Bairstow.

Some things, we know, go right past sport. Some of those things are hard to approach – reckless to approach, perhaps? Tough to get in there without offending. Tough and possibly quite wrong to speculate over things that course so deeply. So, no offence but…

Jonny Bairstow. Cricket *and everything* in the blood. Son of an England ‘keeper. Half-brother to Andrew, formerly of Derbyshire. First Winner of the Wisden Schools Young Cricketer of the Year, for walloping 600-plus runs for St Peter’s School, York, back in 2007. So does have Yorkshire Grit but of the relatively polished, or privileged variety. (Not that he can help that. And not that he ever strikes you as any sort of toff. His oeuvre, or let’s call it manner, despite a certain pomp, is closer to working-class hero than flouncy sophisticate ).

2016, scores 1470 Test runs, almost doubling Matt Prior’s existing record: compare with England’s current crop… and with his own tally of 391, for 2021 (if I’m reading cricinfo correctly). So numbers. But numbers don’t account for tragedy, or bloody-mindedness, or value to the team: not really. Bairstow’s value has always been about punchiness and spirit and undeniability. He’s the guy who does the bullocking, the sprinting, the (mostly) undemonstrative aggression. He’s fired-up, Proper Yorkshire, in fact – and Proper Red-head.

His role as a white-ball opener has been spectacularly successful. The Test batting less so – or it’s felt for three or four years like his place is under some threat. Prone to getting bowled, early-doors. Great counter-attacker but sometimes not equipped for a long, slowish knock. Is there also a sense that, being drawn to drama, Bairstow’s juices simply don’t always flow? That he responds to situations which demand heroics? Despite being plainly a mentally and physically tough guy, his contributions seem fickle – less reliable than his personality and grit and gifts would suggest. Plus that whole other thing about taking the gloves or not.

But hey. Before the furore-in-a-beer-glass over comments about his weight, I did tweet to query JB’s body-shape. Impolite and unnecessary, possibly, but all I meant was a) he looks like he’s put on a few pounds and b) therefore looked less like a battle-ready international sportsman. I think we’re entitled to ask that of our elite athletes but Jonny answered me in the way he and Stokesy answered the mouthy Australian fans – by scoring big runs and racing between the sticks faster than almost anybody on the planet; as per. So maybe my dumb observations were dumb observations. The thing is Bairstow defied: again.

This feels like the crux. Bairstow may be carrying impossible hurt – why wouldn’t he be? As well as the family catastrophe, or possibly entwined amongst unfathomable grief and anger and trauma, Bairstow somehow feels like the bloke who wants to wade in there carrying some flag. He’s proud, strong, hearty and the hurt flows near to the surface.

I reckon this might possibly make him hard to manage – but again, I may be speculating wrongly and quite inappropriately. How could he not be occasionally dour and moody, as well as inspiring and true, as a mate, colleague, comrade? How does the coach or selector appreciate or quantify that? When his often god-like or warrior-like brassiness and boldness is surely tailor-made for those moments when ‘the tough get going?’ Meaning you absolutely need some Bairstow in your squad.

Conversely, I get that judgements must be made about technical skills and the relative qualities of team members: the mix. But Jonny’s gift to the mix is emphatic in terms of energy and emotion.

Jonny Bairstow knows he is entitled to bugger all but he will still feel that he’s earned stuff. He has that fire and that Yorkie stubbornness. He is likely plenty perverse enough to be driven on by resentment, against slights from media, coaches, fans, fellow players. Because he’s a broad, bellowing, beautiful battler.

Ashes Churn.

So we’re all exasperated and hurt, then. And that hurt may be good. We may yet bawl or bundle People towards Progress. Maybe. In a tidal wave of New Year Resolutions, Harrison will confess whilst weeping pitifully, Private Schools will be abolished, the MCC Members will swap the daft yellow and red stuff for hair shirts and the Tory Party will disintegrate in shame. Because Things Can Only (and Must Only) Get Better, right? And This Means Everything.

The Brit Universe is g-nashing over the Ashes. We’re all Experts and we’re All Legitimate Fans and we All Attend County Champs Games, Regularly, Jeff. We all have The Right To The Loudest Opinion, Ever. (Me included). Our exclusive claim on Knowing is being Twittered and Vodcasted to the heavens. Our brilliance and their dumbness is Completely Obvious, Maureen, in a brutally sweeping, sexually-charged and capitalised kindofaway. Because this is righteously simple.

Except it’s not.

Coaching and Coaching Philosophy is/are not simple. Strategic planning and respectful scheduling are not simple. Mental Health is not simple. Daft, daft games are not simple.

Let’s start with coaching – coaching and captaincy and the art of deciding.

Interesting that the likes of Rob Key – medium-intelligent voice, close to the action – has been so-o clear that Silverwood is utterly ‘out of his depth’. Others make the argument that Giles, in gathering power in to the former England paceman/enforcer, has put his Head Coach in a suffocating head-lock: just too much to do, think about, organise, decide upon. Certainly most of us outsiders can find a favourite clanger for this series, whether it be that first Test selection or the return of Crawley, or the dropping of Burns. There is plenty scope for gleeful dismemberment of Silverwood’s more contentious calls.

Now I’m not a prevaricator by nature but I’m less sure than some of you that Silverwood has to go. And I’m less sure again that despite Root being an average captain rather than a brilliant one, he should join his gaffer on the Discarded on Merit pile.

Firstly, not been close to Silverwood, so not seen how his interactions with players are. Secondly, have disagreed with several of the decisions around selection/toss/strategy but that can happen with good coaches, too, right? (‘Game of opinions, Dave’). Forty-ninethly, although it plainly might be that he’s not up to it – and of course the woeful capitulation is traditionally laid essentially at the gaffer’s door, in elite sport – only Farbrace springs immediately to mind as a preferred candidate… and he… yaknow… was there before, pretty much. So in short I guess I’m thinking the summary execution of Silverwood and Root might feel righteous but achieve not so much.

(Sixty-twothly – and the absence of similar views make me fear that I may be missing something here – what about Thorpe? Has G Thorpe Esq not been batting coach for like, years? Why no grief in his direction? Even if he’s the Greatest Bloke Ever, or whatever, does he not hold a hoooge chunk of responsibility? Is he not the ultimate in You Had One Jobbery? Don’t geddit: how he seems to escape scrutiny. Good luck to him… but seems extraordinary).

But breeeeeeathe. Zooming out, there are cultural issues, from shamefully-distracted money-driven policy to exclusion by malice, stealth and/or by toff-dom. Privilege still waiving its todger at us, like some Eton-educated clown. In *that matrix*, bonuses get paid to *this ECB*: the universe really is that warped. But let’s get back to coaching – to batting – because despite what the needier, more distracted corners of Twitter are saying, it was England’s batting that decided the Ashes.

Understandably, there have been some pointed and intelligent reflections on both the technical specifics and wider framing of batting skills and/or the coaching thereof. It’s not just embittered former internationals who are saying the modern player lacks discipline and the modern coach is typically twiddling his/her way through a kind of woke manual. But even this preciously guarded, pleasingly heartfelt ‘debate’ needs to take care around over-simplification.

Yes, it is true that the ECB Coaching Pathway shifted away from instructive, demonstrative coaching towards ‘Core Principles’ and ‘player ownership’. The coach has been invited to be less of an auteur/maestro and more of a skilled inquisitor: the argument being that the traditional format of oldish blokes barking instructions at more or less intimidated ‘pupils’ was a crass way and an ineffective way for players to *actually learn*. (I have some sympathy with this view). But could be that this Generous Modern Way works great for Dynamos but less well for Dom Sibley. (In other words, maybe this is complex and maybe entitlements and protocols and levels of both enquiry and expectation are so bloo-dee different that it’s a nonsense to only approach from the one, holistically-nourishing angle, or imagine that things don’t change as you clamber up the performance ladder?)

