Monday, 4 May 2015

The inquest awaits

Monday, 4 May 2015
Well, if you watch this match, you could certainly never call test cricket boring. Day one saw a captain score his first century in two years, battling whilst his team struggled; day two witnessed an extraordinary 18 wickets fall across three innings; day three saw ten more fall, and what could be a tense run chase turn into a comfortable, and heartwarming, victory. There was no need for day four.

Watching day two, you might be forgiven for thinking that it might not need a big total to beat the West Indies. It was wickets galore, one coming every four and a half overs on average. England, hoping to take their overnight score of 240/7 past the 300 mark, swiftly fell to 257 all out. The West Indies were all out inside 50 overs for 189, a total that itself would have been much less if it wasn't for Jermaine Blackwood's counterattacking 85 from just 88 balls. All England could do in response was fall apart - an innings where they should have been trying to build a big lead instead crumbling away to 39/5 before the close of play. Wickets tumbled everywhere. You couldn't miss a ball.

All England could really do on day three was go for the attack. Jos Buttler (35*) and Ben Stokes (32) briefly combined to take England's score past 100 and their lead close to 200. It wasn't much, but they at least had a chance, a sniff at a win. Wickets fell in pairs for the West Indies, but there were partnerships in between, something England could only dream of in their second innings. A fifth wicket partnership of 108 between Darren Bravo (82) and Blackwood (47*) sealed the deal, turning what could easily have been a nervy chase into a comfortable victory. A rare win over England, and a series drawn. It was hard not to be happy for them, as much as it hurt for England.

As seems all too often to be the case, England finish another series with serious questions to be asked. On a pitch like this, the most glaring issue was spin. Whether it was due to a lack of bowling since coming back from injury, or the start of a second year dip, Moeen Ali seriously underperformed as a frontline spinner. He became the unexpected hero of England's summer last year, but now there is an expectation for him to do well, and on a pitch crying out for someone to spin to victory, he just couldn't find his length. Joe Root did a bit better, but he still falls under the category of 'batsmen who can chip in some overs'. And all the while, Adil Rashid was sitting on the sidelines. If England weren't going to play him on a pitch like this, would he ever get a chance?

But it wasn't the spinners' fault that West Indies were chasing a score under 200. The West Indies' bowlers won the game on day two when they took England down to 39/5. Jerome Taylor was brilliant in both innings, with Holder and Permaul also taking three each in England's second. But England's batting was certainly also sub-par. They just went into their shells too easily, and the West Indies were rampant. As England went into the series, typically it was the short ball that would cause them the most problems. Now it just looks like any ball. It's hard to see what the batting coach, Mark Ramprakash, has been doing. The New Zealand and Australia bowlers must be rubbing their hands with glee in anticipation of this summer.

I still firmly believe there is good in this side. There is definitely that 'core' of young players who I expect to see in the team for years to come, and players with the potential to offer England a lot in the future. Jos Buttler could be an England great, and really I'd like to see him higher in the order - number eight simply looks too low. I always think there's something about Chris Jordan, and his fielding has been sublime in this series - one handed slip catches are now no surprise. Ben Stokes is starting to settle again in the team, though there's still a sense that he's looking for a role - in this match he batted at number seven and only bowled seven overs.

There's definitely promise there, so what's the problem? The spotlight must fall on the management again, and not just of the team - of the whole coaching structure of English cricket. Why do fast bowlers so often get injured or lose a bit of their zip as soon as they get involved in the set up? Why are our spinners not progressing beyond 'promising', not being trusted to be given a place in the side? Why are players sent on tour with seemingly no chance of being picked to play? And the biggest focus should be on the head coach, Peter Moores. For all their faults, England are ranked third in the world, and failed to beat the team ranked eighth. There have been signs of progress, but there have also been test series defeats to Sri Lanka and the West Indies, a nightmarish display against India at Lord's, and a simply horrific World Cup campaign. Can he justify his position as coach? Jason Gillespie waits in the wings, increasingly looking like the heir apparent.

Colin Graves takes over as ECB chairman on May 15th. He's already said that there should be serious questions asked if England fail to beat a 'mediocre' West Indies team. We'll wait to see what the future holds.

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