England cricket news
Once again, Mitchell Johnson rocked England. He took 2-66. (Wickets taken via bouncers count double, it seems.) After that, it was back to England dismissing clueless Australian batsmen, which was really rather delightful.
This Test has brought back memories of the magical folding Australia side of a few years ago. Back then the top order were basically just lamp-posts; insignificant objects you didn’t pay any attention to which you quickly passed on your way somewhere else. Soon enough, Micky Arthur was given the boot. Darren Lehmann received plaudits for resuscitating the side, but he largely achieved this by bringing back a previous generation. It’s striking that several years later, he’s still relying on the same policy.
The thing is, now those same players are much, much older and the generation below are getting old as well. Nature abhors a vacuum, but Australian cricket is unnatural. Nothing seems to be filling the gap. Drop Michael Clarke, drop Adam Voges and bring in… Shaun Marsh?
Steven Smith has risen to the challenge and David Warner has established himself, but it feels rather like Lehmann is driving everyone towards some Clarke-less, Rogers-less precipice. It’ll be interesting to see whether he finds a way of turning the vehicle before the fatal moment, or whether he simply bails out at the last second.
Steven Finn was the main beneficiary of Australian ineptitude today. The word ‘unselectable’ has therefore been receiving a repeat airing to drive home the heart-warming nature of his resurgence. But never mind the heating of internal organs – his return is plain old admirable. He had a tough time, he couldn’t bowl for shit, he despaired, he got over it, he worked, he practised and he succeeded. He’ll probably take 0-200 in the next Test, but let’s frame our story with this as the ending and then start a new tale.
As for the batting, barring one or two exceptions and a few strange passages of silky strokeplay, it’s not been particularly excellent in this Test. Australia have made a point of being worse than England, but the home team had to make full use of their eight batsmen, which isn’t an especially good sign either. Maybe modern Test players as a whole aren’t particularly good at dealing with sideways movement – but then that isn’t really their job. Ninety per cent of the time being a Test batsman is about making as many runs as you can in fairly benign conditions. They get picked on that basis.
Australia are better than England in fairly benign conditions. We’re rather hoping they don’t get to prove that again.2 Appeals
We’re playing squash tonight. One thing you notice with squash is that the ball’s momentum doesn’t always carry it in the same direction. Quite often it alters course quite markedly upon contact with what is known as ‘the wall’. The momentum in this Ashes series is similar, it would seem. Only without Rahul Dravid.
When Australia are winning, they look really good. When they’re not, you again become aware of the cobbled-together nature of their team. 61-year-old Chris Rogers is a good, reliable cobble; 42-year-old Adam Voges, less so; Peter Nevill’s on the way in; Michael Clarke’s on the way out; and while Mitch Marsh looks an obvious replacement for Leg Before Watson when he’s knocking out hundreds in a couple of warm-up matches, he then looks like a man who’s only ever played a couple of warm-up matches in English conditions when he later appears at number six in a Test.
Nor does it end there. An injury to one of the fast bowlers and Pat Cummins – a man with a seven match first-class career – could be playing too. Team selection doesn’t seem very elite. It seems to rely more on your local third XI’s ‘see who’s free on Sunday’ approach. This isn’t to say they’re a bad side. Just a weird one.
Jimmy Anderson’s a weird one too. He’s a man who can play a major role in Australia making 566-8 and who can then be equally influential in their making 136 all out. There isn’t really much more to be written about him, which is both a compliment and a sad reflection of his age. Then again, as 76-year-old Chris Rogers proves, age need be no barrier to continued sporting success. Ian Bell’s age remains a neither-here-nor-there 33.10 Appeals
This isn’t really about Ian Bell. It’s about English cricket’s attitude to age and the impact of the international schedule as it is now.
When an England player has a spell of poor form, it is generally described in one of two ways. Young players are ‘found out’ while older players are seen as being in terminal decline.
In recent years, the latter message has been reinforced by the fact that very few England players have played on long past their 33rd birthdays. If you’re dropped at that age, it’s increasingly accepted that you’ll never come back. This then perhaps makes selectors reluctant to pick any player over 30 on the grounds that they don’t have much of a future.
Your mid-thirties run-scorer
But 33 isn’t really so old for a batsman. Sachin Tendulkar, Graham Gooch, Rahul Dravid and Alec Stewart all made over 5,000 runs after their 33rd birthdays. In recent years, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Kumar Sangakkara and Younus Khan have all scored at least 3,000 runs and averaged over 60 beyond that age. Mike Hussey, Misbah-ul-Haq, Jacques Kallis, VVS Laxman – all of these batsmen and plenty more held their own in this period of their careers.
