They always say of Twenty20 cricket that it’s ideal for modern lifestyles because we’re all so busy these days, as if everyone’s got oh-so-many important things to do all the time and all those labour-saving devices have had no impact. It’s probably true though. We are busier. We’re busy watching Test cricket because they constrict entire series into little more than a fortnight so that we have no time for anything else.
This is our way of saying that we have to write about James Anderson’s England Test wicket record today because the next Test starts in a few hours. No time to mull things over. No time to reflect. We’re still chewing over the first Test, but already the plate’s being whisked away and replaced with the next course.
So Jimmy then?
The truth is, we have very little to offer. We’ve been writing about James Anderson fairly regularly for nigh-on a decade now, so we don’t have a huge amount to add. Just as you’re only really one day older than yesterday on your birthday – same as every other day – so Jimmy’s taken just one more wicket, even if it did take him past Beefy.
Who he went past is probably the most meaningful gauge of what it means to have become England’s top Test wicket-taker. Ian Botham was not like other England cricketers. He was a comic book hero who performed outrageous feats. Ask an Englishman who knows nothing of cricket to name an England cricketer and they will name Ian Botham. If you only know one cricketer, you know Ian Botham.
And Jimmy’s taken more wickets than him.
Several years ago
We’ve followed James Anderson’s career as closely as we’ve followed any career, right from his first-class debut. We claim no great insight here. It was just blind luck.
When he first appeared in county cricket, we were working with someone called James Anderson who also liked cricket and also followed Lancashire. As you might imagine, we both checked the scorecards religiously and joked about his progress. That progress was famously rapid.
We would have been behind him from then on anyway, but at some point shortly afterwards we saw him playing for Lancashire and he swung the ball and took wickets. We thought he was great. Perhaps this is hindsight, but within a year or so of that time, we can start testing our memories by comparing them against things we wrote on the internet. We wrote that he was great. But not only that. It seems we also wrote that he was magic.27 Appeals
They always talk about players ‘knocking on the door’ when it comes to England selection. Then, when a player makes a really compelling case, they say he pretty much knocked the door down. Alex Hales seems inclined to take an even more straightforward route into the team. He’s just going to push down the handle, quietly open the door, walk in and sit down.
Yorkshire are a few players down, but their bowling attack is still strong enough to have secured a 10-wicket win last week, dismissing Worcestershire for an even hundred in the second innings. As such, Alex Hales’ 222 off 250 balls is what you might, with a degree of understatement, call a tidy effort.
At 393-7, it’ll also be interesting to see how the rest of this match pans out – partly because Hales is still in, but also to see what kind of a pitch it is. This has all the hallmarks of being one of those innings people mistakenly refer to in years to come as being pivotal in a player’s career.
The truth is, Hales has only been reduced to the rudeness of an uninvited door open after a couple of years of tap-tappery. This innings is the act of a frustrated man who is leaving nothing to chance.
Last year, we already knew that Hales could hit hundreds in T20 internationals. Perhaps concerned by this seemingly one-dimensional CV, he took steps to fill in the sizeable gaps. He made three hundreds in the 50-over competition and finished the tournament with an average of 76.80. He also made three Championship hundreds and averaged 50.21 (in the first division).
Since then, England have picked and unpicked him like poor stitching. He’s pissed off. He said as much in an interview last week.
So what can he do? Well, he can score a hundred against the county champions and then, once he’s done that, he can just carry on, scoring more and more runs with cold relentlessness. When you’ve already travelled across the threshold in both directions, you realise that doors are meant to be opened.11 Appeals
If you envision the next Chanderpaul, the first thing you picture is a younger version of the current Chanderpaul – a crabby, left-handed batsman who has Chanderpaul’s face and Chanderpaul’s oversized cricket gear. What you don’t picture is a two metre tall right-hander who’s actually a bowler. Nevertheless, Jason Holder delivered a Shivnarine Chanderpaulesque performance to save the first Test. It was fully admirable.
There are other bowlers who’ve never made a first-class century before who’ve danced their way to their first in a Test match. Holder’s team-mate Jerome Taylor is one. He made 106 off 107 balls against New Zealand and that’s generally the way it works: a few lusty hits in fairly unchallenging circumstances; the opposition rolling their eyes or getting frustrated.
Holder’s effort was very different. Holder played an innings. It was beyond responsibility. It was nothing less than a blunt refusal to allow the opposition to win – this in a team that has frequently folded like junk mail forced through one of those powerfully sprung letterboxes that only opens about 8mm even when you apply maximum force.
As for England, the players who played played well enough. Even Cook’s captaincy was pretty decent. Pretty much all of the bowlers were controlled and disciplined, but control and discipline are secondary qualities on a flat, slow pitch when wickets are all you care about. What you want then is an injection of chaos. Five bowlers who deliver chaos is too many but you need at least one.
