England v West Indies: 2nd Test, Day Four

For three and a half days the West Indies have played well above themselves, indeed have played out of their skins.  But a side unused to winning, inexperienced, and ultimately lacking in quality anyway, finally wilted in the face of an England middle and lower order that is undoubtedly one that would cause a few tremors against much better sides than this.

There were chances missed, there’s no doubt about that.  The dropped catches ultimately added up to over 240 runs in England’s favour (though it should be mentioned that England have dropped a few themselves, which would balance that ledger to a degree), and the bowling discipline that was so evident in England’s first innings fell away alarmingly after tea, as Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes punished them for their indiscipline.

What might have beens are the stock in trade for weaker sides in every sport – the lower league football team that lets a lead slip in the closing minutes, the tennis underdog finally beaten in the fifth set – so to that end the turnaround in the match is one that could have been (and was) expected.  At the end of proceedings their performance over the first few days should be seen as the exceptional one, worthy of praise, and the return to the mean after tea on the fourth day more in keeping with where they are as a unit.  They have tried so desperately hard in this match, and the likelihood is that they will end up empty handed.

That there were errors made is beyond question.  Gabriel and Roach were overbowled in the morning session as their team strove for wickets, and by the time the new ball was due they weren’t sufficiently rested to take it before lunch, and weren’t that effective with it afterwards either.  But they are errors from over-enthusiasm in trying to force the win, and perhaps it is the hindsight that lends that judgement of it,  rather than how it was at a time when England were only 82 runs in front and four wickets down.  At that point the tourists were firm favourites, even as England were just beginning to get into a position where they had a chance in the match.

Dawid Malan did himself no harm in terms of selection for the tour to Australia with a gritty 61 over the first part of the day.  It lasted over four hours, he rarely looked fluent, and included a bit of fortune when being dropped at first slip; but above all else he wore down the seam attack and created the circumstances for Moeen to come in and flay a weary bowling unit around the ground.  Sometimes the less eye-catching innings are the important ones, and given the knife edge the game was on, he deserves considerable credit for his determination.  There is a great deal of focus on technique when appraising batsmen but the game is littered with those with excellent techniques who don’t succeed, and others with deeply flawed ones who do.  His 186 ball stay did more to suggest he has the aptitude than a bright and breezy innings of the same score could have done.  Whether he goes on to make it is of course unknown, but he played well today.

England’s total of 490-8 was their highest ever without anyone scoring a century, and had it not reached those levels, it’s not hard to imagine that a fair degree of stick would be coming in the direction of Stokes and Bairstow for the manner of their departures.  Stokes was caught on the boundary trying to hit a six, Bairstow bowled attempting a reverse sweep.  With Malan out too three wickets had gone down for 24 runs and England were seven down with a lead of only 158.  The game was unquestionably in the balance, yes, but some are no nearer to accepting players taking risks than they ever were.

Even though the numbers suggested it was tight, the mini-collapse couldn’t dampen the feeling that England were starting to get on top.  The advantage of their exceptional lower middle order is not just that they can bat, but they score so quickly.  Moeen Ali is one of the best players in the world to watch when he’s in full flow, and here the array of exquisite cover drives and clips off his legs were fully to the fore.  He had one piece of real luck, when caught behind on 32 only to be reprieved by a no ball.  Devendra Bishoo has had a truly miserable match, his captain plainly doesn’t rate him at all, and bowled him only when he had to – ultimately he got a decent spell only when the fast bowlers were on their knees.  And while Shannon Gabriel in particular got away with endless no balls not called, Bishoo was called on field at the most crucial of times, and it was sufficiently tight to suggest it may have been harsh.

The question of on field umpires not calling no balls isn’t a new one, and the Sky commentary team were quick to complain that in a tight match the extra runs an extra workload could have proved crucial, but if it’s unfair to the batting team, it’s also unfair to the bowler, who all too often doesn’t know he’s been repeatedly overstepping until he takes a wicket and it’s sent to the third umpire to be checked.  There are suggestions the fourth umpire could do it every ball (a more dull, soul destroying job in cricket is hard to imagine.  Scoring maybe), and perhaps that is a solution.  But umpires have managed to check the front foot for decades without the aid of technology, it seems hard to understand why it is suddenly not possible.

At tea, England were 357-7, a lead of 188.  Before play Jonny Bairstow had expressed the hope that they might get a lead of 200, and England’s bowlers would probably have fancied their chances had the innings ended there.  But the tea break seemed to be the time the magnificently battling West Indies finally cracked.  From the first over on resumption it all went wrong – Kraigg Brathwaite of all people bowled it, nominally to allow Bishoo to change ends, but it was simply dreadful.  The first ball was a high full toss belted through the covers by Moeen, and it didn’t get any better from that point on.  Shannon Gabriel looked utterly exhausted, and his two overs went for 28 runs.  The balance of the match had finally tilted.

If Moeen did what Moeen does (and does so well), he was complemented by Chris Woakes, a batsman who is ridiculously good to be languishing at number nine in the order.  Indeed, he has a better first class batting average than Mark Stoneman, which demonstrates the ludicrous strength in all rounders England possess.  In many international teams, he’d be a number six.  His fine unbeaten half century, initially in a supporting role, latterly taking control shows how even when he’s been a trifle disappointing with the ball on his return from a long injury layoff, he has the skill to make a contribution.

England had been behind the game from the first morning, and so perhaps it was a slight surprise that before the close Joe Root decided to declare.  A welcome one, for although England’s lead was by then sizeable, few expected it.  There aren’t so many recent captains who would have taken the miniscule risk involved in doing so.

Brathwaite and Powell survived a testing six overs, and if nothing else, it showed the kind of fighting quality that their team has exemplified for much of this match.  If they can manage it for just one more day, then they will come out of the game with immense credit, even if they lose.  They aren’t completely out of it, but 322 is a huge target for anyone, let alone a side such as this.  It’ll take a special innings from someone to get close, and as Mark Twain once put it, “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that’s the way to bet”.

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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 vs South Africa: Fourth Test, Day Two

For a time during the afternoon, it looked as though at long last there might be a genuinely competitive Test match on the cards.  Sure, England had played well in the morning session, thanks to Jonny Bairstow’s masterclass in farming the strike with the tail, but with the tourists 141-3, and looking in reasonable shape to challenge the England total, the prospect of not knowing where the match was going after two days was a definite possibility.

That it didn’t happen was partly down to some excellent bowling – from James Anderson and Moeen Ali in particular – but also some woeful batting.  England received plenty of (justified) criticism for the way they rolled over at Trent Bridge, but with the series now likely to finish 3-1, South Africa have clearly demonstrated that however fragile England might wish to be, they can exceed it.

Both teams had faltered in the top order, and the difference in position wasn’t especially marked, but whereas England’s middle order had rescued the situation, first through Stokes, then through Bairstow, South Africa’s fell apart.  It doesn’t tell us that much about England, for the trio of Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen have rescued the team from calamity on a few occasions, but in this series at least, the same can’t be said about their opposite numbers.

Although England had lost a couple of early wickets, 312-9 in the context of the batting line ups didn’t look a bad score.  A rollicking last wicket stand with Bairstow turning a useful fifty into what appeared certain to be a remarkable century moved England into a position of likely dominance.  In itself that says a fair bit about these two sides.  There is some movement off the pitch and in the air, but this is a decent Test match wicket.  400, once the minimum expectation for the side batting first appears to be right at the top of the aspirations of these batting line ups.

