Spineless Selectors Overlook England’s Spin Solution

England need to drop Moeen Ali and pick Jack Leach.  There, I’ve said it.   It’s a taboo subject within the English game, the idea that Moeen Ali may never actually fulfil his role as England’s lead spinner in test match cricket, and that one day the selectors will have to bite the bullet and leave him out.  But after a disastrous tour in Australia, and with Leach now bashing on the door after his performances in the West Indies with the Lions, the time has come to confront the reality.  Throughout England’s doomed Ashes tour Down Under, we – on the Sticky Wicket Podcast – were bemoaning the lack of foresight from the England selectors in taking Ali as the front line spinner, with an uncapped rookie as backup.  In an interview with the Chairman of Selectors James Whitaker prior to the squad setting off to Australia he was asked whether if there was an injury to Moeen Ali prior to the first test in Brisbane, would he seriously be happy playing Mason Crane on debut instead?  “Yes”, was the simple response.  As short as it was unconvincing.  And as it played out, Ali picked up not one but two injuries (side and finger) before the first test…and was still picked!

There are so many reasons to love Mo.  His easy-going nature has endeared him to followers of the England team since his first appearance in England colours in 2014.  When talking to the media, he’s accessible, articulate, casual, honest, and funny.  Politically he’s been a wonderful role model for young British Asian cricket fans, and his legacy will perhaps only become apparent several years from now. From a cricket perspective, he’s the sort of batsman that when on form, can lighten the clouds on the gloomiest of English mornings.  His carefree cover drives and willingness to take on the short ball (with mixed results admittedly) have brought many a struggling England innings through to a stylish and often memorable conclusion, and despite never scoring a hundred at number 8 in the order, few can argue he’s a superb player to come to the crease after losing a sixth wicket.

But he’s in the side for his bowling, isn’t he?  He’s England’s front-line spinner.   Not ‘second spinner’, as they so oddly proclaimed last summer when selecting Liam Dawson alongside Ali for the first South Africa test at Lords.  If England wish to even compete at the top table in the world of test cricket, they must have a world-class spinner.   And despite an incredible summer in 2017 in which he took 25 wickets at 15 apiece in a four-test series against the Proteas, his record just does not stack up as anything resembling world-class.  While it might be harsh to treat the South Africa series as a complete anomaly, when reviewing the numbers from his last 6 series excluding South Africa in 2017, the harsh realities of his problems over the past couple of years are exposed.  Since the start of the English summer two years ago, his series aggregates yield difficult reading:

MoStats1

The biggest issue here is the geographical spread of the opposition.  The only country Moeen hasn’t played in this period is New Zealand, England’s next opponents.  That means he’s had favourable conditions home and away, against all sorts of players, some of whom are experienced batsman against spin, many that aren’t.  And yet other than taking 11 wickets in two tests in Bangladesh on raging turners he has delivered only one series of any real success, at home against South Africa in 2017.  His overall career average of 40 is getting worse, and there have been no signs of improvement in recent outings.

Is this just swinging the stats to suit an argument though?  How does he rate against his contemporaries?  Let’s face it, Ashwin, Herath and co. have such spin favourable conditions at home it would be unfair to start comparing Ali against leading spin bowlers from the sub-continent. However up against a list of the top ten wicket taking English spinners (a list on which Moeen now finds himself), Ali’s average is the second worse (40.24), only marginally better than Ashley Giles (40.60).  This wouldn’t necessarily matter if Ali was doing the job of a containing off-spinner.  English pitches rarely take much spin, so if the spinner can tie up an end whilst the quicks are rotated at the other end, he has a secure and valued place in the team.  England have employed plenty of them over the years, Giles himself being the most obvious example from recent times.    Giles’ 40 average seemed ok at the time because his role in the side allowed England’s pacemen valuable rest time without letting the game get away from them during lean periods in the field.   Unfortunately, the statistics measuring success as a containing off-spinner don’t fight Moeen’s corner either.  Compared to the same list of English spinners, the Worcestershire man is considerably more expensive than his peers:

MoStats2
If a spinner is not taking wickets, it’s crucially important for them to at least be able to contain the run scoring.  The Ashes was the starkest example of a team needing such a bowler.  With dead pitches, hot weather, and an obdurate Steven Smith, England’s seam attack was plundered.  The fast bowlers desperately needed the respite a quality spinner would provide, but with a career economy rate of 3.63, it is unlikely Ali will ever be the man to provide it.

Meanwhile, Jack Leach almost pulled England Lions back from the brink of defeat in the 1st unofficial test against West Indies A this week when, with West Indies A chasing only 108 for victory in their second innings, he took 5-26 in 13 overs.  Although the Lions eventually lost by two wickets, Leach’s 8-110 in the match – the best by any England Lions spinner –  should surely put him further up the England pecking order than his Lions teammate Mason Crane.  Leach is now right under the selectors nose, yet they continue to overlook him. Crane, in spin-friendly conditions, could only manage match figures of 1-56 off 12.4 overs.  Captain Keaton Jennings was clearly more trusting in the slow-left-arm of Leach than the more inconsistent leg-spin of Crane.  But Crane is the man in possession of an England place, having debuted in Sydney and been selected alongside Moeen for the 2-test tour of New Zealand.  It is difficult to understand what more Leach needs to do to be included in an England test squad.   He’s picked up 116 wickets in the past two championship seasons at an average of 23.5, and an economy of 2.61.   The argument that Somerset have doctored their Taunton pitches to suit Leach is – for me – a moot point.  What happens when England travel to Sri Lanka this October?  What about when they next travel to the UAE, India, or even the West Indies?  They should be delighted they have a spinner available who has considerable experience bowling on turning pitches.  Not all spin bowlers turn up to a Bunsen burner and immediately take wickets.  It is a rare, and Leach is our only bowler with the ability.

Granted Leach had a tough time with the Lions in Australia, as did all England spinners.  But his record over the past couple of years makes him impossible to ignore, and if he can continue his great form in the West Indies, many England fans would love him to be added to the test squad for New Zealand.  Whether the selectors will have the balls to so remains unlikely.   England are blessed with incredible travelling support, and such loyalty deservers thorough preparation and the best possible team on the pitch.  When England travel to Sri Lanka this October, many hundreds or even thousands of fans will spend several thousand pounds to watch England in a three-match series.  At this point, this is how England’s preparation on the spin bowling front looks:

– 2 tests in New Zealand, play Moeen Ali in both, Mason Crane on the bench

– 7 home tests against Pakistan and India, play Moeen Ali in all, possibly one for Mason Crane.  (Crane to spend most of the season at Hampshire out of the 1st XI due to the County Championship schedule book-ending the English summer therefore being played in mostly unfriendly leg-spin conditions).

– They’ll then go to Sri Lanka in October to face batsmen who are experts in the art of playing spin with a front-line spinner with an appalling away record and a leg spinner with a couple of tests behind him.

With the selectors having once again overlooked Leach is it any wonder England supporters are getting fed up with conservative test selectors burying their heads in the sand about England’s very real spin bowling woes?

