“Taking Full Responsibility” – Day 2 at Hagley, Day 7 of Haggling

It was a good day.

Ice Cube probably had slightly better than a recovery from 30 odd for 5 in mind when talking about a decent 24 hours in Los Angeles, but given what England have been through this winter, having the opposition in strife has to qualify as the best of times. The early inroads after Bairstow had completed his hundred put England really in charge, and with the two men, it seemed, really capable of taking the game away from England by going long (Taylor and Williamson) back in the pavilion, England had visions of a substantial lead, of well over 150 runs. Stuart Broad had made the main inroads, pitching the ball up, getting the edges, and as he said, beating both sides of the bat.

I have to say I’ve not seen a lot, despite suffering from a bit of insomnia. I’m too busy trying to shut my brain off than watch England. The bits I did see were wicketless. I saw Mark Wood bang it in short, and when he didn’t get any wickets with it, carried on banging it in short, at one time hitting BJ Watling. I’d seen de Grandhomme latch on to early short stuff and get his innings going. I feared the worst. I tweeted that I was going to sleep (and I was successful) and wondered how we would let the hosts off the hook. When I woke up I was just grateful to see we had got one of them out.

At this point you have to tip your hat to BJ Watling. He’s a bloody good cricketer. In amongst all the hoopla of 2015, the Ashes, the Cook hundred, the Stokes performance at Lord’s, the wicket-keeper batsman’s feisty, energetic second innings century at Headingley set the visitors up for a famous victory. He has participated in two mammoth sixth wicket stands in his time as well. He is under-rated, overlooked and bleedin’ pesky. When the bigwigs of world cricket talk about great keeper-batsmen, he’s never mentioned. He’s a little diamond, and well worth a place at number 6. He’s 77 not out. He averages more with the bat than Ben Stokes, He’s pulled New Zealand away from out of sight to in with a sniff. These are big runs.

Stuart Broad was the pick of the bowlers with his four wickets, and that’s to be celebrated. It’s clear the bowler himself is pleased with the results of going back to basics and putting in a ton of effort to right what he saw were his technical issues. As the point is raised often, there is no-one kicking the door down to take his or Jimmy’s place. Broad is a positive thinker, given his interview answers, and if this builds his confidence, then great. I saw none of the wickets. I’ve not seen the highlights yet. I suppose I need to take his, and the pundits’, words for it.

Now, and you can turn off if the Australian business is too much, what I was awake for was the David Warner interview. You may, or may not, know that in the past week the Being Outside Cricket feed on Twitter has, as the saying goes, been “going off”. We get a ton of looks, responses, and a boost in new followers. It started with a crap joke, but now we get lots of interesting comments. Chris was all over it last night, at the same time as I was making less of an impression on my own – that’s showbiz! What we were both on the same page with was how this is getting silly. That there seems little way that any of this is confined just to the three bad apples who have sniffled their way through press conferences.

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Do you know who that is, with Cricket Australia merchandise on, holding the door open? Unless I’m very much mistaken that is our friend, and everyone else’s, Malcolm Conn. A supposed hardened journalist, who praised all those scribes in attendance at Smiffy’s Sniffles, acting as doorman and enforcer when the press got a little out of line, trying to commit the heinous crime of following up a question that David Warner thought could be answered by “I take full responsibility”. Conn, as you may know, is a personal favourite of mine. He accuses everyone outside of Australia of all sorts, while never seeing a single sin in his own nation. The one where he accused us of pitch doctoring in a test where three of the four innings were over 300, and his team saw a very dry pitch and decided not to pick Nathan Hauritz (and from a home team in 1999 that produced THAT Sydney wicket, picked three spinners, one of who opened the bowling, and told us that we should produce better spinners). The one who went mad over urinating on the wicket in the dark. The whole problem those outside Australia see with their cricket, and their attitude to it is their sanctimony. They are holier than thou. They talk down to the rest while not mending the roof at home. They put this man, Malcolm Conn, the poster child for the sort of attitude we despise in charge of the press arrangements? Are they ever going to learn?

Warner said nothing of note. He omitted something of note, as Alison Mitchell just pointed out on the Debate. He never once said it was just those three. It was just culpability for his own mistakes. At one point I wondered if Cricket Australia was holding his kids hostage until afterwards. Managing Warner is going to be Australia’s biggest test, but from the perspective of containment, last night worked. Any ranting and raging from now on and it’ll be “well he had the chance to say it earlier so why believe him now”. LBJ’s famous urination linked to camping quote comes to mind!

In other news, Australia are getting buried in Johannesburg. South Africa making just short of 500, with Bavuma stranded on 95, and Australia on 110 for 6. Those wags pointing out there was not much reverse swing going on today will be forced to speak with Malcolm Conn and the Integrity Unit.

Alex Hales is replacing David Warner at Sunrisers Hyderabad. That’s good news for his bank account and the white ball practice he will get. I’m not entirely sure why he wasn’t picked up in the initial bidding, but he will be relieved to get a chance. As with many teams, though, there’s no certainty he’ll be regular. Here’s their squad.

The Australian women won the T20 triangular series in India, beating England handily. Malcolm was really mad on that. He’s tweeted more about women’s cricket this week than addressing the incident on Saturday. Not that I’m beating him with a stick.

Zimbabwe have sacked their captain after the World Cup Qualifying campaign came up short. It’s been hard to feel sympathy for Zimbabwe in the past, given their hiding under test status, but now it’s the opposite. Would the World Cup really suffer from the presence of any of the Super Six contenders? Would Sikander Raza not shine on the top stage? I don’t know.

Then there is the ECB and their potential legal action against George Dobell and ESPN Cricinfo, as reported by Charlie Sale in the Mail. Obviously we have to be careful, but if this is Colin Graves taking a comment at him and taking umbrage, I have to say that the optics are “mediocre” to say the least.

No promises, but I might try to live blog some of this evening. Given I’ve slept most of the afternoon, I think I might be awake tonight! A key day, with New Zealand aiming to get up to England’s total. The thought is that the third day will be the best for batting, and the new ball is 31 deliveries away. BJ Watling is the key, and yet we know, from Mark Wood, that once in, there are runs in the hills. Then it will be the turn of the faltering England batting line-up to set up a total. It is time for the big men to stand up. Jonny Bairstow’s century has pulled us out of the mire. We know that we can put ourselves in it very easily.

Comments below, of course. My thanks to all of you participating on Twitter and below the line in the past few weeks. You may have noticed the counter is now over 990k. We’re closing in folks!

