England vs South Africa: 4th Test and Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

England v South Africa: 3rd ODI

Appalling and disgraceful.  Shocking and irresponsible.  Replace the lot of them.

There’s bound to some kind of kneejerk response from some quarters to what was a pretty poor display by England, both with the bat and the ball.  Yet there does need to be some context involved: over the past two years England have been remarkably consistent batting first.  In the 23 innings in that time frame, they have passed 300 16 times. Furthermore, on all occasions they didn’t reach that landmark (and a few when they did) they lost.

England batting first in the last two years

What that suggests first and foremost is that 300 is the absolute benchmark now, and indeed all too frequently isn’t enough.  This isn’t especially a shock to anyone watching ODI cricket recently, but given that, it also makes it clear that taking risks is inherent in the modern game.

That list also shows that when England get it wrong, they do so spectacularly, the 138 at Manchester against Australia and the 153 today clear outliers.  Today was actually a pretty good recovery from 21-6, and showed a degree of fight and ballsiness that should be welcomed, albeit in a hopeless cause.  Where the debate lies is in the way England got out to a succession of poor, indeed identikit, shots in the first five overs.

Here’s the nub of it, how should a team approach the innings when they lose early wickets.  Within that list are a couple of examples – versus New Zealand at Southampton and the West Indies in North Sound, where England were 34-2 and 29-2 respectively – where they carried on going for the shots and scored just either side of 300, winning one and losing the other.  Either or both of those could have gone wrong and 40-4 the outcome, but it’s indicative of England’s approach that they do not decide to moderate their play but carry on in the same vein.

Now, it would be absolutely ideal if England could adjust their sights according to the situation, but this is a more difficult mental thing than might be supposed.  If a team is to play without fear, as most seem to want them to do, then that means backing themselves not to get out, but to score and score heavily.  A hope that England hit lots of sixes but don’t take any risks is all too easy to fall into, and the moment that freedom to stuff it up is removed, then the prospects of scoring 300 and even 400 as they have done recedes into memory.  To put it another way, collapses like this are an occupational hazard from a team that lives on the edge in their batting.

Of course, it could be argued that once they are three or four down, that kind of moderation would be eminently sensible, and that’s also true, but collapses happen in all forms of the game, and all who play at any level will be familiar with the post match head scratching as to why exactly everyone chose to get out to dreadful shots.

As someone might have said about their own game in the past, this is how England play, and given that there are going to be days where they get it all wrong.   Beating them up for that is entirely counterproductive and needs to be seen as the price paid for the generally successful highly aggressive strategy.  It doesn’t excuse an individual error, but it does explain how it can happen across the team.  England fans recall all too well the restrained style where they aimed for something competitive, and much good it did them too.

Having had that disastrous start, they actually did fairly well to reach 153, entirely down to Bairstow, Willey and Toby Roland-Jones.  It’s worth noting that none of them were especially restrained in their batting, going for their shots throughout in a vain attempt to pull off a miracle and get England a defendable total.  It could be argued that by so doing, and scoring at a shade under 5 an over, it represented the only possible way England had of offering up anything competitive.

South Africa certainly looked better for the changes they made.  Conditions were helpful early on, but not unduly so, and the addition of Morne Morkel lent the attack an air of increased menace.  Rabada may well be a star of the upcoming tournament, for he offers both express pace and control, while Parnell too looks dangerous at times.  A small wobble in the run chase is part for the course with the South Africans, but this match was effectively done after five overs.

For England, their bowling attack had a distinctly second string look to it, but with such a small total it is perhaps unfair to judge them harshly on today’s display.  Still, the opening spells were woefully poor in both direction and length, removing any minimal hope there might have been.  Roland-Jones did himself no harm, while Jonny Bairstow continues to be the most under-appreciated cricketer England have had in a while.  The batting is certainly strong, it must be in order for him to be left out.

It’s probably no bad thing for England to be given a kick up the backside in what was both a warm up match and a dead rubber as far as the series was concerned.  The real business begins later in the week, and it’s clear that England are certainly capable of winning the competition, but also capable of falling flat on their faces if they get it wrong.  It makes them a very interesting side to watch.

 

 

Hand me Down a Solution – Series Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs Pakistan: 3rd Test Day Five

Pakistan must be wondering how they contrived to lose this game. Having been 257-2 one ball before the close of play on day two, a mere 40 runs behind England, they would surely have expected to go on to win the match. Even though their first innings wasn’t as big as it could have been, it still left them with a lead in excess of 100.

