No Ifs, No Butts

Disaster.  Doomed.  5-0 on the cards…

Ah yes, the usual kneejerk response to any England Test result.  And it might even be that is what transpires; but it should not be deemed inevitable.  A 10 wicket defeat is ultimately something of a hammering, but England did compete for the first three days, and more than that, they were on slightly in the ascendant.  Had they managed to get Steve Smith early, and gone on to win the match, as they surely would have done, then doubtless the press would have been full of thoroughly premature articles about the Ashes coming home.

Of course, it goes without saying that winning or losing colours the coverage completely, it couldn’t be anything else, but a five Test series allows for fluctuations after all – one bad Test doesn’t mean things can’t change.  England’s weaknesses were on full display in this match, a bowling attack that struggled to take wickets without the new ball, a brittle batting order, and sans Stokes, a tail that rolls over in the face of fast bowling.  In contrast, Australia did a good job of covering up their own weaknesses – their less than outstanding tail performed well, the top order batted well in one of the two innings – while making use of their strengths, the fast bowling to some extent, the superior spinner to a greater one.  It’s never the worst idea to look at what went right for the winning side just as much as what went wrong for the losing one, and ask whether that’s likely to continue, especially given Australia’s unusually strong record at the Gabba.

Although England’s inability to take a wicket second time round is troubling, it’s also the case that the primary reason for defeat was failing to set any kind of reasonable target.  The mentality of a run chase is very different when a side is completely confident of success; it’s certainly not terribly surprising to see a team romping to a small target even if they struggled in the first innings.

The difficulty arises in trying to sift England’s structural problems and those that sit in the “one of those things” category, and a single Test doesn’t always offer insight into which is which, and to what degree.  Many of England’s failings in this game aren’t new at all, but the matter of degree might be.

If England were to win this series, so the wisdom went, Cook and Root would have to have successful series given the inexperience of the rest of the top order.  True as that might be, that inexperience is a self-inflicted wound given England have messed around with their batting for so long.  It is entirely their own fault they’ve arrived in Australia with so many question marks around positions 2, 3 and 5; at least two more Test novices than is normal.  Yet as it turned out, those inexperienced ones did reasonably well, albeit without any going on to make a really defining score.  That too has been a hallmark of England recently, and the inability to make big hundreds is always going to make it hard for England to put real pressure on Australia.  Cook failed twice in this Test, which can happen to any batsman, but in his case the greater concern is how he appears to be batting.  He looks adrift technically, much closer to the Bad Cook than the Good Cook of recent years and a live Test series is no time to be trying to put a technique right.  England will certainly be hoping that it is just a small adjustment, or that he merely felt out of sorts, but his recent record is one of diminishing returns – a statement that has been dismissed repeatedly, but which even his media supporters are starting to mention, albeit to to deny it.  There has never been a better time for him to prove the doubters wrong.

Root on the other hand was dismissed twice in similar fashion, lbw to a ball swinging in to him.  This could be a vulnerability, or it could just be getting out to a decent ball on two occasions.  He remains England’s best batsman by a distance, just like his Australian counterpart.  England need him to show that next time out.

Where England are certainly wasting a batsman is in the number seven position.  In both innings Jonny Bairstow found himself with the tail, and on both occasions got out trying to force runs.  It’s obviously the case that England miss Ben Stokes, but that doesn’t mean England have gone from the strongest lower middle order to the weakest overnight – England’s number seven will be a highly capable batsman irrespective. Before the Test England swapped Moeen and Bairstow around, saying that the latter would bat better with the tail, to seemingly almost universal approval from the great and the good.  Perhaps it is the case that such appreciation ought to be a warning sign, for the arguments in favour seemed weak at the time.  Moeen has been quite adept at smashing bowling around the park and farming the strike late on in an innings, in contrast to Bairstow who has been most effective in building longer innings.  He’s never shown too much aptitude as a late order hitter, at least.  It may be a waste of Moeen’s talents to have him throw the bat given minimal support, but it seems an even greater waste of Bairstow’s.  This will surely be corrected next time out, effectively conceding the error.

Whichever way around it might be, runs from the tail are always sought after, but England’s isn’t especially appalling, not with someone as capable at eight as Chris Woakes, nor someone who does score runs (however ungainly they may be) at nine as Stuart Broad.  But few would be talking about the tail if the batsmen had done a better job.  There is one thing that shouldn’t take up any more time, and that’s Moeen’s “controversial” dismissal in the second innings.  The thickness of the damn line is neither here nor there, and no batsman pays any attention to it.  What they do know is they have to keep a part of their foot behind it.  He didn’t, he was out.  Move on.