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Sir Garfield Sobers: “Touring India was a Nightmare”

“Touring India was a nightmare”.  Sir Garry Sobers’ judgement on touring India as an international cricketer.   Things were a bit different in his day.  Today, those players snapped up in the IPL auction for the 2018 edition can expect world class treatment when they travel to India ahead of the tournament opener on 7th April.   But back when Sobers and his West Indies team of 1958 toured the country, the experience of visiting players was somewhat different.

“It wasn’t only on the field”, Sobers went on, “it was the injections you had to take.  I remember you used to get an injection for Cholera, and I once went to sleep and when I woke up I couldn’t feel my hand, I didn’t know what the hell it was!  And then I remembered it was that bloody injection I had to go to India.   And a lot of English players didn’t want to go to India because of the inoculations and everything else”.  Indeed this was a something of a common theme during the 1960s and 1970s; that foreign teams would often struggle to convince their whole squad to tour India.  A mixture of rising political tensions and fear of the local cuisine was often enough to put players off.  Geoffrey Boycott stayed clear for most of his career based on the fact he had had his spleen removed as a child, making him more susceptible than most to infections – something of an occupational hazard in the sub-continent.  As recently as 2001 Andrew Caddick and Robert Croft opted out England’s tour based on their security fears following the September 11th attacks and the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan.

But since then, things have changed.   “There’s no comparisons between the past and the present”, Sobers continued.  “Now India is the place that everyone wants to go to, and their cricket has improved out of all proportion, and they have some beautiful players.”

India is now seen in the cricketing world as the place to be.   They’re top of both the Test and One Day International rankings, and second in International Twenty 20’s.  Their star men appear on billboards throughout the major cities, on television adverts, and everywhere in between.  The Indian Premier League, approaching its ten-year anniversary, is the world’s flagship domestic tournament and the riches it brings to players would have been beyond imagination just a few years ago.   Virat Kohli was the only cricketer in the 2017 Forbes top 100 best paid sportsmen in the world.  India has become the centre of the cricketing universe, and they are not shy about letting people know that. The 2018 IPL auction once again paid out massive sums for the world’s best players, with nearly every world class player there is putting themselves into the pot for selection.   A mixture of being on the biggest stage of all coupled with massive personal financial reward is an irresistible allure for cricket’s global stars.

But such is the attraction of India these days, 218 of the 578 players up for auction this year were foreigners.  Only a maximum of eight is allowed per team, which meant many were left unsold.  Twenty-four Englishmen in total were on the list, of which eight have been in the test setup over the past twelve months: Root, Woakes, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Steven Finn, Mark Wood, Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow and Tom Curran.   Most of those players are also involved in England’s white ball squad.  If all of them were picked up by an IPL franchise (however unlikely that may be), the ECB would face an anxious wait throughout the tournament in April and early May as to whether their stars would come through safely.  Another packed summer of international cricket awaits them on return: 7 tests, 9 ODI’s, 4 t20 internationals.  The odds of players such as Wood, Finn, Woakes, Ali and Root playing all three formats throughout the summer for England after fulfilling an IPL contract (had they been picked up) without needing a rest at some point are long.  Very long.

Even as test captain, Joe Root was this year entered into the auction.  It was announced prior to the auction that Root would miss England’s T20 internationals in the tri-series with Australia and New Zealand due to the long winter he has already endured and the amount of cricket there is to come in the home international summer.  However, the fact that the ECB allowed him to be involved in the IPL auction, and available for most of the tournament had he been picked up, is telling.  Root is effectively now missing T20 internationals in order to keep himself fresh for his most important cricket – tests, ODIs, and now, potentially the IPL.  The ECB will be delighted that instead of being picked up by an IPL franchise, Root will be spending April and May in first-class county cricket, preparing himself for another arduous test summer as England captain.  But the riches on offer have proved too much to ignore, and the ECB would have had to play a waiting game, hoping Root came through his first IPL unscathed and ready to return to action for England.   If he hadn’t, another storm around their player handling could have erupted, surely the very last thing they need right now.

Chris Woakes picked up a side strain soon after returning to England duty after his spell with the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL 2017.   He was adamant the injury had nothing to do with the rigorous schedule he faced on the sub-continent, but questions remain about how much the brutal match schedule and attached travel requirements take out of players involved in the IPL at the start of the English summer.

But this is 2018, and India are in charge, not the ECB.   And as Sir Garfield says, “The game [in India] has completely changed now – it’s a wonderful game to watch.”  For as long as that remains the case, the IPL will continue to attract the world’s best.  And the nightmare is no longer for the players touring India.   The nightmare is for the international boards who are trying to keep hold of them.

Nightwatchman U-turn Symbolises England’s Lack of Clarity

What were England thinking?  There was about 8 minutes left on the clock.  Joe Root had just played an abhorrent shot to get himself out yet again in the conversion rate-itis zone.  The new ball was three deliveries old, and there were nine left in the day (albeit only because of a review two balls later).  The aussies had just broken a 133-run stand which had put England’s noses in front for the day, and dismissed the England captain to boot.  Fair to say they had their tails up.
Now I’m not going to go into the pro’s and con’s of Nightwatchmen in the modern game.  Much has been written about them, and many still argue about them.  But if ever there was a time to use one, surely this morning in Sydney was it.
With Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood suddenly reinvigorated with a wicket from nowhere as captain Root clipped a leg stump half volley straight to a diving Mitch Marsh at square leg, it was never going to be easy for the incoming batsman to handle the barrage in the last moments of the day’s play.  Jonny Bairstow walking in to bat may well have been brave, but with hindsight now just looks like madness.  He survived the final three deliveries of Starc’s over only after a incorrect review after one of Starc’s inswingers hit him on the pad.  He had actually got an inside edge on it before it was sent down to fine leg for a single and he kept the strike.  Four balls later he pushed at one from Hazlewood, Tim Paine took an easy catch, and Australia had stolen the day in the last 8 balls.
England’s decision to send in Bairstow now looks thoroughly stupid.  They had arm-wrestled their way into a leading position, only to give away all their momentum at the crucial moment.  If you were looking for a snapshot of the entire Ashes series thus far, look no further.
Mason Crane had already padded up for the very eventuality that unfolded.  Admittedly, sending Crane in on debut to a brand new cherry did seem a tad harsh on the twenty-year-old.  But Anderson and even Tom Curran would have also backed themselves to see off the final few balls of Starc’s over, then if they got out as Bairstow eventually did, no-one would have cared.
It would be interesting to know the decision making process that took place within the England dressing room in the moments before Joe Root’s dismissal, not just because this move in itself was a bad one; but because it served as a microcosm of England’s ability throughout the tour to falter at the crucial moments.  Understanding the process behind this particular faux-pas might go someway to explaining their wider functional issues.  Joe Root clearly wasn’t present when the decision was made.  He was too busy out in the middle planning how he could decrease his already low conversion rate stat so that BT Sport could splash it across our screens every five minutes.   So was this a Bayliss ploy to send in Bairstow and show some confidence in his in-form wicketkeeper?  Or one of the other members of the management team?  Or indeed Bairstow himself?  Either way it would appear that England have yet again found a way of giving back the ascendancy to Australia at the crucial time.  England have consistently shown muddled thinking in this Ashes series, and you have to wonder about the messages that are coming on to the field when England are bowling, and likewise some of the decisions being made when they are batting.  Remember they started the series with Ali batting above Bairstow; was that based on Bairstow’s needs as a wicketkeeper or purely because the management felt it would get them bigger scores in general?  Either way it was proved to be a poor piece of foresight, and the same type of mistake was made again this morning in Sydney.
Moeen Ali will tomorrow walk in to bat woefully out of form and have to face an early examination with a new ball.  Surely he won’t attempt to slog his way back into form as he did in Melbourne (to not great effect)?  England are desperate for their all-rounder to get a score tomorrow, with Dawid Malan looking the steady force we have come to expect from him on this trip, he will be in danger of running out of partners quickly.  8 deliveries before the close of play England were looking good for the 400 or 450 first innings score you would hope for on a good deck batting first.  Unless Moeen can finally come to the party, they won’t make 300.