Indeed, although England wiped off the deficit without loss, they were soon back in some kind of trouble at effectively 23-2 and again though less so at effectively 179-5. That turned out to be the final chance to win the game, from there Moeen and Bairstow took the match away from Pakistan and by the start of play today a draw was about the best they could hope for.

Cook has not been especially brave with his declarations during his captaincy but there could be few complaints (whatever the eventual result) with today. The plan was clearly to throw the bat and declare as soon as possible and Moeen rather helped by taking the first over from Yasir for 20. He might be a flawed player (albeit one who has had a great year to date with the bat) but he is exceptionally unselfish. He could have a better batting average than he does by quietly ensuring the red ink, but many a time he has got out desperately seeking runs when batting with the tail. Today his immediate assault ensured that it was quite clear England were going for the win.

344 was the nominal target, but despite a pitch that was still flat, and despite the usual panic about Pakistan making it, the history of the game makes it clear that such targets are unlikely in the extreme. But there was no reason at all the tourists couldn’t bat out the day, the surface showed no signs of breaking up – if anything the only concession to four days of play was for it to have got slower and lower.

When batting out time a key requirement is to have a good start, but Hafeez once again decided to give England a boost. Having slapped a long hop to point in the first innings, this time he decided to hook Broad straight to Woakes at fine leg. Batsmen make mistakes, it’s part of the game, but this was poor batting and given the circumstances, somewhat irresponsible.

Still, there was a recovery from there, Azhar Ali joining the hugely impressive youngster Sami Aslam. For a time, all seemed serene and England were, if not flat, somewhat subdued.

It was not long before tea that all hell broke loose, four wickets falling for a single run as Anderson, Finn and Woakes ripped through the middle order. Edgbaston is the most raucous, noisy ground on the English circuit, and when the home team gets on top – especially with the ball, it creates an air of expectancy and certainty that another wicket is round the corner. Enough sportmen are quick to say that the crowd can be the twelfth player for it to be obvious that this does make a difference, and it takes a strong team to resist that kind of atmosphere.

When Finn (who bowled at times with something approaching his old hostility) persuaded Sami to leave a ball that darted back in to the crash into his off stump, it was all over bar the shouting. An entertaining last wicket partnership merely delayed the inevitable slightly.

Make no mistake about it, this was a fine England victory. The lower order strength in batting rescued them from an unpromising position, and when the seamers get some shape through the air, they look lethally dangerous. England’s bowlers are superb exponents of making the most of favourable conditions, where they look toothless is when there’s nothing to help them, for they don’t have the raw pace or hostility to trouble opponents on flat and unhelpful surfaces/conditions. No matter, for all bowling sides can be criticised for the times they don’t succeed, but England do have a useful unit, one that might be completed by a truly Test class spinner. Ah yes, the Moeen question – he has a poor average but it’s worth noting that he also has a very similar strike rate to Nathan Lyon. It’s hard to see anyone else being a radical improvement, which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be tried of course.

Today they forced a win they had little right to expect. It was great to watch, and a perfect example of why those who talk about four day Tests are quite simply wrong. 

England can go to the top of the ICC Test rankings if they win the final Test. That is perhaps more reflective of a number of flawed sides in world cricket than anything else, for there is no outstanding team in the game, only ones who look good sometimes, dreadful others. A degree of uncertainty is not something to be unhappy about, though winning away in the modern era looks increasingly difficult to achieve.

This was a second good Test from three this series. If the final one of the summer approaches it then it will have been one of the better ones in recent years. It was therefore slightly disappointing that Edgbaston was barely half full for what was likely to be a good final day. This time it wasn’t about the pricing, as £16 for adults was well judged and good value.

It was a weekend, England had a good chance of winning and it was cheap. But not full or close to it. Perhaps this is having unreasonable expectations, misremembering a time when there were queues to get in; certainly the 80,000 spectators over five days seems a number the authorities are pleased with. It just doesn’t feel like cricket can ever again truly capture the public, and that’s a deep concern.

England 2-1 up, and no one has even thought about the score across the whole tour. I suspect most have forgotten about it. Which probably says it all.

One final point. The over rate today was excellent. Indeed had they needed to really push they might have been able to squeeze another in. Funny that. 