On the bowling side, first time around at least, Anderson and Broad did reasonably well, maintaining control and taking wickets.  In the second, they didn’t even look like taking any.  The match position may go some way towards explaining that, but not entirely, and certainly they looked far less effective with the old ball than the new in either innings.  But a bowling attack cannot rely on just two bowlers, no matter how good they might be, and England’s support bowling was relatively poor, which creates a vicious circle of making the better bowlers look poor too.  Again, it may be wise not to read too much into a single game – Moeen for one frankly described his bowling performance as “rubbish” when he was asked about it, and raising the performance levels is more than possible for any of them.

One thing that shouldn’t be thrown at them is the problem of the similarity in style of England’s seamers, given was always going to be the case anyway.  Woakes is a first choice seamer, and only Jake Ball is in there in place of Stokes, who even though might be a very good bowler, is still a right arm, fast medium one, just like the others.  The loss of bowling options before the series was a blow, but they were all right arm, fast medium too, even Finn these days.

In contrast, if England’s bowling is not completely hopeless, Australia’s pace attack is not the West Indies circa 1984 either, no matter how much the Australian press want to claim it is so, and nor were they even dramatically faster than their England counterparts in this match.  It was Nathan Lyon who really excelled, and who really made the difference, on a surface surprisingly suited to him.  Moeen’s disgust at his own performance can unquestionably be seen in the context of how Lyon did.

With the 2nd Test in Adelaide a day/night one, much is being made of the potential for England to gain swing, particularly James Anderson.  This may prove a vain hope, for recent matches there in the same conditions have been high scoring and with a flat pitch, but it is also quite probably England’s best chance of winning. At 1-0 down, there’s nothing wrong with targeting this one, and backing themselves to get more out of it than Australia do.  The alternative is to assume Australia would beat England in all conditions, which seems unduly defeatist, even for England supporters expecting the worst.

What can be said is that the 2nd Test is pivotal.  Lose that one, especially if they lose it badly, and a hammering is well and truly on the cards.  But win it, and we have a proper series.  England can undoubtedly play better than they did in Brisbane, Australia can undoubtedly play worse.  The nagging worry is the obverse is equally true.

 

 

 

 

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Australia vs England: 1st Test, Day Four – Preview and Live Blog

After three days of largely attritional cricket, this match remains in the balance heading into the fourth day.  Yet if England were fractionally ahead before yesterday, Australia are a little further in front today.  Steve Smith’s patient century ground down England’s bowlers, before Josh Hazlewood bowled with more intent and hostility than anyone else has managed on this still placid surface to rip out a couple of wickets before England had wiped off the deficit.

England are effectively 7-2, and the third innings of a tight contest is the one where all the pressure is on the batting side – particularly as time begins to run out in the game.  It is impossible to see England getting into a position where they could declare with any reasonable expectation of winning, and so their best chance is to be bowled out.  But being bowled out will be forefront of their minds, which is why the third knock becomes so pressurised – score runs, don’t get becalmed, don’t take risks and don’t get out.  England have got stuck on many an occasion when faced with that conundrum, reducing themselves to a strokeless defence that brings defeat anyway.  Quite simply, they have to score runs.

The loss of Cook in the gloaming was probably more symbolic than anything else.  He hasn’t looked in good form, and his record away from home over the last couple of years has been modest to say the least.  Yet his wicket, along with Root’s, is still the most prized by opponents, and still the one that sends the most tremors through supporters in a position such as this one.  The manner of his dismissal has been criticised by some, excused by others, but as ever the problem with Cook is not the cricket, it is the double standards applied.  The hook shot was on, and there was absolutely nothing reckless about him playing it.  He just played it poorly, and was caught.  That happens to every player, where many get annoyed is that others doing the same thing receive bucketloads of opprobrium where Cook does not.

Even so, being out hooking is certainly no worse than the leaden footed push to which he was out in the first innings.  He appears to once again be struggling with his technique – the familiar problem of his head going too far across, his front foot taking a step rather than a stride, and his back leg coming round to prevent himself toppling over.  That’s why he ends up front on rather than side on and is so prone to being caught behind.  He’s a player who spends his time battling his technique constantly, and has been here before, managing to put it right.  The worry is that being in this place at the start of a series doesn’t bode well for the rest of it.  He knows his game, and England will be praying he can make the adjustment, otherwise this is going to prove a very long tour.