Bairstow of course fell for 99, joining a substantial group who have managed to get themselves out in often peculiar circumstances in pursuit of that single extra run.  If ever there was an illustration needed that batting is done in the head, it is right there.  He was perhaps a trifle unlucky of course – not in the sense that it wasn’t out, but because it was a marginal call. In the world of DRS such calls are automatically considered “good” decisions as they are backed up by the technology, and perhaps the game is better for that.  But he may feel some chagrin for not getting that nebulous unwritten rule concerning the benefit of the doubt.  It’s the same for all.

If Bairstow had left England content at the change of innings, Anderson ensured that lunch was to be a happy place in the England dressing room, removing the obdurate Dean Elgar third ball to christen his newly named bowling end with a classical Anderson delivery, swinging into the left hander’s pads.

For the next couple of hours it was good Test cricket.  The loss of Amla to Toby Roland-Jones for the third time in succession cut short an innings where he looked in decent touch, an all too rare occurrence recently.  If he was fluent, Heino Kuhn was anything but.  Battling dreadful form and injury, he was eventually put out of his misery by Moeen Ali, but it should be said that if his team mates had batted with the same tenacity and determination as the under pressure opener, they might not be in the mess they are this evening.

Bavuma and Du Plessis then took over, not without alarms, but the match was fairly even.  And then it all fell apart.  Anderson removed both within three balls, and while they were decent enough deliveries, Bavuma’s decision to join his team mates this series in regarding the bat as an optional extra, and Du Plessis’ dreadful defensive shot that dragged the ball on to the stumps through the widest of gates was symptomatic of the difference between the teams – namely that brittle as England might be, they are tempered by comparison with their opponents.

With the exception of Elgar, every South African batsman this innings has got into double figures, yet none has made a fifty.  The tail did well, Maharaj, Rabada and Morkel being responsible for ensuring the 142 run deficit (with one wicket remaining) wasn’t even higher.  Yet De Kock was subdued, seemingly unsure how to play the deteriorating situation, and the procession of batsmen coming in and going out was of no surprise at all.

All of which means this match is following an identical pattern to the third Test (and similar to all the others this series).  England will have a huge lead, and with no rain to date the luxury of no time pressure whatever in setting a vast target – though doubtless some will be calling for them to push on and declare tomorrow night.

It’s not entirely clear why it is that matches, in England at the very least, have become so one sided in recent years, and the old truth that correlation doesn’t equal causation should make anyone wary of the easy blaming of T20 cricket.  But it doesn’t make for good viewing and it isn’t healthy for Test cricket.  The very concept of a battle unfolding over five days is undermined when the outcome is pretty much clear after two, every time.  This has happened in Tests since they began, but it is now sufficiently consistently the case as to cause even more worry about the health of the game than was already the case.  All sport thrives on uncertainty, for without it there is little point watching.  The up and down results England have had in the last couple of years is indeed quite uncertain, that is true, but the matches themselves are anything but.

Barring something preposterous, England will win this match, and with it the series.  But the feeling that the next two (probably not three) days are merely playing out the inevitable (yet again) is both frustrating and fundamentally lowers interest.  It’s to be hoped it is a phase, as can happen in sport, for if not the problems are even greater than has been supposed up to now.

England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Fifth Day

Another Test, another one sided result.  England go 2-1 up in the series with the expected thumping win, even if they had to work for it just a little bit today.  Each match in this series has been competitive only for the first couple of days, before playing out with one team dominating the other completely.  To date it’s been reminiscent of the last Ashes series, where despite some rather hopeful comment about how good it had been, the reality was that it was frustratingly predictable after the opening exchanges in each match.  It was topsy-turvy as a series for sure, but the individual games simply weren’t close.  Since that point the pattern has continued, and even the Guardian noticed this morning how few England matches of recent vintage have been remotely close.  It’s something that is begining to become prevalent in the Test game these days, and something to note when singling England out for not showing fight in the fourth innings – they aren’t alone.  Certainly as far as this series is concerned, much the same can be levelled at South Africa at times, albeit Dean Elgar has shown everyone how to do it over the last couple of days.

That this match got as far as it did was down to him.  Despite repeated blows to a damaged finger, he showed character, fought hard and took the runs when on offer with attacking fields.  In short, he played a proper Test innings of the kind that appears to be going out of fashion.  His clear disappointment when walking off the field to a standing ovation for a determined 136 was evidence if it were needed that he’d been intent on batting the day, if only anyone could have stayed with him.

For South Africa to have had any chance at all, they needed Elgar and Temba Bavuma to bat deep into the day, and the dismissal of the latter, and the exposing of the bowlers in the South African line up rather signalled the beginning of the end.  Joe Root has had difficulties with the Decision Review System this series – too keen to send it upstairs for speculative appeals (or too prepared to listen to Jonny Bairstow according to one reading of it), but that’s the nature of a new captain learning who to trust and when to take the review option.  Here was an example of using it supremely well, a straight ball jammed between bat and pad, but looking rather straight.  Aleem Dar made the correct decision in giving it not out, for there was no way he could be sure whether it was bat or pad first (the temptation with the arrival of DRS must be to give those not out routinely anyway), but with it clear it was pad first on replay, it was no surprise to see it overturned.

If Bavuma’s lbw was tight, Vernon Philander’s was an omnishambles.  A ball that didn’t swing or seam in, but was gunbarrel straight from the start, was unaccountably left alone.  One of the easier decisions any umpire will ever have to make, and Toby Roland-Jones was on a hat-trick.   He nearly got it too, the ball flying off the outside edge to a slip cordon diving in all directions to try and get a hand under it.  Roland-Jones has had a fine match – not just with the ball either – and the eight wickets  he took were good reward for the virtues of bowling line and length and nibbling it about a bit.  Maybe it’ll catch on.  Whether he will make a successful Test career or not is open to debate, but the England hierarchy often appear thoroughly obsessed with all seam bowlers being capable of high pace.  It is a curiosity when in the opposite ranks this series there is someone who rarely gets above 80mph but causes teams everywhere no end of difficulty.  That’s not to say for a moment that Roland-Jones can reach those kinds of levels, but it is peculiar that England don’t seem to notice when opposition players who don’t fit the established template succeed.

Elgar’s dismissal came just three balls from the end of the match, given he was the first of a hat-trick taken by Moeen Ali to finish proceedings in a rush.  It was a fine delivery too, slower, loopy and angled into off stump before turning away to take the edge and be caught by Stokes at slip.  The second to Rabada appeared almost a carbon copy, but the ball wasn’t quite as good, though given the difference in batting skill perhaps it didn’t need to be.  Moeen then had to wait for Stokes to complete an over before being the third bowler to bowl a hat-trick ball in the match.  This time, it came off, a straight ball to Morkel defeating the half lunge forward and crashing into the pad.  It looked out live too, though the verdict was in the negative.  The review was clear cut and with that he became the first England off spinner since 1938 to take three in three.  It was also the first ever Test hat-trick at the Oval, only the third time a hat-trick has been taken to win a match (the last example being in 1902), and perhaps most remarkably of all this was the first instance in Test history of four batsmen being dismissed first ball in an innings.  Finally, in the cricketing world of esoteric stat mining, a favourite has to be that it was also the first Test hat-trick where all three victims were left handed.  If the outcome of the match had been beyond doubt for quite a while, it remained an astonishing way for it to finish.

