Dedication’s What’s You Need

Since the first one day match nearly 50 years ago England have had a rather troubled relationship with the format.  Despite protestations to the contrary over that time, it has taken a clear second place to Test cricket in both the affections of English fans and the ECB itself. Where the horse and the cart are located is an open question, but despite reaching three World Cup finals it’s a poor record compared to any of the other major nations. The World T20 win in 2010, propelled by He Who Must Not Be Mentioned remains the only global title England have ever won, a shockingly poor return.

England have had periods of some success of course, but always with the feeling that they were carrying an extra load on their backs.  The innovation came from from others, England last showing signs of thinking differently when they pushed Ian Botham up to open the batting in Australia in 1987.  The 1992 tournament turned out to be something of a high water mark meaning that for a substantial proportion of followers England have been dreadful their entire lives.  Of course that’s a slight exaggeration, there have been times where they’ve put in good performances, won series and reached finals ; likewise there have been players who have been good performers in both 20 and 50 overs, and yet although individual players were considered dangerous – Pietersen most notably recently – it never amounted to a side who would ever truly scare the opposition.

With the invention of T20 at professional level, it moved to a different plane, as all the major sides upped the ante.  Where scores of 300 were regarded as exceptional, they now became the norm, with 400+ now not even proving a safe score as Australia found in South Africa.  But not for England.  Stories abounded of them being hidebound by computer modelling, of aiming for “competitive” scores that the data told them they would win with, only to be battered.  Graeme Swann has rarely proved to be a reliable witness but his stories of England’s tactical thinking seemed all too plausible.

The nadir came at the 2015 World Cup, where England failed to get out of their group, something that takes a considerable degree of effort considering the determination of the ICC to try to render the group stages to be as meaningless as possible, except financially.  They left to derision from the cricket world, and contempt at home, a path their football and rugby equivalents would follow soon enough.

And yet.  With hindsight perhaps the first glimmers of a new approach came at around that time.  The removal of Alastair Cook from the side, to his clear and very public disgust, was long overdue – not because he isn’t a good player, but because his style of batting is simply obsolete in short form cricket. His replacement Eoin Morgan’s clearly stated dissatisfaction with the method England were employing became ever more obvious during the disastrous performances in Australia, while the omission of Ben Stokes from the squad and refusal to pick Alex Hales seemed symptomatic of a setup that simply didn’t appear to understand one day cricket, thinking it a contraction of Tests not an expansion of T20.  For the first time though, the players were showing the smallest hints of rebellion, and the appointment of Paul Farbrace to the England coaching staff seemed entirely at odds with a side approaching the game in such a conservative fashion.

The removal of Peter Moores as coach appeared to be the catalyst for finally attempting to play the game as the rest of the world had been doing for some years, and the bonus of New Zealand being the first visitors post World Cup forced the change in concept, both in one day cricket and Test cricket.  England have a lot to be thankful to their teachers for.  Andrew Strauss’s decision to retain Morgan as captain was, if not a brave one as such, certainly not what was expected.  Farbrace’s determination that England play with freedom wasn’t remotely the first time it had been said, but it was the first time anyone had ever meant it.  The old line about scoring at ten an over but don’t take any risks which was unquestionably the way England thought gave way to a more forgiving environment where taking risks was encouraged, and failure in that pursuit forgiven.  This is perhaps the biggest, most important change England ever made.  Freeing up players to express themselves is only truly possible if those players do not feel a presence looking over their shoulders in the event that they fail.  There are endless buzz terms to describe that, but it still amounts to accepting that failure is the price of success.

The impact was immediate, England going over 400 for the first time in a series where they scored at least 300 every time except in a rain affected D/L win.  Whereas before 300 was the upper limit of England’s aspirations, they were suddenly viewing it as the bare minimum.  The second match, a defeat, perhaps best expressed the remarkable change in thinking.  New Zealand had scored an impressive 398-5, the kind of total England couldn’t ever have hoped to try to chase down.  They fell short alright, but only by 13 runs.  For the first time, there was a feeling that England might actually be developing the kind of side to seriously challenge large totals.

New players were being brought in, not because they were being analysed for a Test place, but because they were outstanding one day prospects.  Jason Roy had a slowish start but was kept faith with; Ben Stokes was brought back; Alex Hales was no longer kicking his heels and carrying drinks but opening the batting and being told to play the way he can.  From an era where England relied on the middle order to try to raise the tempo from a solid start, they were suddenly going at it from the off, with those below tasked with maintaining the momentum, not rescuing a lost cause and aiming for respectability.

A series defeat to Australia followed, and the flip side of the determination to attack showed itself in the decider, where England collapsed to 138 all out and were thrashed.  This perhaps proved to be the most important test, for rather than retreating into their shells they instead, under new coach Trevor Bayliss, reaffirmed their determination to play in the same way and to consider such failures as nothing other than an occupational hazard.  There’s an irony here – for so long asserting that high risk approach as being the way a player or a team does things has been used as a stick with which to beat them.  Grasping that risk is part of the equation has always seemed beyond a certain, very English kind of mindset.

A comfortable series win in the UAE against Pakistan showed that England could play more than one way under different conditions, for that kind of away series offered different challenges and different upper limits in terms of scoring.  It also marked a change in bowling approach to stop simply using the Test bowlers – not for the sake of it, but because there were better one day options available.  Jason Roy too finally showed what he is capable of, and with Jos Buttler rapidly becoming a player to genuinely fear, for the first time in living memory England had a top five or six where every single one of them could seriously damage opponents.  One player not mentioned so far is Joe Root, and it could be said that he is performing the kind of role given in previous years to Cook or Trott – the conventional player around whom the others would bat.  The difference being that Root is a true modern cricketer, multi-dimensional and capable of all formats.  A run a ball as the base minimum is not at all bad when others are scoring even faster.