For England? Andrew Strauss can boast relative longevity, having made 1,601 runs after 33; Paul Collingwood made 944; and Kevin Pietersen made 682; but other than them, no-one. We have to go back to Graham Thorpe (1,635 runs) and Nasser Hussain (2,479 runs) to find anyone who’s made over a thousand in recent times and they retired in 2005 and 2004 respectively.
Why so few? There’s surely a tale to be told in the countless broken bodies and minds. But is it also something cultural? A growing impatient lust for the new?
Old man Bell
Bell’s currently the old guy and almost because of this, there’s a feeling that he’s on borrowed time. It’s a battle to suppress the urge to bin him and rush onto the next thing. Who knows whether Bell feels this as well and whether it has an impact on his game. Perhaps that sense that it’s almost time becomes self-fulfilling.
Bell is in poor form, no doubt, but it’s also true that the future will arrive one day and you don’t need to break into a jog to meet it early.
Australia have spent the last couple of years proving that the present matters, unafraid to cling onto 49-year-old Chris Rogers or select 35-year-old Adam Voges for a Test debut. They’ve wrung plenty out of these players – and others – long after England would surely have discarded them.
Neither team has an embarrassment of riches at its disposal, so it’s certainly possible to gain an advantage through making the most of what you have.17 Appeals
Time was, if a batsman needed to get a drink in the Last Chance Saloon, he donned his whites and went to number six. If he turns up there now, he’ll find that Ben Stokes has taken out a long-term lease on the premises. The Last Chance Saloon has moved up the street to number three.
Previously at number three, Gary Ballance has been kicked out. Ian Bell, who ain’t in great shape himself, will therefore move up to the spot that is increasingly appropriately referred to as ‘first drop’. Jonny Bairstow will materialise at five, doubling England’s wicketkeeper count and therefore chances of success.
Should Bell fail, England will presumably bring in an opener. This would allow Adam Lyth to drop down a spot to signify he is whatever the exact opposite of ‘next cab off the rank’ is.63 Appeals
Absolutely true. You don’t possess a bottomless pit of willpower. It’s why New Year’s resolutions fizzle out. It’s why you can only resist easily-accessible snack food for so long. Anything that takes mental effort drains your resources and without time to recuperate, eventually you’ll have nothing left.
Winning is easy. Winning is no effort at all. Once you’re ahead, you need little motivation. You can just play. Losing is hard. Trying to motivate yourself when you know, deep down, that you’re already unlikely to win takes rather a lot of effort. Find yourself in that position for long enough and eventually the well will run dry.
After day one of the second Test, Australia were 337-1. Clearly they hadn’t won, but they were massively, massively ahead. Maybe England retained a 10 per cent chance of victory. It is harder to motivate yourself when you only have a 10 per cent chance of victory.
At the end of day two, Australia had made 566 and England were 85-4. They probably didn’t even have a one per cent chance of victory now and they had maybe a 20 per cent chance of salvaging a draw. It is hard to motivate yourself to play for a draw. It is harder still to play for the outside chance of a draw.
At the end of day three, Australia were batting for a declaration and there was nothing England could realistically do but wait and maybe try and slow them down a bit. It is very hard to motivate yourself to try and slow down the opposition in the hope that you might postpone their declaration for long enough that maybe, hopefully, some bad weather will arrive and save you.
On day four, Australia declared. England needed 509 to win and they needed to find some resolve.29 Appeals
You may have noticed that we didn’t complain about the pitch after day one. That’s something we only allow ourself to do once both teams have batted. Sadly, this policy appears to have been vindicated.
Sometimes it’s not a dead pitch. Sometimes it’s merely in a deep, deep sleep and one of the teams doesn’t have the bowlers to wake it. A shriek from a leg-spinner or a rumble from a truly fast bowler and it stirs, yawns, rubs its eyes and shoos Gary Ballance back to the pavilion.
Perhaps there was a clue for England in how Stuart Broad bowled, which is to say excellently. It’s not like there was uniform helplessness. Weary legs and brains were then confronted by Armitcheddon – the thoroughbred Starc and the untamed stallion Johnson. Also Mitch Hazlewood. (That’s his name, right?) These three often bowled so full that the pitch was basically an irrelevance, but they seemed to get something out of it at other times too.
Counterattacking and playing liberated cricket are tougher things to do when you’re 520 behind and already four wickets down, but Ben Stokes is a game lad, so he’s having a go.5 Appeals
There is a famous oak tree in the middle of a field near Bakewell in Derbyshire. It is weathered and gnarled and its enormous branches reach halfway to the road. Some say it is lucky. Some say it is cursed. The only thing that is known about it for certain is that it was planted there by Chris Rogers during his first season of county cricket, many, many years ago, back when he was in his thirties.
