Ashes 2nd Test: Day Three

When it’s all going hideously wrong, the temptation to cling grimly to any floating wreckage nearby is a strong one, and four wickets for England’s bowlers in the evening session has given rise to curious assertions that England are back in the game, a triumph of hope over experience.  In reality they are, taking the kindest, most sympathetic view possible, not totally out of it.  Since Australia’s lead already far exceeds England’s miserable first innings total, this is taking blind hope to unprecedented levels.

England weren’t in the worst position at the start of play, and a good batting day would have begun to transfer some pressure back onto Australia, with the usual third innings jitters a possibility.  Instead, England collapsed hideously to 142-7, and only got even close to saving the follow on thanks to Craig Overton making an unbeaten 41.  Irony of ironies – the England tail wagged this time around.

The batting order’s insistence on doing the same things and hoping for a different outcome is magnificently stubborn (perhaps the only way that adjective could be used about them) and once again it was poorly executed shots that did for them rather than brilliant bowling.  The pitch didn’t do much, and in the daylight there was little swing.  Only Malan could be said to have been got out, and whatever the merits of Australia’s bowling attack, the same level of carelessness that’s been present in England’s batting for a long time was once again to the fore.  When they come off, it’s certainly thrilling, but an inability to play the situation is becoming a real hallmark of this team and there’s so little evidence they are learning.

It is perhaps this, more than anything else, that justified the pessimism before the start of play, and highlights the increasing fear that this tour could get truly ugly.  Again.

Smith’s decision not to enforce the follow on was perhaps understandable given the time left in the game, but the principle of doing what the opposition would like least must surely apply – England would not have wanted to bat again, under lights, under the pump, and under pressure.  In defence of the decision, it’s unlikely to make that much difference to the outcome either way, for by the close of play a lead of 268 with six wickets remaining is the kind of marvellous position teams dream about, but it did at least offer England the chance to give Australia a bloody nose.  And yet even with the wickets taken, the same old flaws were there:  England still bowled too short, still bowled too wide.  At 53-4 it might seem a peculiar criticism, but both Anderson and Broad were consistently shorter in length than their Australian counterparts, and while it hardly went too badly on the field, it doesn’t suggest that the plans are either thought through, or alternatively that the bowlers want to apply them if they are.  There is no doubt at all that when Broad, Anderson and Woakes kept the length full, they looked extremely dangerous.  They usually do – which is why so much hair is pulled out at their continuing refusal to do it on a consistent basis.

Apparently, tomorrow morning is another “vital” first session.  It really isn’t.  It would need to go catastrophically wrong for Australia to allow England to have any kind of realistic sniff of a win.  It is of course just about possible that England will skittle the hosts and then bat out of their skins to chase down a total almost certain to be in excess of 300, but that’s barely enough to encourage even wildly unreasonable optimism, let alone genuine confidence.

The worst part about England’s predicament is that so much of it this series to date has been self-inflicted.  Australia are some way from being a really good side, but they have, to use the appropriate cliche, executed their skills well so far.  England haven’t.  Assuming they do, and in spades, it means that Australia will be bowled out for around 100 in a magnificent display of attacking bowling, while the English top order compile a couple of centuries to take them home in one of the top 20 run chases of all time in Test cricket.

That’s the miracle scenario.  And that says it all.

 

 

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England v West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Four

For three and a half days the West Indies have played well above themselves, indeed have played out of their skins.  But a side unused to winning, inexperienced, and ultimately lacking in quality anyway, finally wilted in the face of an England middle and lower order that is undoubtedly one that would cause a few tremors against much better sides than this.

There were chances missed, there’s no doubt about that.  The dropped catches ultimately added up to over 240 runs in England’s favour (though it should be mentioned that England have dropped a few themselves, which would balance that ledger to a degree), and the bowling discipline that was so evident in England’s first innings fell away alarmingly after tea, as Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes punished them for their indiscipline.

What might have beens are the stock in trade for weaker sides in every sport – the lower league football team that lets a lead slip in the closing minutes, the tennis underdog finally beaten in the fifth set – so to that end the turnaround in the match is one that could have been (and was) expected.  At the end of proceedings their performance over the first few days should be seen as the exceptional one, worthy of praise, and the return to the mean after tea on the fourth day more in keeping with where they are as a unit.  They have tried so desperately hard in this match, and the likelihood is that they will end up empty handed.