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.

 

England vs Sri Lanka: 1st Test, day one

Unless the team batting first has an absolute horror then the first day invariably leaves the spectator unsure of where the match is going, even more so if a session is lost to the weather.  171-5 is not a great score, that’s certain, but as ever with Headingley the context of the overhead conditions and the pitch may mean it is better than it first appears.  Equally however, the movement off the seam and in the air was anything but prodigious – enough to keep the bowlers interested and the batsmen wary, but no minefield.  Therefore conclusions are entirely impossible to draw except to say that both teams will probably be fairly content with their work overall.  Sri Lanka have dismissed half the side and will hope to wrap up the rest reasonably quickly, while England have recovered well from the parlous position of 83-5.

That they did so was down to one player batting against type and another who is finding Test cricket rather easy at the moment – with the bat anyway.   Alex Hales found himself in the probably unfamiliar position of having to hold the innings together, and as a result batted cautiously throughout.  Without his knock England would have been in dire straits.  And yet it is to be hoped that Hales doesn’t see this as his role in future, for there are much better defensive openers in the game than him, and in the South African series he appeared to be struggling to try and play a game different from that at which he excels.  He does have technical limitations, but so does David Warner, and it isn’t a problem there because his role is to be the dasher.  When in, such players are devastating, but they can be knocked over cheaply by quality bowling.  Today Hales had little choice and deserves immense credit for battling his way through, but it would be a waste of what he is capable of if that is to be how England see him batting, for it is hard to see how he can succeed over the longer term.  But as England’s David Warner, well it might still be a long shot to be as effective, but it’s probably his best chance.  Today however, it was just right.

Jonny Bairstow is either in the form of his life or has thoroughly found his feet at the highest level, and perhaps something of both.  Middle order players who can turn the tide are invaluable, and England have a couple in the shape of him and Ben Stokes.  Ah yes, Ben Stokes.  It didn’t take long for the knives to come out concerning a poor shot.  As needs repeating time and time again, Stokes plays this way.  You cannot stand and cheer if the ball he was out to had gone just out of reach of the fielder and sped away for four – same shot, different outcome.  When Stokes is batting well, he chances his arm and gets away with it, the margins are that narrow, and it is as it always was, two sides of the same coin.  The glory of run a ball double centuries come with the disappointment of poor shots for not very many, it really cannot be something people have both ways.  His overall performance is the key, because there will be glorious highs and abject lows.

Naturally, the pre-match build up and the rain breaks were dominated by the whole story around Alastair Cook approaching 10,000 Test runs.  Sky went as preposterously over the top as they always seem to with all things Cook, offering an interview that was about as incisive as a This Morning chit chat, with unquestioned adoration of the Great Man throughout.  Cook did say that he just wanted the whole thing over with, and that would be quite understandable, for the use of him as an icon by broadcaster, media and the ECB is not his fault.  They have successfully turned what is undoubtedly going to be a fine achievement into something that has created serious irritation at the nature of the idolatry.  It’s quite an achievement, and it is to be strongly suspected that Cook is uncomfortable with the circus.  It’s a great pity, for achievements should be celebrated, instead they are having to be qualified because of the excessive claims.  Cook will get to 10,000 and he will and should be extremely proud of himself for it.  He’s been a fine player with power to add.

For Sri Lanka the man of the day was clearly Dasun Shanaka, who received his first Test cap before play began, and then came on as the fifth bowler just before lunch and promptly removed Cook, Compton and Root in the space of eight balls.  As debut victims go, that’s not bad at all.  He lacks pace, and bowls the kind of line and length that should have county coaches purring, and the ECB grinding their teeth having so recently announced the death of such bowling in the English game. Headingley has often rewarded bowlers of this nature, being the only ground where (back in the days they actually got more than the occasional Test) the phrase “horses for courses” would routinely make an appearance pre-selection.

One final thing to note, in two sessions of play only 53 overs were bowled.  It is unlikely this would have speeded up in the final session, and quite clearly the ICC no longer care, for fines for slow over rates appear to be a thing of the past, let alone suspensions.  It is of course one day, and one curtailed day at that.  But the pattern has been in place for quite some time.