UPDATE – LIVE BLOGGING

11:30 – The final ball of last night’s unfinished over is seen off, and it’s Stokes opening from the other end. Southee takes two off the second ball. Eyes on the BBC feed from Joshua v Parker. As I say that Stokes serves up a long hop, Southee clatters it for 6. Nice of England to play him in. 200 for 6.

11:35 – 11th seed Loyola Chicago have closed the gap on Michigan in the Final Four. Meanwhile Mark Wood, he of the 42 bowling average is on, and BJ scampers a single off the second ball of the over. They say Wood offers something different and becomes a much better bowler when he doesn’t play. Joshua v Parker is into the last round. Southee crunches a four straight back at Wood to move on to 25. He pulls the next ball for 4, and it’s 209 for 6.

11:38 – Stokes back on to play the batsmen in some more. Red Sox up 1-0 in the top of the third innings. Joshua v Parker has gone to points, and Ben Stokes is bowling up around 75-80 mph, and bowls a maiden. Remains 209 for 6.

11:42 – Jack Leach is on, and bowling to Tim Southee. Say your prayers. Joshua won, by the way. Sounded dull. Southee smashes the second ball for 4, straight back, and not a million miles from Leach (who might have touched it). Leach floats the next one up, which is brave, it gets clattered but straight to mid on. Floats the next one which Southee belts straight to mid on and takes a single. Shouldn’t have been one there. Last ball to Watling is also a single. 215 for 6.

11:46 – Stokes ambles in, and doing a tight job at the moment, that clatter from Southee aside. Soon as I say that Watling gets a four through third man. That’s the only runs from the over, and it is 219 for 6. The new ball is due.

11:50 – The working assumption is that the new ball is going to end the innings. The first ball from Anderson swings away from Southee’s bat. The problem with the assumption is England haven’t been adept at blowing away tails. Southee wafts at another outswinger second up. Southee pokes a single into the offside off the fourth ball. Alan Butcher tells us to “move on” on Twitter, which is a red rag to this particular bull! Watling gets a single off the 5th, through the gully. Southee straight drives the last ball, gets four, and England heads start to drop. 225 for 6.

11:54 – Broad on. Hello Santiago! Broad bowling at 134 kph, which is Stokes’ speed. 226 for 6. Did I miss a run when I checked in on the Red Sox (still 1-0 but Porcello has put two on in the third). Yes, looks like Watling got a single.

11:58 – CASTLED. Beautiful outswinger does for Anderson, pitching it on middle and leg and hitting off with a beautiful shape. Off pole out of the ground. 226 for 7.

BJ Watling  Bowled Anderson 85

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00:01 – Ish Sodhi gets off the mark first ball. Southee then squirts one down to third man for four and moves on to 43. Cut in half with the fifth ball, Southee blocks the last and it is 231 for 7.

00:04 – Porcello got out of the third innings with no runs, so Red Sox still 1-0 up. Some of you may know that I’m a bit of a Red Sox fan. Well, a lot of one. But the cricket is on so I am at your service. No runs off the first three balls. Sodhi gets in a tangle with the fourth ball, but no harm done. Alan Butcher utters the magic words..

Move on. Talking of move on, Stuart Broad bowls a beauty, and Sodhi nicks it to Bairstow and we have our 8th wicket. Broad gets his 5th in this wicket maiden. 231 for 8

Sodhi  Caught Bairstow Bowled Broad  1

00:09 – Anderson back to bowl, to Tim Southee. Second ball he smashes a ball in the air, aimed at square leg, ended up at long stop. 4 more. Leg bye off ball number 3 puts Wagner on strike. Actually given as a run, so Southee goes to 48. Nice inswinger first up to Wagner, but he plays it well. Last ball he somehow plays and misses. 236 for 8. And here comes the vaguely dodgy Paddy Power advert.

00:12 – Southee moves on to 49 with a single from the first ball of Broad’s over. Wagner gets sconed on the fourth ball of Broad’s over just as the commentators were saying he was about to cop some short stuff. While Wagner takes a break, I see number 11 fairytale NCAA team Loyola are 7 points up at the interval having started really slowly. I love the NCAA March Madness. Wagner is back up and we should be rolling soon. Next one is short into the ribs, and Wagner fends it just part boot hill for a single. Southee clips the last ball to deep square for a single and his fourth test fifty in 45 balls.

00:21 – LBW appeal second ball, but England don’t review. Red Sox 2-0 up now. Conceded runs in just one innings so far. Anderson bowls a straight one, Southee goes for the fences and loses his middle stump.

Southee   Bowled Anderson 50

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Trent Boult gets off the mark with a couple of runs, which I missed for a reason. Boult plays a ludicrous straight shot for another couple, clearing his left leg to clump it down the ground. End of the over and it is 243 for 9.

00:28 – Wagner gets a single off the first ball of Broad’s over. Lead down to 63. Not insignificant, but still not as good as England might have hoped. Another WTFWT shot from Boult… but no run. Can’t describe it on a live blog. Nor that one. Dancefloor moves. Needs a yorker. Nope, short, and Boult misses his attempted swat. Boult drives the last ball for two, its 246 for 9 and I’ll be back….

00:37 – Just got back from a natural break to see Wagner clatter a six over fine leg off Anderson. Lead being downgraded from good to useful. Not long before slight, and then negligible. Broad fumbles the ball when a run out looked on. 13 from 5 balls off this over. Now it’s 259 for 9.

00:40 – Broad carries on. So does Wagner, who cuts the ball for 4. Went a bit finer than I thought. Another two as Wagner smashes one into the air over point. You have to laugh. Or not. 265 for 9. No more runs from the over. Another betting advert.

00:46 – Wood on for Anderson who doesn’t look like he’ll get a five for now. Wood bowls a full one first up and Boult carves it over extra cover for 3. Not a million miles from the fielders. New Zealand not far away from England. Mood music not good. Talking of not good, Mark Wood has an appeal turned down against Wagner.

Pour encourager les autres. Wagner clips one through leg side for one, then Boult pulls his left leg away and wipes one through the covers for another 4. This is royally cocking things up. All those calling for the raw pace of Wood, please stand up. I referenced Ice Cube above and now I’m doing Eminem. 273 for 9.

00:52 – Let the carnival continue. Broad around the wicket to Wagner. A single off the third ball of the over to Wagner down to fine leg brings Boult on. Someone stick a sock in that effing trumpet.  Boult lofts Broad down the ground, for another couple. This is silly. Last ball he bowls straight and it is off the middle of Boult’s bat for no run. 276 for 9.

