Monday, 28 July 2014

Finding form at last

Monday, 28 July 2014
It was sure a long time coming, but finally in this fifth test match of the summer England's two most experienced batsmen - Alastair Cook and Ian Bell - scored meaningful innings for the team's cause. It had been a feature of the summer so far that while the newer members of the team were making their mark - Robson, Ballance, Root, and Ali all making centuries - the two most expected to be leading the batting line up were consistently falling short, but with innings of 95 and 167 respectively the pair gave fans (and the coaching staff) more reasons to look up.

Although Cook did not make it to the three figures he will be desperately craving - having not passed the milestone since May last year - his 95 will go a long way to silence the questions over his form. Though nobody doubted his class - scoring 25 test centuries is certainly no fluke - the dreadful run of form he had endured, for the most part not even making starts, led many (and I include myself in this) to believe that a rest from the side and from test cricket would be the perfect remedy. It was great to be proved wrong. The effort he had put in was clear; tricks such as standing further forward against Kumar were used to combat the swing, and in general he tried to player straighter. He had a slice of luck too - the story could all have been so different when, having scored just 15, a chance was dropped by Jadeja. Sometimes that is just the case - when a batsman is out of form the bad luck keeps on coming; eventually the tide has to turn. By no means was it a pretty innings - Cook's innings rarely are in any case - but it was the innings of a man determined to fight, and the crowd responded as such - a standing ovation when he brought up his fifty and another after his unfortunate dismissal just five short of the elusive century. The runs aren't the only thing that matters for Cook and questions over his leadership of the side will, quite rightly, remain, but it was good to see him put this trouble aside.

Bell was the hero of the last Ashes summer, but hadn't made a century since the fourth test of that series. This summer he was expected to be the leading light of England's batting line up after the departure of Pietersen, yet apart from a couple of pretty fifties against Sri Lanka he has struggled just as much as the captain. A match at Southampton, a ground he appears to favour as a player, turned out to be just what he needed. The pressure coming off to an extent may also have helped - the captain being back in the runs, plus another century from the ever-consistent Ballance (which could easily be forgotten amongst the return to form of the senior pair) would have eased the situation when he came to the crease somewhat, England being at 213/2 at the time. After Bell settled in he looked at ease, playing as he does so well when on song, and found no trouble going through the nervous nineties as he moved from 94 to 100 with a single hit, one of three sixes in his innings. With Ballance he set a perfect platform for England to accelerate in the final session, looking to head past 500 and towards a declaration.

Jos Buttler was the new face in the side after Matt Prior's withdrawal from the rest of the summer through injury, and the inclusion of such an exciting young player would have been a welcome distraction in some respects away from the inquest into the last match. The real focus will of course be upon his keeping and whether he can become test quality with the gloves, but the buzz will come over his batting after his sparkling limited-overs performances. He was another to be fortunate in gaining a life - though he appeared to have been caught on 0, and started to walk, the umpires judged it (rightly or wrongly) to have gone to ground first. What was unlucky for India was to the benefit of England and the entertainment of the crowd, Buttler playing with the freedom and adventure we have witnessed in ODIs in the evening session and scoring 85 from only 82 deliveries. It was the perfect situation for an attacking young wicketkeeper-batsman to come to the crease, already having 400 on the board and looking to set up the declaration, and Buttler certainly took advantage. Though he will of course find himself in tougher situations, he does look to be the player that can provide an injection of life to England's middle order that can at times find itself rather subdued. After tea England added 117 runs in only 18 overs, declaring on 569/7 after Buttler's dismissal and putting themselves firmly in control of the match. The day was then capped off with Anderson's wicket of Dhawan for 6, leaving India at 25/1 at the close of play on day two.

Though the success of the past two days haven't solved all England's problems, it does mean certain worries can at last be laid to rest. It certainly makes a change: England have been dominant over the first two days; haven't surrendered a strong position like they have all too often recently; and now all the top seven have made notable contributions this summer. Now it's time for Cook's captaincy to shine, and for the bowlers to also show their worth.

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