Sometimes I Love, Sometimes I Hide – A Review of 2019

There used to be traditions around here. I used to do a readers’ poll.  I used to give out Dmitris to those deserving of praise, and opprobrium. I used to do a media review. I used to do a lot of things on this blog, and now I don’t. It’s part evolution, part necessity, part the way the cricket world is shaping. I thought in 2014 that the attitude of the ECB was alarming to people like me. Now everything I’ve seen since has convinced me I am right. I wrote with anger fuelling me at it. Sometimes it burns stronger than other times. The quiet periods on here reflect a lack of anger, an unwillingness to say the same thing many times over, and time. Lack of time. My job is intensely busy at times, and the blog takes a back seat. It has to. One has to stay relatively sane, and this blog has driven me mad many times. Far fewer this year, it has to be said.

One tradition is I don’t write short posts. So this one isn’t, but covers, I hope, a lot of ground.

2019 On Being Outside Cricket

As I have written over those nearly six years now, I have seen friends come and go, posters surge in their intensity, and then leave to either take their disenchantment with them, or to go to other places where the heat may be less intense, or there may be more comfort in presenting there. I have seen blogs I like die (particularly sad for 51 all out’s demise, as they were a real inspiration at the start of this long run), and others become something I hoped they wouldn’t. At the end of the day you have to make your own choices, based on your own aims and desires for your blog, and any career. I don’t have to like what you do – but then, increasingly like cricket itself, a curmudgeonly blogger, with an angry streak rarely suppressed, wailing at the dying of the light of the game he love(s)/(d) is not the target audience any more – but it doesn’t mean I’m right and you are wrong.

On preparing for the review of the year one thing did really surprise me. We wrote more posts in 2019 than 2018 – 165 to 140 if you include this post. While comments are down, and hits down a little, we have had many more individual visitors – almost up to peak 2015 levels – which indicates that more people visit, but stay for less interaction. I think a lot of the interaction is taken up by our massively increased follow rate on the Outside Cricket feed, which started the year at around 400, and is now at nearly 2000. Much of this increase fed around one post that resonated beyond belief, and is by a long way the most hit post on this blog in its history. More on “Clubbing A Seal” later.

We passed 1 and a quarter million visits this week, in the middle of the test. While test cricket drives the engine of the blog, and our reviews seem really well received, I think some of the other work, outside of “Clubbing A Seal” has more lustre for the writers. We are usually the worst judge of our own perceived best work, but there seems to be specialisms in all four of your writers here that work to a certain audience. Danny’s madcap Hundred Things Wrong With The Hundred is out of this world for diligence, content, thought process and sheer, utter, madness. Sean’s scoop to get Nick Compton’s pieces, and the sheer agony you have to go through to make those things a reality, as well as his rage at stupidity and injustice add fire and brimstone when it is needed. Chris is the sharper, laser implement, written with elan and reason, and without sounding like a fanboy, I’m dead envious. But I know I can’t write like that, even if I wanted to, which I do. I’m me. Slightly unhinged, extremely thin-skinned, moody and insecure, and yet utterly convinced in what I write, and yet willing to accept I’m wrong. I’m also bloody protective of this blog.

So while Chris wrote so brilliantly about club cricket, while Danny tore the Hundred to shreds, and Sean got Nick Compton to open up, my “finest” hour was arguably the time when I got Russell Jackson, Andy Bull and Mike Selvey to slag me off all on the same day – having got Jim Maxwell to tweet approvingly of the same post. It showed I could still do it, if “it” is getting under the skin of journos. I also still do rage, and following this England team, and this administration, and this media, and this attitude of the collective, then there is no place else for me to go.

On The Field

England won the Cricket World Cup and didn’t lose the Ashes series, although they never looked realistically like regaining them. The World Cup was an oddity. England went into it as firm favourites, with our main fear really being the silly collapse game our high-risk tactics sometimes threw up (see one of the ODIs in West Indies as a prime example). What happened was a seat of the pants end to the group stages, where one defeat in the last two group games against India or New Zealand would have spelled trouble, seemed to focus the mind and two impressive wins were posted. The fear that the final four would be England, India, Australia and one other (probably out of New Zealand or Pakistan) manifested itself, but I know I’m in a minority here, I enjoyed the format. There was enough jeopardy here for England, especially.

The Semi-Final was a joyful romp, and the Final. Well, enough has been written about it and talked about it, that I can’t usefully add to, other than, that, my friends, is sport. It had the occasion, it had the tension, it had the thrilling conclusion, and it would have been great on any stage, but to happen in the Final. Well. You can’t bottle it and release it when you want. It happens. Congratulations to Eoin Morgan and his team, and commiserations to New Zealand. Indian and Australian fans…. you need to get to the Final before complaining about formats. 🙂

The test team have been a bit of a joke, albeit a not very funny one. The first series of the year in the West Indies was laughable, going two down with two shocking displays, and then winning a dead rubber when some of the batsmen decided to turn up, and the West Indies didn’t. The four day test against Ireland was a farce – bowled out for shirt buttons by Tim Murtagh on Day 1, a nightwatchman making 90-odd, and then the visitors being skittled for 38, wasn’t a great advert for test cricket. Sorry, not interested in that sort of cobblers.

The Ashes were entertaining, but in the end we did not make home advantage tell. The first test was classic England. Australia were repeatedly let off the hook, the player we feared took us apart, and then we made an abject effort at batting out time. The second was even-steven until Jofra put the wind up Steve Smith, and Stokes/Buttler made batting look comfortable on Day 5 to ensure the draw, and then a potential win. The lost day’s play will be rued. It should also be an example to the cretins talking about four day tests about how a day’s washout would ruin the games. The third test saw England skittled again for shirt-buttons, just about cling on, and then relied upon a miracle knock, and some keystone cops fielding, reviewing and umpiring, to fall over the line. Theatre of the highest order, test cricket at its best. Sheer, gut-wrenching, gnawing excitement. T20 can’t replicate it. It just can’t.

That result levelled the series, but Australia steamrolled England at Manchester, with Smith taking another double hundred off us. The bowling was relentless, and although England did fight hard, Australia won. The fifth test saw a good England win, but it was a bit after the Lord Mayor’s Show, and still does give us the fig leaf that we haven’t lost at home to Australia for 18 years, even though losing the chance to regain the Ashes should feel like a loss to all England fans, because given form, the next series out there is going to be a whitewash unless something strange happens.

England picked a more progressive looking side for New Zealand, and handed out debuts! The first test was again classic England – let the home side off the hook, let the bottom half of the order run rampant against woeful bowling, and then unable to bat out time to save the game. The second test was hampered by rain, but again, we weren’t really looking like winning it. The first test in South Africa again followed the Edgbaston/Bay Oval formula – get the oppo in trouble, let them off, bat well, then collapse, let the oppo get too many, subside woefully to lose.

I award a Dmitri to the England player of the year, and it’s not a tough choice this summer. Ben Stokes played the two miracle innings, he gave his all, he is the only England player within a sniff of being in a World XI (Root, no). He’s clearly the next captain, he’s the talisman of the side, and I suspect if he were leader his batting would fall of a cliff, he would bowl himself into exhaustion and we’d be wanting him out within two years tops.

You have read my thoughts on the test team, but I’ll leave it at this. We went for a cheap option to replace Bayliss, and he’s looking like a poor imitation of Peter Moores in these early days. Joe Root is not an England captain while there is a hole in my backside, but he’s too important to upset. The decision to prioritise test cricket is a funny one, given it forms the backbone of the TV deal just signed, and the one just concluded, if I were Sky I’d ask why it hadn’t been a priority before (given Australia seemed to balance the two well when they ruled the test world and won three World Cups). 2020 sees us play three more tests in South Africa, two in Sri Lanka, two home series against West Indies and Pakistan, a T20 World Cup, and a tour to India.

The Hundred

I warned you the ECB were like this. I warned you. Convinced of their own magnificence, mistaking diktat for “leadership”, and consensus appears to be if Graves and Harrison agree with each other. Many words have been written on what is wrong with the competition, but that is the red herring here. The issue is your governing body does not give a flying flock what you think about the game. They are evangelical, convinced od their own brilliance, and you, my dear men and women, are mere peasants. You need to be shown the light. That that light will be sponsored by a savoury snack company, will upend the laws of the game, and spend money on advertising that could be going into the grassroots that they are so concerned about, is neither here nor there. This is a power grab by people I wouldn’t trust to turn on a light. The same ethos that ejected Pietersen, popped Cook on a pedestal as a lightning rod, that marginalises the first class game while pretending to revere the sanctity of test cricket, is now selling YOU a pig in a poke, and if it goes wrong, it will be YOUR fault for not buying it, and YOU will be to blame if the game collapses in on itself. Which brings me to Dmitri Number 2….

Harry Gurney

Yes. If I could award a bellend of the year gong, he’d win it. First of all, he’s funny. Just ask him. Secondly he’s right, because he can throw down a few left arm slower balls, and you’re wrong because you want to be him. Thirdly, and this will come as a relief to Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins, your tweet opinions and views are more important and correct because you have more Twitter followers than the person you are arguing against. Fourthly, what Harry writes as a man earning in his bread from T20 and his left arm slower balls, and needs sustaining to maintain his worldwide lifestyle (and fair play to him – if you get paid, go for it) is definitely NOT propaganda, but views from fans who quite like the long-form game, or club cricketers who don’t want to play T20 each weekend is! I mean, you have to get a long way down the periodic table to find something more dense than that proposition.

