It’s both sad and joyous that life moves on. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are gone, never to return, but that’s because they’re now middle-aged. Their best cricket is behind them and who wants to look forward to ever-lower high points. Far better to step into the unknown.
Cheteshwar Pujara might never be as good as those pair were, but you never know and not knowing can be half the fun. Anyone who’s spurned a pre-emptive toilet visit ahead of a long journey knows the truth of that.
Based on yesterday’s performance, Pujara’s career promises to be even more entertaining than the Will-I-Won’t-I Piss Myself game. He’ll face tougher challenges than James Franklin’s astonishingly diminished pace, but a Test hundred is never to be sniffed at, if only because all those hours at the crease create a uniquely foetid aroma.
In other news, Suresh Raina was caught behind for three.16 Appeals
Most of you will answer ‘yes’. Finn’s performance in the third Test is fresh in the mind and it’s hard to argue that his best isn’t a notch above Bresnan’s best, but that’s not the whole story. We’re pretty good at squash, but that doesn’t mean we don’t accidentally twat ourself on the knee with the racket every once in a while.
Like us, bowlers have highs and lows. Some deliver their best about one match in 20 and it’s hard to evaluate players like that because the eye-catching performances are those which influence our perceptions the most. Finn isn’t quite a Mitchell Johnson or a Steve Harmison, but the same principle applies: the bad days count too.
The bad days
Let’s assume we’re happy with Finn’s best. Can England accommodate his worst? Every bowler has off days, but Bresnan is able to exercise damage limitation in a way in which Finn can’t. England can work with this and even Bresnan’s off days help contribute to their philosophy of bowling dry.
We’re not a massive fan of that approach, but that isn’t to say it’s wrong. Our main reservations are that it’s kind of dull to watch and that England are too slavish in their devotion to it. However, against some batting sides it’s very effective. A Finn bad day rather undermines it though.
The collective bad days
On balance, we’d still go for Finn over Bresnan when picking a Test team. England may or may not be able to bowl dry with Finn in the side, but without him there are things they definitely can’t do. Leave out a tall fast bowler in favour of reliable fast-medium and you reduce your options to the point where you might be committed to a bowling approach that simply isn’t working.
There’s also the fact that Finn appears to be improving. It’s not so much that he’s become more accurate every time he bowls. It’s more like his good days are coming more frequently. Maybe they’ll blur together in the future giving the title of this article a more straightforward answer.14 Appeals
We wrote an article about Kevin Pietersen’s advisors, but we weren’t really sure about it. Cricinfo liked it. The readers didn’t.
Or maybe they did. Is ‘aweful’ their way of saying ‘full of awe’? Is ‘disaster’ their way of… um…
Funnily enough, we’re actually experiencing a crisis of confidence at the moment. This has nothing to do with the Cricinfo comments, it’s just part of our own, internal cycle.
A bit of self-loathing keeps you honest.26 Appeals
Congratulations, South Africa. Prepare for people to delight in your fall.
In recent years, the Test rankings have been a kind of schadenfreude production line. One nation gets to the top and promptly celebrates and then everyone else celebrates even more heartily when the team in question drops down again.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether you were ahead by miles for many years, like Australia, or whether you merely nosed ahead for a brief period, like India and England. As soon as you’re technically first, the bullseye is applied and the pot shots begin.
It’s a good system. Everyone gets a turn and everyone gets a laugh as well.
“The hunters become the hunted”
A lot of players use this phrase when they’re trying to tell you that it’s harder to stay at number one than it is to get there in the first place. This is, quite honestly, horseshit.
Reaching and remaining number one are the exact same thing: you have to win slightly more than anyone else over a prolonged period of time. It’s actually easier to stay top in the short term, because you’ve already got more points than anyone else and therefore have a slight buffer.
We’re not sure we believe that the opposition up their game just because you’re ranked number one either. Cricketers are generally quite keen to win cricket matches whoever they’re playing. Also, when you’re far and away the best, the opposition are intimidated. Nineties England sides LOWERED their game when playing Australia.
In recent years, India, England and South Africa have all earned the right to call themselves the number one Test side, but they haven’t gone beyond that. If they’re honest, their status has generally been at the mercy of injuries, poor form or even just the future tours programme.
Great teams earn leeway for themselves, but no-one has achieved that of late. If remaining at number one feels harder, it’s because your status is inherently fragile.24 Appeals
Hashim Amla is not new. He’s been bearding hundreds for many years now. It is therefore no surprise that his second innings hundred tipped the balance from ‘could go either way’ to ‘very probably a South Africa win’. Vernon Philander’s two late wickets then shoved it to ‘almost certainly a South Africa win’ but he can thank Amla for giving him the opportunity to do that.
Going into the final day, all results are at least technically still possible, so for the most part it’s been a fairly even Test. ‘Fairly even’ doesn’t mean ‘destined for a draw’. It means one side has had to play well to get into a position of dominance and Amla’s contribution looks most influential.
It’s not just England’s specialist batsmen who have been found wanting in this match. Take Amla’s hundred out and South Africa’s top six have actually only scored 14 runs between them. This is a lie – but not that big a lie.
However, with batsmen like Amla, it’s not just about the shots or the runs; it’s the sense you get when he’s batting. It just doesn’t feel like he’s ever going to get out. We don’t know much about professionalism, but Amla’s helmet and clothes must reek of it. Professionalism smells, right?19 Appeals
You wonder whether it’s worth England batting Jonny Bairstow at the top of the order. It’s not that he’s particularly suited to the role, but if the opposition remain hell-bent on bouncing the shit out of him, it might soften the ball a bit for all the batsmen who follow.
