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.

 

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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.

 

Hand me Down a Solution – Series Review

In the early 1980s when growing up, summer holidays meant tuning in to BBC1 at 10:55 to watch the Test matches.  Come the end of summer, the feeling of melancholy at the conclusion of a series was always strong, with the only subsequent cricket being the end of season Lords one day final, which was akin to pretending to enjoy the sloe gin from the drinks cabinet when everything else has been consumed.  Times change, and cricket now is unending, where the finish to the Tests is merely a pause before the one day internationals begin, and then England go on tour somewhere.  In the same way that the end of the football season is a mere pause in hostilities, the end of the Test match cricket summer no longer normally carries so much power to create sadness.

And yet with this one, perhaps there is a little more in the way of regret at the passing of the season.  This is probably as much as anything due to Pakistan, who have been exceptional tourists, and thoroughly merited their victory at the Oval to draw the series.  Four Tests also offered up the reminder as to why a five Test series remains the best possible format, provided the series is a competitive one.  Few cricket fans would object to a decider for this one, yet it is a lament that so often is heard and never acted upon.  It was at least better than the ridiculous two Test “series” against New Zealand last year.

What the drawn series did do was silence those who were quoting the article of faith about England holding all the bilateral trophies.  It isn’t that doing such a thing isn’t a meritorious achievement, it’s just that something that no one had ever noticed or paid attention to before somehow became the highest possible achievement in the game in their eyes.  As with so many things, the context is all, noting success is a good thing, going overboard about it is not.  Doubtless, the bilateral series record will now return to being what it always was – a minor matter.

Given their troubled previous tour to England, Pakistan clearly intended to win hearts and minds this time around, and in that they succeeded.  It is a remarkable turn around for a side who it is probably fair to say were one of the least popular touring sides in England; they played with a joie de vivre that reminds everyone that cricket – even in its modern, money is all important guide – is a game, a pastime, and above all fun; the reason all of these players first picked up a bat or a ball in the first place.  The repeated press ups may have irritated the England players, but it amused the spectators every time.  Quite simply, the Pakistan team looked like they were enjoying themselves.  One particular moment comes to mind, a catch by Hafeez (who didn’t exactly have many high points) caused a young boy in the crowd to wildly celebrate, being picked up by the TV cameras and leading the player to end almost doubled over laughing, and applauding his young supporter.  It was a delightful moment, and one that re-inforced the image of a team comfortable with where and who they are at last.

Misbah ul-Haq remains under-appreciated in his homeland, but elsewhere he is approaching hero status for cricket fans.  The achievements are verging on the extraordinary, with Pakistan now having the most successful period in Test cricket in their history under his leadership.  It is quite exceptional in itself, and given his age, truly remarkable.  Misbah has made Pakistan competitive, and above all given his team their self-respect.  If it has to be that it is something more recognised for what it is abroad, then that is a pity, but it is still worth recognising.

So what of England?  The first part of the summer was routine enough, a Sri Lankan side shorn of its great players was despatched with little difficulty, but Pakistan proved to be something of a harder nut to crack.  This in itself came as something of a surprise to some, with many predictions of a comfortable England win before the series began.  Yet Pakistan were always going to be a threat, and in advance of the series the assessment of it being between two sides with good seam attacks, and patchy batting proved to be ultimately more or less right.  England had the advantage in the middle and lower order, while Pakistan had a (much) better spinner at their disposal.

Statistics can be gleefully misleading at the end of a series though: take the comparison between Moeen Ali and Yasir Shah, both of whom averaged over 40 in the series with the ball.  Yet Yasir was instrumental in both Pakistan wins, while Moeen – with the ball at least – certainly was not.  This isn’t a particular surprise of course, for Yasir is an outstanding bowler, and even the most adoring fan of Moeen would never make that claim.  But it does highlight the point that players can have an impact in a game disproportionate to their overall figures, perhaps we could call it the Ben Stokes effect.

England did have some real successes in the series, Moeen himself batted absolutely beautifully, that dreadful slog at Lords proving to be very much the exception.  It’s notable in his case that that particular dismissal didn’t stop him from using his feet to the spinners, most gloriously on that final morning at Edgbaston where in the first over of the day he served notice that England were going all out for the win.  That Moeen can bat is not especially surprising news, that his batting improves out of all recognition when given one of the batting spots rather than being in the tail perhaps is.  Either way, and given that England have limited spin bowling options – presumably Adil Rashid will come in for the India tour – his series will count as a success, albeit with a couple of major caveats.  One item of note with Moeen’s bowling is that although his average is certainly not the best, his strike rate is quite decent, comparable with Nathan Lyon for example.  Batsmen do try to attack him, and do get out to him.  In the absence of a truly top class spinner of the calibre of a Graeme Swann, replacing Moeen with another off spinner is unlikely to deliver markedly improved results.  It doesn’t mean defending Moeen irrespective, but it does mean cutting England’s cloth according to what they have.  A decade ago Ashley Giles received no end of criticism for not being Shane Warne, but he did a job, and did it well.  Chasing rainbows is not the means to a successful side.