While being called a muppet by Michael Vaughan was one of my yearly highlights (alongside Andy Bull telling me how it is), and Vaughan is bellend emeritus for his Shiny Toy, Which Way Is The Wind Blowing, Phoenix Insights, Gurney has had a spectacular year. Harry Gurney gets a Dmitri for being himself, his twitter feed is an example of self love, and he thinks pissing off fans is a long-term strategy. Note how many likes I got for a Tweet highlighting Mitch Marsh taking him apart got. Speaks volumes. It wasn’t many for Harry, but it was a lot for me.

Other Dmitris

A Dmitri is an award for being notable, annoying, the best, the worst, or something that hit a nerve. It can be a person or an event, a team or a concept. We have the Mount Cricketmore for permanent residency (semi-permanent as you can be voted off), so I try to make things new, so we don’t have repeat winners of the media and cricketing awards.

This year I have the following Dmitris:

Overseas playerRohit Sharma, who played superbly in the World Cup, and has established himself in the test team, albeit at home against less than the best, but it is pleasing to see. He has young tyros nipping at his heels, but for now he is the man in possession. His batting is also sublime on the eye. As much as Steve Smith was our nemesis, and Shakib-al-Hasan was a beacon in the World Cup (but not so much afterwards), I think Rohit deserves it for his form in both red and white ball cricket.

Best JournoNick Hoult – Another new recipient. Now, cards on the table, I’ve met him twice this year and he’s a really decent chap. Really decent. He is also a damn fine journalist, and I can’t award it to George and Andrew Miller again because I like to mix it up. He gave us cracking insight into the end of the World Cup for press folk, which actually made me have 1% of sympathy for them rather than zero. So good stuff, and an example of how conversing with us, and being open to it, can pay dividends, we hope, to both sides of the coin without either side “giving up their thing”.

Worst Journo – Christ, this is tough. Here’s who it isn’t. Paul Newman. Not this year. I don’t read so much of the stuff put out now, so it is hard for me to call out too many, and the behemoths of Selvey and Pringle are out to pasture, relatively speaking. As Sam Moreshead of the Cricketer knows, when he gets my monthly DM, I despise everything about the Michael Henderson column in The Cricketer, and I learned this weekend, the old bastard is writing a book. I can’t give it to Andy Bull because he at least came on and had a pop. Simon Hughes made an awful faux pas over Sean Abbott, and is a pretty dreadful journo, but I just don’t have the heart. I’m not a fan of Ronay and Liew, but it’s not the cricket writing per se that gets me there. So, I’m going to cop out and not award it unless I get help from you lot. This one is open.

Kusal Perera’s 153 not out – Those who know, know. The innings of a lifetime, and thrilling to watch as a neutral. It may even be beyond Stokes’s effort because it was away from home, although Stokes has the more difficult attack to face. But in itself this innings should never be forgotten, because it was test cricket at its excrutiating, painful, lovely and artistic best. Power and grace as only left-handers seem to be able to do.

Clubbing A Seal – Self reverential maybe, and maybe slightly embarrassed Chris might be, but stuff it. This was important – this post  holds the record for most hits ever on Being Outside Cricket. There were a number of reasons. It was brilliantly written. It struck a nerve with club cricketers across the country (our Twitter follower surge, and feedback proved it). It answered the ridiculous twaddle coming from Harry Gurney and others, eloquently and powerfully. Club cricket isn’t theirs to mess around with, the recreational game isn’t for pros to sneer at. It is there for people to enjoy the game in whichever way they choose, and for the varied people who want to play to get out of the game precisely what they want, with all specialisms (sort of) catered for, which the T20 format just does not allow. Many good parts from it, but this struck a chord.

“The central theme of Gurney’s argument that all club cricket should be T20 or Hundred provoked a strong reaction, and one that he first tried to defend, and then became progressively more sneery about contrary opinion while stating it was just a view. But what it did highlight was a complete lack of connection or empathy with those who play the game for pleasure, and an inability to separate his own career from the wider game. This isn’t terribly unusual, sportsmen who have reached a professional level often have a sense of superiority over those amateurs and a lack of awareness that cricket may not be the central activity in another person’s life – or to put it another way, success in cricket isn’t more important than success in life just because it is their life. It is an odd social phenomenon, and hardly a new one, but the belief that this extra ability allows both greater insight and a position of authority is downright weird. “

In the words of Carly Simon, Nobody Does It Better.

Tom Harrison – It takes a special kind of person to enrage me to such a degree that I record his interviews on TV to enable me to undergo a 15 minute hate session to prep me to write articles on here. I’m only half joking. He’s an evangelical, self-centred, preacher, a man unable, it appears, to brook no counter-argument, no factual evidence to the contrary. If Tom believes it, then it will happen. And if it doesn’t, well we just didn’t understand. If there was one moment that summed up my rage it was the “Well, Wardy” start to a set-piece interview. In two words we knew a number of things. This was going to be soft toss stuff, and Wardy being on nickname terms was intended to show that Wardy had ECB approval to ask the questions. You knew who wore the trousers from then on. Secondly, Harrison knows he as to soften down the rough edges for media consumption, but he can’t stop meaningless management gobbledygook, about pathways, culture and other third rate bullshit. It’s not new. He’ll do it again. He’ll carry on doing it. Graves is stepping down as the boss this year, so let’s hope the new boss gets shot of the CEO, or whatever the hell he is. The Hundred is his folly. He may win the audience war, but was it worth the bad faith, the ignorant besmirching of existing loyal fans to do it? Only time can answer that.

This is more than enough for you to be getting on with, so it leads me to the end of this piece. As usual I would like to thank all those who comment on here, unless they don’t listen to friendly advice, who make the blog what it is. I know fewer of you comment, and it can seem our output is a little bit more sparse, but we all remain committed to write while you read what we say. That’s why we aren’t so discouraged by the hit level, when we see the number of unique visitors each day. I have said many times that I write because I enjoy it (not all the time, but mostly) and that there are people who want to read it. I used to namecheck you all, but I just don’t have that time any more. So thanks to all of you, and hope some of our long lost friends, or those who now comment only on The Full Toss, return.

On that note, and I received an email from him this morning, thoughts out to our commenter in Hawaii, Tom, on the loss of his partner of 21 years. Tom, take your time to grieve mate, and we’ll still be here. It is a sense of pride that we can reach the other side of the world with our posts, and I hope my best wishes (and those of all of us here) can reach too. Take care, mate, and I’ll get back to you on e-mail. I hope you don’t mind, but this was the best way of letting others who have conversed on here with you know.

My thanks also to all the contributors this year, those who wrote guest posts, or who signed up to our Twitter feed, or who just lent us support. I think we still matter, if we ever did. I don’t know how we’ve done nearly five years on here, six including the kick-off with How Did We Lose In Adelaide, but we have. Content drives it. My thanks go to Sean, Danny and Chris. We might not agree on much. We might not like doing that night’s report on the test match. We might wonder why someone else isn’t writing. We may even fall out from time to time. But we keep going, and proud to call them friends and colleagues. I still think we’re the best blog out there, and while I do, I’ll still keep on going on.

So, finally, best wishes for 2020. I’ll do the best of the decade stuff at the end of next year, because that is the end of the decade. We will keep trying until we have no more to give.

World Cup Match 7: Afghanistan v Sri Lanka

Today sees the game which might, just might, sort out who finishes 10th in the competition. Yes, it’s a bit early to say that, but given their performances on Saturday, worthy though Afghanistan’s was, there is a sense that neither of these two teams will be in the shake up when the group phase ends in about a month or two’s time. The game is being played at Cardiff, and the rain radar looks less than great, so it may be that this is all for nought in anyway. Let’s hope not. Afghanistan look a particularly intriguing team, and in many ways are the poster child for all those, very vociferous, advocates of a larger World Cup (in terms of participants, not games).

Comments, as always, below.

As for yesterday’s events in Nottingham, it was always going to be interesting to see how England fans and media (and soon to see also how the players) would react to the first reverse. It was always going to happen, but maybe it was envisaged that it wouldn’t be this early in the competition, and that the early loss, if there was to be one, would be against South Africa (who may also be scrapping for 10th place if their form is maintained!). The immediate response, judging by Sky and some of Twitter, is that this was a freakishly bad fielding performance, that England will need to improve, but we really are very good at this format and so no worries fellow travelers.

As Lee Corsey on College Game Day (obscure US reference) would say “Not so fast”. Now I know a fellow writer is more sanguine about the loss, but I didn’t get to this point in my blogging life without knowingly under-reacting, and in truth I genuinely don’t think I am. I think the ability of this England team is under question because it has not won the massive game. That’s because they have, really, only had one, which was a semi-final against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy. I might let you have Australia in the opening game of that tournament, if Australia were ever that bothered about the Champions Trophy, which they hadn’t been much previously. I thought, last night, about England football team’s qualifying performance in the lead up the 2010 World Cup, and how we won 4-1 and 5-1 against Croatia, and dropped points in a game that really didn’t matter because we’s already qualified. We then made a horlicks of the main tournament.

It’s always a bit arrogant to say England try their hardest in routine ODIs, and other teams don’t really care that much, but maybe there is a small case to say this is true here. After all, the pressure was put on in 2015 when Andrew Strauss said we would focus more on white ball cricket, and that has certainly been the case – other nations don’t make it so blindingly obvious. The media have, by and large, got on board with this, and perhaps explaining away or excusing some issues with the test team as if there is a trade off for the white ball team’s success. And it has been successful. England have been an entertaining batting side to watch, while the bowling leaves a little to be desired. Indeed, if ever the team plays to a less than full audience on these shores, some of the key media figures exhort the host to lose fixtures because they won’t pay exorbitant prices to watch “the greatest England ODI team ever” (a title I will not anoint them to until they match what the 1992 team did).