00:58 – Wood back, and Wagner cuffs his second ball down to long leg for another single. We are having a review for caught behind. Bairstow is the one driving this. It doesn’t look to be anything, to be honest, and nothing is registering on snicko. He was so far down legside he might have been outside the sound zone! Not out. I’m now pre-occupied with something else. It’s 278 for 9. All over, and so am I. Night all. Will Cook last to lunch?

278 all out.

 

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5th Ashes Test, Day Two

Australia in a strong position – check

Steve Smith in and looking ominous – check

England’s bowling looking toothless – check

Here we go again.  Despite Tom Harrison’s proclamation that all is well and the only reason England are marginally losing this series is because they haven’t taken their opportunities, two days of cricket at the SCG have once again emphasised the gulf between the teams.  And this after England did fairly well with the bat in the morning too.  In a better balanced series, Australia finishing on 193-2 would mean that with a deficit of 150 still to be made up, the game was in the balance, and if England bowled well in the morning then they would be in a decent position.  The problem is that repeating this in the face of all previous evidence is the kind of thing only the empty suits at the ECB do, to try and ensure that wherever the blame goes, it doesn’t go to them.

Sure, it’s possible that by the time the third day is complete, this post will look ridiculous, as England skittle Australia and start building on their sizeable lead, but the exceptionalist nature of such an outcome, and the way that you, dear reader, have almost certainly scoffed at that possibility is exactly the point.  England have now reached the point where the feeling of inevitability about the outcome has taken hold, a pattern in every Test, apart from the one where the pitch was officially rated as “poor” and allowed England to escape with a triumphant draw – one that sealed the Ashes into eternity according to the response to it in the media.

There can be surprises, certainly.  The weak looking England tail did rather well, aided by some extraordinarily brainless bowling at Stuart Broad, and some impressively inept catching.  Maybe the Australians weren’t quite feeling the intensity with the series well and truly won, not that anyone is allowed to mention that of course.  Still, Tom Curran and Broad rode their luck and made decent contributions, as did the out of sorts Moeen Ali.  Yet while 346 represented a much better total than it could have been, it still looks lightweight in context.

England gained a quick success in dismissing Bancroft, a fairly routine delivery from Broad breaching his defences, which merely goes to highlight that the idea that England are up against a great team remains as absurd as ever – the controversy over their lack of batting depth seems a long time ago.  Perhaps it is the case that Australia do indeed have a very fine bowling attack, but given England’s inability to cope with many others around the world, it’s hard to tell for sure.  Even allowing that, it doesn’t provide an excuse: either England are totally outclassed, in which case why is that; or they are, just unable to grab the moment (Harrison), in which case why are they being battered repeatedly?

After the early success, there were few alarms; Warner compiled a well made fifty, Khawaja closed in on a century, and Steve Smith seems to have been at the crease for the entire series.  And there’s the problem, James Anderson has done fairly well this tour, but while he has received some criticism for being defensive and containing, the question needs to be asked as to what else should be expected of him?  He’s 35 years old, is unquestionably one of the cleverest bowlers around, but surely at this stage of his career he ought to be a support bowler of extreme skill rather than the one carrying the entire attack.  Broad at the other end has had a mixed tour by his own admission, and that’s fine, because it happens.  Last time around he was exceptional even as the side disintegrated around him.

George Dobell is one of the few journalists pointing out the reality of England’s position, the abysmal failure of the ECB to produce fast bowlers, and the seemingly counterproductive fast bowling programme allied to the sidelining of first class cricket.  England’s current pace bowling attack has the feel of the West Indies in the late careers of Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose.  Those who respond to criticism of Anderson and Broad by saying England will miss them when they are gone are exactly right – for when they do go there is so little behind them except a collection of medium pacers without their level of exceptional ability, or crocks.  Cyclical problems can afflict any country, but the utterly blasé response of Harrison’s insistence that all is well highlights Dobell’s point about the complete lack of accountability.  When it is said that this is a golden era having Anderson and Broad, the sad truth is that they are almost certainly right.  A 35 year old and a 31 year old should not be leading the attack with no rivals for their position in a healthy structure.  Don’t blame them, blame the administrators who have created the position where they are not only the best we’ve had in the last 20 years, they are also the best we will have for the next few years as well.  Ambrose and Walsh indeed.

The same can be said to apply to the spinning role.  Moeen Ali has had a miserable tour of it, and once again failed to impress here.  Yet earlier in the series he was apparently being played as a batsman only (only to then bowl) because his finger was so badly damaged, and was also suffering from a side strain.  In the rush to beat him up for this series, this no longer seems to be mentioned at all, in which case it either wasn’t a problem in the first place, or he’s being slated for playing badly when he’s not fit – it has to be one or the other.

Like clockwork, now there are calls for him to be replaced.  Fine.  No player should have a sinecure when they are out of form, or if they ultimately aren’t good enough to stay in the team, but here it still smacks of thrashing around in the death throes.  Drop Moeen Ali by all means, but be sure that the replacement is going to be better.  This doesn’t mean you don’t try things of course, otherwise no one would ever be selected, but in the last 15 months England have used Moeen, Rashid, Ansari, Dawson, Batty and now Crane.  Six spinners in just over a year, discarded one by one as not being good enough, with the last a left-field punt that doesn’t offer huge confidence for a long term selection, which is absolutely not his fault.

As Dobell points out, Adam Riley, meant to be the answer to England’s spinning woes, didn’t play a county championship match last season, and even Crane only appeared in some of them.  They can give Ollie Rayner a go, presumably based on his average of just under 40 last season that just screams “pick me”, but it isn’t going to magically change things.  Moeen might well have been very poor away from home (again, let’s emphasise he was meant to be injured for this one, because this seems to be constantly ignored) but he has been good at home, both with bat and ball.  Is that remotely ideal or acceptable?  Absolutely not.  Is it probably as good as is likely whoever they pick?  Yes.  It might even be better.  This is not a defence of Moeen Ali or a call for him to be retained, but it is pointing out that the idea that things will magically change for the better when a player is dumped is wishful thinking.  England do not have ready made replacements to slot in and improve the team, nor do they have a production line of young talent.

The same applies to Cook.  In his poor spells, it can’t possibly be said that he came under true pressure for his place, not in this case because of the media, although that is true, but because with a lack of a successful opening partner, how could he possibly have his own place questioned?  Cook horribly out of form was still England’s best opener.

