The Third Test – Preview And Day 1 Comments

Dmitri (dangerously referring to himself in the third person) goes a little nostalgic and you will all pay…

England v South Africa at The Oval. It wasn’t that long ago that the day before the Oval test started would be a frantic one. Tidying up loose ends in the office, arranging the meeting places for the ticket collection, determining who was bringing what to eat. The day(s) at The Oval were one of the highlights of the year for me – the Oval test put on the calendar, leave booked early, anticipation rising.

But it was England v South Africa in 2012 that was the final straw – my angst pre-dating the Difficult Winter. I had missed the first day, as prices had increased and the purchasing power of my salary had diminished, so it was Friday and Saturday for me. I saw England collapse on the Friday and watched South Africa lose two wickets in the ensuing five sessions. I’d also left my camera battery in the charger for the Saturday, and was, how can I put it, “in a bit of a mood”. It wasn’t helped by England being smashed, feeling terribly uncomfortable all day in the Ryanair seating, and being surrounded in front and behind by people who annoyed the hell out of me, spilled beer over me, and just plain got on my nerves. With 30 minutes to go, and I never left early unless it was heatstroke, I got up and said to my mates #!k this, I’m off home. And I doubt I’ll ever come back. And I flounced. But I’ve never been back for a test match. The prices appear to have risen greatly, the amount of tickets members could purchase has been curtailed (some might think that a good thing) and the customer experience, piled on top of each other, is a joke. Harrumph!

That day, the last I saw, was memorable for the batting of Hashim Amla, who made 311. He never really looked flustered, and the fear is, linking into the upcoming battle, is that Trent Bridge has put him back into the groove. The partnerships between Amla and Smith, and Amla and Kallis were not thrill a minute joyrides, but 12 or so hours of grinding England into paste. They were there to make 380 odd, or whatever it was, look totally inadequate. It almost seems like a different era of test cricket. That ability to bat long in England seems from a bygone age. In fact, presented with a 637 for 2 wicket, in a game completed in 4 and a bit days remember, we’d probably see a ton of complaints about nothing in it for the bowlers.

From that test in 2012 there are precious few survivors. The rigours of international cricket took many a career, inflicted or decided by themselves. But key cogs remain. Amla is there with Morne Morkel, Cook is there with Broad and Anderson. It says a lot about their staying power that they are all very important parts of the teams, maybe even the most important. Cook made a hundred in that match, which is easily forgotten. While Kallis, through retirement, maybe the seminal figure lacking from the team that won, the Oval 2012 should always be about how Dale Steyn tore us apart on a dead wicket. International cricket well served then, and how Steyn has paid for it through injury.

Tomorrow England need to fight back from a defeat every bit as demoralising as the 2012 reverse at the home of English Cricket (the Original venue….), after the mauling they received at Trent Bridge 10 days or so ago. England have been given a thorough beating before, but this time this one seemed to encourage, if that is the word, the scything criticism lacking from more recent defeats. There seems to be more of an open season on the captain, and especially the coach, than before. This reaction, which should not be a surprise, has actually been one. It is as if the media community has found its voice, its teeth. It didn’t seem to give a steaming pile of crap like Chennai as hard a time as they did the Trent Bridge performance. You know I’m not going to get over Karun Nair getting a triple hundred don’t you?

England go into this match with a lot of questions, and now with two debutants. Mark Wood has failed his fitness test and Toby Roland-Jones is going to play instead. Given there’s been other confirmation that Liam Dawson will play, and boy that’s a lightning rod stuck up, right there, it looks very unlikely that Dawid Malan will make his debut (I think that was an odd choice in the first place). Tom Westley will take his place at number 3 (there you are son, bang in the hotseat for you, good luck). While the Essex media are certainly in paroxysms of delight over Tom finally getting the nod, I have to say that I don’t quite know why he was the slam-dunk selection (and no, I’m not carrying a torch for Stoneman either), but there is no harm in trying, and you never know. I will certainly be watching certain journos for double standards reporting on him.

