New Zealand’s Warm Up Series: Day One

Just thought I’d flick that around, given they’ve got a big date before too long and too many are viewing this as England’s preparatory series for India.

Test cricket is back, and with crowds. Not a full crowd, but a reasonably sized one, and enough to generate a background noise that is so much better than an artificial backing track. So let’s get something out of the way first, the over rate. It was poor. Again. By the time play came to a close we were four overs short. It’s not new, it’s never been tackled, and it’s abundantly clear the ICC couldn’t care less. It’s also true that a lot of cricket supporters aren’t that bothered either, so why be so annoyed about it? Because after the last 15 months where players and administrators have fallen over themselves to explain why spectators are so important and so valued, it is disrespectful to shortchange them like this, and doubly so to do it without the slightest sense of anyone in authority caring. There have been days when the shortfall has been worse than today, but it is still saying, on a daily basis, that the fans don’t matter, that what they’ve paid doesn’t matter. It is entirely fair enough for those who go and aren’t put out by it, but it’s not about that, it’s about the mentality of players, captains and administrators who don’t care in the slightest, and on the day Test supporters returned after such a long hiatus, it’s unforgivable. Don’t give us the bullshit about how much you value cricket fans and their presence at matches, when you can’t even be bothered to deliver what they paid (a lot) for. The media complain about it, but they barely ever confront the players about what their actions imply, and they should. Every single time. Enough.

As for the cricket, it’s as clearly New Zealand’s day, and they’re in a fine position to go on to dominate the Test. Devon Conway has been the star of the show, so look forward to all the “Devon’s got the Cream” headlines in the morning – and they’re deserved too. A late entrant to Test cricket, he’s taken his chance, and by demonstrating some decidedly old-fashioned skills – that of the patient opener. There’s something rather special about those who are nowhere near the Test arena until relatively advanced into their careers, who then grab the chance with both hands. As ever, one innings says nothing about the future, but a hundred on debut, at Lord’s, is no bad way to start. More to the point, he looks the part – slightly unsettled by Mark Wood’s pace at times, but able to adapt and cope.

His century is more impressive for the lack of consistent support until the arrival of Henry Nicholls midway through the afternoon session. England’s bowlers had chipped away and the innings could have gone in either direction. Digging in – for neither exactly dominated proceedings – and grinding down the England attack to push their team into, if not a dominant position, certainly a healthy one is how Test cricket used to be far more frequently than in today’s game. And it was a welcome return of such past values and skills.

It is a flat surface – there was some movement in the air, and the new ball carry through well enough to the keeper, but aside from one spell from the luckless Broad when he was all over Ross Taylor, it can’t be said New Zealand looked in a great deal of trouble.

Much comment has gone around about England’s choice not to select a front line spinner, relying on Root to get through a number of overs. And while by the end of this match that may prove to have been an error, it can’t realistically be stated so baldly on the first day – the idea one would have been certain to pick up wickets on such a friendly surface at the start of the game is the epitome of a player showing huge improvement by virtue of not playing. Had one been picked, they would have done more or less the same role as Root himself, to get through a few overs as cheaply as possible while rotating the seamers.

Nor have England bowled at all badly – they’ve probed and kept things tight without resorting to anything as base as bowling dry, it’s just that on the day the batsmen, specifically Conway and Nicholls, have been better. It happens, and New Zealand are a good team – which is why they’re in the World Test Championship Final and England aren’t.

England also picked a pair of debutants, James Bracey and Ollie Robinson. The former kept tidily enough, and nearly nabbed a stumping off Root as well. So far so good in his case. Ollie Robinson will be pleased enough with his day on the field – a couple of wickets and bowling nicely. It will be slightly ruined by the realisation that some old tweets as a teenager have garnered attention and it is an issue that will need dealing with. One observation there is that it is something of a mystery why neither player’s agent (assuming he has one) nor the ECB think it a worthwhile idea to check these things properly in advance to ensure there’s nothing detrimental or embarrassing that can come up when a player is selected.

Tomorrow is another day. England may not have bowled badly, but they can bowl better. The modest run rate means New Zealand haven’t got away so this match hasn’t decisively tilted one way just yet. But New Zealand will be the happier, and they deserve it too.

England vs Pakistan: 3rd Test, Day Three

This blog has been on something of a mission to talk about over rates over the last year or so, but even by the woeful and unpunished standards of that time today was something special.  Only 81 overs were bowled in the day, and that was thanks to the innings change being at tea, otherwise it would have been in the seventies.  That is 10% of the day’s play not completed, and rightfully there has been much comment about it.