That there were errors made is beyond question.  Gabriel and Roach were overbowled in the morning session as their team strove for wickets, and by the time the new ball was due they weren’t sufficiently rested to take it before lunch, and weren’t that effective with it afterwards either.  But they are errors from over-enthusiasm in trying to force the win, and perhaps it is the hindsight that lends that judgement of it,  rather than how it was at a time when England were only 82 runs in front and four wickets down.  At that point the tourists were firm favourites, even as England were just beginning to get into a position where they had a chance in the match.

Dawid Malan did himself no harm in terms of selection for the tour to Australia with a gritty 61 over the first part of the day.  It lasted over four hours, he rarely looked fluent, and included a bit of fortune when being dropped at first slip; but above all else he wore down the seam attack and created the circumstances for Moeen to come in and flay a weary bowling unit around the ground.  Sometimes the less eye-catching innings are the important ones, and given the knife edge the game was on, he deserves considerable credit for his determination.  There is a great deal of focus on technique when appraising batsmen but the game is littered with those with excellent techniques who don’t succeed, and others with deeply flawed ones who do.  His 186 ball stay did more to suggest he has the aptitude than a bright and breezy innings of the same score could have done.  Whether he goes on to make it is of course unknown, but he played well today.

England’s total of 490-8 was their highest ever without anyone scoring a century, and had it not reached those levels, it’s not hard to imagine that a fair degree of stick would be coming in the direction of Stokes and Bairstow for the manner of their departures.  Stokes was caught on the boundary trying to hit a six, Bairstow bowled attempting a reverse sweep.  With Malan out too three wickets had gone down for 24 runs and England were seven down with a lead of only 158.  The game was unquestionably in the balance, yes, but some are no nearer to accepting players taking risks than they ever were.

Even though the numbers suggested it was tight, the mini-collapse couldn’t dampen the feeling that England were starting to get on top.  The advantage of their exceptional lower middle order is not just that they can bat, but they score so quickly.  Moeen Ali is one of the best players in the world to watch when he’s in full flow, and here the array of exquisite cover drives and clips off his legs were fully to the fore.  He had one piece of real luck, when caught behind on 32 only to be reprieved by a no ball.  Devendra Bishoo has had a truly miserable match, his captain plainly doesn’t rate him at all, and bowled him only when he had to – ultimately he got a decent spell only when the fast bowlers were on their knees.  And while Shannon Gabriel in particular got away with endless no balls not called, Bishoo was called on field at the most crucial of times, and it was sufficiently tight to suggest it may have been harsh.

The question of on field umpires not calling no balls isn’t a new one, and the Sky commentary team were quick to complain that in a tight match the extra runs an extra workload could have proved crucial, but if it’s unfair to the batting team, it’s also unfair to the bowler, who all too often doesn’t know he’s been repeatedly overstepping until he takes a wicket and it’s sent to the third umpire to be checked.  There are suggestions the fourth umpire could do it every ball (a more dull, soul destroying job in cricket is hard to imagine.  Scoring maybe), and perhaps that is a solution.  But umpires have managed to check the front foot for decades without the aid of technology, it seems hard to understand why it is suddenly not possible.

At tea, England were 357-7, a lead of 188.  Before play Jonny Bairstow had expressed the hope that they might get a lead of 200, and England’s bowlers would probably have fancied their chances had the innings ended there.  But the tea break seemed to be the time the magnificently battling West Indies finally cracked.  From the first over on resumption it all went wrong – Kraigg Brathwaite of all people bowled it, nominally to allow Bishoo to change ends, but it was simply dreadful.  The first ball was a high full toss belted through the covers by Moeen, and it didn’t get any better from that point on.  Shannon Gabriel looked utterly exhausted, and his two overs went for 28 runs.  The balance of the match had finally tilted.

If Moeen did what Moeen does (and does so well), he was complemented by Chris Woakes, a batsman who is ridiculously good to be languishing at number nine in the order.  Indeed, he has a better first class batting average than Mark Stoneman, which demonstrates the ludicrous strength in all rounders England possess.  In many international teams, he’d be a number six.  His fine unbeaten half century, initially in a supporting role, latterly taking control shows how even when he’s been a trifle disappointing with the ball on his return from a long injury layoff, he has the skill to make a contribution.

England had been behind the game from the first morning, and so perhaps it was a slight surprise that before the close Joe Root decided to declare.  A welcome one, for although England’s lead was by then sizeable, few expected it.  There aren’t so many recent captains who would have taken the miniscule risk involved in doing so.