There’s always a problem commenting on a game I haven’t watched. But I knew from the outset of the run chase that chasing 349 to win in a World Cup isn’t like chasing it down in the 3rd ODI of a tedious five match series where each squad is chopping and changing its players. The jeopardy of defeat is much, much higher. If you are thinking you can lose just three games to be certain to qualify, England will need to beat two out of India, Australia, New Zealand, and I am going to throw our kryptonite, West Indies, into that mix. And that’s taking for granted Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, which may be foolish. This isn’t a bump in the road, but a clear warning sign. England played tightly against South Africa, but had enough to beat them. They got lured into a pace attack and bouncer strategy by Pakistan’s atrocious first game. By the time the messages appeared to get through, Pakistan were off to a decent start, and 348 was possibly reining them in a bit. There’s a lot of positives taken from Root and Buttler making hundreds, but the supporting cast did not step up and that’s a concern. Given the nature of pitches and boundaries, this won’t be the last time we could be chasing 350. It’s not easy, and perhaps the sin of this team is that they’ve made it look like it during the cricket equivalent of the “qualifying campaign”.

Pakistan are a walking cliche for unpredictability, and so losing 11 in a row and then beating the “World Champion Elect” seems like a Ruiz felling Joshua. But it really shouldn’t be. They have talented batting, and the bowling can never be taken for granted. Sometimes they lose their minds, sometimes they put it together. It makes them eminently watchable, and a dangerous foe. For all the beatings England have administered to them in bilateral series, they’ve now played them, as New White Ball England, twice in major competitions and lost. It’s when the game is played that really matters.

So yes, I am concerned for England. Contrary to the views of people who hate this format, this loss does matter. With ten teams, a 5-4 win loss record could be recorded by the 5th and 6th place teams if one or two of the countries fail to raise themselves if they know elimination is certain. England have Bangladesh up next, on Saturday at Cardiff, and then face the West Indies the following Friday in Southampton. We will have a feel for how the qualification is going by then, and if England sit at 2-2 in the win-loss column (and let’s definitely not take Bangladesh for granted) then the alarm bells will be ringing.

One last note. I have to say it. While I’ve made most of my peace with England’s cricket team (as if they give a stuff), the whole long-term problem with what happened in 2014, and what Harrison is doing now, is that these defeats don’t sting like they used to. An England football defeat stings much more, especially under this Southgate team. This doesn’t. They seem decent players, hell, I like quite a few of them. But it doesn’t matter that much to me. We had a word with a media guy a few months ago who thought that if England got on a roll, the country would go mad for this tournament. I said that how could they? They won’t be able to watch it if they don’t have Sky. And some cricket fans like me are so cheesed off with the suits who pick the boots, that we’ll see any victory marred by the ECB patting themselves on the back for coming to the conclusion that the 2015 World Cup was a bit embarrassing. Because we know that this would give Citizen Kane Harrison even more fuel for his ego-driven campaign to destroy English domestic cricket as it exists now. (Oh yes, we saw the Standard article, where Harrison is bathing in overwhelming support none of us have noticed). So while Buttler makes hundreds, Joe Root plays the anchor as the others hit around him (a run a ball hundred is an anchor role these days), and the entertainment is there, the suits have ruined it.

Actually, while I am here, I have one last note. Notice how Australia have seamlessly assimilated Smith and Warner back into the fold, with the media it appears massively behind them, despite them “shaming the nation” and in the case of Warner, reports that he’d been “ostracised” and “made to dine alone by the team” and being the outcast blamed for the sandpaper incident. Notice how prime outlets like ABC are confident enough to have articles using these two to have a pop at England fans for understandable wind-ups (and calling England fans boorish). Notice how the “abuse” is seen as a positive for Warner, that it will make him play better. Notice that picture of Warner taking selfies with Aussie fans? I have. Perhaps our suits, perhaps our hierarchy should stop babbling on about culture and trust, and pick our best players on every occasions. It seems other nations just try harder and don’t hang themselves on managerial and coaching gods, but on players. Who play. And yes, I am talking about Pietersen. Of course I am.

OK, enough from me. Comments below on today’s action…..

5th Ashes Test: Day One

OK, hands up:  who’s really surprised?  Perhaps that England had a pretty decent day up until the last five minutes, yes, but the close of play score?  Unlikely.  A middling total, encompassing a promising position thrown away, with the prospect of that lengthy tail to come, and a new ball in Australian hands.  It’s possible that England will go on to make a fine first innings score, for Dawid Malan is still there, and of all the England batting order is the one who exudes a degree of permanence when at the crease.  Equally, Moeen Ali could be said to be due for some runs – forever the last kind of unreasoning hope to be extinguished.  But after that, there’s not much at all, and while 350+ is always possible, so is 250 all out, and the probabilities lean closer to the latter than the former.

Of course, much of the comment will be around Root passing fifty and failing to go on to a century yet again.  That it’s a problem he’s more than aware of was shown by his despairing reaction to his dismissal, but as ever, it’s something that gets commented on in isolation about him, and never should it be mentioned that Cook has more than a slight issue over the last few years with the same thing; occasional huge scores don’t alter that.  England throwing away promising positions is hardly new, but nor is it down to just the captain.  Oh, and nor is this conversion problem something that’s afflicted him since he became the skipper, it’s been a problem for a while.  Still, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be mentioned, for Root’s dismissal didn’t look great, and was compounded by Bairstow being quickly dismissed afterwards.  In the peculiar way cricket is sometimes looked at, Bairstow’s dismissal is apparently Root’s fault.  228-3 is a decent position, 233-5 is Australia’s day.

The lack of a nightwatchman on Root’s removal also became a topic of debate.  As ever, it’s being wise after the event.  Given how many times Bairstow has been left marooned as the tail fell apart around him this series, it’s not too surprising he didn’t want to bat any lower than he had to.  This time, it just didn’t work out, but Australia went some years having abolished the role entirely.  As ever, decisions like that are often only good or bad in retrospect – Bairstow backed himself to get through the last two overs.

The last five minutes apart, England had done fairly well but with all the same flaws they’ve shown all series.  Stoneman started well but failed to go on, Vince looked pretty but got out for the same kind of score that he tends to get out for, and Cook was dismissed for 39.  Two things about that, firstly the Daily Mail’s description of it as “a convincing 39” is preposterous, and does Cook himself no favours, and nor was his lbw, given on review, in any way controversial, no matter what his number one fan Paul Newman might claim.  It was too much to hope that Cook would repeat his Melbourne innings, but it can be said that he looked technically very good here too, which is promising from his perspective as long as he can maintain it.  That’s not meant to be dismissive of him at all, Cook when he has his game sorted is a fabulous opener, but he also drops off alarmingly at times in terms of his technique.  As he gets older, this will become ever more important, but he remains quite extraordinary in the divergence between when he is fully sorted, and when he isn’t.

Dawid Malan is England’s batsman of the tour, which may seem to damning him with faint praise, but three fifties (including his current one) and a big century represents a better return than anyone else, and if this innings was a careful one, he still very much looked the part.  And bringing in batsmen who do look the part has been in fairly short supply recently.

And so we move into day two.  Any feelings of impending disaster are entirely to be expected, which is probably just the time they’ll confound us all and bat out of their skins.

Blame, Babies, Bathwater

The lesser spotted Escape Goat, believed discovered by the Warner family, is only fleetingly seen.  Examples of this rare beast abound, hidden away in museums as examples for the public to view.  New sightings have been rumoured in Australia, where it seems they have their home.  It is a strange animal, whose only evolutionary purpose has been to serve as a diversion for other creatures, generally to be found in St Johns Wood, London.  Usually secretive and ignored by the wider world, they pop up whenever anyone starts asking awkward questions about disasters in Australia in particular.

The shambles of four years ago had an obvious culprit.  Everyone knew it, everyone could write about it.  All other incidentals could be safely ignored, all other factors dismissed.  Just one person could be held responsible for everything, and if only that person was removed, all would be wonderful.  If nothing else, that would buy four years for everyone else to forget, and by the time another trip to Australia came round, everyone could get behind “the boys”, and cheer them to victory, putting the damned colonials back in their place.

That it wasn’t going to happen that way should have been obvious to everyone, yet collective fingers went in collective ears, and a refusal to listen was more than a metaphor, it was literal.  It’s not that a potential whitewash this time around was a racing certainty, for Australia are good but not exceptional, and England modest but not awful, but the distinct likelihood that it will now happen is not overly surprising either.  The ECB deserve credit for one thing, they have managed to make those who have become indifferent rather angry.  This must not be permitted.

Still, the players are always the ones who get the focus, not least because wider issues can be safely ignored.  It’s so predictable.  In the run up to the series it was correctly stated that for England to compete, their experienced players would need to perform exceptionally, and it’s true they haven’t done so.  But it was equally stated that the new players would prove the weak link, and generally speaking they’ve done better than their peers.  That England had managed to get themselves in a position like that was, naturally enough, ignored – the discarding of players who didn’t fit the character parameters is a particular joy of the ECB structure, but let’s not talk about those, after all no one in the media ever does.  And of course the way first class cricket in England has been marginalised in the pursuit of T20 cash must never ever be mentioned, except by those few extremists who have been banging on about it and boring everyone by actually caring about the game itself.

