England vs South Africa: 4th Test and Review

In common with the rest of the series, the fourth and last day of the final Test turned out to be a mopping up exercise, the outcome already beyond doubt, the uncertainty merely concerning the margin and how long it would take.  Early hopes for a spectacular Moeen century were dashed when Broad and Anderson were dismissed in short order, removing any argument about how long to bat on, perhaps fortuitously.  It made little difference to anything but a potential personal milestone, and by the end of the day it was hard to imagine Moeen would have been in any way disappointed with his lot.

South Africa fought hard, in a manner that has been in somewhat short supply this series, but a target of 380, on a surface that was deteriorating, was never feasible.  Both teams have been afflicted with top order fragility this series, the difference being that England’s middle and lower order are operating on a different level to their counterparts.  Moeen’s unbeaten 75 in the second innings probably wasn’t the difference between the sides, but it certainly gave a fair degree of breathing space.  The 90 runs added for the last three wickets turned a highly unlikely target into an impossible one, which given the tourists’ manful efforts with the ball to stay in the series was a case of hammering the final nail in the series coffin.

After a faltering start came a fine partnership between Amla and Du Plessis.  Neither have had outstanding series – that Vernon Philander is top of the batting averages makes that clear – though Amla has scored runs without ever going on to a match defining innings.  Broad and Anderson, particularly the latter, had bowled superbly early on, both swing and seam with the new ball making life exceptionally difficult.  For South Africa to reach 163-3 was a tribute to how well they had done, not that it was a time to worry about reaching the target.  Enter that man Moeen again, who must be feeling Test cricket is currently the easiest game in the world.  Three quick wickets and the game was just about done, as he finished with another five wicket haul, this time via the slightly less impressive manner of three wickets in four balls rather than three.  He was unsurprisingly named Man of the Series for England – Morne Morkel picking up the equivalent award for South Africa.

At the end of it, it was a comfortable enough series win.  England were the better side of the two, the depth in their batting and injuries, illness and voluntary absence hampering the visitors.  Yet the weaknesses identified in both sides at the start were no closer to being resolved by the end.  England’s new captain Joe Root did well enough, he was certainly more attacking than had been the case at any time during the Cook era, and if nothing else at no point where there obvious occasions where the tactics were utterly baffling, in itself a positive.  Where England tended to fall short, particularly but not solely at Trent Bridge, was in the top order batting, something not directly within the purview of the captain.   Ultimately England’s batting was slightly deeper and slightly less fragile than South Africa’s.

Cook had a reasonable series, like Amla not going on to make a really big score, but on one occasion for certain making a material difference to the match outcome with his fine 88 at the Oval.  Cook is without question England’s best opener, and can be expected to cash in against the West Indies later this month, but there are doubts beginning to surface about his ability to score big runs against potent pace attacks, particularly with the Ashes coming up.  He has always been a slightly odd opener, vulnerable to fast bowling but exceptional against spin, and with two series of highly contrasting outcomes down under, it really needs to be Good Cook for England to have a strong chance.  For this is the fundamental point: England are frail at the top, and overly reliant on their best players, of whom he is one, and the middle order as a collective.  Whether it be a matter of declining returns is an unknown, but the Ashes will likely provide a good answer to that question.

Who his next opening partner will be is up for debate, if not panic.  Jennings certainly didn’t show anything to suggest he’s the one, but it’s also true that whoever does the role next series has the opportunity to score heavily without answering the basic question as to whether they are good enough at the very top level.   Not being picked is becoming a useful means of advancing a cause, for Haseeb Hamed finally got runs today, which may be rather timely.  But it is all too easy to see the revolving door of England openers continuing for the foreseeable future.

Three and five are also still uncertain; Tom Westley did well enough to be persevered with, while Dawid Malan probably didn’t.  But England have got themselves in a pickle by running a lottery on three of the top five positions.  Dropping Malan after two Tests wouldn’t engender much confidence that the selectors know what they’re doing, because it implies the initial selection was a mistake.  There is a case for considering Alex Hales in that position, and his current bout of run scoring in that role might move things his way.

Further down is where England excel.  Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all got the same criticism for failing to knuckle down in the Trent Bridge Test as everyone else, but their strengths are elsewhere – and to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can (which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be more responsible on occasion) is to miss the point about the problems in the batting order.  They have bailed England out on many an occasion between them, but it is asking a lot for them to keep doing it from 120-4.  Have them coming in at 300-4 and it’s a different matter, for in those circumstances they will scare the living daylights out of any and every opposition.

Of the bowlers, Moeen of course has had an extraordinary series, on the back of a highly average one in India.  If there is a difference in his bowling, it appears less about the pace at which he is flighting the ball (though he is) and more about seeming to be bowling many fewer bad deliveries.   He’s always been a wicket taker, but this series he has also been much tighter.  It’s also true that India away is hard territory for an English spinner – few have been remotely as successful as Panesar and Swann – and although he wasn’t great, he’s certainly not the first to struggle there; something that should have been noted by those complaining about Adil Rashid too.  For the Ashes, expectations shouldn’t be too high either, even Swann has an average well north of 40 in that country.  If Moeen does the same, then he’ll have done extremely well, but after this series it’s rather likely it won’t be seen that way.  He’s a very useful performer who does takes wickets, but he’s not better than Swann and he’s not better than Panesar.  Which means his success should be celebrated, but with a proviso that it’s not going to be like this all the time.  Still, as things stand his bowling appears to have improved , and with his batting as well, he’s becoming one of this side’s key performers.

Toby Roland-Jones came in and did well, though as is so often the case he was hailed as the answer one match into his Test career.  It’s neither fair nor is it reasonable, but he can be pleased with his start, and once again the obsession with sheer pace (despite Philander clearly being a fine bowler anywhere at about 80mph) comes up against the reality that good bowlers can operate at any speed.  That being said, he was in the side because of the injury to Chris Woakes, who can be expected to return, and of course who strengthens the already absurdly powerful middle and lower order even further.

Stokes is Stokes, a player who is perhaps by the strictest of measures not someone who fully qualifies for the genuine all rounder role in that neither his batting nor his bowling alone are truly good enough in isolation.  But he tends to contribute in one discipline or the other (or by catching flies at slip) most matches these days.  It makes him a highly unusual cricketer, for in terms of raw numbers he could be termed one of those bits and pieces cricketers, but he clearly is far more than that.  It may be that in years to come he reaches even greater heights, but he’s the heartbeat of this team and he knows it.  And a matchwinner.

Broad and Anderson are now the old stagers in the side, and it’s probably worth appreciating seeing them in tandem, for it won’t last forever.  Broad bowled well enough without necessarily getting the rewards, while Anderson finished top of the bowling averages.  That in itself is interesting because there was a subtle shift in his role.  Root was quick to remove him from the attack whenever he wasn’t doing what he wanted him to, which clearly irked him, and he responded in the best possible way, by coming back and taking wickets.  Today was one of those where he had the ball on a piece of string, swinging it both ways and seaming it off the surface.  Some were quite simply unplayable by anyone.  Perhaps he is finally embracing his elder statesman role, in which case it is good news for England, for as he gets older and his workload necessarily needs easing, his sheer skill will remain.  He bowled beautifully, and it’s unlikely too many West Indies batsmen will be excited at facing him under lights in Birmingham.  Career wise, today was the day when his Test bowling average dipped into the 27s.  He’s been lowering it steadily for five years, and may well finish a point or two lower yet.