Yet it is merely an extreme example of something that is considered acceptable.  In no other sport would this go on – can you imagine a football match finishing after 81 minutes for example?  People have paid good money to go to these matches, and they are being shortchanged repeatedly.  What normally happens is that the match referees take into account delays such as reviews, repairing the bowlers footholes and so on – but this is nonsense.  The additional half hour is there precisely to cater for such things, it is not part of the playing time.

No excuses, no justification.  Today is merely an extreme example of the game not giving a stuff about those who pay to watch.

During what play there was, England actually had an exceptionally good day, perhaps even more so considering it wasn’t one of those magic days where nothing can go wrong.  Instead, on a pitch that has shown no signs whatever of breaking up – indeed it appears to have got flatter – they worked hard and stayed in touch through the dint of those efforts rather than anything extraordinary.  The wickets were shared around with the exception of the luckless Finn who cannot buy one at the present and suffered yet another dropped catch towards the end.

Woakes again was excellent, Anderson was miserly, and Broad showed what he has added to his game in the last few years – namely the ability to keep things tight and pick up wickets even when not at his very best.  Broad in particular is one of those divisive characters who gets criticism despite having a truly outstanding record in recent years.  He has a bowling average of 22.69 in the last two years.  This isn’t just good, it is truly world class.  Yet he still gets stick when he has a less than perfect day.  It’s hard to know what more he could possibly do to win the detractors over.

For Pakistan, a lead of 103 might have been less than they had hoped for, but it would have still been an immensely satisfying outcome from the first innings.  Stats can be manipulated to express a desired outcome, but the one that only 3% of matches have been lost by a side taking a lead of 100 or more does emphasise the strong position in which they found themselves.

It could have been better still – Misbah continued his one man mission to give hope to all those over the age of 40 with another good innings, cut short rather unluckily from an inside edge that deflected off pad and heel back on to the stumps.  After his departure the innings began to fall away, despite the best efforts of the increasingly impressive Sarfraz Ahmed, ultimately left stranded on 46 as the tail fell away.

Flat as the surface was, England were in some difficulty with the match position, and Cook and Hales deserve immense credit for batting to the end of the day without either being dismissed.  Pakistan’s bowling could have been better certainly, but there’s always the temptation to lay the blame on the opposition rather than praising England.  Confining Cook by not bowling anything wide of the stumps for him to cut is extremely easy to say, and not terribly easy to do.  The way Australia managed it in 2010/11 was exceptional – but that is not normal, or cricket would be a far easier game than it ever has been.  Likewise, Hales may have a weakness outside off stump, but he batted with good discipline and reined his instincts in.  In some ways this was his most impressive innings to date in the Test side.

So with England now in the lead with all 10 wickets in hand, it could be argued that the match is now level, and numerically this is so.  But psychology plays a funny role in cricket, and an effective 17-0 it may be, but the effort in getting to parity cannot be overlooked.  England have made a very good start, but 120-0 can all too easily become 150-3; still not a bad innings but in the match context 50-3 is back in trouble.  Therefore for England to get into a good position they will need to bat exceptionally well tomorrow too, they are the vulnerable team in this match still.

The draw is now a good possibility though, with two days remaining it’s hard to see circumstances where England are sufficiently comfortable to be in a position to declare, so at worst Pakistan will likely have less than a day to bat should things go perfectly for England.  Pakistan remain the most likely winners, and perhaps England’s best chance of victory is to be bowled out, sometime towards the end of play tomorrow.  Another 300 would represent a perfect fourth day and be a stiff target.  But another 300 would also require England to bat out of their skins.

This could yet become an exceptionally good Test match.

Day Four Comments Below

 

 

 

 

England vs Pakistan: 1st Test, Day Three

Lords tends to be one of the quieter grounds in world cricket; even when full it is more a murmur than a roar, yet in the last hour of play today the crowd were vocal and supportive, particularly towards the outstanding Chris Woakes and the desperately unlucky Stephen Finn.  The reason why is straightforward enough, for this is a Test that has been a scrap from the first ball, with both sides harbouring legitimate hopes of victory.  With all the suggestions and plans for ensuring the relevance of Test cricket, the involvement of those at the ground was due not to gimmicks, or innovations, but to two sides battling to gain the upper hand in a Test that has been excellent throughout.

Perhaps some would then think it churlish to begin with a complaint, but it’s the same one as on the first two days – that the over rate was sufficiently poor that the full 90 weren’t completed in the day.  That it was only two overs short is not the point, they have an extra half hour to complete them.  It’s very simple – stop cheating the spectators and talk about them being cheated will also stop.

