Same old.

We’re all talking about the same stuff: England’s dreaming. Both in the possessive sense and the *actual*. Plus with reference to a certain J Lydon Esquire, as he snarled at the diminishing future.

England sleepwalking, England, infuriatingly, prepped and cossetted and armed to the gills with i.n.f.o.r.m.a.t.i.o.n. but somehow languidly dopey; as if nothing’s registered. As if either exhausted by all this ‘coaching’, or simply not that arsed.

I’m pretty clear, in fact that both ends of the team (all members of the team, actually) are arsed – are committed. Think Cook and then Wood. Strike you as determined, honest, committed individuals? Course they do.

Cook is about as diligent and coolly determined a bloke as you are likely to find. Wood is ballsy, witty and sharply competitive. So yes they may, in this laughably, loafingly lily-livered era have waaaay too many things too easy but this is not the same as them not caring enough (about test cricket.)

However there is an issue. Clearly. Or some issues.

When Root wafts seemingly lazily outside off, to fatal effect, we all feel both disappointment and anger because we feel let down and because most of us reckon the dismissal is poor – unacceptably poor – given the state of the game. We wonder what the hell he was thinking.

It feels extraordinary, too, that Stoneman (for example) could be so easily befuddled and bowled, when top order batsmen should base their game around impenetrable defence of the sticks. Surely that’s a given: you only get bowled by an absolute pearler? It’s a matter of pride – it’s a kindof rule. Like being watchful and respectful is a rule; or possibly two.

(Ten minutes after I write this paragraph, Stoneman is bowled again).

So, how come we’re seeing so many simple errors? And how come England haven’t addressed what appear to be strikingly recurrent issues? Are they really in dreamland?

Check out all over. Read George Dobell or listen to Michael Vaughan; there’s what we might call an intelligent consensus emerging. George has been brilliantly unpicking both the strategic shortcomings and individual issues for aeons, whilst Vaughan has rather fascinatingly veered from bolshy positivist to Sage of the Old Disciplines more recently.

What’s widely shared, is the belief that white-ball-tastic ‘freedoms’ do not always successfully transplant into the longer form. (Like WOW, who knew?!?)

It may be almost insultingly obvious to some of us, but apparently the relentlessly ‘instinctive’ batting exemplified by Buttler and co may not always be the way to go in Test Cricket. Well – *adopts the voice of his father, from 1974* – bugger me!

I do not mean to slander Buttler – or even knock his inclusion at Lords. The fella’s remarkable, touched by genius, so please understand he is merely a symbol, here. The wider point is that most of us are clear that Test Cricket demands application as well as talent. And it’s mindcrushingly astonishing that this argument seems still to have bypassed Bayliss and England.

How to explain this, though? How could even reasonably dedicated professionals fail to address stuff that’s been so blindingly obvious to most supporters and commentators for so long? Test Cricket is tough, sometimes; you have to earn your right to compete. In England, earlyish, you have to be unsexily dull, to offer more grit than colour, bat long.

The precedence of white ball cricket is surely a factor. In terms of scheduling, there can be no doubt where the ECB see the priorities moving forward. Consequently, we might argue that the majority of England players are unready for Test Cricket (now).

Bayliss and Root are most responsible for selection and state of readiness. In short I expect Bayliss to be relieved of his Test role rather soon: Root in a way is more of a concern, it feeling entirely possible that his confidence and authority are threatened by both his own and the team’s lacklustre performances. He needs not only runs but the sense that he can galvanise his team, to return swiftly.

But back to the precise hows. How can England play such dumb cricket. Unclear leadership? Too much unintelligent positivity? Nerves? That lack of application thing. All of these things and more?

Can I just try to nail something? The idea that if you rail against ‘undisciplined cricket’ you are automatically old, boring and reactionary. That you don’t get and can’t somehow enjoy Kohli or De Villiers or Stokes or Buttler at their electrifying peak. Cobblers. I (many of us) love aggressive, expressive, expansive cricket but are perdy darn sure you can’t play that way whilst wickets are tumbling early, in a five day Test Match. (You may be able to play that way at some stage in a five day Test Match but mostly you grind things out, get comfortable, secure yourself, then ‘play’).

In the current inquisition we have to acknowledge Pakistan’s good work. As I write – lunch now, Saturday – they have comprehensively outplayed England (in May, at Lords, with cloud about) in every department of the game. Chapeau.