With hindsight the difference in the match was probably England’s first innings.  What appeared to be a reasonable total turned out to be a good one, and South Africa’s bowling not as consistent as perhaps it had seemed to be at the time.  The loss of Philander to illness may well have been critical, for the others didn’t quite manage to fill the gap he left.  South Africa may well have had the worst of the batting conditions under heavy cloud and floodlights, but the alternative to that is to go off the field when there is artificial light.  If it’s not dangerous, then play should go on, and being on the receiving end of that is just bad luck of the same nature as being put into bat on a green seamer.

With such huge swings in fortunes both in this series and recently, especially involving England, it would be a brave pundit who would predict the outcome of the final match in the series at Old Trafford starting Friday.  There is no reason to assume the frailties of the England side on show at Trent Bridge have been solved, indeed South Africa’s fourth innings resistance here was several order higher than England’s capitulation last time out.  Judging by current patterns, it would seem mostly likely one team will thrash the other, with no real reason to be sure which way around that will be.

The England debutants had a mixed time of it – Roland-Jones was excellent, Tom Westley promising, while Dawid Malan didn’t get to make much of a contribution.  In all three cases a single Test match explains nothing.  Roland-Jones’ eight wickets in the match equalled the debut performance of Neil Mallender for example, not necessarily the career trajectory he would hope to duplicate, while plenty of batsmen who have had good careers didn’t do so well first time out.  Whether Keaton Jennings did enough with his second innings 48 to retain his spot is more open to question, but the increasing frustration at the revolving door of England openers means that at some point they have to make a decision and keep to it for a time.  Mark Stoneman is talked about as the next option, mostly because Haseeb Hameed has had a poor first class summer – but with little first class cricket to change that, it will still end up being about having an opener against the much weaker West Indies who has the chance to cash in and earn a place on the Ashes tour, with no one any the wiser as to whether it’s the right call.  England are in the same position with uncertainty over an opening batsman that they were three years ago following the premature discarding of Michael Carberry.

For South Africa, and given the usual nature of the Old Trafford surface, they will be confident they have the bowling weapons to bowl England out cheaply twice.  Morris was less effective (and more expensive) here than in Nottingham, but a fit and healthy Vernon Philander could make the difference.  What they do with the batting order is perhaps of more interest.  Quinton de Kock’s elevation to number four didn’t pay dividends here, and while anyone can have a quiet game, the doubts about the wisdom of over-working the wicketkeeper must continue.  A number four will be fully padded up and preparing to go in at the fall of the first wicket, and De Kock would have been at that point after eight overs and five overs of the respective innings, having kept for over a hundred overs and eighty overs just previously.  It’s asking an awful lot of his mental resilience no matter how physically fit he might be.

One thing does seem likely: with these two sides few would feel that a draw (unless rain affected) at Old Trafford is the obvious result.  Both are flawed, both are prone to collapses and have brittle looking batting orders, and both have decent bowling attacks. It really is anyone’s guess what will happen, but it would be a pleasant change if at least it could be reasonably close.

 

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day four – Shambles

England were always going to lose this match, the question was whether it would be today or tomorrow, and how they lost it.  The difference between the teams after the first innings was substantial, and probably meant defeat anyway, but with South Africa batting well on the third day, England’s target was always going to be far beyond them.  But how you lose is often as important as how you win, for it demonstrates the qualities of the team in adversity, and the character therein.  England’s abysmal collapse today was entirely predictable (indeed yesterday’s post did predict it) but it’s still disappointing to see the worst fears confirmed.

Amidst the storm of criticism England received after the denouement, it was interesting to note how many of the same people who castigated South Africa for not pressing on and playing shots yesterday now complained that England were reckless today.  The circumstances aren’t the same of course, but the selectivity with which one side can be criticised for playing decent Test cricket (and winning) and the other attacked for failing to do so is indicative of the confused approach so many have got into in this T20 era.

In the first innings England’s wickets didn’t fall because of too many reckless shots, but the attitude was one of a side that didn’t have too much confidence in their ability to defend.  It’s been a regular feature of the England side in recent times, but not exclusively so, they have on occasion batted defensively, even in defeat in India, but the reality is that the middle order are stroke players, and it goes against the grain for them to block.  That middle order is outstanding at counter attacking and ramming home an advantage and is more than capable of changing the direction of a match in a session.  But what looks terrific as a calculated gamble looks dire when a backs to the wall performance is required.  Yet it may well be that those who blame them are looking in the wrong place, for those players have particular strengths, and ones which have been evident as recently as the last Test match, when Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all plundered runs with their attacking approach.  Criticising Stuart Broad for being caught on the boundary this afternoon seems a peculiar line to take for example given the match was long dead by then.  The problems arise when they are exposed much too early, and the loss of early wickets in a paper thin top order is always going to generate disaster in such circumstances.

It’s not to say the middle order aren’t capable.  Moeen batted extraordinarily well in carrying his bat during another dire defeat – to Sri Lanka at Leeds – but having created a role for him in the lower middle order where he is to play freely, it is a bit rich to complain when he does the same thing with the game already lost.  That’s not to excuse him, for it wasn’t a great shot to say the least, but in the criticism of that middle order, there are some short memories about that working superbly only one Test ago.

It is true however that the innings as a whole was spectacularly spineless.  Cook did show how to do it early on, but with wickets falling about him it had the air of being in vain from half an hour into play.  It was a good ball that got him, and an even better one that got Root, but both of them could have survived on another day.  Good bowling yes, totally unplayable no.  In neither case does that make them responsible for what happened (to emphasise the point, they were definitely good balls), but it was still part of the pattern where no batsman (apart from possibly Dawson) came out with much credit, it is merely a matter of degree.  Cook at his very best exudes a sense of certainty missing here, and while others were infinitely more culpable, he will be as disappointed  as anyone not to have gone on.  Mentioning Cook today is in one sense harsh, but it is only from the perspective of him being about the only player in the side who has the concentration levels to bat for a couple of days.  That he doesn’t do it in the fourth innings to save a match that often (not many do) is rather beside the point.  He could, which is why the celebrations for his wicket are always the loudest.  But Cook has always been vulnerable to pace, and outstanding against spin, and South Africa have a terrific pace attack – his record against both them and Australia is markedly lower than against others.  That’s fair enough, for only the very best have no real flaws.  Cook is just below that level, but he is very good and the same applies to him as to others – to look at what he can do rather than what he can’t.

England have gone through opening batsmen not called Cook at a rate of knots in the past few years, and Jennings will be aghast at the gaping hole between bat and pad that led to him being bowled, while Ballance was once again stuck on the crease and lbw on review.  In the first case, England really do have to decide what they are doing with the opening position and show some faith that whoever they pick will learn the role.  In the second, whatever Ballance’s shortcomings at this level, England’s decision to put him in at three, a position he doesn’t hold for his county, and where he struggled last time he was selected, is throwing him to the wolves, irrespective of him apparently being injured this match.  Facing the new ball and being in the middle order are entirely different roles, albeit in this England side the middle order is getting used to it quite quickly.  England are hoping the square peg can be pushed in to the round hole.

If those two appear to be vulnerable to being dropped, the question is who could come in to replace them.  The new schedule for county cricket precludes county championship cricket during the meat of the season, meaning any replacements will not have played anything other than T20 recently.  This was of course pointed out at the time the schedule was agreed, but ignored.  Change will smack of shuffling the chairs on the Titanic, for it’s a big ask of anyone to come in and get used to different format from the off.