It seems absolutely right for a cheery old sod like me to be inspiringly lovely and friendly and encouraging, as I trip out my rhetorical questions to Llanrhian Juniors. But it may be okay – not ideal, but okaaay – for an England coach to shout, swear and tear strips off players who don’t effing get it. Elite sport is, perhaps regrettably, tough. You are gonna have to be a robust individual: tough enough to bear the #bantz and the barrage of bouncers. Tough enough to ‘wear a few’, on and off the pitch. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to expect that amongst the essential support, camaraderie and joy, there will be challenge, discomfort even, on the road to (their) learning.

Top end cricket – especially Test Cricket, especially batting? – is surely about the ability to resist, to offer sustained and disciplined excellence. You hope, (I imagine) that you can break through into the peace of playing your game. But there may be a period – a cruel period – of mindful doggedness on the way there.

This tour – again – the England batters got nowhere near. Except Root. And sometimes Malan. The rest looked generally shot, or technically ill-equipped to compete. Rightly then, we are asking about what Test Batting needs to look like. Deliciously, once the rage subsides, we may need to consider whether levering-back towards particular ways is wise or possible – or what, precisely, we proscribe against. Just how orthodox is the fella Smith, for Aus, for example?

Against a good Aussie team, not a great one, neither England’s will nor skill seemed up to it. So we’re all angry, we’re all piling in on Silverwood, Harrison, Giles. Fair enough. But as we tear through issues around bat pathway and summer schedules and the dispiriting mean-ness of everything, let’s get our brainy heads on; before the Ashes Churn gets going again.

Love. Fear. Grief. And another incredi-chapter.

It’s hard to be strategic when there’s so-o much love about. And fear. And grief. How, exactly, do we manage a way through an Away Series, in Oz? With all that inconvenient turning of the earth stuff? And the disorientating, electrifying, fecund stillness – the night, outside? Loveliness, but then with the bastards down there bouncing down the corridors of our Proper Sleep-time, squeezing off fire-extinguishers like drunken bladdy students. And winning – always winning. How do we manage against that?

Can only be instinct – unless you’re one of the comparatively few who really can watch through the night and either sleep or work through the day. I can’t; can only do some. So like most of the Pom Universe I swerved Day 3 entirely and gathered to watch Day 4. That made sense.

England had a sniff. After Root and Malan had restored some pride, and Hameed had offered some hope, it made sense to invest in Day 4. Let’s do this.

Minor tactical kip during the late afternoon: fitful but hopefully restorative, or enabling of a long overnight haul. ‘Social’ quietly fizzing with suitably modest hypotheses, around ‘building’, or ‘extending’ and just maybe ‘constructing a total’. Then pundits on the telly-box being bundled into That Conversation: the one where it’s considered that England might yet steal a bladdy win.

They’d have to ‘start again’; then ‘see off the new ball’; then ‘build’. ‘Obviously Root and Malan can play… can take this on… but don’t forget how Stokes and Buttler in particular can push on – can take a game away from you’.

Have no idea if these conversations *actually happened*. Or if I was already dreaming. Pretty sure I watched as Malan got tangled-up, to the often innocuous-looking but persistently troubling Lyon. Certain I saw an absolute peach, from the miraculously recovered Hazlewood – who may have never been injured, despite the twelve hours of relentless and generally circular ‘discussion’ from our frankly embarrassingly wearisome local hosts. (Less is more, gentlemen). That peach deserved to register and it did – accounting for the England captain

The Root dismissal has come to feel central to everything: if our friends at Wisden are to believed he has scored 1100 more runs than the next England bat in this calendar year. ELEVEN FUCKING HUNDRED: he has 1,544. Burns, remarkably, is next, on 492. Plainly, on this occasion, the skipper erred again, fishing gently but fatally for one that simply shouldn’t have tempted him: certainly not at that stage.

The dismissal of Pope, soon after, for 4, trying to cut a ball that bounced a little, from Lyon, who has made a career out of top-spin/over-spin, meant not just that the game was almost done but barely credibly, it was almost done before the new ball had been taken. Understandably, even the pundits before us with worthwhile collections of brain-cells had been singling out that period (after ten overs or so of old-ball phoney-war) as critical. But no. Even they (even I) had underestimated England’s capacity to be England.

Extraordinarily, my Original Plan to hit the hay, come what may, after the morning’s session in Brisbane, worked out supremely: just not in the way any of us had foreseen. We foresaw a slaughter (probably), once Hazlewood and Cummins and Starc had the new cherry. Nope. Not to be. Those seamers had some joy, inevitably but it was the old pill – and the old-school non-spinning spinner – what done it, essentially. Four-fer, for Nathan Lyon, ultimately, taking him beyond 400 Test wickets. And another incredi-chapter in the book of England Ashes traumas.

England Australia.

It was impeccable. It was dramatic. It was about as perfect a start, for England, as us dream-shy Poms could have imagined. Warner gone; Smith gone; Maxwell gone – all before the powerplay was done.

Strategic change and same old Woakesy. Beautiful but metronomic bowling and a stonking catch. Rashid, then a perspiring but impressively concentrated Jordan. Australia an extraordinary 21 for 3 after 6 testing overs for our Antipodean friends.

Then in comes Adil again… and the googly absolutely decimates Stoinis. Close to catastrophic this, for the green ‘n gold.

But Finch remains – so Moeen again held back. Livingstone comes in to add further variety and challenge the Aussie skipper’s outside edge. There is spin… but it’s mainly just that critical bit of nibble that’s told. Plus that increasingly important length – too short to drive, but cramping the pull. Exemplary, from England; sustained excellence which Livingstone (the part-timer-plus) admirably maintains, via that ambitious mix of leggies, offies and pretty much everything in between. After 10 overs the batting side – if not shell-shocked, then breathy and 64% baffled – are 41 for 4. Mills.

A touch of inswing, still. A peach of a slower-ball. Goes short and wide; Wade, not entirely convincingly, back-cuts for four, with Moeen almost hopeful. Finally an authentically poor ball, as Mills back-of-the-hands one wide to leg. Eight from the over. The World’s Noisiest Host assaults us again. Livingstone offers a rare bit of air, Wade clumps downtown but Roy can take a comfortable, if overhead catch. 51 for 5.

As Agar joins Finch, and the line-ups flash up on screen again, the length of the Aus tail again draws comment. O-kaaay this is T20 and anybody can clatter a few but this is surely ominous? Rashid continues the strangle; flighting now, getting turn that Agar, certainly, is barely surviving. Wow. 57 for 5 after 14.

Mills is furious with himself as Finch breaks out: two boundaries in two. The over goes for 10. Further discussion on whether Morgan will completely exclude Moeen from proceedings, on the ground that Finch may eat him up. Hmm.

Jordan will bowl the 16th. Australian pundits crediting the Poms with high-level skills and application, here – fair dinkum. But also urging the batters towards explosivity, on the grounds that they simply must get to 110-20 to have any chance in the game. Finch does smash a wide one behind point, for four. The bowler responds with a good yorker but the captain will keep the strike with a single. 75 for 5 with 16 gone.

Agar gets the first 6… then the second, Woakes missing yorker length. Finally some pressure on an Englishman. Cruelly for the bowler, who has completely unzipped the batter, a near l.b. flies down to the rope – meaning 17 from the over. Meaning Aus may yet get to 120-something. Perhaps. Mills, at 96 for 5.

