Creeping to Domination

About ten years ago, England had days like these on a regular basis – a powerful top end would build a platform, and the middle order would exploit a tiring attack to lift England fairly consistently to 400 and 500+ totals.  Over the last six or seven years such days have been rare, with 300 more frequently the top end of their ambitions.  One match doesn’t signal a return to those more productive times, but nor should it be ignored when it happens.  England are in complete command of this Test match thanks to a record fifth wicket partnership between Zak Crawley and Jos Buttler, taking the team to a total of 583-8.  Oh heady days.

There is ever a temptation to go overboard about young players when they first make their mark, and Zak Crawley’s 267 will doubtless lead to gushing praise and comparisons to others that don’t yet need to be made.  It is enough to regard this innings as truly exceptional, and the player highly promising.  He remains inexperienced to the point that this was only his fourth first class century in little more than 50 games, with an average of barely 30.  Nothing at all to write home about.  But there is a difference between identifying a young player with a modest record and believing he will develop into a fully fledged Test cricketer and simply persevering with someone for the sake of it.  The modern day descent into besteveritis will likely mean that some of the praise is over the top in terms of the future career context, but that doesn’t, and shouldn’t take away from just how impressive he has been in this match.

It was an innings both of maturity and control – fluent throughout, solid in defence and despite admitting to nerves when in the nineties, seemingly unflappable as every milestone approached.  It is one knock, but a hell of a knock, and if cricket is a game played in the mind, it can only help him believe he has all the ability needed to succeed.  Rob Key, his mentor for many years is, and should be, extremely proud of him.

His partner throughout was Jos Buttler, a player whose own lack of a fine first class record made his initial selection a similar kind of punt, but with the difference that after nearly fifty Tests, he still had only one century to show for it.  His wicketkeeping in the first Test too had shown significant errors, suggesting that the pressure was starting to show.  Buttler isn’t an exceptional wicketkeeper by any stretch, but he is a generally competent one, albeit much less secure when standing up, as his lack of stumpings indicates.  His selection in that role is a choice, a slightly compromised wicketkeeper picked for the runs he can score and the way he scores them.  His shortcomings in his strongest suit were the main reason for his place coming under threat rather than his nominally primary role.

Here he was in control, his shot selection vastly improved compared to recently, and the pace of his innings suggested a player feeling in command for the first time in quite a while.  The calls for him to be replaced were not in error, for stick with a player long enough and eventually they will score runs.  But equally, when those calls are made, it needs to be acknowledged when he has come good, and as this series has gone on, he has looked much improved.  Keeping faith with him cannot yet be said to be the correct decision, but the signs of him learning at last how to compile a Test innings suggests it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it will need to be acknowledged as a good one.  Only time will tell, though there will be some players feeling that they too would have liked the degree of support given to Buttler, and the chance to repay that faith.

Two days, one innings; two players, two Daddy hundreds.  The future can take of itself for both of them, today was very much their day, and they deserve all the plaudits going.

With a fine sense of crowd pleasing (even if on sofas and in cars up and down the country), Joe Root sent Stuart Broad in for a slog towards the end.  Broad has become something of a national treasure over the last year or so, which is intriguing given that for so long he was a player who divided opinion so much, even when performing well.  It is perhaps the fate of players who can change a match in a session that all too often it is asked why they don’t do it more often than celebrated for what a rare ability it is.  But while his bowling has been of high quality (and seemingly increasing quality) for a number of years, his batting mojo seems to have returned, to some extent at least.

Broad’s batting decline led to it being both sad in itself and worthy of mockery.  His resurrection – not to the near all rounder levels of ten years ago, but to a thrillingly attacking tailender – has changed perspectives from him being a figure of fun to one of adoration.  Stuart Broad batting would empty the bars if they were open.

A short session attacking the Pakistan batsmen was available, and to the surprise of no one, inroads were made.  Anderson picked up three, to take himself to 596 Test wickets, and a decent chance of reaching 600 by the end of the match. At 38, there is always the chance the end could come suddenly, and only the most churlish would lament him reaching such a landmark this week.

If Pakistan are to get out of this one, they will have to bat out of their skins, or hope that the weather gods are smiling on them more than they were in the Second Test.  Conditions are one of the fickle factors that affect cricket, a random occurrence that can be utterly capricious.  The visitors had every chance of winning the last match, and now they will probably need the weather to restrict their defeat to 1-0.  No one ever said life was fair.

One last word on the weather.  For this match the umpires have been given increased latitude in making up time at the start of the day as well as the end, and in moving the sessions around to maximise cricket.  Some of the criticism in the 2nd Test was fully warranted, particularly around the inclination to go off the field rather than stay on.  Yet here they have been proactive, and have learned a lesson.  There was rain this morning, and lunch was pushed back to 2pm.  As it turned out, that probably cost some playing time, with the weather sunny and dry during lunch, inviting more pointed comment.  This was unfair, the umpires were doing their best to maximise play – they are not soothsayers when it comes to when the rain comes and goes.  It was just a trifle unlucky.  On this one, they should be cut a little slack.

