Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016: Memorable moments

Saturday, 31 December 2016
As we reach the end of a long 2016, it's that time when reviews of the year are to be found everywhere you look, and so it's time for me to add another. In the past I've done a list of five highlights; this year I'm going for more of a round-up, some memorable moments of the year mostly from the English game.

Ben Stokes batters South Africa

What list couldn't include this innings? Just the numbers speak for themselves: 258 runs from 198 balls; 130 runs scored in the morning session alone; a partnership of 399 alongside Jonny Bairstow, who made his own 150*. 2016 had barely begun, and it had already had one of its finest performances. It was a brutal assault, and one of the most incredible innings I've seen. And it was the start of a stellar year for Stokes, his finest yet with the bat and with the ball.

Carlos Brathwaite hits a six, and another, and another, and another

But not everything went right for Ben Stokes this year. West Indies needed 19 from the last over in the final of the World T20, with England sensing victory. Though Marlon Samuels stood at the other end with 85*, not much had come in the way of support with England's bowlers keeping it tight and taking regular wickets. But it was never quite over. Stokes was the bowler, Brathwaite was the batsman. Six, six, six, six. Four massive hits, an extraordinary innings for an extraordinary win. England were heartbroken; West Indies could dance the champion dance once again.

West Indies Women win the World T20

The men weren't the only West Indies team celebrating that night. Ahead of the women's World T20 final, Australia were the favourites by a distance. They'd won the last three tournaments, and beaten the West Indies in all eight of their previous meetings in the format. But history doesn't matter when finals are concerned. West Indies had 149 to chase down and were in charge all the way, not losing a wicket until they already had 120 on the board. 18-year-old Hayley Matthews made 66, captain Stafanie Taylor 59, and there was a new team at the top of the women's game. 

A big year for women's cricket

The West Indies' win was just one moment from a big year for women's cricket. The first WBBL in Australia, starting in late 2015, was a huge success, bringing new opportunities for players and bringing women's domestic cricket to the television screens. WBBL02 has built on this further, with more games on television and others streamed across Facebook. In England, it was all change, with a new captain and new coaching regime, with new players coming into the side and making an impact, and others coming on in leaps and bounds - opener Tammy Beaumont leading the way. It was also the first season for England's own Twenty20 competition, the KSL - with the Southern Vipers lifting the trophy. With a World Cup in England in 2017, it promises to be a bumper year again.

Misbah's press-ups

Maybe the most memorable moment of the English summer was not Misbah-ul-Haq's century in the first test at Lord's, but the celebration that followed - the press-ups on the hallowed turf. Four days later, after Yasir Shah had taken ten wickets in the game to defeat England, the whole team followed suit - with Younis Khan leading the way as the drillmaster. It was a Pakistan team united, and putting the ignominy of their last visit firmly in the past, with captain Misbah leading from the front. The series ended 2-2, and Pakistan rose to number one in the test rankings for the first time. 

England reach new heights

Though in test whites England often struggled this year, they were at home in the shortened formats. The pick of the bunch had to be that glorious day at Trent Bridge, where they racked up a mere 444/3 against Pakistan, the highest score in ODI history. Leading the way was Alex Hales, a score of 171 finally breaking Robin Smith's 23-year-old record for England's highest ODI innings. Jos Buttler (90 from 51) and Eoin Morgan (57 from 27) almost made that look boring. Last year's World Cup had become a distant memory.

The County Championship finale

I don't have the chance to go to a great deal of cricket, but I made sure to head down to Lord's for the last two days of the final round of the County Championship. Middlesex, Somerset, and Yorkshire were all still in the running going into the last match, with Middlesex and Yorkshire playing each other. First it was the battle for the bonus points, with Yorkshire needing 350 in the first innings to stay in the race - and rain stopping play at 349/9. Then, after Somerset's win, both sides were needing a victory to win the title. It came down to an engineered run chase, 240 from 40 overs for Yorkshire and a never-say-die attitude. Toby Roland-Jones took a hat trick and Middlesex were the winners, a dramatic end to a thrilling season.