Pace off. Defeats Finch but no dramas. Then Agar middles but flattish out to deep square: Livingstone pouches. 98 for 6, off 17.4. Could they even be bowled out?

Cummins – so probably not. Classical straight drive – defiantly exaggerating the ‘straight’ bit: six. Then nutty, ridiculously-timed, fore-arm hoik waaaay into the crowd over deep square; six more. Finch follows the mood but a slight outer-edge: Bairstow rushes in to claim. 110 for 7; 18.1. Starc joining Cummins.

Briefly. Jordan clears out the latter so we have two guys on nought, in the 19th… and a hat-trick ball. Zampa pushes safely out. 111 for 8 as Jordan comes around to Starc. Two? No. Zampa refuses. (Do not under-estimate the contribution that England’s intensity in the outfield has made to this. They look like a team that just doesn’t make mistakes: consequently no relief).

Mills will bowl the last. He goes for that exaggerated slower one but Starc gets most of it – or enough. Four, straight. Later, a scramble and Zampa can’t make his ground.119 for 9. Off-line: Starc twists to carve Mills behind for six more. Starc is caught behind, off the last. So Australia all out for 125: commanding, from England.

Stuff you won’t read in The Guardian. I needed a brew/cake/something. Nothing in. Broke the land speed record to the next village to buy coffee and a previously test-driven vegan pastie. (Curried job. Phworr!) Get back and spill all the bloody coffee all over the gearstick whilst clambering hastily out. Utter night mare… and I miss most of the first two overs.

They are uneventful, England quite rightly easing their way in. But Roy (of course) will be wanting to make a statement. He does, belting Cummins for a huge six. 27 for 0, after 3. Agar will bowl the fourth.

Roy and Buttler will love a cruise – particularly in this fixture – but they will also enjoy some psychological point-scoring. Buttler dances and clobbers Agar for six, over long-off. 37 for 0 after 4 and England in danger of racing ahead. These openers look comfortable – making a mockery of that which went before. Even Hazelwood’s very skilled, expertly targeted yorker gets worked away for three.

Great running, too, from England. And not running… as Starc gets levered to the horizon.. twice. Buttler absolutely killing it, against one of the world’s great quicks. Dreamland, for Morgan’s Men as they see out the powerplay at 66 for no wicket; the highest total for the tournament so far. Sweet, sweet, sweet.

Zampa will need to find something special – initially against Roy. Second ball is reviewed, after two impudent reverses. Looks close live. It was. Roy is gone – rather wastefully, you feel. (He will know a spirit-crushing 10 wicket win may have been on there). Enter Malan, who may be the ideal candidate to steer this home. England are 68 for 1, with 7 gone.

Malan cuts Starc gloriously and clips to leg. Buttler booms a full-toss. Run rate above ten: Zampa needs a four-wicket maiden. Watson on comms hugely generous but has no choice: this is becoming a performance for the ages. Buttler is back to his ridicu-best; six more. Malan is stroking. 15 from the over, 97 for 1 from 9. An obliteration in progress. Buttler has 62 from 28 balls, at this point.

But some joy, for Oz. Malan tickles a (straight) arm-ball from Agar behind and is gone. (Like Roy, he will feel he has missed out badly). The punchy Bairstow yomps out, looking determined, as always.

He gets an awful ball, plainly down leg, which Agar has the audacity to appeal. Third ball is clipped neatly to midwicket for a single. Tip and run and we have 99 for 2 after 10. The announcer has been doing more coke. Buttler remains undistracted, smashing Zampa over long-on – another 90 metre wonder.

Bairstow joins in, clubbing with forearms then sweeping expansively: both sixes. It’s a massacre. 20 from the over; 119 for 2 with just 7 needed, from 54 balls. Four of them come as Agar grabs some turn but beats everyone – even slip. The game is up when Bairstow eases out through point. An astonishing 50 balls to spare.

In the book it will say ‘8 wicket win’ but this performance will be remembered (I suspect beyond the Pom Fraternity) as an icon of brutal, barely-relenting brilliance in this format. All and any upcoming opponents now really have been warned. The Law of Averages (or Something) may yet intervene to thumb its nose at the notion of an English procession through the tournament but this group of players have proved again that they are exceptional. As an England fan I know it’s *fatal* to write the words… but what else is there? They are, they have to be favourites to win this thing.

And so it begins.

And so it begins. England (and Wales) under the frequently outstanding leadership of one of the world’s great but possibly most under-appreciated female players – Heather Knight –  enter the ring. They enter with some expectation draped around them; England are surely one of three major contenders for the tournament, alongside the hosts, Australia, and India.

After the extraordinary opening game of this #T20WorldCup it feels again like the odds have narrowed: deliciously so. The third defeat for the Southern Stars in fifteen days being something of a jolt not just to them, but to the whole course of the conversation. Australia *really are beatable*. The likely procession really may not be so simple. It makes for a better tournament, surely?

We all knew that the alleged nature of T20 predisposes towards a greater possibility for crazy, fate-defying drama: that allegation – not without its flaws – proved true (or as true as anything) with an Indian win, in the opening fixture. A win that was something of a horror-show for the Aussies. All Out, with just two players passing double-figures. More than that, perhaps, All Out shell-shocked. What a way to begin.

So England and India are entitled. They know, now, that they really are contenders; because they are the other world powers and because Australia are flawed, too. In a tournament that may, unfortunately be somewhat blighted by nerves and under-achievement (god I hope not!), the unpeeling of legitimate Aussie pomp opened up, from the outset, all manner of wonderful opportunities: who though, can take them?

England are strongish and well organised. They have nevertheless also shown a softish underbelly, a propensity for collapses in confidence, but often Knight’s resilience has seen them through – if not solo, then alongside the gutsiness exemplified by Brunt and/or the sheer threat posed by the young off-spinner, Ecclestone. Throw in Beaumont’s brightness and Wyatt’s flair and yes, England are strongish… but things can go either way.

They should be too strong for today’s opponents, South Africa.

Having watched Eng v Women Proteas shorter-format fixtures live over the last year or two, my central memory is that there remains a distance between them, in terms of around quality: not a chasm, but a meaningful gap, in England’s favour. The question will therefore be whether the sprint that is T20 might be dominated by an individual, to the exclusion of the normal, regular, predictable measures of team performance.

Is it possible that Lee, or Wolvaardt, or Kapp could do something irresistible? Of course it is. Strap in.

 

Van Niekerk wins the toss and inserts England, predictably. The England line-up is stacked with batting, again, with Beaumont likely to come in down the order – again. Glenn and Ecclestone will provide their spin.

Jones and Wyatt, who have both been struggling for form, stride out. Interestingly, Mlaba – left-arm spin – will open. Nice, challenging idea but the third delivery is a poor full-toss, dispatched for four, then Jones follows with a peach of a lofted straight drive. Encouraging start, for England – nine off the over.

Now it’s the mighty Kapp; experienced and often formidable. She beats Jones, first up but again the England opener replies, driving uppishly but safely through midwicket for four. 13 for 0 after 2. Finally, Wyatt will get to face.

Now, enter Ismail – one of the swiftest bowlers around. Wyatt drives solidly for one. Then Jones cuts nicely for four more; good start, from her, so far. Apropos bugger all, quite nice to have Alan Wilkins on comms. Jones not middling everything – and things going a little ‘aerial’ but 21 for 0 off 3 is good. Jones has 20 of them.