A lifeless pitch, or is the Aussies’ bark worse than their bite?

The build-up to this years Ashes contest was more boxing than test cricket.
The word ‘intimidating’ became the most overused verb of recent times during the last few weeks.  The Australian press, and a fair few of their players, were eager to point out that they’ve got three incredibly fast, nasty bowlers who are capable of bowling fast, nasty bouncers.  And the Aussie conditions are also very fast and nasty.  Especially in Brisbane.   And you know what happened last time with Mitchell Johnson on a long leash.   He intimidated.  The England batsmen were scared.  That’s going to happen again with the current, younger crop of pacemen.  It was all very macho and tough-guy talk.
Meanwhile, those people who were actually focusing on the cricket in the build up to the first test were pondering the burning questions of the series.  Can the England batting lineup, with three inexperienced players in their top five, knuckle down and post scores of any note?  Will Anderson, Broad and co extract anything from the Australian conditions to cause problems for the Australian batting lineup, who have an equal number of inexperienced souls on the teamsheet.  And perhaps most saliently, is this much-vaunted Aussie pace attack the real thing, or is their bark worse than their bite?
Based on the first day of the first test at the Gabba, I would suggest all the hot air in the build-up could just be that – hot air.  Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins still look deadly on occasion.   Cummins’ setup for the wicket of Joe Root with a couple of outswingers followed by an in-ducker that caught him plumb in front was magic.  They’ve both got the potential to blow England away when they hit top gear.  But in between a few beauties here and there, they failed to capture the imagination of the Brisbane usually effervesant home supporters.  James Vince and Mark Stoneman put on 125 for the second wicket in 51.4 largely untroubled overs.  They seemed to be batting coolly in an atmosphere that was supposed to be red hot. Where was the intimidation, the snarl, the mongrel, that we heard so much about in the build up?   It was noticeably absent.  The biggest danger of the day came when the off-spinner Nathan Lyon had the ball, which for a Day 1 Brisbane pitch is surely a first.
The problem is, we never really believed all the Aussie nastiness in the first place.  They all seem a bit nice for it. Starc and Cummins seem like genuinely nice blokes who I can imagine are quite fun away from the pitch.  Lillee and Thomson they aint.  The talk of scaring and intimidating England off the park in the build-up all seemed rather manufactured, like they’d be given a script to follow in a team meeting and they had their sound bites rehearsed for the press.  When you’re getting Nathan Lyon to pretend he’d like to end careers of his fellow professionals, you know you’re forcing it a bit.
That said, there is a huge caveat here.  The Brisbane pitch fell way below expectations of the 40,000 Queenslanders at the ‘Gabbatoir’.   The rain in Brisbane over the past week or two has clearly had a dampening effect on the wicket, and the few short pitched ball delivered by Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins were usually taken at ankle height by Tim Paine behind the stumps.  This was certainly not in the script for the start of the series.  The Aussies pride themselves on their record in Brisbane, in no small part to the fact that most teams arrive to the ‘fastest pitch in the world’ under-cooked and over-awed.  The conditions usually play a significant part in that.  The wicket today was, by Gabba standards, completely lifeless.
So before we write off the Australian pace trio just yet, let’s see what they can do when the sun comes out tomorrow  (as is expected), and their short stuff may actually bring the fear their fans are all hoping for.
The test as it stands is on a knife edge after an absorbing first day.  Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood (in particular) were at best underwhelming, at worse worryingly docile for Australia.
But if the Gabba pitch wakes up tomorrow under a hot Queensland sun, expect the crowd to wake up along with it.  Then we’ll find out what this England middle order is really made of.
All to play for.

How did England get to this point?

My phone beeps.  A news alert flashes up on the screen: “England confirm Ben Stokes will not travel to Australia with the rest of the Ashes squad as it stands”.  Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!

How did we get to this point?  I mean, I know how we got to this point, every brit or aussie with a smart phone has seen the bloody video by now, and I dare say half of India too.

But how did England get to the point where they will travel to the most high-profile series of all without their star man?  Saying Stokes won’t travel Down Under “as it stands” is vague even by ECB standards, but realistically unless he can prove he knocked out the ex-soldier in Bristol last Sunday because he had access to Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear codes I think it’s safe to assume England’s fiery all-rounder will not feature in the Ashes.

Michael Vaughan said earlier this week that most of the press box at Old Trafford were aware Stokes had been out until 3am on one of the nights during the test match in early August.  With such behaviour going unpunished, how long did the England management team think it would take for some sort of damaging story to appear in the tabloids?  Does Trevor Bayliss know anything about English tabloids?   While the architects of cricket’s most famous expose – The News of the World – have disappeared, the remaining red-top journalists are no less ready to pounce on a juicy story than they’ve ever been.  Although the Old Trafford story was successfully swept under the carpet by the ECB miraculously convincing the press not to report it, Strauss, Bayliss and co can’t say they weren’t warned (strangely Vaughan hasn’t been pressed for more detail about how the press were convinced to keep quiet).   You would think that selecting a vice-captain who’s so capable of falling into their claws would be something of a no-no.

There’s no doubt the old adage “if you treat ‘em like kids, they’ll act like kids” is true across most professional sports teams.  Mark Butcher has come out (since the Stokes incident) in defence of the current management ethos of not enforcing curfews and other similar schoolteacher-esque techniques upon their players.  He was part of the setup that were forced to follow a strict code of conduct in the early 2000’s, with limited success and not an insignificant amount rebellious rule-breaking.  He, most of his fellow players and eventually the managers too, concluded that in practice it doesn’t really work.

But clearly England’s current system needs changing.  The England rugby team that won the World Cup in 2003 revolutionised their sport through how they acted off the pitch.  Precious few stories emerged of them misbehaving out of hours, particularly when on international duty.  Every playing member of Clive Woodward’s squad were entirely bought in to the set of values and ethics expected of them as professional athletes, and any actions outside of this were seen as letting the group down and dealt with accordingly.  Why were they all so bought in?  Because the players themselves came up with the rule book.  It was up to the players to discuss and agree a moral code that they felt would be appropriate for a team trying to achieve number one in the world status. All of their conclusions were then put together in a leather bound ‘black book’ and any breaches of the code were referred back to the black book, and all penalties that resulted were borne out of it’s framework.