A new star for Bangladesh

A series that England would have expected to win turned into a thrilling two games. The first, won by England, was one that went down to the wire. Ben Stokes was the hero, an all round display capped off by taking the last two wickets, but Bangladesh had only fallen 22 runs short. The second test saw England making a strong start in chasing 273, but 100/0 became 164 all out in the evening session. Bangladesh had claimed their biggest scalp yet, with Mehedi Hasan the hero - nineteen wickets across two tests, including three six-wicket hauls. And he only turned nineteen between tests. The future looked bright.

Bairstow's golden year

The year began with him only just having taken the gloves from Jos Buttler, still looking to really cement his place in the team, and still looking for that first test century having made his debut in 2012. The year ended with him established as one of England's star players, having scored the most test runs by any keeper in a calendar year, and only just falling short of Michael Vaughan's record for most runs by an Englishman in a year. Three centuries and eight fifties came in between, innings where he counterattacked, just attacked, or really had to dig deep and fight. His keeping, whilst still a work in progress, was definitely improving too. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

England, what's going wrong?

Wednesday, 21 December 2016
So, really all my attempts to be optimistic in the face of impending doom in my last post turned out to be in vain. It's like I made them in the face of impending doom, or something. Funny how that works.

England slipped to their fourth defeat of the series yesterday and their second innings defeat in a row - and that being their second innings defeat in a row after scoring 400 in their first outing with the bat. There's not really a lot you can say about that. India simply outclassed England in every department; everything England did well, India then went and did better. England score 477? India scored 759, and declared. Moeen Ali gets a century? Lokesh Rahul gets 199, and then Karun Nair gets 303* - his very first test century and it's a triple. India never settled for just winning matches, they dominated them, pummeled England into the ground. Nair's triple was scored off only 381 balls, with Jadeja scoring a 55-ball 51 alongside him at the end.

England had a day to bat to save the match, a perfectly achievable aim on a pitch doing nothing for the bowlers. They made a strong start, too, with the openers sharing a century stand. But there was always that sense of inevitability as they crashed to 207 all out, losing by an innings and 75 runs. Their first innings score of 477 became the highest ever to end with an innings defeat.

So what's going wrong? Whilst they're still searching for their best eleven - and more so when playing in Asia than anywhere else - there's still a group of players with unquestionable talents who just aren't adding up to the sum of their parts. And some of it will be tiredness, yes, but when you see the same things happening again and again you'd expect them to learn a lesson at some point. English batting collapses are nothing new, for example, but over this winter they seem to have found a new template. It might even be one more frustrating than before. Mirpur, Vizaj, Mumbai, Chennai - all times when England surrendered completely when sensible batting might have saved them, or at least offered some dignity. I mean, innings like that do happen on occasion - opposing sides start to smell blood and move in for the kill whilst batsmen fall like dominoes - but England have made it a habit this winter, and more than usual. And a lot of the time, they're getting themselves out, playing shots that in the situation they have no business playing. What was Bairstow doing, what was Moeen doing? When you have a very real chance to save the game, to at least salvage some scrap of dignity, why would you do that?

So is it the coaching then? Bayliss has worked wonders with England in the shortened formats, but the test side has gone up and down and not really got anywhere. The year started with a brilliant away win in South Africa and it looked like England were in a position to build from. But since then we've had disappointing draws against Pakistan and Bangladesh and now humiliation in India; with plenty of batsmen going in and out of the team and nearly as many spinners this winter alone. There's no specialist fielding coach whilst chances are going down; no permanent spin coach when the spinners are struggling (and when Saqlain Mushtaq arrived, Rashid for one did much better); there's no wicketkeeping coach for a keeper still learning his craft. The same attitude that's brought so much success in the one-day arena doesn't translate to a match that lasts five days: there's still room to attack with the bat, but application has to come first and foremost. There's a time and a place to take the game to the opposition, and England haven't found either.