Joe Root finished top of the batting averages, largely due to that astounding 254.  Aside from that it will represent a mildly frustrating series for him, getting in and getting out with annoying frequency.  An illustration of just how good Root has become is shown by the feeling that the series was a slightly unsatisfying one despite over 500 runs at more than 73.  Such is the penalty for excellence, for brilliance is expected every time.  But Root himself alluded to the irritation of getting out when set, so it is less a criticism, and more a matter of the player being so good now that he can deliver even more than he currently is.  He has a decent shout of being England’s best batsman in many, many years.

Cook too had a mixed time of it, despite a strong set of figures over the series.  He looked somewhat rusty in the first Test, but thereafter his biggest problem appeared to be that his form was too good if anything.  He rattled along, having the highest strike rate of anyone bar Moeen, a most un-Cooklike state of affairs.  He was fluent and even playing cover drives, which tends to be one of the best indicators of an in form Cook.  That would then bring about his downfall – seeing him caught at point off a skewed drive, or dragging pull shots onto the stumps is not something that is expected.  Most batsmen will tell you that they score the most runs when they are just shy of their very best, where there is a degree of caution in the strokeplay.  When feeling on top of the world, more chances are taken, and getting out is more likely.  It is impossible to measure, but the suspicion has to be that this was the case with Cook this time.  Still, a good series for him.

Jonny Bairstow was the other major plus point in the batting order.  He’s the leading run scorer in Tests in the world this calendar year (by dint of having played far more than anyone else, it has to be an Englishman) and scored heavily without ever going on to a truly match defining innings at any point.  Four fifties and no hundreds represents a decent return from a player in excellent form, but perhaps his most notable achievement was muting the comment about his wicketkeeping.  He hasn’t turned into a great ‘keeper overnight, and probably never will, but it is tidier, and with fewer errors than in previous series.  He pulled off a couple of decent catches too.  His wicketkeeping remains a work in progress, but the reality is that his runs balance that out; the age old debate about a specialist keeper versus an auxiliary batsman who keeps has long been settled, in favour of the batting.  Bairstow will make mistakes, but the more he keeps – and it does need to be remembered that much of his career he has been essentially part-time – the better he will get.  There have been some suggestions that he move up the order, effectively to compensate for the flaws in England’s batting, but it would be a big ask to expect him to do that, especially in the heat of India or Bangladesh.  Weakening another player to make up for the failures of others has never been a solution.

England have become something of a team of all rounders in the last eighteen months, and the player who was widely felt to be more of a bits and pieces player than a true example of the breed is Chris Woakes, who probably had the best series of anyone.  He batted well enough, making a maiden half century, but his bowling was a revelation to many.  Yet Woakes has an excellent first class record with both bat and ball, and he was hardly the first player to find the transition to Test cricket a challenge.  The demand for instant success clouds the reality that an immediate impact guarantees nothing, and other players can take time to adjust.  One fine series doesn’t mean that he’s a fixture for the next few years, but he’s started to look the part with the ball for a while; in South Africa he bowled with very well yet was spectacularly unlucky.  This time he got the rewards.  By all accounts he has worked exceptionally hard on his bowling, putting on an extra few mph and improving his control.  Players can and do learn – it is not unlikely that James Anderson is a rather useful resource – and Woakes’ success is a reward for being patient with him.

Stuart Broad is a bowler who attracts considerable ire and much comment, despite a record over the last couple of years that compares with anyone.  This series certainly wasn’t his best, and mutterings about his apparent habit of coasting resurfaced.  Yet 13 wickets at 28.61 is hardly a catastrophic return, and if that now counts as coasting, then it merely demonstrates what a fine bowler he has become.  It was a relatively quiet series for him because he didn’t have one of those spells where he becomes completely unplayable, rather than because he struggled at any point.  Broad is the focal point of the England bowling attack these days, despite Woakes having a better time of it this time.  Criticism of Broad is absurd, he is a fine bowler who had a series that was quiet by his standards.  The “by his standards” is the key.  Where there can be severe disappointment with him is with his batting.  It has completely fallen apart, and the pity of that is that for so long he looked like someone who, if never destined to be a true all rounder, looked a player capable of meaningful contributions on a regular basis.

Anderson too had a reasonably quiet but still moderately effective series.  He didn’t take a whole lot of wickets, but maintained excellent control throughout.  He made more headlines for having a preposterous strop at being rightly sanctioned for running on the track than anything else.  What can be said about him is that at 34 he remains an outstanding athlete, with few obvious signs of diminishing powers.  Assuming he carries on for another few years he will doubtless get slower, but he is a clever bowler, and one who will use the skill developed over a career to take wickets.  At the veteran stage of his cricketing life, he is still a valuable asset.

As for Steven Finn, his raw figures look horrible, but at times he bowled well and with pace.  He’s a difficult one to assess, forever making progress and then regressing.  At 27 he should be coming into his peak, but the nagging worry that he is not going to fulfil the potential he first showed is very much there.  Two away series (assuming Bangladesh goes ahead) in Asia are unlikely to show him at his very best, given that the rampaging, lightning fast Finn of the past now appears to be something we won’t see again.  He is once more at the crossroads, and which way his career goes is open to question.