My flight tomorrow is at 16:05 from Heathrow, so that is it from me for this Test and this series, though I daresay something will annoy me enough to post over the next month.  I’ll probably add some travel observations to my travel blog (I’ve already put up an intro for this trip – and if you’re interested in Myanmar, there’s plenty there from the last one), which is http://www.thelegglance.wordpress.com if you feel so inclined to say hello, otherwise, back in mid June!

Enjoy the rest of the Test – oh and day two comments below.

Chris

Take my Problem to the United Nations

Ah, May.  A time for the preparation of pitches up and down the summer, for club batsmen to walk ruefully back to the pavilion having horribly mistimed one that stuck in the pitch, and for England to begin their Test schedule for the year with the joys of what is always a warm up series no matter how they try and pretend otherwise.  And this year it’s Sri Lanka.  Again.  It was only two years ago they were last here, when of course they rather memorably won a two Test series, where Alastair Cook had a thorough meltdown as captain, where the glorious Kumar Sangakkara scored a memorable hundred at Lords, and where Jimmy Anderson ended in tears at being out to the penultimate ball to settle the result.

Now apologies are due for mentioning any of that, but it seemed wise, given that this particular series appears to have been wiped from the collective memory banks of the great and good in the media, but it was remarkable for the contrast between sublime and shambolic, and more remarkable still for apparently never having happened.  Yet to come back only two years later for another go is in itself worthy of comment.   It’s really Bangladesh’s turn, who haven’t been to England since 2010, and aren’t scheduled to either.  It will be at least ten years between tours of England for them, and most likely longer.  Pretences about the sanctity of Test cricket and the importance of the game should always be viewed in the context of the ECB not remotely caring about Bangladesh.  The same applies of course to Zimbabwe but here at least they can point to the government not allowing them over, but given the Bangladesh situation, it is not exactly radical thought to believe it would be no different.

Instead we have a young, inexperienced Sri Lanka side shorn of their greats, who in May conditions in the north of England should be beaten comfortably.  There are a couple of points about the venues for these games, Lords of course gets two Tests each summer, but after last summer’s Ashes which didn’t venture north of Nottingham, only one of the main event against Pakistan is in the north of England (Old Trafford).  With Headingley and Chester-Le-Street selected for the lesser series, and only one of the Pakistan series in the north, a year after none of the Ashes matches were suggests that the jibe that Strauss and the others won’t venture outside London seems to have some validity.  Perhaps the ECB boxes aren’t as good.  Indeed, last year and this London will have had six Tests, while the whole of the north of England only four – and only one of those against the main attraction of the summer.

The second issue that always crops up is the supposed unfairness of Sri Lanka and other similar sides being forced to play in the colder spring rather than in conditions more conducive, and here the sympathy is in less abundance.  For few complain about England being forced to play in the heat of Colombo, and it’s no different in principle.  Touring sides play in alien conditions, that’s always been the case, and England don’t get given a free pass for when it doesn’t suit them, and nor should they.

What it does mean is that England’s defeat last time around remains one of the more abject in recent times, made worse by being largely self-inflicted on so many levels.  It is unlikely this will be repeated in 2016, for England, for all their faults, are a better side than they were then, and Alastair Cook’s captaincy has been unquestionably liberated by the replacement of Flower and Cook and is, if not exactly dynamic, rather more competent than it was two years ago.

Cook himself will almost certainly reach the landmark of 10,000 Test runs this series, and it is undoubtedly an achievement of serious merit.  What it won’t be is the mark of all time greatness that the thoughtless will undoubtedly bestow on him.  It is so often regarded as being sour, but it is simply being realistic.  Cook is an excellent player and one of the best England have had in the last 30 years.  He has technical problems certainly, but his ability to overcome them is worthy of high praise, and his concentration levels are genuinely astounding.  When he’s in, he grinds on remorselessly.  So it is nothing other than setting it in context, that a player who plays as long as he has done is likely to reach landmarks that those of the past could only dream about even if they played for the same period in terms of years.  The 16 Tests across the calendar year of 2016 are evidence of that.  Number of Tests played is now the indicator, not time and certainly not age, no matter how often some try to roll out the stat about reaching landmarks earlier than Tendulkar.

Hyperbole rules across so many areas of modern life, but it creates entirely unnecessary resentment by hagiographical approaches to what is a fine achievement on its own terms, without trying to pretend it is something else.