It was also striking how much time he spent at midoff, talking to the other bowlers, something that Joe Root was quick to say was no coincidence.  It’s distinctly possible Anderson might make a very good coach, not just because he’s been there and done it, but because he’s had his own career mangled at various points by those who follow technical strictures in preference to common sense.  Getting the best out of those already good enough to be picked could well be a future for him.

For South Africa the next Tests on the agenda are home ones against Bangladesh, which should at least provide the opportunity to make some changes in favourable circumstances.  Heino Kuhn has likely played his last Test but the brittleness has affected the team throughout the top order, in a side that relies on it far more than England do (not that England should, but that’s how it has transpired).  Elgar had a decent series, undone twice here by two balls that would trouble anyone, but Bavuma flattered to deceive too often, as he has done in much of his Test career, while the core middle order of Du Plessis and De Kock struggled.  The loss of De Villiers undoubtedly hurts them, and that is a symptom of a wider malaise in the game where players are paid little to turn out for their national team, and fortunes to play for a franchise.  But even without him, the returns from the batting will have been a serious disappointment.

Losing Steyn before the series was a blow, losing Philander during it may have been pivotal. But all of the seamers did reasonably well at different times, and Maharaj too looked a cut above the normal South African spinner.  Lamenting the losses in the bowling department may ease the irritation at the result, but it was the batting that ultimately cost them, along with too many dropped catches.

This hasn’t been a great series, despite the wishful thinking of the broadcasters.  Each match has been one sided, and the interest in the outcome has dissipated often within two days.  It is a problem for Test cricket without question, but there have been highlights such as Root’s 190, Stokes brilliant 112 and Moeen’s hat-trick.  Perhaps it’s not enough, but at the moment it’s all there is to hang on to.

 

England vs South Africa: Fourth Test, Day Two

For a time during the afternoon, it looked as though at long last there might be a genuinely competitive Test match on the cards.  Sure, England had played well in the morning session, thanks to Jonny Bairstow’s masterclass in farming the strike with the tail, but with the tourists 141-3, and looking in reasonable shape to challenge the England total, the prospect of not knowing where the match was going after two days was a definite possibility.

That it didn’t happen was partly down to some excellent bowling – from James Anderson and Moeen Ali in particular – but also some woeful batting.  England received plenty of (justified) criticism for the way they rolled over at Trent Bridge, but with the series now likely to finish 3-1, South Africa have clearly demonstrated that however fragile England might wish to be, they can exceed it.

Both teams had faltered in the top order, and the difference in position wasn’t especially marked, but whereas England’s middle order had rescued the situation, first through Stokes, then through Bairstow, South Africa’s fell apart.  It doesn’t tell us that much about England, for the trio of Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen have rescued the team from calamity on a few occasions, but in this series at least, the same can’t be said about their opposite numbers.

Although England had lost a couple of early wickets, 312-9 in the context of the batting line ups didn’t look a bad score.  A rollicking last wicket stand with Bairstow turning a useful fifty into what appeared certain to be a remarkable century moved England into a position of likely dominance.  In itself that says a fair bit about these two sides.  There is some movement off the pitch and in the air, but this is a decent Test match wicket.  400, once the minimum expectation for the side batting first appears to be right at the top of the aspirations of these batting line ups.

Bairstow of course fell for 99, joining a substantial group who have managed to get themselves out in often peculiar circumstances in pursuit of that single extra run.  If ever there was an illustration needed that batting is done in the head, it is right there.  He was perhaps a trifle unlucky of course – not in the sense that it wasn’t out, but because it was a marginal call. In the world of DRS such calls are automatically considered “good” decisions as they are backed up by the technology, and perhaps the game is better for that.  But he may feel some chagrin for not getting that nebulous unwritten rule concerning the benefit of the doubt.  It’s the same for all.

If Bairstow had left England content at the change of innings, Anderson ensured that lunch was to be a happy place in the England dressing room, removing the obdurate Dean Elgar third ball to christen his newly named bowling end with a classical Anderson delivery, swinging into the left hander’s pads.

For the next couple of hours it was good Test cricket.  The loss of Amla to Toby Roland-Jones for the third time in succession cut short an innings where he looked in decent touch, an all too rare occurrence recently.  If he was fluent, Heino Kuhn was anything but.  Battling dreadful form and injury, he was eventually put out of his misery by Moeen Ali, but it should be said that if his team mates had batted with the same tenacity and determination as the under pressure opener, they might not be in the mess they are this evening.

Bavuma and Du Plessis then took over, not without alarms, but the match was fairly even.  And then it all fell apart.  Anderson removed both within three balls, and while they were decent enough deliveries, Bavuma’s decision to join his team mates this series in regarding the bat as an optional extra, and Du Plessis’ dreadful defensive shot that dragged the ball on to the stumps through the widest of gates was symptomatic of the difference between the teams – namely that brittle as England might be, they are tempered by comparison with their opponents.

With the exception of Elgar, every South African batsman this innings has got into double figures, yet none has made a fifty.  The tail did well, Maharaj, Rabada and Morkel being responsible for ensuring the 142 run deficit (with one wicket remaining) wasn’t even higher.  Yet De Kock was subdued, seemingly unsure how to play the deteriorating situation, and the procession of batsmen coming in and going out was of no surprise at all.

All of which means this match is following an identical pattern to the third Test (and similar to all the others this series).  England will have a huge lead, and with no rain to date the luxury of no time pressure whatever in setting a vast target – though doubtless some will be calling for them to push on and declare tomorrow night.

It’s not entirely clear why it is that matches, in England at the very least, have become so one sided in recent years, and the old truth that correlation doesn’t equal causation should make anyone wary of the easy blaming of T20 cricket.  But it doesn’t make for good viewing and it isn’t healthy for Test cricket.  The very concept of a battle unfolding over five days is undermined when the outcome is pretty much clear after two, every time.  This has happened in Tests since they began, but it is now sufficiently consistently the case as to cause even more worry about the health of the game than was already the case.  All sport thrives on uncertainty, for without it there is little point watching.  The up and down results England have had in the last couple of years is indeed quite uncertain, that is true, but the matches themselves are anything but.

Barring something preposterous, England will win this match, and with it the series.  But the feeling that the next two (probably not three) days are merely playing out the inevitable (yet again) is both frustrating and fundamentally lowers interest.  It’s to be hoped it is a phase, as can happen in sport, for if not the problems are even greater than has been supposed up to now.

India vs England: Fourth Test, Day Five

With defeat can come a time for reflection, for honesty and the opportunity to examine where a side is going wrong, why games are being lost, and what can be done about it.  It can even be a period where one accepts that the team is being outplayed and there’s little that can be done to change that in the short term, beyond redoubling efforts.  Either way, it requires a degree of self-awareness and the willingness to see that decisions may be wrong, that approaches need to change and that personnel might not be doing all they are capable of doing.

And then there’s the second element, in that the honesty required is internal, and talking to the media doesn’t mean sharing all that with everyone else.  The kind of deep discussion required should not, and usually does not, make it beyond the confines of the dressing room, and that is exactly as it should be.  That makes the fronting up to the media rather difficult, as those who have paid to watch the team play deserve answers, but for the sake of the team there are limits to how detailed and how extensive those answers should be.