Underdog Day Afternoon: Test Cricket Does it Again

The ECB are the lucky organisation.  They’ve done remarkably well to get Test series on this summer, with the help of the two visiting sides, but over the last couple of years they have been rewarded with some quite extraordinary finishes to international matches.  Overall, it’s hard to make a case that they deserve their exceptional fortune, but this summer, perhaps they do.  For today was one of those days that cricket can throw up, and which few sports can match.  It’s not just the drama of sport, it’s the elongated nature of it that is, if not unique, unusual.  Tension builds over time, over days.  A five day Test match is a special beast, and one to be cherished, particularly in these times where the whole concept is under threat.

The lack of crowd means that it’s not quite the same, it is a facsimile of the sport we know and love, but it is entirely forgivable and a price worth paying for the time being to be able to see it on television or listen to it on the radio.  That it can raise spirits in a time that needs spirits raising is an added bonus, but perhaps speaks most centrally to the value of sport itself, whatever the money men may insist.

The narrative of a Test match twists and turns, winds and loops, offering succour to those who need it, and exacerbating the pain of struggle for those who are finding sporting life difficult.  That England owed their win most of all to the twin innings of Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes added a delicious twist to the summer, for Buttler has been rightly under pressure for his place, both due to a lack of runs and his indifferent keeping in this match.  One swallow never makes a summer, but irrespective of the wider issues about the best choice for the wicketkeeper/batsman role, today was very much his day.  He played with freedom, confidence and aggression – his natural game, certainly, but one he’s struggled to display throughout his Test, and indeed county, career.  It is forever the case that selection and choice is wrapped in the paper of a thousand dilemmas and agendas, but on the day a player performs like this, only congratulations are needed, and only pleasure derived – both for a player and a human being.

In the post match interviews, Jos Buttler said that he felt that if he didn’t get runs today, he might have played his last Test for England.  Professional sport can be brutal, and the truth is that he may well have been right.  The personal tales weaving through a team game are endlessly fascinating.  Irrespective of merit, Buttler can enjoy his moment, while Joe Denly never got to experience his.  Such are the narrow margins, and Buttler’s quietly spoken charming nature makes it hard not to be anything but delighted for him.

Chris Woakes hasn’t been under remotely the same kind of pressure, for he is a bowler first and foremost, but his lack of runs had been noticed, most particularly by Shane Warne who demonstrated his usual monomania on a subject he’s newly discovered.  If runs had been hard to come by for him, today he was exceptional, as though he’d shrugged off any doubts and simply decided to play his shots.  Sometimes it works, and today was one of those days.  As is so often the case, when a player succeeds so dramatically, it’s hard to understand why they’d been having problems up until that point.

Pakistan should have won this match.  They outplayed England for three days, and added sufficient useful runs this morning to be in a strong, if not quite unassailable position.  Yet even that should have been a disappointment to them, for at times during this game England looked outclassed by their opponents.  England had a shot at victory today alright, but they really shouldn’t have been that fortunate.  If there’s one side-effect of the Ben Stokes absurdity in the World Cup final and at Headingley, it is that this England team will genuinely believe anything is possible, that they can win from anywhere.  It is a heady mental state to possess, and one that can materially change outcomes in a tight situation.

At 117-5,  the game seem almost up, Ollie Pope had just received a ball that had burst through the top and exploded off the pitch to give him no chance of avoiding gloving the ball in the air.  With a deteriorating surface and only Buttler and the bowlers to come, Winviz sternly informed the world, who couldn’t possibly have seen the evidence with their own eyes, that Pakistan were strong favourites.  What happened though was that as the ball got older and softer, the turn was still there, the bounce still inconsistent, but much more slowly off the pitch.  It was enough for the batsmen to cope.

There will be regrets from the tourists.  England got closer to their total in their first innings than should have been the case, largely due to Stuart Broad taking the long handle at the end, and in Pakistan’s second innings their overwhelmingly dominant position was steadily thrown away.  England bowled well, certainly, and gained a toehold in a game they had little right to be considered an equal party.  It remained profligate to toss away wickets and offer up a chance that oughtn’t to have been there.

It remains to be seen whether this first Test will be Pakistan’s best chance and if they wilt in the remainder of the series, but they have the talent to defeat this England team, they arguably have the greater obvious talent of the two.  Perhaps with two such mercurial sides nothing should surprise anyone, and if they both live up to the reputations for cricketing madness they have garnered, the next two matches might be a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

Babar So Really: England v Pakistan, Day one

The weather forecast for this Test is quite reasonable, so today’s curtailed play should hopefully be the exception rather than the rule for the remainder of the game.

What play did take place was something of a throw-back, at least in the first session.  England bowled well, Pakistan repelled all that was thrown at them.  The importance of opening batsmen who can soak up the pressure has been ignored all too often over the last few years in favour of assuming that Test cricket is the same as one day cricket, full of blazing strokes and where batting time is of lesser importance.  Shan Masood demonstrated the value of occupation of the crease.  He may be a relatively limited player, but that’s been of little consequence for many an opener who has gone on to a successful career.  Although Pakistan did lose a couple of early wickets he, in consort with Babar Azam saw Pakistan through to lunch at 53-2.  Barely over 2 runs an over, but unquestionably a fairly successful first morning in challenging batting conditions.