The other player who may give way is Liam Dawson.  He is victim of the extraordinarily muddled thinking that passes for selection – he hasn’t proved a success so far, but he’s done about as well as might have been expected given his record.  The dropping of Adil Rashid looked reckless at the time, to now give his replacement the boot so soon would make a nonsense of his initial selection.  It would also – along with the potential less likely removal of Mark Wood, be following the time honoured England tradition of blaming the bowlers for the failure of the batsmen.

Where to go from here?  It should always be said that a team is never so good in victory or as bad in defeat as they seem, and the euphoria of the first Test win was completely misplaced as some kind of barometer for following games.  England’s recent record is so poor that this effort today shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, yet apparently it has.  Putting the boot in when they’ve played as badly as today is nothing but rampant hypocrisy given the excuse making for the last tour, the home defeats last summer, and the pretence that all was well, fully exonerating everyone from the captain to the Chairman.  It’s already been the case that some of our media friends have decided to criticise Root as captain, a mere two Tests into the job, having made endless excuses to this point when it was Cook in charge.  That’s not to pick on Cook either, it is to say that these problems with the England side have been apparent for quite some time, yet some were too busy pronouncing all was well when it clearly wasn’t.  Equally, those problems don’t mean that it’s fine to rip into the whole side just because of today.  Failing to be aware that this happens to the current England – or more specifically, to pretend it hasn’t done because of some misguided cheerleading of those in charge – does a disservice to everyone both then and now, including the players.  This is how England have been for a while, with all the concomitant strengths and flaws.  It is this apparent new found freedom in the fourth estate to say what has been obvious for a long time that grates so much.

For South Africa, this match couldn’t have gone better – and in the absence of Kagiso Rabada as well.  The seam attack had England under pressure from ball one in both innings, and Keshav Maharaj was excellent in support.  Yet as in the first Test, the margin of victory disguised the fact that both teams had opportunities.  There is absolutely nothing to suggest certainty about the outcome of the next two games, although doubtless there will be much discussion around how England change the “momentum” of the series.

After a day like today, it’s hard to know what is more irritating – the performance, or the apparent amazement that it happened at all.  There has been far too much absolving of the past, and so far, far too much criticism today from those who previously stayed silent and pretended the flaws in the team didn’t exist.  This is where England are, and yes they can certainly do better in these circumstances than they have today.  But it’s not new, and it’s not unusual.  A degree of honesty all round about where England have been for the last couple of years wouldn’t go amiss rather than responding day to day.

 

 

The Curious Case of Moeen Ali: Part Deux

For such an affable chap, Moeen is a rather divisive cricketer.  His batting and bowling veer from the brilliant to the dreadful; opinions tend to be fairly fixed about his value, and yet even when criticised, it tends to be somewhat reluctant.  He didn’t have a good tour of India with the ball, leading Sean to write a piece he described as being like clubbing a baby seal, yet given his outstanding performance in the first Test against South Africa with both bat and ball, it surely puts to bed any questions about his merit.

Well, perhaps not.  The question marks over him are the same ones that have been there since he first came into the team three years ago, namely that his batting isn’t quite good enough to hold down a front line place, and his bowling isn’t near good enough to be the primary Test spinner.  He has certainly developed as a player over that time, and it would be a harsh critic who would say he hasn’t improved, but the question as to whether he has improved enough – one outstanding contribution fresh in the memory notwithstanding – is still a live one.

There has to also be a certain degree of awareness about the aesthetics of the matter.  Moeen in full flow with the bat is simply gorgeous to watch, more reminiscent of David Gower than almost anyone else who has played since.  No one would argue Moeen is remotely as good a batsman as Gower, but there is a similarity in style there, the way both will make any watcher purr with delight at an exquisitely timed cover drive, and gnash teeth with frustration at an ill disciplined waft outside off stump.  It’s both a positive and a negative, and it very much depends on the character and preconceptions of the observer.  Some will make allowances and forgive the flaws because of the intrinsic beauty on show, others will criticise the nature of the dismissals as irresponsible.  As this blog has mentioned before, there is a strange mentality whereby being out to defensive shots is permissible, yet messing up an attacking one is worthy of venom.  It’s the exact opposite to how batsmen tend to think of it, for being dismissed to a defensive shot is an admission of defeat to the bowler, and getting out to an attacking one an occupational hazard.

So allowances are made for being great to watch.  Or he’s criticised more than he should be because he gets out in apparently lazy fashion.  Strokeplayers everywhere have always suffered the same divergent opinions.

His batting is easier to assess these days.  A career average of 35.45 isn’t terrible, but nor is it of the top level.  Yet (and this will crop up again) with him statistics can tend to obscure what he is and what he brings to a side rather than illuminate it.  For he’s a player for whom the term “stat mining” could have been coined; they can be used to defend him or to criticise him, and both have validity.  Certainly his batting has improved at Test level over the last 18 months, raising his overall average from a sub-par high twenties to its current level.  Even in India, where the overall batting line up consistently failed, he tended to be one of the brighter spots.  More interestingly, his relative recent success has been done from a settled position at number seven in the order.  With only 8 Tests in that role, the sample is too small to be too meaningful, but it does reinforce a perception that his counterattacking style is exceptionally valuable down the order.  Either way, three hundreds in those 8 Tests and an average of 78.77 is quite startling, and of immense value to the team if he can maintain even anything thirty percentage points below that contribution level.  The trouble is that he was also markedly less successful one place lower in the order.  This could be psychological to some extent – bat in the tail, bat like a tailender – but it’s also true that in that position he ran out of batting partners often, and was frequently out late on trying to hit some extra runs.  One place higher mitigates that to some extent, but also provides caution in placing too much value on the impressive statistics.

However it might be statistically, Moeen is unquestionably an exceptionally dangerous customer in the lower middle order.  His rate of scoring is destructive, and he can take a match away from the opposition in a session.  Perhaps not to quite the same degree as his team mate one place higher – Ben Stokes – but he’s certainly one to fear when he gets in.

If his batting is now operating at a level where he could arguably get in on merit solely as a batsman, his bowling is much more difficult to quantify.  He has repeatedly said that he considers himself a part time off spinner rather than a front line one, and post Lords Trevor Bayliss made the interesting observation that if that was how Moeen wanted to internalise it, then they were quite happy to let him.  The raw figures are that he has taken 108 wickets in 38 Tests (not too bad) at an average of 39.35 (not so good).  Yet even this needs some further analysis.

Firstly, it has to be taken into account that England fans have been spoiled by having Graeme Swann for several years.  England spinners over the last 40 years have not operated at anything like the level he did.  To put this into context, Swann had a Test bowling average of 29.96, by far the best since the days of Derek Underwood.  Of the other bowlers in living memory who have played a reasonable number of matches, they tend to group around the same kind of level, John Emburey averaged 38.40, Phil Edmonds 34.18, Phil Tufnell 37.68, Ashley Giles 40.60 and Monty Panesar 34.71.  Naturally enough, times, conditions and opposition are all extremely variable for all those players and over all the years, but those were the most successful England spinners in their eras, and none of them have a record that would make anyone sit up and take special notice.  For the reality is that England only rarely  produce exceptional spinners, and Moeen’s record in that list doesn’t stand out as being particularly poor.

