Defiant defeat?

Wow. Extraordinary. Incredible stadium, remarkable occasion, fraught and bristling with tension and the day/night excitement that still feels thrillingly new. Cricket of a blindingly compelling kind – certainly early-doors. Something about the change of format has made the drama necessarily keen, colorific, sharp. This is not to say of course that the future is orange but much of the tanginess here seems conducive to great sport: floodlights often being central – or at least atmospherically ‘supportive’.

England win the toss and inevitably choose to bat. Wags on twitter are soon suggesting this was in the expectation of killer spells from Jimmy and Broady come the evening. (Yes, this evening).

Only Crawley seemed to have a plan to thwart that admittedly perverse subterfuge. He batted like a god. It was the sort of performance that you suspect will ink him in the starting line-up for a decade. The strikingly tall youngster – well, 23? – struck the ball around the ground with ludicrous ease on a pitch that was soon to get far, far into the heads of his comrades. His innings may yet prove to have been a dream brought on by 4am starts and Covid Protocols and weird, distracting (and surely similarly untrue?) allegations around PPE contracts and Brexit traumas: certainly it was different level, if not unbelievable.

The quality of stroke-making was soft-pink purrfect; beyond purple. Having faced the first ball after returning from self-inflicted injury, Crawley steered the ball around, middling a series of drives and pushes. Neither Ishant nor Bumrah troubled him at all: he was effective and watchful against Patel and Ashwin, only being beaten by the rarish unplayable delivery – mainly from the left-armer – who found spite and alarming deviation in the dusty surface. Zak Crawley made 53 before being lbw to Patel. Everything about it – context, particularly – smacked of real quality.

Shortly before the Root dismissal (which preceded Crawley’s), I had texted my son to say that England may need a 200 from Crawley and ‘even on this surface, I’m not ruling it out’. Optimistic, for sure but did give the sense of something rather special happening. Elsewhere, earlier, both Sibley and Bairstow had made errors to goodish but not remarkable deliveries and then Root misjudged Ashwin. That pattern continued.

England the team, became frazzled, as a unit. True it was a challenging strip again and true the opposition are both probably a better line-up and certainly better equipped for this wicket but hey – this is Test Cricket. Everywhere you go the conditions are set up to exploit home advantage and/or visitor vulnerability. That’s Test Cricket. In this case India again bowled ver-ry skilfully on a dry pitch. And England fell into frazzlement.

Pope seemed lost amongst a surfeit of theories (or something), though this is not to single him out. England, the team could not seem to find either a ‘way of playing’ – I get that sometimes you can’t – or that precious gift of separating the moments so that each ball can be played on its merits.

From 73 for 2, with Root and Crawley beginning to emerge, England capitulated to 112 all out. Arguably nobody got out to an absolute jaffa; it was more of a series of misjudgments from guys who were either outright bewildered by the variety and intensity of the spin-bowling, or who could not break the hold the pitch itself had, as chief protagonist, over proceedings.

Let’s repeat: India are a strong side and this is their patch. So this was tough. But was it an underachievement, from England? Surely. I went from thinking that this was a 200 pitch (when Root got out) to wondering if India, had they batted first up, might have got 350. Pointless but true. And the thought that the home side may have a stronger advantage in the batting than in their bowling also landed – possibly weirdly, given the early rout.

So what could England have done? Gambled less, selection-wise? (Bairstow at 3, in Test Cricket, is a gamble, as was not opting for Woakes or Bess, to shore up the batting). In fact, there is an argument that opening with Crawley was a gamble, given his recent absence. Lots of eggs appeared to be being lobbed into the Jimmy/Broady/Archer basket. In terms of strategy and/or technically, that failure to separate events – and therefore let the onrushing collapse in – felt important. What we might call negative momentum or infectious failure set in, somewhat. Sometimes it takes bullish individuals or very clear-sighted individuals to burst through that. England found none, today.

Positivity gets so heavily conflated with dumb machismo that I rarely see it as a way forward. But if positivity meant advancing down the pitch to squish the turn and break up the bowler’s dominance then maybe. Throw in some movement deep, deep into the crease to play late and square and who knows? Maybe you find a way.

Every route has its risks and it’s up to the player to manage them with intelligence and skill. Crawley’s sublime ball-striking suggested it was not unthinkable to choose your moment to break out with confidence. England needed to find a way not just to score but to accept the challenge before them – even if that meant only defiant defeat. What happened felt disappointingly more like a kind of compliance.