The main criticisms coming out of Trent Bridge was that England had not shown enough respect to the test format, but quite frankly, by the end of it, I’ve no idea what Shiny Toy was up to, and Geoffrey, is well, Geoffrey. This was met by quite fierce return fire by the England team, and Stokes has relit that fuse with his comments. I’m not sure it’s respect for the format that’s the problem, but rather, funnily enough, ability. This just doesn’t look like a very good England team. So if you are going to go down, go down playing your shots, eh? I’m not sure this team can block it out, they certainly couldn’t when they’ve been asked to do it in recent years, and probably with better teams than this. We’ve tried to compensate for lack of true star power in depth (reading Trott’s book at the moment, and we went through a golden spell then with players, so we could accommodate Collingwood, by and large) with the bat. Stokes is a classic. All the talent, inconsistent delivery. I think that’s the message (if you had present day Stokes, and 2005 Freddie, who would you select?). I mean, Shiny Toy thinks this is one of the most talented England teams ever. I don’t.

So if the players are a bit of a moving target, what with all that talent and such, it therefore must be someone else, and now we come to Trevor Bayliss. We interrupt this message to point out that losing at home to South Africa is something Andy Flower did, Peter Moores did, Duncan Fletcher didn’t, David Lloyd didn’t and Ray Illingworth didn’t. Bayliss can be questioned, of course he can. Is he getting the most out of the team? Is he doing enough to find talent, if, indeed, that is in his job description? Can he do more? Can he do something different? Yes. They can all be answered and there can be critical evaluation of it. But in my view, and that’s where this could be really fun, any criticism of Bayliss draws a direct line to the man who appointed him, sets his job spec and acts as his line manager. After all, Comma, shouldn’t be above reproach and if you look at cold, hard, results the 2017 team plays with a lot more verve, but the 2013 team actually got to World Number 1 (Trott mentions this a fair bit in his book). Also, as we are never shy to point out, Farby seems exempt from all this. Good old Farby.

So 1-1. Perfectly poised for the 100th test match at The Oval. I went to quite a few, from 1997 to 2012 I went to at least one day of each test there, and as with the days you select to attend you do hit and miss. Here are five of my favourite days (a bit biased towards England)…

2003, Day 3 – England v South Africa. Thorpe makes a century on his return to the team. Emotional. Trescothick makes his highest test score of 219. Alec Stewart plays what would turn out to be his last innings in an England shirt. And so did Ed Smith! A terrific day from start to finish.

2005, Day 1 – England v Australia. Andrew Strauss plays one of the best innings no-one really remembers. Without him we would have been toast. Flintoff also plays a terrific hand and England finish the day relatively even. It was just the pure tension, the weight of expectation and anticipation of the match that made it a great day.

2011 Day 2 – England v India. Watching a 300 partnership is special, and I’ve seen two. You know who was the common denominator. His 175 was overshadowed by Ian Bell’s career best (completed the following day) but it was total domination against a poor attack. Still great fun to watch.

2009 Day 2 – England v Australia. Days 3 and 4 weren’t bad, but watching Stuart Broad demolish the Australians in one of those spells he is capable of was magnificent entertainment. I still recall, with us 3 down at the end of the 2nd day that we were still talking of how we could lose even though we were nigh on 300 in front.

1997 Day 2 – England v Australia – Nothing like your first day at test cricket. I saw lots of wickets (Tuffers took 7) and a tense battle as England tried to recover from a first day collapse. The atmosphere, the tension, the battle, the action was like no other cricket I had watched in the flesh. Oh to go back to the 1997 me.


Just missed out included a glorious Shiny Toy ton in 2002, the infamous walk-off by Pakistan in 2006, Herschelle Gibbs on day 1 of the 2003 test, Steve Waugh’s hundred on one leg in 2001 (just to prove a point), my brief glimpses of Murali and Jayasuriya in 1998 on Day 2, the rain-affected tension of Day 3 in 2000 against the West Indies.

Happy century of tests for the Oval, and as usual, after 1500+ words of waffle, comments below if you have any on the points raised, views on great Oval moments (you have been to, or witnessed – could have popped off another 1000 words) and more importantly on the action tomorrow.


