was downright lucky at times, not least the moment he went through to his century with a miscued hook.  Yet he was praised for that innings for one reason alone – it worked.   Outcome tends to be the determining factor in these things, and the old adage of “hit sixes but don’t take any risks” often seems to apply.

Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from the fact it’s a pretty dire way to get out less than two hours away from safety, and the rest of the batting order were little better.   As much as anything, it’s indicative of thoroughly frazzled minds, leading to poor decision making.  There is often a temptation to blame the first victim of what becomes a collapse for all the subsequent ones, yet this remains as ludicrous as it always has done.  Players are responsible for their own actions, not those of others, and the dismissals of Stokes, Dawson and Rashid were all poor in their own ways; singling out the player who scored nearly 200 runs in the match on his own as the one to blame for how others got out is bizarre.

Once again Jos Buttler was left high and dry as the tail collapsed around him, making the point rather beautifully that it matters little how many batsmen you have if none of them stay in.  For such an attacking player, there is irony in it being him and pretty much only him who appeared mentally up to the challenge of blocking the match out.

India’s celebrations on taking the tenth wicket were joyous, for they have comprehensively outplayed England, and by ever increasing degrees as the series has gone on.  The grinding into the dirt that occurred in this match was ruthless, but deeply impressive, and for all the rationalising of different elements and players, the reality is that England would most likely have lost the series irrespective of calls for changes.  That said, England could and should have played far better than they did; the chasm between the sides need not have been anything like so vast.  There will be attempts at revisionism from some quarters to indicate this was always likely.  It wasn’t.

For Alastair Cook, the questions about his future came immediately after the game.  His response that he shouldn’t be asked about it was clumsy, as is often the case with Cook, but probably right in the sense that it wasn’t the time.  Much as the media would love to get instant decisions, it is far better to wait for the dust to settle and come to a considered view rather then offer up an emotional one in the aftermath of a battering.  That being said, there’s really only one decision to make here, and not in itself because of the series result.  Cook has been prevaricating about his captaincy for quite some time now, announcing to anyone who asked that he is unsure of whether to carry on or not.  By being so unsure, he has made it abundantly clear that he shouldn’t carry on, for while people will have doubts in private, and may discuss them with family or close friends, to openly discuss publicly the possibility of giving up the captaincy says in itself it’s time to go.  Cook cannot possibly be fully committed to the role any longer having effectively admitted he isn’t, and even if he decided to carry on and was allowed to do so, the same feelings would return wholesale upon the next defeat.

Naturally enough, the rest of the management and team were then asked the same question, and equally naturally, they defaulted to supporting the captain and saying he’s the right man for the job.  There is nothing else they can say, even if they don’t believe it – although there’s no evidence they don’t.  This then becomes a feeding frenzy, and that is not at all good for England cricket, and not even good for Cook himself.  Cook’s tenure may have been a period of dissension and division, but the reality now is more prosaic – it’s simply time to go as captain for his own good and for the team’s.

Cook’s agreement that England have stagnated over the last year is probably right.  2016 has been a pretty miserable year for the Test side, the only series win coming against a Sri Lanka team vastly weakened by retirements.  This winter England have lost five of their seven matches, with only a single victory over Bangladesh.  In normal circumstances, no captain would be felt able to survive that kind of record.  Yet with Cook there are enough queueing up to make every kind of excuse for that record, blaming everyone except the captain himself, that it remains in some question.  It shouldn’t.  It’s not because everything can be laid at Cook’s door for that would be scapegoating to the same extent Adil Rashid has suffered, but he’s never been a sufficiently good captain for it to be a justification in itself.  If he was, then a case could be made for retention as an asset in the role, for even a losing captain of a weak side can be a good one, Stephen Fleming is a decent example.  At times he’s been competent, at others, truly abysmal.