But Jones miscues Kapp and is caught, easily, at mid-off. The pace of her knock was fine, again, but again she has been dismissed a tad sloppily. She needs to do more; lots of twenties but too few innings getting built. Enter Sciver.

Aaaaargh. Wyatt promptly follows, infuriatingly. Yet again, she pumps a very poor, wide, over-full delivery from Khaka, to point. Awful dismissal and another failure, from what seemed a promising beginning. Yet again, Knight comes in to salvage a potential problem period. Chaka is visibly lifted – as are the South Africans generally – and England’s best two must gather. 28 for 2, after 5.

Conditions: the pitch looks true. Some taper in the air, for Khaka and Kapp, certainly, but it’s looking conducive to decent scoring – meaning 140/150, ideally, I’m guessing(?) 130 already looking more realistic.

Power play score of 31 for 2 is lowish, courtesy those dismissals, so Knight and Sciver will need to accelerate soonish. My personal view is that the Jones/Wyatt combo cannot continue to fail with impunity. Get Beaumont back in there.

Sciver club-drives Khaka for four, a welcome release. The fielders looking sharp. Mild pressure from the Proteas. Van Niekerk will bowl the 9th.

Knight attacks. She booms downtown but perhaps under-estimates the athleticism of Ismail, who takes a fine, running catch. BIG MOMENT. Huge requirement for Sciver to perform, now. She is joined by Wilson, who has impressed, of late, fortunately. Important moment in the game.

Wilson living dangerously, by repeatedly sweeping Mlaba and then dancing down and missing by miles. The keeper couldn’t gather: more pressure. England ‘doing an Australia’, here – looking scrambled.

Sciver gets a freebie, an awful full-toss from Mlaba which she can swing over mid-on. 50 up after 10, but this means there’s much work to do, for England. The concern may be that of the remaining batters, only Sciver feels truly explosive. Or rather the likes of Beaumont and Brunt may not be able to sustain a real assault – which may be necessary. If not that, a brilliant performance in the field becomes essential: meaning pressure. (In truth this feels a likely scenario: England under-achieve with the bat but come through with a good bowling effort).

With England at a relatively measly 60, after 12 overs, a tense affair seems inevitable. Note Knight seems to operate well, under those circumstances – as do her principal bowlers. Meanwhile Wilson and Sciver, without really flowing, continue to nudge England forward.

Ismail will bowl the 14th over – her third. Boundaries remain a rarity: meaning the England coaching staff may be considering changes in batting order. Ismail is cramping Sciver with some skill. 69 for 3 at the end of the over. Ouch. Major work required.

Van Niekerk has only conceded 13 from her first three overs; she will bowl out, now. She claims Wilson, who simply lacks the power (and/or timing) to drive for six, over the onside. Ismail takes another simple catch. On the plus side, this brings in the bullish Brunt. 72 for 4… and trouble?

Sciver smashes Mlaba for six, then four. Brunt must join in. They must get ten an over – to post 130-odd, you would think.

Sciver cheekily lifts Khaka over the keeper. Brunt is scurrying with intent. Better, from England. 98 for 4 off 17. Genuinely solid performance, this, however, from South Africa.

As I say this they fluff a fairly straight-forward run-out opportunity, after a great throw from Kapp: awkward but not gathered, allowing the dive to render Sciver safe.

Ismail claims Brunt, slashing a bouncer to the fielder. England pass the 100. Can Sciver and Beaumont burst for the line?

No. Chaka bowls a peach of a slower-ball/leg-cutter to bewitch her and clatter the off-stick. Great ball and a fine innings – 50 – by far the most significant contribution of the England innings, from the tall, talented and increasingly influential number 3.

Winfield goes promptly, caught behind square off Khaka, who by now has 3 for 25. Kapp will bowl the last, with England at 115 for 7. Beaumont strikes her for four, before attempting to charge a bouncer! Dot ball. Then an lbw review , for a delivery which strikes the admittedly diminutive batter’s hip. High? Nope. Out.

Two new batters, then, in Shrubsole and Ecclestone. No further dramas. England finish on 123 for 8. Substantially below par but credit the Proteas for an excellent, consistent display. Think the game is probably still live but England behind in the game, no question. If one or more of the South Africans get in – look out.

Final thought over the break: genuinely hope that ‘under-achievement’ doesn’t become too prevalent a theme, in this tournament. Nerves overcoming talent can be dramatic, of course, but if repeated, it can undermine the legitimacy of elite sport.

Shrubsole, inevitably, for England. Second ball(!) Lee swings and escapes, with a miscued skier, straightish. Appreciable inswing evident; just three from the over. Now Brunt. She gets outswing. Good over – big appeal, come the last ball but we are at 5 for 0 after 2.

Van Niekerk is fortunate, to survive an awful hack on the charge but Lee lacks similar good fortune. She miscues to Winfield and in truth it felt imminent, given the rather reckless approach, early on, from both Proteas openers. Shrubsole already looks on it. 6 for 1 after 3.

Kapp has joined van Niekerk. Sciver will bowl to the former. Good over but she will be forgiven for thinking Winfield might have done better with a lofted drive from Kapp. Catchable, for a great athlete – Winfield palmed it for four.

Shrubsole continues into her third over. Wow. Van Niekerk absolutely booms her over midwicket, for a mighty, mighty six. She follows that with a slightly streaky four forward of square leg. Good come-back, from South Africa. 21 for 1 from 5.

Brunt will return to conclude the power-play. Fine over but Kapp drives square, beautifully, on the up, to close it out. Ecclestone will bowl the 7th.

The Winfield ‘drop’ feeling biggish, as the Proteas settle, a touch. (They hardly have to race at this. They have limited batting strength so it’s imperative for England to take wickets. South Africa have only to retain their composure… and build a partnership or two). Nasser Hussain on comms putting the opposite view – that they should maybe get themselves ahead of the run rate – but this is a lowish total. Composure, for me, is the key.

Glenn, then Sciver. A quietish moment. Kapp and Van Niekerk are in – 19 and 22, respectively – as we reach 47 for 1 after 9. Glenn again.

Tidy enough but something needs to give. Fifty up and a rare misfield from Brunt. 54 for 1 – England were three down, at the same stage. It’s England who need some drama. Ecclestone, to spear them in.

Kapp gets Glenn away, the leg spinner dropping a little short and offering just enough width to open up the covers. Four. Glenn is getting just a smidge of turn, on occasion, but hardly threatening. 66 for 1 after 12: importantly, the run rate has just lifted to 7.4. Key phase – in comes Brunt once more.

It’s a strange, cautious affair: England focused (but not inspired); South Africa watchful. Fran Wilson makes a superb stop to deny Kapp a four, off Sciver – maybe that might lift the bowling unit? It’s tight. 74 for 1 after 14. 50 needed off 36.

Shrubsole, again. Bowling ver-ry straight. Van Niekerk miscues but again finds the wide open spaces. Run rate over 8. South Africa need a boundary and the captain finds it, sweeping for six – the second time Shrubsole’s been dispatched. 11 from the over. It’s tight.

Van Niekerk goes after Glenn; the first ball goes over extra cover for four. But what’s this? Glenn has Kapp with a simple return catch. Good innings of 38; deliciously, none of us can tell if it will be enough. The young Tryon joins van Niekerk.

Immediately, Ecclestone gets the South African opener, flashing rather lazily to point. That really is a moment. Two brand new batters at the crease. “Wicket dot dot. Wicket dot dot”, confirms Nasser. Great over – 91 for 3, with the required rate suddenly up at 11. 33 from 18, to be precise.