It’s churlish at best to note that this Pakistan side is not special, that’s it’s merely goodish, proficient – that it’s performing. But Mr Bayliss and his employers do need to factor this in, however ungenerous it may seem.

This inevitably leads to more questions; about how good our best players are, for example. Root seems to be at a tipping point. When he first jogged out as skipper his boyishness, likable funkiness and joie-de-vivre seemed somewhere between encouraging and inspirational. Not so now. Patently, most England players are not as good as Root.

The level of performance in the field – though plainly not all the captain’s fault – reflects poorly on Root. Not only were catches dropped but certain field placings seemed odd (as opposed to challenging, or funky) and the (over-coached, over-discussed?) eternally-vaunted Bowling Plans seemed to fizzle to nothing. England seemed disjointed and almost dispirited, at times.

Hard to know, really, how much enthusiasm players have for their captain or coach, or whether at a deeply subconscious level they see themselves reverse-sweeping Rashid Khan for six in some cauldron on the sub-continent rather than battling it out in The Smoke, for days on end. Body language can reveal a certain amount but hey… we’re guessing.

However, it’s the job of the coach to demand focus, fitness and absolute commitment to the cause: the skipper then polices that on the pitch.  England have work to do on this. Mostly though, they have to prove to most of us that they understand the nature of Test Cricket.

All of this, in particular the widespread disappointment amongst fans, is entangled with concerns or furies about maladministration or player-comfiness or the alleged general cultural malaise. We’re angry or outraged and we really don’t like idleness – what my dad or your dad (or Sir Geoffrey) might have called ‘lack of application’.

Would be great to separate all that stuff out and really consider what’s happening on the pitch. Not easy.

As I finish, Root is re-building.


Lots of good things about a diabolical Lords test for England. Maybe firstly it’s right that reality has checked – or rather thudded – in. Maybe it’s great that there are debates re-ignited about whether pitches should be tranquilized or away teams simply offered the choice of batting or bowling. Possible too that this assumption towards ‘positive cricket’ from England should be challenged.

Don’t get me wrong I was in Cardiff for two of the four days and can rubber-stamp the brilliance of that event and the extremely decent-plus nature of the England performance. But it might be that the victory there was more about discipline than liberating culture-change. (England bowled tighter lines/Aus under-performed/job done?) The SSE Swalec pitch –derided for the first four overs, broadly accepted thereafter – was surely less of a factor than the Aussie seamers inability to keep the cherry in the slot? So whilst Root and Stokes again gave us Brits an exciting whiff of Horny Expressionism, one view might be that Test Match cricket is about passages in time as well as inspired clonks… and that we are advised to recognise that wonderful peculiarity.

In other words, New England are growing up in public. Against – asitappens – the best cricket team on the planet. There are issues arising – some of them to do with hitting a ball or not.

Now our relationships with the Shackle-draggers (thankyou, Brian Moore) are *conflicted* but not to the extent that I can’t (grrrrrrrarrrrunnnchhh) express some (ffffuuurkanaall-lla) reeeeasonably convincing appreciation for their work down at Lords. Where the bastards were magnificent. Clearly however, from the local’s perspective the fascination turns immediately away from applauding Johnson and Smith and and towards philosophical discussions around what I am admittedly appallingly going to call The Bigger Pitcher… and to eeking out explanations.

Skirting for the moment right past the issues around That Pitch – and therefore flopping foolishly into the trap of talking (actually) about what happened – we are confronted with the question; how could the Aussies dominate every facet of play so utterly completely? Given the previous and allowing, yes, for their great-ness?

On that inevitable sliding scale, how come we (England) failed to register on any –ometer of any description, at any time? In fact is it possible that the reason Australia scored all them runs and took all them wickets was because England *literally* did not turn up at Lords? So Clarke threw a few pies for Warner and Smith to slap around the place. And Blowers and Aggers ‘batted’ one and two for ‘England’ to fulfil the fixture. Because proper England – Cardiff England – were stuck in an ice-bath at Celtic Manor for four days.

This explanation seems as plausible as any of the alleged ‘transmissions’ by Sky Sports over the last week.

Ok we have to note and even respect the quality of the Australian fast bowling; and mark that it tends to be significantly sharper than ours – a few mph around the 90 bracket being disproportionately key, so it would appear. Reluctantly we may also have to accept the evidence that their top three batsmen are playing at a contemptibly higher level than ours but… where does this get us? Nowhere. Team England has to (actually) do stuff to get back into this.