The constant refrain has been that Cook is both popular and a good leader in the dressing room.  That may well be true, but a leader is not necessarily a captain, nor vice versa; Cook in the ranks would still be a leader for the younger players in the side who would look up to him by virtue of his record.  The simple question is whether England would be stronger or weaker with him in charge.  That argument has been made many times over the years, but it is particularly acute given the outcome of this series.  It is very hard to make a case for saying that Cook as captain actually makes England a stronger side, even if some would baulk at the idea that he actively weakens them.  There’s a further point, and that is the question of Cook the batsman.  He’s managed the dual roles better than most recent incumbents, his batting has held up fairly well throughout his tenure, with no obvious indication that it has lessened his batting contribution.  But for all the talk about whether taking on the captaincy would negatively affect Joe Root, few ask the question as to whether relinquishing it would positively benefit Cook – for that is the unspoken corollary of that particular argument.  Cook the batsman is simply more valuable than Cook the captain, and he always was, except as an ECB marketing tool.

When England were whitewashed in Australia 2 years ago, the response was to close ranks around Alastair Cook, single out one individual to blame for the farrago and pretend that none of the cracks that appeared needed to be addressed.  There are already attempts to portray this outcome as being within normal parameters, and beyond the Cook captaincy question, there’s little indication that real attention will be paid to why what has transpired recently has happened.  There have to be fears that Adil Rashid will be quietly removed from future consideration given the heavy criticism he has received from sources who have a habit of being unusually close to ECB thinking.   The timing of the leaks (The ECB don’t leak, remember) concerning the action of Jack Leach will raise suspicions about what exactly the ECB hierarchy are up to, not least given the rather over the top praise for Liam Dawson from those same types friendly towards the ECB.  Perhaps such suspicions are entirely wide of the mark, but when an organisation has been so duplicitous in the recent past, they lose their right to be given trust in what they do.

For this is their abiding problem; it isn’t that there are simple solutions to England’s difficulties, it’s that the pattern of deceit over time, throughout the upper levels of the organisation, leads observers to assume they are up to their old tricks even when they aren’t.  In this case they may be, or they may not.  But why would anyone believe them when they say it isn’t so?

England have problems from top to bottom, but there are areas of hope, and young players coming through who look promising.  The experienced ones cannot be written off just yet, but there is a hint of a changing of the guard in this team.  They have six months off from Test cricket, before one of the most insane schedules England have ever put together kicks in.  Next year’s winter tours, including the Ashes, involve England going away from October until April 2018.  If England struggled with five Tests in six weeks this series, they are going to be on their knees by the end of the New Zealand tour following the Ashes.

With the one day tour to the West Indies and Champions Trophy at home, Cook has six months off to recharge his batteries.  He will undoubtedly need it, and it’s to be hoped he is able to relax, free his mind of the clutter that will be swirling at the moment, and come back with a bang as the batsman who at his best can drive opposition bowlers to despair.  If the price of getting that player back was to give up the captaincy, surely even his greatest supporters would think that worth paying?

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: Fourth Test, Day Five

With defeat can come a time for reflection, for honesty and the opportunity to examine where a side is going wrong, why games are being lost, and what can be done about it.  It can even be a period where one accepts that the team is being outplayed and there’s little that can be done to change that in the short term, beyond redoubling efforts.  Either way, it requires a degree of self-awareness and the willingness to see that decisions may be wrong, that approaches need to change and that personnel might not be doing all they are capable of doing.

And then there’s the second element, in that the honesty required is internal, and talking to the media doesn’t mean sharing all that with everyone else.  The kind of deep discussion required should not, and usually does not, make it beyond the confines of the dressing room, and that is exactly as it should be.  That makes the fronting up to the media rather difficult, as those who have paid to watch the team play deserve answers, but for the sake of the team there are limits to how detailed and how extensive those answers should be.

Those competing imperatives can cause some frustration amongst supporters.  When a side has been woeful, hearing a manager come out and defend them and claim they actually played well drives many to distraction, as any fan of the England football team for the last forty years or so will tell you.  Yet it’s to some extent a necessary fiction, and in private the manager could well be climbing the walls at the inability of his charges to do what they were meant to do.

As a result, the post match interviews should always be seen through the prism of limited information, both for team dynamics and because the opposition are listening in.  Reading too much into them is a dangerous game, though what people do want to hear is a degree of honesty, and a restriction on the volume of platitudes offered up.  Of course, in many sports, football in particular, that’s because the media themselves are waiting to pounce on any expression of weakness, whereby the plea for honesty is nothing but hypocrisy given how such honesty is then treated.  As a result, wagons are circled and a siege mentality is often the best one to adopt.  All sports teams live in a bubble anyway, and despite occasional protestations to the contrary, the supporters, even though they ultimately pay all the salaries, are removed from consideration.  It’s understandable to an extent, though you can get the situation where an England player assumes the ticket prices to be a quarter of what they actually are – that much ignorance is unacceptable.