There’s more there too, for when it comes to comparing strike rates Emburey’s was 104.7, Edmonds’ 96.2, Tufnell’s 93.2, Giles’ 85.1 and Panesar’s 74.7.  Swann had 60.1 and Moeen Ali 63.6.  Once again, different times and styles of play need to be taken into account here – the strike rate of the bowlers in the 1980s wasn’t thought of as being particularly awful for the time for a start, but the fact that Moeen’s compares well in this regard even to a bowler as well thought of and recent as Panesar is at least food for thought.  It tends to imply what most would think about him anyway – he takes wickets, he bowls some exceptionally good deliveries, but he’s also a little inconsistent and doesn’t maintain control as well as perhaps we would hope.  What Swann was particularly good at was that he was able to play a dual role: a very good defensive spinner in the first half of the game, and an excellent attacking bowler once the pitch began to deteriorate.

Comparative statistics against different sides and in different eras can be fundamentally misleading, yet what can be said is that Moeen’s performance level is not a huge variation from the mean.  In some areas it is better, in others worse.  In some circumstances he has played worse opponents, in others better.  And of course the nature of Test cricket has changed somewhat in any case.

Perhaps the most critical point here is that Australia spent years discarding spinner after spinner for the crime of not being Shane Warne.  Swann wasn’t at that level of course, but he was the best England had produced for many a year.  To hark back to him and hope that England have a plethora of ready-made, equally good replacements to call on would be unreasonable and a triumph of hope over reality.  It is quite simply the case that England do not currently have a finger spinner who would do significantly better.  A little better perhaps, or a little worse, but nothing that would radically change the spinning position.  This doesn’t alter the truth that Moeen had a poor series with the ball in India, nor that he’s anything but the first to suffer that rather chastening experience.  He’s certainly unlikely to terrify many teams in their own backyard, and in Australia later this year he probably won’t do terrifically well either.  Neither did Swann for that matter though, and he was much superior.

One of the strengths of having him in the team as a bowler is his batting, and along with Stokes and Bairstow as all rounders, this creates additional spots for others to take who are more specialist than him.  It could be argued Moeen the bowler is a free option, and a bonus.  This is important because of the qualification above that there aren’t any substantially better finger spinners out there.  That is because of course there is a leg spinner who could and perhaps should have a claim on a spot in the side, and as first choice spin bowler.   Adil Rashid performed markedly better in India than Moeen did, yet was heavily criticised and discarded summarily for failing to be outstanding in one of the most difficult places to tour for a spinner anywhere.  Yet the mistreatment of Adil Rashid shouldn’t be used as a stick with which to beat Moeen, they are two separate issues.  The relatively free pass given to the batsmen for their failures is as much an example of the unreasonableness of the media attack on Adil Rashid as anything to do with Moeen.

Moeen Ali is a flawed cricketer.  There’s no question about that, but perhaps it is time to focus on what he can do rather than what he can’t.  He fulfills an unusual role in recent England cricket history, and he might even be thought of as something of a bits and pieces cricketer, not quite at the desired level in either discipline.  But he also allows the specialists to be included in the side and in business speak can be said to “add value” to the England team.  Berating him for failing to live up to exceptional standards is pointless unless there are alternatives who could take over and improve the side.  Ashley Giles was no one’s idea of a top level spin bowler, but he performed a role in the team for a number of years, and the side was stronger with him doing that.  Moeen does the same thing while at the same time being a much better cricketer, and one who can and does win matches from time to time.   There are worse justifications for a player.

 

England vs South Africa: 1st Test, Day 3

Not a great deal has gone right for South Africa this Test. Much of it is self-inflicted, whether that be missed catches, missed reviews or players getting themselves banned for a game for swearing at poor, innocent Ben Stokes who has definitely never done anything of that kind himself. But when it rains, it pours (and no doubt they are scanning the heavens in hope), and the loss of Vernon Philander from the bowling attack due to a painful blow received from Anderson while batting has serious repercussions for a side that only went in to the game with four bowlers.

It is perhaps fortunate to some extent that spin looks the most likely wicket taking option, but JP Duminy, forced to bowl a lot of overs, is not the greatest threat the England batsmen will face this summer.

The third day of a Test is often known as Moving Day, for it is then that the direction of the match starts to become clear. That’s true enough at Lords too, but the movement has been slow and at times somewhat turgid. It’s not the fault of the players, in keeping with recent years this pitch is a slow one, and not conducive to exhilarating strokeplay, and the match position has forced the hands of the teams to a fair extent too.

England finish the third day totally dominant, 200 runs ahead, with nine wickets in hand and two days left to try and force a result on a pitch that is taking considerable amounts of spin – albeit slowly. That’s not to say that South Africa have had a disastrous day, more that they have been slowly throttled by an England team who have played the situation rather well. As much as it’s claimed that England will be an attacking side, it’s hard to do so if the surface makes that a risky option.

The tourists would have needed an almost perfect day to get right back into the game, and while they did fairly well, it still left a significant deficit after the first innings, especially given that it doesn’t look like batting last on this pitch will be easy, especially against spin. The value of the batting from Root, Moeen and Broad has been demonstrated by the England total looking to be well above par in the match context.

Bavuma and Rabada looked fairly untroubled for the best part of an hour, but their dismissals placed South Africa in some trouble. De Kock counterattacked, risky as that was given the pitch, and batted sublimely in the process, on his way to a belligerent fifty. With Philander in company, there was just a chance they could get sufficiently close to England to turn the pressure back on the hosts. As it was, a 97 run deficit is quite likely to prove critical, not least for the mindsets it creates for all 22 players from now on in. South Africa are trying to save the Test, England are trying to win it.

Moeen Ali is having a fine game, runs on the board and wickets too. His bowling weakness is less his ability to take wickets and more that he doesn’t always maintain control. But today he was excellent, probing away, restricting the runs and offering a consistent threat. Dawson was also much better, and rewarded with two wickets of his own. Six going to England spinners on day two of a Lords Test is certainly unusual, and perhaps ironic given the continual question marks over those in possession. They will be expected to win the game on the fifth day.

England’s second innings certainly hasn’t been an exciting one thus far. But that is reflective of the match position, a helter skelter approach could have let the visitors in. So while Cook, Jennings and Ballance didn’t excite, they did exactly the job that was required. Tomorrow is a little different, and expect them to increase the tempo as the day goes on, probably with a few to a declaration sometime in the last session.

South Africa have a mountain to climb to get out of this one. It’s hard to see how they can do it.

One final point. Today’s play finished more or less on time. Amazing.

India vs England: Fifth Test, Day Five

Predictable.  That has to be the overriding reaction to England’s epic collapse in the evening session.  Defeat in the final Test and a 4-0 series hammering was expected by more than just the most pessimistic, irrespective of the pitch remaining a good one.  England have looked mentally shot for a while now, and perhaps that’s to be expected.  Indeed, the slightly bigger surprise was that for much of the day they appeared to be on track for a draw, before losing 6 wickets for 16 runs post tea and gaining an outstanding if unwanted record for scoring the largest first innings total when suffering an innings defeat in Test history.

In truth, although Cook and Jennings had reached lunch unscathed, it wasn’t a comfortable stand, Cook being dropped early on, and various other near misses for them both.  That they survived to give England a sniff of what some were waiting to write up as a valedictory draw is actually rather to their credit. Immediately post lunch was where it started to go wrong, 103-0 becoming 129-4 in less than an hour.   Alastair Cook is a curious player in that when he starts to struggle, the technical glitches become ever more apparent, in a way that is less obvious with – say – Joe Root.  Over a five match Test series players getting out in the same way try ever more visibly obvious means of countering the problem.  Cook is getting too far over to the offside, which is leaving him both prone to lbw and to the legside catches off the spinners as in the case here.  No one will be more aware of it than him, and it is not offered up as a criticism of his batting, more an acute illustration of the difficulties of a good batsman under severe pressure, both mental and from the bowlers.