That’s in the past as far as this game is concerned.  The reality is that the ever critical first session here is one in which Australia can win the game.  But last night’s hostility was with a new ball, one which will just be starting to lose its shine and hardness.  The pitch remains slow, and the demons can only be in English minds.  England are more than capable of getting a score here, and more than capable of putting Australia under real stress.  The doubts surround England’s ability to withstand the pressure, rather than their ability to bat on this pitch.  There is certainly the batting depth needed, and if Smith is an exceptional batsman, then so is Joe Root, and England badly need him to show it.

One fly in the ointment concerns the fitness of James Anderson – something that won’t remotely matter unless England bat well – given he was seen to be touching his side before taking a painkiller and seeming to limit his bowling the rest of the day.  England insist he’s fine, but they do have a track record of not telling the whole truth (rightly so, in a match situation where there’s no need to give the opposition reason to cheer), and if Anderson really is struggling, it dramatically affects England’s chances, even if they do get a half reasonable total.  Add to that the whispers about Moeen Ali’s fitness and if there’s anything in that, then a draw might represent the best England can hope for.

If England have a good day, then this game is well and truly on.  But if they have so much as a bad hour, then it’s probably game over.  There is some bad weather around, particularly tomorrow, which could also change the dynamic.

One last point about this game, just imagine for a moment that some of those who should know better had got their way and this was a four day Test.

As with yesterday, we’ll be live blogging the events for as long as we stay awake.  The “we” refers to three of us, the other is showing worrying signs of being a vampire, and Danny will undoubtedly be the last one standing.  As ever, come and join us for as long as you are able, and as long as we can keep our eyes open.

19:43 I don’t know about you lot, but I’m going to the pub…

19:58 Dmitri on his own as his beloved is going back to her homeland to meet her relatives. So, I look wistfully towards Brisbane for your now regular early evening snapshot from the Bureau of Meteorology:

20:03 Anyone a Telegraph subscriber to let us know the latest stunning insight from Shiny Toy?

21:11 While watching the Iron Bowl (look it up, and also check out the youtube clip of the Kick Six), let’s think back to some Day 4s at the Gabba. First up, and you are probably getting fed up with me going on about it, 2002. Matthew Hayden completed his second century of the match (it’s the picture in today’s header) and below. There’s a moment where Sir Peter is filming me for his tour video (no release) where I am reviewing the papers and you hear a huge crack of bat on ball. It’s Hayden hitting the first ball Craig White bowls for six. We left at lunchtime to meet Sir Peter’s mate down at the Gold Coast, and England collapsed. Our Day 5 tickets never mattered.

21:21 2006 and it’s a tale of missing it all. I was on a Singapore Airlines flight on the way to Adelaide to see the second test, and the first I heard of the day’s play came on the walkway at Changi. Four wickets lost at the end of play. 90 odd for Collingwood, KP in the 90s. Maybe the first three days were just a figment of our imagination or a rusty start. We might lose, but at least not without a fight. Good signs. Well, that’s what we thought.

21:31 Ah. Day 4 in 2010. One wicket lost all day, centuries for Strauss and Cook, the game made safe. I watched pretty much all of it that night. You actually never felt the Aussies were going to take a wicket. I have the whole of that day on DVD. Actually the whole series. It gets aired a bit.

21:37 It is pretty interesting to me that I have virtually no recollections of the early parts of the 2013/14 Ashes. None. So we may have taken the Brisbane test to the 4th day, but I just don’t remember. Now, if I were a member of some of the punditry that would be enough. But we don’t do that here. I have the highlights on my portable hard drive. We started at 24/2 with Cook and KP at the crease. They took it to 72/2 before KP holed out to long leg, so we’ll be looking up some of the match reports on that! England were bowled out for 179, Johnson took five wickets. We lost by a distance. You know the rest.

21:44 John Etheridge has noticed.

A “slow decline”. Well, it’s better for them to acknowledge it now, I suppose. And man alive, I smiled at this:

“Cook has three centuries in his last 54 Test innings spread across two years. If you want to look further, it is six hundreds in 105 innings stretching back to the summer of 2013.”