With the most obvious difference between the sides being in the lower order, it was natural cricketing perversity that ensured that while England’s fell away in the morning to be bowled out 67 adrift of Pakistan’s first innings score, the tourists decided that today was the day when theirs would perform.  Yasir Shah for one is engaged in a personal contest with Chris Woakes for all rounder of the game, merrily dispatching England bowlers with disdain just when England might have thought they had the upper hand at last.  It capped a fine day for him – in removing Finn this morning, Yasir had become the leading wicket taker in Test history after 13 Tests (an arbitrary number for sure, but evidence of the impact he has made on the game).

Indeed, for most of the day England looked to have clawed back much of the first innings deficit, especially when Pakistan were reduced to 60-4 following an impressively dreadful shot from the captain.  The best matches are those that swing one way and then the other, and a hideously out of form Younis Khan may at the end of matters consider that his crabby, laboured 25 was vastly more important than the number suggests.  Asad Rafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed carried on that work in much more fluent fashion, along with the aforementioned Yasir.  They had a little help, Cook and Bairstow dropping very catchable chances, both off the luckless Finn but with a lead of 281 with a couple of wickets still in hand, Pakistan are in a very strong position.

That they are is despite the best efforts of Chris Woakes, who once again was the star of the show with the ball, although rather surprisingly he was held back early on.  How impressive his match has been is perhaps best illustrated by how he’s reduced his Test bowling average from 41.25 on Thursday morning to 28.18 now.  Yet he doesn’t appear to be doing anything greatly different – a fairly consistent bowling action, line and length, and a little bit of movement off the seam.  In the last few Tests he had mastered the art of being parsimonious, and perhaps the wickets he is now taking are to an extent created by the impression of being hard to get away he has begun to foster.

Around 300 never seems that big a total to win, but history is against it, not just at Lords but in Test matches generally.  It’s rare to chase down that many, indeed over 300 has only been done 28 times in the history of the game, which given the number of Tests played is a miniscule number.  There is a constant underestimation of the difficulty in reaching targets of that size, amongst players and commentators as much as anyone else.  So it was that Nasser Hussain talked about England being comfortable up to 280, when they should be anything but.  It’s not a criticism of him, as it’s something heard widely from all quarters on each occasion it comes up in a match, but make no mistake, England are in a spot of bother.

What it does mean is that there will be a result in this match, possibly tomorrow, possibly early on Monday.  Mickey Arthur at the close of play stated that Pakistan had hoped for a lead of 275, and allowing for the usual kidology that is always present in interviews, there was little doubt that he was delighted with their position.  That’s certainly not to say that England cannot win this, but the bookmakers are being a little generous (patriotic money presumably) in cricketing terms in making them the favourites.  While Yasir Shah may be felt to be the biggest challenge based on the first innings, the seam attack underperformed a touch first time around, and with the warm weather and bone dry pitch, both conventional and reverse swing should add to the level of difficulty.

This has the makings of an excellent series, and praise be it’s been enjoyable to watch.

Day four comments below 

 

 

England vs Pakistan: 1st Test Day two

It is perhaps perversely illustrative of the issues Test cricket faces that after two days play there is considerable intrigue at where this match is going, and rather more pleasure at the way that it is developing into a proper scrap.  Despite all ECB attempts to portray the last Ashes as a classic, each Test was more or less over by the end of day two, the direction of travel beyond retrieval.  Thus, the prospect of an even fight is in itself an attraction, and as far as Lords is concerned at least, reflected in strong ticket sales.  Give the public something to watch, and they’ll turn out.  This is of course helped by Pakistan not having come here for six years, precisely the importance of not killing the golden goose by playing the same teams constantly.  Whether it’s a lesson the ECB will learn seems unlikely – the four year Ashes cycle that was promised to return is already being compromised as administrators look after their immediate financial interests rather than the game itself.

This isn’t anything new, nor is it remotely something of which critics are unaware, yet it bears repeating at every opportunity, for the matter of the game’s integrity is more important than anything else in cricket.  Pakistan are a talented team, and one who are good to watch.  There are wider reasons for their long absence from this country, but it doesn’t mean there is any excuse should it be a similar gap before their next visit.