We think we read somewhere this week that Shaun Marsh has only played one first-class innings in England. This is who could be playing, but instead Australia went for Rogers, who has played about a billion. Being as the English season is longer than the Australian one, we wouldn’t actually be all that surprised to learn that he had played more cricket over here than in his home country.
Chris Rogers’ nickname is Buck. Buck Rogers is a World War I veteran who remains in suspended animation until the 25th Century. When he awakes, he’s surprisingly able-bodied considering he’s technically 521 years old. Both a namesake and a role model, you suspect.
Steve Smith also made a hundred today.18 Appeals
It’s the Lord’s Test. Mark Nicholas is rheumy-eyed already, prepping a few oleaginous soundbites ahead of Channel 5’s highlights show. However, for many of us it’s just another Test match – albeit one that brings more than its fair share of aggrandising waffle.
We’re the first to admit that we don’t really get the affection people have for cricket grounds. To us, a ground is simply a receptacle into which sport is poured. The cricket’s the thing. The ground’s just a container. We’ve little time for tradition either. Our view of tradition is that it’s the reason people give for doing something when they haven’t actually got a decent reason for doing it any more.
So far, so neutral, but there’s a reason why Lord’s actively pisses us off. It’s got nothing to do with the ground, which is fine, or the sense of tradition, which is neither here nor there – it’s that alternative moniker: The Home of Cricket
That’s it. That’s the only real objection we have to the place. The leading questions about how special it is to be playing there are irritating, but calling the ground ‘The Home of Cricket’ is outright infuriating. Why? Because in a small way it’s laying claim to something that cannot be owned; something that is shared between all of us, no matter where we live, where we watch or where we play.
Lord’s is a home of cricket, just as Eden Gardens is a home of cricket, just as Winnington Rec is a home of cricket. Ring your bell, wear your stupid tie, but don’t ever claim that cricket is more yours than ours.21 Appeals
Maybe this statement would seem more accurate to some of you if we said ‘too many fair batsmen’ – but that would fly in the face of the universally-accepted Premier Manager 2 scale where ‘fair’ actually means ‘really rather shit’.
No, England and Australia have too many Very Good batsmen. Too many Very Good*** batsmen way down the order to be precise. It’s not that either side has better batsmen than ever before in the top six. It’s not that at all. Nobody would make a case for this being the best line-up of specialist batsmen either team has boasted. It’s down the order where the problems lie.
In the first Test England had Moeen Ali at eight, while Australia had Mitchell Starc – a guy with a Test 99 to his name – at number 10. This means innings can really drag on.
It’s not that it feels like a drag while you’re watching Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Mitchell Johnson or any of these sorts. As often as not, they’re more entertaining than the guys above them. It’s just that with tails docked, the importance of a wicket is diminished – and in a Test match, wickets are very much what it’s all about.
Time was, you took two top order wickets and it was like an explosion. Bricks flew everywhere. Damage had been done. Walls might collapse. The whole damn structure might implode. Nowadays it’s like picking a bit of sealant from around a window, or dislodging a slate from the roof. Technically you’ve done some damage, but there’s so much more left to do.
Bring back Alan Mullally and Jo Angel.18 Appeals
One of Darren Lehmann’s strengths as a coach is his pragmatism. When he first took over, he assessed the various players available to him and concluded that he was going to have to make do with a few who were less than ideal.
David Warner was a tool, but he was a good opening batsman, so he was in. Chris Rogers was 46 years old and probably past his best, but he was still better than the other options, so he was in. No-one would jump for joy at the prospect of selecting Brad Haddin, Shane Watson or Nathan Lyon, but Lehmann hasn’t discarded them in the quest for something better. He’s given them a chance.
Similarly, when they needed a new middle order batsman recently, they didn’t go for youth – they went for 35-year-old Adam Voges who has a very good, but not exceptional, first-class record. Despite being only occasionally fitness-prone, Ryan Harris was kept about the place to play when he could.
From these occasionally wonky components, Lehmann somehow put together a very good side. But the fragility didn’t entirely disappear. The parts didn’t entirely become equal to their proportion of the whole. It was still a team which cycled through fast bowlers and where the lower order frequently bailed out the top order.
It shouldn’t really have been such a surprise that England could better them – particularly as they’d only won one of their previous 14 away Ashes Tests. However, if you look at some of the players involved and start to think that the result makes sense, it’s worth remembering that we’ve been here before. Darren Lehmann didn’t get fat by being unable to make a decent meal out of unspectacular ingredients. It’ll be interesting to see what he throws into the pan for the next Test.34 Appeals