Add the Buttler to the Popery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve Had Enough, I’m Getting Out – Day 1 at the Cape Town Test

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England: 262 for 9 (Pope 56*, Stokes 47 – Pretorius 2/26)

Day 1 at CapeTown always brings back memories for me. I had the absolute pleasure of attending the test there in 2005. It was actually sad to see the area in which I spent four of the five days of that game (yes, it went five days, but if it were a 4 day test, we’d have followed on midway through Day 3). now cordoned off for redevelopment. I do hope the grass bank returns there. It was a great way to watch the cricket.

Anyway, let’s shrug off those memories, and instead focus on today. England chose to omit Jonny Bairstow, while Burns and Archer missed out through injury. Zak Crawley came into open, Ollie Pope reclaimed his place at number 6 and back-up keeper, while Dom Bess gives England a spin option, while Matt Parkinson might be wondering if this paid up working holiday is going to continue with him being ignored. England won the toss and batted.

And within 3 overs Crawley was back in the pavilion, nicking a swinging delivery from Philander. Zak is going to sink or swim here – the last selection of Bairstow over him at Centurion indicated a lack of faith – and he looks like he might get a run if he can just show something in the second innings. I saw him, admittedly a small sample size, at the Oval last year and was really impressed how he handled Morkel. But Philander is a different kind of test animal….

Denly and Sibley then dug in for most of the morning session, before Sibley, who is gradually increasing his output each test, was taken just before lunch when he nicked off to Rabada.  England lunched at 67 for 2.

The afternoon session saw Denly become becalmed, while Root did the advancing of the score. I missed the immediate post-lunch session walking the border collie, and when I came back, Root was out, being undone by pace and gloving the ball to de Kock off the pretty impressive Nortje. He had made 35 of the partnership of 42. 105 for 3. Ben Stokes joined Denly, with those memories of 4 years ago and his double century in lots of people’s minds. But before we could get to grips with any of that, and with no hint, Denly played down the wrong line to Maharaj, left a gap between bat and pad, and was castled. Out for 38, and 127 for 4.

Stokes and Pope then put together a partnership – no not 100+ but at least over 50. Pope is one of those players that looks lovely when he hits it, but gives you a real chance, and he did at the start today. He seems to lunge at spin, play with firm hands, but man, when he drives it, it’s like watching Ian Bell. Stokes started to look really dominating, plonking Maharaj over long on for six, and a dismissive pull for four was a lovely shot. Then, bang, chipped to cover for 47. No reason, no hint, just a chip to extra cover. 185 for 5.

Jos Buttler came in, played aggressively, was dropped off a tough chance at silly mid-off, and then nicked off after a flowery 29. No excuses here, Jos. No protecting the tail and then getting out trying to get fast runs. He has the gloves now, so maybe has a bit more time to go, but there are whispers out there. 221 for 6.

Sam Curran played a good shot, then left one and had his off stump knocked out. 231 for 7. Dom Bess, picked partially for his batting, nicked off to the first ball with the new cherry from Vernon Philander. 231 for 8. Stuart Broad’s Embarrassing Dismissal DVD registered another entry when he was yorked by Rabada with bat behind his pad and his feet beating the retreat. 234 for 9.

Pope then added 28 with Jimmy Anderson, and passed his second test fifty with some deft and inventive shot making. The day after his 22nd birthday he played with great maturity and showed he is someone we can look to the future to. He had some luck when Rabada bounced Pope, who hooked it to Philander only for it to be judged a no-ball by the third umpire. The ball before, when Pope upper cut for four, it was an enormous no-ball I called on Twitter (Sky later confirmed it) and this wasn’t called. Umpires have a really tough job, but that was blatant. Maybe this should just be handed to the third umpire. Pope finishing the day on 56 not out. In the words of Atherton “the one bright spot”

What’s there really to say? Any sense in getting angry about this? A different type of batting failure. Instead of one contribution of 80, and another of 40 with single digits elsewhere, we now have numbers 2-7 all making scores between 29 and 47, with one exception. It’s different. All getting in and all getting out (except Pope, of course, but he got lucky spooning one over mid-on early in his innings).

South Africa bowled well, make no mistake about it, but England are going nowhere in test cricket, especially away from home. I go back, as I always do, to the Pakistan test about 20 months ago when we won, well, but the England innings was a lot like this. No-one was making the big centuries. We were relying on helpful bowling conditions and scratching out 250-350. I said then it wasn’t a template for the future. I shrug my shoulders these days.

You should never judge a pitch until both teams have batted, and bowled, on it, but this feels light. Very light. But let us see….

Over Rate Watch – One over light in the 6 and a half hour’s play today. I suppose we should celebrate that.

So, looking forward to Day 2 (although my watching will be curtailed for Teddy’s annual vet visit). And I will continue to watch wistfully. It is a really, really lovely ground. I miss those days. I certainly remember being well watered by the end of that first day, like the England fans appeared to be during that 10th wicket partnership!

Blatant self-promotion on the “Extra Bits” – On This Day for January 3rd. – I have the next six days covered as well.

Comments on today, and those for Day 2, below.