India vs England: 1st Test, Day one

If England were to compete in this series, so the received wisdom had it, Joe Root would need to have an especially fine series. The early signs are promising, but not just in terms of confirming that widespread belief, but also because other than Root, England looked rather comfortable. Sure, the pitch looked flat, and with little turn (as it should be on day one), but given England’s status as serious underdogs, they looked far from out of their depth even early on. Rory Burns will be kicking himself for his dismissal, having done all the hard work, and the nature of that dismissal inevitably attracted criticism. It is a truism of the game that being out to an attacking shot is automatically deemed worse than being out to a defensive one (even if the players tend to have an opposite view when it happens to them), and something like a reverse sweep is going to result in considerable ire. Yet it has become a normal part of a batting repertoire in recent years, most recently highlighted by Joe Root in Sri Lanka, as he manipulated the field by judiciously playing the stroke throughout his twin hundreds.

There is often the temptation to judge the shot selection by outcome – if a ball just clears a man on the boundary for six, it’s a great piece of batting, but if caught on the line, the batsman should never have played the shot in the first place. It’s not to defend the execution of the stroke, for Burns himself made his views of what he’d done quite clear as he left the field, but it is to defend choosing to play the shot in the first place. Nevertheless, it was an unfortunate end to an innings of promise and placed England under early pressure, particularly when Lawrence quickly followed.

Thereafter, it was the Sibley and Root show. Root is in the form of his life, and just looks like he’s going to go big from the moment he reaches the crease. While it is far too much to hope that he can quite maintain this level of plundering, perhaps as he turns 30 he may be settling down into being a consistently high class performer after the dips of the last few years. Certainly it can be argued the biggest dent in his batting average (which for better or worse is how many tend to measure it) was his poor conversion rate between 50 and 100. If he overcomes that – and nothing helps quite so much as continually scoring hundreds – then a significant uplift is likely.

While Root will rightly get all the plaudits, a partnership is always in two parts, and Sibley deserves huge credit for his knock. He struggled in Sri Lanka, and rather disarmingly openly wondered if he would be playing in India during his half century in the Second Test. There is often a reluctance from some quarters to allow for the possibility that a player can learn; instead calls for their head are common. But Sibley has been a fine example of a player highly inexperienced in these conditions finding his method wanting, and needing to think about how to adapt. Consecutive half centuries don’t prove he’s nailed it, but do show a degree of application that reflects well on him. The days of people complaining about his scoring rate are hopefully over – he is providing a level of solidity at the top of the order that has been absent since the relative decline of Alastair Cook.

What would have been a day of eventual total dominance was only slightly marred by the loss of Sibley in the final over, but England are in a very good position, and most positively of all, look at this stage like a team capable of matching India. But that “at this stage” is the most important rider – it’s one day, it’s one innings, and a Test series can be an arm wrestle where it starts off even before one team begins to twist and strain the other, but at this stage, that’s still a positive, and perhaps more than many hoped for. If it were to continue, well perhaps England might be a better team than they’re often given credit for, for while they have had success recently, this is perhaps the ultimate challenge in world cricket.

Today was also the return of Test cricket to free to air television in the UK for the first time since 2005. There is nothing in this world that is universally welcomed, and sure enough some were soon complaining about the quality being lower than Sky. It is something of a matter of personal preference in that – having favoured commentators for example, but Channel 4 are taking the feed from the host broadcaster, which is very normal for away series even when Sky have the rights, although on some tours they have additional cameras. The difference is in the commentators themselves, for Channel 4 are using that host commentator feed as well. Of course, in terms of practicality, they have no option, even if they’d wished to have their own there was insufficient time to arrange it. But if this tour had been to New Zealand, for example, would people have been queuing up to praise them for the exceptionally strong voices they would hear from one of the best commentary teams in the world game? It’s unlikely, and there is a temptation to conclude at least some element of internal bias in assuming that it’s only Sky who can provide the highest of standards. Irrespective of having a preference for Sky, which is reasonable enough, the very presence of Test cricket on free to air television or streaming is such an unusual experience that it feels slightly surreal. There will be people unable to afford pay TV, watching live Test cricket (or live Test cricket legally in many cases) for the first time since the early years of this century. It’s astounding and wonderful.