Even then, a decent partnership between Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes had taken England to a healthy position, and on reaching tea four wickets down, must have fancied their chances of saving the game.  What happened thereafter will mark a new entry into the charts of England’s most glorious collapses, and had the merit of style points by being largely self-inflicted.

Moeen’s dismissal in particular will be one that gets replayed, for there is little more embarrassing than getting out coming down the track attempting to go over the top when trying to save the game.  And rightly so too, for it looked awful.  There are caveats to this – it is easy to see some praising the approach for throwing the bowling off line and length if it succeeds; likewise, playing a natural game to try to save a match is thoroughly approved of when it succeeds – Matt Prior’s entirely correct – for him – counterattacking rearguard in Auckland in 2013 was downright lucky at times, not least the moment he went through to his century with a miscued hook.  Yet he was praised for that innings for one reason alone – it worked.   Outcome tends to be the determining factor in these things, and the old adage of “hit sixes but don’t take any risks” often seems to apply.

Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from the fact it’s a pretty dire way to get out less than two hours away from safety, and the rest of the batting order were little better.   As much as anything, it’s indicative of thoroughly frazzled minds, leading to poor decision making.  There is often a temptation to blame the first victim of what becomes a collapse for all the subsequent ones, yet this remains as ludicrous as it always has done.  Players are responsible for their own actions, not those of others, and the dismissals of Stokes, Dawson and Rashid were all poor in their own ways; singling out the player who scored nearly 200 runs in the match on his own as the one to blame for how others got out is bizarre.

Once again Jos Buttler was left high and dry as the tail collapsed around him, making the point rather beautifully that it matters little how many batsmen you have if none of them stay in.  For such an attacking player, there is irony in it being him and pretty much only him who appeared mentally up to the challenge of blocking the match out.

India’s celebrations on taking the tenth wicket were joyous, for they have comprehensively outplayed England, and by ever increasing degrees as the series has gone on.  The grinding into the dirt that occurred in this match was ruthless, but deeply impressive, and for all the rationalising of different elements and players, the reality is that England would most likely have lost the series irrespective of calls for changes.  That said, England could and should have played far better than they did; the chasm between the sides need not have been anything like so vast.  There will be attempts at revisionism from some quarters to indicate this was always likely.  It wasn’t.

For Alastair Cook, the questions about his future came immediately after the game.  His response that he shouldn’t be asked about it was clumsy, as is often the case with Cook, but probably right in the sense that it wasn’t the time.  Much as the media would love to get instant decisions, it is far better to wait for the dust to settle and come to a considered view rather then offer up an emotional one in the aftermath of a battering.  That being said, there’s really only one decision to make here, and not in itself because of the series result.  Cook has been prevaricating about his captaincy for quite some time now, announcing to anyone who asked that he is unsure of whether to carry on or not.  By being so unsure, he has made it abundantly clear that he shouldn’t carry on, for while people will have doubts in private, and may discuss them with family or close friends, to openly discuss publicly the possibility of giving up the captaincy says in itself it’s time to go.  Cook cannot possibly be fully committed to the role any longer having effectively admitted he isn’t, and even if he decided to carry on and was allowed to do so, the same feelings would return wholesale upon the next defeat.

Naturally enough, the rest of the management and team were then asked the same question, and equally naturally, they defaulted to supporting the captain and saying he’s the right man for the job.  There is nothing else they can say, even if they don’t believe it – although there’s no evidence they don’t.  This then becomes a feeding frenzy, and that is not at all good for England cricket, and not even good for Cook himself.  Cook’s tenure may have been a period of dissension and division, but the reality now is more prosaic – it’s simply time to go as captain for his own good and for the team’s.

Cook’s agreement that England have stagnated over the last year is probably right.  2016 has been a pretty miserable year for the Test side, the only series win coming against a Sri Lanka team vastly weakened by retirements.  This winter England have lost five of their seven matches, with only a single victory over Bangladesh.  In normal circumstances, no captain would be felt able to survive that kind of record.  Yet with Cook there are enough queueing up to make every kind of excuse for that record, blaming everyone except the captain himself, that it remains in some question.  It shouldn’t.  It’s not because everything can be laid at Cook’s door for that would be scapegoating to the same extent Adil Rashid has suffered, but he’s never been a sufficiently good captain for it to be a justification in itself.  If he was, then a case could be made for retention as an asset in the role, for even a losing captain of a weak side can be a good one, Stephen Fleming is a decent example.  At times he’s been competent, at others, truly abysmal.

The constant refrain has been that Cook is both popular and a good leader in the dressing room.  That may well be true, but a leader is not necessarily a captain, nor vice versa; Cook in the ranks would still be a leader for the younger players in the side who would look up to him by virtue of his record.  The simple question is whether England would be stronger or weaker with him in charge.  That argument has been made many times over the years, but it is particularly acute given the outcome of this series.  It is very hard to make a case for saying that Cook as captain actually makes England a stronger side, even if some would baulk at the idea that he actively weakens them.  There’s a further point, and that is the question of Cook the batsman.  He’s managed the dual roles better than most recent incumbents, his batting has held up fairly well throughout his tenure, with no obvious indication that it has lessened his batting contribution.  But for all the talk about whether taking on the captaincy would negatively affect Joe Root, few ask the question as to whether relinquishing it would positively benefit Cook – for that is the unspoken corollary of that particular argument.  Cook the batsman is simply more valuable than Cook the captain, and he always was, except as an ECB marketing tool.

When England were whitewashed in Australia 2 years ago, the response was to close ranks around Alastair Cook, single out one individual to blame for the farrago and pretend that none of the cracks that appeared needed to be addressed.  There are already attempts to portray this outcome as being within normal parameters, and beyond the Cook captaincy question, there’s little indication that real attention will be paid to why what has transpired recently has happened.  There have to be fears that Adil Rashid will be quietly removed from future consideration given the heavy criticism he has received from sources who have a habit of being unusually close to ECB thinking.   The timing of the leaks (The ECB don’t leak, remember) concerning the action of Jack Leach will raise suspicions about what exactly the ECB hierarchy are up to, not least given the rather over the top praise for Liam Dawson from those same types friendly towards the ECB.  Perhaps such suspicions are entirely wide of the mark, but when an organisation has been so duplicitous in the recent past, they lose their right to be given trust in what they do.

For this is their abiding problem; it isn’t that there are simple solutions to England’s difficulties, it’s that the pattern of deceit over time, throughout the upper levels of the organisation, leads observers to assume they are up to their old tricks even when they aren’t.  In this case they may be, or they may not.  But why would anyone believe them when they say it isn’t so?

England have problems from top to bottom, but there are areas of hope, and young players coming through who look promising.  The experienced ones cannot be written off just yet, but there is a hint of a changing of the guard in this team.  They have six months off from Test cricket, before one of the most insane schedules England have ever put together kicks in.  Next year’s winter tours, including the Ashes, involve England going away from October until April 2018.  If England struggled with five Tests in six weeks this series, they are going to be on their knees by the end of the New Zealand tour following the Ashes.

With the one day tour to the West Indies and Champions Trophy at home, Cook has six months off to recharge his batteries.  He will undoubtedly need it, and it’s to be hoped he is able to relax, free his mind of the clutter that will be swirling at the moment, and come back with a bang as the batsman who at his best can drive opposition bowlers to despair.  If the price of getting that player back was to give up the captaincy, surely even his greatest supporters would think that worth paying?

