Back to it, Once Again

A Test series of more than three matches – ideally five, but four will have to do here – allows the advantage to move back and forth without a single win appearing to be quite so decisive overall.  It’s an obvious truism, but no less acute for all that.  England’s levelling of the series with two to play kindled further interest in the outcome of a clash between two sides who have clear flaws, but are fairly well matched against each other.  Sometimes a lack of quality fails to affect the intrigue, for that is more a question of rational consideration than emotional response.

Thus the main consideration in terms of the outcome of the Port Elizabeth Test is which version of either side will turn up – the reasonably good or the very, very bad.  The batting of both teams is inordinately brittle, there are players within the line-ups who can turn the entire match in a session, and there are no guarantees about the fitness of the participants – albeit in that last instance England appear rather more vulnerable given the rate of sickness and injury they’ve incurred.

The loss of James Anderson for the rest of the tour (and that will raise some longer term questions as is always the way when a player is getting long in the tooth) limits England’s pace bowling decisions to either Mark Wood or Jofra Archer, with the whisper being that it will be the former who gets the nod, either because of doubts over Archer’s recovery from his elbow injury, or because Wood has impressed in the nets.  Which of those is the more accurate depends somewhat on whether you wish to see the choice as a positive or negative.  Wood was certainly outstanding in his last Test match, but that was a year ago and several injuries distant.  Wood is far from a rarity among England bowlers in struggling to stay fit for any length of time, and frequently has flattered to deceive in his Test career.  But few would begrudge him the chance to show what he can do, all the while keeping fingers crossed that he can stay fit, and do himself justice.  A fully fit Wood and a fully fit Archer is no bad selection decision to have to make, and in either case the thrill of watching a fast bowler remains ever present.

Dom Bess seems certain to keep his place given the return home of Jack Leach, and probably would have done even had there been a late recovery.  Nothing but sympathy and best wishes to Leach from all quarters, but even from the outside it looked a sensible decision to allow him to go back to England.

For South Africa, the only rumoured change is Dane Paterson for Dwaine Pretorius, a mooted selection that would suggest the pitch at Port Elizabeth will indeed have a bit more life in it than has been the case on previous occasions.  If so (and photos of the prepared pitch don’t suggest a batting paradise), then additional pace from both teams may make batting even more difficult than these two often manage to make it look.  A slow, low pitch is something that few want to see, for the cricket is turgid, but a contest between bat and ball is not an unreasonable expectation.

As for hopes for the game, if another one going to the wire on the final day is a little too much to ask for, some solid batting to take the game into the latter part of the game would be good to see, if only to prevent the four day Test brigade from starting up their campaign again.  On which subject it has been pleasing to note Test cricketers, player organisations and even the MCC come out firmly against shortening the format.  In normal circumstances this might be thought to be more than sufficient opposition, but in these times where the governing bodies care little for the integrity of the sport and everything for the currency exchange markets, nothing is certain.  A debate on equalising to at least some degree the game’s revenues would answer so many of the (true enough) concerns about the costs of hosting Tests,  but as ever with the avaricious Big Three, this is too much to ask.

Curiously, one justification for considering the move is that Tests haven’t always been five days in duration, ranging from timeless Tests at one extreme to three day matches at the other.  This is certainly true, but it is a bizarre rationale to suggest how the game was played in the first half of the last century is a template for the future direction, and not one that the likes of the ECB have ever made before.  It seems reasonable on the same basis to look out for other such returns to the past as valid matters for review.  Presumably fast leg theory is also up for a return, along with uncovered pitches and the banning of helmets.  There is nothing wrong with debate, there is everything wrong with mistaking moves over more than a century towards what the game itself felt the most suitable format with some kind of belief in the sanctity of the duration for its own sake.

The series is level, there are five days of Test cricket this week to enjoy in a match where either side can win.  Sport for sport’s sake is never a bad starting point.

 

 

West Indies v England – 3rd Test, Day 2

It was Milan (Inter v Chievo – finished 0-0). I got a call from London. Harmison has just bowled the West Indies out for 47. Incredible. I thought of that day at around 7pm UK time today.

It was in my office back in 2005. Old Trafford and the thrilling denouement. Simon Jones hooping that ball back into Michael Clarke who left well alone, or so he thought. I thought of him around 7pm today.