Oof –  a streaky four, through the keeper, Jones. Then two mishits – one safe, one behind, for four. South Africa riding their luck: and again, as Winfield drops what appears to be a sitter. (Only explicable if she genuinely didn’t pick it up: but her earlier drop makes one think she rather lost her nerve, as well as her bearings). She is a rather wooden fielder, unfortunately.

Ecclestone will bowl the penultimate over. Yet again a mishit from Tryon falls safe. There are a lot of jangled nerve-ends, out there. (And in here).

Finally, Tryon connects. Six. Following ball, Jones fluffs a stumping chance. Ball after – bowled. Out-standing, from Ecclestone, under hugely testing circumstances. Nine needed from the last, with Brunt to steam in. Who knows, who knows?

A single just about scuttled. Eight from five. Brunt goes leg-side; another single. Third ball… du Preez booms over midwicket for six! Then a full-bunger, dispatched! THE PROTEAS ARE THERE!! A tense, tense game, with another shock result: England beaten.

Initial reaction, after congratulating the South Africans for a pret-ty complete performance, is that again, following the defeat of Australia by India, this adds real edge, early doors, to the competition. This must be good. England must now execute (as they say) without further significant error.

Arguably, unlike the Australian’s poor effort, this was not a spectacular down-turn in performance, not freakishly skittish; it just wasn’t good enough, from Heather Knight’s side. Strategy-wise, despite theoretically packing the batting, England fell well short. Wyatt and Jones both, ultimately, failed again – or failed to go on  – and momentum never developed, against some good bowling from Khaka, Kapp and co.

For me Beaumont at six has always been a nonsense and I call again for her to go back up top. Sure, Tammy can ‘finish’, she can do the 360 scurry; but she is a proven opener and, critically, she will throw her wicket away a whole lot less cheaply than either Wyatt or Jones, if given that responsibility. The new coach (Lisa Keightley) has overthunk this: there *should be* consequences for serial failure – especially when the dismissals are so frequently so crass. Beaumont goes back to open with one of the incumbents dropping into a dasher/finisher role.

But hey – all of that is with my England fan’s head on. Let’s conclude with a closing word or two about South Africa. Great win, for them – an almost flawless performance in the field, in particular. Congratulations.

 

The Big Dance.

So Oz fell over: or, o-kaaay, stumbled. At the all-dancing opener to a hugely anticipated T20 World Cup, in front of a crowd of 13,000-plus, the Southern Stars tripped where they had been expected to sashay in style.

India – India whom we knew were a threat, but India the ‘not-that-great in the field’ – beat them, ultimately with some ease, as a truly poor Australian batting performance degenerated into the female equivalent of a Dad Dance. Ugly-ish; un-coordinated; arrhythmic.

Those of us confined to grey, sodden West-Walian climes at least had the prospect of a helpful, brekkie-time watch. (Those of us recovering from an op’ and therefore *not actually in work* had, in fact, the opportunity to enjoy the whole whatever-it-was. And it was… what?)

It was smile-inducing, at about 7.30, Greenwich. Daft and colourful and good-natured, with some young bloke in a near-Hawaiian shirt imploring us to (you guessed it) “get up and da-ance”. I didn’t, but felt suitably buoyant, as I rushed the family porridge and swished through the weekly recycling trauma, with the front door kissing hard in the wind and the bin-men grinding ominously down the road.

Finally set, about the same time as the Indian openers, I eagerly awaited the evocative words “Molly Strano” on a loop from the various comms-peeps; for the craic, the sheer, extravagant 0z-ness of it. Molly Strano. Great name. Huge shame, for the injured Vlaminck, of course but Moll…

The game, the game, though: likely to be proper-competitive but ending with a home win – the Southern Stars being unquestionably the strongest side in the tournament and India being yes, a threat, but also something of a squad on the up, rather than yaknow, complete. India… facing Molly Strano.

Then multiple wowsers. The powerful prodigy that is Verma intercedes early, across our expectations. Strano and then Perry may not be *actually dismissed* but they are a tad stung, as the young opener clouts and cuts in the power-play. Her theoretically senior partner, Mandhana, can quietly prod away as the explosive youth bolts the innings forward: 40 for 0 off 4. Indian support going ballistic; Lanning looking a little concerned, perhaps?

But then, inevitably, Australia do their thing. Mandhana – who never got going – is lbw to Jonassen and Verma is picked up at mid-on, off Perry. The left-arm offie has turned nothing, as usual but her deadly consistency and commendable nous, combined with good length from Perry, has stalled any potential charge. Normal service.

42 for 3 becomes 47 for 3 when that other Indian Superstar, the captain, Harmanpreet Kaur charges wildly at Jonassen, in pursuit of a ‘statement’. It’s a crass error and a crass dismissal, as the ball smooths past the unsightly heave before defeating Healy’s glove… a-and dribbling back from her pad to hit the stumps. Shocker. I thought the game might have gone, right there.

Instead Rodrigues and Sharma re-build – stoically rather than emphatically, in truth. Sharma remains undefeated on 49 at the close of innings, supported by a muted 9 from Krishnamurthy. The total of 132 for 4 feels twenty short.

Rodrigues made 26 off 33 and Verma 29 from 15. In short, on a slowish but not apparently turn-tastic strip, you imagined a comparatively uninspired India behind in the game, particularly as Australia bowl and field better, traditionally. Perhaps wiser to put this the other way – that India’s fielding is ordinary and their bowling may rely on a pitch more helpful than this one. Maybe.

As Healy starts up, looking if not imperious then closer to her pugnacious best than of late, the signs are that though the Indian spinners might make this competitive, Australia will simply have too much. But hang on. Without, in my view, the visitors bowling bewildering beauties, Mooney, Lanning, Haynes, find themselves back in the pavilion. For 6, 5 and 6, respectively. Yes but this only brings in Perry, right? Perry makes 0.

Not in any way looking to denigrate a good bowling performance, here. The impishly wonderful Poona Yadav finished with 4 for 19 from her 4 overs; I loved that. Likewise Sharma and Shikha Pandey (who took 3 for 14 off 3.5) deserve bundles of credit. It’s just that The Story felt very much about a) a defeat for Aus and b) specifically, the opening up of a frailty we maybe thought this undeniably accomplished Southern Stars Posse had grown through. They were, in short, nervy and deeply vulnerable under pressure; some of them shockingly so. And this was their third T20 defeat in the last 15 days.

Healy made 51 and Gardener 34. Yet even Gardener, known for her dynamism and god-given ability to GO BIG, under pressure, rather fizzled. Take away those 85 runs and the contribution of the rest is exposed: 28 from t’other eight batters. All out, 115. Wow.

So this was an extraordinary start – many might argue an ideal start in terms of opening up the tournament. Australia will likely still go through but they will have to be positive-aggressive (who-knows, run-rate may be important) and they will probably have to beat New Zealand, as well as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Excitingly then, it’s immediately all kinds of tasty, in Group A: the Almost Unbeatables got beat. And whilst we know that theoretically T20 is the format where expectation can be brutally usurped, and we’re at some level prepared for that, the extent to which Australia fluffed/bottled or misplaced it – whatever it is – means we’re already into something that feels new. The adrenalin is pumping nicely.

When their outstanding captain Harmanpreet Kaur threw away her wicket, leaving India at not many for 3, having lost their two most essential (nay iconic) players, this scenario did not seem likely. Perry, Lanning, Healy and co with the proverbial ‘work to do?’ Surely not. Aus have way too much quality. Aus bat long and bat with intent.

Not sure anybody expects India to go on and win this at a cruise as a result of this one, relative upset – England may have something to say about that, for starters – but clearly Yadav and Verma have put delicious wee markers down. “We’re here! Come, watch us dancing.”