England vs South Africa: 1st Test, Day two

On the face of it, day two was similar to day one, the batting side getting themselves into a hole, and proceeding to dig themselves out of it, but there can be little doubt that England will be the happier with their work today and with the overall match position, the late dismissal of De Bruyn merely reinforced that. 

Losing Root early on wasn’t in England’s script and losing Dawson straight after added to the furrowed brows, with the possibility that 400 might even be out of reach. Given the alarming start and 76-4, it would have been churlish to consider 400 to be less than hoped, but cricket is all about expectations, and overnight there would have been aspirations towards 500. But England are a funny side, they have a raft of all rounders and players who if they don’t quite fall into that category, can at least be counted on for contributions periodically. If it’s not the same one from game to game then so much the better, and while in recent times (India away notably) the lower order runs rescued disaster rather than created a position of strength, here it both provided entertainment and took the game away from the tourists rapidly. 

It demonstrates both England’s weakness and their strength. The middle and lower order is undoubtedly potent, but the top is somewhat unreliable. We don’t need to say that the top order can’t be bailed out all the time, it’s very recent history that clearly demonstrates that. India more than anything was a failure of the batsmen, even if the bowlers were the ones who got it in the neck for failing to defend inadequate totals. It was ever thus and this one Test innings here doesn’t show anything other than a continuation of the same. 

Still, if Root is the MVP of the England top order, Moeen Ali is the king of the lower middle. Batting at seven isn’t his preferred role, but he’s so damn good at it that it’s hard to advance a case that he improves the side by being anywhere else. He gets more than his fair share of criticism, mostly focused on what he can’t do rather than what he can. Equally, his flaws are sometimes forgiven because he’s just so wonderful to watch in full flow. What we can say is that he’s clearly worked on his game against the short ball. It’s unlikely we’ll see him become truly adept at it, but he certainly looks better than he did, albeit on the evidence of one knock. 

He passed 2,000 Test runs in his innings of 87 (ended by a typically bad-Moeen shot where for all the attempts by the commentators to call it a good ball, still looked more like he missed a half volley to me), and later in the day reached 100 Test wickets. Now, there are lies, damned lies and statistics, but he did that double markedly quicker than Botham and Flintoff, and only one Test behind Tony Greig. Given his bowling limitations that’s quite startling. Flintoff had a poor start to his Test career, but Greig and Botham had anything but. It’s an achievement for which he should be proud. If the innings was ended by Bad-Moeen, the rest of his day was unquestionably Good-Moeen.

If Moeen is Mr Reliable with the bat at seven, Broad is anything but whether at eight or nine these days. Yet he seems to be slowly overcoming the facial blow that did more than anything to destroy his batting confidence. It wasn’t a fluent innings, but it was a highly valuable one, and despite getting away with an lbw South Africa failed to review (Broad escaping a review that should have been taken is deliciously ironic), he generally looked more comfortable than he has for a while. It’s deeply unlikely he will ever be the genuine all rounder he once threatened to be, but he’s a fine bowler and that was always a slightly greedy hope – for it would have propelled him into the great category. But he did well today and periodic destructive innings would be extremely welcome. 

As for James Anderson, his batting always varies from the inept to the glorious, but his truly astounding hook over deep midwicket, having charged Kagiso Rabada and been met with a fast bouncer, is one that he will dream about for the rest of his life. It was an extraordinary shot, one he couldn’t have nailed better in his wildest fantasies. Cricket is sometimes such fun. If you haven’t seen it, check out the highlights, then rewind them 20 seconds and watch it again. 

Towards the end of the innings, South Africa were looking frustrated and irritable, yet Morne Morkel could be proud of his day two efforts as much as Vernon Philander on day one. But where England have a real strength is that they can turn the tables quickly, with attacking venom. It’s what makes them often good to watch. 

Broad made an early breakthrough, as he so often does, but the visitors were looking comfortable enough at 82-1 before it all started to go wrong. Moeen was the catalyst; he might be expensive and not quite up to the job as a defensive spinner when it’s flat, but he does have a happy knack of taking wickets. The ball bowled to dismiss a set Amla was a gem. 