The bowling overall looks in reasonable shape, the nucleus is there as it has been for some years, and if the spin side of it looks a bit thin, it’s an issue that applies to the English game as a whole more than anything.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the batting, for despite the good performances of those mentioned, that they were required to do almost all of it as the rest of the top order had poor series.

Ballance was the best of them, and he at least has a strong record to fall back on.  His return to Test cricket doesn’t appear to have shown any major changes in his technique, beyond batting a little more out of the crease than he used to.  He didn’t appear out of his depth, did get a few good deliveries and made one score of note.  Of all the players who had weak series, he still appears to be best equipped for Test cricket.  Yet the jury remains out on him, as to whether that slightly idiosyncratic style is going to allow him to make a true success of the longest form of the game.  He probably did enough to retain his place in the side, if only because others did worse, but he needs significant runs soon if he is not to be another to shine brightly but briefly.

Hales and Vince are the two who are most at risk, yet for differing reasons.  Hales doesn’t have the purest technique, but was brought into the side to provide a contrast with Alastair Cook’s accumulative style of batting.  Yet it was Cook who was by far the more fluent, while Hales appears to be attempting to bat like a traditional opener.  It’s hard to understand the thinking behind this, for Hales is never going to be as competent at that as others are, his strengths are in playing his shots, taking the attack to the bowling and giving England a fast start.  Once in, he is one of the most destructive players around, but whether it is his own decision, or it is pushed from above, it seems to be the worst of all worlds, a pedestrian style and a technique that doesn’t stand up to the rigours of Test cricket.  It would be easier to comprehend if he was trying to be England’s answer to David Warner, and whether that succeeded or failed, it would at least be an experiment worth trying.  As things stand, it’s hard to grasp what the intention is.

Vince in contrast looks lovely, full of gorgeous and stylish shots, only to fall repeatedly to a fundamental weakness outside off stump.  The health enforced retirement of James Taylor created a vacancy in the middle order, but it wasn’t a position that had carried much strength anyway.  Vince looks every inch the Test cricketer right up to the point he gets out, then rinse and repeat next time around.  Michael Vaughan for one has insisted that Vince be given more time but the ISM factor there lowers the credibility of someone whose views ought to be credible.

What that means is that there are three players in the top five not pulling their weight, an impossible situation for any team.  The only reason it hasn’t proved catastrophic is because of the strength of the middle and lower order.  When England’s top five (with two obvious exceptions) are collectively referred to as the “first tail” it’s clear there is a problem.  Of course, not for the first time the selectors have made a rod for their own backs.  As with the Pietersen situation it requires replacements to be notably better than those that have been dropped, and the discarding of Ian Bell can hardly be said to have been an unqualified success.  The problem here is not the dropping of a player, it so rarely is.  Bell had struggled for a while and not selecting him for the South Africa tour was a decision that could be justified.  Where England go wrong is in at the very least implying that at no point could they ever have made a mistake, and ignoring any and all criticism that they may have done so.  All teams have to create a space for new players to develop, the issue England have is that 60% of the top five are in that position, something completely unsustainable.  The rather transparent attempt to undermine the selectors in the media by the coincidence of several articles at once proposing the creation of a supremo (like we haven’t been here before) don’t alter the truth that the selectors themselves have a fairly patchy record.

Looked at that way, it is something of a miracle England managed to draw the series at all.  With the five matches in India to come, it is difficult to see how they could get away with these flaws.  The one bright spot is that Ben Stokes will return, and while his batting is not entirely reliable it is at least more so than some currently in the side.  It may well be that by bringing in Rashid and dropping one of the seamers (presumably Finn at this stage) they have a ridiculously strong middle order with Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes and Rashid comprimising numbers 5 to 9.  Whether that then compensates for the top is another matter.  There are whispers that Adam Lyth may be recalled to top of the order, or it could be that another young player is thrown in.  Eventually no doubt they will find the right player, but repeated discarding of batsmen doesn’t give too much confidence in the method.

A few last items: It has been a regular topic of complaint on here, but this was surely the summer in which poor over rates finally caused the ICC to take action and stop the theft of spectators’ money.  It would take an extraordinarily insular governing body who didn’t have an issue with it, one that considered paying spectators as nothing other than a resource to be exploited.  Perish the thought.

According to the press, should the Bangladesh series go ahead it will be left to the players to decide whether to go, with no adverse reaction should they decide not to do so.  Nice words, but the reality is always different; it may not be deliberate, but a player has a chance to get into the side by making himself available – equally few but the most comfortable will want to take the chance that someone else comes in and takes their spot.  It’s not meant to be critical, the ECB’s position on this is a reasonable enough one.  But reality intrudes on this – there will be some reluctant tourists.

After that comes India, and a huge challenge for the team.  While it is entirely for monetary reasons, it is still welcome to have a five Test series over there, but 2012 is a long time ago and England will do will to escape with a drawn series, let alone anything better.  Cook will need to be at his very best for one thing, but the batting will need to do far better than it has shown itself capable of in recent times in order to compete.