Those competing imperatives can cause some frustration amongst supporters.  When a side has been woeful, hearing a manager come out and defend them and claim they actually played well drives many to distraction, as any fan of the England football team for the last forty years or so will tell you.  Yet it’s to some extent a necessary fiction, and in private the manager could well be climbing the walls at the inability of his charges to do what they were meant to do.

As a result, the post match interviews should always be seen through the prism of limited information, both for team dynamics and because the opposition are listening in.  Reading too much into them is a dangerous game, though what people do want to hear is a degree of honesty, and a restriction on the volume of platitudes offered up.  Of course, in many sports, football in particular, that’s because the media themselves are waiting to pounce on any expression of weakness, whereby the plea for honesty is nothing but hypocrisy given how such honesty is then treated.  As a result, wagons are circled and a siege mentality is often the best one to adopt.  All sports teams live in a bubble anyway, and despite occasional protestations to the contrary, the supporters, even though they ultimately pay all the salaries, are removed from consideration.  It’s understandable to an extent, though you can get the situation where an England player assumes the ticket prices to be a quarter of what they actually are – that much ignorance is unacceptable.

The trouble is that there’s a contradiction here.  By no measure could England be said to have a hostile press, indeed supine is nearer the mark given their inability to offer up any kind of examination of their flaws in structure or execution – whataboutery, especially if Kevin Pietersen can be brought into it, is the more likely response.  Defensiveness is understandable in itself after a defeat, the problem is that when it occurs even when the criticism is highly limited in the first place that suggests that the mindset is one of being closed off to the reality of the situation.

The match was completed this morning in short order, England collapsing from their already desperate position to give India the expected series win and revenge for the defeat four years ago.  The response to it was therefore one of interest, to see whether England were fully appreciative of what had gone wrong and why.  Again, an instant response from all involved needs to take into account that words can be poorly chosen, or that with a game still to go baring one’s soul may not be the best, most appropriate response.  Yet the captain’s words are interesting in themselves for demonstrating a particular mindset:

“I thought 400 was a pretty good score on that wicket. Keaton played really well, at 230 for 2 maybe should have got 450. Historically, 400 is a good score on this ground.

“In the second innings we had our chances. We aren’t taking those chances at the moment. Virat played an extraordinary innings but we had a chance on 60-odd to get him. Those are things that the game changes on. We are in it for three days but not good enough to stay in it. We haven’t been good enough to match India.

“We wanted to see what four seamers would look like because on the tour they have given us control and our two best spinners have been Mo and Rash. When you batted first you didn’t need that extra seamer, so that was a mistake. We had a chance to restrict the lead. We would have been in the game. But that isn’t really good enough. To me, we batted better in this game than the previous two.

I go back to the chances we missed, we could have bowled India out for 400. Virat is in incredible form, having one of the series you dream of. Clearly one of the great batsmen of our generation.”

Cook is quite right to laud Kohli’s performance.  He has proved to be the difference between the sides throughout the series, and his extraordinary innings here turned India’s position from middling to utterly dominant.  Yet his comments about the game turning on a missed chance is both unfair and could be said about pretty much every Test match ever played.  Catches will always be dropped, but the bigger and more pertinent question is why it was that this was the only chance created, for that aside, England didn’t remotely look like taking a wicket.  It wasn’t exactly a dolly, and nor was Kohli the only centurion to be dropped in that innings.  Using that as a crutch to explain why the game was lost is throwing a team mate under the bus and effectively blaming him for defeat.  Now, everyone can say things they shouldn’t, and reflect later that it might not have been appropriate, but it’s still not a good thing to do to a member of the side, and nor is it the first time Cook has done it.  Even great teams drop catches, but those great teams create another chance.  If you make only one in an innings of that length, that is the far greater problem.  India have dropped plenty of catches both in this match and across the series – it hasn’t just been England, and while Kohli may have been magnificent, Jayant Yadav also scored a century, and it wasn’t luck that allowed him to do it.   He can bat, and showed it, but England couldn’t get him out.  That isn’t down to Rashid dropping a chance.

Likewise, the section concerning the seam attack is simply rather peculiar.  If taken in isolation, any team can get it wrong and pick the wrong side, but this is the second match in succession that they’re saying this – indeed the implication is that they have got the right teams but the wrong way around: too many spinners last time, too many seamers this.  The reference to the toss is simply odd, since when has the team depended on whether you win it or lose it?  How can it be a mistake if England won the toss, but not if they didn’t?

In any case, India’s seam bowlers have outperformed England’s.  James Anderson went wicketless in this Test, as in the last one, and while he might indeed be offering control, he isn’t taking wickets, or even looking like taking wickets given his insistence on bowling outside the stumps allowing the Indian batsman to watch it harmlessly pass by.  Furthermore, the seam attack isn’t going to be important if you don’t take the second new ball for 40 overs after it’s become due.  It suggests that there’s no faith in them getting any wickets at all.

Ruthlessly analysing every spoken word for an error is not fair on anyone, but Cook’s answer is still jarring, and invites concern that England are too frazzled to understand what they are trying to achieve, whether in selection or execution.  When a side is struggling, errors are magnified by the opposition.  As said yesterday, there’s no disgrace in losing this series to a team who are very good at home, but what is harder to grasp is what England are attempting to achieve here.

Cook did also go on to talk about the captaincy, which in itself suggests that he’s thinking about the end of his reign and there has to be a degree of human sympathy for him here, because leading a team who is getting badly beaten – and England now are being badly beaten – is emotionally difficult.  He is highly fortunate in the coverage he is getting, for it is impossible to imagine any previous England captain ever getting such a comfortable ride – even if there are some words of gentle criticism now being offered.  Still the idea that he can choose his own departure date on the back of more Test defeats in a calendar year than any previous incumbent plus a second proper hammering in an away series under his leadership beggars belief.  To say so would mean that he is more important than the team.

Nobody wants to see a captain (or anyone else please note) made the scapegoat for the failings of a team, but it remains utterly extraordinary how favourable the coverage of Cook as captain is.  Nobody is under the impression that he’s a superb captain, not even the biggest cheerleaders for him would ever make that claim.  Thus the idea that him not doing it would represent some kind of disaster is impossible to believe or justify.  Equally, he’s not had a record as captain that’s good enough to justify the adoration, being no better than that of Nasser Hussain who had far weaker personnel to work with.  He did lead England to two Ashes victories at home, but also in the away disaster in 2013/14.  The away win in India is an undoubted highlight, but balancing that is the home defeat to Sri Lanka and the drawn series in Bangladesh.

His tenure certainly hasn’t been a disaster, but nor has it been especially good, and the suspicion that England aren’t getting as much out of the team as they could does come down to leadership, whether of the captain or the coaching and administration.  His on field captaincy has been – to put it kindly – limited, the administration of the ECB inept.  Quite how he gets such approval, such reverence, is impossible to understand, for the likes of Paul Newman write as though he was a clone of Mike Brearley.  It is notable that far greater criticism of Kohli’s captaincy has been present in the English media than that of Cook’s, and while Kohli may not be a great captain, he’s the recipient of the kind of comment that has been notably absent about Cook for much of his reign.  The problem here is that it is counterproductive.  It is treating the public as idiots – so obviously biased in Cook’s favour that it merely enrages those who would otherwise accept a limited captain doing the best he can.  Pretending that black is white merely destroys the credibility of the cricket media.