 

 

 

 

 

Hunches.

Ok some hunches – you know hunches, you *luuuurvv* hunches, right? Moments of crash-bang-walloptastic insight offered up only to you, by the gods of knowledge, because your instincts (yes, you and only you!) – are fab-yoo-luss.

Only you could see that she/he had to go with the off-spinner, or should nev-ver have swept off that length because you could see what was gonna happen. Plain as, that this pitch makes a nonsense of ‘positivity’; that this pre-meditation was unnecessary madness. So have to say something.

Hunches are about knowing what will happen – what the destiny of these things was – but also swilling the juicy juice of opinion around. Joining with the banter; getting disproportionate and daft and earnest and noisy, maybe. But knowing all along that you may be talking utter cobblers.

So, doesn’t matter that there’s an inevitable smattering of opprobriating “ahs”, when you’re wrong. When the offie bowls, predictably, like a donkey but then claims the critical scalp. The hunch was precious and invigorating, to you and to the beer snake that is the raillery around it. Maan, you meant it; maaan you were wrong; cheers – onwards.

Hunches, predictions, forecasts, opinion. What a great way of showing off, exposing yourself, joining the can-can. Here’s some around England Women Cricket, following last night’s win against India. (May write about the *actual game*, later – if the energy holds.

  • Amy Jones. Will be, or should be somewhat troubled by her trot of form. (12 runs in 3 innings, I think). And more so because she keeps getting out ‘badly’. However the new coach has worked with her prior to her England gig, (WBBL) and will therefore hopefully know her and what makes her tick. Reckon therefore, that because Jones a) can play – can be dynamic and even dominant – and b) she can ‘keep, my hunch is she stays.
  • Whether she stays as an opener, with or without Wyatt, may be another question. Plainly the thinking is that because Knight (in particular) is wonderfully consistent, having backbone, maturity and increasingly the capacity to rescue-through-charging, relative flakiness – i.e. Jones, Wyatt – can be tolerated ahead of her. I also note that the presence of the generally redoubtable Beaumont also enables higher-risk cricket up front.
  • So, both Jones and Wyatt stay in the T20 side, for the upcoming World Cup; both may be a tad fortunate, but they are both what we hunchers call ‘players’.
  •  If we take it that the promotion of Brunt was very much a temporary measure – to try to break up the Indians’ plans for control – then what’s the batting line-up going to be, come that tournament?
  • I really might reinstate Beaumont as an opener (we can’t keep ‘recovering’) and drop Jones down. Wyatt and Beaumont, followed by Sciver, Knight, Jones. (Actually think there’s a case for Knight ahead of Sciver, who is less stoic and less reliable than her skipper – or certainly feels it, in that familiar 30 for 3 zone. Hang on… think Sciver warrants a hunch – maybe a techno-hunch – of her own.
  • Nat Sciver may be England’s best all-round athlete. You have to rate her for the whole package. But (just me?) or does it feel like given that spectacular raw material, she is marginally under-achieving?
  • Batting-wise, her way of playing is to play through the leg-side. She swishes (I know, pejorative) across the line pret-ty constantly, often to great effect, because she has talent and timing and can therefore a) ‘get away with it’ b) pierce the field, such is her level of control: (usually).
  • Now of course the traditionally-received wisdom is that against high quality bowling, playing across the line is likely to prove risky. And that Sciver’s bat-swing, itself, being so frequently in or close to pull-shot-mode, is likely to make her vulnerable to miscues, as well as being lbw or bowled. The modern game profoundly challenges this wisdom: but my hunch remains that Sciver will be intermittently spectacular rather than consistently, durably brilliant at international level. In short, she may not be an ideal 3, or even 4, in a team that starts with a stutter.
  • Knight likes 4, I think, and she’s probably earned the right to choose. Hmm. Maybe then, in a World Cup Beaumont really should get that opening slot back, to fix at least two relative bankers in the top four. (Wyatt and Jones being fine players… but not bankers, right?) Meaning my choice would be Beaumont, Wyatt, Sciver (with some misgivings) and Knight, top four. Followed by either Jones, or Wilson – who is finding some nice form at a good time.
  • Über-hunch, however is that Keightley will stay with Wyatt, Jones, Sciver, Knight, Wilson but this may be subject to what happens in the second Tri-nations fixture against Australia and then in the final of that mini-tournament – which I expect England to be contesting.
  • World Cup-wise, England’s fixtures run South Africa, Thailand, Pakistan, West Indies in the first phase of the tournament. So full team/best team out from the off and maybe not much scope for tinkering other than in the Thailand fixture, where you wouldn’t rule out a throughly guns-blazing approach.
  • But this is all batting. What else?
  • Let’s talk about pitches – or the pitches. So far, the Tri-nations, as so-o often in the women’s game – has featured lifeless matts. Seamers bowling ‘variations’, cos no pace or carry. Spinners getting a little help, maybe, but generally slowish, medium-grippy affairs. I kinda hope that for the sheer lols of it, the Aussies have a secret plan to show us these bland carpets before unleashing some zingtastic strips that will make Vlaeminck thrillingly unplayable in the World Cup. But that’s more a hope than a hunch.
  • Bowling-wise, England have most bases covered, barring the express pace one – although they are hardly alone on that. Selection will chiefly a matter of how many seamers, given the pitch conditions. I like Glenn, the leg-spinner, like the variation and wicket-taking potential her selection might bring, but she may lose out more often than not – probably to Davies, who will join Brunt and Shrubsole on the seamers’ roster.
  • Ecclestone’s general excellence and threat now being established, she must play in all cases. Sciver and Knight will no doubt make their contributions. As a bowling unit, even where conditions may not entirely suit, England have tended to compete grittily and well – very much in the image of the skipper.
  • The third discipline – fielding. Only Australia get close to England’s increasingly focused level. Yes there will be some errors but these are fewer and more heavily offset by a strong, consistent attention – to intention.
  • Wilson, Wyatt and Sciver are often brilliant, Brunt is brave and fixated and the general, professional vibe continues to improve. There is committed strategy and mostly good athleticism and improving catching in the field. Australia are at a a ver-ry similar level, arguably higher but even the other leading nations – principally West Indies and India – are significantly behind, giving the two Ashes foes a powerful advantage going into the tournament proper.
  • Expect an England Australia Tri-nations final… and for one of them to be crowned World T20 Champions on the 8th of March. Oz rightly favourites but England may be shaping up to be legitimate contenders. Hunch? They might win it!

 

One memory from an ordinary game. Brunt, bowling, really not liking a return catch that hurt the hand… then catching a dolly back to her the following ball. Roaring, intimidatingly loudly, to the skies, to the universe, to the batter – though not quite at her – as Krishnamurthy departs. Tough competitor.

 Maybe a second – Also involving Brunt. Sciver – her fiancé, remember? – plays Sharma rather beautifully and straight. As the bowler falls into her follow-through, she gets something on the ball… which ricochets inevitably onto the stumps… running out The Intended One, by a mile. Ah.

No hiding from the fact that this was no thriller: some decent quality from Sciver, during the chase for a low total – 123 for 6. Winfield rather laboured the ball, uppishly, towards mid-off, to win the game, ultimately. She should have been caught. Walking off, or reflecting, both sides will be thinking “we need to be better than this”.

Wot, no Kiwis? Australia v England. Women’s T20 international.

England are batting and Perry will bowl four straight, with predictably excellent control. The visitors persist with the somewhat under-pressure Jones, and the slighter but notably athletic and always-positive Wyatt.