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There’s not a lot to have got England fans excited on this tour, but either side of tea, Mark Wood’s eight overs (probably one too many) gave England a real shot of adrenaline. Moeen Ali had just taken the wickets of the two openers – Brathwaite with a pretty ordinary cow shot, being taken in the deep, and John Campbell LBW for another 40 score. England had the openers gone after another 50 stand, and the ball was handed to Mark Wood.

BOOM! Hope plays an uncontrolled drive to a wide-ish, but quick, delivery and Burns snaffled it in the gully.

KAPOW! Next ball, Chase gets a shortish one, fends at it, and Burns takes a better catch to send him on his way for a golden

WALLOP! Last ball before tea, and Hetmeyer, who was starting to threaten square leg umpire with his trigger movement, nicked a snorter to Root at first slip, who took it at the second attempt.

57 for no loss became 74 for 5. West Indies can collapse too.

It is important to note where the game started today and where it ended up. England started the day four down, and with Stokes and Buttler unbeaten in their sixties. Buttler did not add to his score before falling, bowled through the gate by Gabriel. Stokes, who was a bit fortunate with his pulling yesterday, smashed an attempted one straight up in the air and Dowrich took a great catch running to backward square leg. While disappointed neither went on to three figures, it was still a really good 79. Stokes will make worse, less important (* with caveat below), centuries.

But this was the start of the subsidence. The West Indies quicks seemed more intense than yesterday and they never gave England an inch. Bairstow made 2 in 33 balls before he was bowled again. Now here’s a point I want to make. Yesterday I got a little bit sick and tired of the reaction to Keaton Jennings’ innings. “Gruesome” was one opinion. The vitriol poured on him by Bob Willis (and others) last night was a little uncalled for. Jennings is utterly out of nick. The same pundits were telling us, against more than decent bowling against the Duke ball last summer that he was a bit of a repaired man. Now he’s been thrown under the bus. Root is in desperate form too. And yes, there’s a massive difference between their records. The technical problems for Jennings are “fatal flaws” as decreed by the pundit class. Those problems for Root are because he needs rhythm in his batting – and he’s getting more than his fair share of unplayable deliveries. It’s a subliminal message and it applies today to Bairstow. There is no comment on the 33 balls of struggle. No-one called the innings gruesome, or painful to watch, among the punditerati. It was good West Indian bowling. Yes, there’s observations about him being bowled a lot, but they also say he’s our second best batsman. Years of watching the media undermine those that aren’t the chosen ones (anyone remember Bell’s eyes going? anyone remember KP’s fatal flaws against left arm spin?), I’m on tenterhooks with this lot.

Anyway, the tail did not resist for any time and England were bowled out 25 minutes before lunch for 277. Another collapse. Another sense of foreboding. Kemar Roach taking another four wickets, with the rest shared equally between the other three seamers. Their bowling has been superb, no questions about it, but before we bring out the bunting, we need to see this perform outside of West Indies, or at home against slightly less flaky batting line-ups than this.

After Wood’s three wicket salvo, he got a fourth after tea, when Bravo nicked to first slip. Then Paul ran past one from Moeen and was stumped, and there were visions of a 160 lead. However the redoubtable Dowrich and the obdurate Roach (who I seem to recall saved a test against us 10 years ago) put on 41 for the 8th wicket before Dowrich was pinned LBW by Broad, on review, with Broad being correct. Sometimes wonders will never cease. (And I’m writing this in advance of the end of the day’s play, and Stuart Broad has just taken an amazing catch to dismiss Joseph – a real “look what I’ve found”. Wonders will never cease).

Wood came back, and in his first over he castled Shannon Gabriel to finish with figures of 5 for 41, a career best, and a shot in the arm for England supporters. It was genuinely lovely to see, even for this cold-hearted scribe. But, as usual, let me be the bucket of cold water. He averages a touch under 37 (I think it was over 39 at the start of this innings) for a reason. He’s also a bit, shall we say, injury prone. So I recall Harmison because of the Durham links, and I recall Simon Jones for the injuries. Also, this is the sort of spell that will live with him for a while – lovely for now, brought up when he doesn’t deliver. But for now, let’s love it.

With the West Indies bowled out for 154, and England holding a 123 lead, they set about adding to it. Jennings coming out under a cloud, Burns not on the hot seat because Jennings is. The ball started to keep a little low – it has been a two-paced wicket. The two openers dug in, played sensibly, with little alarm (Burns edging one just short of slip in the last over had a little flutter). England finished the day on 19 for 0. Jennings surviving 40 balls (and yes, I will say well played Keaton. That took resolve). England are 142 ahead.