Irrespective of how this match unfolds, the true horror of England’s position is that this really is their best team, and most of their best players are in the later stages of their career.  Perhaps some will magically seize their opportunities, but it’s not something you’d put the house on.

This is where the ECB have led the English game to.  Invisible, unimportant, hidden away, wealthy (for now), not very good, and likely to get worse in future.  Well done chaps, drinks all round.

Day Three Comments Below

 

Blame, Babies, Bathwater

The lesser spotted Escape Goat, believed discovered by the Warner family, is only fleetingly seen.  Examples of this rare beast abound, hidden away in museums as examples for the public to view.  New sightings have been rumoured in Australia, where it seems they have their home.  It is a strange animal, whose only evolutionary purpose has been to serve as a diversion for other creatures, generally to be found in St Johns Wood, London.  Usually secretive and ignored by the wider world, they pop up whenever anyone starts asking awkward questions about disasters in Australia in particular.

The shambles of four years ago had an obvious culprit.  Everyone knew it, everyone could write about it.  All other incidentals could be safely ignored, all other factors dismissed.  Just one person could be held responsible for everything, and if only that person was removed, all would be wonderful.  If nothing else, that would buy four years for everyone else to forget, and by the time another trip to Australia came round, everyone could get behind “the boys”, and cheer them to victory, putting the damned colonials back in their place.

That it wasn’t going to happen that way should have been obvious to everyone, yet collective fingers went in collective ears, and a refusal to listen was more than a metaphor, it was literal.  It’s not that a potential whitewash this time around was a racing certainty, for Australia are good but not exceptional, and England modest but not awful, but the distinct likelihood that it will now happen is not overly surprising either.  The ECB deserve credit for one thing, they have managed to make those who have become indifferent rather angry.  This must not be permitted.

Still, the players are always the ones who get the focus, not least because wider issues can be safely ignored.  It’s so predictable.  In the run up to the series it was correctly stated that for England to compete, their experienced players would need to perform exceptionally, and it’s true they haven’t done so.  But it was equally stated that the new players would prove the weak link, and generally speaking they’ve done better than their peers.  That England had managed to get themselves in a position like that was, naturally enough, ignored – the discarding of players who didn’t fit the character parameters is a particular joy of the ECB structure, but let’s not talk about those, after all no one in the media ever does.  And of course the way first class cricket in England has been marginalised in the pursuit of T20 cash must never ever be mentioned, except by those few extremists who have been banging on about it and boring everyone by actually caring about the game itself.

No, those responsible cannot possibly be any of the administrators, who have created the environment in which English cricket exists, and cannot be the selectors who happily built a merry-go-round where cricketing ability is only one factor to be considered.  Unfortunately, this time it can’t be Kevin Pietersen either, that useful idiot who was single handedly responsible for everything bad from the dawn of time, and the only reason for any 5-0 defeat.

Ben Stokes has to be one of course.  Forgive me – that should be “New Zealand-born Ben Stokes”.  His absence is undoubtedly a cricketing blow, and one that can be maximised and extended to be blamed for the poor shots or poor line and length of his colleagues.  Those absent tend to perform incredibly compared to those who are present, and in that, nothing changes.  Had Stokes been there, England would be romping to victory by now.  It’s been a limited line of attack so far, but expect more as time goes on, especially if it gets worse on the field.

Who else can be targeted?  Ah yes, the senior players.  How perfect.  Cook, Root, Anderson, Broad, Moeen – they will do.  Now, it’s clear that of those only Anderson has done well enough to be generally excluded from the firing line, even though any kind of detailed analysis might raise questions over the detail of his performances.  But since the figures look decent enough, probably best not to mention him, that would take proper analysis.

Cook is by far the most interesting name to come up as being culpable.  It’s not that he has played poorly, for that is very obvious. It’s not even that he look technically adrift, for that looked to be the case from the first ball of the series.  It is instead that the editorial line has gone from Greatest Ever to Time To Go with nothing intervening.   Just three Tests.  This blog has highlighted the declining returns from Cook over the last few years repeatedly, to the point it’s accused of being anti-Cook.  Yet it was the reality, and the frustration wasn’t so much with him, it was with the way this was repeatedly denied by those who would write hagiographies at every opportunity and deny what they were so keen to say of others going through the same process in their careers.  Hypocrisy is rarely admitted.

Now, apparently, it is time for him to go.  Yet the point about Cook is the same one that should be about every player.  Is he the best we have in his position?  If so, then pick him.  It really shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp, yet apparently is.  Unless England can do better than him, then the calls for him to go are nothing other than jumping on a bandwagon and, somewhat deliciously given the history, meting out the same treatment to him that was given to others.

Then we come to the way Stoneman and Vince have apparently done reasonably well, but Root hasn’t.  To some extent it’s a matter of expectation, but scoring a half century and getting out is not confined solely to Root, yet it is Root that all the focus is upon.  It’s something of which he is acutely aware of course, but once more, differing judgements on the same outcome are as absurd as they always has been.  Root’s conversion rate is similar to that of Cook over the last few years, something never mentioned then, and only mentioned in passing now as an excuse to give Cook an extra kicking.  This is either a problem for everyone or no one – pretending otherwise is preposterous.  Dawid Malan has done well this tour so far, and Jonny Bairstow has done reasonably.  No one else has.

As for Moeen, his batting has been the issue.  Without question.  But his bowling is pretty much what should have been expected in Australia.  English finger spinners don’t do well in Australia – even the exceptional Graeme Swann averaged over 40 there, and Moeen is no Swann.  It’s not been great, and a finger injury hasn’t helped, but the apparent surprise at this is laughable.  England even have a couple of leg spinners, but the one who is there wasn’t picked even when Moeen was supposedly injured, and the one who isn’t – who can even bat as well – has long been thrown on the scrapheap, less for his cricketing skills and more, it seems, because he isn’t the right character.

And finally Stuart Broad.  A bowler who has been exceptional for England over a number of years, one known to be carrying injuries, one who even amongst the wreckage four years ago could hold his head up high.  He had a quietish summer, certainly, and hasn’t been great on this tour.  But now, at 31, he’s done.  Past it.  Finished.  Broad is a spiky character, and not one who has generated much love among supporters, but this is his first genuinely poor trot in a while, and now the knives are out. No mention of playing him injured, no mention of his workload, no mention that there might be reasons of any kind, it’s time to move on, while of course keeping his bowling partner four years his senior.