But this is why you play a Test series. The new ball didn’t swing for long, reverse swing was hard to come by. Armed with these facts, we’ll judge England based on how they line up and perform in the second Test.17 Appeals
Gary Ballance doesn’t so much score Test hundreds as cut them. Short and wide, fair enough, but our Gary seems to play the shot to middle stump half volleys as well. Fair enough. Whatever works.
Ballance isn’t the only England player who appears to be sloughing his horrifically stained World Cup skin. We questioned how Stuart Broad had got back into the team earlier in the Test, but being as he’s here, it’s reassuring to see that there are signs he could return to good form.
As several have pointed out, it’s not that Broad’s incapable of bowling quickly right now, it’s just that he can’t do it regularly or for long. Hopefully this will come as his body again adapts to Test cricket and there will hopefully be a window of optimal performance before his pace starts being eroded again due to too much cricket.
Jos Buttler seemed to benefit from some declaration batting and there’s every reason to believe this will snap him out of the bizarre strokelessness that delivered a 22-ball duck in the first innings. With Ben Stokes batting well and Moeen Ali returning, this begs the question as to who will bat at eight. England’s tail may just have been docked.19 Appeals
We feel moderately confident naming it this, because it doesn’t seem so likely that there’ll be another such day when not just one, but both of these players have a sizeable impact on a Test match.
James Tredwell, for one, might never play another Test. This is sad and if you think that’s hypocritical being as we were calling for the inclusion of Adil Rashid in his stead, remember that hypocrisy is built into our England support mechanisms. If you’re playing, we’re behind you. You’re our guy.
Tredders is a man who plays both second XI cricket and also for England. As he whangs in his round-arm slattery, he seems more like the former. He looks less like an elite athlete and more like an electrician or a maths teacher. This is, unquestionably, a good thing and only makes his wickets (winkled, cajoled or stolen – never taken) all the more pleasing.
As for Jermaine Blackwood, the mania side of his bipolar batting approach encourages the notion that he might not have a long career, but the gleeful hitting might actually be less relevant than the depression that generally engulfed it.
If the kind of man who carts his second ball for six can smother the impetuous part of his brain to such an extent that his 112 not out takes 220 balls, he has some kind of willpower. There were quite a few where-did-that-come-from larrups but he was skilled enough to get away with most and may need less luck in the future when further synapse smotheration has taken place.
Hindsight is everything. Maybe in years to come we’ll look back on the lows of this innings as being indicators that Blackwood wasn’t cut out for Test cricket, or perhaps we’ll simply see them as rough edges. Who knows, maybe he’ll find himself up against wily old James Tredwell again in 2019, two careworn masters carrying underperforming sides, engaging in one more epic individual battle.18 Appeals
If wealthy, middle-aged American women’s faces teach us anything, it is that people do not go under the knife and then return much as they ever were. Don’t seam bowlers usually have to prove themselves again after surgery?
Stuart Broad had a knee problem. It wasn’t anything too debilitating. It was the kind of thing for which you schedule surgery. A few months later, no real cricket to his name, he floats back into England’s World Cup squad and performs poorly. Now he’s in the Test team.
This is unusual. Established Test batsmen retain a firm hold on their places, but seam bowlers, whoever they are, generally do not. It only takes one ball for a batsman to lose his wicket, so it can take a few matches to gather meaningful evidence. In contrast, the worse a bowler bowls in a match, the more opportunities he gets to show what he can (and can’t) do.
There also seems to be an understanding that, no matter what the name attached to him, a bowler isn’t always the same person. This is why rotation is a thing. Sometimes a bowler’s tired. Sometimes their pace drops and their ability to shoulder a workload is reduced.
So again, we’ll ask, don’t seam bowlers usually have to prove themselves after surgery? Because this Stuart Broad is not the Stuart Broad we once had.
Even in the unlikely event that England are looking for an 80mph right-armer who can’t bat, is Broad really the best available? Such bowlers are ten-a-penny in county cricket and most have more experience of being such a thing than Broad. Broad has occasionally been seen flirting with the ‘fast bowler’ label and has a Test hundred to his name. He doesn’t know how to bowl medium-pace and bat at number 11.
If the impact of Varun Aaron’s bouncer is still being felt psychologically long after the physical scars have healed, that’s sad and unfortunate, but it only puts more emphasis on the quality of Broad’s bowling. Even in top physical condition, it pays to have realistic expectations of what he will do. At present, after surgery and a long spell without cricket, Broad’s bowling is pointlessly insipid.