On to tomorrow – it is of course possible that England will fall in a heap and waste their good position, but the point of having such a good first day is to ensure that even if they do, they are in the game. And if they do take advantage, they might be in with a real chance of winning the Test. Day one is always the set up day, and day two the one that tends to dictate the rest of the game. A chance is there to be seized.

Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Victory

That was really quite impressive from England. From what was still a relatively unfavourable position overnight, and the concession of a small, but not irrelevant first innings lead, the tourists dominated day four and finished off the match as evening descended.

There are a few notable takeaways from the match and the series, but perhaps the most striking is that some of those players who had been on the receiving end of the harshest criticism responded well and had a good day. There is ever a call for players not performing to be summarily dropped, and while inevitably over a period it requires them to perform or be replaced, the instant nature of social media precludes the possibility that a player might learn and improve. There is a lack of experience in Asian conditions for obvious reasons, and on top of that players haven’t been able to actually get out on the field much other than in the Tests themselves. Leach and Bess both indicated that they were somewhat rusty, and that they weren’t happy with how they’d bowled in the first Test, but today they were much improved, taking all the Sri Lankan wickets between them and Joe Root, who chimed in with a couple at the end.

This doesn’t mean for a second that they are now the finished article, nor that they’ll perform well in India, but they have shown improvement in what are alien conditions. Both bowled extremely well today.

The same applies to Sibley, who had struggled badly in his first three innings of the series but took England home today with a measured and generally secure unbeaten half century. In his interview after the game he mentioned he had been working on various technical aspects and it will please everyone that in this innings it seems to have paid off. Few of England’s newer batsmen have much if any experience of Asian batting conditions generally, and there are no warm-ups to try and develop, it all has to be done in the nets or in their heads. When sledged by Dickwalla as to whether he would be opening in India, Sibley replied “I don’t know, I haven’t had a very good series” which is charming, disarming, and indicates a person extremely aware of not having done particular well up to that point. Again, it doesn’t mean he is nailed on to perform in India, but it does mean he’s working extremely hard to find a way of making runs. He is learning, they are learning. Zak Crawley’s innings was brief, but it too showed signs of him searching for a method that would work for him.

The captain will be important for this process – he fell cheaply in the run chase today, but his innings yesterday was more than good, it was sublime – one of those where a player appears to be operating on a different plane to everyone else. That provides a standard for others to aspire to, and shows that it’s possible to succeed. England might be considerable underdogs for the India series, but this tour of Sri Lanka has given the players an opportunity to prepare themselves for what they will face. It is not unreasonable to say that England’s chances now are better than they were a fortnight ago, it’s just that those chances remain comparatively slim. Of course, there will be significant changes to the team anyway, with the return of Burns, Arches and Stokes, and in those cases they will be coming in cold, while the loss of Jonny Bairstow is a pity, given that he did reasonably well in Galle.

As for Sri Lanka, they were faced with what is a common challenge in a close Test, that of the 3rd innings, where all the pressure goes onto the batting side who can lose the game in an afternoon, and they did. The batting was both reckless and excessively casual, and once again the curious psychology of a batting collapse took hold, whereby players will be sitting in the changing room wondering quite why their decision-making was so poor.

If an incentive were needed, it’s that England have closed the gap on Australia in the World Test Championship to half a per cent. They remain in 4th, but given the series coming up, they have the chance to change that. It’s a huge ask of them, but in any competition the most you can hope for is the chance to be in control of your own destiny. It’s therefore timely that today the ECB confirmed a two Test series against New Zealand in early summer. It would be ironic if that were to serve as a warm up for a final between the same two sides immediately afterwards.