England lost the subsequent series in South Africa, but not before once again approaching the 400 mark and not before once again overreaching and falling short in two matches to cost the series. That caused the first criticism from the press of how England were playing, that they needed to learn to lower their sights.  Although never being explicit about it, the message that came back when reading between the lines was to reject that kind of thinking completely, that bad days given the nature of the format were inevitable and that if England were truly to become the best, then this was the only way they would achieve it.

It is of course impossible to assess a wider view on how that response was received, but at least anecdotally, English supporters appeared to be fully behind it, and much more willing to accept the bad days than the media were.  In most sports, supporters tend to be more forgiving of failure if they have faith in the approach.  And this one was exciting – reaching for the stars is more thrilling than simply aiming to get off the ground, even when it doesn’t quite work out.

Which brings us to yesterday.

Given the history of England in one day cricket, the very idea that England would break the world record total was perhaps one of the most laughable that could be conceived.  Perhaps only Bangladesh or Zimbabwe of the full members would ever be thought less likely to do such a thing, and undoubtedly eyebrows will be raised around the world that it was England (“What, England?”) who set the new target.  But it’s been coming.  While results have been a little up and down, the likelihood that England would give a bowling attack a right royal pasting has been increasing all the time.  Pakistan may not be at the level they have been, but their bowling is their strong suit, and yesterday they were simply destroyed.

Perhaps symptomatic of England’s troubled history is that their national record for the highest individual score had stood for over 20 years, and while Robin Smith’s 167 is a fine score in any era, that it barely crept into the top 40 of highest individual scores – with the best ever nearly a hundred more – was as good an example of how badly England had been left behind as you could find.  Smith’s record may have stood for 23 years, but there are no guarantees at all that Hales’ new mark will stand for as long as 23 days.  Jason Roy came close only recently, and Jos Buttler, Joe Root or Ben Stokes look capable of beating it every time they come out to bat, while Eoin Morgan is hardly ruled out.

Further down the order hitters are prevalent too, indeed only Mark Wood resembles a tail ender in any way – Liam Plunkett at ten has shown himself capable of striking the first ball he receives for six in the past.  If that is the batting, then the bowling attracts less attention, but as much as anything this is merely how one day cricket now works.  It is all about the batting, and bowlers, to their chagrin and the delight of batsmen the world over, are reduced to nothing more than feeding the batters and trying to keep the run rate under control.  Perversely or not, this makes bowlers who do take wickets even more valuable, and it is in that discipline that there is a little less certainty with regard to England.

While Hales rightly got the man of the match, it was Buttler who caught the eye even more.  He simply terrorises the opposition – while he is in, anything is possible.  Even so, while he reached his 50 off 22 balls, Eoin Morgan was only two balls slower to his, yet passed almost unnoticed such was the headiness of the striking.

England are now at the point where they strike fear into the heart of opponents.  By making such a statement they are ensuring that no team will ever be sure they have enough runs, that no total is ever impregnable.  It may not be that England are the best team in the world, but they are not far from it and they are still developing.  Next year sees the Champions Trophy held in England, and perhaps for the very first time England will go in to a tournament not just with hopes of winning, but realistic aspirations that they should.  Quite simply, there is no team, not India, not Australia, not New Zealand, who can compete with England’s batting power and depth.  That in itself does not make them the best, for different conditions will bring different problems and highlight specific weaknesses, while other teams will play far better than Pakistan have.  But what it does do is cause every other nation to cast nervous glances towards a side who are beginning to demonstrate that they are something a little bit special.

For any England fan, this is truly remarkable.  The country that showed little interest except during World Cups where they stank the place out has set down a new standard.  For the first time, perhaps ever, it is England who are causing the rest of the world to consider how to catch up.

Remarkable.

 

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Hand me Down a Solution – Series Review

In the early 1980s when growing up, summer holidays meant tuning in to BBC1 at 10:55 to watch the Test matches.  Come the end of summer, the feeling of melancholy at the conclusion of a series was always strong, with the only subsequent cricket being the end of season Lords one day final, which was akin to pretending to enjoy the sloe gin from the drinks cabinet when everything else has been consumed.  Times change, and cricket now is unending, where the finish to the Tests is merely a pause before the one day internationals begin, and then England go on tour somewhere.  In the same way that the end of the football season is a mere pause in hostilities, the end of the Test match cricket summer no longer normally carries so much power to create sadness.

And yet with this one, perhaps there is a little more in the way of regret at the passing of the season.  This is probably as much as anything due to Pakistan, who have been exceptional tourists, and thoroughly merited their victory at the Oval to draw the series.  Four Tests also offered up the reminder as to why a five Test series remains the best possible format, provided the series is a competitive one.  Few cricket fans would object to a decider for this one, yet it is a lament that so often is heard and never acted upon.  It was at least better than the ridiculous two Test “series” against New Zealand last year.

What the drawn series did do was silence those who were quoting the article of faith about England holding all the bilateral trophies.  It isn’t that doing such a thing isn’t a meritorious achievement, it’s just that something that no one had ever noticed or paid attention to before somehow became the highest possible achievement in the game in their eyes.  As with so many things, the context is all, noting success is a good thing, going overboard about it is not.  Doubtless, the bilateral series record will now return to being what it always was – a minor matter.

Given their troubled previous tour to England, Pakistan clearly intended to win hearts and minds this time around, and in that they succeeded.  It is a remarkable turn around for a side who it is probably fair to say were one of the least popular touring sides in England; they played with a joie de vivre that reminds everyone that cricket – even in its modern, money is all important guide – is a game, a pastime, and above all fun; the reason all of these players first picked up a bat or a ball in the first place.  The repeated press ups may have irritated the England players, but it amused the spectators every time.  Quite simply, the Pakistan team looked like they were enjoying themselves.  One particular moment comes to mind, a catch by Hafeez (who didn’t exactly have many high points) caused a young boy in the crowd to wildly celebrate, being picked up by the TV cameras and leading the player to end almost doubled over laughing, and applauding his young supporter.  It was a delightful moment, and one that re-inforced the image of a team comfortable with where and who they are at last.