James Vince seems quite likely to make his debut in this series after the health enforced retirement of James Taylor, and he will join a batting order that is still somewhat in flux.  Joe Root, Cook himself, Ben Stokes are all secure, but this is a big series for Alex Hales and also for Nick Compton.  Hales had his troubles in South Africa but is not the first at the top of the order to have had difficulty against strong opposition.  Indeed his record in that series was barely any different from Cook himself, which within the context of one of those players having a thoroughly established record and the other not, still needs to be considered  – seemingly the selectors have done so.  Yet it is probably the case that this series is where Hales needs to make some kind of impact.  Given England’s remarkable ability to go through openers not called Cook (sometimes even when they’ve done better than someone called Cook) it is to be hoped that some stability is around the corner.

Compton on the other hand did ok in South Africa.  Not outstanding, certainly, but he did alright.  The scrutiny on him always appears to be more about his character than anything else – precedents have been thoroughly set.  Further down the order Jonny Bairstow’s main task is to improve his wicketkeeping.  He had a wonderful series with the bat in South Africa, but less so with the gloves.  He’s a part time keeper over much of his career, and patience is needed with him.  Most of the mistakes he made were those of someone who doesn’t do it all the time.  He will get better, and if delving into the dangerous territory of predictions, it would be to say that as his keeping does get better, he’ll go through a drop in batting form.  Getting both disciplines to work at the same time is always a tough challenge.

The exclusion of Ian Bell from this series does suggest England are unlikely to go back to him.  It is to be hoped that England have at least told him where he stands, and done so on the basis of truth not expediency.  England are just terrible at this – there comes a time when it is right to move on, but they so rarely handle it well.  Which brings me to another matter: In the women’s team, Charlotte Edwards’ more or less enforced retirement was entirely out of keeping with the service she has given England over 20 years.  It may well be entirely the right decision to go with younger players, but surely it cannot be right for someone who gives half their life to the England cause (much of which was not paid remember) to be unceremoniously discarded that way.  Cricketing decisions need to be made, but respect is due to her for her achievements and commitment, and it appears to have been forgotten.  Her statement that it came as a shock suggests no-one had talked to her about how they saw the future over the last year, and that’s just poor for such a great servant.  It is is easy to add two and two and make five, so let’s just say it is to be hoped that Sarah Taylor’s sabbatical is unrelated to the management of that.

The Test series beginning tomorrow is one that I shall miss almost in its entirety.  Work is calling and I shall be out of the country until the middle of June (Thailand, Laos and Indonesia if you’re asking – and you haven’t) so all the comments will be my means of keeping up with what has happened.  See you on the other side.

Day One comments below please

South Africa vs England: 2nd Test, day five and review

If you were ever asked which side had the ability to score over 600 and then be nervously contemplating the possibility of defeat on the final day, the answer would be England. And not just this collection of England players either; it seems almost hard wired into the psyche of the national team to scare the bejesus out of their supporters, to cause unending fits of mirth amongst Australians and ensure journalists and bloggers head to Statsguru to see if the latest potential disaster has any kind of precedent over the last 140 years.

In truth, England were never quite on the edge on the final day, but they did certainly manage to make things difficult for themselves and interesting for everyone.   It’s been said before – the England cricket team do have a habit of making Test matches interesting, whether they like it or not.

As soon as South Africa had reached somewhere near parity, the pressure had transferred to England as the only side who could realistically lose, given the time remaining.  The clouds that eventually did for play created just enough for the bowlers to make it rather more challenging, but the pitch was still exceptional for a fifth day surface, and it was far more about the pressure England brought on themselves than anything else.  That is as it should be, for cricket is a mental game and Test cricket is the ultimate expression of it.  Human beings react under pressure, and sporting pressure is still pressure.

Thus it quite often happens this way, as the side batting third has little but time and the draw to play for, and the bowling side can give their all knowing they have but a slim possibility of winning, plus the guarantee of a limited time spent in the field.  Once in a while something remarkable happens, but not today.  Not quite.

Ben Stokes received the Man of the Match award and that was probably inevitable given his tour de force on the first two days, yet for the second match in a row it wasn’t entirely clear cut.  Amla’s double century probably had more impact on how the game concluded and was made knowing failure meant likely defeat, and with poor form over the last year.  Jonny Bairstow batted beautifully in the first innings and steadied the England ship with a disciplined and important knock second time around.