No, those responsible cannot possibly be any of the administrators, who have created the environment in which English cricket exists, and cannot be the selectors who happily built a merry-go-round where cricketing ability is only one factor to be considered.  Unfortunately, this time it can’t be Kevin Pietersen either, that useful idiot who was single handedly responsible for everything bad from the dawn of time, and the only reason for any 5-0 defeat.

Ben Stokes has to be one of course.  Forgive me – that should be “New Zealand-born Ben Stokes”.  His absence is undoubtedly a cricketing blow, and one that can be maximised and extended to be blamed for the poor shots or poor line and length of his colleagues.  Those absent tend to perform incredibly compared to those who are present, and in that, nothing changes.  Had Stokes been there, England would be romping to victory by now.  It’s been a limited line of attack so far, but expect more as time goes on, especially if it gets worse on the field.

Who else can be targeted?  Ah yes, the senior players.  How perfect.  Cook, Root, Anderson, Broad, Moeen – they will do.  Now, it’s clear that of those only Anderson has done well enough to be generally excluded from the firing line, even though any kind of detailed analysis might raise questions over the detail of his performances.  But since the figures look decent enough, probably best not to mention him, that would take proper analysis.

Cook is by far the most interesting name to come up as being culpable.  It’s not that he has played poorly, for that is very obvious. It’s not even that he look technically adrift, for that looked to be the case from the first ball of the series.  It is instead that the editorial line has gone from Greatest Ever to Time To Go with nothing intervening.   Just three Tests.  This blog has highlighted the declining returns from Cook over the last few years repeatedly, to the point it’s accused of being anti-Cook.  Yet it was the reality, and the frustration wasn’t so much with him, it was with the way this was repeatedly denied by those who would write hagiographies at every opportunity and deny what they were so keen to say of others going through the same process in their careers.  Hypocrisy is rarely admitted.

Now, apparently, it is time for him to go.  Yet the point about Cook is the same one that should be about every player.  Is he the best we have in his position?  If so, then pick him.  It really shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp, yet apparently is.  Unless England can do better than him, then the calls for him to go are nothing other than jumping on a bandwagon and, somewhat deliciously given the history, meting out the same treatment to him that was given to others.

Then we come to the way Stoneman and Vince have apparently done reasonably well, but Root hasn’t.  To some extent it’s a matter of expectation, but scoring a half century and getting out is not confined solely to Root, yet it is Root that all the focus is upon.  It’s something of which he is acutely aware of course, but once more, differing judgements on the same outcome are as absurd as they always has been.  Root’s conversion rate is similar to that of Cook over the last few years, something never mentioned then, and only mentioned in passing now as an excuse to give Cook an extra kicking.  This is either a problem for everyone or no one – pretending otherwise is preposterous.  Dawid Malan has done well this tour so far, and Jonny Bairstow has done reasonably.  No one else has.

As for Moeen, his batting has been the issue.  Without question.  But his bowling is pretty much what should have been expected in Australia.  English finger spinners don’t do well in Australia – even the exceptional Graeme Swann averaged over 40 there, and Moeen is no Swann.  It’s not been great, and a finger injury hasn’t helped, but the apparent surprise at this is laughable.  England even have a couple of leg spinners, but the one who is there wasn’t picked even when Moeen was supposedly injured, and the one who isn’t – who can even bat as well – has long been thrown on the scrapheap, less for his cricketing skills and more, it seems, because he isn’t the right character.

And finally Stuart Broad.  A bowler who has been exceptional for England over a number of years, one known to be carrying injuries, one who even amongst the wreckage four years ago could hold his head up high.  He had a quietish summer, certainly, and hasn’t been great on this tour.  But now, at 31, he’s done.  Past it.  Finished.  Broad is a spiky character, and not one who has generated much love among supporters, but this is his first genuinely poor trot in a while, and now the knives are out. No mention of playing him injured, no mention of his workload, no mention that there might be reasons of any kind, it’s time to move on, while of course keeping his bowling partner four years his senior.

Questions can be asked and questions should be asked.  But we’re here in the same place again.  Only a few should carry the can, and others can be excused.  And above all else, it stops those difficult, awkward objections to the way cricket has been run in England.  The likes of Graves, Harrison, Strauss and the entirely invisible Whitaker cannot, must be questioned.  Ever.  Nothing changes, not on the field, nor off.  If Trevor Bayliss is to be in the firing line, who appointed him?  Who appointed his predecessor?  Who created the English cricket structure?  Is it possible that those people could be responsible, in the smallest, tiniest way?

Gins all round chaps.  It’s only Test cricket after all.

 

Australia vs England: 2nd Test, Day Four

Let’s be clear here, Australia should still win this match, and comfortably so.  But England played with skill, tenacity and demonstrated considerable bottle for the first time this series, and gave cause for some small degree of hope that they could pull of the remarkable.  As has been said on so many occasions, it’s never the despair, it’s the hope that gets you.

England needed everything to go right with the ball, and it more or less did.  Anderson post play admitted that England had bowled too short in the first innings – which more than anything else is the reason why England have been in trouble in this match – and both he and Woakes in particular probed away, swung the ball and got their rewards.  Praise for their efforts will of course be tempered with frustration that they didn’t do it first time around, as the position of this game could have been entirely different.  C’est la vie.

So 354 was the target, which would be the tenth highest run chase in Test history.  It was indicative of England’s position that the 85 added by Australia for their last six wickets from their overnight position was both an outstanding performance from England, and still about 50 more runs than they realistically could afford in order to have a decent shot at winning the game.  Still, given where they were, this represented a huge improvement from having no chance at all, to a slim one.

That slim chance improved fractionally further with a decent opening stand between Cook and Stoneman, passing 50 with relatively few alarms and doing the vital work of seeing off the new Kookaburra ball.  Cook got away with an lbw that wasn’t referred by Steve Smith – the beginning of his tribulations with the system today – before falling to Lyon again, playing round one and once more getting too far across to the offside and falling over somewhat.

The dismissal on review did cause a fair few people to query the predictive ball tracking.  The most important point is that if the system is being used, then you go with it.  DRS showed Cook to be out, and that’s the end of that.  However, it doesn’t mean a specific instance can’t raise eyebrows.

Before the ball tracking overlay, the ball looked to be heading far more to the legside than was then shown.  Probably showing it hitting, but on the inside of the leg stump looked like a far greater degree of turn than appeared the case.  Now, the eye can be fooled very easily, and it is certainly possible, even likely, that it was an optical illusion, and some didn’t see it that way at all anyway.  However, acknowledging that doesn’t mean DRS was unquestionably right either, and it certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be queried – not on the basis of some kind of objection to the wicket, but more the reliance on the technology as being somehow infallible.

The problems here aren’t necessarily with the technology, but it should to be noted that “odd” ball tracking decisions are much more prevalent in Australia and New Zealand than in England.  In England Hawkeye is used; it’s a purpose built ball tracking technology designed specifically for this purpose, and a lot more expensive.  In Australia, Virtual Eye is used instead.  That has its origins in a graphical representation software suite, and the designer has said it wasn’t designed for predictive tracking, while the creator of Hawkeye (who would say this wouldn’t he?) has called it up to nine times less accurate.  Now, this was a few years ago, and technology must be expected to have moved on and be better, but it is important to note that all systems are not created equal.

Of course, whenever something questionable arises, the responses tend to be along the lines of pointing out that umpires are more fallible, and that is probably true, but headscratching over one particular decision isn’t to decry the entire system, or wish it scrapped, but it always invites things like this:

Except that it wasn’t designed for this specific purpose at all.  Hawkeye was though, perhaps why there are far fewer occasions when there is cause for a debate using that system.

Ball tracking is right because it says so, and because it says so, it’s right.  There’s no reason to doubt its general accuracy, albeit with the proviso that some systems will inevitably be more accurate than others, but it’s also absolutely the case that as far as cricket goes and the predictive element of DRS, there’s little information available.  There has been a formal test of its accuracy done, by the ICC, but unfortunately they’ve never seen fit to release the results and we simply do not know the outcome.  It’s entirely reasonable to assume that they wouldn’t have gone with it had it been unsatisfactory, but not knowing the detail is always going to leave scope for doubt.

The most vital points of all are that it’s not for a second suggesting the system is wrong, and not suggesting human umpires are better; but assuming all systems are right all the time given the enormous variables in both outcome and in sampling size is as dogmatic as assuming it gets it wrong on a frequent basis, for which there’s no reason to make such a case.  Being puzzled over a single piece of ball tracking doesn’t for a second mean either that the questioner is right, nor that there’s anything inherently wrong with DRS but responses on that basis are simply an exercise in trying to shut down discussion.  Maybe it was entirely correct in its prediction, and it’s most definitely not about Cook’s dismissal per se, not least because anyone objecting to it on partisan grounds would have to note Root being rescued by the same system.  It just looked slightly peculiar.

In terms of Cook himself, he had battled away, but still looks out of sorts, to the point where some of the journalists are now querying whether this might be his last tour.  It is somewhat ironic that he appears to have gone from genius to liability in the eyes of some within two Tests – it surely has to be more nuanced than that.

Shortly after Cook, Stoneman followed, having made another bright start.  For England to be confident of victory, two wickets down was probably about the limit of what they could afford to lose but Vince soon followed, again caught behind as he has been in 10 of his last 12 innings.  It was a poor shot, and not for the first time.

Joe Root at least was batting well, if not without lbw related alarms.  He padded up to one far too close to leave and was given out on the field, only to be reprieved by the ball tracking showing it going over the top.  Thereafter, Australia’s determination to get him out led them to burn both their reviews on highly speculative appeals, much to the delight of the Barmy Army who gestured for a review each time subsequent lbws were turned down.  He received valuable support from Dawid Malan, who batted maturely for a 29 that in other circumstances would have been perceived as infinitely more valuable than it will probably be.  His late dismissal to a superb ball from Cummins was a blow England could not afford.