After lunch, things became easier.  England bowled poorly, Babar began to cut loose.  It’s intriguing to see articles written about how he should be considered the fifth member of the Test batting exceptionals, not because he isn’t worthy of being bracketed with those, but because the list invariably includes Joe Root, who hasn’t been performing at that kind of level for a couple of years now, and to many observers, isn’t even currently the best batsman in the England side.  Still, it might be nit-picking to make that observation instead of accepting Babar’s right to be considered in the upper echelons of Test batsmen at present, and he certainly looked the part today.

England did have chances to take a third wicket, firstly when Jos Buttler dropped Shan Masood off Dom Bess’s bowling.  For all the debate around Buttler’s place, his wicketkeeping has been perfectly acceptable for most of his time in the England team, and it is his batting that has been most under scrutiny.  The dropped catch can be put down to just one of those things – any keeper is disappointed when a fine edge goes down, but always for different reasons to those the non-wicketkeeping commentators state:  It’s a question of technique, not reactions, for no keeper reacts to edges when standing up, the ball hits the gloves before the brain is aware an edge has been taken.   The missed stumping he will be more annoyed with, for being hit on the shoulder with the batsman that far down the pitch tends to suggest he was caught watching the batsman rather than the ball – something he will work long and hard on avoiding at all costs.

Standing up to the spinners might be something we see a fair bit of this Test if day one is anything to go by.  Bess got reasonable turn and significant bounce from the start, which may well be of concern to an England team likely to be batting last, against a team who have selected two leg-spinners.  Whether the pitch quickens or dies over the coming days will define their effectiveness, but, forced to bowl spin by bad light, both Bess and Root looked mildly threatening on occasion in the short evening session.

Whether the light was poor enough for the umpires to have forced England to bowl spin in the first place is an open question and goes to the heart of the competing demands of professional sport – the potentially litigious nature of the modern world and the importance of duty of care, versus the requirement that play happens.  Cricket always seems to struggle with this – and too often gives the impression that being on the field is considered a nice to have rather than an imperative of the game.  All too often resumptions are leisurely rather than urgent, meaning there is scepticism in those circumstances there ought to be trust.  It appears to be a congenital problem afflicting the game in too many areas.  Yet the commentators by the end did state that even with floodlights it was rather dark, but going off for bad light on safety grounds when the fast bowlers are operating is one thing; doing so when the spinners are on is another matter altogether.  The defence is usually on the grounds of fairness, but it’s hard to see how that is any different to being put into bat on a green seamer or having to bowl in baking heat.  Unless the fielders are in danger, there’s little excuse for it.

With an unbroken third wicket partnership of 96, Pakistan are in decent shape going in to day two, and any total in excess of 300 has put the England of the last few years under significant pressure.  Choosing to bat may or may not have been a marginal call, but there enough observers urging the captain who won the toss to bowl to make it clear it can’t have been entirely clear cut.  As ever, day two gives a greater indication of where this game is going.

Add the Buttler to the Popery

A pretty good opening day from England, and one that seemed unlikely mid-way through the afternoon when Rory Burns was (superbly) caught by Rahkeem Cornwall to leave England 122-4.  Not tottering as such, but having left out a batsman to account for Ben Stokes’ questionable bowling fitness, certainly vulnerable to subsiding to an inadequate score.  Having put England into bat, four wickets in the day is a mean return for the tourists, who looked somewhat jaded with the ball with the notable exception of Kemar Roach, a threat throughout.  Indeed, Shannon Gabriel left the field in the morning, causing considerable alarm bells to ring.  He returned, and bowled, but without real fire or penetration, though nominally up to his normal pace.  Three back to back Tests is a real ask for any bowler, and while the first day tells little about the remainder of the game, it could be that the lack of rotation will cost them dear.

If there’s a certainty about cricket, it is its ability to level players, and thus it was that Dom Sibley, after his century heroics at Old Trafford, found himself plumb in front at Old Trafford, for a duck.  A rather lazy run out accounted for Joe Root and Ben Stokes was removed in spectacular style by a superb delivery from Roach, swinging in, seaming further and bowling him through the gate.  It’s too trite to suggest that it required something of that order to get rid of Stokes, exceptional though he has been, but it hasn’t been a feature of his game in a while to be so thoroughly beaten playing a defensive shot.

That wicket was the high point of the West Indies day.  Ollie Pope joined Burns and after the latter’s dismissal it was Jos Buttler, under serious pressure for his place, who came to the middle.  When bad light caused an early end to play, the pair had added 135 runs for the 5th wicket and were looking increasingly at home.  Buttler is the intriguing one – his performances have been sub-par not just in Test cricket, but in all red ball cricket, with few signs he was coming to grip with it.  The English game has changed to the point where a strong county record isn’t necessarily required in order to develop into a Test cricketer, albeit it’s a significant help to have a decent record to fall back on.  No, in Buttler’s case it isn’t just that his county record doesn’t suggest he’ll make himself into a Test batsman, it’s that his Test career hasn’t suggested he’ll make himself into a Test batsman.  It’s not unreasonable to suspect that this match was his last chance, Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow are too good to be ignored forever.