Due Diligence.

A reminder: there’s an important difference between ‘being stranded/going nowhere’ and battling it out. And the latter is often a key, to Test Match cricket. Also it may be that Sibley was picked for exactly those qualities of durability and enduro-stoicism. (Lawrence wasn’t… but read on).

Also note: lodged this baby at 11.15 am, our time. But things move fast, eh?

England are getting battered, in the second Test, at Chennai. All out for less than 140. After Burns’ error – plainly Ishant set him up skillfully but for him not to see off the decent but hardly world-beating delivery that then arrowed predictably inwards, was an ordinary bit of batting – Sibley and Lawrence applied themselves with some rigour. As per what it says on their tin: “bat long”. The Burns wicket looked a combination of nerves, early-doors wooden-ness and technical issues around his extraordinary set-up and bat-swing but I’ll let better minds than mine un-pick all that and move forward.

Some commentators have said that Lawrence was stuck from the outset: I disagree. He played diligently and with care for an hour or so – as did Sibley – looking relatively untroubled. I’m not even convinced that for much of the morning period he found it difficult to score. He just felt that was secondary. Only towards the end of his occupation did it feel that the alleged imperative to tick over got to him – and he looked more susceptible to angst. The moment of his dismissal was then a classic case of bowler-induced mind-boggling, as Ashwin stepped away to up the drama for a final ball before lunch that would claim the young England man’s wicket.

Even that cruel and untimely blow does not mean Lawrence’s first innings knock was without consequence or value, despite his dismissal being for just 9 runs. Any allegation that he ‘ate up 20 balls’ before scoring is a nonsense: part of the job was manifestly to consume deliveries, ease the pain and soften the ball. Any notion that what his captain chose to do was essentially wiser or better is spurious… or at least open to intelligent debate. (Root came out sweeping – sweeping Ashwin, hard and early. Fair enough. Legitimate; bold; a gamble. It didn’t work but you can see why he thought the game demanded a response. And I get there’s an argument that Root went ‘positively’ precisely because the scoring rate was low).

There was bound to be, on this pitch, against this attack, something a sense of vigil about England’s response to the intimidating effort from Rohit Sharma, Rahane and Pant – all of whom got past fifty on the surface. Lawrence and Sibley together looked to begin that vigil, knowing they were on the back foot, with conditions and now crowd conspiring against them. Sibley appears to be born for this potentially crushing scenario: he has the physical and psychological attributes of a low-octane bear. His talent is for appearing unperturbed; munching through time and task.

You can’t help but feel that Lawrence’s job had inevitably been made harder by the third ball exit of Burns. It is likely that this pointed him towards a slightly more conservative approach, even allowing for any possible psychological conditioning around mindset, and/or the independence of all things. I thought Sibley and Lawrence did okay, in the (let’s be honest) inevitably challengingly fraught period after the departure of Burns. Sure it might have been better if they rotated the strike/scored more. Sure this meant that pressure wasn’t released. But they prepare for precisely these moments; they are experts, or developing expertise, in hardcore sport. What we saw from them at the height of this grilling was as encouraging as it was disappointing, in my view.

Foakes finished up highest scorer. After his predictable excellence behind the sticks, does this reinforce any case for selecting him regularly or permanently, in the Test side? Quite possibly. Does this means that Buttler gets dropped? Not necessarily. There are options.

The fitness of Stokes might be influential. If Stokes can play a full part in the bowling unit then things may be less complex – or controversial. He continues at five, with Pope staying in there at six and Foakes batting seven. If Moeen stays pickable (and I hope he does) then there is ample batting (and spin, for most situations, with Ali and Root) plus three specialist bowler slots. It’s not like-for-like – Buttler is arguably unique – but you are effectively just changing keepers. So minimal disruption. England get a better wicketkeeper and possibly a more durable, though less mercurial bat.

Despite Buttler’s obvious brilliance, I might ‘drop him’ into a purely white-ball role. He plays everything, short-format-wise and maybe succeeds Morgan as skipper. He wouldn’t want to drop out of Test contention and he wouldn’t. You review: you look at form, experience and suitability for particular series. Currently I’d say keep it simple, get Foakes in the team. If Pope doesn’t come through then maybe Buttler bats six.