Four days down, and a superb fifth day in prospect.  As ever in these circumstances, it’s worth highlighting that there are some who would wish to make Tests a four day game.

Only one captain in history has lost a Test after failing to enforce a follow on, South Africa’s Dudley Nourse in this game and it remains highly unlikely England will add to that very short list.  But they have at least properly competed at last, and if it requires Joe Root to make a big century, and for everyone else to support him, then that’s still a situation England would have taken before play started today.   Unlikely is not impossible, a slight chance is vastly better than no chance.

It is most likely that waking tomorrow will see the last rites of the Test being performed.  England need to get through the first session without loss, and then, well just maybe.  And sometimes that’s enough.

No Ifs, No Butts

Disaster.  Doomed.  5-0 on the cards…

Ah yes, the usual kneejerk response to any England Test result.  And it might even be that is what transpires; but it should not be deemed inevitable.  A 10 wicket defeat is ultimately something of a hammering, but England did compete for the first three days, and more than that, they were on slightly in the ascendant.  Had they managed to get Steve Smith early, and gone on to win the match, as they surely would have done, then doubtless the press would have been full of thoroughly premature articles about the Ashes coming home.

Of course, it goes without saying that winning or losing colours the coverage completely, it couldn’t be anything else, but a five Test series allows for fluctuations after all – one bad Test doesn’t mean things can’t change.  England’s weaknesses were on full display in this match, a bowling attack that struggled to take wickets without the new ball, a brittle batting order, and sans Stokes, a tail that rolls over in the face of fast bowling.  In contrast, Australia did a good job of covering up their own weaknesses – their less than outstanding tail performed well, the top order batted well in one of the two innings – while making use of their strengths, the fast bowling to some extent, the superior spinner to a greater one.  It’s never the worst idea to look at what went right for the winning side just as much as what went wrong for the losing one, and ask whether that’s likely to continue, especially given Australia’s unusually strong record at the Gabba.

Although England’s inability to take a wicket second time round is troubling, it’s also the case that the primary reason for defeat was failing to set any kind of reasonable target.  The mentality of a run chase is very different when a side is completely confident of success; it’s certainly not terribly surprising to see a team romping to a small target even if they struggled in the first innings.

The difficulty arises in trying to sift England’s structural problems and those that sit in the “one of those things” category, and a single Test doesn’t always offer insight into which is which, and to what degree.  Many of England’s failings in this game aren’t new at all, but the matter of degree might be.

If England were to win this series, so the wisdom went, Cook and Root would have to have successful series given the inexperience of the rest of the top order.  True as that might be, that inexperience is a self-inflicted wound given England have messed around with their batting for so long.  It is entirely their own fault they’ve arrived in Australia with so many question marks around positions 2, 3 and 5; at least two more Test novices than is normal.  Yet as it turned out, those inexperienced ones did reasonably well, albeit without any going on to make a really defining score.  That too has been a hallmark of England recently, and the inability to make big hundreds is always going to make it hard for England to put real pressure on Australia.  Cook failed twice in this Test, which can happen to any batsman, but in his case the greater concern is how he appears to be batting.  He looks adrift technically, much closer to the Bad Cook than the Good Cook of recent years and a live Test series is no time to be trying to put a technique right.  England will certainly be hoping that it is just a small adjustment, or that he merely felt out of sorts, but his recent record is one of diminishing returns – a statement that has been dismissed repeatedly, but which even his media supporters are starting to mention, albeit to to deny it.  There has never been a better time for him to prove the doubters wrong.

Root on the other hand was dismissed twice in similar fashion, lbw to a ball swinging in to him.  This could be a vulnerability, or it could just be getting out to a decent ball on two occasions.  He remains England’s best batsman by a distance, just like his Australian counterpart.  England need him to show that next time out.

Where England are certainly wasting a batsman is in the number seven position.  In both innings Jonny Bairstow found himself with the tail, and on both occasions got out trying to force runs.  It’s obviously the case that England miss Ben Stokes, but that doesn’t mean England have gone from the strongest lower middle order to the weakest overnight – England’s number seven will be a highly capable batsman irrespective. Before the Test England swapped Moeen and Bairstow around, saying that the latter would bat better with the tail, to seemingly almost universal approval from the great and the good.  Perhaps it is the case that such appreciation ought to be a warning sign, for the arguments in favour seemed weak at the time.  Moeen has been quite adept at smashing bowling around the park and farming the strike late on in an innings, in contrast to Bairstow who has been most effective in building longer innings.  He’s never shown too much aptitude as a late order hitter, at least.  It may be a waste of Moeen’s talents to have him throw the bat given minimal support, but it seems an even greater waste of Bairstow’s.  This will surely be corrected next time out, effectively conceding the error.

Whichever way around it might be, runs from the tail are always sought after, but England’s isn’t especially appalling, not with someone as capable at eight as Chris Woakes, nor someone who does score runs (however ungainly they may be) at nine as Stuart Broad.  But few would be talking about the tail if the batsmen had done a better job.  There is one thing that shouldn’t take up any more time, and that’s Moeen’s “controversial” dismissal in the second innings.  The thickness of the damn line is neither here nor there, and no batsman pays any attention to it.  What they do know is they have to keep a part of their foot behind it.  He didn’t, he was out.  Move on.

On the bowling side, first time around at least, Anderson and Broad did reasonably well, maintaining control and taking wickets.  In the second, they didn’t even look like taking any.  The match position may go some way towards explaining that, but not entirely, and certainly they looked far less effective with the old ball than the new in either innings.  But a bowling attack cannot rely on just two bowlers, no matter how good they might be, and England’s support bowling was relatively poor, which creates a vicious circle of making the better bowlers look poor too.  Again, it may be wise not to read too much into a single game – Moeen for one frankly described his bowling performance as “rubbish” when he was asked about it, and raising the performance levels is more than possible for any of them.

One thing that shouldn’t be thrown at them is the problem of the similarity in style of England’s seamers, given was always going to be the case anyway.  Woakes is a first choice seamer, and only Jake Ball is in there in place of Stokes, who even though might be a very good bowler, is still a right arm, fast medium one, just like the others.  The loss of bowling options before the series was a blow, but they were all right arm, fast medium too, even Finn these days.

In contrast, if England’s bowling is not completely hopeless, Australia’s pace attack is not the West Indies circa 1984 either, no matter how much the Australian press want to claim it is so, and nor were they even dramatically faster than their England counterparts in this match.  It was Nathan Lyon who really excelled, and who really made the difference, on a surface surprisingly suited to him.  Moeen’s disgust at his own performance can unquestionably be seen in the context of how Lyon did.

With the 2nd Test in Adelaide a day/night one, much is being made of the potential for England to gain swing, particularly James Anderson.  This may prove a vain hope, for recent matches there in the same conditions have been high scoring and with a flat pitch, but it is also quite probably England’s best chance of winning. At 1-0 down, there’s nothing wrong with targeting this one, and backing themselves to get more out of it than Australia do.  The alternative is to assume Australia would beat England in all conditions, which seems unduly defeatist, even for England supporters expecting the worst.

What can be said is that the 2nd Test is pivotal.  Lose that one, especially if they lose it badly, and a hammering is well and truly on the cards.  But win it, and we have a proper series.  England can undoubtedly play better than they did in Brisbane, Australia can undoubtedly play worse.  The nagging worry is the obverse is equally true.

 

 

 

 

Australia vs England: 1st Test, Day Four – Preview and Live Blog

After three days of largely attritional cricket, this match remains in the balance heading into the fourth day.  Yet if England were fractionally ahead before yesterday, Australia are a little further in front today.  Steve Smith’s patient century ground down England’s bowlers, before Josh Hazlewood bowled with more intent and hostility than anyone else has managed on this still placid surface to rip out a couple of wickets before England had wiped off the deficit.

England are effectively 7-2, and the third innings of a tight contest is the one where all the pressure is on the batting side – particularly as time begins to run out in the game.  It is impossible to see England getting into a position where they could declare with any reasonable expectation of winning, and so their best chance is to be bowled out.  But being bowled out will be forefront of their minds, which is why the third knock becomes so pressurised – score runs, don’t get becalmed, don’t take risks and don’t get out.  England have got stuck on many an occasion when faced with that conundrum, reducing themselves to a strokeless defence that brings defeat anyway.  Quite simply, they have to score runs.

The loss of Cook in the gloaming was probably more symbolic than anything else.  He hasn’t looked in good form, and his record away from home over the last couple of years has been modest to say the least.  Yet his wicket, along with Root’s, is still the most prized by opponents, and still the one that sends the most tremors through supporters in a position such as this one.  The manner of his dismissal has been criticised by some, excused by others, but as ever the problem with Cook is not the cricket, it is the double standards applied.  The hook shot was on, and there was absolutely nothing reckless about him playing it.  He just played it poorly, and was caught.  That happens to every player, where many get annoyed is that others doing the same thing receive bucketloads of opprobrium where Cook does not.

Even so, being out hooking is certainly no worse than the leaden footed push to which he was out in the first innings.  He appears to once again be struggling with his technique – the familiar problem of his head going too far across, his front foot taking a step rather than a stride, and his back leg coming round to prevent himself toppling over.  That’s why he ends up front on rather than side on and is so prone to being caught behind.  He’s a player who spends his time battling his technique constantly, and has been here before, managing to put it right.  The worry is that being in this place at the start of a series doesn’t bode well for the rest of it.  He knows his game, and England will be praying he can make the adjustment, otherwise this is going to prove a very long tour.