Misbah ul-Haq remains under-appreciated in his homeland, but elsewhere he is approaching hero status for cricket fans.  The achievements are verging on the extraordinary, with Pakistan now having the most successful period in Test cricket in their history under his leadership.  It is quite exceptional in itself, and given his age, truly remarkable.  Misbah has made Pakistan competitive, and above all given his team their self-respect.  If it has to be that it is something more recognised for what it is abroad, then that is a pity, but it is still worth recognising.

So what of England?  The first part of the summer was routine enough, a Sri Lankan side shorn of its great players was despatched with little difficulty, but Pakistan proved to be something of a harder nut to crack.  This in itself came as something of a surprise to some, with many predictions of a comfortable England win before the series began.  Yet Pakistan were always going to be a threat, and in advance of the series the assessment of it being between two sides with good seam attacks, and patchy batting proved to be ultimately more or less right.  England had the advantage in the middle and lower order, while Pakistan had a (much) better spinner at their disposal.

Statistics can be gleefully misleading at the end of a series though: take the comparison between Moeen Ali and Yasir Shah, both of whom averaged over 40 in the series with the ball.  Yet Yasir was instrumental in both Pakistan wins, while Moeen – with the ball at least – certainly was not.  This isn’t a particular surprise of course, for Yasir is an outstanding bowler, and even the most adoring fan of Moeen would never make that claim.  But it does highlight the point that players can have an impact in a game disproportionate to their overall figures, perhaps we could call it the Ben Stokes effect.

England did have some real successes in the series, Moeen himself batted absolutely beautifully, that dreadful slog at Lords proving to be very much the exception.  It’s notable in his case that that particular dismissal didn’t stop him from using his feet to the spinners, most gloriously on that final morning at Edgbaston where in the first over of the day he served notice that England were going all out for the win.  That Moeen can bat is not especially surprising news, that his batting improves out of all recognition when given one of the batting spots rather than being in the tail perhaps is.  Either way, and given that England have limited spin bowling options – presumably Adil Rashid will come in for the India tour – his series will count as a success, albeit with a couple of major caveats.  One item of note with Moeen’s bowling is that although his average is certainly not the best, his strike rate is quite decent, comparable with Nathan Lyon for example.  Batsmen do try to attack him, and do get out to him.  In the absence of a truly top class spinner of the calibre of a Graeme Swann, replacing Moeen with another off spinner is unlikely to deliver markedly improved results.  It doesn’t mean defending Moeen irrespective, but it does mean cutting England’s cloth according to what they have.  A decade ago Ashley Giles received no end of criticism for not being Shane Warne, but he did a job, and did it well.  Chasing rainbows is not the means to a successful side.

Joe Root finished top of the batting averages, largely due to that astounding 254.  Aside from that it will represent a mildly frustrating series for him, getting in and getting out with annoying frequency.  An illustration of just how good Root has become is shown by the feeling that the series was a slightly unsatisfying one despite over 500 runs at more than 73.  Such is the penalty for excellence, for brilliance is expected every time.  But Root himself alluded to the irritation of getting out when set, so it is less a criticism, and more a matter of the player being so good now that he can deliver even more than he currently is.  He has a decent shout of being England’s best batsman in many, many years.

Cook too had a mixed time of it, despite a strong set of figures over the series.  He looked somewhat rusty in the first Test, but thereafter his biggest problem appeared to be that his form was too good if anything.  He rattled along, having the highest strike rate of anyone bar Moeen, a most un-Cooklike state of affairs.  He was fluent and even playing cover drives, which tends to be one of the best indicators of an in form Cook.  That would then bring about his downfall – seeing him caught at point off a skewed drive, or dragging pull shots onto the stumps is not something that is expected.  Most batsmen will tell you that they score the most runs when they are just shy of their very best, where there is a degree of caution in the strokeplay.  When feeling on top of the world, more chances are taken, and getting out is more likely.  It is impossible to measure, but the suspicion has to be that this was the case with Cook this time.  Still, a good series for him.

Jonny Bairstow was the other major plus point in the batting order.  He’s the leading run scorer in Tests in the world this calendar year (by dint of having played far more than anyone else, it has to be an Englishman) and scored heavily without ever going on to a truly match defining innings at any point.  Four fifties and no hundreds represents a decent return from a player in excellent form, but perhaps his most notable achievement was muting the comment about his wicketkeeping.  He hasn’t turned into a great ‘keeper overnight, and probably never will, but it is tidier, and with fewer errors than in previous series.  He pulled off a couple of decent catches too.  His wicketkeeping remains a work in progress, but the reality is that his runs balance that out; the age old debate about a specialist keeper versus an auxiliary batsman who keeps has long been settled, in favour of the batting.  Bairstow will make mistakes, but the more he keeps – and it does need to be remembered that much of his career he has been essentially part-time – the better he will get.  There have been some suggestions that he move up the order, effectively to compensate for the flaws in England’s batting, but it would be a big ask to expect him to do that, especially in the heat of India or Bangladesh.  Weakening another player to make up for the failures of others has never been a solution.

England have become something of a team of all rounders in the last eighteen months, and the player who was widely felt to be more of a bits and pieces player than a true example of the breed is Chris Woakes, who probably had the best series of anyone.  He batted well enough, making a maiden half century, but his bowling was a revelation to many.  Yet Woakes has an excellent first class record with both bat and ball, and he was hardly the first player to find the transition to Test cricket a challenge.  The demand for instant success clouds the reality that an immediate impact guarantees nothing, and other players can take time to adjust.  One fine series doesn’t mean that he’s a fixture for the next few years, but he’s started to look the part with the ball for a while; in South Africa he bowled with very well yet was spectacularly unlucky.  This time he got the rewards.  By all accounts he has worked exceptionally hard on his bowling, putting on an extra few mph and improving his control.  Players can and do learn – it is not unlikely that James Anderson is a rather useful resource – and Woakes’ success is a reward for being patient with him.