Great teams have fantastic subs, or twelfth men or women. We are already seeing that this England Squad is exactly that, rotating to maintain balance, quality and wellbeing in the age of Shedloads of Action and (incidentally) a plague. Oh – and remember currently the fella Crawley is out: he’s looked a million dollars, on times. Something always has to give.

Bigger than the Winning.

Winning is great. It’s gratifying and exciting and sometimes it replenishes us. Sometimes, too, it does that Stamp the Dirt Down thing where we relish the defeat of an old foe or maybe just the bunch of bastards who actually tried to start a fight, in our local league game, or wherever.

We may or may not allow ourselves to recognise the moral/ethical dimension(s) around that win: we may be too drunk, too thinly happy, or too desperate for the points to care. But mostly I think we do care about the quality of winning – the cut of the contest.

I don’t buy this stuff from footie pundits, for example, about fans ‘only caring’ about the table, or the silverware. Call me deluded but I reckon most of us are better than that. (I know there are dangers, here – chiefly the very real possibility that I’m going to sound pompous or judgemental or superior… but bugger it I can live with that. To strip out the aesthetic & emotive characteristics or attributes from sport is just pitifully stupid, surely?)

It’s true that I’m a certain age. It’s true that (despite that) I know naff all about philosophy and yet it feels absurd not to offer the observation that winning/losing/playing has inherently some qualitative richness that arises and transfers because of deepish appreciations – some of which are instinctive (arguably) – and yet also complex, profound and abstract.

Wow. What a game that was. Can hardly believe it. Danny was sensational, Sarah unbeleeeeeevable and what a joy to see the youngster do that! What was the score, again?

To strike the ball like that, to there, with that level of control; ridiculous. To fling yourself, like that – bloody ex-traor-dinary. To come back from there… fantastic.

Drama and heroics (true heroics!) and crazy-commitment and these zillion gifts to sport trump or kaleidoscopically locate mere victory. For me. Always have.

Call me old-fashioned – call me anything you like. Winning is great but to say it is everything makes Jeremy Kyles of all of us. It’s crass, it’s stupid and though it may be *popular*, it’s a simple travesty.

Why all this psycho-cobblers? Not sure. Other than I’ve been loving the cricket – the England v Pakistan One-Dayers. Went to Cardiff, listened to the others on the radio, chiefly. Happy to out myself as both a lover of 50 over cricket and of the Sound Of Things.

We might hear, we might accept that these matches have been ‘yet more proof’ that the game has turned boomtastically in the batters favour: debatable, perhaps and plainly dependent on ground and atmospheric conditions… but let’s move on. Other than that, they’ve felt roundly magnificent.

What’s not to like about the combination of fearlessness and sheer, finely-honed class of, well, most of the England line-up in this format? Buttler is an obvious, mercurial worldie-of-a-gem but Morgan and Root and Bairstow and Buttler are extraordinarily good, too, yes?

A really good Pakistan side, offering some real quality themselves with both bat and ball are being pret-ty serenely seen off. But the games have been contests. The level of entertainment has been fantastic. The level of skill – skill, not just blasting to the boundary – from Roy and the rest has been quite wonderful to watch. Pakistan have made a genuine contribution – one which I genuinely think has been appreciated by both sets of fans.

But England have won – and England have a real chance of winning the upcoming tourney. All this is fandabbydozy. But mainly, or especially, or significantly… because of the manner of all this. There’s something beautiful – yes, beautiful – about how this has been.

Okaaay there’s a smidge of partisanship in any statement of that sort but these games have been overwhelmingly fine; positive and richly enjoyable to the extent that any watcher or listener of any persuasion would surely have been captivated, captured by the quality of the action. And this could be bigger than the winning.

Pakistan are more than decent. It may be that their fielding has been too ropey and their batting a touch lacking in extravagance but these are relative: relative to a magnificently good team… who happen to be England. And that inevitable tribal-fixation-thing – supporting, being ‘of’ something – is only a part of a wonderful, winning whole.

 

 

Coast.

Please note, sagacious reader, that this is Part 2 of my Ageas Bowl column-thing. So go read the previous blog too, eh? Maybe read it FIRST?!?

I need and deserve a break so this will be more… reflective. Less ball-by-ball action painting, more Fauvian-contemplative: or something. I need a walk, for starters.

