Hand me Down a Solution – Series Review

In the early 1980s when growing up, summer holidays meant tuning in to BBC1 at 10:55 to watch the Test matches.  Come the end of summer, the feeling of melancholy at the conclusion of a series was always strong, with the only subsequent cricket being the end of season Lords one day final, which was akin to pretending to enjoy the sloe gin from the drinks cabinet when everything else has been consumed.  Times change, and cricket now is unending, where the finish to the Tests is merely a pause before the one day internationals begin, and then England go on tour somewhere.  In the same way that the end of the football season is a mere pause in hostilities, the end of the Test match cricket summer no longer normally carries so much power to create sadness.

And yet with this one, perhaps there is a little more in the way of regret at the passing of the season.  This is probably as much as anything due to Pakistan, who have been exceptional tourists, and thoroughly merited their victory at the Oval to draw the series.  Four Tests also offered up the reminder as to why a five Test series remains the best possible format, provided the series is a competitive one.  Few cricket fans would object to a decider for this one, yet it is a lament that so often is heard and never acted upon.  It was at least better than the ridiculous two Test “series” against New Zealand last year.

What the drawn series did do was silence those who were quoting the article of faith about England holding all the bilateral trophies.  It isn’t that doing such a thing isn’t a meritorious achievement, it’s just that something that no one had ever noticed or paid attention to before somehow became the highest possible achievement in the game in their eyes.  As with so many things, the context is all, noting success is a good thing, going overboard about it is not.  Doubtless, the bilateral series record will now return to being what it always was – a minor matter.

Given their troubled previous tour to England, Pakistan clearly intended to win hearts and minds this time around, and in that they succeeded.  It is a remarkable turn around for a side who it is probably fair to say were one of the least popular touring sides in England; they played with a joie de vivre that reminds everyone that cricket – even in its modern, money is all important guide – is a game, a pastime, and above all fun; the reason all of these players first picked up a bat or a ball in the first place.  The repeated press ups may have irritated the England players, but it amused the spectators every time.  Quite simply, the Pakistan team looked like they were enjoying themselves.  One particular moment comes to mind, a catch by Hafeez (who didn’t exactly have many high points) caused a young boy in the crowd to wildly celebrate, being picked up by the TV cameras and leading the player to end almost doubled over laughing, and applauding his young supporter.  It was a delightful moment, and one that re-inforced the image of a team comfortable with where and who they are at last.

Misbah ul-Haq remains under-appreciated in his homeland, but elsewhere he is approaching hero status for cricket fans.  The achievements are verging on the extraordinary, with Pakistan now having the most successful period in Test cricket in their history under his leadership.  It is quite exceptional in itself, and given his age, truly remarkable.  Misbah has made Pakistan competitive, and above all given his team their self-respect.  If it has to be that it is something more recognised for what it is abroad, then that is a pity, but it is still worth recognising.

So what of England?  The first part of the summer was routine enough, a Sri Lankan side shorn of its great players was despatched with little difficulty, but Pakistan proved to be something of a harder nut to crack.  This in itself came as something of a surprise to some, with many predictions of a comfortable England win before the series began.  Yet Pakistan were always going to be a threat, and in advance of the series the assessment of it being between two sides with good seam attacks, and patchy batting proved to be ultimately more or less right.  England had the advantage in the middle and lower order, while Pakistan had a (much) better spinner at their disposal.

Statistics can be gleefully misleading at the end of a series though: take the comparison between Moeen Ali and Yasir Shah, both of whom averaged over 40 in the series with the ball.  Yet Yasir was instrumental in both Pakistan wins, while Moeen – with the ball at least – certainly was not.  This isn’t a particular surprise of course, for Yasir is an outstanding bowler, and even the most adoring fan of Moeen would never make that claim.  But it does highlight the point that players can have an impact in a game disproportionate to their overall figures, perhaps we could call it the Ben Stokes effect.

England did have some real successes in the series, Moeen himself batted absolutely beautifully, that dreadful slog at Lords proving to be very much the exception.  It’s notable in his case that that particular dismissal didn’t stop him from using his feet to the spinners, most gloriously on that final morning at Edgbaston where in the first over of the day he served notice that England were going all out for the win.  That Moeen can bat is not especially surprising news, that his batting improves out of all recognition when given one of the batting spots rather than being in the tail perhaps is.  Either way, and given that England have limited spin bowling options – presumably Adil Rashid will come in for the India tour – his series will count as a success, albeit with a couple of major caveats.  One item of note with Moeen’s bowling is that although his average is certainly not the best, his strike rate is quite decent, comparable with Nathan Lyon for example.  Batsmen do try to attack him, and do get out to him.  In the absence of a truly top class spinner of the calibre of a Graeme Swann, replacing Moeen with another off spinner is unlikely to deliver markedly improved results.  It doesn’t mean defending Moeen irrespective, but it does mean cutting England’s cloth according to what they have.  A decade ago Ashley Giles received no end of criticism for not being Shane Warne, but he did a job, and did it well.  Chasing rainbows is not the means to a successful side.

Joe Root finished top of the batting averages, largely due to that astounding 254.  Aside from that it will represent a mildly frustrating series for him, getting in and getting out with annoying frequency.  An illustration of just how good Root has become is shown by the feeling that the series was a slightly unsatisfying one despite over 500 runs at more than 73.  Such is the penalty for excellence, for brilliance is expected every time.  But Root himself alluded to the irritation of getting out when set, so it is less a criticism, and more a matter of the player being so good now that he can deliver even more than he currently is.  He has a decent shout of being England’s best batsman in many, many years.

Cook too had a mixed time of it, despite a strong set of figures over the series.  He looked somewhat rusty in the first Test, but thereafter his biggest problem appeared to be that his form was too good if anything.  He rattled along, having the highest strike rate of anyone bar Moeen, a most un-Cooklike state of affairs.  He was fluent and even playing cover drives, which tends to be one of the best indicators of an in form Cook.  That would then bring about his downfall – seeing him caught at point off a skewed drive, or dragging pull shots onto the stumps is not something that is expected.  Most batsmen will tell you that they score the most runs when they are just shy of their very best, where there is a degree of caution in the strokeplay.  When feeling on top of the world, more chances are taken, and getting out is more likely.  It is impossible to measure, but the suspicion has to be that this was the case with Cook this time.  Still, a good series for him.