The game ended with an on field spat between Ravi Ashwin and James Anderson, which is not altogether surprising given Anderson’s comments about Virat Kohli the night before.  Perhaps the frustration at England’s performances seeped through, but the comments were not especially wise and lacked grace.  It would be equally easy for them to talk about Anderson in the same vein, and Anderson surely knows that.

India are a good team, one who thoroughly deserve to have won the series, yet they are not a great one, at least not yet; suggesting they are is curiously making excuses for England – that they simply could not and never would be able to beat India no matter how well they played.  There is being realistic about things, and there is burying a head under the duvet and hoping it will all end soon and there’s nothing that could have been done.  India are very likely to almost always have better spinners than England, but this series they’ve had better seamers too.  Indian batsmen are always going to be better players of spin than English ones, but it doesn’t explain the lack of patience or irresponsible dismissals of England batsmen when set.  Perhaps it is indeed the case that Kohli isn’t a great captain, but when you have a superior side, that can be disguised – as England have demonstrated under Cook before – and when losing the weakness in that discipline is highlighted more.

Perhaps behind the scenes England are well aware of all these things and are discussing and debating them.  But the media have long abrogated their responsibility to hold England to account, and the signs are that the ECB structure doesn’t see it.  Andrew Strauss, highly visible when England do well, has been entirely absent this winter.

There is one match remaining.  It is a struggle to see anything other than a comprehensive India win, for the margins of victory are getting wider.  Cook’s line that he will sit down with the Director, Cricket at the end of the year is not an unreasonable one, for the conclusion of the series is the time to make decisions not during it. That discussion will decide what the England team are ultimately about and where they go, for there is talent there and there are good players coming though.

For now, India should celebrate their thoroughly deserved win.  England have a lot of thinking to do.

 

 

India vs England: 3rd Test review

As it turned out, England probably did a little better than some might have expected, but the end result was entirely predictable.  To have made the game interesting, another hundred runs or so were needed, and that was would have required something spectacular.  Even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough on a surface that didn’t especially deteriorate, and with a bowling attack that have at no time looked like skittling India.

There was the odd bright spot, Joe Root batted well, although he once again fell between 50 and 100, a habit he needs to break sooner rather than later if he really is going to be as good as he has threatened to be, while Haseeb Hameed scored an enterprising unbeaten 50 from number 8, batting that low due to a finger so badly broken he is to return home to have an operation and a plate put into the bone.  There has been much discussion around the decision of England not to send him for a scan immediately, but to wait.  It’s one of those where the logic behind it – to not make it clear to India that it was badly broken in advance of him batting – is open to question in terms of the player’s welfare, but the rationale can be partly understood, and it mattered little in the wider picture.  The team medics would have had a pretty good idea how badly it was hurt, and it’s a side issue to the bigger problems England have – except in the sense that he is unquestionably a loss to the team.

What it did explain was the three net sessions yesterday; Hameed attempting to amend his technique to find a way to bat with the injury.  He emerges with nothing but credit, for he appeared in little discomfort in the middle and did a fine job in trying to drag England up to a total that with a very fair wind they might have defended.  Indeed, he apparently had to be persuaded to return home to have it treated, insisting that he wanted to play the last two Tests.  In a series where the collective batting has been little short of dismal much of the time, he’s an unquestioned bright spot – even if some of the praise has gone beyond reasonable and into the hyperbolic.

Aside from that Woakes scored runs, but it was never likely to be enough.  Any highly optimistic hopes of an extraordinary win were heightened when Woakes himself dismissed Murali Vijay with seven on the board, but it was plain sailing thereafter, with Pujara’s late dismissal allowing national hero Virat Kohli to come in for the denouement.  Parthiv Patel completed a fine comeback match with an unbeaten and rapid fifty.

For India, the series is going swimmingly, only the form of Rahane offering up succour for England.  In itself, that is a lesson for those picking on the latest England victim, for Rahane has had a miserable time, but the rest of the team have performed more than well enough.  Blaming one player for all the woes of the batting is ridiculous, as many did when Duckett was dropped, for most teams have one player out of form at any given time.  It doesn’t for a second mean that changes shouldn’t be made, but it does mean that focusing on one doesn’t excuse the others when the side fails to make runs.

If it is little surprise that India have the superior spin attack, it is more of one that their seamers have consistently outbowled England’s.  Only Ben Stokes can be considered to have bowled well, although his five wickets in the first innings comprise all but two of those he has taken in the three Tests to date, so he has hardly been exceptional throughout.  Woakes was below par here, though doubtless playing, being dropped, then playing again does little for his consistency, while James Anderson looked entirely innocuous.  This may well have something to do with only bowling six balls in the entire match that would have hit the stumps, for nothing reassures a batsman so much as knowing that he only needs to play at the ball when he wants to score runs.  Anderson was economical alright, as is often the case when players leave the ball alone most of the time, but did not threaten a wicket.  Whether this is a deliberate tactic on his part is impossible to know, but it needs to be addressed urgently.  Mistakes are created when the batsman is unsure what to expect, at the moment they know all too well.

Stuart Broad may well return for the next Test, and at the moment it should probably be Anderson who makes way based on this match, though that is unlikely to be how it pans out, and given his record, probably rightly.  England need to work out how to take wickets, and Anderson is obviously more than capable.  But if he persists in a safe line outside off stump then it’s nothing other than a waste of a seam spot.  Harsh indeed, for whatever the criticism that can be levelled here, Anderson is and has been an outstanding bowler for England.  Which is exactly the reason for the frustration.

Cook and Bayliss were honest enough to say afterwards that they had misread the pitch, with nothing like the amount of turn on offer late on that they had expected.  With all mistakes, it is a matter of whether it could have been foreseen in advance, and few criticised the three spinner approach based on it not turning enough before the match started.  The lack of assistance meant that England had one spinner too many, with Batty and Moeen sharing light duties.  However, Mumbai is much hotter, and the pitch there expected to be more conducive to spin – it would be a serious mistake for England to replay this match and drop one of them on the basis of what happened here.  Conditions may well be different, though whether two or three is best is open to debate.  If one does go, it will probably be Batty.  His return to Test colours hasn’t been an unqualified success by any stretch, but he is what he’s always been, a solid pro who doesn’t let anyone down.

There is latitude however, simply because England have a six man attack.  In itself, this is a good thing, made possible by Stokes and Ali being frontline batsmen and Woakes and Rashid not too far off the all rounder category either, in other words, England aren’t specifically picking six bowlers as such.  Rashid has been excellent all series, and has taken two thirds of all the wickets to fall to bowlers.  Moeen has been adequate as back up but no more.  Rashid is a match winning bowler, Moeen is a useful converted part-timer who has at least done better than either of the other specialist England finger spinners on this tour, and is probably the best England have.  But while Rashid has more than contributed his fair share, for the spinners to really have a chance to impact a match, they require runs on the board to defend.  Which brings us neatly on to the batsmen.

In England’s two defeats this series, they have failed to reach 300 on any occasion.  While last time around they certainly had the worst of the conditions after losing the toss, the same can certainly not be said for Mohali. They won the toss, the pitch was good, and everything was in their favour.  The match was lost in the first innings, indeed was lost on the first morning, with a collection of poor shots aiding India in dismissing England for a woefully sub-par 283.  From there, even with a spirited fightback on day two, the match had a sense of inevitability about its ultimate conclusion.