That’s in the past as far as this game is concerned.  The reality is that the ever critical first session here is one in which Australia can win the game.  But last night’s hostility was with a new ball, one which will just be starting to lose its shine and hardness.  The pitch remains slow, and the demons can only be in English minds.  England are more than capable of getting a score here, and more than capable of putting Australia under real stress.  The doubts surround England’s ability to withstand the pressure, rather than their ability to bat on this pitch.  There is certainly the batting depth needed, and if Smith is an exceptional batsman, then so is Joe Root, and England badly need him to show it.

One fly in the ointment concerns the fitness of James Anderson – something that won’t remotely matter unless England bat well – given he was seen to be touching his side before taking a painkiller and seeming to limit his bowling the rest of the day.  England insist he’s fine, but they do have a track record of not telling the whole truth (rightly so, in a match situation where there’s no need to give the opposition reason to cheer), and if Anderson really is struggling, it dramatically affects England’s chances, even if they do get a half reasonable total.  Add to that the whispers about Moeen Ali’s fitness and if there’s anything in that, then a draw might represent the best England can hope for.

If England have a good day, then this game is well and truly on.  But if they have so much as a bad hour, then it’s probably game over.  There is some bad weather around, particularly tomorrow, which could also change the dynamic.

One last point about this game, just imagine for a moment that some of those who should know better had got their way and this was a four day Test.

As with yesterday, we’ll be live blogging the events for as long as we stay awake.  The “we” refers to three of us, the other is showing worrying signs of being a vampire, and Danny will undoubtedly be the last one standing.  As ever, come and join us for as long as you are able, and as long as we can keep our eyes open.

19:43 I don’t know about you lot, but I’m going to the pub…

19:58 Dmitri on his own as his beloved is going back to her homeland to meet her relatives. So, I look wistfully towards Brisbane for your now regular early evening snapshot from the Bureau of Meteorology:

20:03 Anyone a Telegraph subscriber to let us know the latest stunning insight from Shiny Toy?

21:11 While watching the Iron Bowl (look it up, and also check out the youtube clip of the Kick Six), let’s think back to some Day 4s at the Gabba. First up, and you are probably getting fed up with me going on about it, 2002. Matthew Hayden completed his second century of the match (it’s the picture in today’s header) and below. There’s a moment where Sir Peter is filming me for his tour video (no release) where I am reviewing the papers and you hear a huge crack of bat on ball. It’s Hayden hitting the first ball Craig White bowls for six. We left at lunchtime to meet Sir Peter’s mate down at the Gold Coast, and England collapsed. Our Day 5 tickets never mattered.

21:21 2006 and it’s a tale of missing it all. I was on a Singapore Airlines flight on the way to Adelaide to see the second test, and the first I heard of the day’s play came on the walkway at Changi. Four wickets lost at the end of play. 90 odd for Collingwood, KP in the 90s. Maybe the first three days were just a figment of our imagination or a rusty start. We might lose, but at least not without a fight. Good signs. Well, that’s what we thought.

21:31 Ah. Day 4 in 2010. One wicket lost all day, centuries for Strauss and Cook, the game made safe. I watched pretty much all of it that night. You actually never felt the Aussies were going to take a wicket. I have the whole of that day on DVD. Actually the whole series. It gets aired a bit.

21:37 It is pretty interesting to me that I have virtually no recollections of the early parts of the 2013/14 Ashes. None. So we may have taken the Brisbane test to the 4th day, but I just don’t remember. Now, if I were a member of some of the punditry that would be enough. But we don’t do that here. I have the highlights on my portable hard drive. We started at 24/2 with Cook and KP at the crease. They took it to 72/2 before KP holed out to long leg, so we’ll be looking up some of the match reports on that! England were bowled out for 179, Johnson took five wickets. We lost by a distance. You know the rest.

21:44 John Etheridge has noticed.

A “slow decline”. Well, it’s better for them to acknowledge it now, I suppose. And man alive, I smiled at this:

“Cook has three centuries in his last 54 Test innings spread across two years. If you want to look further, it is six hundreds in 105 innings stretching back to the summer of 2013.”

They don’t read us. Try the no centuries in 31 Ashes innings while you are at it, John.

21:52 Iron Bowl looks a great game – 7-7. #WarEagle . Back at the cricket, the fourth day in 1986 was one of attrition and at the end, worry for England. Having made Australia follow on, England took half of the wickets they needed, but at 243/5, the Aussies were in the lead and had an unbeaten centurion (Geoff Marsh) still there. Contrary to some people who said overseas cricket was never on terrestrial, Day 5 was covered live in the UK on BBC (introduced, if I recall correctly by David Icke).

22:22 Day 4 in 1982/3, and Graeme Fowler bats for just shy of six hours to make 83 and at least give England an opportunity to set the Aussies a meaningful target. 279 for 7, 208 runs in a day, Thomson taking five wickets. We may talk about Day 5 tomorrow.

22:50 The pre-match hour will be taken over by Sean, who has assured us his levels of light refreshment were not at last night’s level. That’s nice. Meanwhile there’s a Maxie sighting in the comments. He’s also been all over Twitter. Follow him. The Mentor.

22:53 Dmitri leaves you with memories of 1994. On the 4th day of Brisbane I woke up and England were 211 for 2. Thorpe and Hick with a really good partnership to give us a chance of saving the game. What we wouldn’t give for such resistance today. I’m pessimistic. Of course I am. Anyway, take it away Sean……

22:56 Good evening everyone (said in my best Richie Benaud accent). Apologies for my absence yesterday, I had one too many light refreshments at a leaving do and could only manage ‘pitch the fecking ball up you feckers’ by way of insight…

22:59 Not that i promise to that much more insightful this evening before you get your hopes up…

23:05 So what does everyone think we need? My own personal opinion is that a lead of 280 is the minimum requirement especially with fitness doubts over Jimmy and Moeen. If we lose a couple of wickets in the first hour, we could be cannon fodder.

23:18 Could be a bit of weather around today, wonder if that might juice up the pitch..

23:25 In other news, Danny should be just waking up now..

23:27:Really interesting comment from Maxie BTL re: BT Sport production. I think in general (from the small bits I’ve seen) is that it’s pretty slick; unfortunately it’s let down by poor personnel choices. I dare anyone to listen to Graeme Swann for half an hour and not feel slightly homicidal. It also shows how good Ian Ward is in my opinion.

23:37 I do have to concede having watched the highlights this afternoon that the Steve Smith innings was something special. With the technique he has honed, it really doesn’t seem logical that he can score runs, let alone be so consistently good but fair play to him, he was a class apart yesterday. Even if he has a tiny head..

23:49 I still randomly like Boycott’s commentary. There I’ve said it, it feels like a dirty secret…

23:58 Here we go then, can England get through the first session unscathed…

00:00 FIRST BALL and left alone

00:02 Alison Mitchell & Punter heading up the commentary. Perhaps Lovejoy has tonsillitis (says a little prayer)..

00:09 I’ve genuinely been amazed that Starc has been identified as the key Australian threat with the ball. For me Hazlewood is their gun bowler, despite his poor show in the first innings. His spell last night was unplayable at times.

00:13 This pitch doesn’t look like it has any demons in it, Root looks in decent touch too. I wonder how much spin might play a part later on. Lyon outbowled Moeen big time in the first innings.

00:18 Ricky Ponting is a very good commentator, no laddish jokes, just insightful opinion. He’ll never get a job on Channel 9 mind.

00:25 Australia’s attack looks a little toothless this morning. The pitch is still slow, but equally England have silenced the crowd in the first half hour. I wonder how long before Cummins is bought into the attack?

00:27 Oh feck, Swann is alive and well and joined by Shiny Toy. Might have to put the TV on mute…

00:32 An update on TLG, he’s just finished his Lambrini in the local park in Sussex and is off for a dirty donner. More on that later…

00:36 First over from Lyon, no real spin so far. Cummins at the other looks far more of a threat. If you’d have offered me this at the start of the day’s play, I’d have snapped your hand off

00:47 Some discontent about scoring rates BTL. I must admit that I’m delighted by this start. We all know that Kookaburra ball goes soft after 20 overs and there’s the option of increasing the scoring rate. I’d be very happy if England batted all day, but then i did worry we’d be blown away in the 3rd innings…

00:49 WICKET: Stoneman edges one off Lyon to slip. Australia’s bowling has looked innocuous all morning, but that was a decent delivery

00:52 TBF to Swann, he has got it spot on there. It was the arm ball at the end of the last over that led to some doubt in Stoneman’s mind. I just wish Swann would concentrate on commentating based on his own experience as a spinner. Rather than trying to be the funniest man in the world.

00:57 England looking nervous after that wicket. Cummins and Lyon both bowling well.

00:59, TLG is back from the park and is ready to take over. He has informed me that he wouldn’t feed Lambrini to his butler but the bottle of Blue Nun was lovely. Anyway, over to Chris…

01:00 Where I live we don’t have parks; we have countryside.  Anyway…

Even with the loss of Stoneman, this has been a positive start from England today.  They’re pushing for runs, being busy.  The point about Root is that if he stays in, he will score.  That’s probably the most striking thing about him.  Lyon does look dangerous to the lefties though.