56 not out isn’t a career saver by any stretch of the imagination – or shouldn’t be, but it is a solid foundation on which to build.  When his notable scores have been so few and far between, there’s no reason to think either that he’s suddenly cracked it, but credit needs to be given where it is due; he started carefully before unleashing a few shots as his confidence increased.  His technique did look tighter than normal, and his judgement outside off-stump much improved.  Who is to say what will happen tomorrow or beyond, but he batted well.

Ollie Pope has had a fairly dry series so far, but today he looked outstanding.  His supposed similarity to Ian Bell seems to be based on his stature as much as anything, but his cover drive is also an attractive shot, and he is busy at the crease, turning over the strike and scoring at a comfortable pace.  In his interview after play he didn’t sound like a man struggling at being left in the nervous nineties overnight, his entire demeanour is one of confidence, boding well for the future.

Rakheem Cornwall’s selection excited much comment before play.  There are a few issues here, his size certainly is going to be noticed, but what was less talked about was his ability.  His record is an impressive one, and while he doesn’t have a particularly active action, he also managed to turn the ball before lunch on day one.  He wasn’t overly threatening, but not many spinners are at the start of a match on a fresh pitch, but he was controlled, and at 6’6″ clearly has the added weapon of getting significant bounce.  We will have to wait and see how he performs in the second innings on a more worn surface, but the dismissiveness in some quarters before seeing him was neither fair nor reasonable.

What can be said is that it’s very hard to imagine England selecting a player with his physique, irrespective of ability.  Cricket is certainly a game of fitness, but it is more a game of skill.  The immediate suggestions on commentary that he would be improved as a player by losing weight were troubling, partly because it ignores the person, partly because it is faintly patronising about his talent, and partly because it implies that fitness is an aim in itself for a spinner rather than one factor of many.  It is perhaps true, but it is not so self-evident it can pass unchallenged.

England are by no means out of sight, and the thin batting order means that falling in a heap in the morning is far from out of the question.  But today was a good day, one player continuing to the look very much the part as a Test cricketer, and one hoping to remain one.  The West Indies haven’t had a great last couple of sessions, and do look flat, but day two is usually the day to define the rest of the Test, and both teams are in this one.

World Cup Match 7: Afghanistan v Sri Lanka

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

Comments, as always, below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dedication’s What’s You Need

Since the first one day match nearly 50 years ago England have had a rather troubled relationship with the format.  Despite protestations to the contrary over that time, it has taken a clear second place to Test cricket in both the affections of English fans and the ECB itself. Where the horse and the cart are located is an open question, but despite reaching three World Cup finals it’s a poor record compared to any of the other major nations. The World T20 win in 2010, propelled by He Who Must Not Be Mentioned remains the only global title England have ever won, a shockingly poor return.

England have had periods of some success of course, but always with the feeling that they were carrying an extra load on their backs.  The innovation came from from others, England last showing signs of thinking differently when they pushed Ian Botham up to open the batting in Australia in 1987.  The 1992 tournament turned out to be something of a high water mark meaning that for a substantial proportion of followers England have been dreadful their entire lives.  Of course that’s a slight exaggeration, there have been times where they’ve put in good performances, won series and reached finals ; likewise there have been players who have been good performers in both 20 and 50 overs, and yet although individual players were considered dangerous – Pietersen most notably recently – it never amounted to a side who would ever truly scare the opposition.

With the invention of T20 at professional level, it moved to a different plane, as all the major sides upped the ante.  Where scores of 300 were regarded as exceptional, they now became the norm, with 400+ now not even proving a safe score as Australia found in South Africa.  But not for England.  Stories abounded of them being hidebound by computer modelling, of aiming for “competitive” scores that the data told them they would win with, only to be battered.  Graeme Swann has rarely proved to be a reliable witness but his stories of England’s tactical thinking seemed all too plausible.

The nadir came at the 2015 World Cup, where England failed to get out of their group, something that takes a considerable degree of effort considering the determination of the ICC to try to render the group stages to be as meaningless as possible, except financially.  They left to derision from the cricket world, and contempt at home, a path their football and rugby equivalents would follow soon enough.

And yet.  With hindsight perhaps the first glimmers of a new approach came at around that time.  The removal of Alastair Cook from the side, to his clear and very public disgust, was long overdue – not because he isn’t a good player, but because his style of batting is simply obsolete in short form cricket. His replacement Eoin Morgan’s clearly stated dissatisfaction with the method England were employing became ever more obvious during the disastrous performances in Australia, while the omission of Ben Stokes from the squad and refusal to pick Alex Hales seemed symptomatic of a setup that simply didn’t appear to understand one day cricket, thinking it a contraction of Tests not an expansion of T20.  For the first time though, the players were showing the smallest hints of rebellion, and the appointment of Paul Farbrace to the England coaching staff seemed entirely at odds with a side approaching the game in such a conservative fashion.