It is the failure to be disciplined, and the failure to build partnerships that is the major problem.  Jonny Bairstow is top of the batting averages this series, but on each occasion he has come in with a rescue job to do.  That he has managed to do so on a couple of occasions is to his credit, but it doesn’t change the course of the game, it merely keeps England in the match.  Some batsmen have made a big score and done little of note apart from that – Cook and Moeen in particular.  In the latter case, his tendency towards feast or famine is well known, though it’s an especially fine effort this time around, in the former, without him having a strong series England were always going to be in trouble.  Cook’s record this series aside from the hundred is not materially worse than anyone else’s, the difference is in how critical his role is to England being competitive, and in the first innings as well.  In this match, appearing totally at sea to the spinners was a startling sight – he always has been a fine player of slow bowling.

And yet none of the batting order as constituted in this game are having a terrible time of things.  The left handers are struggling against Ashwin, which may cause some cogitation when considering Hameed’s replacement, but all in all they are scoring runs to a reasonable degree.  What they are not doing is putting it together at the same time.  Cricket is a mental game, and in many ways batting is about mentality more than any other discipline.  The problem of not building partnerships is not a new one, the same problem has been apparent over the last couple of years.  For whatever reason, England seem unable to consistently build totals, even if the individuals themselves are making scores.

What should be a major worry, with England needing to win both remaining matches to share the series is that no pitch so far has been a raging turner of the type they struggled on in Bangladesh.  Indeed, given how the tracks have played, England ought to have been comfortable with them, for India’s groundsmen have been exceptionally fair.  It’s a psychological issue rather than a technical one, for apart from the unfortunate Duckett, no player has looked out of their depth on this tour, they merely keep finding often daft or lazy ways to get out.  In some ways that’s a good thing, for the claim from Cook that England are not that far away from India is not completely unreasonable, but the margin of defeat in the last two games is so large there’s only a so long before such a claim becomes absurd rather than hopeful, and it’s pushing it now.

There are two spare batsmen on this tour, Duckett and Ballance.  It appears neither of them is selectable, which begs the question as to what the point of them staying on the tour is.  There is the possibility one of the batsmen from the Lions in the UAE could be called up, with the debate centring around whether that should be an opener.  Joe Root could move up to open with Cook for example, and with England so often being 20-2 the appeal of putting the two senior players out at the start and getting them to take responsibility for the innings is clear.  If England went down that path, then Sam Billings may be the favoured option to slot into the middle order.  If so, at least there would be no concerns about Bairstow hurting himself keeping wicket – there’d be two other players who could take over, quite possibly for the first time in Test history.

Over the three Tests to date, it’s not impossible to see England winning the next match if they get it right, but the trouble is that over the last two games, they’ve not shown that much evidence that they can. India is not an easy place to tour, as the repeated wallopings handed out to visitors have tended to show.  England might play well and still lose, such is the challenge in front of them.  But it would be nice if they did, they’d then at least have given themselves a chance.

 

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 Two

Predicting sporting contests is a fool’s game much of the time, though it remains fun to do.  The very essence of sport is that the unexpected happens, otherwise there’d be no point watching or participating.  Nevertheless, the degree of certainty so many had that England would prevail in this match before the start was rather peculiar, apparently based on the undoubted hiding that England dished out at Old Trafford.  When Pakistan put England into bat, it was called defensive, when England were bowled out on day one, it meant that England would do the same to the tourists on day two.  It is as though Pakistan’s victory at Lords never happened, as though they were merely cannon fodder for an all conquering home side to swat aside.  Some even predicted a 7-0 Test summer, as though Pakistan were no more of a threat than Sri Lanka.

England are not out of this game by any means, the late wicket of the excellent Azhar Ali made the day slightly less dreadful than it would have otherwise been, and with Pakistan still 40 runs behind the possibility of early wickets in the morning with a still fairly new ball remains.  But England desperately need those early wickets for if they don’t get them they are in serious trouble, even if Pakistan are the ones having to bat last.  All things being equal, by the time England are batting again, there should be a little more help for the spinners, and one of the notable things about Moeen Ali’s bowling today was that while it wasn’t hugely effective, he was getting bounce occasionally, and bounce is a considerable danger when utilised by an outstanding spin bowler.

It had all started so well, Mohammed Hafeez slapping a wide long hop straight to Gary Ballance at point, but after that it was all Pakistan.  Sami Aslam impressed mightily in only his third Test match – and startlingly, he hasn’t played a first class match since December.  He looked every inch the Test opener; compact, technically sound and perhaps as important as anything else, he left the ball superbly.  England didn’t look like getting him out, so his partner did it for them, running him out with a dreadful call, albeit Sami could have backed up a little more.

Should Pakistan bat well tomorrow, England have another potential problem, for Anderson has received two warnings for running on the pitch and another will see him banned for the rest of the innings.  Anderson himself didn’t behave terribly well, and subsequently said that he’d apologised to both umpires.  Whether that is enough to distract the match referee remains to be seen.

The not out batsman overnight is Younis Khan, and it is hard to decide whether it is amusing or painful to watch his batting travails at present.  He looks hideously out of form and is fighting with himself every ball he faces.  His batting technique is all over the place, jumping in the air constantly, weight distribution somewhere around the inverse of what it should be – yet he is still there.  To see such an elegant player battling this way is both impressive and worrying given his age.  As ever, when a player gets older he is given little time to simply be out of form.

One other small point:  the 90 overs were completed today.  That it is worthy of comment should in itself highlight the problem.

By the close of play tomorrow England could be in serious trouble, if they aren’t batting soon after lunch it will be a difficult match to win; if they aren’t batting by tea they are in dire straits.  Tomorrow is a big day for both teams, but Test cricket can and does turn on a session.  England will need the morning to be one of those.

Day Three Comments Below

 

South Africa v England: 1st Test, day five and match review

South Africa in disarray, England exultant.  No doubt the word “momentum” will be used.

Taking four wickets for seven runs (including du Plessis last night) probably wasn’t the expectation of anyone, with the game effectively done and dusted within half an hour of the start.  But on reflection it probably shouldn’t come as that much of a shock, from the start of the fourth day South Africa seemed almost resigned to defeat, with only the brief passage of play at the top of the second innings suggesting some degree of fight.

It was Moeen Ali, named man of the match, who did the damage, removing AB De Villiers with the third ball of the morning.  Moeen hasn’t had an unquestioned role in the side, not helped by being shunted up and down the batting order and a lack of clarity about what his role is meant to be.  He isn’t one of the six best batsmen in the country, though he is one of the six best to watch, so his primary role has to be as spinner, with his batting complementing that.  There has been considerable development in his bowling since his debut, and it’s now time to start thinking of him as much much more than the part-timer he was then called.  It wasn’t an unreasonable description either at the start, but by all accounts he works harder than anyone and is keen to learn.   The fruits of that are starting to show, though how much further he can develop is an open question.

His Test bowling average isn’t anything special, though in recent historic terms for England it’s not bad either – Swann is an outlier amongst English finger spinners – but after 20 Tests his statistics are starting to become meaningful.  The one that reflects well on him is his strike rate, with a wicket every 56 balls.  That is actually better than Swann, though no one would argue he’s remotely the equivalent as a bowler, for Swann was vastly better at the defensive role.  But Moeen does have the knack of taking wickets, and just as with Finn, this is a skill that the England are finally starting to pay attention to; “bowling dry” is unquestionably a part of the game and England’s ability to strangle sides into submission was impressive.  But the ability to take wickets out of nowhere is more impressive still – the holy grail is to have both of course, but if it was that easy every side would do it.