England are not a bad side at all.  The Test rankings show nothing more than that several teams are capable of beating each other on their day and (especially) in their own conditions.  But for all the talk about whether England could get to number one by beating Pakistan, it’s of no importance if they might drop down the series following.  There is no outstanding side in world cricket quite simply, and the focus on being the best is quite some way away.  Although there is necessarily going to be an England-centric focus on that, it’s no bad thing to have a number of competitive sides.  A bigger issue is the difficulty of winning away for anyone – which is why Pakistan drawing this series is such a creditable result.  They have been delightful visitors.

Oh yes one last thing.  It’s 8-8 in Director, Cricket’s  Big Plan To Make Cricket Relevant Idea.  You hadn’t forgotten had you?

Day 2 of Test 2 – Asserting Dominance

Back in 2010, when England last met Pakistan on these fair shores, the tests were of dubious quality, and eventually of dubious intention. But although England won the series 3-1, they always had that control of the series, thanks, we tend to forget, for a magnificent hundred that saved our bacon at Trent Bridge by…..*

Anyway, he’s not in our test team any more, and by the end of that series Saeed Ajmal had him fidgeting about like a cat on a hot tin roof. But England’s frail batting in that series, and the awesome, at times, nature of the visitors bowling always kept tests on the edge.  They won a close battle at The Oval. When we saw another such test at Lord’s, those of us on here who worry that such a frail batting side as England are (with two top order places, at least, and possibly three, up for grabs) could ascend to the top of the pile, placed world test cricket’s travails towards the back for a while. This test has them back, front and centre. In Antigua, India are walking over a mediocre West Indies. Here, we are doing the same in this test to Pakistan.

England have done what good test sides do, of course. They’ve taken their opportunity to bat on a great wicket, piled up a massive score, and then knocked off half the top order in no time, with Woakes, yet again, having a terrific day. That two of the more reliable men, or at least billed as reliables, in Hafeez and Younus are struggling is a real concern for the visitors. They simply have to bowl sides out for manageable totals and hope their batsmen can keep them in clover, but I don’t see this Pakistan team topping 500 in English conditions. I may be wrong, and The Oval might be the surface to do it, but it doesn’t look to be in form enough for me. So when England racked up 589/8 in their first innings, the pressure to score nearly 400 just to force England to make a decision looks daunting. Misbah and Shafiq are going to need to play out of their skins.

England were ruthless. Root eschewed risk early, and took the morning session very steadily as Woakes took advantage of his promotion up the order to remind us how good his batting was when he’s 150 wickets into his test career and faded like Stuart Broad! Bairstow and Stokes played their part, and kept the train on the tracks, while Root expanded his game a little more and got past 200. Then, in something I love seeing from England players and always lamented we didn’t do enough of it, he got past the 200s, the 210s and the 220s and piled on. In my days of watching cricket only Gooch and Cook (twice) have made larger scores for England, and of course, almost forgetting Stokes as well – silly me.

Some little nuggets? His is the third 254 in tests, the others by Bradman at Lord’s in 1930 and Virender Sehwag in Lahore in 2006 (his coming in a Sehwag-esque 247 balls). If he’d made 252, he would have been the first person in tests ever to do so. It’s the 5th double hundred of the year, with England having the top two scores so far. It was two short of the English record at Old Trafford (Ken Barrington) and the third highest individual test innings in Manchester.

Oh, and I must not doubt @norcrosscricket stats ever again (x100)

So while England’s mastery is obvious in this match, and Pakistan’s route to survival will need the intervention of weather in some ways, this feels to someone not wedded as strongly to this England team like a disappointment. I want a scrap. I want a match which is won with fight and tenacity. This is a steamrollering and it doesn’t please me any more. Joe Root is a super player, a brilliant talent, temperament to die for, an all round game that one can only marvel at, but….. I can’t put my finger on it. As with Woakes, who is coming good (and yes, I doubted him as well, of course I did) you feel great for people like this. I really do. But it’s the bigger picture. Azhar Ali appears a fine player in the UAE, but he’s like a fish out of water in this series. Why?

That’s enough for tonight, and please keep the comments coming tomorrow. Somehow it doesn’t still feel right having a Day 2 on a Saturday, but I realise I’m an old fuddy duddy now. Day 3 tomorrow, have your say in the usual place. I’m off to read what the “highly respected Cricket Correspondent” ( (c) Charlie Sale) of the Mail has had to say. It’s sure to be enlightening.

* Eoin Morgan, of course…..

England vs Pakistan: 1st Test, Day Four

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

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

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

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

 

South Africa vs England: 3rd Test day two

In the world of Formula One racing it’s been said that in order to make the sport exciting, just add water.  And so it is with cricket, though adding water isn’t a great idea.  Instead, add a pitch that has some pace and bounce to it, where bowlers feel they are in with a chance, and good batsmen can play shots and score centuries if they play well.  Quite simply, it makes for better, more exciting cricket.  The trouble is, a surface like this tends to be exception rather than the norm, with a tendency towards slow, turgid pitches that can be nigh on guaranteed to last into a fifth day and thus make more money for grounds and boards.

It’s a quite astoundingly short sighted view, for endless slow pitches just make for boring cricket, as fast bowlers end up on their knees from the exertion of trying to extract something, while batsmen find playing shots difficult and merely accumulate.  The result is slow scoring, few wickets and a crowd who have either drifted off to sleep or haven’t bothered to turn up in the first place.