Brathwaite and Powell survived a testing six overs, and if nothing else, it showed the kind of fighting quality that their team has exemplified for much of this match.  If they can manage it for just one more day, then they will come out of the game with immense credit, even if they lose.  They aren’t completely out of it, but 322 is a huge target for anyone, let alone a side such as this.  It’ll take a special innings from someone to get close, and as Mark Twain once put it, “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that’s the way to bet”.

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: 1st Test, Day Four

Given the troubled and fractious relationship over many years between England’s and Pakistan’s cricket teams, perhaps the most startling outcome from this Test has been the realisation that they have become a likeable side.  The celebration at the end of a match they have thoroughly deserved to win made most onlookers smile, for it signified a team seemingly united and also enjoying their cricket.  Although that might have been the most obvious example, there were plenty of others, from Misbah’s century celebration to the adorable reaction of Mohammed Hafeez to the sight of a young Pakistan fan in the stands celebrating his catch to dismiss Alex Hales.  Rather obviously, over recent years Pakistan have had something of a PR problem, but under Misbah’s exceptional leadership and example, they have demonstrated themselves to be very welcome tourists.

It does of course help player demeanour when matches are won, and although England swiftly wrapped up the Pakistan second innings in a few minutes this morning, 283 was a big ask in the fourth innings of a match that had already showed declining batting returns.  Reaching such a target is quite possible, but it does require a fine batting performance, with few mistakes and bowling opposition that isn’t on top of its game – none of that was the case today.  Some were got out, but all too many of them were self-inflicted.  Cook certainly got a good ball, but his technique is looking ever so slightly awry again, his head moving over to off and ending up squared up by the bowler much too often.  In contrast, Hales and Vince were loose, Root and Ali downright careless, as England went helter-skelter at the target.  It wasn’t until Bairstow was joined by Woakes that a calmer mindset was brought to proceedings, and although the two of them battled hard against some exceptional bowling from Wahad Riaz in particular, much of the damage was already done – unless they were to pull off something magical, an end was always going to be open the moment the partnership was broken.  So it proved, from the moment Bairstow to his utter horror managed to miss a long hop to the end of the match was a mere five overs.  The final nail in the coffin came with the loss of Chris Woakes, who batted longer in the game than any other England player, for 58 runs and once out to go with his eleven wickets.  Seldom has an England player in recent times been more unlucky to finish on the losing side.

Yasir Shah’s ten wickets in the match will receive the plaudits, but the seam bowling today should give England pause that they are going to be up against an attack with no weak links.  As was suspected before the start of the series, the strength of the two sides is in the bowling, albeit Pakistan have a spinner on a different level, and both batting line ups look brittle.  For England the return of Anderson and Stokes will improve the side, with Finn and presumably Ball the likely ones to make way.  That would certainly improve the batting in the middle order, but that’s not the area where England look vulnerable. Vince doesn’t at this stage look likely to contribute more than a few breezy runs,  while Hales at the top still doesn’t exude reliability.

From a series perspective, Pakistan’s win is probably the best thing that could have happened; England now have to show they are capable of more than beating up weakened opposition.  But if nothing else, three more Tests as enjoyable as this one certainly won’t harm interest in the game.  These are two fairly well matched sides, both flawed, both capable of brilliance.  Pakistan won this Test rather than England losing it, because when it came down to it, their key players stepped up and delivered to a greater extent than England’s did.  That may not be the same next time, but for now they can reflect on a fine performance, that had the added side effect of winning over some hearts and minds.  Not a bad day’s work.

 

England vs Pakistan: 1st Test, Day Three

Lords tends to be one of the quieter grounds in world cricket; even when full it is more a murmur than a roar, yet in the last hour of play today the crowd were vocal and supportive, particularly towards the outstanding Chris Woakes and the desperately unlucky Stephen Finn.  The reason why is straightforward enough, for this is a Test that has been a scrap from the first ball, with both sides harbouring legitimate hopes of victory.  With all the suggestions and plans for ensuring the relevance of Test cricket, the involvement of those at the ground was due not to gimmicks, or innovations, but to two sides battling to gain the upper hand in a Test that has been excellent throughout.

Perhaps some would then think it churlish to begin with a complaint, but it’s the same one as on the first two days – that the over rate was sufficiently poor that the full 90 weren’t completed in the day.  That it was only two overs short is not the point, they have an extra half hour to complete them.  It’s very simple – stop cheating the spectators and talk about them being cheated will also stop.