Messrs Bayliss and Farbrace and Strauss (I imagine) will be looking at both technical competence amongst our frontline batsman and scrutinising psychological profiles to find evidence for a satisfactory match-up. Whether this means consulting with wacko’s or havin’ a beer and a quiet word the end result presumably needs to be either a change in mind-set or personnel or both, unless conditions – not necessarily but possibly That Edgbaston Pitch – conspire in England’s favour. Which (as they say) could happen.

But back to what could be done. Lyth and Balance look pret-ty close to shot, as does Bell but the latter’s enduring quality and doughty English quiet man-who-may-yet-blossomness may, I suspect save him. In fact all three may yet survive to duck another day, either because the management believe they themselves shouldn’t twitch or because it’s notoriously tough to step in as an opener or number three bat. There are candidates but it may be wrong or unfair on Hales or Compton or anyone else to parachute them into this. (Not that this constitutes a reason not to act; it just complicates things.)

Is it not somehow fabulous, however, that this test – the Ashes – is suddenly again the largest and hairiest in the sport? With the biggest black and whitenesses and turnabouts by the ton. Cruelly absurd and yet predictable(?) that England, having been in dreamland, must now blast or grind or spirit a way back to being *remotely* competitive.

It’s unreal drama but excruciatingly trying for players and coaches of both teams. All that physical effort really just the flanneled tip of an immense iceberg-like accretion of tensions and yes (for Lyth/Ballance etc.) traumas . And howsabout we pause for a moment’s sympathy for the New England gaffer? I mean – what a week and a half for Bayliss?!? What state is the poor fella in NOW?

Time to gather oneself and think back to those positives, loaded though they may be with counter-griefs.

It may be painful for fans of Ingerland but it’s also surely exhilarating that high quality fast bowling – one of the most glorious and somehow viscerally-received spectacles in sport – puts us here? Cook is right to describe the capitulation at Lords as ‘unacceptable’… and yet.

Australia were in their zone, their element and (goddammit) they were undeniable in a way that may even make Bayliss’s genius redundant. For though there must always been a response – planned, calculated, mature, skilful, evolutionary – and though conditions may be engineered, the peculiar combination of big wedges of time and world-class pace can prove overwhelming. Plainly England were overwhelmed at Lords.

Even those who don’t get the finer points of bowling sharpish get that the exceptional ferocity and skill of the Australian fast bowlers has pinned England somewhere evidently vulnerable. The urn just lurched back towards the southern hemi. A mere week on from Cardiff, individuals look and unquestionably feel vulnerable, both in a ‘Jee-sus, that could hurt!’ kindofaway and in terms of their professional security. Making it a rare challenge, this. The Ashes.

Sport is about tactical stuff and theoretical stuff but it’s also – as we are seeing – about holding firm when a hunk of leather is flying at you unfeasibly quickly… and arcing or not… and bouncing or not. And amid and amongst any indulgences we, the fans and pundits may get caught up in, Lyth and Cook and Ballance and Root and Bell, or their immediate successors, must face up and front up when the challenge resumes.

Regardless of the toss, regardless of the qualities of the strip. They really need to get playing and then maintain that intensity and that freedom… for days.

Passing the Stokes Test.

Amongst the fabulous torrent of superlatives issuing forth after the recent (Stokes?) Lords Test, a common theme emerged. Even the cynics spoke of ‘bathing’ or inferred in some way both the warming and the cleansing of the sport. I, in my provincial innocence, tweeted about the ‘warm afterglow’. We were irresistibly drawn into hopeful and strangely moralistic dangles outside off stump. It was bloody lovely.

The drama itself was top level. Hikes in emotion and that mix of colossal heaving to the boundary and quietly magnificent recovery; both sides contributing. For England fans the possibly epoch-changing gear-change in the batting and the batting line-up. Stokes/Buttler/Moeen Ali. Six seven eight. Not so much an order as a challenge, a warning – an opportunity. For the first time in aeons Our Lot were proper slapping the opposition across the fizzog with a Gunn and Moore gauntlet;

I say. You blackcap people.We’re comin’ to avago… and we think we’re (ahem) ‘ard enough.