Of course, cricket needs to be played in all conditions, and home advantage should be just that.  And the domestic cricket played on the pitches the domestic structure creates informs the strengths of the home side.  Yet when Test cricket is in dire need of support from its boards – and the suspicion is they couldn’t care less about Test cricket because it doesn’t make them money – the refusal to comprehend what is right in front of them is part of the damage being done.  Of course, the disparity in incomes, both for players not from the Big Three countries, and their respective boards is the biggest factor in the current swathe of articles about the danger the game is in, but it’s not just that – or rather there’s a corollary point that’s related to it.

It all comes back to money and to power.  The crisis in Test cricket due to the land-grab by India, England and Australia has finally got the attention of at least some of the newspapers.  These are the papers who generally ignored the whole matter with the odd honourable exception who pointed out what the likely impact was.  Those terrible bloggers added their voices to the writers retaining their integrity and lambasted the others for their ignorance or lack of interest (or both in at least one case).  Perhaps we should be grateful they’ve noticed at all, certainly the British newspapers managed to pretend Death of a Gentleman didn’t exist.  And given the wider issue and the importance of it to a game we love, it is better late than never.  Just.  But if they have noticed the trouble Tests are in, they still haven’t joined up all the dots.  Chairman’s Pitches are part of the same equation; the players certainly don’t love them, on the few occasions they can be persuaded to venture a real opinion (the deliciously outspoken Moeen Ali apart ) the one thing they will loudly criticise are pitches that have nothing in them.

The ball is also part of that.  It really doesn’t matter whether the ball is a Duke, a Kookaburra or an SG, it just needs to last long enough to keep the bowlers in the game and not become a rag after 15 overs.  The pitch and the ball are clearly critical, and get those right and we at least have a sport that is worth watching.

The best, most exciting Test matches tend to be the ones that don’t go the distance.  In fact in some instances they are done and dusted in three days or even less, which is a disaster if that’s due to one-sidedness, thrilling if it’s a proper fight.  Nor is it about rapid scoring or wicket-taking per se, for a slow but tense passage of play can be the most exciting of all.  Test cricket might be considered the purist’s version of the sport, but the attractiveness of T20 stems partly from the fact there is plenty of action.  In Tests, cricket with uncertainty, whether with bat or ball, is very watchable cricket.  And very sellable cricket.  And very broadcastable cricket.  It’s not bloody complicated.

And so the groundsman at the Wanderers deserves immense credit; it’s not an exact science, and wickets can sometimes perform in a manner that leaves the ground staff tearing out their hair.  That’s a given, it can happen.  But the intent has to be there, as it is in Johannesburg and as it all too often isn’t in England.  And this is still trying to make use of home advantage, for a bouncy, pacy track is one where South Africa unquestionably fancy their chances of a win.  Not a thing wrong with that either, no matter how much certain hypocritical Australians might bleat about it.

And so this game has see-sawed, from South Africa throwing away a decent position on day one only to roar back with late runs, positively made, and then to leave England in trouble before Stokes and especially Root dragged England back into a position of parity.  We’re at the end of day two and we don’t know where this Test is going, except to say there will probably be a result.  This is perfect, this is Test cricket as it should be, where a cricket lover can’t take his or her eyes off the screen because something is going to happen.  You don’t know what, and you don’t know who – but something is.

The South African total of 313 is in that sweet spot where there is uncertainty as to whether it is a good one or not.  It’s one the home team will probably be fairly satisfied with, and has the notable record of being the highest Test total where no one has made a half century.  And when England were 22-2 and 91-4 they would have been ecstatic with it, and confident of a first innings lead of some size.  That this is now in question – and England really should reach parity at the least – is largely to do with one partnership that bounced along at seven an over.  Stokes of course was Stokes, a player who is lethally dangerous with the bat, and able to take a match away from the opposition in a session.  But Joe Root was the central figure, making his ninth Test century in a career that is rapidly flowering to be very special indeed.

Root has looked in form all series, making good contributions before getting out when set, to his clear frustration.  He’s now far enough into his career that we can start making proper judgements about him.  He’s had the poor run of form and come out the other side grinning – as he does a lot.  We may have someone truly special on our hands.  If he stays in any length of time on day three, South Africa are in trouble.  It’s quite striking how he seems to get to 30 without anyone noticing; he scores his runs at a fair lick without ever seeming to really attack; it’s his ability to find gaps for singles and twos that marks him out, for he doesn’t have an obviously rock solid technique defensively.  He can be caught on the crease, he can be lured into playing away from his body, and early on the slip cordon will be licking their lips.  But when he gets in, and when he gets going, he’s a joy to watch.