It was an exceptionally clever ploy from Woodward to put his players in charge of their own disciplinary measures.   The team identity became part of the players’ DNA and breaking the code felt worse to them than letting down their manager…they were letting down their team mates – something every professional sportsman dreads.  There were no arguments as to whether you had broken the rules or not, because the author of the rulebook, was you.

Ben Stokes is the ultimate team man.  He has the rare ability to lift his whole team with only a couple of deliveries or batting strokes and his fiery nature means people naturally rally round him, lifting their intensity just to keep up.  He also desperately wants to perform for England, and loves doing so.  If Stokes was part of a setup where the players owned the code of conduct off the pitch, and a breach of this meant not only letting his teammates down, but them delivering the punishment, he might just smarten up his act.

Whatever happens with the ongoing police investigation, it certainly seems as though Stokes will not play in the Ashes.  He will return one day.  When he does England must try to find a way to resurrect him as the incredible performer he is whilst maintaining a professionalism away from the field of play that’s appropriate to his status as one of the game’s biggest names and highest earners.  Forcing Stokes and the rest of the England playing staff to take full ownership of their own ethos might be the best way to achieve it.

The case for Ben Foakes in England’s test side

With the continued problems England’s test team are facing intheir middle-order, a possible solution   is gaining momentum: selecting Ben Foakes as a specialist keeper.

England’s batting woes in their top order have been well documented this summer.  While three places in the top five have been under intense scrutiny, looking ahead to the Ashes series in November, Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan now have their places on board the plane bound for Brisbane intact (albeit with no guarantees of a long run in the side).  However debate continues over whether Tom Westley should make the 16-strong touring party at all.

The bottom line is, England need more runs out of their top order to give themselves a fighting chance in the Ashes.  First innings runs, as always, will be key to success on the flat tracks of Australia, and England  must find a way to get their top run scorers into the danger areas of the batting line-up which are currently frequented by shaky players low on confidence.

Although Ben Stokes has proved that he would be more than capable of fulfilling the number five position after another summer of superlative displays with the bat, England should  leave him at six, especially  as he is likely to bowl more with  his suitability to Aussie pitches.

England could also turn to the other world class batsman in their line-up currently batting too low down the order: Jonny Bairstow.In Bairstow, England have a ready-made middle order batsman who has been one of their only consistent performers in the last 18 months.  He has become  a world class batsman, and England badly need him to perform Down Under.  England will argue that Bairstow should be batting at seven for the foreseeable future for several reasons: As he’s keeping, he needs to bat lower down in case he’s just spent a day-and-a-half in the field; There’s no point taking the gloves off him now because he’s worked so hard at it, and has got his standards up so high that he hasn’t dropped a catch all summer;They may also argue that robbing him of the keeping responsibilities would deal him a psychological blow so acute that his batting would then suffer, leaving him unable to concentrate whilst glaring enviously at the man given the responsibility behind the stumps.

Whilst there’s no doubt that Bairstow’s keeping has improved demonstrably – and it would indeed be a real kick in the shins to take away his keeping responsibilities – the fact is, his value to this England team is scoring top order runs.  He could readily slot in at number four if somehow the England management were able to convince their captain to move up to first drop.   If Bairstow was to bat at 4  to still be able to operate behind the stumps at full tilt would be a big ask. My solution would be to bring in a specialist keeper further down.  England have an embarrassment of riches in their lower-middle order what with Stokes and Moeen Ali in their side, why not use this to their full advantage?  Ali’s stats batting  at number seven are phenomenal.  In fourteen innings there he averages 68.54 with three tons and three half centuries.  It has not gone unnoticed that when he bats in the top four he bats like a number 8, when at 8 he bats like a number 4.  So what about at 7 then?  It could be the perfect slot for him.

This would also mean that if England did bring in a new face to take the keeping gloves, England would be perfectly able to slot him in at number 8 and give that player the luxury of being able to concentrate on perfecting his trade in the field with little pressure on his batting.

Ben Foakes of Surrey has had an excellent year at the Oval.  In first-class cricket this summer he is averaging a fraction under 48, plus his one-day form was even better (he scored 482 runs at 96 in the RL one-day cup).  Even his 42 not out against Somerset in the penultimate Championship match to steer his team home under duress from a pumped up Somerset attack desperate for survival points shows he has the stomach for a fight – and if there’s one thing this England team will need in Australia, it’s fight.

When Alec Stewart stated last year that Foakes is the ‘best wicketkeeper in the world’, a lot of  expectation came Foakes’ way.  Impressively, ever since then his batting has improved even further, whilst maintaining his exceptional performances with the gloves.

Several changes would need to be put into place to be able to incorporate Foakes into the lineup: Moving Root to number three, prising the keeping gloves out of Bairstow’s not inconsiderable grasp, then asking him to bat at number four.   England’s lack of creativity when it comes to selection in recent times  makes it unlikely any of these things will happen and Foakes will carry the drinks all winter; if only they had the conviction to roll the dice occasionally, they might just find out what incredible potential they have at their disposal.

 

England look for their Ashes Questions to be Answered at Lords

This Thursday at Lords, England remarkably have a deciding test match against the West Indies.  Nothing other than a win will do for the hosts, who have named an unchanged 13-man squad for the final test of the summer.   Losing a series at home to the team ranked eighth in the ICC World Rankings would not be ideal preparation for an Ashes series Down Under – the very fact that it’s gone to a decider has raised eyebrows around the world.   Increased scrutiny is a by-product of an Ashes build-up, and with the Wisden Trophy in the balance, certain England players will be feeling the heat with a spot in the side to face Australia in Brisbane on 23rd November at stake.

As well as needing a win at Lords, England will be desperate to alleviate some of the growing concerns they have about a number of spots in their line-up.   In doing so, they will hope they can get on with the job of deciding the make-up of their wider touring squad to Australia, rather than having to continually focus on the starting XI for each test.

Providing the Lords pitch does not deliver the turn we saw during the South Africa test in July – in which England’s spinners Ali and Dawson took fourteen wickets in the match (the most in a home test match since 1972) – England are likely to field the same starting eleven as the Headingley test.   The temptation to give Mason Crane his debut has now evaporated given the context of this game becoming a series decider, and Chris Woakes will probably hold off competition from the unlucky Toby Roland-Jones in the hope he will be sharper than his lacklustre display last week after his return from injury.

Despite the farcical search for a partner to Alistair Cook at the top of the order looking to have finally ended after a competent 52 from Mark Stoneman in the second innings at Headingley, what if he bags a pair at Lords? My gut feeling is that because of the style with which he faced a rejuvenated West Indies seam attack he’s done enough to start at the Gabba no matter what, but it would be a significant step backwards should he fail twice at Lords.   The fact that the back-up openers Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hammed have enjoyed horror summers means that for now at least, Stoneman starts.