With the most obvious difference between the sides being in the lower order, it was natural cricketing perversity that ensured that while England’s fell away in the morning to be bowled out 67 adrift of Pakistan’s first innings score, the tourists decided that today was the day when theirs would perform.  Yasir Shah for one is engaged in a personal contest with Chris Woakes for all rounder of the game, merrily dispatching England bowlers with disdain just when England might have thought they had the upper hand at last.  It capped a fine day for him – in removing Finn this morning, Yasir had become the leading wicket taker in Test history after 13 Tests (an arbitrary number for sure, but evidence of the impact he has made on the game).

Indeed, for most of the day England looked to have clawed back much of the first innings deficit, especially when Pakistan were reduced to 60-4 following an impressively dreadful shot from the captain.  The best matches are those that swing one way and then the other, and a hideously out of form Younis Khan may at the end of matters consider that his crabby, laboured 25 was vastly more important than the number suggests.  Asad Rafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed carried on that work in much more fluent fashion, along with the aforementioned Yasir.  They had a little help, Cook and Bairstow dropping very catchable chances, both off the luckless Finn but with a lead of 281 with a couple of wickets still in hand, Pakistan are in a very strong position.

That they are is despite the best efforts of Chris Woakes, who once again was the star of the show with the ball, although rather surprisingly he was held back early on.  How impressive his match has been is perhaps best illustrated by how he’s reduced his Test bowling average from 41.25 on Thursday morning to 28.18 now.  Yet he doesn’t appear to be doing anything greatly different – a fairly consistent bowling action, line and length, and a little bit of movement off the seam.  In the last few Tests he had mastered the art of being parsimonious, and perhaps the wickets he is now taking are to an extent created by the impression of being hard to get away he has begun to foster.

Around 300 never seems that big a total to win, but history is against it, not just at Lords but in Test matches generally.  It’s rare to chase down that many, indeed over 300 has only been done 28 times in the history of the game, which given the number of Tests played is a miniscule number.  There is a constant underestimation of the difficulty in reaching targets of that size, amongst players and commentators as much as anyone else.  So it was that Nasser Hussain talked about England being comfortable up to 280, when they should be anything but.  It’s not a criticism of him, as it’s something heard widely from all quarters on each occasion it comes up in a match, but make no mistake, England are in a spot of bother.

What it does mean is that there will be a result in this match, possibly tomorrow, possibly early on Monday.  Mickey Arthur at the close of play stated that Pakistan had hoped for a lead of 275, and allowing for the usual kidology that is always present in interviews, there was little doubt that he was delighted with their position.  That’s certainly not to say that England cannot win this, but the bookmakers are being a little generous (patriotic money presumably) in cricketing terms in making them the favourites.  While Yasir Shah may be felt to be the biggest challenge based on the first innings, the seam attack underperformed a touch first time around, and with the warm weather and bone dry pitch, both conventional and reverse swing should add to the level of difficulty.

This has the makings of an excellent series, and praise be it’s been enjoyable to watch.

Day four comments below 

 

 

England vs Pakistan: 1st Test Day two

It is perhaps perversely illustrative of the issues Test cricket faces that after two days play there is considerable intrigue at where this match is going, and rather more pleasure at the way that it is developing into a proper scrap.  Despite all ECB attempts to portray the last Ashes as a classic, each Test was more or less over by the end of day two, the direction of travel beyond retrieval.  Thus, the prospect of an even fight is in itself an attraction, and as far as Lords is concerned at least, reflected in strong ticket sales.  Give the public something to watch, and they’ll turn out.  This is of course helped by Pakistan not having come here for six years, precisely the importance of not killing the golden goose by playing the same teams constantly.  Whether it’s a lesson the ECB will learn seems unlikely – the four year Ashes cycle that was promised to return is already being compromised as administrators look after their immediate financial interests rather than the game itself.

This isn’t anything new, nor is it remotely something of which critics are unaware, yet it bears repeating at every opportunity, for the matter of the game’s integrity is more important than anything else in cricket.  Pakistan are a talented team, and one who are good to watch.  There are wider reasons for their long absence from this country, but it doesn’t mean there is any excuse should it be a similar gap before their next visit.

For the second day running, the scheduled 90 overs were not bowled in the day.  The bulk of the bowling was from Pakistan, after England bowled them out in fairly short order, meaning that both sides have been guilty of not providing ticket holders with what they had paid for.  A ticket in the Compton stand was £90, making the mathematics rather straightforward.  Yesterday we were three overs short, today it was four.  This is after the additional half an hour was played in order to complete the allocation.  The television coverage gently mentions it from time to time, but suffers from the fundamental problem that all the media does, written or broadcast, which is that they aren’t paying for their entrance – the very opposite.  Ultimately, they don’t care any more than the players do about what is, without a shadow of a doubt, theft.  That might be a strong word, but it’s a disgraceful, entirely unacceptable state of affairs.  Players get fined occasionally (note that the money is not returned to the spectators, as it should be) but almost the entire series in South Africa suffered from shortened days in terms of overs, and nothing whatever was done.  Fundamentally, as if we did not know already, the players and the ICC do not care about the spectators except as a revenue stream.