Things can go to far the other way though, which they often do in the field. It means coming back to Alastair Cook, and talking about his captaincy is unavoidable. The thing is, though the batsmen can be too aggressive when they don't need to be, in the field England have been defence first, and probably defence later too. And when it goes wrong, Cook rarely has a plan B to turn to. England just drifted in the field, Cook just rotated his bowlers - not really providing a firm leadership or notion of creativity. It's hard to see him continuing in the job for much longer. Even Cook himself has been hinting at it since the start of the winter. Four years in the job is a long time. There have been times before when he might have gone, but there didn't seem to be any heir apparent - or at least one that's ready yet. Now Joe Root has played over fifty tests, and that younger generation that includes star performers like Stokes and Bairstow look ready to step up.

Choosing a star batsman as captain always has that element of risk, that the pressures of leading will take their toll and neuter their offerings to the team with the bat. The same might happen for Joe Root, or it could be the impetus he needs. There's no doubting that he's one of the best batsmen in the world, but his collection of scores in the eighties look more of a missed opportunity than anything. Could the responsibility of being captain give him that edge he needs to convert these into centuries, 'daddy hundreds', the big scores England need to dominate the opposition? It's what Kohli does for India, at least. Root also seems to be more pro-active in nature and could offer that fresh approach England need, a new angle of looking at things, the man they need to shake things up. A tough home series against South Africa and an Ashes tour on the horizon may not be the ideal time to start, but then again, when is? It feels like his time is coming.

There's so many other comments to make about this winter, and it's hard to find the space to go into on just one post here. There are selection issues, often dubious; the lack of penetration with the ball; the question of just how many all-rounders is a blessing and how many makes too many; the scheduling; to name but a few.

The good thing at least is that England have seven months before they next take to the field in their whites, seven months they need. Though the defeat was, well, pretty horrific, it's not a time for rash, knee-jerk decisions. They were expected to lose and did just that against a strong Indian side. The question is why it was so bad.  There will be changes in personnel in the team, but none too drastic. It feels more like changes in approach off the field will make the bigger effect - and even that's not a call for Bayliss to go. They need to address why it is that such a talented bunch of players are underperforming to this extent, why they don't seem able to string together a sequence of performances across tests, even across innings. There are seven months before they play again, seven months to have a long, hard look at what's going wrong.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The see-saw of hope and despair

Thursday, 8 December 2016
When I last updated my blog, after the first test of the series, things didn't look too bad for England. Sure, depending on your viewpoint they might have squandered their chance to take a series lead, but they had certainly gone a way to dispel the gloom that followed the series draw in Bangladesh. Since then, whilst I was laid to waste by flu, England were also laid to waste by India's batsmen and bowlers. With India now 2-0 up with two to go, the series practically in the bag, there's a lot less to be happy about.

But still I go 'looking for the positives', that cliché that so often follows a disappointing performance. And England's performance has been disappointing, no doubt about it. There's a batting lineup, that for all its obvious talent, continues to fold too easily. Six different players had passed fifty at some point in the series before today, yet still England have found themselves in positions such as 80/5, 87/4, and 78/5. In Mohali, they had a great chance to post a big score batting first, but so often threw their wickets away in making 283. Then there are the Indian batsmen, classy players such as Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara in particular, teaching England a lesson. For a long time in the second test, only a dog on the outfield was able to stop them batting. And if they get past them, there's always Ravi Ashwin, nearly as much of a danger with the bat as he is when coming in to bowl at England's many left handers.

Maybe there aren't that many positives then. Maybe I'm clutching at straws. I can't see anything other than an Indian series win, after all. Maybe it's a just fit of excitement from seeing a player like Haseeb Hameed come into the side at 19 and look the part straight away. After scores of 31 and 82 during an impressive debut, in his next two games he continued to look the real deal. A score of 25 might not seem that much on a scorecard, but in the second innings at Visag he occupied the crease for over three hours, 144 balls, 50.2 overs to make those 25 runs. Maybe it wasn't a thrilling and buccaneering innings, but it was absorbing in its own way and the sort England needed in that situation. In Mohali, a badly broken finger wasn't enough to stop him, bravely battling for 59* at number eight and doing all he could to keep England in the game. If the game is about character and temperment, he's got it in spades. And of course when you finally find an opener, two come along at once. Keaton Jennings made his debut in replacing Hameed for the fourth test, and made a century on the very first day. After the amount of openers that have flattered to deceive, I'm wary of declaring anyone as England's savior. But for now at least there's a lot to celebrate with these two.