They don’t read us. Try the no centuries in 31 Ashes innings while you are at it, John.

21:52 Iron Bowl looks a great game – 7-7. #WarEagle . Back at the cricket, the fourth day in 1986 was one of attrition and at the end, worry for England. Having made Australia follow on, England took half of the wickets they needed, but at 243/5, the Aussies were in the lead and had an unbeaten centurion (Geoff Marsh) still there. Contrary to some people who said overseas cricket was never on terrestrial, Day 5 was covered live in the UK on BBC (introduced, if I recall correctly by David Icke).

22:22 Day 4 in 1982/3, and Graeme Fowler bats for just shy of six hours to make 83 and at least give England an opportunity to set the Aussies a meaningful target. 279 for 7, 208 runs in a day, Thomson taking five wickets. We may talk about Day 5 tomorrow.

22:50 The pre-match hour will be taken over by Sean, who has assured us his levels of light refreshment were not at last night’s level. That’s nice. Meanwhile there’s a Maxie sighting in the comments. He’s also been all over Twitter. Follow him. The Mentor.

22:53 Dmitri leaves you with memories of 1994. On the 4th day of Brisbane I woke up and England were 211 for 2. Thorpe and Hick with a really good partnership to give us a chance of saving the game. What we wouldn’t give for such resistance today. I’m pessimistic. Of course I am. Anyway, take it away Sean……

22:56 Good evening everyone (said in my best Richie Benaud accent). Apologies for my absence yesterday, I had one too many light refreshments at a leaving do and could only manage ‘pitch the fecking ball up you feckers’ by way of insight…

22:59 Not that i promise to that much more insightful this evening before you get your hopes up…

23:05 So what does everyone think we need? My own personal opinion is that a lead of 280 is the minimum requirement especially with fitness doubts over Jimmy and Moeen. If we lose a couple of wickets in the first hour, we could be cannon fodder.

23:18 Could be a bit of weather around today, wonder if that might juice up the pitch..

23:25 In other news, Danny should be just waking up now..

23:27:Really interesting comment from Maxie BTL re: BT Sport production. I think in general (from the small bits I’ve seen) is that it’s pretty slick; unfortunately it’s let down by poor personnel choices. I dare anyone to listen to Graeme Swann for half an hour and not feel slightly homicidal. It also shows how good Ian Ward is in my opinion.

23:37 I do have to concede having watched the highlights this afternoon that the Steve Smith innings was something special. With the technique he has honed, it really doesn’t seem logical that he can score runs, let alone be so consistently good but fair play to him, he was a class apart yesterday. Even if he has a tiny head..

23:49 I still randomly like Boycott’s commentary. There I’ve said it, it feels like a dirty secret…

23:58 Here we go then, can England get through the first session unscathed…

00:00 FIRST BALL and left alone

00:02 Alison Mitchell & Punter heading up the commentary. Perhaps Lovejoy has tonsillitis (says a little prayer)..

00:09 I’ve genuinely been amazed that Starc has been identified as the key Australian threat with the ball. For me Hazlewood is their gun bowler, despite his poor show in the first innings. His spell last night was unplayable at times.

00:13 This pitch doesn’t look like it has any demons in it, Root looks in decent touch too. I wonder how much spin might play a part later on. Lyon outbowled Moeen big time in the first innings.

00:18 Ricky Ponting is a very good commentator, no laddish jokes, just insightful opinion. He’ll never get a job on Channel 9 mind.

00:25 Australia’s attack looks a little toothless this morning. The pitch is still slow, but equally England have silenced the crowd in the first half hour. I wonder how long before Cummins is bought into the attack?

00:27 Oh feck, Swann is alive and well and joined by Shiny Toy. Might have to put the TV on mute…

00:32 An update on TLG, he’s just finished his Lambrini in the local park in Sussex and is off for a dirty donner. More on that later…

00:36 First over from Lyon, no real spin so far. Cummins at the other looks far more of a threat. If you’d have offered me this at the start of the day’s play, I’d have snapped your hand off

00:47 Some discontent about scoring rates BTL. I must admit that I’m delighted by this start. We all know that Kookaburra ball goes soft after 20 overs and there’s the option of increasing the scoring rate. I’d be very happy if England batted all day, but then i did worry we’d be blown away in the 3rd innings…

00:49 WICKET: Stoneman edges one off Lyon to slip. Australia’s bowling has looked innocuous all morning, but that was a decent delivery

00:52 TBF to Swann, he has got it spot on there. It was the arm ball at the end of the last over that led to some doubt in Stoneman’s mind. I just wish Swann would concentrate on commentating based on his own experience as a spinner. Rather than trying to be the funniest man in the world.