Alastair Cook was again caught down the legside cheaply.  It’s clearly an opposition tactic and a technical problem for him, where he is too far over to the offside and playing the ball outside the line of his body.  He has had a poor series with the bat to date.  Let’s be clear about this, batsmen can have poor series, they can be slightly out of sync with their movements and they can struggle somewhat.  You take the rough with the smooth and accept it happens.  With Cook it is what it always is, less about him having peaks and troughs, and more about his cheerleaders in the press refusing to ever acknowledge the chosen one has been anything other than magnificent.  Instead they will openly criticise other players who have done better across the series.  Some sympathy for Cook in this area is due, for this sacred cow approach is doing him a major disservice.  Acknowledging that a good player is having a rotten series doesn’t mean he’s not a good player.  It means he’s having a rotten series.  Try being honest and straightforward – it might be liberating.

A case in point resides with Compton, a player for whom there appears to be a queue formed in order to criticise him.  He made a slow start to his innings, and of course it suddenly because a topic for the usual suspects to mention it.  What is this?  Is playing yourself in suddenly unusual?  Isn’t this Test cricket, not a T20?  He got in, he got going, he scored runs – and then he got out.  He won’t be happy with the shot that led to his dismissal sure, but then the number of times a batsman is truly got out rather than bringing about his own downfall is rather few.  He’s done a mostly good job this series, and isn’t deserving of the scrutiny he’s receiving.

The hosts’ pace attack impressed too.  The absence of Steyn is giving the chance to some new, younger players.  Rabada looks a bowler of immense talent, and is a pleasure to watch, while Viljoen showed pace and hostility throughout, hurrying the England batsmen repeatedly.

Tomorrow is moving day.  It’s going to be fascinating.  Test cricket – it really can be good.

Day Three discussions below.

 

South Africa vs England: 2nd Test, day one

One of the delights about Test cricket is how often the final hour of play proves pivotal, and makes the previous five hours seem pedestrian and unimportant in comparison.  It isn’t really like that of course, but day one is a set up day to begin with, and that final hour so often determines which side is the happier, almost irrespective of how things have gone up to that point.

For at drinks in the evening session, England were 224-5, not in trouble as such, but in severe danger of thoroughly wasting the opportunity of batting first.  Stokes and Bairstow’s thrilling counter-attack, particularly against the new ball, means that England will be reasonably content with their day’s work, though much more will be needed from them in the morning to turn it into a position of strength.

The day had largely been one of England players getting in and getting out.  Only Taylor was dismissed early; Cook was loose once again outside off stump, Hales caught in the slips again off a pretty decent ball, Compton nailed a pull straight to midwicket and Root played a rotten waft outside off stump.  If that seems overly harsh, individually it probably is.  Hales made his first Test fifty and batted extremely well, Root looked a million dollars and it was a surprise when he got out, and Compton played the number three role well again.  Yet for at least three of the top order to perish needlessly risked throwing away what could and should have been a position of dominance.  Sometimes these things just happen in the game of cricket, but it looked somewhat careless; the players will know that better than anyone – certainly Root looked about to explode as he left the field.

Compton himself has 179 runs in three innings since his recall, which ought to satisfy anyone.  Not withstanding his failure to go on from a start today, he is doing well.  Yet the pundits and commentators seem awfully quick to get on his back about his scoring rate. At lunch he was 3* off 27 balls, and it was a topic of conversation.  It is hardly unusual for a batsman to start that way, especially so in the run up to a break, and nor is it putting pressure on his batting partner at such a stage.  Given his struggles in the Test before he was dropped perhaps that is a legitimate topic of conversation, but the same thing kept cropping up throughout his innings, which was ultimately at the same strike rate as that well known blocker Alex Hales.    Nor is this a one off, given how Graeme Swann criticised Compton for slow play in the first Test, where Compton’s first innings knock was not only exactly what England needed, it went a fair way towards England winning the match.

Let’s be clear about this – Compton played a perfectly normal innings for a number three.  If it’s going to referred to as “staccato” then do so for other players, not just him – there is an undercurrent of being desperate to criticise for the sake of it.

But the day belonged to Bairstow and Stokes.  Their unbroken partnership of 94 came off just 19.1 overs, but it was the new ball that they were particularly severe on, particularly Stokes.  At one stage they were scoring at 9 an over, as Amla scattered the field.  There’s something to really like about this England team, and it’s the way the younger players respond to adversity by looking to attack.  It isn’t always going to come off, and an understanding of what they’re trying to do is needed.  That means not slating a batsman who is caught on the boundary for example.  It’s high risk but a calculated risk and when it comes off it is both thrilling for the spectator and can completely change the direction of the match.  We cannot have it both ways here: we can’t praise players for taking the game by the scruff of the neck and then complain when they get out.  Stokes could have been caught in the slips on at least two occasions when the new ball was taken, and mistimed a couple of pulls as well.  Yet it doesn’t, or shouldn’t matter – it is a calculated assault that on this occasion worked.

Bairstow played largely the supporting role, but scored not much less quickly.  He’s been good this series with the bat, and looks a much more solid player defensively, which bodes well for the longer term.

The big plus for South Africa was the bowling of Kagiso Rabada.  He’s clearly raw, but has pace, and the priceless quality of hurrying the batsmen even when the speed gun doesn’t necessarily support that.  Joe Root was very late indeed on one attempted pull, and lucky to survive.  For such a young bowler his control was decent as well, certainly better than Chris Morris, who Stokes in particular took a considerable liking to.  Given the injury crisis afflicting South Africa’s frontline bowlers – and there were suspicions Morkel wasn’t entirely fit by the end of the day – this is a welcome sign of promise.