And others are improving as well. Stokes and Bairstow are ever-improving against the spinners, and continue to be a strong partnership when they often have the chance to bat together. Stokes in particular has added that extra layer to his game, an extra patience for that hard graft when facing the spinners. Maybe there's the odd rush of blood to the head, but he won't give up easily; and he relishes having a big role with bat and ball. Adil Rashid, also, might be getting better with every match. The four ball might still be just round the corner, but more frequently the wickets are too. England's spin consultant, Saqlain Mushtaq, joining the tour has had its effect - but you can't only credit the coach, the bowler has done the work too. He appears to have won the trust of his captain now, which might be half the battle. He will always provide that mix of frustration alongside his element of mystery and genuine wicket taking threat. But with 18 wickets in the series so far, leading England's list by a distance, things are looking up.

Yet, it's still hard to plaster over the team's obvious flaws. They have been beaten twice, and you can't argue against that. I will freely admit that my optimism is, indeed, hopeless. Today they might find themselves in a decent position at 288/5, you can't run away from the fact that they are 2-0 and don't really know their best eleven or the order it should go in. They've tried three spinners, but the third option has never been good enough, so now they're back down to two on a pitch already deteriorating (though I would still say the 4/2 seam/spin should suit England more). With no warm-up games before or in-between, there's no coming back now for dropped batsmen like Ballance or Duckett, Buttler in the team as a specialist number seven. The call-up of Liam Dawson for the injured Zafar Ansari perhaps shows the muddled thinking of the selectors - not knowing if they needed a specialist batsman or a specialist spinner, so going somewhere between the two. If he does play, it must surely be as a batting option first - but where exactly does he fit? Consistency also remains an issue. Batsmen might deliver separately or in pairs but not often as a whole group, and not often for a run of matches in a row. The talent is there, so what's missing? Fatigue from a long year might be a part, but what else?

Instead, I'll flip back one more time and just be happy about today's play. They lost a few wickets foolishly, but all in all it was a solid day of cricket. It's always lovely to see a young player come into the team and make an impact straight away, and Jennings certainly made his presence felt. 288/5 is a position England can work with and build upon, and though Stokes and Buttler will have to fight hard to make their runs as the pitch turns and turns, the promise is there for a score of 350 plus or more if they're lucky. When the ball turns, it's good to have those runs on the board - it's something to work with. Maybe my hope hasn't quite died yet.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The clouds lift

Wednesday, 16 November 2016
Coming away from Bangladesh, it was difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel for England. They had collapsed within a session, confidence was shattered, and with the tour of India starting the next week it was easy to predict a 5-0 outcome. Defeats can be contagious after all, and it can be difficult to find a way out of a rut. But in Rajkot they broke down that wall and came bursting out of the other side.

It started by winning the toss, and batting. And then, how they batted. There was no 21/3, 62/5, 69/5, the positions that put England at a disadvantage when playing Bangladesh (though when they did have a good start, things didn't go so well either). England needed one of their leading batsmen to step up, and Joe Root was up to the challenge. A stand of 179 with Moeen Ali put them in a strong position, and things just got better from there. Root's 124 was that sort of tone-setting innings that he so often delivers in the first match of the series, and also the first by a visiting batsman in India since early 2013. And it wouldn't be the only one. His partner in that key stand, Moeen Ali, made 117; whilst Ben Stokes added a further 128 as England capitalised on a strong position. Little over a week earlier it was hard to look beyond the despair of collapsing in a session; but now England had posted 537 and had three centurions in a single innings.