The trouble is that there’s a contradiction here.  By no measure could England be said to have a hostile press, indeed supine is nearer the mark given their inability to offer up any kind of examination of their flaws in structure or execution – whataboutery, especially if Kevin Pietersen can be brought into it, is the more likely response.  Defensiveness is understandable in itself after a defeat, the problem is that when it occurs even when the criticism is highly limited in the first place that suggests that the mindset is one of being closed off to the reality of the situation.

The match was completed this morning in short order, England collapsing from their already desperate position to give India the expected series win and revenge for the defeat four years ago.  The response to it was therefore one of interest, to see whether England were fully appreciative of what had gone wrong and why.  Again, an instant response from all involved needs to take into account that words can be poorly chosen, or that with a game still to go baring one’s soul may not be the best, most appropriate response.  Yet the captain’s words are interesting in themselves for demonstrating a particular mindset:

“I thought 400 was a pretty good score on that wicket. Keaton played really well, at 230 for 2 maybe should have got 450. Historically, 400 is a good score on this ground.

“In the second innings we had our chances. We aren’t taking those chances at the moment. Virat played an extraordinary innings but we had a chance on 60-odd to get him. Those are things that the game changes on. We are in it for three days but not good enough to stay in it. We haven’t been good enough to match India.

“We wanted to see what four seamers would look like because on the tour they have given us control and our two best spinners have been Mo and Rash. When you batted first you didn’t need that extra seamer, so that was a mistake. We had a chance to restrict the lead. We would have been in the game. But that isn’t really good enough. To me, we batted better in this game than the previous two.

I go back to the chances we missed, we could have bowled India out for 400. Virat is in incredible form, having one of the series you dream of. Clearly one of the great batsmen of our generation.”

Cook is quite right to laud Kohli’s performance.  He has proved to be the difference between the sides throughout the series, and his extraordinary innings here turned India’s position from middling to utterly dominant.  Yet his comments about the game turning on a missed chance is both unfair and could be said about pretty much every Test match ever played.  Catches will always be dropped, but the bigger and more pertinent question is why it was that this was the only chance created, for that aside, England didn’t remotely look like taking a wicket.  It wasn’t exactly a dolly, and nor was Kohli the only centurion to be dropped in that innings.  Using that as a crutch to explain why the game was lost is throwing a team mate under the bus and effectively blaming him for defeat.  Now, everyone can say things they shouldn’t, and reflect later that it might not have been appropriate, but it’s still not a good thing to do to a member of the side, and nor is it the first time Cook has done it.  Even great teams drop catches, but those great teams create another chance.  If you make only one in an innings of that length, that is the far greater problem.  India have dropped plenty of catches both in this match and across the series – it hasn’t just been England, and while Kohli may have been magnificent, Jayant Yadav also scored a century, and it wasn’t luck that allowed him to do it.   He can bat, and showed it, but England couldn’t get him out.  That isn’t down to Rashid dropping a chance.

Likewise, the section concerning the seam attack is simply rather peculiar.  If taken in isolation, any team can get it wrong and pick the wrong side, but this is the second match in succession that they’re saying this – indeed the implication is that they have got the right teams but the wrong way around: too many spinners last time, too many seamers this.  The reference to the toss is simply odd, since when has the team depended on whether you win it or lose it?  How can it be a mistake if England won the toss, but not if they didn’t?

In any case, India’s seam bowlers have outperformed England’s.  James Anderson went wicketless in this Test, as in the last one, and while he might indeed be offering control, he isn’t taking wickets, or even looking like taking wickets given his insistence on bowling outside the stumps allowing the Indian batsman to watch it harmlessly pass by.  Furthermore, the seam attack isn’t going to be important if you don’t take the second new ball for 40 overs after it’s become due.  It suggests that there’s no faith in them getting any wickets at all.