The removal of Peter Moores as coach appeared to be the catalyst for finally attempting to play the game as the rest of the world had been doing for some years, and the bonus of New Zealand being the first visitors post World Cup forced the change in concept, both in one day cricket and Test cricket.  England have a lot to be thankful to their teachers for.  Andrew Strauss’s decision to retain Morgan as captain was, if not a brave one as such, certainly not what was expected.  Farbrace’s determination that England play with freedom wasn’t remotely the first time it had been said, but it was the first time anyone had ever meant it.  The old line about scoring at ten an over but don’t take any risks which was unquestionably the way England thought gave way to a more forgiving environment where taking risks was encouraged, and failure in that pursuit forgiven.  This is perhaps the biggest, most important change England ever made.  Freeing up players to express themselves is only truly possible if those players do not feel a presence looking over their shoulders in the event that they fail.  There are endless buzz terms to describe that, but it still amounts to accepting that failure is the price of success.

The impact was immediate, England going over 400 for the first time in a series where they scored at least 300 every time except in a rain affected D/L win.  Whereas before 300 was the upper limit of England’s aspirations, they were suddenly viewing it as the bare minimum.  The second match, a defeat, perhaps best expressed the remarkable change in thinking.  New Zealand had scored an impressive 398-5, the kind of total England couldn’t ever have hoped to try to chase down.  They fell short alright, but only by 13 runs.  For the first time, there was a feeling that England might actually be developing the kind of side to seriously challenge large totals.

New players were being brought in, not because they were being analysed for a Test place, but because they were outstanding one day prospects.  Jason Roy had a slowish start but was kept faith with; Ben Stokes was brought back; Alex Hales was no longer kicking his heels and carrying drinks but opening the batting and being told to play the way he can.  From an era where England relied on the middle order to try to raise the tempo from a solid start, they were suddenly going at it from the off, with those below tasked with maintaining the momentum, not rescuing a lost cause and aiming for respectability.

A series defeat to Australia followed, and the flip side of the determination to attack showed itself in the decider, where England collapsed to 138 all out and were thrashed.  This perhaps proved to be the most important test, for rather than retreating into their shells they instead, under new coach Trevor Bayliss, reaffirmed their determination to play in the same way and to consider such failures as nothing other than an occupational hazard.  There’s an irony here – for so long asserting that high risk approach as being the way a player or a team does things has been used as a stick with which to beat them.  Grasping that risk is part of the equation has always seemed beyond a certain, very English kind of mindset.

A comfortable series win in the UAE against Pakistan showed that England could play more than one way under different conditions, for that kind of away series offered different challenges and different upper limits in terms of scoring.  It also marked a change in bowling approach to stop simply using the Test bowlers – not for the sake of it, but because there were better one day options available.  Jason Roy too finally showed what he is capable of, and with Jos Buttler rapidly becoming a player to genuinely fear, for the first time in living memory England had a top five or six where every single one of them could seriously damage opponents.  One player not mentioned so far is Joe Root, and it could be said that he is performing the kind of role given in previous years to Cook or Trott – the conventional player around whom the others would bat.  The difference being that Root is a true modern cricketer, multi-dimensional and capable of all formats.  A run a ball as the base minimum is not at all bad when others are scoring even faster.

England lost the subsequent series in South Africa, but not before once again approaching the 400 mark and not before once again overreaching and falling short in two matches to cost the series. That caused the first criticism from the press of how England were playing, that they needed to learn to lower their sights.  Although never being explicit about it, the message that came back when reading between the lines was to reject that kind of thinking completely, that bad days given the nature of the format were inevitable and that if England were truly to become the best, then this was the only way they would achieve it.

It is of course impossible to assess a wider view on how that response was received, but at least anecdotally, English supporters appeared to be fully behind it, and much more willing to accept the bad days than the media were.  In most sports, supporters tend to be more forgiving of failure if they have faith in the approach.  And this one was exciting – reaching for the stars is more thrilling than simply aiming to get off the ground, even when it doesn’t quite work out.

Which brings us to yesterday.

Given the history of England in one day cricket, the very idea that England would break the world record total was perhaps one of the most laughable that could be conceived.  Perhaps only Bangladesh or Zimbabwe of the full members would ever be thought less likely to do such a thing, and undoubtedly eyebrows will be raised around the world that it was England (“What, England?”) who set the new target.  But it’s been coming.  While results have been a little up and down, the likelihood that England would give a bowling attack a right royal pasting has been increasing all the time.  Pakistan may not be at the level they have been, but their bowling is their strong suit, and yesterday they were simply destroyed.

Perhaps symptomatic of England’s troubled history is that their national record for the highest individual score had stood for over 20 years, and while Robin Smith’s 167 is a fine score in any era, that it barely crept into the top 40 of highest individual scores – with the best ever nearly a hundred more – was as good an example of how badly England had been left behind as you could find.  Smith’s record may have stood for 23 years, but there are no guarantees at all that Hales’ new mark will stand for as long as 23 days.  Jason Roy came close only recently, and Jos Buttler, Joe Root or Ben Stokes look capable of beating it every time they come out to bat, while Eoin Morgan is hardly ruled out.