Questions can be asked and questions should be asked.  But we’re here in the same place again.  Only a few should carry the can, and others can be excused.  And above all else, it stops those difficult, awkward objections to the way cricket has been run in England.  The likes of Graves, Harrison, Strauss and the entirely invisible Whitaker cannot, must be questioned.  Ever.  Nothing changes, not on the field, nor off.  If Trevor Bayliss is to be in the firing line, who appointed him?  Who appointed his predecessor?  Who created the English cricket structure?  Is it possible that those people could be responsible, in the smallest, tiniest way?

Gins all round chaps.  It’s only Test cricket after all.

 

Ashes 2nd Test: Day Three

When it’s all going hideously wrong, the temptation to cling grimly to any floating wreckage nearby is a strong one, and four wickets for England’s bowlers in the evening session has given rise to curious assertions that England are back in the game, a triumph of hope over experience.  In reality they are, taking the kindest, most sympathetic view possible, not totally out of it.  Since Australia’s lead already far exceeds England’s miserable first innings total, this is taking blind hope to unprecedented levels.

England weren’t in the worst position at the start of play, and a good batting day would have begun to transfer some pressure back onto Australia, with the usual third innings jitters a possibility.  Instead, England collapsed hideously to 142-7, and only got even close to saving the follow on thanks to Craig Overton making an unbeaten 41.  Irony of ironies – the England tail wagged this time around.

The batting order’s insistence on doing the same things and hoping for a different outcome is magnificently stubborn (perhaps the only way that adjective could be used about them) and once again it was poorly executed shots that did for them rather than brilliant bowling.  The pitch didn’t do much, and in the daylight there was little swing.  Only Malan could be said to have been got out, and whatever the merits of Australia’s bowling attack, the same level of carelessness that’s been present in England’s batting for a long time was once again to the fore.  When they come off, it’s certainly thrilling, but an inability to play the situation is becoming a real hallmark of this team and there’s so little evidence they are learning.

It is perhaps this, more than anything else, that justified the pessimism before the start of play, and highlights the increasing fear that this tour could get truly ugly.  Again.

Smith’s decision not to enforce the follow on was perhaps understandable given the time left in the game, but the principle of doing what the opposition would like least must surely apply – England would not have wanted to bat again, under lights, under the pump, and under pressure.  In defence of the decision, it’s unlikely to make that much difference to the outcome either way, for by the close of play a lead of 268 with six wickets remaining is the kind of marvellous position teams dream about, but it did at least offer England the chance to give Australia a bloody nose.  And yet even with the wickets taken, the same old flaws were there:  England still bowled too short, still bowled too wide.  At 53-4 it might seem a peculiar criticism, but both Anderson and Broad were consistently shorter in length than their Australian counterparts, and while it hardly went too badly on the field, it doesn’t suggest that the plans are either thought through, or alternatively that the bowlers want to apply them if they are.  There is no doubt at all that when Broad, Anderson and Woakes kept the length full, they looked extremely dangerous.  They usually do – which is why so much hair is pulled out at their continuing refusal to do it on a consistent basis.

Apparently, tomorrow morning is another “vital” first session.  It really isn’t.  It would need to go catastrophically wrong for Australia to allow England to have any kind of realistic sniff of a win.  It is of course just about possible that England will skittle the hosts and then bat out of their skins to chase down a total almost certain to be in excess of 300, but that’s barely enough to encourage even wildly unreasonable optimism, let alone genuine confidence.

The worst part about England’s predicament is that so much of it this series to date has been self-inflicted.  Australia are some way from being a really good side, but they have, to use the appropriate cliche, executed their skills well so far.  England haven’t.  Assuming they do, and in spades, it means that Australia will be bowled out for around 100 in a magnificent display of attacking bowling, while the English top order compile a couple of centuries to take them home in one of the top 20 run chases of all time in Test cricket.

That’s the miracle scenario.  And that says it all.

 

 

England vs South Africa: 4th Test and Review

In common with the rest of the series, the fourth and last day of the final Test turned out to be a mopping up exercise, the outcome already beyond doubt, the uncertainty merely concerning the margin and how long it would take.  Early hopes for a spectacular Moeen century were dashed when Broad and Anderson were dismissed in short order, removing any argument about how long to bat on, perhaps fortuitously.  It made little difference to anything but a potential personal milestone, and by the end of the day it was hard to imagine Moeen would have been in any way disappointed with his lot.

South Africa fought hard, in a manner that has been in somewhat short supply this series, but a target of 380, on a surface that was deteriorating, was never feasible.  Both teams have been afflicted with top order fragility this series, the difference being that England’s middle and lower order are operating on a different level to their counterparts.  Moeen’s unbeaten 75 in the second innings probably wasn’t the difference between the sides, but it certainly gave a fair degree of breathing space.  The 90 runs added for the last three wickets turned a highly unlikely target into an impossible one, which given the tourists’ manful efforts with the ball to stay in the series was a case of hammering the final nail in the series coffin.

After a faltering start came a fine partnership between Amla and Du Plessis.  Neither have had outstanding series – that Vernon Philander is top of the batting averages makes that clear – though Amla has scored runs without ever going on to a match defining innings.  Broad and Anderson, particularly the latter, had bowled superbly early on, both swing and seam with the new ball making life exceptionally difficult.  For South Africa to reach 163-3 was a tribute to how well they had done, not that it was a time to worry about reaching the target.  Enter that man Moeen again, who must be feeling Test cricket is currently the easiest game in the world.  Three quick wickets and the game was just about done, as he finished with another five wicket haul, this time via the slightly less impressive manner of three wickets in four balls rather than three.  He was unsurprisingly named Man of the Series for England – Morne Morkel picking up the equivalent award for South Africa.

At the end of it, it was a comfortable enough series win.  England were the better side of the two, the depth in their batting and injuries, illness and voluntary absence hampering the visitors.  Yet the weaknesses identified in both sides at the start were no closer to being resolved by the end.  England’s new captain Joe Root did well enough, he was certainly more attacking than had been the case at any time during the Cook era, and if nothing else at no point where there obvious occasions where the tactics were utterly baffling, in itself a positive.  Where England tended to fall short, particularly but not solely at Trent Bridge, was in the top order batting, something not directly within the purview of the captain.   Ultimately England’s batting was slightly deeper and slightly less fragile than South Africa’s.