From there South Africa appeared a trifle laboured, even as they fought to stage a recovery. They aren’t out of this game by any means, and any side with Quinton de Kock still to come (Rabada is not the least capable nightwatchman in the world) will believe they can get somewhere close. But they remain a long way adrift, and England are beginning to turn the screw somewhat. The visitors are now in a position where they need to play almost perfectly to stay in the game. They can certainly do so, but it’s not the place they want to be. 

The pitch is going to be, as so often, key. And here South Africa will be hoping it is in keeping with recent Chairman’s pitches which get ever slower and ever more frustrating for the bowlers. The possible difference is that the last month has been dry and hot. Some deliveries from the spinners are dusting the surface, and there is certainly a little bite. Liam Dawson didn’t have a perfect day by any means, but he may yet come into his own. 

On a personal note, it’s good to be back. A month away is a long time, and my thanks to those who popped over to read my travel musings . 

Score Settling – A Test Series Intro

Dmitri here. For once.

On Thursday 6th of July England and South Africa will kick off the first test match of the summer. As was stated somewhere or other, this will be the latest start to a test series since 1983, which followed a World Cup and the “test summer” was just four matches long (against New Zealand). The world has certainly changed since then.

To get us all in the mood, we have seven, count them seven, test matches to play before mid-September. You may have missed out early on, but by JP Duminy, we’ll make up for it. Then, if you have forgotten what white ball cricket is like, and frankly, who could blame you, we have a T20 and five ODIs to squeeze in after that. Enough? Be off with you. Added to the international calendar, piling up like the fogbound M4 in rush hour, the lamented and not altogether loved (by the ECB) NatWest Blast will be, well, blasting away in the interim, struggling for attention – not too on purpose. It’s as if the cries of “too much cricket” are received by the ECB, in much the same way as Doug Stanhope thinks the Grand National authorities treat race horses.

“How many horses can this track hold? Well add five more. F*** ‘em.”

Test cricket is a wounded beast, to carry on the Grand National metaphor, and what it needs is a few really good, exciting series, to get the pulses racing. But then, thinking about it, is that enough? Last year’s excellent match-up between ourselves and Pakistan got bogged down in misty-eyed recollections of days of yore with the visitors, and while the matches themselves were keenly fought, no-one really gave a stuff. Losing to the Pakistanis at the Oval may have got them test number 1 status, but no-one really lingered on it. I guess that’s the “context” thing we keep hearing about.

Context and history is important. I joke about, yes, really I do, with a number of my work colleagues about the relevance of the British and Irish Lions, saying they don’t have a trophy to play for, and that it is all just a cynical money-making machine, yet there’s no doubt that the fans, and really importantly, the players still “get it”. Ten years ago, I would have said the same about test cricket on these shores, but I am really not too sure at the moment. Abdicating any real editorial or judgmental logic towards a lame duck captain probably didn’t help. We’ve been saying, and seeing, on here the effects of that treatment. Diehard fans walking away. Cricket’s important advocates rendered impotent by a wretched international governing body, a despicable home outfit, and a media so far over the hill they ought to be in Tibet.

But we persevere. Sometimes, given the other things competing for my time, I wonder why.

South Africa has always been a series that I’ve looked forward to. They aren’t the most exciting team, but they are a formidable one, especially away from home. But this tour will be without Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers from the team that came in 2012, and with Steyn and Morkel in serious workload decline, it isn’t as formidable on paper as past teams. Rabada is a new superstar, but a batting line-up of Elgar, Kuhn, Amla, De Bruyn, Duminy (D’Arthez’s fave!) and Bavuma doesn’t really strike fear, does it? However, you underestimate the visitors at your peril. After all, a highly paid scribe did before the opening test in 2012, and that went well (I’ve not been back to the Oval for a test since).