How did he get in the team? Don’t seam bowlers usually have to prove themselves again after surgery?22 Appeals
We’re not sure what the disease is called. Nor can we tell whether it’s a mild virus that you soon overcome or a more serious illness, like rigor mortis.
Either way, symptoms include caution, timidity and a fear of failure. Observing these qualities, relatives yearn for the patient to display freedom of expression – although this also often results in their pleading for what would, in normal circumstances, be considered recklessness.
A sickly morning
In the morning, the top three of Cook, Trott and Ballance looked to have the capacity for frozen shotlessness. But it is a question of degrees. In other circumstances, on another day, it might not be a problem at all. Strauss, Cook and Trott usually proved rather productive, for example.
The issue, instead, seems to be that players, whether naturally attack-minded or of a more patient nature, often seem disinclined to take the initiative. There is an air of paralysis surrounding all involved and the medically-minded among you will know that paralysis cannot be treated by simply asking the patient to move.
So how do you free up a team like England? Most people call for the inclusion of players who they consider to be freewheeling risk-takers. It seldom works. Either they’re flavour of the month and not up to standard or they’re eventually picked on for wilfully unravelling the carefully woven platforms bequeathed to them by their colleagues.
Soon enough everyone’s playing responsibly because at least it looks right. To lose responsibly is the aim of a fool.
Just go out and whack it
You can’t tell a player to ‘go out and whack it’. You first have to tell them that if they go out and miswhack, they’ll keep their place in the team. Second of all, you have to somehow convince them that what you just told them is the truth.
Peter Moores is fighting to keep his job. Alastair Cook is fighting to keep his. They need people to succeed right now. They can’t really afford failure today in the pursuit of success tomorrow. For them, whatever they may say to the contrary, “don’t throw it away” will be the subtext.
We have sympathy. They’re being asked to produce a viable long-term plan knowing they’ll be judged on what happens in the next three weeks.
Fortunately for them, Joe Root’s still in the team. Joe Root ain’t getting dropped, so he can play how he likes. After overcoming Ashes paralysis, Root appears to have resolved that such a thing will never happen again. Ian Bell’s pretty secure in his place too. Let him get warmed up and he’s not afraid to try and hit the odd four. And Ben Stokes hasn’t been dragged into conservatism just yet. Nor Jos Buttler.
Perhaps if these sorts of players can do okay, England can get some wins and if they get some wins, maybe the surfeit of black bile that is the cause of the illness will ebb away. Who knows, a fit and healthy England might be a different beast.23 Appeals
With live cricket broadcast at a reasonable hour, a Test tour of the West Indies is one of our favourites when it comes to watching the game on TV. It’s a shame it comes hot on the heels of the World Cup, ahead of an Ashes and in conflict with the start of the county season. But you get what you’re given and all you can do is make jerk chicken, pour yourself a beer and slouch on your sofa making the best of things.
There are many things we’d like to see in the next few weeks. Two major hopes are for signs of good form from Jonathan Trott and James Anderson.
While England have ostensibly replaced Trott’s runs with those that have been produced by Gary Ballance, the effect doesn’t seem to have been quite the same. England’s good performances seem so closely associated with Trott’s good performances that he should really be branded ‘totemic’.
For some reason, you have to be attention-seeking to be branded a talisman. Andrew Flintoff and Ian Botham were thought of in these terms. Trott less so, but his influence seems to us to have been as great. Perhaps he’s less showy amulet and more rabbit’s foot contained in an inside pocket. England are shaky. His runs and influence are needed.
If he plays, this will be Trott’s 50th Test. Jimmy Anderson is about to play his 100th. For a quick bowler, that is some total. However, the corollary of that is that we’ve already seen the bulk of his career. Sad to say, but it would be good to see him find form because we should savour every ball in his remaining Tests. England doesn’t produce many bowlers who are this good.
England need him as well – as much as ever, which is worrying. Where once they appeared to have a surfeit of seam bowling riches, a lot of the queue has been revealed to be illusory. Symptomatic of this is the fact that Stuart Broad is certain to play, despite not having shown any form whatsoever since his return from surgery. Fast-medium, unremarkable, largely ineffective, he somehow remains England’s first-choice opening bowler.
As ever, it seems like it’s all on you, Jimmy.
If good form from Trott and Anderson are short- to medium-term hopes, we’d also like to see England move to a place where they are less reliant on them. We’d like to see something from everyone involved, but we’d be particularly pleased if Adil Rashid can somehow get a game and a clutch of wickets.
He is, reportedly, not bowling all that well at the minute, which is a bloody shame. England’s strategy where they looked to build suffocating pressure with a battery of right-arm fast-medium bowlers now seems redundant without sufficiently reliable personnel, so it would be good to get some variety.