Doubtless if put to them they would protest that, but the fact is that nothing is done about it, and nothing is ever said to those unhappy about it.  Both yesterday and today the crowds thinned out around 6pm, the scheduled close of play, as the crowd caught trains or buses home.  This is meant to be when it finishes, so there is a contempt already present by not meeting the timings imposed; to then fail to get the overs in within the additional time allowed is nothing short of scandalous.  The match referee then looks at it over the course of the Test, which is ridiculous in itself given that most people go for a single day’s play – it doesn’t help them if the over rate speeds up later on.

There are various ideas about how to prevent this happening, but the given the current sanctions aren’t used a great deal anyway, there’s little point even talking about them, as it seems unlikely they’d be used either.  Both captains should be banned for the next match.  But they won’t be.  No one suffers – except the poor bloody spectator who pays for the game to be put on in the first place.

Chris Woakes is one of those figures whose first class record suggests an all rounder of rare ability, genuinely worthy of a place with both bat and ball, yet to date in his international career he has been more likely to be in receipt of comment that neither discipline is good enough, that he is, as the parlance goes, a bits and pieces cricketer.  There has been defence of him on these pages, but his presence in the team has been anything but universally welcomed.  In the same way that early struggles shouldn’t be a reason to his dismiss him, nor should his current success mean that he is a fixture for years to come, yet there are signs he is coming to terms with the standard, not just today, but in recent games where he has been one of the better performers.  His 6-70 was outstanding, his halting of the Pakistani charge through the England line up in the last session highly meritorious.  The one area where England have a notable advantage over the visitors is in the lower middle order.  Woakes has hinted at batting ability often enough without going on to make a significant score – partly due to his lowly position at 8 or 9 – but in a tight game, a contribution from him could make all the difference.

Alastair Cook was the prime contributor to the England score, and in so doing became the highest Test run scorer of any opening batsman, overtaking Sunil Gavaskar.  Longevity may not be the most important attribute in analysing a player’s worth, but nor is it to be ignored either.  Opening the batting remains a uniquely challenging occupation in cricket, and the landmark is worthy of praise.  Yet today he seemed somewhat out of sorts, playing and missing outside off stump frequently (and being turned square far too often) as well as having two escapes when straightforward edges were dropped.  Most batsmen will worry little about that, factoring in the occasions where brilliant catches are taken or dubious decisions are given as evening up the ledger.  But the slightly out of sync technique brought his downfall, dragging the ball on to the stumps as he failed to get across to it outside off stump.  He’s not quite in top form.

Joe Root was clearly upset with himself for his dismissal; a poor shot undoubtedly, not for the first time recently.  Perhaps he will receive genuine criticism for the first time in a while, but it seems few will be as hard on him as he will himself.  Jonny Bairstow too was guilty of a poor shot, one borne perhaps of overconfidence as much as anything.  Many a batsman will say that you don’t make hundreds when you are in the very best of form, because you take chances you wouldn’t do if the fear of dismissal was in the back of the mind.

But if those were somewhat self-inflicted – most dismissals are batsman error – it doesn’t detract from the performance of Yasir Shah.  To take five wickets on day two of a Test at Lords, where pitches are usually flat and slow, is some achievement.  England consistently have problems with legspin, despite their protests that they have learned lessons, and so it proved here.  Given that the seam attack was a little off colour (not helped by the drops) it was ominous that England struggled so.

Late in the day the tale of two lbw decisions pointed the way to the future.  Firstly Moeen Ali was given out despite two elements on umpire’s call in the decision.  It was of course out by the rules pertaining to Hawkeye, but the question is whether it should be.  If there are two points of doubt, surely there is doubt all round?  The second example was the appeal against Stuart Broad, it was not out according to the current playing regulations, but when the new ones come in later this year, it would be.  There have to be concerns that the number of lbw decisions will increase quite substantially, and matches shortened accordingly.

England are 86 runs behind with three wickets left.  They could get close, they could be rolled over in short order. Not having a good idea where the match is going is when Test cricket is at its best.  Day three may be pivotal, it may not.  But the point is that there will be interest in finding out.

Day three comments below