Ruthlessly analysing every spoken word for an error is not fair on anyone, but Cook’s answer is still jarring, and invites concern that England are too frazzled to understand what they are trying to achieve, whether in selection or execution.  When a side is struggling, errors are magnified by the opposition.  As said yesterday, there’s no disgrace in losing this series to a team who are very good at home, but what is harder to grasp is what England are attempting to achieve here.

Cook did also go on to talk about the captaincy, which in itself suggests that he’s thinking about the end of his reign and there has to be a degree of human sympathy for him here, because leading a team who is getting badly beaten – and England now are being badly beaten – is emotionally difficult.  He is highly fortunate in the coverage he is getting, for it is impossible to imagine any previous England captain ever getting such a comfortable ride – even if there are some words of gentle criticism now being offered.  Still the idea that he can choose his own departure date on the back of more Test defeats in a calendar year than any previous incumbent plus a second proper hammering in an away series under his leadership beggars belief.  To say so would mean that he is more important than the team.

Nobody wants to see a captain (or anyone else please note) made the scapegoat for the failings of a team, but it remains utterly extraordinary how favourable the coverage of Cook as captain is.  Nobody is under the impression that he’s a superb captain, not even the biggest cheerleaders for him would ever make that claim.  Thus the idea that him not doing it would represent some kind of disaster is impossible to believe or justify.  Equally, he’s not had a record as captain that’s good enough to justify the adoration, being no better than that of Nasser Hussain who had far weaker personnel to work with.  He did lead England to two Ashes victories at home, but also in the away disaster in 2013/14.  The away win in India is an undoubted highlight, but balancing that is the home defeat to Sri Lanka and the drawn series in Bangladesh.

His tenure certainly hasn’t been a disaster, but nor has it been especially good, and the suspicion that England aren’t getting as much out of the team as they could does come down to leadership, whether of the captain or the coaching and administration.  His on field captaincy has been – to put it kindly – limited, the administration of the ECB inept.  Quite how he gets such approval, such reverence, is impossible to understand, for the likes of Paul Newman write as though he was a clone of Mike Brearley.  It is notable that far greater criticism of Kohli’s captaincy has been present in the English media than that of Cook’s, and while Kohli may not be a great captain, he’s the recipient of the kind of comment that has been notably absent about Cook for much of his reign.  The problem here is that it is counterproductive.  It is treating the public as idiots – so obviously biased in Cook’s favour that it merely enrages those who would otherwise accept a limited captain doing the best he can.  Pretending that black is white merely destroys the credibility of the cricket media.

The game ended with an on field spat between Ravi Ashwin and James Anderson, which is not altogether surprising given Anderson’s comments about Virat Kohli the night before.  Perhaps the frustration at England’s performances seeped through, but the comments were not especially wise and lacked grace.  It would be equally easy for them to talk about Anderson in the same vein, and Anderson surely knows that.

India are a good team, one who thoroughly deserve to have won the series, yet they are not a great one, at least not yet; suggesting they are is curiously making excuses for England – that they simply could not and never would be able to beat India no matter how well they played.  There is being realistic about things, and there is burying a head under the duvet and hoping it will all end soon and there’s nothing that could have been done.  India are very likely to almost always have better spinners than England, but this series they’ve had better seamers too.  Indian batsmen are always going to be better players of spin than English ones, but it doesn’t explain the lack of patience or irresponsible dismissals of England batsmen when set.  Perhaps it is indeed the case that Kohli isn’t a great captain, but when you have a superior side, that can be disguised – as England have demonstrated under Cook before – and when losing the weakness in that discipline is highlighted more.

Perhaps behind the scenes England are well aware of all these things and are discussing and debating them.  But the media have long abrogated their responsibility to hold England to account, and the signs are that the ECB structure doesn’t see it.  Andrew Strauss, highly visible when England do well, has been entirely absent this winter.

There is one match remaining.  It is a struggle to see anything other than a comprehensive India win, for the margins of victory are getting wider.  Cook’s line that he will sit down with the Director, Cricket at the end of the year is not an unreasonable one, for the conclusion of the series is the time to make decisions not during it. That discussion will decide what the England team are ultimately about and where they go, for there is talent there and there are good players coming though.

For now, India should celebrate their thoroughly deserved win.  England have a lot of thinking to do.