Turns out Jonny Bairstow doesn’t really have a weakness against the short ball – at least not a significant weakness; not a debilitating Suresh Raina level of incompetence. He can duck okay and he can play the pull shot. He’ll probably get better with more experience.
As it stands, he’s good enough to make 72 not out against a quick attack on a decent pitch under clear skies. This isn’t to damn him with faint praise. It’s just stating the facts. There was plenty to admire about his innings without turning it into fiction.
Mostly, like England’s last ginger right-hander, he just doesn’t seem that bothered by stuff. At one point, he half-left and then tried to play a ball which pretty much grazed his off-stump. A lot of batsmen would feel a bit nervy after that. Bairstow genuinely seemed to find it funny.
That’s a reassuring response. A nervy batsman would have played with self-conscious certainty at the next delivery. They’d want bat on ball. Bairstow left it.4 Appeals
Yesterday, we said that England needed to take wickets quickly. They did. How did they achieve this? Well, actually, we’re not sure they had all that much to do with it.
It was almost like South Africa had exhausted their collective mental reserves; like much of the side’s patience and self-control had been frittered away during their 637-2 in the first Test. A bit of fortune, a dodgy decision, the odd good delivery and England are in a reasonable position.
Anderson was very good, as you’d expect. Finn was hit and miss, as you’d expect. Swann hung in there. But what of Broad? He seems to have become a lolloping and ineffectual medium-pacer. Nowt wrong with a bit of medium-pace, as long as that’s why they hired you, but ’76mph dobblage’ isn’t on Broad’s CV.
Always be wary of guns – even cricket’s speed guns. Most bowlers’ speeds have been lower in this series than in some others. The data is probably accurate for once. This in itself is of no concern, but what is striking is that Broad seems to be bowling significantly slower than James Anderson. It used to be the other way round.
As we always say: speed isn’t everything, but it is something. The usual explanations have been trotted out: bowling for swing, loss of rhythm, a niggle. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Broad looked the least threatening quarter of England’s bowling attack.10 Appeals
Not sure you’re aware of this, but spectacular, freewheeling batting performances don’t win Test matches. They provide a team with runs to work with without too much time being lost, but it’s only once the opposition are padded up that the real work starts. You don’t win a Test by scoring the most runs. You win it by taking 20 wickets while conceding fewer runs than the opposition.
The problem for England is that South Africa have a lot of strong batsmen who have no need or desire to take risks. None of them will be rushed. It’s like coming up against a whole family of Jonathan Trotts.
“Could you pass the jam, please?”
“How about you? Will you pass me the jam?”
“In a minute!”
“Er, those two don’t seem to want to help me out. Please will you pass me the jam?”
“STOP RUSHING US!”
Maybe England’s best hope is that South Africa’s batsmen will leave so many deliveries that eventually they’ll forget they’re allowed to hit the ball.
Even that’s not ideal though. England need to take wickets fairly quickly because their two most reliable batsmen, Cook and Trott, are rarely in a hurry themselves and a draw’s no good to them. The whole ‘bowling dry‘ philosophy relies on being more patient than the opposition. Considering the state of the series and the mentality of the opposition, that is a battle England are going to lose.
England need an impatient bowling philosophy.14 Appeals
The most interesting thing about all this tiresome bollocks with Kevin Pietersen is that we get a little peek into England’s future. James Taylor made a solid and unspectacular start to his Test career in the first Test and now Jonny Bairstow will return to play a few eye-level cricket shots. The future doesn’t seem all that shiny at first glance, but let’s take another look after five days of cricket before we firmly commit to pessimism.
But is the selection policy right when it comes to batsmen? To our eyes, new England batsmen of recent years can generally be lumped into one of three categories.
Competent old boys
Slightly older cricketers who take to Test cricket fairly quickly, often having played a fair few one-day internationals already. Examples include Jonathan Trott (Test debut aged 28) and Andrew Strauss (Test debut aged 27).
Young cricketers who take to Test cricket pretty much instantly. Examples include Alastair Cook and, er, that’s about it, actually. Probably shouldn’t have made that heading a plural.
Bit harsh, but we like the word. Most new England batsmen fall into this category. These are batsmen who are promising but wobbly and are in and out of the side until they’re older and more consistent. Examples include Ian Bell (Test debut at 22), Ravi Bopara (22), Eoin Morgan (23) and Jonny Bairstow (22).
There’s a case for saying that the competent older boys are just older blunderkinds, in which case surely the most logical selection policy would be to focus on established batsmen like Mike Carberry and Nick Compton. That’s a simplification though and adopting that policy would have meant wasting a lot of years of Alastair Cook.
We’re finding it hard to feel optimistic about England’s next batch of batsmen right now, but how much is the oft-cited strength in depth of England’s bowling down to the fact that so many seam bowlers have had chances to play Test cricket? Maybe Bairstow and Taylor are about to usher in a brave new world where England’s batting is the envy of the world?
It seems doubtful. Batting is different to bowling. There’s more catastrophic potential. Bowl a leg-side full toss and at least you get to turn at the end of your mark and have another go. Miss a straight one and that’s that.
Don’t miss any straight ones, lads.24 Appeals
Graeme Swann knows him too, apparently. If you want to know our feelings, we’re sticking with what we wrote the other day.
Everyone talking about this seems to be taking sides now. It’s become one of those ‘us v them’ situations, which is good, because that sort of thing is always productive.
Maybe if we correctly identify the one person who’s to blame, we can have them executed and then everything will be wonderful again, just like it never used to be.39 Appeals