For the second day running, the scheduled 90 overs were not bowled in the day.  The bulk of the bowling was from Pakistan, after England bowled them out in fairly short order, meaning that both sides have been guilty of not providing ticket holders with what they had paid for.  A ticket in the Compton stand was £90, making the mathematics rather straightforward.  Yesterday we were three overs short, today it was four.  This is after the additional half an hour was played in order to complete the allocation.  The television coverage gently mentions it from time to time, but suffers from the fundamental problem that all the media does, written or broadcast, which is that they aren’t paying for their entrance – the very opposite.  Ultimately, they don’t care any more than the players do about what is, without a shadow of a doubt, theft.  That might be a strong word, but it’s a disgraceful, entirely unacceptable state of affairs.  Players get fined occasionally (note that the money is not returned to the spectators, as it should be) but almost the entire series in South Africa suffered from shortened days in terms of overs, and nothing whatever was done.  Fundamentally, as if we did not know already, the players and the ICC do not care about the spectators except as a revenue stream.

Doubtless if put to them they would protest that, but the fact is that nothing is done about it, and nothing is ever said to those unhappy about it.  Both yesterday and today the crowds thinned out around 6pm, the scheduled close of play, as the crowd caught trains or buses home.  This is meant to be when it finishes, so there is a contempt already present by not meeting the timings imposed; to then fail to get the overs in within the additional time allowed is nothing short of scandalous.  The match referee then looks at it over the course of the Test, which is ridiculous in itself given that most people go for a single day’s play – it doesn’t help them if the over rate speeds up later on.

There are various ideas about how to prevent this happening, but the given the current sanctions aren’t used a great deal anyway, there’s little point even talking about them, as it seems unlikely they’d be used either.  Both captains should be banned for the next match.  But they won’t be.  No one suffers – except the poor bloody spectator who pays for the game to be put on in the first place.

Chris Woakes is one of those figures whose first class record suggests an all rounder of rare ability, genuinely worthy of a place with both bat and ball, yet to date in his international career he has been more likely to be in receipt of comment that neither discipline is good enough, that he is, as the parlance goes, a bits and pieces cricketer.  There has been defence of him on these pages, but his presence in the team has been anything but universally welcomed.  In the same way that early struggles shouldn’t be a reason to his dismiss him, nor should his current success mean that he is a fixture for years to come, yet there are signs he is coming to terms with the standard, not just today, but in recent games where he has been one of the better performers.  His 6-70 was outstanding, his halting of the Pakistani charge through the England line up in the last session highly meritorious.  The one area where England have a notable advantage over the visitors is in the lower middle order.  Woakes has hinted at batting ability often enough without going on to make a significant score – partly due to his lowly position at 8 or 9 – but in a tight game, a contribution from him could make all the difference.

Alastair Cook was the prime contributor to the England score, and in so doing became the highest Test run scorer of any opening batsman, overtaking Sunil Gavaskar.  Longevity may not be the most important attribute in analysing a player’s worth, but nor is it to be ignored either.  Opening the batting remains a uniquely challenging occupation in cricket, and the landmark is worthy of praise.  Yet today he seemed somewhat out of sorts, playing and missing outside off stump frequently (and being turned square far too often) as well as having two escapes when straightforward edges were dropped.  Most batsmen will worry little about that, factoring in the occasions where brilliant catches are taken or dubious decisions are given as evening up the ledger.  But the slightly out of sync technique brought his downfall, dragging the ball on to the stumps as he failed to get across to it outside off stump.  He’s not quite in top form.

Joe Root was clearly upset with himself for his dismissal; a poor shot undoubtedly, not for the first time recently.  Perhaps he will receive genuine criticism for the first time in a while, but it seems few will be as hard on him as he will himself.  Jonny Bairstow too was guilty of a poor shot, one borne perhaps of overconfidence as much as anything.  Many a batsman will say that you don’t make hundreds when you are in the very best of form, because you take chances you wouldn’t do if the fear of dismissal was in the back of the mind.

But if those were somewhat self-inflicted – most dismissals are batsman error – it doesn’t detract from the performance of Yasir Shah.  To take five wickets on day two of a Test at Lords, where pitches are usually flat and slow, is some achievement.  England consistently have problems with legspin, despite their protests that they have learned lessons, and so it proved here.  Given that the seam attack was a little off colour (not helped by the drops) it was ominous that England struggled so.

Late in the day the tale of two lbw decisions pointed the way to the future.  Firstly Moeen Ali was given out despite two elements on umpire’s call in the decision.  It was of course out by the rules pertaining to Hawkeye, but the question is whether it should be.  If there are two points of doubt, surely there is doubt all round?  The second example was the appeal against Stuart Broad, it was not out according to the current playing regulations, but when the new ones come in later this year, it would be.  There have to be concerns that the number of lbw decisions will increase quite substantially, and matches shortened accordingly.

England are 86 runs behind with three wickets left.  They could get close, they could be rolled over in short order. Not having a good idea where the match is going is when Test cricket is at its best.  Day three may be pivotal, it may not.  But the point is that there will be interest in finding out.

Day three comments below