Perry stifles Jones in particular, with Wyatt looking both dynamic and slightly vulnerable, (as per, arguably). The Southern Star’s über-star will finish her spell, absurdly, with 1 for 9 off 4, and with England seemingly flummoxed. Wyatt is Perry’s one wicket, brilliantly caught by Mooney, with the opener playing uppishly through cover-point: another poorish dismissal, from the England point of view.

There is a similarly disappointing end for Jones. She has made a ver-ry scratchy 10 off 24 balls when run out. Exceptional fielding, in truth, from Jonassen but pressure plainly did for the opener again – an unnecessary scramble speaking of scrambled minds.

Have said before that I rate Amy Jones; having seen her live several times her power and confidence can really flow, making her a genuine candidate for a top-of-the-order spot. But she is appearing a tad unfocused, frail, even – a tad close to playing herself out of the team. One can argue either she needs ‘a rest’, or that the coaching team need to get around her.

Sciver is possibly under-achieving, too, though not under threat of de-selection. A fine athlete and all-rounder, in at three, with perhaps a little to prove to justify that ranking. Facts don’t ever reveal everything but try these: Sciver is out for 4 off 9 balls and England are 39 for 3 after 8.4 overs at the moment of her dismissal, caught Perry, skying, at mid-off.

The power-play overs were disastrous, then, for England, or seemed to be, until Knight got a hold on this. She is lucky to escape after skying Wareham but soonish, as so often, the skipper wills a way back. Knight will need to find a partner for the rebuild: on this occasion, it will be Wilson. From 3 for not much, the two of them get to 3 for 90 (as the Aussie commentators have it) at 15 overs.

Schutt and Kimmince lead out the death overs. Hugely encouragingly for England, Knight and Wilson continue their charge, hitting hard, skilfully and with intent.

Jonassen, the left-arm offie, will bowl the 18th. No let-up. Wilson goes to 20 runs off 8 balls in a fine, dynamic streak; at the other end the skipper promptly gets to 50, off Kimmince. It’s a dream of a pitch for the batters but this is still Australia; they are helpless, it seems.

Schutt drops Wilson and then Knight clouts her for six twice in the final over. This is potentially important stuff: the best team in the world getting unceremoniously unpicked, in the second half of the game.

Finally Knight is caught for a magnificent 78 – her highest T20 score. Meanwhile the psychological stuff feels as meaningful as the 158 on the board.

Wilson has landed and finishes on 39 not out. Her captain has again sent out the strong message that she is not only an accomplished, determined bat, but has developed herself into a player capable of sustained aggression against this – the best bowling attack on the planet.

The reply. Davies is in for the injured Shrubsole. Healy welcomes her with two boundaries but then miscues to mid-off, where Brunt retreats to take a controlled catch.

Gardner joins Mooney. She smashes hard at Wilson, at point, where the fielder stops, superbly, before throwing to the wrong end: Gardner would have been stranded by a distance had the throw arrowed back to the keeper. Mooney and Gardner build.

Rightly, Knight is ringing the changes – these are good batters, threatening to wrestle the initiative early, very much in the Australian tradition. But Glenn claims Gardner when Knight pouches a steepler. A good, competitive game is brewing, here: Australia have lots of batting, mind – Lanning is in.

She cannot persist; out for a single, edging Ecclestone painfully on. Australia three down… but this means Perry and Mooney is looking ominously set.

Perry makes a solid start but Glenn has her leg before for 18. And when Haynes steers the England leggie straight back for a simple caught and bowled, Australia are wobbling materially.

When Sciver draws a stumping, Brunt takes a stunning catch teetering over the rope and Australia find themselves needing eleven an over with just three batters remaining, this seems over. Sutherland has other ideas.

Her partner Wareham makes a smallish contribution – six – before being bowled but the youngster blazes fearlessly on. What follows is one of those fabulous periods where everything but the batter becomes an irrelevance. She is in. She will hit. The total will come to her, whatever.

18 off 8 becomes 8 off 5, becomes a Super over! Absolutely stunning stuff from the young Australian seamer, on debut. She had no right to fetch the contest back from where her team – senior players, all and worldies, mostly – had landed her. Wonderful sport for the neutral and enjoyable (kindof) for the rest of us.

So a Super Over with no Kiwis! Should reduce the level of tragedy to something bearable, at least(?) Let’s see.

Ecclestone will bowl, for England. First ball is a potential stumping – not out. Not sure if the delay unsettles Healy and Gardner, or whether we can entirely credit Ecclestone, but the Southern Stars struggle, rather, to lay a glove on the bowling. Some nerves there, surely, but surprisingly little in the way of clean, confident hitting.

Fair play to the young off-spinner for holding her nerve, she remains a relative newcomer herself – twenty years of age. To have been chosen for this responsibility, as a slow left-armer, in this moment, versus this Australia, speaks volumes. Ecclestone, despite being an ordinary fielder, would probably drop into most peoples’ World XI, I reckon: possibly alongside just her skipper, from this England side. So some bowler.

Australia, scuttling rather than blasting, make eight, leaving Knight and Wyatt with nine for victory.

Perry, naturally. Knight scuffs a single, as does Wyatt, before the captain connects twice, consecutively. Single; single; four; four. And a roar of delight. Heather Knight; captain fantastic, again.

After the mild disappointment of their defeat to India yesterday, in a game they will feel they should have won, this will feel invigorating to all in the England camp. The two days have shown them to be an organised and improving outfit in the field – significantly better than India and maybe now right up alongside today’s opposition – and, crucially, capable of competing in terms of durability and dynamism, with those Southern Stars.

There are inevitably things to work on; chiefly the tendency to gift too many cheapish wickets through poor shot selection &/or execution but the Wilson innings and the win, the win(!), alongside Knight’s further, emphatic statement of quality augur well. I suspect some consideration of Jones’s position may arise, potentially, with Beaumont returning to an opening slot, but hey, after a win against the Aussies maybe Lisa Keightley (an Aussie herself, of course) will opt for a cool beer, a smile and a dance round the barbie.

Highlights Reel, as does the memory. Universe Podcast looks back on a year of cricket – mine, 2019.

A meander through my personal highlights, with particular attention on the games I actually attended. Vaguely chronological but with the inevitable @cricketmanwales-stylee diversions.

So, unreliable memories around both England men and women’s international fixtures, plus KSL and Blast19 stuff. Some thoughts on coaching – on the England men’s batting – and ‘philosophical’ notions around approach and responsibility. Finally, I fall into a realisation that my ‘Day of the Year’ may have been…

well go listen and find out. And please do RT if you find it at all listenable.

 

*Note: plank that I am I started to say something about Sophie Ecclestone but then drifted. What I was going to add was that she is clearly a talent – already our (England’s) go to bowler when Knight needs to make something happen. (Not bad for a 19/20 yr-old). She isn’t a great fielder but one of my abiding memories of a difficult Women’s Ashes for England was that Ecclestone offers something.

Simmer Down.

Same squad. Did you groan or nod knowingly? You in the  Loyalty Camp or the Give the Arrogant Buggers a Short Sharp Shock Department?

As with (dare I say it?) a particular current political issue, voices are being raised – rather more than perspicacious argument. Things are polarised: why would this be, I wonder?

a) Because we care about England Cricket – Test Cricket. How it’s curated and organised, even.

b) We (to quote a bloggist of some occasional repute) All Know Better than the England Coach.

And of course c) because we’re all on twitter.

So, some arguments, 👇🏻 I hope.

England have lost the Ashes, or at least the Aussies have retained them, convincingly, being unarguably the better side. In today’s real world, this means that an inquest is inevitable.