Cook had a reasonable series, like Amla not going on to make a really big score, but on one occasion for certain making a material difference to the match outcome with his fine 88 at the Oval.  Cook is without question England’s best opener, and can be expected to cash in against the West Indies later this month, but there are doubts beginning to surface about his ability to score big runs against potent pace attacks, particularly with the Ashes coming up.  He has always been a slightly odd opener, vulnerable to fast bowling but exceptional against spin, and with two series of highly contrasting outcomes down under, it really needs to be Good Cook for England to have a strong chance.  For this is the fundamental point: England are frail at the top, and overly reliant on their best players, of whom he is one, and the middle order as a collective.  Whether it be a matter of declining returns is an unknown, but the Ashes will likely provide a good answer to that question.

Who his next opening partner will be is up for debate, if not panic.  Jennings certainly didn’t show anything to suggest he’s the one, but it’s also true that whoever does the role next series has the opportunity to score heavily without answering the basic question as to whether they are good enough at the very top level.   Not being picked is becoming a useful means of advancing a cause, for Haseeb Hamed finally got runs today, which may be rather timely.  But it is all too easy to see the revolving door of England openers continuing for the foreseeable future.

Three and five are also still uncertain; Tom Westley did well enough to be persevered with, while Dawid Malan probably didn’t.  But England have got themselves in a pickle by running a lottery on three of the top five positions.  Dropping Malan after two Tests wouldn’t engender much confidence that the selectors know what they’re doing, because it implies the initial selection was a mistake.  There is a case for considering Alex Hales in that position, and his current bout of run scoring in that role might move things his way.

Further down is where England excel.  Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all got the same criticism for failing to knuckle down in the Trent Bridge Test as everyone else, but their strengths are elsewhere – and to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can (which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be more responsible on occasion) is to miss the point about the problems in the batting order.  They have bailed England out on many an occasion between them, but it is asking a lot for them to keep doing it from 120-4.  Have them coming in at 300-4 and it’s a different matter, for in those circumstances they will scare the living daylights out of any and every opposition.

Of the bowlers, Moeen of course has had an extraordinary series, on the back of a highly average one in India.  If there is a difference in his bowling, it appears less about the pace at which he is flighting the ball (though he is) and more about seeming to be bowling many fewer bad deliveries.   He’s always been a wicket taker, but this series he has also been much tighter.  It’s also true that India away is hard territory for an English spinner – few have been remotely as successful as Panesar and Swann – and although he wasn’t great, he’s certainly not the first to struggle there; something that should have been noted by those complaining about Adil Rashid too.  For the Ashes, expectations shouldn’t be too high either, even Swann has an average well north of 40 in that country.  If Moeen does the same, then he’ll have done extremely well, but after this series it’s rather likely it won’t be seen that way.  He’s a very useful performer who does takes wickets, but he’s not better than Swann and he’s not better than Panesar.  Which means his success should be celebrated, but with a proviso that it’s not going to be like this all the time.  Still, as things stand his bowling appears to have improved , and with his batting as well, he’s becoming one of this side’s key performers.

Toby Roland-Jones came in and did well, though as is so often the case he was hailed as the answer one match into his Test career.  It’s neither fair nor is it reasonable, but he can be pleased with his start, and once again the obsession with sheer pace (despite Philander clearly being a fine bowler anywhere at about 80mph) comes up against the reality that good bowlers can operate at any speed.  That being said, he was in the side because of the injury to Chris Woakes, who can be expected to return, and of course who strengthens the already absurdly powerful middle and lower order even further.

Stokes is Stokes, a player who is perhaps by the strictest of measures not someone who fully qualifies for the genuine all rounder role in that neither his batting nor his bowling alone are truly good enough in isolation.  But he tends to contribute in one discipline or the other (or by catching flies at slip) most matches these days.  It makes him a highly unusual cricketer, for in terms of raw numbers he could be termed one of those bits and pieces cricketers, but he clearly is far more than that.  It may be that in years to come he reaches even greater heights, but he’s the heartbeat of this team and he knows it.  And a matchwinner.

Broad and Anderson are now the old stagers in the side, and it’s probably worth appreciating seeing them in tandem, for it won’t last forever.  Broad bowled well enough without necessarily getting the rewards, while Anderson finished top of the bowling averages.  That in itself is interesting because there was a subtle shift in his role.  Root was quick to remove him from the attack whenever he wasn’t doing what he wanted him to, which clearly irked him, and he responded in the best possible way, by coming back and taking wickets.  Today was one of those where he had the ball on a piece of string, swinging it both ways and seaming it off the surface.  Some were quite simply unplayable by anyone.  Perhaps he is finally embracing his elder statesman role, in which case it is good news for England, for as he gets older and his workload necessarily needs easing, his sheer skill will remain.  He bowled beautifully, and it’s unlikely too many West Indies batsmen will be excited at facing him under lights in Birmingham.  Career wise, today was the day when his Test bowling average dipped into the 27s.  He’s been lowering it steadily for five years, and may well finish a point or two lower yet.

It was also striking how much time he spent at midoff, talking to the other bowlers, something that Joe Root was quick to say was no coincidence.  It’s distinctly possible Anderson might make a very good coach, not just because he’s been there and done it, but because he’s had his own career mangled at various points by those who follow technical strictures in preference to common sense.  Getting the best out of those already good enough to be picked could well be a future for him.

For South Africa the next Tests on the agenda are home ones against Bangladesh, which should at least provide the opportunity to make some changes in favourable circumstances.  Heino Kuhn has likely played his last Test but the brittleness has affected the team throughout the top order, in a side that relies on it far more than England do (not that England should, but that’s how it has transpired).  Elgar had a decent series, undone twice here by two balls that would trouble anyone, but Bavuma flattered to deceive too often, as he has done in much of his Test career, while the core middle order of Du Plessis and De Kock struggled.  The loss of De Villiers undoubtedly hurts them, and that is a symptom of a wider malaise in the game where players are paid little to turn out for their national team, and fortunes to play for a franchise.  But even without him, the returns from the batting will have been a serious disappointment.

Losing Steyn before the series was a blow, losing Philander during it may have been pivotal. But all of the seamers did reasonably well at different times, and Maharaj too looked a cut above the normal South African spinner.  Lamenting the losses in the bowling department may ease the irritation at the result, but it was the batting that ultimately cost them, along with too many dropped catches.

This hasn’t been a great series, despite the wishful thinking of the broadcasters.  Each match has been one sided, and the interest in the outcome has dissipated often within two days.  It is a problem for Test cricket without question, but there have been highlights such as Root’s 190, Stokes brilliant 112 and Moeen’s hat-trick.  Perhaps it’s not enough, but at the moment it’s all there is to hang on to.

 

India vs England: 3rd Test review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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?