Further down the order hitters are prevalent too, indeed only Mark Wood resembles a tail ender in any way – Liam Plunkett at ten has shown himself capable of striking the first ball he receives for six in the past.  If that is the batting, then the bowling attracts less attention, but as much as anything this is merely how one day cricket now works.  It is all about the batting, and bowlers, to their chagrin and the delight of batsmen the world over, are reduced to nothing more than feeding the batters and trying to keep the run rate under control.  Perversely or not, this makes bowlers who do take wickets even more valuable, and it is in that discipline that there is a little less certainty with regard to England.

While Hales rightly got the man of the match, it was Buttler who caught the eye even more.  He simply terrorises the opposition – while he is in, anything is possible.  Even so, while he reached his 50 off 22 balls, Eoin Morgan was only two balls slower to his, yet passed almost unnoticed such was the headiness of the striking.

England are now at the point where they strike fear into the heart of opponents.  By making such a statement they are ensuring that no team will ever be sure they have enough runs, that no total is ever impregnable.  It may not be that England are the best team in the world, but they are not far from it and they are still developing.  Next year sees the Champions Trophy held in England, and perhaps for the very first time England will go in to a tournament not just with hopes of winning, but realistic aspirations that they should.  Quite simply, there is no team, not India, not Australia, not New Zealand, who can compete with England’s batting power and depth.  That in itself does not make them the best, for different conditions will bring different problems and highlight specific weaknesses, while other teams will play far better than Pakistan have.  But what it does do is cause every other nation to cast nervous glances towards a side who are beginning to demonstrate that they are something a little bit special.

For any England fan, this is truly remarkable.  The country that showed little interest except during World Cups where they stank the place out has set down a new standard.  For the first time, perhaps ever, it is England who are causing the rest of the world to consider how to catch up.

Remarkable.

 

South Africa vs England: 1st T20 review

If we’re honest, then generally speaking the outcome of an international T20 tacked on to the end of a tour would be worthy of limited comment and response, sometimes we don’t even get round to writing anything about them, which may say more about us than anything else.  It’s the disposable Christmas present of international cricket, that one you look at, smile politely, toy with for a few minutes then put back in the bag never to be seen again.

With the World T20 approaching though, there’s more interest than normal, not least because of how these matches are to all intents and purposes part of the warm up for the competition.  It does have to be said that South African pitches bear no relation whatever to the conditions in India, but as an exercise in seeing how this new, exciting (®ECB) England team perform, then it has merit.

And how did they perform?  Well, for a side whose bowling has been decidedly average in the one dayers, this was a marked improvement.  To nearly defend 134 on a pitch where all the forecasts (for what they’re worth) had suggested 180 was the target was a pretty good effort.  But the reason that pretty good effort was required was down to another batting performance where England lost wickets while trying to be aggressive and stumbled to a modest score.  This is a difficult one, because if England are going to play this way, then there will be days when it all goes wrong, and the worst thing that can happen is for them to be criticised accordingly, while celebrating the days it goes right.  It’s the old “score at ten an over, but don’t take any risks” exhortation.  What can be said is that going hell for leather in all circumstances is not that much of an improvement in terms of consistently winning matches than being overly circumspect in all circumstances.  The very best teams adapt to conditions in a way that at this stage England don’t seem able to.  Given the choice of two limited tactical approaches, this is by far the better, but it would be nice to know that they had a Plan B from time to time.

As an aside, Kevin Pietersen got runs again, and is in his third T20 final of the winter.  There may be no way back, but it doesn’t mean he has to stop embarrassing the ECB.

It does mean that when all goes well they are a thrilling side to watch, and they did at least get some kind of score to defend, thanks to Buttler in particular doing just that kind of adapting.  Unfortunately, we’re still not really sure what kind of side England are, or what they’re capable of achieving.  Imran Tahir taking 4-21 is not a terribly promising sign for next month though, even if many of the dismissals were remarkably careless in nature.

What England did do rather well was squeeze in both the field and with the ball.  Chris Jordan has had a fairly miserable time of it so far on this tour in white ball cricket, but here he was outstanding, taking England to a position where they really should have won the game.  That they didn’t, well poor Reece Topley.  Having dropped Chris Morris first ball, he then had the over from hell, with balls two and three going for four and six; then missing a straightforward run out that would have tied the game and taken the sides into a super over.  The best thing that can be said is that these things do sometimes happen, and better now than in a knockout match in the World Cup.

For South Africa?  It’s hard to say.  They bowled well but made incredibly hard work of what ought to have been a straightforward target.  As ever, it’s a question of whether that was down to England playing well or them badly.  But it’s unlikely they’ll have learnt too much from this one.

It was quite good fun though.

South Africa vs England 2nd ODI Review

In these days of scores approaching 400, there’s something curiously old fashioned about a game where 260 is the target and it goes down to the last few overs. It’s almost a throwback to the 1990s, with Ben Stokes playing the Derek Pringle role by going for six an over and being given out twice, and not out once when he probably should have been for a duck of glorious proportions.

It all meant that after the pyrotechnics of the first match, this seemed relatively low key throughout, where you notice that the Port Elizabeth crowd are not only fond of singing, but offer a rarity at any sporting location of being very much in tune. There’s something rather beautiful about it.