Stuart Broad is a bowler who attracts considerable ire and much comment, despite a record over the last couple of years that compares with anyone.  This series certainly wasn’t his best, and mutterings about his apparent habit of coasting resurfaced.  Yet 13 wickets at 28.61 is hardly a catastrophic return, and if that now counts as coasting, then it merely demonstrates what a fine bowler he has become.  It was a relatively quiet series for him because he didn’t have one of those spells where he becomes completely unplayable, rather than because he struggled at any point.  Broad is the focal point of the England bowling attack these days, despite Woakes having a better time of it this time.  Criticism of Broad is absurd, he is a fine bowler who had a series that was quiet by his standards.  The “by his standards” is the key.  Where there can be severe disappointment with him is with his batting.  It has completely fallen apart, and the pity of that is that for so long he looked like someone who, if never destined to be a true all rounder, looked a player capable of meaningful contributions on a regular basis.

Anderson too had a reasonably quiet but still moderately effective series.  He didn’t take a whole lot of wickets, but maintained excellent control throughout.  He made more headlines for having a preposterous strop at being rightly sanctioned for running on the track than anything else.  What can be said about him is that at 34 he remains an outstanding athlete, with few obvious signs of diminishing powers.  Assuming he carries on for another few years he will doubtless get slower, but he is a clever bowler, and one who will use the skill developed over a career to take wickets.  At the veteran stage of his cricketing life, he is still a valuable asset.

As for Steven Finn, his raw figures look horrible, but at times he bowled well and with pace.  He’s a difficult one to assess, forever making progress and then regressing.  At 27 he should be coming into his peak, but the nagging worry that he is not going to fulfil the potential he first showed is very much there.  Two away series (assuming Bangladesh goes ahead) in Asia are unlikely to show him at his very best, given that the rampaging, lightning fast Finn of the past now appears to be something we won’t see again.  He is once more at the crossroads, and which way his career goes is open to question.

The bowling overall looks in reasonable shape, the nucleus is there as it has been for some years, and if the spin side of it looks a bit thin, it’s an issue that applies to the English game as a whole more than anything.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the batting, for despite the good performances of those mentioned, that they were required to do almost all of it as the rest of the top order had poor series.

Ballance was the best of them, and he at least has a strong record to fall back on.  His return to Test cricket doesn’t appear to have shown any major changes in his technique, beyond batting a little more out of the crease than he used to.  He didn’t appear out of his depth, did get a few good deliveries and made one score of note.  Of all the players who had weak series, he still appears to be best equipped for Test cricket.  Yet the jury remains out on him, as to whether that slightly idiosyncratic style is going to allow him to make a true success of the longest form of the game.  He probably did enough to retain his place in the side, if only because others did worse, but he needs significant runs soon if he is not to be another to shine brightly but briefly.

Hales and Vince are the two who are most at risk, yet for differing reasons.  Hales doesn’t have the purest technique, but was brought into the side to provide a contrast with Alastair Cook’s accumulative style of batting.  Yet it was Cook who was by far the more fluent, while Hales appears to be attempting to bat like a traditional opener.  It’s hard to understand the thinking behind this, for Hales is never going to be as competent at that as others are, his strengths are in playing his shots, taking the attack to the bowling and giving England a fast start.  Once in, he is one of the most destructive players around, but whether it is his own decision, or it is pushed from above, it seems to be the worst of all worlds, a pedestrian style and a technique that doesn’t stand up to the rigours of Test cricket.  It would be easier to comprehend if he was trying to be England’s answer to David Warner, and whether that succeeded or failed, it would at least be an experiment worth trying.  As things stand, it’s hard to grasp what the intention is.

Vince in contrast looks lovely, full of gorgeous and stylish shots, only to fall repeatedly to a fundamental weakness outside off stump.  The health enforced retirement of James Taylor created a vacancy in the middle order, but it wasn’t a position that had carried much strength anyway.  Vince looks every inch the Test cricketer right up to the point he gets out, then rinse and repeat next time around.  Michael Vaughan for one has insisted that Vince be given more time but the ISM factor there lowers the credibility of someone whose views ought to be credible.

What that means is that there are three players in the top five not pulling their weight, an impossible situation for any team.  The only reason it hasn’t proved catastrophic is because of the strength of the middle and lower order.  When England’s top five (with two obvious exceptions) are collectively referred to as the “first tail” it’s clear there is a problem.  Of course, not for the first time the selectors have made a rod for their own backs.  As with the Pietersen situation it requires replacements to be notably better than those that have been dropped, and the discarding of Ian Bell can hardly be said to have been an unqualified success.  The problem here is not the dropping of a player, it so rarely is.  Bell had struggled for a while and not selecting him for the South Africa tour was a decision that could be justified.  Where England go wrong is in at the very least implying that at no point could they ever have made a mistake, and ignoring any and all criticism that they may have done so.  All teams have to create a space for new players to develop, the issue England have is that 60% of the top five are in that position, something completely unsustainable.  The rather transparent attempt to undermine the selectors in the media by the coincidence of several articles at once proposing the creation of a supremo (like we haven’t been here before) don’t alter the truth that the selectors themselves have a fairly patchy record.

Looked at that way, it is something of a miracle England managed to draw the series at all.  With the five matches in India to come, it is difficult to see how they could get away with these flaws.  The one bright spot is that Ben Stokes will return, and while his batting is not entirely reliable it is at least more so than some currently in the side.  It may well be that by bringing in Rashid and dropping one of the seamers (presumably Finn at this stage) they have a ridiculously strong middle order with Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes and Rashid comprimising numbers 5 to 9.  Whether that then compensates for the top is another matter.  There are whispers that Adam Lyth may be recalled to top of the order, or it could be that another young player is thrown in.  Eventually no doubt they will find the right player, but repeated discarding of batsmen doesn’t give too much confidence in the method.