Everyone assumes that variety demands a fast bowler (preferably a left-armer because some of the best fast bowlers in the world are currently cack-handed and apparently that aspect is more significant than the fact that they’re good bowlers regardless of which hand they hold a pen with). But leg-spin is useful. It can provide an injection of chaos when the status quo ain’t in your favour.
Rashid is currently no Warne, but it isn’t too fanciful to assume that he could do a number on the guileless contemporary lower orders who nevertheless contribute so many runs. Plus he can bat.
Rashid would be no passenger were he to make it into the Test team, but English tradition dictates that one spinner is the default – even if you have two decent options who can also bat. Expect James Tredwell – not a feature of second division Kent’s first-class team – to play, and expect him to be judged and discarded from the one-day side on the basis of his Test performances.26 Appeals
Richie Benaud has died and a small part of our brain that responds to blue skies, lengthening days and Test cricket has also died. You can’t spend as long in someone’s company as most of us have spent listening to Richie and not feel like you know them.
There are other public figures who we see a lot; people who are familiar from newspapers and TV – but you don’t actually sit there with them for any length of time. That’s the difference. Richie was, in a very real sense, part of many cricket fans’ lives. He wasn’t just the soundtrack – which would be enough cause for mourning in itself – he was the portal through which the sport arrived. He brought cricket and taught cricket and most of us will be forever grateful for that.
Don’t speak – the art of commentary
Commentating’s like writing – everyone thinks they can do it. They think that just because they know the English language, they can do the job. It doesn’t really work like that.
You know the bit in a Test match when they pan round all the people in fancy dress. They did that once while Michael Slater was on commentary. Batman came on screen. “There’s Batman,” he informed us.
It’s not easy to talk for two minutes when you have no script and haven’t planned in advance what to say. Nor is it easy to sit silent for two minutes when you know you’re working as a commentator. But it’s about adding value.
Sometimes that takes a lot of words and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, Richie Benaud didn’t require many words to put into place what should be the first rule of TV commentary: “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it – otherwise shut up.”
The impossible trick
Poor commentators are easy to name, but what’s truly telling is that even the good ones start to get on your nerves with certain things after a while. Nasser Hussain’s pluralisation, for example: ‘Your Gayles, your McCullums, your Kohlis, your Maxwells’.
Point is, you can’t talk for hours and hours and hours and not get on someone’s wick. Cricket is a long game and familiarity breeds irritation. No commentator is universally loved – you need only read a ‘dream commentary team’ debate on social media or in the comments of a website to appreciate that fact.
Except Richie was universally loved. At least insofar as that’s possible. We feel the same about Richie’s death as David Cameron does. Shane Warne’s written something that moved us. These aren’t people who we’d normally agree with, let alone both on the same day, but yet we’re united by this.
To touch so many people without also pissing them off when you’ve commentated on long, drawn-out Test matches for fifty years is an incredible, just about impossible achievement. Richie Benaud is, sadly, irreplaceable.
He wasn’t a bad cricketer either. Not a bad cricketer at all.19 Appeals
We’ve a slight concern that the ECB’s new chief executive referred to ‘the England Cricket Department’ in announcing Paul Downton’s sacking, as if English cricket really were a corporation in which broad, curved desks were every bit as important pieces of equipment as bats and balls. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel some sense of relief that someone involved has finally taken a fairly obvious, logical decision.
Back in October, we asked if the entire organisation could be dissolved, to be replaced by something more representative, but we knew that this was unrealistic, which was why we’d shifted to ‘sack Downton and Whitaker‘ by last month. It sounds like we’re getting our wish.
Almost as if he has spent the last 20 years ‘outside cricket’ working in a bank, Downton was found wanting. Personal attacks are needless and distasteful. He was merely the beneficiary of a nasty little system and his story ends with him also falling victim to that system by way of its inevitable failings. He appeared to allow himself to be bounced about by superiors as well as those under him. It’s easy to influence people who don’t know their stuff. When you know your world inside-out, you have the clarity which breeds conviction.
Selectors are harder to appraise, but Whitaker, if he goes, can have few complaints. His predecessor, Geoff Miller, presided over a period of success which ended at almost the exact moment he walked out the door. It’s long enough ago now that what has happened since surely has to be meaningful with regards to Whitaker’s performance.
The pair will be replaced by one bloke who will be responsible for the men’s England cricket team and nothing else. Michael Vaughan appears to be an early frontrunner. He would presumably have to detach himself from the ISM Sports Management firm for this to happen, which would at least mean he wouldn’t be clogging up column inches and frittering away airtime talking up its clients while trading on his reputation as an Ashes-winning captain.14 Appeals