England are obviously well ahead in this game. The 277 first innings does look competitive with the benefit of seeing West Indies bat, and England face the task of building the lead over 250, probably 300, to make the game pretty much theirs. It was a day when England had pace – up to 95 mph pace. It may only be one day, but it was an enjoyable one. After all, maybe we should just remember that. It’s been good to watch.

We should remember, fondly, and with some regret, the 8 overs that passed away without acknowledgement today. England bowled 47.2 overs in 4 hours. Even giving leeway for 3 minutes per dismissal (one was at the interval – and I think it is 2 minutes allowed), 10 minutes for injury/helmet replacement, another 10 minutes for drinks, and 10 minutes for reviews, we are nowhere near 15 per. I wonder what will happen to Joe Root. This wasn’t even close. Moeen bowled 15 overs. Let’s see if Holder’s treatment is replicated.

Comments on Day 3 below….

(*This is a dead rubber – so the West Indies drop off in performance / concentration could be explained by this. I have to point it out)

England vs Pakistan: 2nd ODI

No form of cricket can guarantee close matches or excitement, and the first game somewhat petered out in a drizzly mess.  But even though England’s win was ultimately confirmed by Messieurs Duckworth Lewis and Stern, there was little doubt which way the match was going anyway.  It was a curiously old fashioned game, at least as far as Palistan were concerned, as their innings brought back memories of England under Flower and Moores as much as anything.  260 may even be a “winning score” as far as the statisticians are concerned (probably not) but England were in complete cruise control throughout.

The second match therefore will be interesting to see how the visitors look to approach it, for England look a real force in the one day format, one who seem quite capable of reaching another hundred on top of that.  That’s not to say they can’t fall in a heap, for the shorter the game, the higher the level of risk, and the greater the opportunity for collapse.  One of the more pleasing things about this England side is that when that does happen, they regard it as an occupational hazard, shrug it off and continue in the same vein.

Yet if the batting is doing well, it was the bowling, or more specifically, one element of the bowling, that caught the eye.  Mark Wood has shown he has ability and pace before, but his entire England career to date has been while labouring with the presence of an ankle problem.  Having been away for quite some time getting it sorted, he is now back – and my, how he is back.  His pace is right up there with anyone, and it was startling to read that he feels he’s not fully there yet and could get quicker.  It may yet be the best news of the summer providing he suffers no reaction.

In the days between these matches England confirmed that they will tour Bangladesh this autumn.  The ECB rarely earn praise from anyone – well, apart from one or two for whom they can do no wrong no matter what – but while it is impossible to judge the rights and wrongs of this particular decision, they do deserve praise for at least trying wherever possible to ensure these tours go ahead.  It’s not the first time, back in 2008 after the Mumbai terror attacks, England returned to the country, ensuring that normality was restored in sporting terms.

Again, we must trust the Foreign Office and the ECB’s own advisors that this particular decision is the correct one, but assuming it is so, it would still have been easy to use the security situation to cancel it.  Indeed, there must be a suspicion that other countries may well have done so, and thus with the proviso that we do not know the reality of the decision, the ECB do deserve credit for not using it as an excuse to avoid going.  Notwithstanding Pakistan’s wonderful rise to the top of the Test rankings, it would have been crippling to Bangladesh had it got the go ahead.

The ECB have told England’s players that they can drop out of the tour with no effect on their careers, but whilst this is a good thing to say, the truth of the matter is that for all but those absolutely certain of their place, it means nothing.  Players who do well are always going to be in pole position, the man in possession has the advantage.  It means that for some, there will be some soul searching about whether to make themselves available or not.  It is hard to think how else the ECB could have done things, they may be many things, but they are not fools, and they will be as aware of this as anyone.

Finally in other news Somerset have announced the prices for the T20 international between England and South Africa next year.  It is the first time they will host an international in 30 years, and they seem determined to make the most of it, by announcing ticket prices of between £60 and £80.  It’s not the biggest ground, it is a big event for them.  But it is still an outrageous price.  There seems little doubt they will sell out, and therefore in commercial terms it’s justifiable.  Yet once more it is those who support the game being used as a cash cow and nothing else.  Commercially sensible yes.  Grasping and greedy, also yes.  I trust they’ll use the financial bonanza wisely.

2nd ODI comments below