00:57 England looking nervous after that wicket. Cummins and Lyon both bowling well.

00:59, TLG is back from the park and is ready to take over. He has informed me that he wouldn’t feed Lambrini to his butler but the bottle of Blue Nun was lovely. Anyway, over to Chris…

01:00 Where I live we don’t have parks; we have countryside.  Anyway…

Even with the loss of Stoneman, this has been a positive start from England today.  They’re pushing for runs, being busy.  The point about Root is that if he stays in, he will score.  That’s probably the most striking thing about him.  Lyon does look dangerous to the lefties though.

01:03 I need to ask a question.  Who is reading the updates?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

01:12 Bueller’s taken a day off it seems. 70-3, a lead of 44.  At what point will Australia start to get twitchy I wonder.  If they put on 50 for this wicket, I suspect they’ll start getting concerned.  In a compacted second half of the game like this, smaller numbers count for more.

01:15 Awww Trev….

01:18 WICKET!  Malan goes to Lyon.  One of those with loop and bounce and turn, that is so hard for the left hander.  No blame, but England are 48 ahead and now four wickets down.  Root is still there, but someone needs to stay with him.

01:21 Given how hard it is, I suspect Moeen might try and counter attack.  Probably not the worst idea either.  There are stories going around that he has a problem with his finger, hampering his bowling.  The official line is that he was a blister.

01:29  England’s lead is now up to 57, but of course they’ve lost two wickets this morning.  Not enough runs, clearly, but neither have they collapsed (yet) so far.  Another 100 gives England a slight chance, another 150 and it’s game on.  England are well in the game, but it would probably be an idea to build a partnership sooner rather than later.

01:42 Runs are flowing a touch.  Both Root and Moeen are playing a few shots – not recklessly, but they’re looking to score.  This partnership is 28 from 33 balls, and that has to be what England need to do.  It might not come off, but it’s more than worth a go.

01:48 Watching the groundstaff smack down the bowlers’ footmarks reminds me of how we used to wind up the bowlers about their preference for one end.  “Oh I can’t bat at that end, it just doesn’t feel right.  No, no, I can only bat at the other end.  You don’t understand, it’s totally different”.

01:51 I don’t want to tempt fate, but Moeen is starting to tick here….

01:52 50!  WICKET! Joe Root out in similar fashion to the first innings, and it looked very, very out on first viewing.

02:01 And that’ll be lunch.  119-5 means a lead of 93, and frankly, it’s not remotely enough.  Still two frontline batsmen in of course, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, the latter of which is clearly itching to go after the Australians.  But another 100 would be needed to really make the hosts sweat a little, and that seems a long way off yet.  It’s possible mind, it really is possible.  But it’s heading towards the outer edge of what’s possible.  Hope is the last thing to die…

02:11 Truly joyous moment in the lunch break where Swann berated the England left handers for not formulating a plan against Nathan Lyon while Geoff Boycott adopted his ‘You’re talking total shit, Swann’ expression.  “I’m not sure I agree with that….” he politely said.

Keep your eye on Boycott’s expression.

02:30 There’s something particularly endearing about hearing Australians describe the Gabba as the fairest cricket wicket in the world, given how it’s 30 years since they’ve lost a Test there.  Irony deficiency is entertaining to watch.

02:38 Players coming back out.  This next session is crucial.  Crucial I tell you!  Or maybe vital.  Definitely crucial though.

02:43 Moeen isn’t going to die wondering.  First he comes down the track and belts Lyon over long on for four, then he goes down on one knee and nails a sweep through square leg.  And the lead goes over 100.

02:55 Interesting to see Australia move a little on the defensive after a flurry of runs after lunch.  Fielders disappearing out to the boundary suggests that the hosts are a tiny bit nervous about chasing any kind of reasonable total. 112 ahead.

03:06 This is good stuff from these two.  Rotating the strike, picking up the singles, and then Bairstow sashays down the track and plants Lyon over deep midwicket for six.  The lead goes to 123, and if Australia aren’t getting nervous yet, there’s definitely a bit of a twitch going on.