Somewhat astonishingly, Stokes received some criticism for his dismissal today.  It shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does, getting caught on the boundary is the flipside of seeing him batter bowlers around the park; it remains an unending frustration that those who will happily cheer when the ball evades a fielder for four or six will berate a player if it instead goes into a pair of hands.  This really is how Stokes plays, and how Stokes should play.  Of course, saying such a thing is no longer allowed because…

Doubtless, Swann will shortly be saying that it was a joke, and that many people were taken in by it, but he has form for this kind of thing.  Only a few days ago he patronisingly expressed surprise that Simon Mann could make a pertinent point about spin bowling, only to catch himself when he realised how arrogant, supercilious and sneering it sounded.  Swann is also the man who expressed amazement that home ticket prices were so expensive, saying he thought they were only about £20.  To be so ignorant about those who were paying for his comfortable lifestyle beggars belief in the first place, to then dismiss any right they have to a view as well is indicative of his worldview – ungrateful, full of self-importance, smug and contemptuous.  The cheeky chappie routine wore thin long ago, as he reveals what he really thinks under the guise of it being banter.  He can think what he wants and he won’t read this.  The personal contempt is such that I couldn’t care less, we can form our view of him as the people who pay and paid his wages.

There is now a long break until the next Test, over a week, a rest period that England’s bowlers will certainly appreciate after so long in the field in this game.  South Africa have made fools of all those who wrote them off after the first Test and who gleefully anticipated England routinely flogging them for the remainder of the series.  Some hasty reassessments will undoubtedly be in order.  Steyn is rated as 50/50 for Johannesburg, while Philander has been ruled out of the series.  Kyle Abbott will also be fit as the hosts find themselves with rather more options in the bowling ranks.  Although any nonsense about “momentum” can be ignored, South Africa will certainly be feeling much better about themselves having finished this match on top.  As the Wanderers is also at altitude, England will have a contest on their hands.

South Africa will also have a new captain, with Hashim Amla resigning immediately following the game.  Perhaps the timing is something of a surprise, yet Amla clearly didn’t feel comfortable as captain and didn’t appear to be especially astute tactically, which may well be two sides of the same coin.  Whatever the reality of that, Amla spoke impressively after the game, and his assertion that he felt he could benefit the side more as a batsman than as a captain was both honourable  and quite probably true.

AB De Villiers takes over for the remainder of the series, perhaps ironically so given his less than subtle comments about his workload and the veiled threat to reduce his availability.  It could be a short term option, or it could be a means of locking him into the team – few would turn down the captaincy of their country when offered after all, but at least it should rule out him doing the wicketkeeping again.

For England after two Tests the form of the captain will be a slight concern.  He’s not got going at all this series.  It’s slight because it’s in the sense of a key player not yet having contributed and nothing more than that; he’s had a decent enough time with the bat overall in the last twelve months after all.  Yet it is a curiosity that there is an agreed silence about it in the cricketing press, while at the same time plenty of comment about Nick Compton, someone who failed to reach 40 for the first time in four innings earlier today, or Alex Hales, who scored 60 just one knock ago.  As so often, it’s less about Cook himself, and more about the way so many journalists place him on an untouchable pedestal.

So far this series for England, the standout performers have been the discards, the unwanted and the damaged.  Ben Stokes was considered not good enough for the England World Cup team, and even when he had been in the side he had been batting at number eight – a decision that got a fair bit of support from the great and the good at the time; Jonny Bairstow has been in and out of the side in all formats; Nick Compton appeared to fall foul of the different personality selection criteria while Steven Finn was of course unselectable.  Add to that an opener whose technique was openly dismissed by the then coach and there’s a certain pattern.  To look on the positive side, it amounts to a tick for the new England coaching set up.

There are no reasons to be gloomy about England’s chances in the final two Tests.  South Africa had the better of the final two days in Cape Town, but the shock and surprise that exceptional players sometimes play well was amusing.  The bowlers did little wrong, the fielders dropped catches and fine batsmen cashed in.  That is allowed to happen.  When play starts at the Wanderers, all is reset.  Reading the runes based on today and yesterday is as daft as doing so based on the first Test and that went well for those who did it.  Perhaps it was because apart from Geoff Boycott, they all had Test averages under 45.