Jonny Bairstow was the other major plus point in the batting order.  He’s the leading run scorer in Tests in the world this calendar year (by dint of having played far more than anyone else, it has to be an Englishman) and scored heavily without ever going on to a truly match defining innings at any point.  Four fifties and no hundreds represents a decent return from a player in excellent form, but perhaps his most notable achievement was muting the comment about his wicketkeeping.  He hasn’t turned into a great ‘keeper overnight, and probably never will, but it is tidier, and with fewer errors than in previous series.  He pulled off a couple of decent catches too.  His wicketkeeping remains a work in progress, but the reality is that his runs balance that out; the age old debate about a specialist keeper versus an auxiliary batsman who keeps has long been settled, in favour of the batting.  Bairstow will make mistakes, but the more he keeps – and it does need to be remembered that much of his career he has been essentially part-time – the better he will get.  There have been some suggestions that he move up the order, effectively to compensate for the flaws in England’s batting, but it would be a big ask to expect him to do that, especially in the heat of India or Bangladesh.  Weakening another player to make up for the failures of others has never been a solution.

England have become something of a team of all rounders in the last eighteen months, and the player who was widely felt to be more of a bits and pieces player than a true example of the breed is Chris Woakes, who probably had the best series of anyone.  He batted well enough, making a maiden half century, but his bowling was a revelation to many.  Yet Woakes has an excellent first class record with both bat and ball, and he was hardly the first player to find the transition to Test cricket a challenge.  The demand for instant success clouds the reality that an immediate impact guarantees nothing, and other players can take time to adjust.  One fine series doesn’t mean that he’s a fixture for the next few years, but he’s started to look the part with the ball for a while; in South Africa he bowled with very well yet was spectacularly unlucky.  This time he got the rewards.  By all accounts he has worked exceptionally hard on his bowling, putting on an extra few mph and improving his control.  Players can and do learn – it is not unlikely that James Anderson is a rather useful resource – and Woakes’ success is a reward for being patient with him.

Stuart Broad is a bowler who attracts considerable ire and much comment, despite a record over the last couple of years that compares with anyone.  This series certainly wasn’t his best, and mutterings about his apparent habit of coasting resurfaced.  Yet 13 wickets at 28.61 is hardly a catastrophic return, and if that now counts as coasting, then it merely demonstrates what a fine bowler he has become.  It was a relatively quiet series for him because he didn’t have one of those spells where he becomes completely unplayable, rather than because he struggled at any point.  Broad is the focal point of the England bowling attack these days, despite Woakes having a better time of it this time.  Criticism of Broad is absurd, he is a fine bowler who had a series that was quiet by his standards.  The “by his standards” is the key.  Where there can be severe disappointment with him is with his batting.  It has completely fallen apart, and the pity of that is that for so long he looked like someone who, if never destined to be a true all rounder, looked a player capable of meaningful contributions on a regular basis.

Anderson too had a reasonably quiet but still moderately effective series.  He didn’t take a whole lot of wickets, but maintained excellent control throughout.  He made more headlines for having a preposterous strop at being rightly sanctioned for running on the track than anything else.  What can be said about him is that at 34 he remains an outstanding athlete, with few obvious signs of diminishing powers.  Assuming he carries on for another few years he will doubtless get slower, but he is a clever bowler, and one who will use the skill developed over a career to take wickets.  At the veteran stage of his cricketing life, he is still a valuable asset.

As for Steven Finn, his raw figures look horrible, but at times he bowled well and with pace.  He’s a difficult one to assess, forever making progress and then regressing.  At 27 he should be coming into his peak, but the nagging worry that he is not going to fulfil the potential he first showed is very much there.  Two away series (assuming Bangladesh goes ahead) in Asia are unlikely to show him at his very best, given that the rampaging, lightning fast Finn of the past now appears to be something we won’t see again.  He is once more at the crossroads, and which way his career goes is open to question.

The bowling overall looks in reasonable shape, the nucleus is there as it has been for some years, and if the spin side of it looks a bit thin, it’s an issue that applies to the English game as a whole more than anything.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the batting, for despite the good performances of those mentioned, that they were required to do almost all of it as the rest of the top order had poor series.

Ballance was the best of them, and he at least has a strong record to fall back on.  His return to Test cricket doesn’t appear to have shown any major changes in his technique, beyond batting a little more out of the crease than he used to.  He didn’t appear out of his depth, did get a few good deliveries and made one score of note.  Of all the players who had weak series, he still appears to be best equipped for Test cricket.  Yet the jury remains out on him, as to whether that slightly idiosyncratic style is going to allow him to make a true success of the longest form of the game.  He probably did enough to retain his place in the side, if only because others did worse, but he needs significant runs soon if he is not to be another to shine brightly but briefly.

Hales and Vince are the two who are most at risk, yet for differing reasons.  Hales doesn’t have the purest technique, but was brought into the side to provide a contrast with Alastair Cook’s accumulative style of batting.  Yet it was Cook who was by far the more fluent, while Hales appears to be attempting to bat like a traditional opener.  It’s hard to understand the thinking behind this, for Hales is never going to be as competent at that as others are, his strengths are in playing his shots, taking the attack to the bowling and giving England a fast start.  Once in, he is one of the most destructive players around, but whether it is his own decision, or it is pushed from above, it seems to be the worst of all worlds, a pedestrian style and a technique that doesn’t stand up to the rigours of Test cricket.  It would be easier to comprehend if he was trying to be England’s answer to David Warner, and whether that succeeded or failed, it would at least be an experiment worth trying.  As things stand, it’s hard to grasp what the intention is.

Vince in contrast looks lovely, full of gorgeous and stylish shots, only to fall repeatedly to a fundamental weakness outside off stump.  The health enforced retirement of James Taylor created a vacancy in the middle order, but it wasn’t a position that had carried much strength anyway.  Vince looks every inch the Test cricketer right up to the point he gets out, then rinse and repeat next time around.  Michael Vaughan for one has insisted that Vince be given more time but the ISM factor there lowers the credibility of someone whose views ought to be credible.