Tom Westley must be the man most relieved to be involved in the Lords test.  Averaging 20 in his first seven test innings might not be the worst start to an international career, but the manner of his wickets at Headingley, not to mention the muddled thinking in running between the wickets, made him look worryingly out of his depth.  England have, to their credit, always tried to give a fair crack of the whip to their new recruits in recent years, and four test matches may have been judged an insufficient sample size by the selectors.   But Westley is not just approaching the last chance saloon he has taken up residence since the Headingley defeat, and is currently racking up a bar tab of epic proportions.  If he fails to pass 50 in the third test he won’t be invited to Australia.   Dropping Westley would potentially force Joe Root’s hand in placing himself at number three, so the absence of a capable alternative could work in the Essex man’s favour.  However, with increased rumblings from the cricket press for the selectors to go back to the internationally-experienced Alex Hales, the in-form Liam Livingstone, or heaven forbid their beloved Gary Ballance, Westley must be well aware of the need for a big performance on Thursday.

One of the more surprising performances in Leeds was Dawid Malan’s 61 off 186 balls in just under 5 hours in the second innings whilst the lower order around him began to accelerate.  Malan wasn’t brought in to play this type of innings; it was expected he could add impetus to an already powerful lower middle order.  However, if he is able to replicate his Headingley knock to become a grafter who can hold things together lower down, this could be a hugely valuable role for him to play. Moving forward it’s possible he might have just carved out a very useful role for himself in the side – a real bonus for England.

Stoneman, Westley, Malan.  Three major question marks in the England batting line-up.  Two of which seem to be (almost) answered.  If Westley can somehow find form at Lords and nail down his number three spot, England’s selectors will be able to spend the majority of their Ashes squad selection meeting discussing the two batting back-up slots, rather than who is going to come in at first drop.

If all three have shockers on Thursday however, England are in danger of travelling Down Under with less certainty over their line-up than four years ago.  And we know how that panned out.

 

Day/Night Test Cricket: An Obvious Necessity

After a full week of analysis, talk of pink balls, discussing the pros and cons of introducing day/night test cricket to ‘save the sport’, finally the dust has settled on England’s first foray into hosting a pink ball test.

A test match (albeit a horrifically one-sided one), did in fact take place, the sun is still rising each morning, runs were scored, wickets were taken, beer was imbibed. In many ways, it was not all that different to most other tests played on English soil, except that the level of drunkenness in the Eric Hollies stand was up a notch from usual, which is potentially the most impressive thing about the entire weekends’ cricket.

From my point of view, I find it extremely difficult to understand why there is so much repetitive, defensive talk about the merits of day/night test cricket.   From the moment that Edgbaston announced its intention to host England’s first ever pink ball test match game, commentators and ex-players alike have bemoaned the idea based on the widely held view that test cricket, in England, does not need day/night cricket in order to (continue to) flourish.   Is that not obvious?  Of course English cricket doesn’t need day/night tests.  England are in the privileged position that themselves and only one other country in world cricket (Australia) hold.  People love test cricket here.  The stadiums, admittedly much smaller than in some parts of the world, generally sell out for the first three days of every test no matter the opposition.  It’s a huge social occasion, a huge corporate entertainment opportunity, and even for many non-cricket fans, it’s a good day out.  Therefore, no need to change it, right?

Furthermore, conditions in England are unsuitable for the pink ball version of the game.  Even in mid-late August, when the Edgbaston game was played, there was only 45-60 minutes of what you might call ‘night cricket’, i.e. the period after sundown when the floodlights took full effect.  The weather in England also means late evenings get cold even in the height of summer, therefore potentially making life very uncomfortable for the spectators.

Therefore, once again, surely there’s no need for a change?

When considering such changes, it’s important to understand the context within which this first day/night test has been introduced in England.   It is not borne out of a necessity to improve the ticket sales, nor does the game in England need jazzing up to appeal to a new audience.  It also does not require the post 5pm footfall of people coming to the ground after work to watch the second half of the days’ play.  This aspect of attendances was a major consideration the New Zealand Cricket Association took into account when trying to secure a day/night test against England at Eden Park next March; it is thought that whilst many kiwi spectators are unlikely to take a day off work to watch a test match, the hope is that many of them will head to the ground (which is not far from Auckland’s CBD) to catch the last 40-50 overs in the evening.

As previously stated, the test match edition of our beloved sport is in rude health here.

However.

In many other parts of the world, this is not the case.  The empty stadiums around the test playing world is an increasing frustration.   The emergence of T20 cricket has undoubtedly cast a shadow over several countries’ interest in the longest format.

Although Twenty 20 cricket is ideally seen as a ‘gateway drug’ of the cricketing world, the hope that young fans will be drawn in by the colour and excitement of perhaps the IPL or the Big Bash, then slowly graduate into test cricket as they get older and begin to understand the intricacies of test cricket and why it can pose such a fascinating, albeit much different, contest.  However, there are worrying signs in several countries that this just isn’t happening, and support and interest in test cricket is just being left to dissipate.

As a result, the introduction of a day/night test format may well not increase stadium numbers (except perhaps for those based in central city locations such as the aforementioned Eden Park).  However, the simple fact that it will be on TV throughout an evening surely means there is the likelihood of a significant increase in viewing audiences, and hopefully therefore an increase in interest.

The game of test cricket has survived for 140 years because of its ability to evolve.  The size of the stumps has changed, as has the balls.  Pitches being covered, batsman wearing helmets, the size and shape of the bats, the changes in fielding restrictions, the restriction on bouncers, the no-ball rule, DRS, I could go on.  Most of these changes went if not unnoticed, then at least to a certain amount of applause about keeping the game current and up-to-date.  Surely day/night test cricket is just another of these innovations?  The fact that it requires a pink ball should be of little relevance compared to the possible upside of bringing in large numbers of extra viewers, weather on television or in the stadium.  It must not be something that countries like England and Australia get on their high horses about and start criticising changes that don’t need to be made.  The fact is that in many parts of the world, they are needed, and needed immediately.

And considering such changes are required in other parts of the world, England must therefore follow suit.  I wouldn’t wish to see a home Ashes test played with a pink ball under lights, nor do I think that there should be one in the Ashes series Down Under as there is in Adelaide later this year.  However, England players will, moving forward, increasingly need plenty of game time in this new format in order to give themselves a chance of competing when they go away.  Matches against the likes of the West Indies at Edgbaston are a perfect opportunity to up the interest levels in a game that potentially they might have otherwise struggled to sell.  Therefore, it is surely an obvious necessity.

Weather countries like England and Australia need day/night test cricket in order for the game to survive and thrive in those countries is not the point.  The point is, global test cricket as a whole needs such innovations, and it is the responsibility of all countries to toe the line.  The sooner we all realise this the better.

 

 

 

England’s Series Victory Fails to Hide Batting Problems

A 3-1 victory over South Africa at home.  Great result, full stop.  Right?  Well, sort of.  Whilst England will be delighted with their first series win over the Proteas on home soil since Darren Gough famously bowled them to victory at Headingley in 1998, questions still remain, especially in their top 5.