03:15 This Test is just starting to get fascinating.  These two have turned a disastrous position into one of, well not promise exactly, but possibilities certainly.  I’m going to quit while I’m ahead, and leave you in Danny’s company…

0319 Danny here, taking you through the graveyard shift. Promising session so far from England, but years of supporting them has told me that it’s the hope that make it hurt more…

0322 WICKET I think we can all agree that this was thelegglance’s fault. Moeen Ali plays forwards to a Lyon delivery which goes past the bat, and Tim Paine removes the stumps. Australia appeal, and after several replays the 3rd umpire gives him out as his back foot was on but not behind the line.

0335 Woakes is in, but not looking confident so far. England’s lead is just 132 and I fear this game might be over tonight.

0407 Australia keeping England very quiet, but no more wickets have fallen. Smith comes on to bowl, the first time he’s done so in a Test since January this year, which is surprising because Australia have toured both India and Bangladesh since then.

0427 WICKET Woakes attempts to defend a short ball from Mitchell Starc, but it slides off the shoulder of his bat to Smith at second slip. England lead by 159 with 7 wickets down.

0438 WICKET You understand that when batting with the tail, perhaps you should be more attacking. There is such a thing as too attacking though, and a prime example is this shot by Bairstow. Apparently looking to guide a short, wide ball from Starc over the slips, he instead sends it straight to third man with a shot more reminiscent of catching practice than Test cricket. England lead by 168 with 2 wickets remaining.

0444 WICKET 4 balls later from Starc and he bowls a full one outside off stump to Stuart Broad. The batsman plays inside it, and gets the faintest of nicks to the wicketkeeper. The umpire gave it not out, but Australia used a DRS appeal and both there was both a sound and a faint mark on HotSpot so he had to go.

0449 WICKET A bouncer from Cummins to tailender Jake Ball, who gets a glove on it and the ball loops behind the wicketkeeper where Handscomb catches it. England lost their last 4 wickets for just 4 runs, and Australia have a target of 169 runs with a minimum of 32 left in the day.

0509 All that typing has tired me out, so here’s Dmitri to open the Australian 2nd innings.

0510 Cheers Danny. 90 minutes sleep woken up by an absolute turd cold calling my number. I tried to get back to sleep, but gave up and am now assisting our night owl.  Anderson’s first over is a maiden.

0513 Mitchell on comms says Warner can make any small total look inadequate through aggressive batting. That’s because that attitude is encouraged. I’ve not seen YJB’s dismissal yet, but he’s being crucified on social media as Cook was last night and all through Saturday. Warner off the mark 1st ball. Bancroft follows him second ball. Warner takes a single third ball. All runs we should not be conceding. A boundary off the 5th ball and you can almost sense a slump in the shoulders. 7/0

0518 I remember the Gabba run chase in 1990. When they won by 10 wickets after we chucked away a decent position. The only time the team with a first innings lead has lost at Brisbane. A beauty fifth ball does not catch the edge. England need an early breakthrough, if that ain’t stating the bloody obvious. 8/0 after the third over.

0524 Better over so far, with a play and miss (and hopeful appeal) by Warner. They know they need to see off Broad and Anderson because the support bowling is a massive drop-off. Maiden for Broad. 8/0. As Mitchell just said.

0527 I’m not sure I can put up with KP’s commentary at this time of the morning. Bancroft squirts one through the gully for a four off the fourth ball. Anderson throws the ball at the opener the following ball but no fuss. End of the over and it is 12/0.

0531 Warner dinks one into the offside off the second ball of Broad’s third over for one. In Nagpur Virat Kohli has just gone through to his 19th test ton and you sense pulling away from Root (with Smith) at the top table of world batting. Broad’s over goes for 1, and it is 13/0. And I have to listen to Ray Winstone missing nuffink.

0535 and if that deep cover wasn’t there it would be 20/0. But anyway, no alarms so far. As i write that there is an LBW appeal fourth ball is too high and isn’t reviewed. One run from the over and it is 14/0.

0539 Bowling well without threatening, and some odd field placings so far, as Warner drops one into the leg side for a single off the second ball. One off that one, 15 for 0. Looks like, at this rate, we’ll be back tomorrow.