What that means is that there are three players in the top five not pulling their weight, an impossible situation for any team.  The only reason it hasn’t proved catastrophic is because of the strength of the middle and lower order.  When England’s top five (with two obvious exceptions) are collectively referred to as the “first tail” it’s clear there is a problem.  Of course, not for the first time the selectors have made a rod for their own backs.  As with the Pietersen situation it requires replacements to be notably better than those that have been dropped, and the discarding of Ian Bell can hardly be said to have been an unqualified success.  The problem here is not the dropping of a player, it so rarely is.  Bell had struggled for a while and not selecting him for the South Africa tour was a decision that could be justified.  Where England go wrong is in at the very least implying that at no point could they ever have made a mistake, and ignoring any and all criticism that they may have done so.  All teams have to create a space for new players to develop, the issue England have is that 60% of the top five are in that position, something completely unsustainable.  The rather transparent attempt to undermine the selectors in the media by the coincidence of several articles at once proposing the creation of a supremo (like we haven’t been here before) don’t alter the truth that the selectors themselves have a fairly patchy record.

Looked at that way, it is something of a miracle England managed to draw the series at all.  With the five matches in India to come, it is difficult to see how they could get away with these flaws.  The one bright spot is that Ben Stokes will return, and while his batting is not entirely reliable it is at least more so than some currently in the side.  It may well be that by bringing in Rashid and dropping one of the seamers (presumably Finn at this stage) they have a ridiculously strong middle order with Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes and Rashid comprimising numbers 5 to 9.  Whether that then compensates for the top is another matter.  There are whispers that Adam Lyth may be recalled to top of the order, or it could be that another young player is thrown in.  Eventually no doubt they will find the right player, but repeated discarding of batsmen doesn’t give too much confidence in the method.

A few last items: It has been a regular topic of complaint on here, but this was surely the summer in which poor over rates finally caused the ICC to take action and stop the theft of spectators’ money.  It would take an extraordinarily insular governing body who didn’t have an issue with it, one that considered paying spectators as nothing other than a resource to be exploited.  Perish the thought.

According to the press, should the Bangladesh series go ahead it will be left to the players to decide whether to go, with no adverse reaction should they decide not to do so.  Nice words, but the reality is always different; it may not be deliberate, but a player has a chance to get into the side by making himself available – equally few but the most comfortable will want to take the chance that someone else comes in and takes their spot.  It’s not meant to be critical, the ECB’s position on this is a reasonable enough one.  But reality intrudes on this – there will be some reluctant tourists.

After that comes India, and a huge challenge for the team.  While it is entirely for monetary reasons, it is still welcome to have a five Test series over there, but 2012 is a long time ago and England will do will to escape with a drawn series, let alone anything better.  Cook will need to be at his very best for one thing, but the batting will need to do far better than it has shown itself capable of in recent times in order to compete.

England are not a bad side at all.  The Test rankings show nothing more than that several teams are capable of beating each other on their day and (especially) in their own conditions.  But for all the talk about whether England could get to number one by beating Pakistan, it’s of no importance if they might drop down the series following.  There is no outstanding side in world cricket quite simply, and the focus on being the best is quite some way away.  Although there is necessarily going to be an England-centric focus on that, it’s no bad thing to have a number of competitive sides.  A bigger issue is the difficulty of winning away for anyone – which is why Pakistan drawing this series is such a creditable result.  They have been delightful visitors.

Oh yes one last thing.  It’s 8-8 in Director, Cricket’s  Big Plan To Make Cricket Relevant Idea.  You hadn’t forgotten had you?


South Africa vs England: 2nd Test day three

If there’s one thing the cricket media never seem to learn, it’s that writing off a team after one Test is always dangerous.  South Africa today fought back splendidly and for the first time this series were the unequivocal winners of a day’s play.  More than that, they showed why such dismissal was misguided in the first place, as the two big guns of the home team’s batting line up both made runs, which augurs well for the remainder of their series.

With only 212 runs scored in the day, it was clearly far more sedate than yesterday, indeed the day total barely exceeded what England scored in the morning session yesterday but that is hardly surprising given a match situation where South Africa can only play for the draw.  And they did so with grit, determination and no little skill, losing only De Villiers over the course of the day, and leaving themselves in a position where they really ought to save the match.

England had their chances, two further catches going down to add to the one last night, and had those been taken then the situation could have been very different.  The pitch is flat, to the point the groundsman has expressed his dissatisfaction with it.  It shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, for while Stokes’ innings was certainly special, teams don’t score over 600 on a surface that is offering assistance to the bowlers.  That can happen first innings, what is more of an issue for this Test is that there are no signs of deterioration, meaning it was and is only scoreboard pressure that creates the peril, and it is to that South Africa have stood up well.

Could England have done much more?  Well, apart from holding their catches, they perhaps could have attacked more than they did, especially early on.  There were a couple of occasions where an outside edge flew through a vacant gap, but it couldn’t be said they got it entirely wrong without nit-picking a touch.

South Africa aren’t out of the woods yet, for England have controlled the run rate to an extent that a bad session in the morning could yet leave the hosts in difficulties, but all things being equal, this appears most likely a bore draw with exceptional levels of ennui for the last two days.

If that is the case, then although England are a long way ahead here, South Africa will be by far the happier.  The return to form of Hashim Amla shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, he is what he has been for a decade, a quality batsman who happened to be having a poor run. Having come out the other side of his rough spell, he is a serious danger to England for the last two Tests.

Likewise Faf du Plessis, a player almost born to play the rearguard knock, will benefit hugely from time in the middle, and all of a sudden the South African batting order doesn’t appear remotely as fragile as portrayed after Durban.  For England certainly didn’t bowl badly, they maintained their discipline throughout – Alex Hales’ startling appearance as a bowler was matched onky by the shock of seeing him only go for two runs in his three overs; presumably abject terror on the part of the batsmen at the idea of getting out to him played a role there.  The dropped catches cost them dear, but it would have been hard labour anyway.

In such circumstances, the pattern is that when the team batting second reaches the point they have saved the game, the pressure then transfers to the other side, for they are then the only ones who can lose – the third innings problem.  But given the slow scoring rate, it is unlikely that South Africa would reach parity before the end of tomorrow, should they bat that long.  The prospects of them being able to put England under much pressure appear slim, meaning that by mid way through tomorrow, the sides could well be going through the motions.

There were some interesting asides during the day; De Villiers rarely looked comfortable against Steven Finn for example.  The placid pitch meant it could never quite be said Finn roughed him up, but he was undoubtedly less certain in his play than he was against anyone else.  On the high veldt this may become more of an issue, though with the proviso that England may well have to face Steyn and possibly Philander in those conditions too.