India vs England: 3rd Test review

As it turned out, England probably did a little better than some might have expected, but the end result was entirely predictable.  To have made the game interesting, another hundred runs or so were needed, and that was would have required something spectacular.  Even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough on a surface that didn’t especially deteriorate, and with a bowling attack that have at no time looked like skittling India.

There was the odd bright spot, Joe Root batted well, although he once again fell between 50 and 100, a habit he needs to break sooner rather than later if he really is going to be as good as he has threatened to be, while Haseeb Hameed scored an enterprising unbeaten 50 from number 8, batting that low due to a finger so badly broken he is to return home to have an operation and a plate put into the bone.  There has been much discussion around the decision of England not to send him for a scan immediately, but to wait.  It’s one of those where the logic behind it – to not make it clear to India that it was badly broken in advance of him batting – is open to question in terms of the player’s welfare, but the rationale can be partly understood, and it mattered little in the wider picture.  The team medics would have had a pretty good idea how badly it was hurt, and it’s a side issue to the bigger problems England have – except in the sense that he is unquestionably a loss to the team.

What it did explain was the three net sessions yesterday; Hameed attempting to amend his technique to find a way to bat with the injury.  He emerges with nothing but credit, for he appeared in little discomfort in the middle and did a fine job in trying to drag England up to a total that with a very fair wind they might have defended.  Indeed, he apparently had to be persuaded to return home to have it treated, insisting that he wanted to play the last two Tests.  In a series where the collective batting has been little short of dismal much of the time, he’s an unquestioned bright spot – even if some of the praise has gone beyond reasonable and into the hyperbolic.

Aside from that Woakes scored runs, but it was never likely to be enough.  Any highly optimistic hopes of an extraordinary win were heightened when Woakes himself dismissed Murali Vijay with seven on the board, but it was plain sailing thereafter, with Pujara’s late dismissal allowing national hero Virat Kohli to come in for the denouement.  Parthiv Patel completed a fine comeback match with an unbeaten and rapid fifty.

For India, the series is going swimmingly, only the form of Rahane offering up succour for England.  In itself, that is a lesson for those picking on the latest England victim, for Rahane has had a miserable time, but the rest of the team have performed more than well enough.  Blaming one player for all the woes of the batting is ridiculous, as many did when Duckett was dropped, for most teams have one player out of form at any given time.  It doesn’t for a second mean that changes shouldn’t be made, but it does mean that focusing on one doesn’t excuse the others when the side fails to make runs.

If it is little surprise that India have the superior spin attack, it is more of one that their seamers have consistently outbowled England’s.  Only Ben Stokes can be considered to have bowled well, although his five wickets in the first innings comprise all but two of those he has taken in the three Tests to date, so he has hardly been exceptional throughout.  Woakes was below par here, though doubtless playing, being dropped, then playing again does little for his consistency, while James Anderson looked entirely innocuous.  This may well have something to do with only bowling six balls in the entire match that would have hit the stumps, for nothing reassures a batsman so much as knowing that he only needs to play at the ball when he wants to score runs.  Anderson was economical alright, as is often the case when players leave the ball alone most of the time, but did not threaten a wicket.  Whether this is a deliberate tactic on his part is impossible to know, but it needs to be addressed urgently.  Mistakes are created when the batsman is unsure what to expect, at the moment they know all too well.

Stuart Broad may well return for the next Test, and at the moment it should probably be Anderson who makes way based on this match, though that is unlikely to be how it pans out, and given his record, probably rightly.  England need to work out how to take wickets, and Anderson is obviously more than capable.  But if he persists in a safe line outside off stump then it’s nothing other than a waste of a seam spot.  Harsh indeed, for whatever the criticism that can be levelled here, Anderson is and has been an outstanding bowler for England.  Which is exactly the reason for the frustration.

Cook and Bayliss were honest enough to say afterwards that they had misread the pitch, with nothing like the amount of turn on offer late on that they had expected.  With all mistakes, it is a matter of whether it could have been foreseen in advance, and few criticised the three spinner approach based on it not turning enough before the match started.  The lack of assistance meant that England had one spinner too many, with Batty and Moeen sharing light duties.  However, Mumbai is much hotter, and the pitch there expected to be more conducive to spin – it would be a serious mistake for England to replay this match and drop one of them on the basis of what happened here.  Conditions may well be different, though whether two or three is best is open to debate.  If one does go, it will probably be Batty.  His return to Test colours hasn’t been an unqualified success by any stretch, but he is what he’s always been, a solid pro who doesn’t let anyone down.

There is latitude however, simply because England have a six man attack.  In itself, this is a good thing, made possible by Stokes and Ali being frontline batsmen and Woakes and Rashid not too far off the all rounder category either, in other words, England aren’t specifically picking six bowlers as such.  Rashid has been excellent all series, and has taken two thirds of all the wickets to fall to bowlers.  Moeen has been adequate as back up but no more.  Rashid is a match winning bowler, Moeen is a useful converted part-timer who has at least done better than either of the other specialist England finger spinners on this tour, and is probably the best England have.  But while Rashid has more than contributed his fair share, for the spinners to really have a chance to impact a match, they require runs on the board to defend.  Which brings us neatly on to the batsmen.

In England’s two defeats this series, they have failed to reach 300 on any occasion.  While last time around they certainly had the worst of the conditions after losing the toss, the same can certainly not be said for Mohali. They won the toss, the pitch was good, and everything was in their favour.  The match was lost in the first innings, indeed was lost on the first morning, with a collection of poor shots aiding India in dismissing England for a woefully sub-par 283.  From there, even with a spirited fightback on day two, the match had a sense of inevitability about its ultimate conclusion.

It is the failure to be disciplined, and the failure to build partnerships that is the major problem.  Jonny Bairstow is top of the batting averages this series, but on each occasion he has come in with a rescue job to do.  That he has managed to do so on a couple of occasions is to his credit, but it doesn’t change the course of the game, it merely keeps England in the match.  Some batsmen have made a big score and done little of note apart from that – Cook and Moeen in particular.  In the latter case, his tendency towards feast or famine is well known, though it’s an especially fine effort this time around, in the former, without him having a strong series England were always going to be in trouble.  Cook’s record this series aside from the hundred is not materially worse than anyone else’s, the difference is in how critical his role is to England being competitive, and in the first innings as well.  In this match, appearing totally at sea to the spinners was a startling sight – he always has been a fine player of slow bowling.

And yet none of the batting order as constituted in this game are having a terrible time of things.  The left handers are struggling against Ashwin, which may cause some cogitation when considering Hameed’s replacement, but all in all they are scoring runs to a reasonable degree.  What they are not doing is putting it together at the same time.  Cricket is a mental game, and in many ways batting is about mentality more than any other discipline.  The problem of not building partnerships is not a new one, the same problem has been apparent over the last couple of years.  For whatever reason, England seem unable to consistently build totals, even if the individuals themselves are making scores.

What should be a major worry, with England needing to win both remaining matches to share the series is that no pitch so far has been a raging turner of the type they struggled on in Bangladesh.  Indeed, given how the tracks have played, England ought to have been comfortable with them, for India’s groundsmen have been exceptionally fair.  It’s a psychological issue rather than a technical one, for apart from the unfortunate Duckett, no player has looked out of their depth on this tour, they merely keep finding often daft or lazy ways to get out.  In some ways that’s a good thing, for the claim from Cook that England are not that far away from India is not completely unreasonable, but the margin of defeat in the last two games is so large there’s only a so long before such a claim becomes absurd rather than hopeful, and it’s pushing it now.

