Fifth Ashes Test: Preview

If ever there was a measure of how far sights had fallen on this tour it was to be found in the way that a draw at Melbourne, on a pitch so batsmen friendly it was rated as poor by the ICC, was treated as a triumph by some.  3-0 down, a series and the Ashes gone, but apparently England ended the year well.  Perhaps in some ways that’s true, when you’ve lost the last seven away Tests and the last eight away Ashes Tests anything better than that is something to take note of, in the same way that just because the ship has gone down doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the piece of wreckage to which you’re clinging.  Yet denying the disaster that this tour has been remains as pathetic as it was after the Indian tour.  In that case, few expected England to come out on top, but being battered repeatedly and insisting that it was nothing other than the expected – all is well, don’t worry – was a low point for a group of cricket journalists who haven’t been afraid to plumb the depths in recent years.

Here too, the same has happened.  Cook’s unquestionably excellent innings at the MCG doesn’t mean Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth didn’t happen, and pretending that it does invites the contempt it deserves, and not just from the Australians either.  Claiming that it is irrelevant because it’s a dead rubber is nonsensical, ignoring the 3-0 scoreline and a series thrashing is preposterous.  It counts.  Of course it counts, it always did.  But it also always had a slight note against it. Indeed, the England coaching staff clearly didn’t get the memo, for when Trevor Bayliss was asked about selection for the final Test, he said “with the series lost it gives us the opportunity to look at some different people”.   Of course, this shouldn’t need saying, as it is blindingly obvious to anyone paying even a cursory degree of attention, but apparently it does, even though England on the other side of the equation did exactly the same thing when selecting Woakes and Kerrigan at the Oval in 2013.  Writing on cricket is a matter of opinion, but refusing to acknowledge reality in favour of hagiography remains as intellectually dishonest as ever, particularly given the same people were talking about retirement precisely one Test earlier.  Even allowing for finally having something positive to write about, it went much too far.  England played better at Melbourne, the seamers in the first innings were very good, Cook absolutely batted beautifully, while Australia probably lost some intensity, but still saved the match with something to spare.  Fine.  It was better, give Cook plenty of credit.  Move on and don’t overdo it.

Thus, for this game Mason Crane will make his debut.  The SCG pitch is expected to offer some assistance for spinners (interestingly, Nathan Lyon doesn’t have as good a record there as the traditional expectation for turn might suggest) and as a result, Moeen Ali is expected to keep his place.  He hasn’t had a good tour, either with ball or bat, and so this represents something of a reprieve given the initial expectation it might be a straight swap.  Much comment has been made about him not getting overspin, which does raise a few questions:  Firstly whether this is something he’s always had a problem with – the lack of any discussion prior to this tour suggests not – and if it’s just in Australia, why that might be.  He’s clearly not been fit for much of it, with talk of both side strains and finger damage throughout.  If that is the reason why, then England have done him a serious disservice by repeatedly playing him, and then seeing him get a kicking for not performing.  The player narrative shifts from week to week, with no reference to what has been said before, so perhaps the injury claims were overblown instead and he really has just been poor, but it would be nice to once in a while have some degree of consistency in appraisal without the need for excuses first, then a hatchet job.

Crane himself represents something of an unknown quantity at this level.  His first class bowling average is nothing to write home about, but he’s also young and promising.  The biggest fear with him has to be that if he doesn’t have an exceptional time of it, he’ll join the list of those brought in for the final dead rubber of a series (oh, that again) and then never heard about again.  England’s management of leg spinners who fail to be the next Shane Warne doesn’t engender too much confidence.  Maybe it’ll be different this time.

Chris Woakes misses out, having suffered a recurrence of his side injury.  England are saying that it’s precautionary, and hope that he’ll be fit for the ODI series following the Tests, but scepticism about their injury management is probably second only to scepticism about their selection strategy.  Side strains don’t tend to clear up quickly; it seems hopeful to say the least that it will properly heal in such a short time, and risky to then bowl him if it is a problem so soon after being out for so long with the same issue.

Woakes’ absence means that Tom Curran will play, saving him from the possibility of being a one cap wonder, while Jake Ball is nowhere to be seen in the discussions, except to point out that he’s nowhere to be seen.

This will leave England with a line up that requires the top order to get all the runs, for after Jonny Bairstow at six will come a hideously out of form Moeen and a tail that might be nowhere near as abysmal as the legendary Caddick, Giddins, Mulally Tufnell one, but does have the particular distinction of being just as long.  It will be fascinating to see if Cook’s technical work continues here, while Root and Malan too will need to have good Tests.

For Australia it’s easy – Mitchell Starc should return in place of Jackson Bird, although there are suggestions he’ll be rested for the ODI series in preparation for the South Africa Tests, an illustration of their priorities if nothing else.  They have their own batting issues in the top order, but also have Steve Smith, who has been imperious for so long  it has masked the other problems.  How to get him out remains a conundrum that has proved beyond England and might well be the single biggest difference between the sides.

The surface is by all accounts well grassed, and should provide a better contest between bat and ball than last time out.  The trouble is, that looks like very good news for Australia and very bad news for England.  English optimism is in short supply, but always remember Tom Harrison’s soothing words:

“It’s a pity that we’re not in a position to take the Urn home with us, but there’s a lot more to play for over the course of this winter. The health of the game is more than about Ashes series overseas. This is not the moment for kneejerk reactions or rash decisions in respect of performance.