Lest that sound overly pessimistic, it shouldn’t, for England could and perhaps should be in an even better position than they are, but dropped catches are a fact of cricketing life, and the old aphorism has it right.  But if South Africa do get away with a draw as seems most likely, then the sides will go into the third Test much more evenly matched than some anticipated.

For the third day running the sides were short of their supposedly compulsory 90 overs.  Day one saw 87 overs bowled, day two was 82 – but 84 in reality given the change of innings – and day three was again 87.  Thus far in the match 12 overs have been lost due to nothing other than the sides failing to bowl their overs quick enough.  Given there has also been an extra 90 minutes to allow them to catch up, and however boring it is to keep repeating the point, this is entirely unacceptable and treating the paying spectator with contempt.  To date there has been no sign of the match referee taking any kind of action.  90 overs in a day has become nothing more than aspiration rather than a requirement.

Day Four comments can be made below

South Africa v England: 1st Test, day five and match review

South Africa in disarray, England exultant.  No doubt the word “momentum” will be used.

Taking four wickets for seven runs (including du Plessis last night) probably wasn’t the expectation of anyone, with the game effectively done and dusted within half an hour of the start.  But on reflection it probably shouldn’t come as that much of a shock, from the start of the fourth day South Africa seemed almost resigned to defeat, with only the brief passage of play at the top of the second innings suggesting some degree of fight.

It was Moeen Ali, named man of the match, who did the damage, removing AB De Villiers with the third ball of the morning.  Moeen hasn’t had an unquestioned role in the side, not helped by being shunted up and down the batting order and a lack of clarity about what his role is meant to be.  He isn’t one of the six best batsmen in the country, though he is one of the six best to watch, so his primary role has to be as spinner, with his batting complementing that.  There has been considerable development in his bowling since his debut, and it’s now time to start thinking of him as much much more than the part-timer he was then called.  It wasn’t an unreasonable description either at the start, but by all accounts he works harder than anyone and is keen to learn.   The fruits of that are starting to show, though how much further he can develop is an open question.

His Test bowling average isn’t anything special, though in recent historic terms for England it’s not bad either – Swann is an outlier amongst English finger spinners – but after 20 Tests his statistics are starting to become meaningful.  The one that reflects well on him is his strike rate, with a wicket every 56 balls.  That is actually better than Swann, though no one would argue he’s remotely the equivalent as a bowler, for Swann was vastly better at the defensive role.  But Moeen does have the knack of taking wickets, and just as with Finn, this is a skill that the England are finally starting to pay attention to; “bowling dry” is unquestionably a part of the game and England’s ability to strangle sides into submission was impressive.  But the ability to take wickets out of nowhere is more impressive still – the holy grail is to have both of course, but if it was that easy every side would do it.

Therefore it could be argued that 18 months into his Test career, Moeen is actually underrated.  It is his batting where he is underperforming somewhat which is slightly ironic.

He would have had more wickets in his career had numerous stumping opportunities been taken, so Bairstow will have been delighted to get Bavuma, particularly after missing De Villiers last night.  And here we need to talk about wicketkeeping, because it is the one area of the game where people who have played at the highest level and can talk with wisdom and experience about cricket have no knowledge or understanding except in a couple of very obvious cases.

The stumping this morning was an easy one, because it went past the outside edge of the bat.  That means the keeper is following the line of the ball all the way down and the hands are automatically in the right position.  It’s therefore straightforward unless there is excessive spin taking it beyond the reach of the gloves.  The difficult ones are those that go between bat and pad.  Bairstow, just like Buttler, is a part-time wicketkeeper, and that creates a number of issues.  The taking or missing of a particular ball can’t be seen in isolation.  More than anyone else on the field, more even than the batsmen who get to switch off to some extent for half of their time out there, the wicketkeeper is involved in every single ball of the game. Concentration is an obvious requirement, but it’s about more than that – or rather it’s only part of the story – it’s about expecting the ball to miss the bat and come into the gloves.  When it goes between bat and pad there is an expectation that it will be hit, and the eyes follow the line of the bat rather than the ball.

This is not a technical issue as such, Bairstow is more than capable of taking it, and so is Buttler; the difference between a good full time keeper and a talented but part-time one is the automatic expectation that the ball will continue on its path and not be intercepted by the bat.  The best keepers do this, and it’s why in the case of either Bairstow or Buttler they will learn it should they continue to keep over the longer period.  That doesn’t mean they then become good keepers, for there are technical flaws in both of them compared to the best, but it is to explain why that one was missed, and why in itself it shouldn’t be a concern – those kinds of stumpings will come.  Prior in his first incarnation also missed them regularly for example, in his second having focused on his keeping much more, he would take them.

Still, Bairstow took the opportunity today well enough, and will certainly gain confidence from it, which also is part of the equation.

From there it was something of a procession, Finn producing one that moved away just a fraction off the seam and was frankly wasted on Dale Steyn,  Moeen again got bite and turn to account for Abbott while Woakes finally got a wicket, which was the least he deserved – he has bowled well without reward this Test.

Fittingly, Stuart Broad delivered the coup de grace to give England a thumping win by 241 runs.

This is a remarkable margin of victory having been sent to bat in difficult conditions with England finding themselves 12-2 and then 49-3.  South Africa’s abundant problems will be much discussed in consequence, but there is always the danger of underplaying England’s wins and overplaying their defeats.  Too often England only win because the opposition were rubbish, and lose because they are rubbish.  It isn’t particularly fair, they won this game and won it well.

The first innings total of 303 is what set up the game.  It’s not a huge score but given the conditions and a pitch where run scoring wasn’t easy, it was a decent one.  Taylor and Compton can reflect on  their performances in that crucial period and be very satisfied with it.  As a combination they batted beautifully, and Graeme Swann’s bizarre and consistent criticism of Compton for batting too slowly gave something of an insight into the environment of the England team during his first spell in the side.  Compton did an outstanding job here, and deserves high praise not snide dismissal.  Had Alastair Cook done the same thing, he would have received considerable plaudits for it, for it was every bit a Cook type innings in pace, style and above all importance.  Rightly so too when Cook does it, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Swann is blinded by favouritism rather than what is going on in front of him.  It is distasteful.