But India settled in too, and the struggle for wickets would be a long one. The partnership between Root and Moeen was more than matched when Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara put on 209 for the second wicket, the pair both making centuries of their own. England had made an imposing total, but India came close to matching it, and batting for 162 overs in their total of 488. A sign of things to come, perhaps? India's batsmen will be hard to break down, yet it wasn't always easy for them to score against England either; a true test for both sides. Eventually though, the wickets did fall - eight going down to the spinners, and four of those to Adil Rashid with his best performance yet in the test arena. 70 from Ravi Ashwin helped India to 488, just 49 runs behind. A draw looked the most likely result, but there was just enough reason for both sides to think they might have an outside chance with four sessions to go.

On that fourth evening, England did all they could to extinguish India's hopes of a win. And that was down to two men, Alastair Cook and Haseeb Hameed - his latest opening partner, and his youngest one yet. And yes, he is just nineteen, but he certainly looked the part. A case of 'if you're good enough, you're old enough' if ever there was one. His 31 in the first innings had already been enough to get people excited, but a second innings 82 did it even more. His temperament was what impressed the most, always looking assured and unflustered, not hurried or nervous. There was even a six, hit straight back over the bowler's head; already looking more than just the 'Baby Boycott'. There will be the risk of too much pressure being put on him too young, of him being hailed by a savior before he even reaches twenty. He cannot be called the solution after just one test. But maybe he's the most exciting answer we've had so far.

For Alastair Cook, it was his 55th test as captain - the most by any Englishman. He celebrated with his 30th test century, and England's fourth of the match. Conservatism is a word often used when describing his captaincy, and maybe this was another case in point, the opening pair scoring slower in the morning than they had the night before, despite having ten wickets in hand and a chance to set a target. Maybe they could have scored faster - when Stokes came in at four, he scored at a run a ball - and maybe he could have declared earlier. But sometimes these things are easier said than done, better in theory than in practice. Even with a pitch that didn't seem to have any major demons, free scoring hadn't always been all that straightforward; and it hadn't been all that simple for the bowlers first time out either. A lower total might have tempted India and brought more chance of a result; but it was a risk England would always be unlikely to take in the first match of a five game series. I agree that with declarations Cook could generally take more risks, but this time out I'd give him the benefit of the doubt.

As it turned out, England did manage six wickets, but the resistance of the captain Virat Kohli (49*) alongside Ashwin (32) and Jadeja (32*) saw India to safety. England's spinners were in the wickets again, with three more falling for Adil Rashid. Their performance will have been encouraging for England, and though none are the finished article, the signs are there that they are learning on the job as the long tour of the subcontinent continues. Rashid will still veer between periods where he frustrates and ones where he produces gold, but he showed that the gold is worth waiting for. The more the spinners bowl, the better they will get. I can be as guilty as any in wanting the instant result, but it's a waiting game. And here it was paying off.

What can England expect in the rest of the series? The pitches are likely to be better suited to India, offering more for the spinners than in Rajkot. But England will be boosted too as their talisman returns in James Anderson, a key figure in that famous 2012 victory. It's a hard call to see who he will replace, be it a pace bowler in Woakes or Broad or the spin of Zafar Ansari (though a 3/3 seam/spin mix might look a better option). Importantly, in Rajkot England showed they are no pushovers, and will provide a contest for India. The doom and gloom has lifted. Keep up the good work and there will be a contest.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Collapse

Thursday, 3 November 2016
It was well and truly the collapse to end all collapses. England lost ten wickets in a session, going from a position of promise when 100/0 at tea - to 164 all out and beaten within three days. For Bangladesh, it was perhaps their greatest day since gaining test status in the year 2000. For England, who have managed many horrible collapses in their time, it was one of their worst.

The focus has to be on Bangladesh. They came so close to victory in the first test, only to fall at the final hurdle, but they didn't have to wait long for an even better chance. From Tamim Iqbal's dominating century on the first day, to having England struggling at 144/8 in their first innings, to going on the offensive in their second innings before running through England at the end; it was a match which they controlled almost all the way through. And it was a series in which they consistently looked the better side. Every batsman in the top order made an important contribution at some stage, Tamim Iqbal leading the way. In spin bowling they were a class apart - 7 wickets for Taijul at 22.85, 12 for Shakib at 18.41, and of course 19 for Mehedi at 15.63.