Move along, nothing to see…

England announced their squad for March’s World T20, making a late bid to match their previous and astounding heights of omnishambles over the last few years.  The selection of Liam Dawson, apparently on the back of a good Lions tour, is certainly eyebrow raising.  Trevor Bayliss’ swiftly made it clear one way or the other than if it all goes horribly wrong it ain’t down to him guv, by openly stating he hadn’t seen him play and that he was trusting the selectors.  The tone is so often the giveaway, and saying he was a good fielder “apparently” spoke volumes.  Of course, it’s not remotely Dawson’s fault, and he will be rightly thrilled and excited at his call up.  That James Whitaker stated it was on the back of the Lions tour may have been because it’s rather hard to state it was due to last year’s T20 blast when he failed to take a wicket.  Stephen Parry can count himself unfortunate.

Dawson may well go on to be a success, and there is nothing at all wrong with selections based on a hunch that the player will go well, but there is the suspicion that he will be little more than drinks carrier on this trip.

Broad too has been omitted, which rather makes his call up to the ODI series in South Africa somewhat peculiar, as he could have been given the time off to recover if he wasn’t going to be in the squad.  As it stands, and given he isn’t playing in that series so far, it seems pointless to make England’s key Test bowler hang around.

The selectors have managed to thoroughly pretend the various T20 competitions going on around the world don’t exist by ignoring Luke Wright.  England play too few T20 matches for there to be a pattern of international success to draw upon, and Wright is unquestionably a specialist in this form of the game.

And then there’s Kevin Pietersen.  His non-selection is a surprise to no-one, but the idea that England have six better T20 batsmen to draw upon is laughable.  It is thus a team selection for reasons other than cricketing ones.  Some will approve of that, many will not.  No one will be shocked, but the ECB once again are making it clear that teams are not decided on what players can do on the field.  They could have made the argument that they felt others would be more effective, which would be open to question, but a cricketing decision.  Instead they said that he wasn’t even discussed, and thus confirming the point that cricketing matters were not the focus.  As ever, the point is not about one player’s presence or otherwise, but what that means for all others going forward – if they don’t like you, then no matter how many runs or wickets you might take, you will not get in the side.

Some have suggested that England are amongst the favourites for the tournament, but the bowling looks somewhat thin for India conditions.  Even so, in competition cricket, they may well find a way, for not too many would have pointed to Ryan Sidebottom being so outstanding in the one global tournament England have ever won.  Steven Finn is in the squad despite his injury, and he is the one member of that attack shorn of Stuart Broad who looks a wicket-taker, his fitness is critical to England’s chances.

The fundamental objection to the ECB remains that they would prefer not to give themselves the best chance of winning something, in favour of internal politics.

As a statement of policy, it takes some beating.

South Africa vs England: 3rd Test, day three

Whatever was expected for day three, it wasn’t this.  England grabbed the moment, and with it the match and the series. The headlines will be all about Stuart Broad, and so they should be.  For he has now taken 5 wickets in a bowling spell seven times in his career, which is remarkable.  I was fortunate enough to see the first “Stuart Broad Day” back in 2009 when he ripped through the Australian batting order to effectively win the Ashes back for England, and there’s something about him when he gets going that makes him irresistible, he goes through batsmen like a knife through butter.

Broad is one of those players who seems to attract as much criticism as praise, and he’s not even close to being one of the best loved of England cricketers.  His demeanour over the years has sometimes irked people, and his tendency to blow hot and cold has often frustrated – as tends to be the case with explosive players, some remember the bad times rather more than the good.  The same applied to Kevin Pietersen of course, where some would choose to deny the match winning performances and point to the failures, as if that meant anything.  Those who make the game look easy at times are cursed to be berated for not producing excellence on every occasion.  Yet Broad’s overall record as a bowler is now a genuinely fine one.  He didn’t have a great start, and his bowling average didn’t dip permanently below 40 until his 21st Test, and only went below 30 after 76 matches.  And yet that average continues to fall and is now at 28.54, which is more than respectable.

Nor is this just a golden spell for him, for his bowling average over the last five years is 25.67, and over the last two it is 23.97.  This suggests not only a player who is of Test class which has been apparent for years, but one who is now world class.  He should now be at his peak, and James Anderson may well be nervously looking over his shoulder as the England record wicket taker, for over the last year or so Broad is just beginning to reel him in.

England have been on the receiving end of games like this often enough, where the team becomes crippled by uncertainty, unable to score, and reduced to resembling startled rabbits, transfixed in the headlights of a rampaging bowler.  And yet few of his wickets were batting errors, they were instead outstanding bowling.  He won the man of the match award for it, and although some felt Joe Root’s hundred the greater contribution, it was Broad who created the result, and perhaps given the name of the award, that is the right approach to it.

South Africa are unquestionably a team in transition, the loss of their great players to retirement and the absence of Steyn and Philander through injury have reduced them to a shadow of the outfit that reached number one status in Tests, but both age and injury are facts of sporting life, and it’s never been an excuse when England have lost, so nor should it be now.  However, there is a strong sense that these are two sides heading in opposite directions.  If this is purely a cricketing circumstance, then for the English it would be a reason for celebration; this England side is one that is full of verve and vigour, playing an attacking and incisive style, and responding to adversity by going after the opposition.  There is much to like about them.

The trouble is that with Test cricket in the state it is, any pleasure from it has to be tempered with real concern about the future.  The ICC stitch up with the resulting loss in relative income means that the potential for South Africa to lose their best players to T20 wealth is high, and if that is so, then building another fine side could prove beyond them.  For the point about Test cricket is that to take the maximum pleasure from your own side winning so handsomely, it must be in the knowledge that in future the tables will be turned.  That is after all why the English and Australians gleefully tease the other, because they know next time they’ll get it back to the same extent.  Success is only special when failure is an option.

England’s win means that South Africa are dethroned as the side at the top of the ICC rankings.  India for now take over, with Australia in second place.  England may well be currently fifth, but with home series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan to come, are more than likely to move up the table quite quickly.  In short order the top three Test sides will almost certainly be India, Australia and England.  Quite the coincidence.

With that proviso, it remains an outstanding feat to win the series, for since being accepted back into international cricket, Australia and England are the only sides to have won series there.  That is perhaps not so surprising as it might seem, for South African conditions are entirely alien to all other sides bar perhaps New Zealand, who you wouldn’t expect to win there often if at all.   Yet those predicting a healthy England win before the series were considered outliers, and understandably so.  England have unquestionably exceeded expectations, the younger players have brought verve and joie de vivre, and the side appears a very different one to the nervous, hidebound and risk-averse outfit under late era Flower and Moores.