Therefore it could be argued that 18 months into his Test career, Moeen is actually underrated.  It is his batting where he is underperforming somewhat which is slightly ironic.

He would have had more wickets in his career had numerous stumping opportunities been taken, so Bairstow will have been delighted to get Bavuma, particularly after missing De Villiers last night.  And here we need to talk about wicketkeeping, because it is the one area of the game where people who have played at the highest level and can talk with wisdom and experience about cricket have no knowledge or understanding except in a couple of very obvious cases.

The stumping this morning was an easy one, because it went past the outside edge of the bat.  That means the keeper is following the line of the ball all the way down and the hands are automatically in the right position.  It’s therefore straightforward unless there is excessive spin taking it beyond the reach of the gloves.  The difficult ones are those that go between bat and pad.  Bairstow, just like Buttler, is a part-time wicketkeeper, and that creates a number of issues.  The taking or missing of a particular ball can’t be seen in isolation.  More than anyone else on the field, more even than the batsmen who get to switch off to some extent for half of their time out there, the wicketkeeper is involved in every single ball of the game. Concentration is an obvious requirement, but it’s about more than that – or rather it’s only part of the story – it’s about expecting the ball to miss the bat and come into the gloves.  When it goes between bat and pad there is an expectation that it will be hit, and the eyes follow the line of the bat rather than the ball.

This is not a technical issue as such, Bairstow is more than capable of taking it, and so is Buttler; the difference between a good full time keeper and a talented but part-time one is the automatic expectation that the ball will continue on its path and not be intercepted by the bat.  The best keepers do this, and it’s why in the case of either Bairstow or Buttler they will learn it should they continue to keep over the longer period.  That doesn’t mean they then become good keepers, for there are technical flaws in both of them compared to the best, but it is to explain why that one was missed, and why in itself it shouldn’t be a concern – those kinds of stumpings will come.  Prior in his first incarnation also missed them regularly for example, in his second having focused on his keeping much more, he would take them.

Still, Bairstow took the opportunity today well enough, and will certainly gain confidence from it, which also is part of the equation.

From there it was something of a procession, Finn producing one that moved away just a fraction off the seam and was frankly wasted on Dale Steyn,  Moeen again got bite and turn to account for Abbott while Woakes finally got a wicket, which was the least he deserved – he has bowled well without reward this Test.

Fittingly, Stuart Broad delivered the coup de grace to give England a thumping win by 241 runs.

This is a remarkable margin of victory having been sent to bat in difficult conditions with England finding themselves 12-2 and then 49-3.  South Africa’s abundant problems will be much discussed in consequence, but there is always the danger of underplaying England’s wins and overplaying their defeats.  Too often England only win because the opposition were rubbish, and lose because they are rubbish.  It isn’t particularly fair, they won this game and won it well.

The first innings total of 303 is what set up the game.  It’s not a huge score but given the conditions and a pitch where run scoring wasn’t easy, it was a decent one.  Taylor and Compton can reflect on  their performances in that crucial period and be very satisfied with it.  As a combination they batted beautifully, and Graeme Swann’s bizarre and consistent criticism of Compton for batting too slowly gave something of an insight into the environment of the England team during his first spell in the side.  Compton did an outstanding job here, and deserves high praise not snide dismissal.  Had Alastair Cook done the same thing, he would have received considerable plaudits for it, for it was every bit a Cook type innings in pace, style and above all importance.  Rightly so too when Cook does it, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Swann is blinded by favouritism rather than what is going on in front of him.  It is distasteful.

If Compton had a case for being man of the match, so did James Taylor.  Doubtless Kevin Pietersen’s view that he wasn’t good enough for Test cricket in 2012 will be thrown back at him, but firstly Taylor is a better player now than he was then, but also Pietersen’s view at the time was quite clearly echoed by the selectors, who didn’t pick him.  Here he was busy at the crease, and turned the pressure back on to the bowlers.  As a combination with the doughty Compton, it worked beautifully.

That the man of the match award wasn’t an easy one to choose is evidenced by Broad being the fourth player who must have felt in with a shout.  He took fewer wickets than either Moeen or Finn, but the timing of his was the key, breaking the back of South Africa first time round, and ensuring England had a big lead at half way.  Broad is becoming a very, very fine bowler indeed.  And he seems to have got his batting back to at least some extent.  It’s going to be a big few years from him.

Lastly Finn himself can count himself a trifle unlucky to be overlooked too.  Having written about him yesterday there is no point repeating it, but he is looking in fine fettle.

England do have the nice problem of finding a place for Anderson, and Woakes seems certain to make way for him.  Harsh on Woakes if so, but it’s hard to criticise bringing back England’s record wicket taker.

Whither South Africa?

The first thing here is that a side can be comprehensively beaten in one match and gel in the next.  Even those without long memories ought to know that from the last Ashes series where the teams took it in turns to batter the other.  With that said, they do look in some disarray.  The injury to Steyn looks highly likely to keep him out of at least the second Test, but the rest of the attack – and Morkel in particular – compensated admirably here.  Their problems were not in the bowling.

De Villiers’ less than subtle hint about his workload appears to have been listened to, with de Kock being brought in to the squad for Cape Town and seemingly certain to play.  Overloading the best batsman in the side always seemed a peculiar approach, but it’s not in and of itself a reason for how this Test unfolded.  Yet for all the talk about Bairstow behind the stumps it shouldn’t be overlooked that De Villiers had a poor time with the gloves in this game anyway.

Elgar had an excellent match, looking solid and but for being on the losing team probably was the outstanding performer on either side, while Van Zyl in the second innings could well have played himself back into some kind of form without going on to make a substantial score.

The captain is clearly a concern, but Amla is a high class player and has been for a decade.  He was all at sea in the first innings, but much better in the second.  Anyone writing him off does so at their peril, for he will come good, and when he does England will suffer for it.

The immediate response to their performance has a hint of overreaction about it; England are not that good and South Africa are not that bad.  It’s one Test, and South Africa’s difficult tour of India notwithstanding, they have not become a bad side overnight, but they are clearly very low on confidence.

Newlands is a fortress of South African cricket, and while England will go there with confidence, suggestions that they are favourites to win based on this game are a triumph of hope over experience.  South Africa will probably not play as badly as they have done in Durban – if they do they are indeed in real trouble, and at that point a reassessment might be in order.

This isn’t going to stop some getting carried away, and it will be the same people who usually do so.  C’est la vie.

 

Ashes: 3rd Test review

When the intellects of Sartre, Russell and Machiavelli considered potential locations in which to contemplate life and the unfairness of being, it is safe to say that somewhere around the Banbury junction of the M40 probably didn’t figure too highly in their considerations.  Yet it was here that a revelation was to be found, a dawning horror, and a mind forced to express a desire never yet felt by an English cricket fan.