There are two spare batsmen on this tour, Duckett and Ballance.  It appears neither of them is selectable, which begs the question as to what the point of them staying on the tour is.  There is the possibility one of the batsmen from the Lions in the UAE could be called up, with the debate centring around whether that should be an opener.  Joe Root could move up to open with Cook for example, and with England so often being 20-2 the appeal of putting the two senior players out at the start and getting them to take responsibility for the innings is clear.  If England went down that path, then Sam Billings may be the favoured option to slot into the middle order.  If so, at least there would be no concerns about Bairstow hurting himself keeping wicket – there’d be two other players who could take over, quite possibly for the first time in Test history.

Over the three Tests to date, it’s not impossible to see England winning the next match if they get it right, but the trouble is that over the last two games, they’ve not shown that much evidence that they can. India is not an easy place to tour, as the repeated wallopings handed out to visitors have tended to show.  England might play well and still lose, such is the challenge in front of them.  But it would be nice if they did, they’d then at least have given themselves a chance.

 

India vs England: 3rd Test, Day Three

If yesterday was a good one for England, hauling themselves back into contention having wasted first use of a flat pitch on the opening day, then today was the antithesis.  It’s all very well to lament the advantage India had in the last match in winning the toss, and there’s no question at all that it very definitely was an advantage.  But you have to make use of it.  India did and England didn’t.

Day two was certainly a recovery, and at the start of play there would have been hopes that the damage done could be contained; bowling India out fairly cheaply would have evened up the game and allowed England a chance to win the match.  As it turned out, it wasn’t quite a horror day, but it wasn’t too far off.

Ashwin, Jadeja and Yadav all cashed in on a surface that remained placid, with the England bowlers unable to get much purchase.  Eventually, they reverted to attempting to bowl dry, with a degree of success sure, but by then the damage was done.  Ben Stokes and Adil Rashid were once again the pick of the bowlers, the former ultimately picking up a five wicket haul with the two of them taking all nine to fall to bowlers.  The temptation will be to blame the bowlers, which would once again be an example of making them responsible for the failures of the batsmen.  417 is far more than they would have felt India would score in their bleakest moments, but it’s still nothing more than around par for the conditions.  Bowling dry can work sometimes, but with so much time remaining, India were perfectly content to accumulate, while England looked a team out of ideas.

If a deficit of 134 was about 100 more than England would have hoped for, a difficult position was not beyond redemption.  The pitch remains flat, with little spin and little movement.  The occasional ball is keeping low, but nothing more than could be expected on day three.  There is the pressure of the situation to take into account, certainly, and India’s spin attack is overall better than England’s.  This is no surprise, and is as it should be given the native conditions in the respective countries.  Rashid has been excellent, Moeen and Batty a bit limited, though it’s worth noting that kicking stool Moeen has over twice as many wickets this series as specialists Batty and Zahari combined.  Moaning and complaining about them is as pointless as moaning and complaining about the conditions themselves.  What do those whining expect?  A sudden superstar off spinner to appear over the horizon?  There aren’t any, and while a case can be made that others represent a marginal improvement (Adil Rashid is rather more than that – not that it would have been apparent from the slating he received from those who should have known better), it doesn’t mean that these matches would be radically different, and nor does it alter the truth of the matter that England’s problems in this series are down to the batting not the bowling.

Being so far behind didn’t mean England were completely out of the game, they just needed to bat well to give themselves some kind of chance.  And once again they fell short.  Cook is a terrific player of spin bowling and has been throughout his career, and it is only two Tests ago he scored a fine hundred.  Yet he’s also a player who can look thoroughly out of sorts in no time, and here he was all at sea more or less throughout his innings, twice surviving reviews before being bowled through the gate by Ravi Ashwin.  Cook is getting stuck on the crease, neither properly forward nor back, and feeling for the ball.  In this case he was beaten by the flight and simply played down the wrong line.  For England to be truly competitive in this series they needed Cook to bat exceptionally well.  It’s not worked out that way.

With Hameed injured, Cook’s opening partner was Joe Root, and despite some issues with his back, he proved to be the only light amid the gloom of an entirely expected clatter of wickets.  After Cook’s dismissal it was Moeen Ali’s turn.  There’s a curiosity that should come as a surprise to no one, in that Moeen tried to use his feet, was thoroughly beaten in the flight by Ashwin, and chipped it to mid on.  Not a great shot by any means, but the usual queue of suspects lined up to attack someone for apparently being irresponsible when they get out using their feet.  Given how thoroughly stuck England became against Jadeja and Ashwin in particular, almost strokeless at times, the intent was correct, if the execution was flawed.  Immediately, Moeen was heavily criticised.  The problem is this – it’s that a player who hasn’t exactly had a great tour with the bat but has scored not far off a thousand runs this year with an average in the mid forties is once again being singled out for criticism based more than anything on the fact that he was out to an attacking shot rather than a defensive one.   Cook’s shot was at the very least just as poor, and probably worse, but it was a defensive one, and therefore given a free pass.  Any batsman will say that they hate being out to a defensive shot most of all, for it is a concession of defeat to the bowler.

With Moeen’s dismissal in came Jonny Bairstow, a mere 20 overs after he’d stripped off the wicketkeeping pads.  It certainly doesn’t follow that his failure to score an unbeaten triple century is due to that, but there’s a reason keepers tend not to bat high up the order – it’s difficult.  He looked decent enough though, and was undone by one that kept low from Jayant Yadav.  Bairstow did pretty well to get an edge off it, and no blame can be attached to him.  Where he was unlucky was in Parthiv Patel taking an outstanding catch behind the stumps.  It’s been a regular on here to whinge about the cluelessness of most commentators bar the obvious exceptions when it comes to the life of the man with the gloves.  “Good catch” was about as far as the praise went, although James Taylor in the studio afterwards certainly got it, making up for the lack of effusiveness in the comm box.

The reason why the catch was so good is because it was low.  It might not seem to be a big thing, as coming up with the ball is an article of faith amongst all wicketkeepers.  The trouble is that all human beings anticipate based on what they expect to happen rather than what actually does.  It’s why batsmen edge or miss the ball when it seams, spins or doesn’t spin – anything different to what he might expect.  When coming up, it’s far easier to cope with additional bounce, as that’s the direction of travel for the hands anyway.  If the ball keeps low, then changing direction is nigh on impossible given the miniscule time between noticing the bounce and having to catch it.  As a keeper it always amused to be praised highly for taking a catch stood up where it bounced more than expected – it looks magnificent, but it isn’t that special a catch.  Taking one low down like that is a truly fabulous piece of technique.  Patel will be fully aware of how good his catch was, and his celebration made it clear that he rated it.  It’s a shame not too many others do, for it was better than any number of spectacular diving one handers.

Stokes was the final man out today, again beaten by Ashwin who has bowled beautifully.  He’s simply been too good today.

It’s hard to see how England will get out of this. It’s not easy to see how they will even make India chase more than a nominal total.  It’s possible, for while Root is in all possibilities are there.  But it will require him to get a very large score indeed, and at least one of Hameed and Buttler to do very nearly the same.  Possible doesn’t remotely equal plausible, and the expectation has to be that India will go dormie two some time in the middle of day four.

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