Which means praise for Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace in particular – and indeed Andrew Strauss for appointing the former and backing the latter.  Good decisions should always be acknowledged, in the same way that bad ones should never be brushed under the carpet.  The style of Bayliss and Farbrace appears to be to remain in the background, encourage the players to express themselves, ensure the captain runs the side rather than being a cipher for the backroom staff, and to play attacking cricket wherever possible.  What sets them apart is that so far they’ve actually done it, for every coach says these things, but they have managed the ultimate coaching trick of getting out of the way.  Cricket is not football, and prescriptive management isn’t going to work.  Being a support and an adviser is, and early stages though it might be, the signs are excellent.

England aren’t a very good side just yet.  But they might become one.  From the depths of disaster, largely self-inflicted, that’s considerable progress.

South Africa vs England: 2nd Test day four

It is when a Test reaches this kind of stage that the thoughts of England supporters turn to the Test Which Must Not Be Mentioned.  As we go into the final day, only South Africa can win the game, a scenario that seemed unlikely to say the least as Stokes and Bairstow flogged the hosts’ bowling around Newlands a couple of days ago.

This was always going to be a possibility, given a surface that has shown no signs whatever of deterioration and has proved something of a batting paradise, and unlike one or two, for this particular blog it isn’t being wise after the event.  Of course, in reality the draw is by far the likeliest outcome, and for England to lose would represent an even worse calamity than The One That Didn’t Happen given both surface and the much more limited potency of the South African attack.  It is an amusing temptation to draw parallels, but they almost certainly aren’t going to be there.

And thus England should be able to comfortably bat out the final day, making the most of the batting practice.  Ideally, they will be able to take the same from it that South Africa have, the opportunity to play a couple of the batting line up into form, not least the captain.

The regrets will be there, England were astoundingly profligate in the field, dropping anything up to ten catches (depending who is counting) in the duration of the innings; some were tough, some were anything but.  One of the more peculiar truths of playing cricket is that dropping catches is…well, catching.  At the start of South Africa’s innings the question was whether England would create enough opportunities to take twenty wickets, to not be too far off that after the first innings, and without bowling South Africa out is quite something. A quick (and of course simplistic) totting up of what those drops cost comes to around 350 runs.   Amusing then that Stuart Broad ended the day charged with a Level One offence by the ICC for dissent, one wonders if it was directed at umpires or fielders.

If England had a slightly better day than yesterday – four wickets!  Four! – it still belonged to South Africa.  Hashim Amla duly completed his double century and Faf Du Plessis continued to provide sterling support.  What followed came completely out of the blue, as three wickets fell for ten runs including both set batsmen.  De Kock was skittish and won’t look back fondly on the shot that led to his dismissal, and with a deficit of still nearly 200, the England bowlers suddenly had a spring in their collective step.

Temba Bavuma has had a pretty terrible press this series, dismissed as being a quota player, derided for not being remotely good enough.  Of course, for English eyes it is the first time most will have seen him play, and given his travails in the first game, questions about that were reasonable enough.  Yet one game never has been sufficient to judge a player, particularly one unknown to the observer.  He didn’t look great, but a few keen watchers said he had talent.  Eleven years ago, similar aspersions were laid at the door of another South African batsman starting out, one who looked out of his depth at the highest level.  Perhaps people have heard of him – his name is Hashim Amla.

The one thing not to be is holier than thou over this; given the political element of the composition of the South African team the suspicion that better players are not going to be picked is always there, and Bavuma had hardly taken the world by storm in his first six Tests. For British observers though, he is nothing but a new player, and one who may or may not succeed – we rarely have the in depth knowledge to make assumptions about the ability of a particular player, and perhaps staying silent is the wiser course until the evidence is in place.  Plenty of people have been made to look stupid by Amla proving himself a wonderful cricketer, to risk it a second time is careless at best.

One innings doesn’t make a career, but the while the symbolism of Bavuma’s hundred is obvious, it was in itself a delightful innings, full of wonderful strokeplay.  Given the stick the England team gave him on his arrival at the crease and a slightly (but not dramatically) uncertain start, symbolism wasn’t required to take pleasure in seeing a young player ram the taunts back down English throats.

If nothing else, Bavuma’s innings lit up a day’s play of a Test that was limping towards a terminally dull conclusion.  Made off only 148 balls, it may not have had quite the brutality of Stokes, but it had style, dash and elegance.  It was, quite simply, a joy to watch.

Chris Morris deserves a word of praise as well; he had a difficult time of it with the ball, taking the brunt of Ben Stokes’ murderous assault, and for a young player on debut, it will have been a chastening experience.  Today was his day too, showing no little batting ability in making a fine 69.

England’s bowlers again didn’t do anything especially wrong, beaten by the pitch and the Kookaburra ball.  Indeed, the pitch has of course received the most criticism for being too batsman friendly, but a Duke ball might well have given the bowlers just enough for one side or the other to be able to force a result.  The pitch is only one element of the equation – although even then it would require England to have held their catches.

As far as the over-rate watch is concerned, once again the day finished with the 90 incomplete.  This time it was a solitary over short, and doubtless some will say that doesn’t matter, but the half hour additional has been invoked every day, and still the overs aren’t being completed.  In times past, this would not have mattered, as play would have continued until they were.  It was the TV broadcasters who objected to that, as late finishes played havoc with schedules.  The half hour leeway was intended to ensure all overs were bowled while still offering a definitive finishing time.  The match referee’s decision on over rates and any punishment following is not determined until the end of the match, but after four consecutive days of failing to meet their obligations, there is no excuse whatever for failing to take action.

Elsewhere today, news broke about a school match in India, where 15 year old Pranav Dhanawade shattered a century old record for the highest score in a competitive match, making a scarcely credible 1,009 in a game that redefines the term “one sided”.  It’s been interesting to follow the response to this, initially astonishment and no little awe, turning quite swiftly to criticism of the teachers for allowing it.

One final thing for now, although it is a subject which given the wider ramifications we will return to over the coming weeks and months.  The Lodha report in India on cricket governance in that country has taken something of an axe to the current BCCI structure.  What follows, whether that is court challenges or acceptance is something that will impact on cricket across the world.  What can be said, is that for the first time in a while, there is cause for a small degree of hope.  There’s a good summary on Cricinfo for those who wish to read a little more:

http://www.espncricinfo.com/india/content/story/957707.html

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