(This is not the same as to say that said inquest wouldn’t have happened in times past: it just wouldn’t have happened at the same transparently foamtastic pitch).

I mention this because it may be instructive to all of us to reflect on how much bawling, actually, is appropriate and necessary and proportionate, here. And because I am preparing to battle against my own, broiling prejudices, right now.

England – manifestly pret-ty ordinary at test cricket England, yes? – have been beaten. Live with it, or view it with interested non-volcanism before discussing amongst peers? How’s that for a thought?

Except no. England – m.p.o.a.t.c. England – have been beaten at home, by a relatively average Australia, despite literally changing the ball to make sure things went their way. Plus *that sense* that our lot might be (whisper it) prima donnas, the ab-so-lute jessies!  None of the idle, cosseted bass-teds can be bothered ta learn the forward-bloody-defensive!

This is how it starts, yes? I mean IS YOUR MOMENTUM BUILDING BECAUSE MINE SURE AS HELL IS!!

Ahem. Look it was the Ashes. Australia were unspectacular – other than a couple of guys – and we, England, had just, in orgasmically scream-your-head-off hysteria, only gone and WON THE BLOODY WORLD CUP!! And yet!

Okay. No more capitals, I promise. Let’s try to find an argument or twelve. Let’s start with the Anderson Thing – the ball.

If opting to play at Edgbaston first was Phase 1 of the Grand Ashes Plan then Phase 2 was when England reverted to what they hoped would be Anderson-friendly Dukes’ balls, of a certain vintage – plainly to try and gain a wee advantage over our visiting cousins.

Naturally, other seamers might well have also benefitted from these air-dancing beauties but in James Anderson England will have believed they had the greatest exponent of swing bowling of these particular pills, in the history of the universe.

They will have banked on him being raw unplayable at Edgbaston – to kickstart the Ashes campaign – and probably also at Headingley and Old Trafford. And this would sort Ausbloodystralia, Smith included. And then there was suddenly no Jimmy.

(There is a counter-thread, as always, here. Folks always seek advantages and yup, all of us are tribal. Early doors, for example, Australia rather cutely inserted several key players into our County Championship: handy-enough dress-rehearsal time, perfectly legit. Should we be counting, might that acclimatisation make it one-all, would you say?  Certainly qualifies as a Cunning Plan. But hey, the games beyond the games are endless – maybe that’s another post?)

But back to the England Squad, selected today, for the final test, at the Oval. Same squad, a zillion possible meanings.

Does it mean that Bayliss and Root and Ed Smith (and Graham Thorpe if he’s still in position) are bonkers-in-love or thrall with Rooooot (as captain) and Bairstow and Buttler as Established Players? Maybe.

Does it mean that Foakes and Curran and the likes of Sibley and Pope are being cruelly under-considered? Maybe. Or there may be perfectly mature and viable discussions going on. Or rank delusion and selfishness and feeble eschewal of responsibility? All this is possible; as is the notion that Smith might be a kind of occasionally-inspired but controlling fascist-in-shades.

Where then, to start? With Root. Batting less convincing, captaincy mixed: that the consensus? So – in the absence of obvious candidates, maybe? – he stays as skipper, shortish-term and gets shifted back to batting at four. But he is, or continues to be – for want of a better phrase – on trial, in respect of his captaincy. This means other stuff.

(Let’s stick with the hypothetical line-up rather than the culture. And kindof ignore or subsume the horses-for-courses considerations around the next fixtures that might colour decision-making and selection).

Bairstow and possibly Buttler get dropped, with the expectation that they will, in time, having shown excellence in County Championship, be ‘restored’. If they don’t show the technique and the hunger for the longer format, then hey, maybe they are White Ball Players – job done. Foakes, widely regarded as the best ‘keeper on the planet and, having already shown what I am crassly going to call test mentality, gets in.

As, quite possibly does Curran, who despite his lack of killer pace has shown more born-to-it, test-winning mentality than almost anybody for a decade, in the short time he’s been on the scene. Curran, with his starry, gutsy, implacable brilliance only stays out of an absolute worldie of a team; a team waaaay better than this England; or a team playing a test in which you absolutely know he won’t bowl.

Weirdly – or not- this mini-clear-out, as well as sending important messages around complacency and competition, also repositions the coaching philosophy towards recognition for those who seem to get test cricket – those who have temperament. Meaning Leach and Overton earn the right to regular inclusion, or regular, meaningful consideration.

I could write thousands of words about Roy – & probably should. Just not now: he goes.

The Roy issue is inseparable from philosophical stuff – batting culture. (Did I say that Thorpe goes? Or is it enough that Ed Smith and possibly the wee man deliver a rocket? This is competitive sport, after all. Obvious failings get addressed). Some may say none of this – his failures – have been Roy’s fault and weirdly there may be some traction in that. However, did the fella not look flukily out of his depth for much of the match against Ireland?

As outsiders, we cannot know what’s been said by Smith, Bayliss, Thorpe, Root, when the “how do we approach this(?)” discussions have taken place, so maybe this culling of key staff is premature. Many would argue that this fuzziness around batting policy has been central to England’s problems… but it’s hard to imagine the actual conversations.

Could be Bayliss has been so-o falling over himself to be Of the Age that he really has been quietly inviting Roy, Bairstow and Buttler to go out there and express themselves. *Barfs into bin*. Could be that Thorpe (he is still in post, yes? Happy to be corrected on this) has been spending lots of time on technical stuff but is essentially saying the same thing.

If these guys actually believe that simplistic, macho nonsense then neither of them has any place being anywhere near an international test side. (Okay, I don’t actually mean that but you know what I mean?)

Thorpe, a fine player and no doubt a fabulous, committed bloke, is on drugs if he thinks that talent and intent make application and temperament redundant, in high-order test batting. (Incidentally I don’t think he does view things that way  but his problem is the players have wafted us in that direction. Problematically).

I am familiar with the idea that coaches now look to offer support to players who themselves take ownership of their   activity. Coaches now barely instruct, barely demonstrate: all this I understand and applaud. However, *if* there is patently a problem both in approach and execution – as there was, in the Ashes, with most of the England batting – then surely it is the job of the coach to facilitate remedies.

This might mean more, focussed, technical work or it might mean an instruction, an expectation, a bollocking. It seems unlikely, given the persistent errors and repetition of brain-fades, that strong enough words or good enough questions were forthcoming. Bayliss is off but Thorpe goes too.

If Roy was selected entirely on the basis that he should ‘believe in his talent and go after the bowling’ (and was told that), this was foolish, arguably arrogant but nevertheless a legitimate approach. It just proved – predictably – non-viable. If he was, as he latterly appeared, unsure of what his role was then this again reflects badly on the coaches, as well as himself. If at no stage did somebody say to the entire batting group ”right. Stay in there! Everybody’s job is just to stay in there”, then well, I give up.

Test Cricket is wonderfully complex. But the central requirement, in certain phases of certain games, to hold, to stall, to ‘survive’ and then re-gather is hardly a difficult one to grasp. Clearly there was some excellent Aussie bowling but I barely know any England (and Wales) supporter who wasn’t a tad embarrassed by the un-smartness of England’s approach. Fans and former players felt that England – that the ECB – have gotten caught out, for disrespecting the test format.

So we will judge according to how mad we got. How infuriated by Roy’s wildness, or Bairstow’s technical-tactical myopia, or Buttler’s gifted non-stickability. And whilst we might grudgingly accept that in life it’s good to get or to offer a second chance, most of us will be raising our eyebrows at a squad unchanged.