Now you don’t have to be a season-ticket-holder at Lords or anywhere else to know that this may not always work out; Ali’s bowling may be a liability/the slash-and-burn positivity may fall on its arris. But after years of talk this felt like the right kind of walk – a hearty, twenty-first century gambol, in fact. Shrewd – clearly Moeen can bat at an opener’s watchful rate if the young bucks get blown away – but essentially liberating. I think that’s where all this warm glow stuff comes from.

For us to have arrived here so immediately after an unrelenting period of negativity and uproar is remarkable. Who’s remembering messy departures and unpromising arrivals now? Who’s even remembering that South African bloke with his flamingo shot? We (because surely we’re entitled to claim some involvement in this – some credit even, right?) we the people have surged forward and up alongside Rooty and Cooky and the New Botham. Something about this New England represents us better and blow me we’re queuing round the block.

This marvellous confluence of form and fight must feel hugely gratifying to both Mr Strauss and the largely unheralded Mr Farbrace. Am I alone in wondering where and how exactly that perennial but thin claim towards positivity turned into Stokes/Buttler/Ali? Was that a Strauss/Farbrace/Cook combo or just the coach, effectively? Whomever or however that may prove to be a big moment – it certainly feels like one.

The beauty of all this upfulness may be that necessary caveats around caution and patience may be reduced to an irrelevance if the side continues to believe. The structure as well as the personnel are in place.  Conditions have changed,freeing up instinctively/naturally bold players to do their thing.  How many times have we heard this spoken of only to be bitterly disappointed come the moment?

There are delicious ironies here – quirks of fate and form and of the game.

Weirdly and wonderfully the loosening of responsibility made possible by the inclusion of classically Test-worthy players like Cook, Ballance (actually, surely?) and Bell, end-stopped by Moeen at eight, really should now produce both results and refreshing, energising cricket. Because Root/Stokes/Buttler have insurance; the blend is there.  Thus trad virtues – early watchfulness/straight bats – beget revolution.

In the gloriously honeyed present it feels as though with the dynamic new era pressures to win may actually fall, as fans buy in enthusiastically to committed, attacking sport.  Punters really will roar approval at the aspiration as well as the execution.  If that isn’t win-win for the management I don’t know what is?

With Cook returning to traditionally superb levels with the bat and Root making a mockery of the notion that this is a serious and difficult business expectations might justifiably rise. But consider how equipped this side now looks to man up and give it some, should they ever be hooo… I dunno… 30-odd for 4. Some bloke with attitude might just sidle on out and not so much counter-attack as lay waste to whatever comes his way. Before you know it the crowd’s behind him and crushing defeat becomes national festival.

This latter phenomenon is a significant boost. Cricket on the front pages; cricket as plainly outstanding sport. The feeling (dare we hope?) that this is only the beginning of a long and spectacular summer for the English game. Even if Tests to come prove too much.

It’s simply illogical to expect even a revitalising England to win series against the mighty Aussies and the pretty damn near mighty South Africans. But that may not matter so much as the permanent switching over into a game that is contingent more on the intelligent expression of talent than the (mere) ‘tactical’ occupation of the crease or use of the time. So even if our batting does underachieve – or more likely the bowling attack proves vulnerable – meaningful progress and great entertainment are feasible if the positive life-force continues to pulse.

What augurs well on this is the change of guard amongst the hierarchy. Those who viewed Strauss as a conservative may have underestimated him. I was amongst those who feared his administration might reflect too closely his rather dour brilliance as a batsman. However the confirmation that Farbrace and above him Bayliss will lead the England posse forward surely implies yet greater dynamism and a closer link to what we might term short-format, ‘aggressive’ philosophies. Strauss has effectively sanctioned this – striking out from his first over – and fair play to him on that.

So there’s a good vibe going. Even in the knowledge that bigger tests approacheth. Bigger tests featuring brash and (probably) moustachioed Australians confident of asking a few questions/getting under our skin/blowing us away. It’s possible. It’s possible but the Bigger Question – there’s always a Bigger Question, right? – is whether we blink.

Will we still believe enough to counter with undeniable force? When the inevitable squeeze is applied? Will we select in order to play that way? Is it too much to ask of Stokes and Buttler that they bury their fear and play with some intelligence but masses of faith? What’s the quality of our commitment?

Following Lords these are live questions – meaning there is some real prospect that the changes are real. Say it quietly to start but England are daring to march. Led unsurprisingly and unflinchingly by Stokes.