One other item of business from today: even with the extra half hour, only 87 overs were bowled.  This is entirely unacceptable, there were 23 overs of spin in the day, and failing to complete the scheduled allotment is inexcusable.  The ICC have shown no kind of inclination to clamp down on what is tantamount to stealing from the paying spectator.  Fines clearly don’t work, so there is a need to find what does.  Run penalties are sometimes mooted, but there is an understandable reluctance to allow over-rates to impact on the game itself.  Yet if there was a ten run penalty for each unbowled over, does anyone really think that South Africa would have failed to get 90 in?  They would have made sure of it.  Three overs may not seem worth becoming exercised over, but this happens sufficiently often for 85 overs in a day to be considered reasonable.

Enough is enough.  The players are showing disrespect to those who pay to watch them.

317-5 is anything but a decisive score; early wickets will leave England some way below what looks like a par score on this surface.  But the ball turned for Piedt, suggesting that by days four and five spin could be a weapon, especially since Moeen gives the ball rather more of a rip than his counterpart.  In order for that to matter, England will need 400+ to put pressure on the misfiring Proteas batting order.

On balance, England will be the happier team this evening, but that is based more on the way the last hour unfolded than the score itself.  Tomorrow is another day and while the first session will not dictate how the Test will unfold, if England win it then they should be in good shape to put South Africa under pressure.  For all the plaudits Stokes will rightfully receive, this game is quite finely balanced.

Elsewhere, tonight is the start of the Australia – West Indies annihilation at the SCG.  This is nothing but depressing, not because of Australian dominance, but the desperate fall of West Indies cricket.  No fan of the game can feel anything but sadness, anger and despair about it.

Day two discussion below.

 

South Africa v England: 1st Test day three

England should wrap this match up at some point on the fifth day barring something special – and something special is always possible in sport, that’s the point of it – so strong is England’s position.

At the end of day two there was a feeling that England were the side in the ascendancy but that was on the basis of how the game appeared rather than the raw figures of the score, and from there the game could have gone in any direction. But South Africa couldn’t have had a much worse day that they did, from the collapse in the morning which left them 89 behind to the injury to Steyn and dropped catches as England built a lead.

It could have been worse. Dean Elgar carrying his bat through the innings was the only thing that kept South Africa in the game. The deficit was substantial enough but not insurmountable. What lent a feeling of inevitability to proceedings was the injury to Dale Steyn early in England’s second innings. And here we need to be wary of straying into wise-after-the-event territory.   For South Africa lack an all rounder in this post Kallis/Pollock era, and like most teams in such a position, selected a four man attack to try to balance the side. For injury to take out the spearhead is desperately bad luck, provided of course that there wasn’t that risk going into the game, and that’s the question for the South African selectors rather than the four man attack in itself.  To put it another way, England had a four man attack for a number of years and it was rare that they lost a bowler, the same applies to the great Australian team of the first part of this century; in and of itself it’s not flawed selection, but it appears to be when injury strikes. Certainly Morkel did all he could to make up for the shortfall.

And of course balancing a side with only four bowlers becomes difficult, but you do need a keeper who can bat, hence asking De Villiers to do the job. He’s quite clearly a superb player, the question is how sustainable it is to ask your best batsman to do two jobs and whether that impacts on the primary role.  It’s exacerbated when said batsman has to come in at four rather than later, limiting the amount of rest. De Villiers does have a worse record as batsman when he has kept wicket, but it’s hardly a disastrous one to say the least. Yet it’s a huge ask of him, and perhaps his keeping in the second innings is an indication of that.  For while every keeper can and does drop catches, to come in to a Test match having not done it in a while, and to still have to do the primary role, is going to be exhausting, mentally more than physically, though that plays a part as well.  And then we have to consider the first two Tests are back to back.

For England Stuart Broad has been exceptional, but what has impressed has been the back up.  Moeen Ali was excellent, while Woakes was consistently unlucky and Finn cleaned up the tail expertly.

England’s batting too was purposeful. The third innings can so often be one where the side nominally in front can panic and throw away the advantage. After the loss of Cook, Compton set about building the platform, and he did that extremely well. By the time he was out, those following were able to start to increase the pressure on the reduced attack, circumstances that the likes of Root are ideal at exploiting.

England will doubtless look to accelerate in the morning, and wear the pitch a little more. It may not be the worst thing in the world for England to be bowled out, forcing South Africa to go for the win with time left in the game. The danger of batting on too long is an ever present with England in recent times. Tomorrow is not the time to do it again, for here is a chance to pick up an opening Test win away from home, and that’s not a common experience.

The First 2015 Dmitri – Joe Root

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Joe Root – Lord’s 2015 – A Dmitri Pic

It needs to be stressed up front. These “awards” are not to be confused with “Player of the Year” awards because there’s an additional unquantifiable criteria that I want to bring in. That said, you’d need to put a pretty good case against Joe being our player of the year. He’s vital across all formats, he has a joy about him when he’s playing the game, he’s a right royal pain in the arse for the opposition, and no person can deny that he has a rock-like temperament. The main problem, if it is one, is that Joe Root is taken for granted.