If Compton had a case for being man of the match, so did James Taylor.  Doubtless Kevin Pietersen’s view that he wasn’t good enough for Test cricket in 2012 will be thrown back at him, but firstly Taylor is a better player now than he was then, but also Pietersen’s view at the time was quite clearly echoed by the selectors, who didn’t pick him.  Here he was busy at the crease, and turned the pressure back on to the bowlers.  As a combination with the doughty Compton, it worked beautifully.

That the man of the match award wasn’t an easy one to choose is evidenced by Broad being the fourth player who must have felt in with a shout.  He took fewer wickets than either Moeen or Finn, but the timing of his was the key, breaking the back of South Africa first time round, and ensuring England had a big lead at half way.  Broad is becoming a very, very fine bowler indeed.  And he seems to have got his batting back to at least some extent.  It’s going to be a big few years from him.

Lastly Finn himself can count himself a trifle unlucky to be overlooked too.  Having written about him yesterday there is no point repeating it, but he is looking in fine fettle.

England do have the nice problem of finding a place for Anderson, and Woakes seems certain to make way for him.  Harsh on Woakes if so, but it’s hard to criticise bringing back England’s record wicket taker.

Whither South Africa?

The first thing here is that a side can be comprehensively beaten in one match and gel in the next.  Even those without long memories ought to know that from the last Ashes series where the teams took it in turns to batter the other.  With that said, they do look in some disarray.  The injury to Steyn looks highly likely to keep him out of at least the second Test, but the rest of the attack – and Morkel in particular – compensated admirably here.  Their problems were not in the bowling.

De Villiers’ less than subtle hint about his workload appears to have been listened to, with de Kock being brought in to the squad for Cape Town and seemingly certain to play.  Overloading the best batsman in the side always seemed a peculiar approach, but it’s not in and of itself a reason for how this Test unfolded.  Yet for all the talk about Bairstow behind the stumps it shouldn’t be overlooked that De Villiers had a poor time with the gloves in this game anyway.

Elgar had an excellent match, looking solid and but for being on the losing team probably was the outstanding performer on either side, while Van Zyl in the second innings could well have played himself back into some kind of form without going on to make a substantial score.

The captain is clearly a concern, but Amla is a high class player and has been for a decade.  He was all at sea in the first innings, but much better in the second.  Anyone writing him off does so at their peril, for he will come good, and when he does England will suffer for it.

The immediate response to their performance has a hint of overreaction about it; England are not that good and South Africa are not that bad.  It’s one Test, and South Africa’s difficult tour of India notwithstanding, they have not become a bad side overnight, but they are clearly very low on confidence.

Newlands is a fortress of South African cricket, and while England will go there with confidence, suggestions that they are favourites to win based on this game are a triumph of hope over experience.  South Africa will probably not play as badly as they have done in Durban – if they do they are indeed in real trouble, and at that point a reassessment might be in order.

This isn’t going to stop some getting carried away, and it will be the same people who usually do so.  C’est la vie.


South Africa v England: 1st Test, Day Four

By no stretch of the imagination could this Test be called a classic, for one thing England have been edging ever further ahead in it over the course of the game, but to go into the final day with all results (just about) possible is indicative of a match that has been fascinating throughout.  The most likely outcome remains that England will go 1-0 up some time tomorrow afternoon, but South Africa showed admirable grit in their second innings; had they done so in the first innings, it could be argued they wouldn’t have been in such trouble.  Yet ironically enough, they finished the day with a near identical score to that they had at the close on day two.  Perception is a funny thing.

England appeared relatively untroubled by the loss of wickets in the morning, a lead already approaching 300 tends to limit any sense of panic after all, and it was Bairstow who was the undoubted star of the show.  On a surface that started slow and is edging towards the turgid as we approach the conclusion, fluent run scoring has proved difficult, yet Bairstow merrily thrashed his way to 79 at better than a run a ball.  England do have an abundance of strokemakers, but they also require the latitude to play that way, both in terms of the match situation and the allowance from the captain and management above.  The signs are positive that coach Trevor Bayliss is keen to allow the players to express themselves, a welcome change from the years of rigid game management, but it still requires the groundwork done by others – Compton’s 85 and 49 are not going to win any awards for entertainment, but a team requires different kinds of batsmen who play in their own way to to bring out the best in the others; he did exceptionally well, and while no judgements can be made going forward on the basis of a single game, it can be said he played the role of the perfect number three here.

England’s long batting order also demonstrated its value, as first Moeen Ali and then Chris Woakes provided competent support, with South Africa merely looking to limit the damage.

Indeed the approach from the hosts was quite instructive.  The new ball was already available when Taylor was dismissed to leave England 224-6, 313 ahead.  It wasn’t taken.  What this betrayed was that South Africa didn’t truly believe they could win the game; for a side that did would surely have wanted to grab the new nut, knock over the tail and set off in pursuit of 330, with a belief it was possible.  Sure, England would have been strong favourites to win still, but it would have by no means been out of the question.  Equally of course, the new ball could have gone around the park, but not to take it was extraordinarily defensive given from there South Africa could still have won.  It is hard to credit that the view of Amla and/or the coaching staff was that their best chance of doing so was to retain the old ball, it seemed purely about being content to stay in the field as long as possible to avoid batting, and that is fair enough if the opposition are already 450 ahead, but not when they are only 300 and a bit on, with six wickets down.   A few things about this South Africa outfit seem rather muddled.

The debate then turned to the timing of any declaration.  Once again though, there was so much time left in the game.  As it happened, England were dismissed before it became an issue, but with a target of 416 and the best part of 150 overs remaining, it was by no means a pressing matter.  Put simply, if South Africa batted the remainder of the match – and no rain was or is forecast – they wouldn’t be too far away from that target.  Therefore England weren’t going to be losing potential overs that might be needed to take a last wicket or two.  Had they gone on much longer, then yes, it would have become a topic of debate, but it didn’t arise.

In the customary manner, South Africa batted much better second time around initially.  Van Zyl in particular started off exceptionally positively, to the point one or two who had been questioning England for not setting about 350 actually queried whether they should have (if they could) gone on longer to make the game safe.  Sometimes there is a desire to have it all ways.  For let’s put it simply, if South Africa were to achieve the second highest run chase in Test history, then you simply doff your caps to them and say they deserve it.  If they instead manage to bat out the game for a draw, then you may wonder why they didn’t get close enough to win in the time available, but you still doff that cap.  The target was exceptionally challenging, the time remaining extensive.  England and Cook did nothing wrong, however it turns out tomorrow.