The miles were eaten up, the air conditioning was keeping the cabin cool and pleasant, yet a painful thought kept surfacing as the TMS team chirped away in the background.  The previous day’s work had prevented watching more than the first morning of the Test, although it had been closely followed in mounting amazement.  Australia had won the toss, and though it was felt not to be a bad toss to lose, no one expected the carnage that would follow.  The pitch had offered a bit to the bowlers, but with the exception of Rogers, the lack of discipline in Australia’s batting was the principal cause of a side skittled out for 136.  Certainly England took advantage of what help there was, but a succession of dire shots had led to the pre-series favourites being bundled out in just over 36 overs.  Anderson might have been the chief destroyer, but while he might be nowhere near the best bowler in the world (he is very good – the Henman rule applies*), he is one of the cleverest.  A little bit of swing, a little bit of seam, and an Australian batting order that has long been vulnerable to both allied to an apparent inability to graft in such conditions all led to a total that looked woefully inadequate at the time, and proved to be so as the game unfolded.  Yet although Anderson rightly took the plaudits, the England bowler who caught the eye was Steven Finn, not because of how many wickets he took, but how he looked.

Finn has been in the highly promising category for many years, and perhaps more than anyone else still available to play has been the subject of ire directed at the management and coaching staff.  Finn is a wicket taker, first and foremost, and back in 2010/11 he was dropped from the England team because he was too expensive, despite being the leading wicket taker in the series to that point.  The frustration that the England set up preferred economy to wicket taking prowess was strongly felt at the time, and only became ever more magnified in the years following.

Finn has a Test strike rate of 46.2; he is in 16th place in all of Test history (minimum of 2000 balls) with that, and that takes into account a lost four year period when his run up was messed with, panic set in about his habit of occasionally striking the stumps with his knee – and the ludicrous rule change resulting – and a general focus on what he can’t do, not what he can.  Finn will go for runs sometimes, deal with it.  Two of the best fast n’ nasty bowlers of the last decade, Shane Bond and Dale Steyn, both have poor economy rates.  Better than Finn for sure, but neither of those have been comprehensively mangled by well meaning coaching staff.  That Finn goes for runs is of little relevance if he takes wickets.  The age old choice of whether 5-100 off 20 is better than 2-60 off the same shouldn’t even be a debate.  Yet for the England of the last few years it clearly was, and if the current approach is just to let him bloody bowl, that in itself is to be celebrated.  Strike bowlers are so rare, so valuable it is of incalculable frustration that England have spent years trying to wreck their one bona fide example of it in years.

How a bowler of such talent could have ever reached the point of being “unselectable” was disgraceful.  It’s also entirely unfair how Ashley Giles is now being criticised for saying so, when he was clearly right at the time, and his comments were rather obviously borne of annoyance it had reached that point rather than a dig at Finn himself.

As Warwick approached on the right, and an eye glanced down at the fuel gauge that visibly dropped with every passing mile (note to self – rotary engines and fuel economy don’t go well together), that mind considered England’s reply.  Having been so panic stricken at Lords, England instead did exactly what they said they would in the build up to the game, and went on the attack.  Lyth may be having a bad time of it at present, but nicks to wide half volleys are not evidence of a flawed technique but one of a simple mistake or a mind that feels under pressure.  Like with so many of the Australian team, it was poor batting, but not in itself an inherent fault in his game.  He is starting to run out of time to make an impact, even if it is entirely right to stick with him for the rest of the series.

Cook had been simply unlucky, but he hasn’t had a great series so far. There’s an irony here, he’s never captained better in his whole time as England’s leader, yet the runs have dried up.  His game still looks far sounder than it did, so it shouldn’t be a concern in and of itself, but it’s there in the background.  What is somewhat startling is that almost everyone, me included, thought that for England to have a chance in this series, Cook would have to be the one who led the batting.  It’s not turned out that way so far, but there are two Tests to go to make an impact.

Bell and Root responded by decisively going on the attack.  For all the ups and downs of England’s performance, it is pleasing to see that the intent is still there, and they set about turning an initially strong position into one where England could ram the advantage home.  Much has been said of Bell being promoted to number three, and after the match he himself referenced that it felt good to have been backed.  There’s been a school of thought that Bell is somehow a reluctant number three, but this re-writing of history does him a disservice, not for the first time.  When Trott’s troubles first appeared, Bell was the one who said he would be happy to do the job, and was roundly ignored.  Pretending that it didn’t happen and using it as yet another stick with which to beat him is sheer mendacity.  He clearly needs to feel valued, and it is no good brushing that off and saying he should be able to handle it; different people have different needs – good management is in accounting for that.

Bell’s dismissal at the end of the day was simply him going a touch far and picking the wrong ball to hit.  It is the same for him as it is for anyone else, if you want a positive approach, this is what is going to happen sometimes.   A Bell who counter-attacks is an outstanding asset.

On the morning of day two, as I headed for the car, tickets for day three safely secured, a horrible nagging thought surfaced.  With Australia dismissed in less than half a day, this could be a short match.  That nagging thought became loudly ringing alarm bells as Johnson produced two terrific short balls in the second over to account for Bairstow and Stokes.  Bairstow may or may not be good enough ultimately to hold down a Test place, yet the reaction to a ball that had “out” written all over it was excessive to say the least.  A player 80 not out might ride the bounce, one at the start of his innings, and also at the start of the day, might not.  It was a very good ball, as was the one Stokes got.  It doesn’t say a thing about the batsman except that he was unlucky to receive it.

Yet while England were ahead, they were losing wickets.  Before even reaching the motorway, Root had gone, and so had Buttler, in the latter case needlessly given a review would have saved him.  Buttler has thoroughly gone into his shell with the bat, though it must be said, he is keeping extremely well, and seems subdued by the problems he is having outside off stump.  It may just be one of those things, but such a destructive player prodding and poking isn’t going to do him any good.  It is to be hoped he is encouraged to go out and play his shots, and then be backed on those occasions it goes wrong.

As the variable speed limits on the M25 showed first 60, then 50, then 40, indicating that the never ending joys of a traffic queue were ahead, England were only 50 runs ahead, with Moeen and Broad at the crease.  Two thoughts sprung to mind, one strategic, and one utterly selfish.  In the first instance, England were throwing away their advantage with abandon, and on the second, the weather was good, and I needed England to get a grip and bat for as long as possible.  With the two of them going after the bowling, the latter seemed ever more unlikely, but the former was a possibility.  Broad’s batting woes over the last three years have been well documented, even if in far too many cases it’s simply been dated back to when he was hit rather than the way it had tailed off long before then, but there have been signs of improvement recently, even if the runs haven’t always reflected that.  He’s less legside of the ball, doesn’t flinch as he did, and is looking to play shots, not simply slog.

As for Moeen, he is peculiarly unappreciated.  To date in this series he has 9 wickets at 45.  Not great figures, for sure, yet perfectly comparable to those Swann got against Australia, and Swann was without question the best England spinner since the 1970s.  Simply put, he’s doing a job with the ball against a team who don’t tend to struggle against English finger spinners, and doing it well.  Australia clearly want to attack him, yet when they do, they get out.  I remain unsure what people expect of him.

Of course, a big difference between him and Swann is that Moeen can bat.  There is an innate desire to see him succeed anyway, because he’s so gorgeous to watch.  His batting is highly reminiscent of David Gower – if not quite in quality – and when batting at number eight, provides a source of quick runs, stylishly scored.  It appears also that he relishes batting with the tail, and it is in that his value can be found.  A less attacking batsman would be left high and dry all too often as the bowlers were dismissed, but a curiously counter-intuitive point is that Moeen is usually dismissed when attacking as the wickets fall around him, which is both unselfish and oddly maximising his contribution.

As Oxford Services hove into view, England had extended their lead to one that might prove decisive.  A pause for coffee ended with England having been dismissed 145 ahead, and Australia were back in.