Keaton Jennings’ international career must now be put on hold for the time being.  Even his most ardent supporters cannot expect him to be included in England’s squad for their next test match, the day/nighter against the West Indies at Edgbaston in ten days’ time.   Jennings has now scored 127 runs at 15.87 in the series, a battling 48 at the Oval his only score of note, and even then he was dropped on six and nearly played on twice early in his innings.

England had much hope for Jennings.  His record over the past few years batting at Chester-le-Street, one of the most difficult tracks on the county circuit, has been excellent.  He’s also scored consistently for the Lions, who he also captained successfully on a few occasions, whilst also skippering Durham’s one-day side for the past couple of years, as well as the North against the South in the one-day series in the UAE in March.  There was clearly some hope that Jennings’ leadership qualities are such that in time he could have been groomed for the England captaincy a few years down the line.  Four tests later, and England are back into their familiar routine of having to search for a new partner for Alastair Cook.

Cook has now had eleven opening partners since the retirement of Strauss (twelve including a one-off when Jos Buttler was thrown in to score quickly), and none of them have been able to make an impact past their first half-a-dozen matches wearing the three lions.  England must now decide on whether they go back to a past failure such as Alex Hales or Sam Robson in the hope they have learnt more about their game whilst back at their respective counties, or go for yet another new face in Mark Stoneman.  Stoneman is as deserving of a test spot as anyone, currently averaging nearly 60 in his thirteen innings’ thus far in Division 1 county cricket.  He would be the obvious choice, a like-for-like left-hander to come in for the out-of-nick Jennings.  However, with three home tests against a vastly under-par West Indies coming up, just how much will England be able to find out about his test-match credentials before they set off for Australia in November?  Clearly if he was to fail in that series he’s certainly not up to facing Starc, Cummins et al Down Under, but if he scores big against the Windies, it would be difficult to call him a test match player simply because of the standard of opposition.    He can’t win.  Therefore, either way England will travel to the Ashes with no confidence in Cook’s opening partner.  Again.

Tom Westley, aside from a solid 59 on debut during the Oval’s one hundredth test match last weekend, has failed to impress since.  He will keep his place in the side for the West Indies series, and rightly so.  However, the sheer fact that he will not be tested at the level the Proteas seamers operate at until the Ashes means that there is no guarantee he will be a long-term success either.  His technique will need to evolve slightly; whether he has the ability to keep leaving balls outside the off stump all day will surely be tested fully by the Australian pacemen.  There is nothing wrong with being a leg-side batsman, however it does mean stepping up to the top level requires significant patience to survive. Bowlers will continue to bowl outside his off stump in an attempt to coax him into a false shot, and no doubt the Aussie fielders will do their best to tempt him as well.  It won’t be easy, but with the right application Westley could be a mainstay at number three.  Frankly, it appears England have no other options from county cricket to come in at first drop, so they’ll be desperate for Westley to succeed or else the calls for Joe Root to step up to number three will surface yet again – something the captain clearly wants to avoid.

The final spot still up for the grabs is currently Dawid Malan’s.  Whilst he is likely to be given another shot at making the number 5 position his own against the West Indies, scores of 1, 10, 18 and 6 in his first two tests for England means there is much to do before the critics will be silenced.

What will worry England most now they’re just three months away from embarking Down Under for the biggest test of all, is that not only are there three question marks in their top five; but also the fact that with three West Indies test matches coming up before those players will have to face the Aussie seam attack on a flat Brisbane track with a hostile crowd, do England actually have time to find out what they need about their players to be confident of picking their best team for that crucial first Ashes test?

Whatever happens later in August, as it stands England’s batting order looks increasingly fallible.  Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Pattinson look formidable.  If Root, Cook, Stokes and Bairstow score heavily it is still a possibility England will be a match for their hosts; if they have to rely on their less established players, it could well be a repeat of four years ago.

Listen to Joe and Marty discussing the latest on England and Australia’s Ashes chances on the Sticky Wicket Cricket Podcast, available on iTunes and the Soundcloud every week.

Luke Fletcher Injury: One-off or Wake-up call?

Last Saturday evening, when Luke Fletcher took a horrible blow to the top of his head whilst on his follow through bowling for his native Nottinghamshire against Hampshire’s Sam Hain in the Natwest T20 Blast, the immediate questions about player safety reared their head once again.  Should this incident be seen as a freak accident, seeing as the odds of Sam Hain’s straight drive hitting Fletcher square in the top of the head are hundreds of thousands to one, and very few injuries of this nature have been seen in recent years?

Or, is this event a long overdue wake-up call for cricket?  Fletcher this week has come out and said that for some time now, the Nottinghamshire bowlers tend to practice their trade in nets without batsmen in them, instead using cones as target practice to try all of their variations.  He said bowlers at the club are already scared that “balls are coming back at a pace where you can’t react”.  Graham Thorpe has also been quite open in recent months about the fact that he always wears a helmet when giving throw downs to England’s batsmen, a piece of kit he now describes as “vital” given the strength of the likes of Alex Hales and Jason Roy, and the pace at which the ball comes back at him.

Given these statements, is it any wonder that the ECB are going to look into options regarding bowlers wearing some sort of head protection when they are bowling?  Obviously there is a long way to go in terms of getting the technology correct for it to be acceptable to both the players and the ICC, and nobody is expecting to bowlers to one day run in with a batting-like helmet on, however some sort of protection, perhaps in the rugby scrumcap mould, is surely going to be looked at.

If we were to move industries for a second, and look at this type of incident as a more general Health & Safety issue that could have been raised, the argument may well take on a different tone.  Having spent several years working for large engineering and construction corporations, I know that if there was an incident in which an employee on a construction site suffered a near-fatal head injury, there would be a full-scale investigation, followed by a change in process safety.  This would probably lead to safety equipment changes to avoid such an event happening again, and this would all take place alongside the employee probably filing a law suit.  What would be totally unacceptable is the notion that it was simply a freak accident, with the odds of it happening again being so long that nothing needs to be changed.  Employees would demand action, and especially when you throw in union intervention, they would most likely get it.

Cricket, and somehow sport in a wider sense, seems to be different.  It often takes on a seemingly reactionary approach rather than a proactive one.  No-one has had the balls to come out and admit it, but if someone with enough health and safety knowledge and foresight had been able to identify that prior to November 2014, a nasty blow behind a batsman’s ear could be fatal, and then been given authority to push through the helmet modifications we have seen since, the death of Phil Hughes might, might, have been avoided.  Hughes’ passing was undoubtedly a terrible tragedy, but a freak accident it was not.  Any injury sustained that could have been avoided by equipment changes brought in so soon after the event means that, with the correct foresight, disaster could have been averted.

If the ICC think that reducing the maximum bat widths for next year will protect bowlers from the onslaught of batsmen’s straight drives, they are surely misguided.  Players these days are stronger than they have ever been, and with the T20 format becoming more and more infused with the aim to try and hit every ball as hard as you can, the risk factor of the Luke Fletcher scenario being repeated is increasing by the week.

If nothing is done, it is surely inevitable that another unfortunate incident will occur.  If it does, after the warning signs we’ve now had, it is unacceptable for us to be able to call it a freak accident.