So while Faf’s away with his new kid, and replacement skipper Dean Elgar hopes for glory in his stead, it is the England team to which I really want to focus. This is the beginning of a new era, as we have a brand spanking new captain, and a selection panel that given the chance to blood new batsmen, played it “safe” and picked someone they knew. One could almost say they eschewed excitement – or as one sage on our comments page quoted, told Tom Harrison to eff off.

So I turn to my old favourite Paul Newman. There have been a litany of baffling decisions made during the Cook era, and yet greenhorn Cook never seemed to cop for them. It was always the selectors that were the issue, or even the players themselves (see Rashid, Adil), but never a leader who seemed to struggle to get the best out of them. Cook, if you recall, because I do, was backed so much he could lose an Ashes series 5-0 and have his position ENHANCED. The decisions to dump you know who were distanced from Cook, and the selection panel were said to have independence from the players. There seemed few occasions when all powerful Ali put out any messages about players he wanted.

But now, according to Newman’s latest diatribe, Root is responsible for Ballance and Dawson being in the squad. I had a brief chat with a prominent tweeter who said “Cook, years of failure given a free role. Root, first squad and Newman is calling him out.” It is very hard to disagree with this assessment, isn’t it? In a week when Root is making his test captaincy bow, we had Barney Ronay writing another puff piece about our now ex-captain. I do really wonder if Cook feels embarrassed by this, because I hope he would. Cook knows that one bad run of form and he’s finished – unless England decide to buck further trends with him (and sorry deers, for using buck and Cook in the same sentence) and say that he isn’t losing his eyesight / motivation / belief / energy / ability now he has passed 32 years of age (Pietersen and Bell were both 33 when dumped. Collingwood was 34 – all were “on the decline” when they were fired/jumped before pushed). There is many a mention of Cook doing a “Gooch” and actually improving as his age goes on. That’s lovely, may happen, but I do prefer the evidence of recent history and his five hundreds in 90-odd innings aren’t a great portent. But our media, and a number of the fans, do misty-eyed hope, and no-one elicits it more than Alastair Cook. Same as it ever was.

What we will see this summer – perhaps we should set up a watch list for it – is for every time Joe Root talks to Cook a commentator mentions how he is “tapping in to the former captain’s experience”. You know, the way Cook never had to (despite Anderson setting all his own fields if rumours are to be believed). We will also be on the lookout for Cook being a better batsman now he’s been relieved of the pressure. Anything good will be because he’s not captain any more. Anything bad won’t be down to the team stagnating under him. I expect Cook to do as he has done the past couple of years. Some solid knocks, a century, maybe two or three if the West Indies are as bad as advertised, and then a tortuous tour of Australia if it goes ahead.

Opening with Cook will be Keaton Jennings. Other openers are in better form, most notably Mark Stoneman, but Jennings has a test ton under his belt, and is the man in possession. I’m not screaming out loud about it, but I’m also not convinced he’s the best bet. That’s me having my cake and eating it. Much has been written and said about Ballance at number three, but he’s caning Division One bowling and averaging over 100. That’s lovely. I seem to recall Mark Ramprakash did that year after year, but we did stop recalling him when we thought he was shot. This is supposedly on Root’s shoulders, which you can read very cynically. The selectors may have indulged in “good journalism” and made it known in a very subtle way that it “wasn’t them, guv”. If it succeeds, they bask in glory; if it fails, well, lessons learned for Joe Root. That’s them having their cake and eating it.

Before turning to the captain, I thought I’d remind you of what I said about Hameed during the India series:

“Hameed is a talent, for sure, but I do like to see my talents make massive scores before anointing them as the heir apparent to Kumar Sangakkara, even if that means I’m bloody unreasonable in so doing. English sport is littered with kids built up before they are due, and cast aside when they don’t live up to the hype. Let’s hope HH is an exception to the rule.”

I don’t know. Remember when people had a pop at me over this? Hameed showed some great aptitude for a kid in India. I really, sincerely, desperately hope he goes on to a great career. But at this point in time, I’m a bit closer to reality than the dreamers. That makes me a miserable curmudgeon. I felt really uncomfortable at the hype, the unreasonable, ludicrous platitudes at the time, and still do. Hameed has had a tortuous summer. He’s young. I hope he learns and comes through. And I hope the next time this happens, people who should know better wind their necks in.