A few last items: It has been a regular topic of complaint on here, but this was surely the summer in which poor over rates finally caused the ICC to take action and stop the theft of spectators’ money.  It would take an extraordinarily insular governing body who didn’t have an issue with it, one that considered paying spectators as nothing other than a resource to be exploited.  Perish the thought.

According to the press, should the Bangladesh series go ahead it will be left to the players to decide whether to go, with no adverse reaction should they decide not to do so.  Nice words, but the reality is always different; it may not be deliberate, but a player has a chance to get into the side by making himself available – equally few but the most comfortable will want to take the chance that someone else comes in and takes their spot.  It’s not meant to be critical, the ECB’s position on this is a reasonable enough one.  But reality intrudes on this – there will be some reluctant tourists.

After that comes India, and a huge challenge for the team.  While it is entirely for monetary reasons, it is still welcome to have a five Test series over there, but 2012 is a long time ago and England will do will to escape with a drawn series, let alone anything better.  Cook will need to be at his very best for one thing, but the batting will need to do far better than it has shown itself capable of in recent times in order to compete.

England are not a bad side at all.  The Test rankings show nothing more than that several teams are capable of beating each other on their day and (especially) in their own conditions.  But for all the talk about whether England could get to number one by beating Pakistan, it’s of no importance if they might drop down the series following.  There is no outstanding side in world cricket quite simply, and the focus on being the best is quite some way away.  Although there is necessarily going to be an England-centric focus on that, it’s no bad thing to have a number of competitive sides.  A bigger issue is the difficulty of winning away for anyone – which is why Pakistan drawing this series is such a creditable result.  They have been delightful visitors.

Oh yes one last thing.  It’s 8-8 in Director, Cricket’s  Big Plan To Make Cricket Relevant Idea.  You hadn’t forgotten had you?

England vs Pakistan: 3rd Test, Day Three

This blog has been on something of a mission to talk about over rates over the last year or so, but even by the woeful and unpunished standards of that time today was something special.  Only 81 overs were bowled in the day, and that was thanks to the innings change being at tea, otherwise it would have been in the seventies.  That is 10% of the day’s play not completed, and rightfully there has been much comment about it.

Yet it is merely an extreme example of something that is considered acceptable.  In no other sport would this go on – can you imagine a football match finishing after 81 minutes for example?  People have paid good money to go to these matches, and they are being shortchanged repeatedly.  What normally happens is that the match referees take into account delays such as reviews, repairing the bowlers footholes and so on – but this is nonsense.  The additional half hour is there precisely to cater for such things, it is not part of the playing time.

No excuses, no justification.  Today is merely an extreme example of the game not giving a stuff about those who pay to watch.

During what play there was, England actually had an exceptionally good day, perhaps even more so considering it wasn’t one of those magic days where nothing can go wrong.  Instead, on a pitch that has shown no signs whatever of breaking up – indeed it appears to have got flatter – they worked hard and stayed in touch through the dint of those efforts rather than anything extraordinary.  The wickets were shared around with the exception of the luckless Finn who cannot buy one at the present and suffered yet another dropped catch towards the end.

Woakes again was excellent, Anderson was miserly, and Broad showed what he has added to his game in the last few years – namely the ability to keep things tight and pick up wickets even when not at his very best.  Broad in particular is one of those divisive characters who gets criticism despite having a truly outstanding record in recent years.  He has a bowling average of 22.69 in the last two years.  This isn’t just good, it is truly world class.  Yet he still gets stick when he has a less than perfect day.  It’s hard to know what more he could possibly do to win the detractors over.

For Pakistan, a lead of 103 might have been less than they had hoped for, but it would have still been an immensely satisfying outcome from the first innings.  Stats can be manipulated to express a desired outcome, but the one that only 3% of matches have been lost by a side taking a lead of 100 or more does emphasise the strong position in which they found themselves.

It could have been better still – Misbah continued his one man mission to give hope to all those over the age of 40 with another good innings, cut short rather unluckily from an inside edge that deflected off pad and heel back on to the stumps.  After his departure the innings began to fall away, despite the best efforts of the increasingly impressive Sarfraz Ahmed, ultimately left stranded on 46 as the tail fell away.

Flat as the surface was, England were in some difficulty with the match position, and Cook and Hales deserve immense credit for batting to the end of the day without either being dismissed.  Pakistan’s bowling could have been better certainly, but there’s always the temptation to lay the blame on the opposition rather than praising England.  Confining Cook by not bowling anything wide of the stumps for him to cut is extremely easy to say, and not terribly easy to do.  The way Australia managed it in 2010/11 was exceptional – but that is not normal, or cricket would be a far easier game than it ever has been.  Likewise, Hales may have a weakness outside off stump, but he batted with good discipline and reined his instincts in.  In some ways this was his most impressive innings to date in the Test side.

So with England now in the lead with all 10 wickets in hand, it could be argued that the match is now level, and numerically this is so.  But psychology plays a funny role in cricket, and an effective 17-0 it may be, but the effort in getting to parity cannot be overlooked.  England have made a very good start, but 120-0 can all too easily become 150-3; still not a bad innings but in the match context 50-3 is back in trouble.  Therefore for England to get into a good position they will need to bat exceptionally well tomorrow too, they are the vulnerable team in this match still.

The draw is now a good possibility though, with two days remaining it’s hard to see circumstances where England are sufficiently comfortable to be in a position to declare, so at worst Pakistan will likely have less than a day to bat should things go perfectly for England.  Pakistan remain the most likely winners, and perhaps England’s best chance of victory is to be bowled out, sometime towards the end of play tomorrow.  Another 300 would represent a perfect fourth day and be a stiff target.  But another 300 would also require England to bat out of their skins.

This could yet become an exceptionally good Test match.