Perhaps South Africa did rather make heavy work of their last ten overs, but at that point a score of around 285 would have been towards the top of their aspirations anyway, so while 262 was disappointing, it is hard to make a case that they lost it just in that short period.

De Villiers’ dismissal to another exceptional catch, this time by Chris Jordan, did come at just the wrong time, but De Villiers was looking to go fully on the attack at that point anyway, with all the risks associated.

Much had been written about the surface being slower and less conducive to hitting, but it still felt at least 30 or 40 short. Of course, the change in mentality couldn’t be better expressed than in the feeling that if the England of a year ago had set that total they’d have walked off to applause from people pointing at their laptops, saying that would win most games historically. South Africa weren’t aiming for a score around that level, it’s simply how it turned out.  In any one ODI, this can and does happen.

In truth England seemed in control for most of the run chase. Alex Hales will bat better than that for many fewer runs, and in some ways those are the most satisfying innings. It was cruel on him to be dismissed one short of a hundred he’d have worked so hard for.

When Hales was dismissed England still needed 61 off 52 balls and with half the side out, surely a tight finish was likely. 20 minutes later it was all over, as IPL bound Jos Buttler, aided and abetted by Moeen Ali, finished the match in a flurry of fours and sixes. He’s in some form.

2-0, and England’s transformation continues.

South Africa vs England: 1st ODI

An individual one day international is the equivalent of a McDonalds value meal, it’s appealing in advance, you quite enjoy it at the time, and afterwards you feel a bit empty and wondering why you’d anticipated it all day in the first place.  But enjoying it at the time is no bad thing, though a Super Size Me month might leave the equivalent feeling of sickness.

Given England’s approach to the shorter forms of the game recently, it remains consistently fascinating how they could possibly have got it so wrong for so long.  The team hierarchy of the time persistently denied that they were ever so fixated on statistics as was portrayed, though the less than entirely trustworthy Graeme Swann did claim that to be exactly what happened.  Whatever the absolute truth of it, it is hard to believe that England would have carried on throwing the bat with abandon after their quickfire start in order to reach a total just shy of 400 – more that they would have felt that keeping wickets in hand and a decent score over 300 would have been viewed as satisfactory.

Perhaps that is overly harsh, for received wisdom is a very hard thing to fight against and there’s a tendency to paint failed regimes in the worst possible light, but the reality is that five of England’s seven highest one day international totals ever have come since June last year.  Yes, it is true that the game has changed over the last few years, but it is only in this last seven months or so that England appear to have caught the zeitgeist.

Towards the end of the England innings it actually appeared quite possible that England might be bowled out, yet that didn’t stop them, they carried on attacking and considered being bowled out to be merely an occupational hazard.  For supporters of other teams around the world, this must seem a statement of the most bleeding obvious there can be, but for those who follow England, seeing them play this way is still a startling thing to witness.  There are a few players of recent vintage who would revel in this England approach.

Fifteen sixes were hit across the 50 overs, which is a record for England, and you wouldn’t bet against them breaking that again next time out.  Jos Buttler will rightly get the plaudits, for a blistering century that came off 73 balls, and still represents his slowest one yet.  That in itself indicates the absurdity of the past, and the delight of the present.  For it is bringing the best out of players who when set free can be a joy to watch.  For Root’s 52 off 58 balls to be the slowest innings in the top eight is absurd.

Buttler made the big score, but Roy looked more assured at the top of the innings than he has done before, Hales appeared liberated from the inhibited player in the Test series, while Stokes simply terrifies opponents at the moment.  His catch to remove De Villiers on the boundary had the preposterousness of so many great all rounders of the past, for whom sometimes nothing is impossible.

South Africa’s run chase was ultimately doomed by the rain that curtailed the match and allowed England to win by the not insubstantial margin of 39 runs under Duckworth-Lewis-Stern (let us hope there are no further modifications to this system, it is taking a while to type) and in truth would probably have won the game had it gone to its natural conclusion  But probably is only as far as can be said, for Quinten de Kock certainly had other ideas.  He was on the field every ball of the match, and batted superbly well to be unbeaten on 138 when the weather closed in.  With another 150 needed, and half the side out, it would have been a big ask, but not entirely impossible.

Thus far only batsmen have been mentioned rather than bowlers.  One of many jokes a batsman will lob in the direction of their bowling colleagues is that they are there to serve – and to deal with it.  In Test cricket, the bowlers are the most important members of the side, in ODI and T20 cricket, they really are there to serve.

England go 1-0 up, while South African supporters will lament that the shortened game robbed them of what could just possibly have been a great victory.  There’s been enough in this match for there to be another queue at McDonald’s on Saturday.

 

One Day We’ll Fly Away

England win the ODI series 3-1, and did this in varying styles. We dug a game out from a troublesome position, we set a middling to good total and bowled well, and we smashed a massive total which was never really under threat. That’s probably the most pleasing point from this series, and lets leave aside just how good, or not so good, the opposition might have been, and shows there isn’t just one way this team can win.

Having said that, our batsmen are going to win many more games than our bowlers. I’m sure that’s not an exclusive revelation, but the bowling is still capable of going for plenty. It did against New Zealand, to a lesser degree (and that might be down to the change in regulations) against Australia, and it may well do again when the human cyclone that is AB DeVillier reaps his storm.