0545 Vaughan states the effing obvious that England need a wicket – we need 10 Shiny Toy. Warner takes a single off the third ball. He seems to have rumbled, Shiny, that is that the Aussies don’t rate our change bowlers and are just seeing off the openers. Bancroft takes a sharp single off the last ball to take Australia to 17/0.

0549 Another sharp single off the second ball of Broad’s over. This is annoying me more than anything, as it releases the pressure the bowlers are building, such as it is. A leg bye off the fifth with an appeal that was, sadly, nonsense. And the final ball of the over has another one of those bloody singles. 20/0, Anderson off and Moeen Ali on.

0553: Ali’s first ball is nudged for a single by Bancroft. Plus ca change. KP says Cook is the main concern. Another single off the third ball. Another bloody single off the 5th ball. KP is intimating Cook’s lost his mojo and his drive. Moeen’s first over ends, three runs from it. 23/0.

0557 PUJARA GONE FOR 143. Is that real?

0558 Woakes on for Broad. I don’t think it is a matter of Cook (who they are talking about) not caring, it’s that he is in decline. Appeal from behind the wicket off the fourth ball, but it’s not out. Maiden from Woakes. 23/0 from 12 overs. Minimum 22 to go. Sod off Kamara.

0602 Another bloody single off the third ball, again straight to a fielder. This is like the Old Jos, and no-one is mentioning it. After saying that Bancroft doesn’t know whether to stick or twist, Swann is made to look a little silly as the opener smacks a straight six. 30/0.

0606 Warner pulls the second ball of the over for a couple. He might not have hit a boundary but looks very comfortable to me. Nicks/glides the next one for four through third man. Actually probably a great shot. Cook “won’t say boo to a goose” says Lovejoy, which, I am sure, is why he should have remained captain for all those years. Warner has another single to point. I see it is the Buckethead Army this year as a promotion – it was Boony Army when I was out there. I love Aussie advertising. 37/0

0610 Excitement Machine Warner is tied down, but then cuffs a shot down the ground for four. I can sense the Moeen debate resurfacing. A single off the last ball and it is 41/0. And after my typing torrent, it is the more measured words of Danny for the rest of the day’s play. Get me a wicket Danny!

0615 I have to say that my last spell was terrible for England, so I wouldn’t expect anything.

0626 8 runs off the last Moeen Ali over, but it looks like Australia are happy to play steadily and come back tomorrow to finish things off.

0640 Nope, that’s all I can stand tonight, I’m off to bed.

1010 Dmitri back again with the end of play / chronic lack of sleep round-up. Danny will be producing a more full review of the day, so I thought I’d get in my twopenny worth.

This was stunningly predictable. I think something, a little bit, should be made about the lack of preparation on suitable playing surfaces and oppositions, because the team came in cold. That only goes so far. The players want shorter tours, they are on a treadmill and so on. The second, and much more important point, is that the team picked was so predictably going to pull up short. There’s not a lot that can be done about that either. The new intake are not as good as the old stagers, and it is showing. Stoneman, for instance, is getting praised to the hilt for basically giving us Michael Carberry returns. Vince makes 83, but that second innings dismissal didn’t look like a number 3 to me. Malan is going to tempt us, but fall short. We are greeting 50s like hundreds. And the world and his wife can see four right arm seamers is not the greatest variety. But let’s have the full inquest on another day.

Australia played really sensibly and not a lot could have changed the outcome once chasing a small total like this. What ground my gears is the way the two openers early in the innings were allowed to milk singles straight to fielders with no real chance of a run out. If we did that at schoolboy cricket we’d be told off. Come in a few paces. It’s just me, then.

Also, pace made the difference? I’m not totally buying that. The tail have taken to Starc and Hazlewood before so why worry now? One silly shot from YJB and everyone is in meltdown about the tail? Small sample size. Let us judge at the end of the tour.

So, in the words of Norwegian electronic music stars Royksopp, the Inevitable End will take place within an hour of the start of play and Australia will go 1-0 up. After the lack of sleep, was it all worth it. Of course it was, because for 3 and a half days it was a thoroughly absorbing test match. That’s the really important thing. There’s not a lot better in sport. The result is probably the cricket equivalent of the rugby international the week before. The better team won, the margin of victory could look a little flattering.

Wake up Danny (actually don’t, stay asleep). You review is awaited. I know I share my co-editors’ views that we owe our new man a lot for staying up through the night and producing the updates. Live blogging seems to have gone down well. We will see what we can do in the next tests.

 

 

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?