After that strong start by the Proteas, and with a ball that resolutely refused to swing or seam to any great extent, it was Stokes and then Finn who made the difference.  Firstly, patience is always needed in these situations, for the wickets will usually come, and secondly you need to have a strike bowler who takes those wickets.  Earlier in his career Finn was criticised – and then dropped – for leaking runs, but he takes wickets.  His strike rate is the best of any England bowler with 100 Test victims, at an outstanding 47 balls per wicket.  This is a serious weapon.  Who cares if he goes for a few runs when he can do that?  So does Dale Steyn for that matter, and while his economy rate is a little better than Finn’s, it’s hardly impressive either.  Trying to force the square peg of potent strike bowler into the round hole of line and length operator consistently missed the point about the attacking wealth offered by him.  When he comes on to bowl it’s quite clear he will drop the odd one short and get hit to the boundary.  It’s also equally clear there is a decent prospect of sending one or two opponents back to the shed.  Leave him be, let him do what he’s excellent at – England have other bowlers to tie an end up.

And on that particular matter, Broad is becoming nigh on unhittable in Test cricket these days.  Indeed an economy rate in this innings of 2.27 probably represents something of a disappointment to him.  Add to that that he takes wickets, as his record over this calendar year shows only too well, and it is time that it was more widely acknowledged that he’s a fantastic bowler, one of the best England have had in a long time.  Appreciation of his skills (if not his DRS expertise) is overdue.

Standing in the way of England emerging victorious is one AB De Villiers.   England did have a chance to get him, Moeen Ali’s beautifully flighted delivery turning sharply through the gate with De Villiers out of his ground, only for Bairstow to miss the stumping.  England are choosing wicketkeepers who are primarily batsmen, and the reality is that while they do so, stumpings like this are going to be missed.  The same applies when it’s Jos Buttler doing the job.  In both cases they tend to miss the stumpings when the ball goes between bat and pad.  The eyes follow the bat rather than ball, expecting it to make contact, and by the time the ball has passed the bat, it’s far too late to adjust.  This certainly isn’t to excuse an error that Bairstow himself was in despair over, but it is to explain how it happens and why.  The very best wicketkeepers don’t make that kind of mistake because they always follow the line of the ball instinctively.  It’s a much much harder skill than might be supposed.

With Du Plessis and De Villiers at the crease, memories of their monumental match saving rearguard against Australia were well to the fore, but Finn returned just before the end to produce one that lifted just enough to take the shoulder of Du Plessis’ bat, Cook taking an excellent catch, and England will breathe much easier tonight.

There was still time for two items of note – firstly that Dale Steyn came out to bat as nightwatchman.  There are two ways of looking at that, either surprise at taking such a risk with a key player with the Cape Town Test only days away, or that he’s already ruled out and therefore there is little to be lost.  A slight puzzle though.   Secondly, immediately after Du Plessis was out the ball was changed.  It had been looked at earlier in the over, and the change itself was routine, and nothing need be inferred from the decision.  Just as nothing needed to be inferred from the decision to change the ball when South Africa were bowling.  It is unlikely that those who cast aspersions through innuendo and suggestion in that case will do so here – and that says it all.

A further 280 is required from 90 overs tomorrow.  More realistically, England need six more wickets.  It probably won’t be easy, but it probably will happen.  On the basis of the first four days, England deserve it.


Ashes: 3rd Test review

When the intellects of Sartre, Russell and Machiavelli considered potential locations in which to contemplate life and the unfairness of being, it is safe to say that somewhere around the Banbury junction of the M40 probably didn’t figure too highly in their considerations.  Yet it was here that a revelation was to be found, a dawning horror, and a mind forced to express a desire never yet felt by an English cricket fan.

The miles were eaten up, the air conditioning was keeping the cabin cool and pleasant, yet a painful thought kept surfacing as the TMS team chirped away in the background.  The previous day’s work had prevented watching more than the first morning of the Test, although it had been closely followed in mounting amazement.  Australia had won the toss, and though it was felt not to be a bad toss to lose, no one expected the carnage that would follow.  The pitch had offered a bit to the bowlers, but with the exception of Rogers, the lack of discipline in Australia’s batting was the principal cause of a side skittled out for 136.  Certainly England took advantage of what help there was, but a succession of dire shots had led to the pre-series favourites being bundled out in just over 36 overs.  Anderson might have been the chief destroyer, but while he might be nowhere near the best bowler in the world (he is very good – the Henman rule applies*), he is one of the cleverest.  A little bit of swing, a little bit of seam, and an Australian batting order that has long been vulnerable to both allied to an apparent inability to graft in such conditions all led to a total that looked woefully inadequate at the time, and proved to be so as the game unfolded.  Yet although Anderson rightly took the plaudits, the England bowler who caught the eye was Steven Finn, not because of how many wickets he took, but how he looked.

Finn has been in the highly promising category for many years, and perhaps more than anyone else still available to play has been the subject of ire directed at the management and coaching staff.  Finn is a wicket taker, first and foremost, and back in 2010/11 he was dropped from the England team because he was too expensive, despite being the leading wicket taker in the series to that point.  The frustration that the England set up preferred economy to wicket taking prowess was strongly felt at the time, and only became ever more magnified in the years following.

Finn has a Test strike rate of 46.2; he is in 16th place in all of Test history (minimum of 2000 balls) with that, and that takes into account a lost four year period when his run up was messed with, panic set in about his habit of occasionally striking the stumps with his knee – and the ludicrous rule change resulting – and a general focus on what he can’t do, not what he can.  Finn will go for runs sometimes, deal with it.  Two of the best fast n’ nasty bowlers of the last decade, Shane Bond and Dale Steyn, both have poor economy rates.  Better than Finn for sure, but neither of those have been comprehensively mangled by well meaning coaching staff.  That Finn goes for runs is of little relevance if he takes wickets.  The age old choice of whether 5-100 off 20 is better than 2-60 off the same shouldn’t even be a debate.  Yet for the England of the last few years it clearly was, and if the current approach is just to let him bloody bowl, that in itself is to be celebrated.  Strike bowlers are so rare, so valuable it is of incalculable frustration that England have spent years trying to wreck their one bona fide example of it in years.