“We have a plan. We’re making progress on that plan. England have been very competitive for large parts of the Ashes series. Those marginal periods of play where you can turn a game, we haven’t been able to do it which has been the difference between the teams in each of the Test matches.

“We understand that it’s extremely disappointing. But this team will be learning from every experience they have on the field and we’ve got a lot more to play for over the course of the one-dayers and the Test series in New Zealand.”

The lack of any critical coverage of what he has said is quite simply remarkable.

 

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England vs West Indies: 1st Test – Night and Day

In days past, a West Indies tour of England was one to cause a frisson of excitement among the fans, and a tremble of fear among the batsmen.  How times have changed.  The structure of international cricket; the concentration of power and money in the hands of the the three most powerful cricket boards; allied to the endless civil war in Caribbean cricket have weakened the game globally, and in the West Indies in particular.  If South Africa aren’t able to get their best team on to the park because of the financial considerations of the players, then it’s less surprising than ever to see the shadow team that will show up on Thursday afternoon.

The corollary of this depressing state of affairs is that from a ticketing perspective, the Windies aren’t the draw they were, and to that end the scheduling of a day/night Test match at Edgbaston makes sense – the curiosity value alone makes it worth doing from a financial perspective.  The popularity of day/night cricket has been well established in limited overs form, and the opportunity to see it in Test match mode has clearly piqued a lot of interest given the second day is already sold out, with days one and three possibly following. It’s certainly true that in other parts of the world they have proved popular, Adelaide in particular demonstrating that there is an appetite for starting later and making it a night out.

Where England have a particular problem is in the country’s latitude.  The summer evenings tend to be cool, and occasionally downright cold, apart from during the peak summer months of June and July.  But in June and July it doesn’t get dark until 10pm, meaning the night element would consist of slowly fading light and batsmen having nightmares about seeing the ball for more than the brief dusk that is prevalent in more equatorial climes.  With the timetable for this one, had it been played in June, floodlights wouldn’t be needed on a sunny day.

With that in mind, holding a day/night Test during the slightly shorter days of August makes sense, though from the spectator perspective the likelihood is that coats and blankets are more likely to be needed than shorts and T-shirts, particularly given the longer format.  That being said, the match isn’t scheduled to go especially late on each given day, meaning the night element will remain relatively short.  The problem of a longer dusk is still there though, and pink ball or not, it will be interesting to see just how challenging the batting is likely to prove – the experimental county championship matches earlier in the season were rather ruined by rain in many cases.

There have only been a handful of day/night Tests so far, too few to form any kind of judgement on how they will differ (if at all) from “normal” matches.  Certainly the first instance of it involved the ball hooping round corners and batting proving exceptionally difficult, but subsequent games didn’t continue that trend, as ball manufacturers constantly strived to ensure conditions would be as close to the default as possible.  Equally, the different locations in which the matches have been held make passing judgement impossible, and it is this more than anything that provides the intrigue as to how this one will unfold.

The West Indies have played under lights once before, in the UAE, but conditions there are totally different at the best of times, and this will be the first match where a pink Duke’s ball (rather than a Kookaburra) is used.  Given that tends to retain its shine longer, and offers a more pronounced seam, that could yet be interesting for the batsmen.  The possibility of dew in the evening has been mentioned, but this applies only so much as it does in the mornings of late season games, and the bulk of the day will be played during the same hours as a normal Test.  The question will be if conditions materially alter after tea.

Ah yes, tea.  The breaks will retain their traditional names of lunch and tea despite being much later.  Naturally this has attracted comment, but in truth it would have done had they changed it as well.  In Australia the breaks were changed to tea and dinner, which is barely any better, and probably provides amusement to non-cricket supporters who will wonder which other sports have a break for dinner.

To the surprise of few, Keaton Jennings was dropped from the squad, replaced by Mark Stoneman, as the revolving door of England openers not called Cook continues.  If luck in selection plays a part, then being called up to play the West Indies at home counts as being of the good variety, for it represents an opportunity to score rather easier runs than against South Africa or away in India.  What that doesn’t do is answer the question as to whether a player is good enough to play in Australia, but given the mess England have got themselves in over selection for opener, the reality is they are where they are.  It still wouldn’t be a surprise to see someone different opening in Brisbane.

Mason Crane has been called up, which raises questions about Adil Rashid’s future.  England have developed a tendency in the specialist fields of seeking the finished article, discarding players for perceived failures rather than persevering with them.  Rashid hasn’t been exceptional, that is certainly true, but nor has he been a flop – his performance in India was in line with many England spinners there over the years.  Perhaps it might be that Crane is something special, but it’s hard to avoid the nagging doubt that whether or not he plays this time, his career will be one of high expectations and swift removal if he doesn’t win matches single handedly.  As has been observed all too often, it’s debatable whether England would have kept faith with Shane Warne had he been English.

One player returning to the ranks is Chris Woakes, and depending on fitness can be expected to play given how important he has been over the last 12 months.  That might be harsh on Toby Roland-Jones, but Woakes is clearly central to England’s first choice bowling line up.  As long as he is properly fit, and not ECB fit.

The disparity in resources, wealth and playing strength really should make this a foregone conclusion, but the day/night nature of it means that it is a little more uncertain than might be the case.  Whether it is a one off will depend on whether the game itself proceeds relatively normally.

Day/night Tests in England, in late August.  Who the hell knows?