Day Four Comments Below

 

 

 

 

England vs Sri Lanka: 1st Test, day one

Unless the team batting first has an absolute horror then the first day invariably leaves the spectator unsure of where the match is going, even more so if a session is lost to the weather.  171-5 is not a great score, that’s certain, but as ever with Headingley the context of the overhead conditions and the pitch may mean it is better than it first appears.  Equally however, the movement off the seam and in the air was anything but prodigious – enough to keep the bowlers interested and the batsmen wary, but no minefield.  Therefore conclusions are entirely impossible to draw except to say that both teams will probably be fairly content with their work overall.  Sri Lanka have dismissed half the side and will hope to wrap up the rest reasonably quickly, while England have recovered well from the parlous position of 83-5.

That they did so was down to one player batting against type and another who is finding Test cricket rather easy at the moment – with the bat anyway.   Alex Hales found himself in the probably unfamiliar position of having to hold the innings together, and as a result batted cautiously throughout.  Without his knock England would have been in dire straits.  And yet it is to be hoped that Hales doesn’t see this as his role in future, for there are much better defensive openers in the game than him, and in the South African series he appeared to be struggling to try and play a game different from that at which he excels.  He does have technical limitations, but so does David Warner, and it isn’t a problem there because his role is to be the dasher.  When in, such players are devastating, but they can be knocked over cheaply by quality bowling.  Today Hales had little choice and deserves immense credit for battling his way through, but it would be a waste of what he is capable of if that is to be how England see him batting, for it is hard to see how he can succeed over the longer term.  But as England’s David Warner, well it might still be a long shot to be as effective, but it’s probably his best chance.  Today however, it was just right.

Jonny Bairstow is either in the form of his life or has thoroughly found his feet at the highest level, and perhaps something of both.  Middle order players who can turn the tide are invaluable, and England have a couple in the shape of him and Ben Stokes.  Ah yes, Ben Stokes.  It didn’t take long for the knives to come out concerning a poor shot.  As needs repeating time and time again, Stokes plays this way.  You cannot stand and cheer if the ball he was out to had gone just out of reach of the fielder and sped away for four – same shot, different outcome.  When Stokes is batting well, he chances his arm and gets away with it, the margins are that narrow, and it is as it always was, two sides of the same coin.  The glory of run a ball double centuries come with the disappointment of poor shots for not very many, it really cannot be something people have both ways.  His overall performance is the key, because there will be glorious highs and abject lows.

Naturally, the pre-match build up and the rain breaks were dominated by the whole story around Alastair Cook approaching 10,000 Test runs.  Sky went as preposterously over the top as they always seem to with all things Cook, offering an interview that was about as incisive as a This Morning chit chat, with unquestioned adoration of the Great Man throughout.  Cook did say that he just wanted the whole thing over with, and that would be quite understandable, for the use of him as an icon by broadcaster, media and the ECB is not his fault.  They have successfully turned what is undoubtedly going to be a fine achievement into something that has created serious irritation at the nature of the idolatry.  It’s quite an achievement, and it is to be strongly suspected that Cook is uncomfortable with the circus.  It’s a great pity, for achievements should be celebrated, instead they are having to be qualified because of the excessive claims.  Cook will get to 10,000 and he will and should be extremely proud of himself for it.  He’s been a fine player with power to add.

For Sri Lanka the man of the day was clearly Dasun Shanaka, who received his first Test cap before play began, and then came on as the fifth bowler just before lunch and promptly removed Cook, Compton and Root in the space of eight balls.  As debut victims go, that’s not bad at all.  He lacks pace, and bowls the kind of line and length that should have county coaches purring, and the ECB grinding their teeth having so recently announced the death of such bowling in the English game. Headingley has often rewarded bowlers of this nature, being the only ground where (back in the days they actually got more than the occasional Test) the phrase “horses for courses” would routinely make an appearance pre-selection.

One final thing to note, in two sessions of play only 53 overs were bowled.  It is unlikely this would have speeded up in the final session, and quite clearly the ICC no longer care, for fines for slow over rates appear to be a thing of the past, let alone suspensions.  It is of course one day, and one curtailed day at that.  But the pattern has been in place for quite some time.

My flight tomorrow is at 16:05 from Heathrow, so that is it from me for this Test and this series, though I daresay something will annoy me enough to post over the next month.  I’ll probably add some travel observations to my travel blog (I’ve already put up an intro for this trip – and if you’re interested in Myanmar, there’s plenty there from the last one), which is http://www.thelegglance.wordpress.com if you feel so inclined to say hello, otherwise, back in mid June!

Enjoy the rest of the Test – oh and day two comments below.

Chris

South Africa vs England 2nd ODI Review

In these days of scores approaching 400, there’s something curiously old fashioned about a game where 260 is the target and it goes down to the last few overs. It’s almost a throwback to the 1990s, with Ben Stokes playing the Derek Pringle role by going for six an over and being given out twice, and not out once when he probably should have been for a duck of glorious proportions.

It all meant that after the pyrotechnics of the first match, this seemed relatively low key throughout, where you notice that the Port Elizabeth crowd are not only fond of singing, but offer a rarity at any sporting location of being very much in tune. There’s something rather beautiful about it.

Perhaps South Africa did rather make heavy work of their last ten overs, but at that point a score of around 285 would have been towards the top of their aspirations anyway, so while 262 was disappointing, it is hard to make a case that they lost it just in that short period.

De Villiers’ dismissal to another exceptional catch, this time by Chris Jordan, did come at just the wrong time, but De Villiers was looking to go fully on the attack at that point anyway, with all the risks associated.

Much had been written about the surface being slower and less conducive to hitting, but it still felt at least 30 or 40 short. Of course, the change in mentality couldn’t be better expressed than in the feeling that if the England of a year ago had set that total they’d have walked off to applause from people pointing at their laptops, saying that would win most games historically. South Africa weren’t aiming for a score around that level, it’s simply how it turned out.  In any one ODI, this can and does happen.