How a bowler of such talent could have ever reached the point of being “unselectable” was disgraceful.  It’s also entirely unfair how Ashley Giles is now being criticised for saying so, when he was clearly right at the time, and his comments were rather obviously borne of annoyance it had reached that point rather than a dig at Finn himself.

As Warwick approached on the right, and an eye glanced down at the fuel gauge that visibly dropped with every passing mile (note to self – rotary engines and fuel economy don’t go well together), that mind considered England’s reply.  Having been so panic stricken at Lords, England instead did exactly what they said they would in the build up to the game, and went on the attack.  Lyth may be having a bad time of it at present, but nicks to wide half volleys are not evidence of a flawed technique but one of a simple mistake or a mind that feels under pressure.  Like with so many of the Australian team, it was poor batting, but not in itself an inherent fault in his game.  He is starting to run out of time to make an impact, even if it is entirely right to stick with him for the rest of the series.

Cook had been simply unlucky, but he hasn’t had a great series so far. There’s an irony here, he’s never captained better in his whole time as England’s leader, yet the runs have dried up.  His game still looks far sounder than it did, so it shouldn’t be a concern in and of itself, but it’s there in the background.  What is somewhat startling is that almost everyone, me included, thought that for England to have a chance in this series, Cook would have to be the one who led the batting.  It’s not turned out that way so far, but there are two Tests to go to make an impact.

Bell and Root responded by decisively going on the attack.  For all the ups and downs of England’s performance, it is pleasing to see that the intent is still there, and they set about turning an initially strong position into one where England could ram the advantage home.  Much has been said of Bell being promoted to number three, and after the match he himself referenced that it felt good to have been backed.  There’s been a school of thought that Bell is somehow a reluctant number three, but this re-writing of history does him a disservice, not for the first time.  When Trott’s troubles first appeared, Bell was the one who said he would be happy to do the job, and was roundly ignored.  Pretending that it didn’t happen and using it as yet another stick with which to beat him is sheer mendacity.  He clearly needs to feel valued, and it is no good brushing that off and saying he should be able to handle it; different people have different needs – good management is in accounting for that.

Bell’s dismissal at the end of the day was simply him going a touch far and picking the wrong ball to hit.  It is the same for him as it is for anyone else, if you want a positive approach, this is what is going to happen sometimes.   A Bell who counter-attacks is an outstanding asset.

On the morning of day two, as I headed for the car, tickets for day three safely secured, a horrible nagging thought surfaced.  With Australia dismissed in less than half a day, this could be a short match.  That nagging thought became loudly ringing alarm bells as Johnson produced two terrific short balls in the second over to account for Bairstow and Stokes.  Bairstow may or may not be good enough ultimately to hold down a Test place, yet the reaction to a ball that had “out” written all over it was excessive to say the least.  A player 80 not out might ride the bounce, one at the start of his innings, and also at the start of the day, might not.  It was a very good ball, as was the one Stokes got.  It doesn’t say a thing about the batsman except that he was unlucky to receive it.

Yet while England were ahead, they were losing wickets.  Before even reaching the motorway, Root had gone, and so had Buttler, in the latter case needlessly given a review would have saved him.  Buttler has thoroughly gone into his shell with the bat, though it must be said, he is keeping extremely well, and seems subdued by the problems he is having outside off stump.  It may just be one of those things, but such a destructive player prodding and poking isn’t going to do him any good.  It is to be hoped he is encouraged to go out and play his shots, and then be backed on those occasions it goes wrong.

As the variable speed limits on the M25 showed first 60, then 50, then 40, indicating that the never ending joys of a traffic queue were ahead, England were only 50 runs ahead, with Moeen and Broad at the crease.  Two thoughts sprung to mind, one strategic, and one utterly selfish.  In the first instance, England were throwing away their advantage with abandon, and on the second, the weather was good, and I needed England to get a grip and bat for as long as possible.  With the two of them going after the bowling, the latter seemed ever more unlikely, but the former was a possibility.  Broad’s batting woes over the last three years have been well documented, even if in far too many cases it’s simply been dated back to when he was hit rather than the way it had tailed off long before then, but there have been signs of improvement recently, even if the runs haven’t always reflected that.  He’s less legside of the ball, doesn’t flinch as he did, and is looking to play shots, not simply slog.

As for Moeen, he is peculiarly unappreciated.  To date in this series he has 9 wickets at 45.  Not great figures, for sure, yet perfectly comparable to those Swann got against Australia, and Swann was without question the best England spinner since the 1970s.  Simply put, he’s doing a job with the ball against a team who don’t tend to struggle against English finger spinners, and doing it well.  Australia clearly want to attack him, yet when they do, they get out.  I remain unsure what people expect of him.

Of course, a big difference between him and Swann is that Moeen can bat.  There is an innate desire to see him succeed anyway, because he’s so gorgeous to watch.  His batting is highly reminiscent of David Gower – if not quite in quality – and when batting at number eight, provides a source of quick runs, stylishly scored.  It appears also that he relishes batting with the tail, and it is in that his value can be found.  A less attacking batsman would be left high and dry all too often as the bowlers were dismissed, but a curiously counter-intuitive point is that Moeen is usually dismissed when attacking as the wickets fall around him, which is both unselfish and oddly maximising his contribution.

As Oxford Services hove into view, England had extended their lead to one that might prove decisive.  A pause for coffee ended with England having been dismissed 145 ahead, and Australia were back in.

At this point, rebellious, naughty thoughts were surfacing.  Surely Australia couldn’t bat so badly a second time?  Yet that wasn’t the worst of it.  For the first time, the need for Australia to bat well was apparent.  As England came out to field, a sudden rooting for Rogers and Warner could be felt.  A sudden wish for Anderson to lose his radar, preferably with wide balls outside off stump that were left alone but were no threat to anyone.  As the key was turned in the ignition, I reached for my cork hat, bedecked the cabin with green and gold and launched into a chorus of “Come on Aussie, C’mon”.

Over the last couple of years England – and more specifically the ECB – have enraged me, infuriated me, and led me to chuckle as the latest self-induced disaster unfolded.  Yet never before had England led me to actively become an Australian.  As Rogers played back, and Jim Maxwell announced with that gentle sorrow he does so well that the opener was on his way back to the pavilion, a loud expletive filled noise could be heard by anyone with half a mile of the silver car pulling onto the motorway slip road.  Even at England’s lowest moments, the incompetence and duplicitousness of the ECB included, never did I imagine myself actively cheering on Australia.  Australia for God’s sake!  As Finn roared in, his pace up, causing the top order no end of problems, a nagging feeling that now would be a good time for his hand to brush the stumps requiring him to go off and have it repaired for half an hour kept popping up at the back of my head.