At this point, rebellious, naughty thoughts were surfacing.  Surely Australia couldn’t bat so badly a second time?  Yet that wasn’t the worst of it.  For the first time, the need for Australia to bat well was apparent.  As England came out to field, a sudden rooting for Rogers and Warner could be felt.  A sudden wish for Anderson to lose his radar, preferably with wide balls outside off stump that were left alone but were no threat to anyone.  As the key was turned in the ignition, I reached for my cork hat, bedecked the cabin with green and gold and launched into a chorus of “Come on Aussie, C’mon”.

Over the last couple of years England – and more specifically the ECB – have enraged me, infuriated me, and led me to chuckle as the latest self-induced disaster unfolded.  Yet never before had England led me to actively become an Australian.  As Rogers played back, and Jim Maxwell announced with that gentle sorrow he does so well that the opener was on his way back to the pavilion, a loud expletive filled noise could be heard by anyone with half a mile of the silver car pulling onto the motorway slip road.  Even at England’s lowest moments, the incompetence and duplicitousness of the ECB included, never did I imagine myself actively cheering on Australia.  Australia for God’s sake!  As Finn roared in, his pace up, causing the top order no end of problems, a nagging feeling that now would be a good time for his hand to brush the stumps requiring him to go off and have it repaired for half an hour kept popping up at the back of my head.

There was hope.  David Warner seemed to be playing a different game to anyone else, but with the first day curtailed by rain, play could be extended until 7pm, meaning there was still four hours of play to go.  Finn beat Smith all ends up, and in came the captain.  Surely, despite all his problems, now would be the moment Clarke regained his mojo and made a game of it.

Not even the most ardent of Aussie fanatics let out as heartfelt a moan, as passionate an “oh no”, as angry an “Oh FFS” as I did when instead, that utter bastard Finn instead took out Clarke and Voges in consecutive balls.  Looking ahead, there were no signs of the violent thunderstorms now wished on Birmingham, all was sunny and pleasant.   That’s the trouble with tornadoes, they don’t happen when you need them to.

By the time Warner decided to play what I now considered the most irresponsible shot in the entire history of cricket and Mitchell Marsh had regarded the defence of his stumps to be an optional extra, the five stages of grief had rattled past the bargaining stage and had settled thoroughly on depression, occasionally leaping back to denial concerning the implausibility that buying a day three ticket could possibly be a risky enterprise.

By this stage, I’d also thoroughly blamed my friend Graham for suggesting we go to the Test in the first place.  Edgbaston is not exactly on my doorstep, so wincing at the £70 handed over to my best mates at Shell to get up there was looking the worst investment since Mr Enron had rung up offering a sure thing.

Having picked him up from his office, we headed to the hotel, just in time to see Mitchell Johnson conclusively prove he hates the English by hitting the ball aerially 180 degrees away from his intended destination.  23 runs ahead at the close of play, three wickets left.

What to do?

Well, we were there, so we might as well go and watch the conclusion.  Over a curry (what else?  It’s Birmingham after all) the decision was made to check out of the hotel in the morning, head over to Edgbaston and watch the last knockings of the game, before driving home.  The principal debate was whether it would be 100% refund for fewer than 10 overs, or just the 50% for fewer than 25.  Plus a disagreement as to whether the two overs lost for the change of innings would count or not.

Having consumed the world’s biggest breakfast (Graham’s colleague Dave Tait finished his before I’d even started – honestly, I’ve never seen anyone demolish a plate that fast) that comprehensively removed any desire for a £10 soggy burger at any point, we headed for the ground, idly wondering how many would be there.  It was packed.  Clearly, everyone had bought tickets in advance, but not everyone is local to the ground.  Still, England were going to win, and there were few empty seats.

And so it came to pass that Mitchell Starc became the hero of the day, along with Peter Nevill.  Australia certainly fought hard, and nearly got to a point where they had a chance of a highly unlikely victory.  Nevill himself was the subject of a fair bit of barracking for refusing to walk when he edged one down the legside, and then instantly reviewed one he’d middled.  None of this was serious, but made the endlessly repeatable point about the ludicrous hypocrisy of the Australian attacks on Broad for not walking in the 2013 Ashes.  Sauce for the goose.

It certainly didn’t feel a tense ground as England embarked on the short run chase, perhaps because those present were simply delighted to have seen so much play in the first place.  Cook and Lyth’s dismissals continued the match pattern of batsmen getting out to poor shots – the ball that bowled Cook was decent enough, but had more to do with playing back when he should have been forward than anything else, while Lyth simply played across the line.

It was Bell who removed any question of the chase being a nervy one by going out and playing his shots.  With a small target, teams get into trouble when they become fearful; each boundary knocks a significant percentage off the target, and Bell knew that and took the calculated risk of ensuring that the runs came sufficiently quickly to prevent that fear setting in.

And so instead of it being a short and sweet visit to see an England win, it became two full sessions to see England win.  The track had certainly flattened out, as evidenced by the relatively little difficulty Australia had in the morning.  The sun was out – the fourth of our cohort Paul Godfrey finished the day with an exceptional case of panda eyes due to leaving his sunglasses on all day, to much amusement – and the crowd was thoroughly involved in barracking Mitchell Johnson.

It’s actually an important point too.  When the crowd got on  his back, even given the match situation of England being about to win, his bowling fell apart, and the lengthy delay to his run up to make the crowd wait, plus running through the crease, were indications that he was listening to the crowd rather than concentrating on his bowling.  A note for the Trent Bridge crowd to pay attention to.

Two and a half days of play, and an England win.  A crazy, ridiculous match, which bore little resemblance to the norms of Test cricket, but a 2-1 scoreline after three in England’s favour.  Where next?

After the first Test, there were signs that there were cracks in the Australian side.  The hammering they dealt out to England at Lords didn’t change that, but it did show that they are no toothless tigers either.  After all the attempted cleverness about conditions that might suit England but not Australia, what this Test showed was that in English conditions, England can do well.  Who would have thought such a thing?  Of course, those conditions do also bring Australia’s bowlers into play too, but if you don’t back your own players to perform, what is the point in even competing?

The injury to James Anderson is unquestionably a blow, but Trent Bridge hasn’t swung quite as much as it used to, possibly because of the new stand built there – though the vagaries of swing make assuming correlation to equal causation as being even more unwise than normal.  England do have a chance to put the series and the Ashes to bed though, at a ground where they tend to perform well.  Certainly Australia are the side that have questions to ask of themselves after this one.  Mitchell Starc bowled poorly throughout which may be just one of those things, and the middle order in particular looks downright flaky.  Yet England are setting new international records with their habit of winning a game and losing a game, with the sequence now at seven matches.   It would be no surprise whatever if England were to repeat the dose by losing in Nottingham.

There is some talent in this England side, and like a lot of unformed talent, it is inconsistent.  If they want to become a good side, finding that consistency is going to be the difference.  But the momentum is all with England……and that makes as little difference as it ever has, though it won’t stop some saying that it does, or being wise after the event should England win.

It is almost impossible to draw conclusions from such a ridiculous Test match, except to say the series is being played by two flawed teams, and anything could happen.

Hopefully one thing that won’t is having to cheer on Australia, because that felt dirty.  And wrong.  So very, very wrong.

*Reaching fourth best in the world is not failure

@BlueEarthMngmnt