01:03 I need to ask a question.  Who is reading the updates?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

01:12 Bueller’s taken a day off it seems. 70-3, a lead of 44.  At what point will Australia start to get twitchy I wonder.  If they put on 50 for this wicket, I suspect they’ll start getting concerned.  In a compacted second half of the game like this, smaller numbers count for more.

01:15 Awww Trev….

01:18 WICKET!  Malan goes to Lyon.  One of those with loop and bounce and turn, that is so hard for the left hander.  No blame, but England are 48 ahead and now four wickets down.  Root is still there, but someone needs to stay with him.

01:21 Given how hard it is, I suspect Moeen might try and counter attack.  Probably not the worst idea either.  There are stories going around that he has a problem with his finger, hampering his bowling.  The official line is that he was a blister.

01:29  England’s lead is now up to 57, but of course they’ve lost two wickets this morning.  Not enough runs, clearly, but neither have they collapsed (yet) so far.  Another 100 gives England a slight chance, another 150 and it’s game on.  England are well in the game, but it would probably be an idea to build a partnership sooner rather than later.

01:42 Runs are flowing a touch.  Both Root and Moeen are playing a few shots – not recklessly, but they’re looking to score.  This partnership is 28 from 33 balls, and that has to be what England need to do.  It might not come off, but it’s more than worth a go.

01:48 Watching the groundstaff smack down the bowlers’ footmarks reminds me of how we used to wind up the bowlers about their preference for one end.  “Oh I can’t bat at that end, it just doesn’t feel right.  No, no, I can only bat at the other end.  You don’t understand, it’s totally different”.

01:51 I don’t want to tempt fate, but Moeen is starting to tick here….

01:52 50!  WICKET! Joe Root out in similar fashion to the first innings, and it looked very, very out on first viewing.

02:01 And that’ll be lunch.  119-5 means a lead of 93, and frankly, it’s not remotely enough.  Still two frontline batsmen in of course, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, the latter of which is clearly itching to go after the Australians.  But another 100 would be needed to really make the hosts sweat a little, and that seems a long way off yet.  It’s possible mind, it really is possible.  But it’s heading towards the outer edge of what’s possible.  Hope is the last thing to die…

02:11 Truly joyous moment in the lunch break where Swann berated the England left handers for not formulating a plan against Nathan Lyon while Geoff Boycott adopted his ‘You’re talking total shit, Swann’ expression.  “I’m not sure I agree with that….” he politely said.

Keep your eye on Boycott’s expression.

02:30 There’s something particularly endearing about hearing Australians describe the Gabba as the fairest cricket wicket in the world, given how it’s 30 years since they’ve lost a Test there.  Irony deficiency is entertaining to watch.

02:38 Players coming back out.  This next session is crucial.  Crucial I tell you!  Or maybe vital.  Definitely crucial though.

02:43 Moeen isn’t going to die wondering.  First he comes down the track and belts Lyon over long on for four, then he goes down on one knee and nails a sweep through square leg.  And the lead goes over 100.

02:55 Interesting to see Australia move a little on the defensive after a flurry of runs after lunch.  Fielders disappearing out to the boundary suggests that the hosts are a tiny bit nervous about chasing any kind of reasonable total. 112 ahead.

03:06 This is good stuff from these two.  Rotating the strike, picking up the singles, and then Bairstow sashays down the track and plants Lyon over deep midwicket for six.  The lead goes to 123, and if Australia aren’t getting nervous yet, there’s definitely a bit of a twitch going on.

03:15 This Test is just starting to get fascinating.  These two have turned a disastrous position into one of, well not promise exactly, but possibilities certainly.  I’m going to quit while I’m ahead, and leave you in Danny’s company…

0319 Danny here, taking you through the graveyard shift. Promising session so far from England, but years of supporting them has told me that it’s the hope that make it hurt more…

0322 WICKET I think we can all agree that this was thelegglance’s fault. Moeen Ali plays forwards to a Lyon delivery which goes past the bat, and Tim Paine removes the stumps. Australia appeal, and after several replays the 3rd umpire gives him out as his back foot was on but not behind the line.

0335 Woakes is in, but not looking confident so far. England’s lead is just 132 and I fear this game might be over tonight.

0407 Australia keeping England very quiet, but no more wickets have fallen. Smith comes on to bowl, the first time he’s done so in a Test since January this year, which is surprising because Australia have toured both India and Bangladesh since then.

0427 WICKET Woakes attempts to defend a short ball from Mitchell Starc, but it slides off the shoulder of his bat to Smith at second slip. England lead by 159 with 7 wickets down.

0438 WICKET You understand that when batting with the tail, perhaps you should be more attacking. There is such a thing as too attacking though, and a prime example is this shot by Bairstow. Apparently looking to guide a short, wide ball from Starc over the slips, he instead sends it straight to third man with a shot more reminiscent of catching practice than Test cricket. England lead by 168 with 2 wickets remaining.

0444 WICKET 4 balls later from Starc and he bowls a full one outside off stump to Stuart Broad. The batsman plays inside it, and gets the faintest of nicks to the wicketkeeper. The umpire gave it not out, but Australia used a DRS appeal and both there was both a sound and a faint mark on HotSpot so he had to go.

0449 WICKET A bouncer from Cummins to tailender Jake Ball, who gets a glove on it and the ball loops behind the wicketkeeper where Handscomb catches it. England lost their last 4 wickets for just 4 runs, and Australia have a target of 169 runs with a minimum of 32 left in the day.

0509 All that typing has tired me out, so here’s Dmitri to open the Australian 2nd innings.

0510 Cheers Danny. 90 minutes sleep woken up by an absolute turd cold calling my number. I tried to get back to sleep, but gave up and am now assisting our night owl.  Anderson’s first over is a maiden.

0513 Mitchell on comms says Warner can make any small total look inadequate through aggressive batting. That’s because that attitude is encouraged. I’ve not seen YJB’s dismissal yet, but he’s being crucified on social media as Cook was last night and all through Saturday. Warner off the mark 1st ball. Bancroft follows him second ball. Warner takes a single third ball. All runs we should not be conceding. A boundary off the 5th ball and you can almost sense a slump in the shoulders. 7/0

0518 I remember the Gabba run chase in 1990. When they won by 10 wickets after we chucked away a decent position. The only time the team with a first innings lead has lost at Brisbane. A beauty fifth ball does not catch the edge. England need an early breakthrough, if that ain’t stating the bloody obvious. 8/0 after the third over.

0524 Better over so far, with a play and miss (and hopeful appeal) by Warner. They know they need to see off Broad and Anderson because the support bowling is a massive drop-off. Maiden for Broad. 8/0. As Mitchell just said.

0527 I’m not sure I can put up with KP’s commentary at this time of the morning. Bancroft squirts one through the gully for a four off the fourth ball. Anderson throws the ball at the opener the following ball but no fuss. End of the over and it is 12/0.

0531 Warner dinks one into the offside off the second ball of Broad’s third over for one. In Nagpur Virat Kohli has just gone through to his 19th test ton and you sense pulling away from Root (with Smith) at the top table of world batting. Broad’s over goes for 1, and it is 13/0. And I have to listen to Ray Winstone missing nuffink.

0535 and if that deep cover wasn’t there it would be 20/0. But anyway, no alarms so far. As i write that there is an LBW appeal fourth ball is too high and isn’t reviewed. One run from the over and it is 14/0.

0539 Bowling well without threatening, and some odd field placings so far, as Warner drops one into the leg side for a single off the second ball. One off that one, 15 for 0. Looks like, at this rate, we’ll be back tomorrow.

0545 Vaughan states the effing obvious that England need a wicket – we need 10 Shiny Toy. Warner takes a single off the third ball. He seems to have rumbled, Shiny, that is that the Aussies don’t rate our change bowlers and are just seeing off the openers. Bancroft takes a sharp single off the last ball to take Australia to 17/0.

0549 Another sharp single off the second ball of Broad’s over. This is annoying me more than anything, as it releases the pressure the bowlers are building, such as it is. A leg bye off the fifth with an appeal that was, sadly, nonsense. And the final ball of the over has another one of those bloody singles. 20/0, Anderson off and Moeen Ali on.

0553: Ali’s first ball is nudged for a single by Bancroft. Plus ca change. KP says Cook is the main concern. Another single off the third ball. Another bloody single off the 5th ball. KP is intimating Cook’s lost his mojo and his drive. Moeen’s first over ends, three runs from it. 23/0.

0557 PUJARA GONE FOR 143. Is that real?

0558 Woakes on for Broad. I don’t think it is a matter of Cook (who they are talking about) not caring, it’s that he is in decline. Appeal from behind the wicket off the fourth ball, but it’s not out. Maiden from Woakes. 23/0 from 12 overs. Minimum 22 to go. Sod off Kamara.

0602 Another bloody single off the third ball, again straight to a fielder. This is like the Old Jos, and no-one is mentioning it. After saying that Bancroft doesn’t know whether to stick or twist, Swann is made to look a little silly as the opener smacks a straight six. 30/0.

0606 Warner pulls the second ball of the over for a couple. He might not have hit a boundary but looks very comfortable to me. Nicks/glides the next one for four through third man. Actually probably a great shot. Cook “won’t say boo to a goose” says Lovejoy, which, I am sure, is why he should have remained captain for all those years. Warner has another single to point. I see it is the Buckethead Army this year as a promotion – it was Boony Army when I was out there. I love Aussie advertising. 37/0

0610 Excitement Machine Warner is tied down, but then cuffs a shot down the ground for four. I can sense the Moeen debate resurfacing. A single off the last ball and it is 41/0. And after my typing torrent, it is the more measured words of Danny for the rest of the day’s play. Get me a wicket Danny!