Right. Onwards…

Joe Root hasn’t quite reached “Armchair #5” but I don’t give it long. As it is, he’s batting at four now, which is probably right. A lot is made of Joe Root’s conversion rate from 50 to 100, which is adorable (if you ignore the Bedford Water Deer in the room), but there is a point. Joe is crucial to our ability to post big scores, and we know he is capable of them. The England captaincy has weighed heavily on most skippers since Gooch. Production has gone down, pressure has increased. Joe Root is 26, quite young to have the full time captaincy thrust upon you, and also has a team “in transition” (downgraded from future World #1). There has been no practice run, no ability to discern whether he is up to it (that Middlesex run chase is still thrown at him) on a tactical basis, and in doing so we wonder if it will diminish what we need him for most. This isn’t new. No-one has the first idea how this is going to turn out. As always, I side with pessimism, not optimism. Think John Cleese, Clockwise.

Fan favourite Jonny Bairstow is locked in at five, as he should be. Ben Stokes will be at six, as he should be. The interest with Stokes is whether any dip in form, and it can happen, will be associated with desire now he’s the IPL’s MVP. I’ve been watching international sport for too long to be anything other than cynical. Moeen Ali will be the enigma at 7, scoring enough runs to keep the wolves from the door, taking not enough wickets to have the spinning cognoscenti clucking away. No Woakes means an opportunity for someone. Could it be Liam Dawson, the keen favourite of England’s most important flora, as a second spinning option at HQ? What about home favourite Toby Roland-Jones? Will Mark Wood last the pace? Anderson and Broad are locked in, so perm any two from those three.

This summer is the prelude to the key series – the Ashes. At this time, if all is to be believed, we’ll be playing a Grade Select XI rather than the usual foes. We have seven tests to get a team gelled, ready and firing, and to get a captain embedded. The seven matches will, no doubt, throw up some key issues, talking points and media nonsense. We’ll try to keep the blog running throughout. The tests are always our bread and butter – you lot just don’t seem to get fired up about much else – and I think the South African series is a really good examination of where we are as a team. It is a team that won in Australia, after all. It has its flaws, as does everyone else in the game at the moment, but on form the bowling attack can be fearsome – Rabada is a gift test cricket can ill afford to lose – and if the batting is up to par, it could be one we struggle to win. Look for some lopsided contests, but a key really hard-fought game somewhere that will turn/decide the series. What a shame AB de Villiers considers this beneath him, even at this stage of his career. AB, I note, doesn’t get the selfish arsehole abuse others get. Maybe I’m missing something.

This summer is a big one too for the mystery man Bayliss and the laughing gnome Farbrace. This has been a long honeymoon, but a Champions Trophy failure has taken down their firewall. Or at least it should have, because I’m really not sure any more. Also, it’s big for Comma. His focus on white ball cricket has yielded progress but not silverware, and now the test team have to take over not on a tide of optimism, but on a cautious, perplexed, almost tentative note. Newman is always one to go that extra mile, and his conclusion is probably right, but for the wrong reasons:

“The most worrying thing is this is the second successive year Bayliss has publicly advocated bolder options — last year Jos Buttler, this time Dawid Malan — only for the squad to be greeted by a groan rather than a gasp.

If it is true that England’s Test side has stagnated, then they have to adopt the same methods Bayliss has so successfully employed in one-day cricket.

The clock is ticking towards the Ashes and England cannot afford to waste any time in the seven Tests that Root will have against South Africa and West Indies to settle into the role.

And that makes this selection such a crying shame, whatever happens at Lord’s, where pragmatism will rule over a potential brave new world.”


Trevor Bayliss needs to assert his authority. Joe Root needs to assert his authority. England need to assert their authority. Welcome to an interesting summer of test cricket. Hopefully, we’ll enjoy / suffer it together.

Comments on Day 1 below. A day early I know but I’m off to Munich! The wanderer, though, has returned!