In truth England seemed in control for most of the run chase. Alex Hales will bat better than that for many fewer runs, and in some ways those are the most satisfying innings. It was cruel on him to be dismissed one short of a hundred he’d have worked so hard for.

When Hales was dismissed England still needed 61 off 52 balls and with half the side out, surely a tight finish was likely. 20 minutes later it was all over, as IPL bound Jos Buttler, aided and abetted by Moeen Ali, finished the match in a flurry of fours and sixes. He’s in some form.

2-0, and England’s transformation continues.

South Africa vs England: 2nd Test, day one

One of the delights about Test cricket is how often the final hour of play proves pivotal, and makes the previous five hours seem pedestrian and unimportant in comparison.  It isn’t really like that of course, but day one is a set up day to begin with, and that final hour so often determines which side is the happier, almost irrespective of how things have gone up to that point.

For at drinks in the evening session, England were 224-5, not in trouble as such, but in severe danger of thoroughly wasting the opportunity of batting first.  Stokes and Bairstow’s thrilling counter-attack, particularly against the new ball, means that England will be reasonably content with their day’s work, though much more will be needed from them in the morning to turn it into a position of strength.

The day had largely been one of England players getting in and getting out.  Only Taylor was dismissed early; Cook was loose once again outside off stump, Hales caught in the slips again off a pretty decent ball, Compton nailed a pull straight to midwicket and Root played a rotten waft outside off stump.  If that seems overly harsh, individually it probably is.  Hales made his first Test fifty and batted extremely well, Root looked a million dollars and it was a surprise when he got out, and Compton played the number three role well again.  Yet for at least three of the top order to perish needlessly risked throwing away what could and should have been a position of dominance.  Sometimes these things just happen in the game of cricket, but it looked somewhat careless; the players will know that better than anyone – certainly Root looked about to explode as he left the field.

Compton himself has 179 runs in three innings since his recall, which ought to satisfy anyone.  Not withstanding his failure to go on from a start today, he is doing well.  Yet the pundits and commentators seem awfully quick to get on his back about his scoring rate. At lunch he was 3* off 27 balls, and it was a topic of conversation.  It is hardly unusual for a batsman to start that way, especially so in the run up to a break, and nor is it putting pressure on his batting partner at such a stage.  Given his struggles in the Test before he was dropped perhaps that is a legitimate topic of conversation, but the same thing kept cropping up throughout his innings, which was ultimately at the same strike rate as that well known blocker Alex Hales.    Nor is this a one off, given how Graeme Swann criticised Compton for slow play in the first Test, where Compton’s first innings knock was not only exactly what England needed, it went a fair way towards England winning the match.

Let’s be clear about this – Compton played a perfectly normal innings for a number three.  If it’s going to referred to as “staccato” then do so for other players, not just him – there is an undercurrent of being desperate to criticise for the sake of it.

But the day belonged to Bairstow and Stokes.  Their unbroken partnership of 94 came off just 19.1 overs, but it was the new ball that they were particularly severe on, particularly Stokes.  At one stage they were scoring at 9 an over, as Amla scattered the field.  There’s something to really like about this England team, and it’s the way the younger players respond to adversity by looking to attack.  It isn’t always going to come off, and an understanding of what they’re trying to do is needed.  That means not slating a batsman who is caught on the boundary for example.  It’s high risk but a calculated risk and when it comes off it is both thrilling for the spectator and can completely change the direction of the match.  We cannot have it both ways here: we can’t praise players for taking the game by the scruff of the neck and then complain when they get out.  Stokes could have been caught in the slips on at least two occasions when the new ball was taken, and mistimed a couple of pulls as well.  Yet it doesn’t, or shouldn’t matter – it is a calculated assault that on this occasion worked.

Bairstow played largely the supporting role, but scored not much less quickly.  He’s been good this series with the bat, and looks a much more solid player defensively, which bodes well for the longer term.

The big plus for South Africa was the bowling of Kagiso Rabada.  He’s clearly raw, but has pace, and the priceless quality of hurrying the batsmen even when the speed gun doesn’t necessarily support that.  Joe Root was very late indeed on one attempted pull, and lucky to survive.  For such a young bowler his control was decent as well, certainly better than Chris Morris, who Stokes in particular took a considerable liking to.  Given the injury crisis afflicting South Africa’s frontline bowlers – and there were suspicions Morkel wasn’t entirely fit by the end of the day – this is a welcome sign of promise.

One other item of business from today: even with the extra half hour, only 87 overs were bowled.  This is entirely unacceptable, there were 23 overs of spin in the day, and failing to complete the scheduled allotment is inexcusable.  The ICC have shown no kind of inclination to clamp down on what is tantamount to stealing from the paying spectator.  Fines clearly don’t work, so there is a need to find what does.  Run penalties are sometimes mooted, but there is an understandable reluctance to allow over-rates to impact on the game itself.  Yet if there was a ten run penalty for each unbowled over, does anyone really think that South Africa would have failed to get 90 in?  They would have made sure of it.  Three overs may not seem worth becoming exercised over, but this happens sufficiently often for 85 overs in a day to be considered reasonable.

Enough is enough.  The players are showing disrespect to those who pay to watch them.

317-5 is anything but a decisive score; early wickets will leave England some way below what looks like a par score on this surface.  But the ball turned for Piedt, suggesting that by days four and five spin could be a weapon, especially since Moeen gives the ball rather more of a rip than his counterpart.  In order for that to matter, England will need 400+ to put pressure on the misfiring Proteas batting order.

On balance, England will be the happier team this evening, but that is based more on the way the last hour unfolded than the score itself.  Tomorrow is another day and while the first session will not dictate how the Test will unfold, if England win it then they should be in good shape to put South Africa under pressure.  For all the plaudits Stokes will rightfully receive, this game is quite finely balanced.