Bairstow and Roy both put Joseph away in the second over of the reply. The former with a trademark, timed, wristy little number through midwicket, the latter with a confident pull. I do go walkabout.

Stunning gentleman parked on the stairs: suit, phone out. Friendly, passing punter chirps inoffensively, to which the man drawls ‘I am bored stiff’. Was Michael Holding. England are 61 for nought as I return.

Alarmingly early for any away support, we could be on body-language watch here. England have strolled and stroked their way to 71 for no loss, with ten gone. There’s a kindof assumption  already alighting that a humiliation looms. The visitors – new skipper and all – have to find something and not sure what the odds are on that. Perhaps that change of oeuvre – day into night – may offer them something? Time for daft speculation – scope for that in the drama-vacuum…

With Bairstow a) looking this comfortable and b) being so-o brilliantly competitive and bright and able, could he not bat high, for England… in Aus? Like unthinkably high.

Especially if there’s a post-Mbargo shiftaround, might we not opt to think of him primarily as a batter and bring in Foakes as the gloveman? (I personally think JB is so fit he may actually thrive on batting high and taking the gloves as well but this is another argument).

Bairstow is that bloody good you could stick him in at three, persist with that and he’d make a success of it – probably. Relative to other risks – like the Vince, Ballance, Malan ones, for example. Of the four, who would you most expect to get closest to doing an Ashes job, for England?

But I’ve daydreamed into a daft theory. Did I really actually write down all that stuff? Bugger. Roy has made fifty, almost contemptuously. *Drifts off again*…

Look I know there are/were issues for the Yorkie genius –  pushing at it outside off – but he’s so determined and gritty and hearty that he could surely leave stuff, leave stuff, leave stuff, if heavily instructed, until he’s ready to play? If he did manage to get set, against the Starcs and the Cummins’s, imagine how much fun being English/Welsh might be, come December?  (If this is crazy-naive, put it down to the woozifying afternoon sunshine now annointing the procession towards victory. 101 for 0, after 14).

Tempted now to relate a concern for one of our, leading media guys, having just seen him. But won’t. Instead I’ll say that this is feeling embarrassingly easy, for England. Roy has 76 and Bairstow 49. Believe me, they are coasting on the coast: a slow perusal of the Media Centre confirms the suspicion that *other things* are front and centre… and why not? The game feels gone.

The West Indies are getting battered, quietly but this does not forgive the comedy fielding. Twice outfielders make an utter horlicks of regulation gathers. Roy and Bairstow, sensing an absolute gift, play beautifully controlled, dynamic cricket, such that the natural target seems to be a ten wicket drubbing. Change in light, temperature and moisture-level seem to be the only things that can undermine England; the oppositon have become an irrelevance.

As dusk closes in, Roy, on 96,  is lb to Cummins. 158 for 1. Enter Root.

Bairstow remains. His energy remains fabulous. In particular the relentless chasing-out of singles, twos, threes. With his team way ahead, by the 25th over, he is still pressurising the fielders – simply by charging for maximum runs, time after time.

It’s a slow death, for the Windies. Root and Bairstow opt pretty entirely not to engage blast mode – just don’t need to.

Difficult to guess whether this way is more or less painful than a swift obliteration might be. Maybe the crowd get more time to enjoy more cricket, this way? Maybe an elegant but civilised flourish trumps a biffathon? Maybe I should go ask Michael Holding?

205 for 1 after 29.

In the 33rd, Root short-arm clubs Taylor through straight mid-on. It’s brutal. Next shot draws another error at the boundary – the sprawling fielder again conspiring to shove the ball over. Then Bairstow gets his ton, with an easy glide to third man.

I may have felt this before but the sense is that there’s nothing to stop England getting this for no further loss: they need less than fifty.

In the 36th, almost unbelievably, we get more charity at the boundary. I may be too knackered to count them but there have been five or six occasions where the sliding fielder has carted or cushioned the ball over the rope. A very unfunny video of this may just get played at the Windies tour debrief.

England need 15 from 82 balls. Which tells you most of what you need to know. Bairstow is now standing and hitting, triumphantly.

Root finishes it with a straight six, off Samuels. A nine-wicket win, with Bairstow there on 141 and Root 46. The headlines may revert to brutally dismissive mode around the hapless tourists… unless there are other things to talk about?