0615 I have to say that my last spell was terrible for England, so I wouldn’t expect anything.

0626 8 runs off the last Moeen Ali over, but it looks like Australia are happy to play steadily and come back tomorrow to finish things off.

0640 Nope, that’s all I can stand tonight, I’m off to bed.

1010 Dmitri back again with the end of play / chronic lack of sleep round-up. Danny will be producing a more full review of the day, so I thought I’d get in my twopenny worth.

This was stunningly predictable. I think something, a little bit, should be made about the lack of preparation on suitable playing surfaces and oppositions, because the team came in cold. That only goes so far. The players want shorter tours, they are on a treadmill and so on. The second, and much more important point, is that the team picked was so predictably going to pull up short. There’s not a lot that can be done about that either. The new intake are not as good as the old stagers, and it is showing. Stoneman, for instance, is getting praised to the hilt for basically giving us Michael Carberry returns. Vince makes 83, but that second innings dismissal didn’t look like a number 3 to me. Malan is going to tempt us, but fall short. We are greeting 50s like hundreds. And the world and his wife can see four right arm seamers is not the greatest variety. But let’s have the full inquest on another day.

Australia played really sensibly and not a lot could have changed the outcome once chasing a small total like this. What ground my gears is the way the two openers early in the innings were allowed to milk singles straight to fielders with no real chance of a run out. If we did that at schoolboy cricket we’d be told off. Come in a few paces. It’s just me, then.

Also, pace made the difference? I’m not totally buying that. The tail have taken to Starc and Hazlewood before so why worry now? One silly shot from YJB and everyone is in meltdown about the tail? Small sample size. Let us judge at the end of the tour.

So, in the words of Norwegian electronic music stars Royksopp, the Inevitable End will take place within an hour of the start of play and Australia will go 1-0 up. After the lack of sleep, was it all worth it. Of course it was, because for 3 and a half days it was a thoroughly absorbing test match. That’s the really important thing. There’s not a lot better in sport. The result is probably the cricket equivalent of the rugby international the week before. The better team won, the margin of victory could look a little flattering.

Wake up Danny (actually don’t, stay asleep). You review is awaited. I know I share my co-editors’ views that we owe our new man a lot for staying up through the night and producing the updates. Live blogging seems to have gone down well. We will see what we can do in the next tests.

 

 

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.

 

Meet the New Boss

One of the more striking features of the ECB in recent years has been their ability to leak when it suits them, remain tight lipped when it doesn’t, and insist that they don’t leak at all at all times.  So while Cook’s resignation was kept under wraps right up to the point it was announced, there can be little surprise at the heavily trailed news over the weekend – confirmed today –  that Joe Root will be appointed England captain.  By all accounts this was agreed on Saturday or Sunday in a phone call with Andrew Strauss, who presumably was using the bugged phone the ECB provide when they want news to get out.  A day is a little slower than normal for it to reach the media – few will forget the way the supposedly private meeting between Strauss, Harrison and Pietersen ended up being reported in detail on Radio Five Live mere minutes after finishing for example.  Sharpen up fellers.

Still, while the ECB deserve all the cynicism that comes their way for their repeatedly duplicitous behaviour (OK, this one is hardly a crime – but they shouldn’t have it go past without comment), it didn’t take a cricketing sage to work out that Root was more or less the only name in the frame once Cook had finally decided to go.  Indeed, it is remarkable how the simple matter of the on-field captain has now been built up to become A Very Important Thing in a way that it never used to be.  Sure, resignations and appointments to the role have always been big news, that’s no different – what is, is how long is taken over the process, as though the Nobel Committee were ruminating on a choice between Einstein and Newton.  It’s natural to want to get it right of course, but it’s hard to get away from the feeling that pomposity and procedure is felt to directly correlate to importance – perhaps it is a direct response to the declining news footprint cricket now has in the British media.  It is a disease afflicting a lot of sports these days – but news management has now eaten itself by becoming more important than the news itself.

Appointing Root was the blindingly obvious decision, and the possibility it wouldn’t be him only arose because the ECB, Strauss and Cook have taken so damn long over the matter in the first place.  When Cook resigned the papers dutifully followed the line that he’d been thinking about it since the start – the start note – of the India leg of the winter tour.  When the handover of the England captaincy takes longer than that of the US Presidency, something is a little peculiar.  To be fair to Cook, if they’re going to allow him to take an age, then why should he rush, but it still reaches levels of absurdity to place the role on that kind of pedestal, with the fundamental difference that the England cricket captain, who hasn’t been especially successful in the role by any measure, was allowed to do all that for himself seemingly with no outside reference on whether he should be permitted that freedom.

What will prove interesting in future years will be whether Root himself is elevated to that level of God-like status, or whether Cook is an exception.  For there are some similarities to Cook in the way that he has been groomed as most favoured son for some time now. It almost felt as though the only reason for a reluctance to move on more quickly was some lingering feeling that being a damn nice chap prevents any action in favour of the next damn nice chap.

Much has been made of Root’s inexperience in captaincy – a situation that is entirely inevitable in the modern game where playing county cricket is the exception rather than the rule for those who reach international level.  It isn’t remotely relevant for the simple reason that unless things change radically in future, this is likely to be the case with every England captain forever more.  Whether he succeeds or fails, it won’t be because of a lack of experience, it will be whether he is any good at it.  For the fundamental point is this:  There is no reason from the outside to assume any one player is a more natural captain than any other.  Root might well be the ideal choice for captain, but then so might Ben Stokes, or so might Mark Wood.  There is simply no reason to think one way or the other amongst those of us outside cricket beyond a certain kind of prejudice that we all carry within us.  Root being a clean cut generally good egg from the right background certainly makes him suitable for the ECB marketing department, but it doesn’t mean for a moment he is the best on-field captain.

Lest this be thought to be making a case for Stokes or anyone else, it isn’t, but it is to highlight that the choice of captain always tends to be from a rather narrow set of parameters.  As the years go on, the choice of Michael Vaughan stands out as being highly unusual from the usual mix of those whose nice background marked them out as being of the right stuff for the ECB. Again, it isn’t anything against Root himself, but it has been long made clear he was the heir apparent and no other candidates were ever put forward.  To put it another way, Moeen Ali has some captaincy experience at both England U-19 level and for Worcestershire as a stand in – not much, but no less than Root, yet there was never any prospect of him being the one, and given he isn’t certain of his place in the side, that could easily be argued as to why not.  This is where it gets into difficult territory, because there is no accusation whatever of discrimination on race grounds (Nasser Hussain belies that anyway), but more that it is simply rather hard to imagine the current ECB going with someone with such a normal personal history.  Not impossible, for it does happen (Vaughan), and nor is it advocating that someone like Moeen should – it’s merely the case that the ECB is constituted by a certain type of person from a certain type of background, and they by default look for a similar kind of person in their captain.  It’s probably unconscious, and echoed by a cricket media that is largely from the same kind of environment who have a tendency to approve of that line of thinking.  They’ll hate that and deny it, but we all do the same thing in our lives, we instinctively support those similar.  Let’s put it this way: how likely is it that the ECB would be keen to appoint a working class kid from the wrong side of the tracks as captain?  It’s a little hard to credit.

For Root himself, there is the fear that his being chosen as captain will automatically impact on his batting, yet there is no reason to believe so.  Cook himself didn’t suffer notably from being captain, his record before and during is fairly comparable; his batting problems when they occur are more a matter of him being a player at constant war with his technique than anything else.  Likewise, to take England’s Australian counterparts, the three most recent incumbents have all performed superbly with the bat as captain. The fear that he will lose form is nothing but seeing the glass as being half empty – why shouldn’t he do a Graham Gooch for example?

Then there’s the question of what kind of captain Root will be.  With so little experience it’s hard to know for sure, but the glimpses of him substituting for Cook tend to imply he’ll be rather more creative and attacking than was Cook, at least initially.  The truth is that we don’t know for sure and won’t find out until later this summer.  Having Cook to lean on should be an advantage, for whatever the merits or otherwise of his tenure, he will know what Root is going through better than anyone else.  Nasser Hussain managed the transition back to player better than most; if Cook can do the same it will be unquestionably an asset to the side and to Root personally.  It’s not an easy thing for Cook to do, and it’ll be hugely to his credit if he does it well.  Likewise, Cook the batsman should – all things being equal – be of far more importance to the England Test side than Cook the captain.  Being able to focus on that rather than the whole team may well liberate him to contribute heavily in the area that he is most valuable.  This too is a matter of uncertainty, precisely for the same reasons that his batting didn’t unduly suffer by being the skipper, but if those who believe Root will lose form from being captain are right, then it follows that Cook should significantly increase his contributions too – it can’t be had both ways.

Perhaps one of the more notable parts of the announcement is by omission – that Root has been appointed the Test captain.  As has been pointed out before, the England schedule over the next 2 years is bordering on the vicious, so it is at least good to see that he hasn’t been burdened with all the captaincy roles.  There are enough fears for the longevity of those players who play all formats already, without making one of them captain and thus unable to easily miss some of the tours – or at least parts of some of the tours.

The instinctive reaction is that Root is a good choice for the job.  There are never any guarantees, but he appears to possess the right blend of brains and mischievousness to make a go of it.  Cook wasn’t a great captain, and to that end he does have a relatively low bar to get over; whether he will get quite the hagiographical coverage that Cook did in the cricket press is a different question.  And in many ways, a deeply interesting one.  If he’s only ever “hung out to dry” to the same extent, he’ll do well enough.

 

 

 

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.