The ECB and/or the ICC will certainly have to look at changes.  There’s no doubt that bowlers will push back hard on having to wear any sort of embarrassing head gear when they’re on the big stage, but it is surely now all in the name of progress. The wheels of change have been put into motion, albeit slowly, towards changes being made.  Professional bowlers will be safer for it.

England’s New Selection Policy: Sensible or Underwhelming?

Gary_Ballance_2014.jpgWhen England announced their supposedly new-look twelve-man squad for the first South Africa test at Lords starting last Thursday, I think it’s fair to say there were some eyebrows raised.  However, when England wrapped up a comfortable 211-run victory by Sunday afternoon, were they justified by their somewhat underwhelming selection policy that had preceded the test match, or do those questions still remain?

For those England fans who were looking forward to a new era under Joe Root’s captaincy with excitement, based on Root’s ability to inspire all and sundry with the positive approach he has taken to his batting in his career so far, many were left unhappy with his first choice of starting XI.  I don’t think anyone expected Liam Dawson to be included in the 12 let alone start, and such was the uncertainty over that pick, that incredibly, many people actually expected England to start with five seamers for the first time at Lords since 1993.

For England to go back, for the third time no less, to Root’s old flatmate from Leeds Gary Ballance, to many looked like plain favouritism.  Root may never again be in such a strong position as to hold sway over his fellow selectors with a couple of his own personal choices, and it certainly felt like in Ballance, Dawson, and to a lesser extent the continuation of Jonny Bairstow at number 5, Root has already put his stamp on selection during this new era.  For what it’s worth, I was, and still am, definitively against the inclusion of both Gary Ballance and Liam Dawson.

Ballance still looks like a walking wicket at number 3 at test level.  When he plays county cricket, he is able to stand back very deep into his crease, and still then his trigger movements are put into action to come forward in time to be on the front foot when the ball reaches him.  The problem is he is not facing the quality (or perhaps more importantly, the pace) of bowling that he is up against when he plays the Proteas, and looking further down the line, Australia – in Australia.   His technique dictates that he so likely to be trapped on the crease coming forward, as he was in the first innings at Lords, that all top fast bowlers seem able to set him up for doing so.  It is fair to say that Ballance’s current First Class record is untouchable.  815 runs from 11 innings averaging 101.88 is surely grounds for selection no matter the scenario.  But having looked woefully out of place on the subcontinent before Christmas, and twice been dropped from the setup so far in his career, there are other candidates that can feel hard done by.   The fact that Tom Westley batted at number 3 (whilst Ballance himself came in at 4) for the England Lions against South Africa in their warm up match at Worcester and scored a hundred means that he was surely unlucky to miss out.  Dawid Malan recently stepped up to international cricket and looked the part in England’s third T20 win over South Africa in Cardiff.  Opener Sam Robson has been back to top form for Middlesex in the County Championship, as has Nick Browne at table-topping Essex.  Joe Clarke is another highly rated youngster with the bat, and much has been made of Liam Livingstone at Lancashire.  Bearing all of this in mind, going back for the third time to Gary Ballance shows that Root has a huge amount of faith in his Yorkshire teammate; if he doesn’t get a score at Trent Bridge there will be huge pressure on him to try someone new.

Liam Dawson’s inclusion equally left a big question mark over his head as to whether he is likely to be able to step up to test level, and at Lords he also did little to alleviate such fears.  Two wickets in either innings (only one of which was a top six batsman) on one of the most turning Lords wickets ever seen, plus a pair of two-ball ducks will mean he has a lot to do to become a long-term fixture in the test side.  Coach Trevor Bayliss has been keen to point out that they are considering Moeen Ali as a “batsman who bowls a bit”, although after Moeen’s 10-for at Lords and Chris Woakes’ injury lay-off likely to come to an end soon, can they really justify keeping Dawson in, especially if he’s not scoring runs at number 8?

What does feel like a good move is Moeen Ali moving, and so he will hope settling, at number 7 in the order and being part of a 6-man bowling attack.  His batting average at number 7 is now 78.77 from 12 innings, despite him saying earlier in the summer that he finds it difficult there.  But a record like that coupled to the fact that when being made part of a 6-man bowling attack the pressure of his off-spin is surely relieved somewhat, is surely a big plus for England.  It should also leave him free to try and just take wickets with his bowling – surely his strong point, rather than holding up an end.

England are extraordinarily lucky to have two world class all-rounders; they need to find the solution to their selection dilemmas this summer to make it work entirely in their favour.  Playing six front-line bowlers may seem like an unnecessary overindulgence in most conditions around the world, however if it means the likes of Stokes and Ali can be used sparingly, more as wicket takers who’s main job is to score runs, then England could potentially put together a seriously good side for some time.

Finding a spinner to settle on who can control an innings when necessary is their next priority, and unless Gary Ballance starts to score runs soon, so is finding a long-term number 3.

Day 1 Report: Curran and Buttler put England’s noses in front

Sam Curran and Jos Buttler both smashed sixties as England were bowled out for 285 all out in difficult batting conditions on the first day of the 2nd test in Pallekelle, Sri Lanka. On a pitch that immediately started to turn, England recovered from 171-7 to post a useful total, before Jack Leach bowled Kaushal Silva to leave Sri Lanka 26 for 1 at the close, still 259 behind.

The day started in familiar fashion – Joe Root winning the toss for the seventh time in a row, and took no time at all in deciding to bat first on a pitch that looked dryer than Galle.

Sri Lanka, as is their way at home, picked just one seamer (Lakmal), a decision that was immediately justified when off-spinner Dilruwan Perera found significant turn and bounce past Keaton Jennings’ outside edge in only the second over.

However it was seam that brought Sri Lanka first blood. A classic Jennings poke outside the off stump gave an easy catch for keeper Dickwella and England were quickly 4 for 1.

Ben Stokes, moved up the order to bat at number 3 after the Moeen Ali experiment failed, immediately looked positive, getting well forward to Lakmal, and punishing anything straight with dismissive authority. Such a powerful influence at the other end seemed to have a calming effect on Rory Burns, who in only his second test had questions to answer following his double failure at Galle. Burns played with the sort of fluidity Surrey fans have been used to, but today he was finally able to bring his game up to international level.

On the stroke of the morning drinks break, Stokes payed round one from Dilruwan that straightened past the outside edge and looked stone-dead LBW; despite umpire Ravi somehow ignoring the Sri Lankan appeals, the DRS confirmed the obvious and Stokes was on his way.

Joe Root came in, looked a million dollars as Joe Root does, then inexplicably missed a straight one from Perera to leave England 65 for 3. Then Burns edged one that turned sharply – a sign of things to come – and eventually fell for a well played 43.

The lunchtime score was all too familiar for a talented batting line-up: England 4 down, albeit with 120 on the board having cruised along at 4 an over for the session. Joe Buttler, batting at number five, was 38 not out of just 32 balls, having scored an incredible 35 from the sweep shot alone.

Worth mentioning that yet again, 30 overs were bowled in the morning session; understandable enough with only one seamer on show, but still a refreshing bonus for England supporters used to being short changed.