There was hope.  David Warner seemed to be playing a different game to anyone else, but with the first day curtailed by rain, play could be extended until 7pm, meaning there was still four hours of play to go.  Finn beat Smith all ends up, and in came the captain.  Surely, despite all his problems, now would be the moment Clarke regained his mojo and made a game of it.

Not even the most ardent of Aussie fanatics let out as heartfelt a moan, as passionate an “oh no”, as angry an “Oh FFS” as I did when instead, that utter bastard Finn instead took out Clarke and Voges in consecutive balls.  Looking ahead, there were no signs of the violent thunderstorms now wished on Birmingham, all was sunny and pleasant.   That’s the trouble with tornadoes, they don’t happen when you need them to.

By the time Warner decided to play what I now considered the most irresponsible shot in the entire history of cricket and Mitchell Marsh had regarded the defence of his stumps to be an optional extra, the five stages of grief had rattled past the bargaining stage and had settled thoroughly on depression, occasionally leaping back to denial concerning the implausibility that buying a day three ticket could possibly be a risky enterprise.

By this stage, I’d also thoroughly blamed my friend Graham for suggesting we go to the Test in the first place.  Edgbaston is not exactly on my doorstep, so wincing at the £70 handed over to my best mates at Shell to get up there was looking the worst investment since Mr Enron had rung up offering a sure thing.

Having picked him up from his office, we headed to the hotel, just in time to see Mitchell Johnson conclusively prove he hates the English by hitting the ball aerially 180 degrees away from his intended destination.  23 runs ahead at the close of play, three wickets left.

What to do?

Well, we were there, so we might as well go and watch the conclusion.  Over a curry (what else?  It’s Birmingham after all) the decision was made to check out of the hotel in the morning, head over to Edgbaston and watch the last knockings of the game, before driving home.  The principal debate was whether it would be 100% refund for fewer than 10 overs, or just the 50% for fewer than 25.  Plus a disagreement as to whether the two overs lost for the change of innings would count or not.

Having consumed the world’s biggest breakfast (Graham’s colleague Dave Tait finished his before I’d even started – honestly, I’ve never seen anyone demolish a plate that fast) that comprehensively removed any desire for a £10 soggy burger at any point, we headed for the ground, idly wondering how many would be there.  It was packed.  Clearly, everyone had bought tickets in advance, but not everyone is local to the ground.  Still, England were going to win, and there were few empty seats.

And so it came to pass that Mitchell Starc became the hero of the day, along with Peter Nevill.  Australia certainly fought hard, and nearly got to a point where they had a chance of a highly unlikely victory.  Nevill himself was the subject of a fair bit of barracking for refusing to walk when he edged one down the legside, and then instantly reviewed one he’d middled.  None of this was serious, but made the endlessly repeatable point about the ludicrous hypocrisy of the Australian attacks on Broad for not walking in the 2013 Ashes.  Sauce for the goose.

It certainly didn’t feel a tense ground as England embarked on the short run chase, perhaps because those present were simply delighted to have seen so much play in the first place.  Cook and Lyth’s dismissals continued the match pattern of batsmen getting out to poor shots – the ball that bowled Cook was decent enough, but had more to do with playing back when he should have been forward than anything else, while Lyth simply played across the line.

It was Bell who removed any question of the chase being a nervy one by going out and playing his shots.  With a small target, teams get into trouble when they become fearful; each boundary knocks a significant percentage off the target, and Bell knew that and took the calculated risk of ensuring that the runs came sufficiently quickly to prevent that fear setting in.

And so instead of it being a short and sweet visit to see an England win, it became two full sessions to see England win.  The track had certainly flattened out, as evidenced by the relatively little difficulty Australia had in the morning.  The sun was out – the fourth of our cohort Paul Godfrey finished the day with an exceptional case of panda eyes due to leaving his sunglasses on all day, to much amusement – and the crowd was thoroughly involved in barracking Mitchell Johnson.

It’s actually an important point too.  When the crowd got on  his back, even given the match situation of England being about to win, his bowling fell apart, and the lengthy delay to his run up to make the crowd wait, plus running through the crease, were indications that he was listening to the crowd rather than concentrating on his bowling.  A note for the Trent Bridge crowd to pay attention to.

Two and a half days of play, and an England win.  A crazy, ridiculous match, which bore little resemblance to the norms of Test cricket, but a 2-1 scoreline after three in England’s favour.  Where next?

After the first Test, there were signs that there were cracks in the Australian side.  The hammering they dealt out to England at Lords didn’t change that, but it did show that they are no toothless tigers either.  After all the attempted cleverness about conditions that might suit England but not Australia, what this Test showed was that in English conditions, England can do well.  Who would have thought such a thing?  Of course, those conditions do also bring Australia’s bowlers into play too, but if you don’t back your own players to perform, what is the point in even competing?

The injury to James Anderson is unquestionably a blow, but Trent Bridge hasn’t swung quite as much as it used to, possibly because of the new stand built there – though the vagaries of swing make assuming correlation to equal causation as being even more unwise than normal.  England do have a chance to put the series and the Ashes to bed though, at a ground where they tend to perform well.  Certainly Australia are the side that have questions to ask of themselves after this one.  Mitchell Starc bowled poorly throughout which may be just one of those things, and the middle order in particular looks downright flaky.  Yet England are setting new international records with their habit of winning a game and losing a game, with the sequence now at seven matches.   It would be no surprise whatever if England were to repeat the dose by losing in Nottingham.

There is some talent in this England side, and like a lot of unformed talent, it is inconsistent.  If they want to become a good side, finding that consistency is going to be the difference.  But the momentum is all with England……and that makes as little difference as it ever has, though it won’t stop some saying that it does, or being wise after the event should England win.

It is almost impossible to draw conclusions from such a ridiculous Test match, except to say the series is being played by two flawed teams, and anything could happen.

Hopefully one thing that won’t is having to cheer on Australia, because that felt dirty.  And wrong.  So very, very wrong.

*Reaching fourth best in the world is not failure