South Africa vs England: 2nd Test, day two

The praise and the superlatives to describe Ben Stokes innings and his partnership with Jonny Bairstow will come thick and fast over the next 24 hours, and probably beyond.  And rightly so too, for anyone who witnessed the murderous assault on South Africa’s bowling this morning was privileged to watch something exceptional.

Firstly though, let’s take the match position.  England’s mammoth 629-6 declared is clearly insurance against defeat, so South Africa are playing for the rest of the game to try and save it.  They’ve done well to reach 141-2 by the close, and the pitch is showing no signs of deterioration at this stage.  First innings runs are therefore key in currently very benign conditions, for the first target has to be to reach 430 to avoid the follow on.  The rate of England’s scoring has opened up their options, in that South Africa will need to bat for at least another day and a half in order to make the game reasonably safe, and flat surface or not, that is going to be a challenge.   It could have been a bigger one, had Joe Root not shelled a fairly straightforward chance at slip to dismiss AB De Villiers off James Anderson.  If taken, South Africa would have been in dire straits.

As it is, with Hashim Amla recovering some form and with De Villiers granted a life, this pair will need to bat long into tomorrow to protect what looks a flakey lower order.  They couldn’t ask for a better pitch on which to do so, as while scoreboard pressure brings its own issues, in the purest terms there’s no reason why South Africa shouldn’t be able to save the game.  Avoiding silly run outs would help.

That is for tomorrow, for now it is about two players who played in differing manners most of the time.  Stokes carried on from where he left off last night, which is all very well except he carried on for a session and a half.  This was T20 brought into Test cricket.  On many occasions we see a player do this for short periods, it is extremely rare for it to continue and continue and continue.

The records tumbled, as the pair added a scarcely credible 399 in just 59 overs, with the two (since Moeen was 0 not out without facing, it is the two) belting 312 off 38.5 overs.  To put that into context, if that was an ODI, there would be a chance of them overhauling the world record total.   They were scoring faster than was happening in the Big Bash match on the next channel.

For the record Stokes double century was the fastest ever by an Englishman, beating Ian Botham’s 208 ball knock against India, and second only to Nathan Astle’s 153 ball effort at Christchurch.  It could be argued that particular innings was an outlier, given it was on a drop in pitch, but records are records.  It is the fastest ever 250 in Tests; the 130 scored in the morning the highest in Test history for a first session; the most sixes (11) by an England batsman ever, and joint second globally; the highest run rate in any partnership of 200 or more runs in Test history; the highest sixth wicket partnership in Test history….oh the hell with it.  Go and have a read of all of them:

http://www.espncricinfo.com/south-africa-v-england-2015-16/content/story/957573.html

Of course statistics are one thing, actually witnessing the innings is another.  Stokes has a delightfully simple technique, trigger movements are minimal and there isn’t much to go wrong with it.   The bat comes down straight, the footwork is decent enough.  What that means is that when he is in a mood like this he is going to strike the ball very cleanly. Given how he batted, that seems obvious, but he retains his body shape when going after the bowling.  There was only one occasion where there was a slightly wild swing and a miss, for the rest of the time, even if he mistimed it a touch it was recognisably a cricket shot – at no point did it descend into slogging.  Instead it was simply awesome power, one shot that went out of the ground will live long in the memory.

While Stokes will be the inevitable focus, Jonny Bairstow’s innings was in its own way equally majestic.  He was entirely content to play the supporting role while Stokes was causing mayhem, yet his own innings was anything but laggardly, and he went from 100 to 150 in the blink of an eye.  It says much for Stokes’ awesome innings that a player can score 150 and not be the main focus.

Yet it wouldn’t just have been Bairstow who had a tear in his eye when he reached his maiden Test century.  The celebration said everything there is to say, it was a special moment.

Days like this don’t come along too often, not just the run scoring feats but the manner and sheer bravado in how it was done.   This is the sort of day that gets kids interested, because they want to be the next Ben Stokes.  And God knows English cricket could do with some of that right now.  Stokes announced himself to Australia in the last Ashes down under, and today he announced himself to the world. It was a reminder of why we love the game, a nudge that despite all the issues with governance, the ICC and ECB, the purity of two players having the time of their lives is something that can’t be taken away from anyone.  South Africa’s bowlers, especially poor Chris Morris who took the brunt of the battering, may beg to differ.

And then Stokes went and bagged himself a wicket as well.  Bloody hell.

Day three discussion here. 

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.