The Joe Root story goes back (for me) to his county season before he broke into the team. The ageing World #1 outfit were going to need fresh blood to put pressure on the middle order. But the most urgent need, as Andrew Strauss was struggling for form, was for an opener. Yorkshire appeared to have one. A young kid banging out big scores at the top of the order for his county, playing on the mythically difficult Headingley wicket. It was second division cricket, which wasn’t used against him, but 700+ runs at an average comfortably over 40 indicated a real talent. A 222 not out at Southampton, out of a score of 350 for 9, indicated an appetite for big runs, and especially when the pressure was on him. He was on the radar.

His debut for England came under intense pressure. Brought in for the 4th test, with England 2-1 up, it was not an easy position for him to enter the fray. It might have been a good wicket to start you career – a road that tested the batsman’s patience rather than technique – but it was 119 for 4, and he was to lose KP very soon after. No worries – 130-odd for 5 on a dead deck, trying to keep the series in our hands. The temperament shown was exemplary. He dug in, he put on 103 with Matt Prior, and made a hugely impressive 73 in 289 minutes. In his first game, he’d played a massive part in saving a series. After the match Vic Marks wrote of his selection:

Root knew that he was going to play 24 hours before the match began. The day before that the England think-tank had watched him carefully in the nets, noting that he played an assortment of respectable Indian spinners exclusively with the middle of his bat. That net may have convinced them to take the plunge and to select Root for this vital Test – ahead of Samit Patel, Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan. Having come to their decision against the expectation of all those on the outside, what did they say to him? “They just said I was playing,” explained Root. “They didn’t say why.

He has had travails since then (all players d0), over the 10 tests against Australia he was moved up to open, then dropped to three, before being dropped entirely, and a 180 apart (which is the anchor point for Root Maths because he was let off very early by Haddin) at Lord’s, questions were asked. But a return to the side in 2014 brought a double hundred at Lord’s, more big scores against India (all three of his hundreds that summer were unbeaten) and suddenly the man we were questioning was now the anchor of the middle order, batting at 5. Given another go at Australia overseas, I think most people believe he’ll be a much finer player than the one on the 2013-14 disaster.

This summer his contributions in the middle order were vital. In fact, I’m not sure “vital” does it justice. His 98 and 84 at Lord’s kept England afloat in that tumultuous first test at Lord’s, with the 98 impressive because of the enormous pressure England were under (and why I rate Stokes’s innings in the first better than the second -although I realise that’s a personal choice) in the match. Without that Root and Stokes fightback, the summer may have turned out totally differently. His 134 in the first innings at Cardiff played a part in laying the Johnson bogeyman to rest (allied with the wicket) and allowed England to post an extremely competitive score, and his 60 in the second innings allowed us to post a large target. His 63 in the first innings at Edgbaston was important to allow England to post a sizeable lead when his cheap early dismissal may have put us in strife. His 38 not out to take us home against a small target was also not to be underestimated. As Joe went so did we. His innings of the year candidate at Trent Bridge, on a wicket Australia had been dismissed on for 60, when he made 124 by the close in quick-fire style had pretty much sealed the Ashes. It was fitting that it should be him to do so.

Joe is also a fine part of an attractive ODI team, playing the role of the relentless accumulator with the big shot, in amongst the pyrotechnics of Roy, Hales, Morgan and Buttler. You almost take him for granted now, yet we would not want to be without him. He’s a T20 player of some class too and will be a part of our World Cup line-up. As I’ve said, he’s easily taken for granted. His 182 not out was largely forgotten in Grenada due to Jimmy’s last day heroics, but was immense, class, ruthless and brilliant. 8 test hundreds before he is 25, 6 ODI tons in the same period, a 90 not out in a T20 showing he can take to international attacks in that format. Even his UAE experience wasn’t too shabby. No hundreds but two good matches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai where he wasn’t dismissed below 70, was followed up by a poor one in Sharjah. That his standards are so high meant we were disappointed.

I like to start off with a positive Dmitri and I have nothing but praise for the way Root keeps that England middle order afloat. In the ODI team he is a part of the puzzle, in the test team, he’d be the missing piece if he wasn’t there. We’ve put a lot of weight on his shoulders, look to put more on him by making him test vice-captain and FEC, and ascending to the top post has had bad long-term effects for all who take it on. His off spin is not to be taken lightly, but his back may restrict how many times he is able to turn his arm over. He looks the popular leader on the field, the leader of the foot soldiers rather than pure officer class. He’s had off-field run ins with oppo players. He’s a pest on the field. Without him, certainly in tests, we’re bang in trouble.Look at five of our six losses this calendar year – 33&1 in Bridgetown, 0&1 at Leeds, 1&17 at Lord’s, 6&11 at The Oval, 4&6 at Sharjah (only Dubai, with twin 50s saw him succeed in a losing cause) – where his failure has played a key part in losses. In tests England did not lose this calendar year, the lowest score he was dismissed for was….59!!!!!

But he’s our man. And he is the first of this year’s Dmitris.