England vs Pakistan: 1st Test, Day Four

Given the troubled and fractious relationship over many years between England’s and Pakistan’s cricket teams, perhaps the most startling outcome from this Test has been the realisation that they have become a likeable side.  The celebration at the end of a match they have thoroughly deserved to win made most onlookers smile, for it signified a team seemingly united and also enjoying their cricket.  Although that might have been the most obvious example, there were plenty of others, from Misbah’s century celebration to the adorable reaction of Mohammed Hafeez to the sight of a young Pakistan fan in the stands celebrating his catch to dismiss Alex Hales.  Rather obviously, over recent years Pakistan have had something of a PR problem, but under Misbah’s exceptional leadership and example, they have demonstrated themselves to be very welcome tourists.

It does of course help player demeanour when matches are won, and although England swiftly wrapped up the Pakistan second innings in a few minutes this morning, 283 was a big ask in the fourth innings of a match that had already showed declining batting returns.  Reaching such a target is quite possible, but it does require a fine batting performance, with few mistakes and bowling opposition that isn’t on top of its game – none of that was the case today.  Some were got out, but all too many of them were self-inflicted.  Cook certainly got a good ball, but his technique is looking ever so slightly awry again, his head moving over to off and ending up squared up by the bowler much too often.  In contrast, Hales and Vince were loose, Root and Ali downright careless, as England went helter-skelter at the target.  It wasn’t until Bairstow was joined by Woakes that a calmer mindset was brought to proceedings, and although the two of them battled hard against some exceptional bowling from Wahad Riaz in particular, much of the damage was already done – unless they were to pull off something magical, an end was always going to be open the moment the partnership was broken.  So it proved, from the moment Bairstow to his utter horror managed to miss a long hop to the end of the match was a mere five overs.  The final nail in the coffin came with the loss of Chris Woakes, who batted longer in the game than any other England player, for 58 runs and once out to go with his eleven wickets.  Seldom has an England player in recent times been more unlucky to finish on the losing side.

Yasir Shah’s ten wickets in the match will receive the plaudits, but the seam bowling today should give England pause that they are going to be up against an attack with no weak links.  As was suspected before the start of the series, the strength of the two sides is in the bowling, albeit Pakistan have a spinner on a different level, and both batting line ups look brittle.  For England the return of Anderson and Stokes will improve the side, with Finn and presumably Ball the likely ones to make way.  That would certainly improve the batting in the middle order, but that’s not the area where England look vulnerable. Vince doesn’t at this stage look likely to contribute more than a few breezy runs,  while Hales at the top still doesn’t exude reliability.

From a series perspective, Pakistan’s win is probably the best thing that could have happened; England now have to show they are capable of more than beating up weakened opposition.  But if nothing else, three more Tests as enjoyable as this one certainly won’t harm interest in the game.  These are two fairly well matched sides, both flawed, both capable of brilliance.  Pakistan won this Test rather than England losing it, because when it came down to it, their key players stepped up and delivered to a greater extent than England’s did.  That may not be the same next time, but for now they can reflect on a fine performance, that had the added side effect of winning over some hearts and minds.  Not a bad day’s work.



England vs Pakistan: 1st Test, Day Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day four comments below 



England vs Pakistan: 1st Test Day two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day three comments below