To quote the mystics from May “there does not appear to be any vacancies in the batting line-up” at present. Don’t worry, pearl clutchers, I’m not mentioning him. With Hales and Roy at the top, Root at three, Morgan at four, Taylor at five, Buttler at six, Stokes at seven and Ali at eight (with Rashid maybe at nine), that is an exciting batting line-up. It could do serious, serious damage. If either of our spin bowlers could become regular wicket-taking threats, we’d be in a really solid position.

What you will get with this batting line-up, as you probably will with most, is brittleness. I’ve seen Jason Roy enough, as have most of you now, that he will go early quite regularly. I’ve compared him many times not to you-know-who, but to Ali Brown. If England had stuck by Brown, took the rough with the smooth, and not bowed to the usual staid and boring methods, we’d have had a winner. I’m convinced. I saw him play enough when I was a Surrey member, in county championship and one dayers, to see it. Roy is a talent. But even yesterday, he started a bit dodgily, with two inside edges flying past his stumps. He was out second ball in the first match. It will happen. We need to stick by him. It was brilliant to see a Surrey man make a hundred for England. Not counting who I can’t name, it might be the first international hundred by a Surrey man since The Thorpe in 2004 at Durban. I think!

At the other end Alex Hales also made his first ODI hundred, and without it we might have been in strife in that game. Hales is again going to be hit and miss, but his hundred was pretty mature in many ways. He got himself in then let himself go. Hales is likely to open, we think, in Durban next month in the test team (though I still remain to be convinced they’ll take this mighty plunge) and we should see what happens (although we might not like the answers). It’s tough to get a huge feel of a series I could only watch on highlights shows, but Hales seems to be finding his way. It still beggars belief that we haven’t had that faith in him for longer. But that’s history now. What I would say is I thought the reaction of the England camp afterwards was a bit OTT. Hales has a long way to go, he’s not there yet, but the upside is phenomenally exciting.

Jos Buttler’s hundred yesterday was amazing, even on highlights. Good grief, what a talent. Some of those shots are played only by the true greats of ODI cricket. That reverse sweep when he barely moved his feet and just belted it behind backward point was staggering. Also, when he got the free hit, he just took a look at the ball, and guided it behind square for four when many others would have looked to belt a six. Brilliant shot selection, awesome power, so many weapons at his disposal, a calm head, what on earth is there not to like. It’s lazy to compare him to Gilchrist, just because they are keepers who can bat. I’ve not really seen anyone like him to be honest. The travails at test level are mystifying, but I pray he gets through them. My real fear, and I hope it is not going to happen, is that he’ll be pigeonholed as an ODI player now white ball cricket is a priority. No-one doubts that Bairstow is most likely to keep in Durban.

The other batsmen weren’t needed so much, although Root was his usual solid self with half centuries, and Taylor won the sort of game we’ll need him to win, where his ability to manouevre the ball around with what looks a more solid technique, is going to be important. He’s no slouch when you need to get a move on, but he’s not the unleashed havoc of Roy, Hales, Buttler and Morgan.

The bowling coped without Finn, Wood or the two senior bowlers who may have played their last ODIs (although neither have retired). It remains to be seen if Willey and Topley are the answer, but they aren’t letting anyone down at this stage. Moeen Ali is still such a promising talent, able to make ODI hundreds and to bowl his share of overs that you can’t imagine the team without him at this stage. Rashid is going to be a daisy player. Some days he will go well, some days he will go far. South Africa will be a real test. Woakes seems like a squad player to me, but others really rate him. It’s nice to have a decent player like him in the wings (a little unfair to compare him to a bit and pieces player), but you can’t discount that he can bat (same as you can’t do that with Willey).

It’s promising, it’s pretty exciting, it’s the coming through of new one day talent, meshed to those who show aptitude for the format already. It is important that this is allowed to settle, but also not to be a closed shop. Bairstow is a fine ODI player in my opinion, especially when on form. I am intrigued by Billings, and would like to see him given a go in an elevated batting position (I think he might be the long term answer at test level – just a hunch based on the limited amount I’ve seen).

But, despite all this, I don’t get that sense of excitement that compares any way to test cricket by people out there. Sure, no-one can be anything but enraptured by Buttler’s hitting, and our two openers making hundreds, but it’s a fleeting thing. That was the point of the two pieces over the previous weekend on white ball cricket. No doubt if this team continues to perform like this, there will be a lot of excitement, and perhaps the new ODI team will capture the imagination. It’s probably sad, but true, that this team will face a firm examination in 2017 when the Champions Trophy returns to these shores, and a failure at that will have much wailing. England and its media don’t particularly like stability. Thus far stability has paid handsome rewards, as Strauss’s backing of Morgan shows.

The test squad raised some comments, and if time permits, I’ll be commenting on that. But well done to the ODI team, there’s something to hang on to, they’ve beaten what was put in front of them, and that’s all they can do. That it’s an exciting batting line-up (and I’m biased towards batting) is something to look forward to. See them all again in January.