Elsewhere, tonight is the start of the Australia – West Indies annihilation at the SCG.  This is nothing but depressing, not because of Australian dominance, but the desperate fall of West Indies cricket.  No fan of the game can feel anything but sadness, anger and despair about it.

Day two discussion below.

 

One Day We’ll Fly Away

England win the ODI series 3-1, and did this in varying styles. We dug a game out from a troublesome position, we set a middling to good total and bowled well, and we smashed a massive total which was never really under threat. That’s probably the most pleasing point from this series, and lets leave aside just how good, or not so good, the opposition might have been, and shows there isn’t just one way this team can win.

Having said that, our batsmen are going to win many more games than our bowlers. I’m sure that’s not an exclusive revelation, but the bowling is still capable of going for plenty. It did against New Zealand, to a lesser degree (and that might be down to the change in regulations) against Australia, and it may well do again when the human cyclone that is AB DeVillier reaps his storm.

To quote the mystics from May “there does not appear to be any vacancies in the batting line-up” at present. Don’t worry, pearl clutchers, I’m not mentioning him. With Hales and Roy at the top, Root at three, Morgan at four, Taylor at five, Buttler at six, Stokes at seven and Ali at eight (with Rashid maybe at nine), that is an exciting batting line-up. It could do serious, serious damage. If either of our spin bowlers could become regular wicket-taking threats, we’d be in a really solid position.

What you will get with this batting line-up, as you probably will with most, is brittleness. I’ve seen Jason Roy enough, as have most of you now, that he will go early quite regularly. I’ve compared him many times not to you-know-who, but to Ali Brown. If England had stuck by Brown, took the rough with the smooth, and not bowed to the usual staid and boring methods, we’d have had a winner. I’m convinced. I saw him play enough when I was a Surrey member, in county championship and one dayers, to see it. Roy is a talent. But even yesterday, he started a bit dodgily, with two inside edges flying past his stumps. He was out second ball in the first match. It will happen. We need to stick by him. It was brilliant to see a Surrey man make a hundred for England. Not counting who I can’t name, it might be the first international hundred by a Surrey man since The Thorpe in 2004 at Durban. I think!

At the other end Alex Hales also made his first ODI hundred, and without it we might have been in strife in that game. Hales is again going to be hit and miss, but his hundred was pretty mature in many ways. He got himself in then let himself go. Hales is likely to open, we think, in Durban next month in the test team (though I still remain to be convinced they’ll take this mighty plunge) and we should see what happens (although we might not like the answers). It’s tough to get a huge feel of a series I could only watch on highlights shows, but Hales seems to be finding his way. It still beggars belief that we haven’t had that faith in him for longer. But that’s history now. What I would say is I thought the reaction of the England camp afterwards was a bit OTT. Hales has a long way to go, he’s not there yet, but the upside is phenomenally exciting.

Jos Buttler’s hundred yesterday was amazing, even on highlights. Good grief, what a talent. Some of those shots are played only by the true greats of ODI cricket. That reverse sweep when he barely moved his feet and just belted it behind backward point was staggering. Also, when he got the free hit, he just took a look at the ball, and guided it behind square for four when many others would have looked to belt a six. Brilliant shot selection, awesome power, so many weapons at his disposal, a calm head, what on earth is there not to like. It’s lazy to compare him to Gilchrist, just because they are keepers who can bat. I’ve not really seen anyone like him to be honest. The travails at test level are mystifying, but I pray he gets through them. My real fear, and I hope it is not going to happen, is that he’ll be pigeonholed as an ODI player now white ball cricket is a priority. No-one doubts that Bairstow is most likely to keep in Durban.

The other batsmen weren’t needed so much, although Root was his usual solid self with half centuries, and Taylor won the sort of game we’ll need him to win, where his ability to manouevre the ball around with what looks a more solid technique, is going to be important. He’s no slouch when you need to get a move on, but he’s not the unleashed havoc of Roy, Hales, Buttler and Morgan.

The bowling coped without Finn, Wood or the two senior bowlers who may have played their last ODIs (although neither have retired). It remains to be seen if Willey and Topley are the answer, but they aren’t letting anyone down at this stage. Moeen Ali is still such a promising talent, able to make ODI hundreds and to bowl his share of overs that you can’t imagine the team without him at this stage. Rashid is going to be a daisy player. Some days he will go well, some days he will go far. South Africa will be a real test. Woakes seems like a squad player to me, but others really rate him. It’s nice to have a decent player like him in the wings (a little unfair to compare him to a bit and pieces player), but you can’t discount that he can bat (same as you can’t do that with Willey).

It’s promising, it’s pretty exciting, it’s the coming through of new one day talent, meshed to those who show aptitude for the format already. It is important that this is allowed to settle, but also not to be a closed shop. Bairstow is a fine ODI player in my opinion, especially when on form. I am intrigued by Billings, and would like to see him given a go in an elevated batting position (I think he might be the long term answer at test level – just a hunch based on the limited amount I’ve seen).

But, despite all this, I don’t get that sense of excitement that compares any way to test cricket by people out there. Sure, no-one can be anything but enraptured by Buttler’s hitting, and our two openers making hundreds, but it’s a fleeting thing. That was the point of the two pieces over the previous weekend on white ball cricket. No doubt if this team continues to perform like this, there will be a lot of excitement, and perhaps the new ODI team will capture the imagination. It’s probably sad, but true, that this team will face a firm examination in 2017 when the Champions Trophy returns to these shores, and a failure at that will have much wailing. England and its media don’t particularly like stability. Thus far stability has paid handsome rewards, as Strauss’s backing of Morgan shows.

The test squad raised some comments, and if time permits, I’ll be commenting on that. But well done to the ODI team, there’s something to hang on to, they’ve beaten what was put in front of them, and that’s all they can do. That it’s an exciting batting line-up (and I’m biased towards batting) is something to look forward to. See them all again in January.