After lunch, spin continued to dominate; Moeen missed one off the back foot to Pushpakumara, but Buttler continued to counter attack, bringing up his half century at a run-a-ball.

Whilst the pitch wasn’t as lively as some in Sri Lanka, some deliveries just did enough to cause trouble for the English batsmen; Ben Foakes again looked good for 19, when he tried to sweep Perera and was caught at slip; the replay showed the ball missed Foakes’ inside edge, but rather bemusingly Faokes walked regardless and England were six down.

Jos Buttler’s brilliant 63 eventually came to an end after trying one too many reverse sweeps, and spooned one to Karunaratne at short third man off Pushpakumara.

England’s lower order rarely fails to provide runs in time of a crisis, and Sam Curran and Adil Rashid took England quite comfortably past 200, the highlight being Rashid’s lovely straight drive for six off Pushpakumara, and England finished the afternoon session on 211 for 7 – usually a well below-par total in the world of test cricket, but on a turning pitch, the england dressing room were likely to be happy to have runs on the board.

Soon after tea, England’s two spinners Rashid and Leach fell to deliveries symptomatic of the innings so far – Rashid fell LBW to Perera to a ball he really shouldn’t have missed, then Leach got a beauty from Dananjaya which straightened to nick the top of off stump.

With England nine down, the end was nigh. Sam Curran had other ideas. 12 not out off 58 balls at tea, Curran starting hitting out with James Anderson at the other end. 40 minutes later Curran had put on fifty with James Anderson (who contributed just six of them), and his extraordinary clean hitting on a turning wicket shows why England value the young all-rounder so highly. At just twenty years of age, Curran’s counterattacking turned England’s stuttering effort into a commanding total on a pitch that is sure to wear quickly.

He eventually went caught in the deep for a sensational 64, including 6 sixes, to give Perera his fourth wicket, and England were 285 all out. Curran and Anderson added 60 for the final wicket in just eleven overs. Curran’s first innings 48 in Galle when England were in a nervous position proved to be valuable; his contribution here may well be even more decisive.

Despite the Barmy Army’s loyal supporters being disappointed to see the Curran fireworks brought to a premature close, it did mean England had 12 overs to bowl at Sri Lanka before the close.

With the shadows lengthening, Joe Root waited just 5 overs before opting for spin at both ends, and Jack Leach and Moeen Ali immediately began to cause problems. Moeen found the edge Karunaratne only for it to drop short of Ben Stokes at slip, before Leach bowled Kaushal with a classic slow-left-arm delivery that straightened to hit off stump. Leach now has six test match wickets, all of whom are right handed batsmen.

Stand-in captain Suranga Lakmal passed the nightwatchman baton to Pushpakumara, who steered Sri Lanka to the close.

England will feel they have the edge going into day 2, however Pallekelle can prove to flatten out as the game progresses. England’s spin trio have a huge role to play tomorrow; if they dominant England will be on their way to a first series win here since 2001.

Fresh Selection Policies breath new life into England Setup

At yesterday’s pre-match press conference, when announcing a fit-again Jonny Bairstow had been left out of the eleven to face Sri Lanka in the second test in Kandy, Joe Root declared that Bairstow “understands the situation and is aware that we have to pick the side that are best suited to conditions we can expect in Kandy.” This shows a significant shift in England’s selection policy, and how much different it is today to the start of the English summer.

There had been growing angst within England’s supporters because of a concern that certain players had begun to be seen as undroppable by the England management, Bairstow being one of them. The Yorkshire gloveman has been a curious case of frustration over the past eighteen months. At his best, he’s brilliant to watch. Fantastic stroke making down the order has saved England from top-order dispair more times than Jennings, Cook et al would like to remember.

Some fans have, however, become rather ambivalent to his repeated public displays of desire to keep hold of his wicket keeping duties, and his perceived reluctance to move up the order from number seven. Before the start of the English summer, Bairstow had become one of the first names on the team sheet. His average in the period between the South Africa series in the winter of 2015-16 until early 2018 hovered around the 50 mark, therefore making him indispensable to a team struggling for consistency. But, having been given more responsibility as a batsman during the India series this summer, Bairstow struggled up the order, as Ed Smith’s maverick pick Jos Buttler flourished further down. Suddenly Bairstow was under pressure, but England stuck with him keeping and batting at five.

What became clear however was Bairstow’s reluctance to have his position in the side changed against his will. And he wasn’t alone in this. Over the past couple of years, we have seen England players getting a little too comfortable in their positions. Moeen Ali’s ridiculous narrative about wanting to be England’s ‘second spinner’ when clearly he’s the leader of the slow-ball attack showed an enormous lack of confidence, but also a need to have his role on his own terms. We’ve also seen Joe Root’s reluctance to bat at number 3 when at times there has been no other option, and his team needed him to come in at first drop. Ben Stokes decided he didn’t want to field in the slips in the summer. As England’s best fielder he should field wherever his captain needs him, it shouldn’t be his choice. It all gave a perception that the players within the current England set up had become quite comfortable, and were beginning to pick and choose their roles within an international side which was underperforming.

These examples of players taking their place for granted could have been down to a lack of leadership within the England setup – either on or off the field, possibly even both. But whatever the reason, there seems to be a fresher feel to the England setup in Sri Lanka. A more professional outlook, with players seemingly more likely to do what is asked of them. This has been encapsulated by the selections they’ve made so far on tour.

Dropping a veteran of 123 test matches and 433 wickets should be a major headline coming into the series, but Stuart Broad’s absence in Galle was well received by England fans who have become desperate to see overseas success. PIcking 3 spinners should be a no-brainier on these pitches, but history shows England are reluctant to rest those that have brought them home success. Likewise, Jonny Bairstow’s unfortunate footballing injury would usually have seen England opt for an obvious next in line Keeper replacement in Buttler behind the stumps and a more experienced batsman brought in. To bring Ben Foakes in on debut at the potential long-term cost of Jonny Bairstow’s wicket keeping spot was a big call; the brilliant 107 Foakes scored in Galle was testament to the fact that England need to believe that when it comes to selection: fortune favours the brave.

England, now with a middle order of Stokes, Root, Buttler, Ali and Foakes (plus the excellent Sam Curran at number 8), look more solid as a batting unit than they have for some time. There may well be room for Bairstow to make a comeback, but it won’t be on his terms, and England suddenly have serious competition for places. There are still big question marks over Keaton Jennings, Stokes’ ability to bat three, Burns and Foakes are only new to the setup, and Moeen Ali continues to frustrate wherever he bats. But England’s one-day side have risen to the top of the world game through having an intensely competitive squad with 15 or so players all looking over their shoulders at those on the sidelines trying to get in, and you have to start somewhere.

England may have stumbled upon a new-look lineup that works. It’s taken years of disappointing results, especially away from home; but it certainly feels like they’ve turned a corner. They might go on to lose the series here in Sri Lanka of course, but they’ve so far looked like a professional outfit here. If England can continue to follow their brave, instinctive selection policies, they just might fulfil their potential.