19 wickets for Mehedi Hasan, only turning 19 in the middle of the series. 19 wickets in his first two test matches, with three six wicket hauls. What better way to announce himself on the international stage? His offspin was a most potent weapon, accurate and always testing an English batting lineup littered with left-handers for him to prey on. There was never any other candidate for man of the series.

An area where England could claim to have outperformed Bangladesh this series was in the lower order batting. Where England might often collapse at the top of an innings, Bangladeshi wickets would fall quickly towards an innings's end. England's lower order had to bail them out again in this match, with a 99 run stand and a pair of forties from Woakes and Rashid seeing England scrape a first innings lead after being 144-8. The defeat might easily have been much worse. The second time out, even the lower order couldn't save them.

It had all started so well. A total of 273 was always going to be a tall order to chase, but they had at least given themselves a chance. A strong opening partnership had been elusive up until this point, but this time they made their mark. Ben Duckett showed just why he had been selected, playing with that special quality that makes him so exciting to watch - the inventiveness, the flair, never showing any fear. The special shots came out, and early in the innings too. A first test fifty came, a score of 56 from 64 balls. England will be making changes to their batting lineup, but he will likely have done enough to secure his place at the top. The captain Cook was there at the other end, his score of 59 contributing to the century stand.

But the first ball after tea, Duckett was out, Mehedi hitting the stumps. Joe Root, who had been in 'quarantine' the previous day through illness, soon followed. Ballance hit a leading edge to Tamim, a nightmare tour reaching its conclusion. And so on, and so on. After the openers, only Stokes made double figures. Moeen, Rashid, Ansari, and Finn all made ducks. Batsman after batsman came to the crease, only to turn round and go to the changing room moments later, undone by the spin of Mehedi or Shakib. The collapse was total. Bangladesh had beaten England at last, and comprehensively - by 108 runs. History had been made.

Where do England go from here? Well the obvious answer is, India. With no warm-up matches inbetween, England head into the first of five test matches next week. There will be no opportunity for squad members to play between games, and with the tours so close together there was no chance for the squad to be changed - something already appearing problematic. With Duckett opening the innings, Haseeb Hameed looks unlikely to get a chance; meanwhile Gary Ballance's England career looks to have reached the end of the road after four innings on this tour brought four single figures. That leaves Jos Buttler, not proven in red ball cricket (though highly successful against spin in the ODI series), left as the only specialist batting option to join the team. With five matches in a six week period, the Lions squad is also likely to come in play.

Whatever disappoint inevitably comes from such a collapse though, the most credit must be given to Bangladesh, and a thanks to a fantastic tour. The ODI series was a thriller, a close contest between both sides, and the test series did not disappoint either. Both matches brought their share of drama, the tightest of contests in match one, and a day to celebrate for Bangladesh in match two. No longer are they the minnows of old - they haven't been in a long time, especially in ODIs. But this was the big breakthrough, a defining moment to build upon. And as the team, the stadium, and the nation smiled; it was hard not to raise a smile too.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

How do you solve a problem like the spinners?

Thursday, 27 October 2016
Spin. It's the word of the winter. England will be facing plenty, and England will be bowling plenty of it. The trouble is, these are both areas where they have often struggled.

England's famous victory in India in 2012 was a triumph in many areas, and one of those was in their spin bowling. In Graeme Swann, England had a truly world class spinner, and another high quality option in Monty Panesar. The second test saw the pair combine for 19 wickets, bowling 121 out of the 159 overs England bowled in the game. They were the men trusted to win the match for England, the pair that took on Tendulkar, Kohli, Sehwag and the rest, and won.

But maybe England had never had it so good. Moeen Ali has been the main spinner for England since Swann's retirement in late 2013, and despite a strong start at home against India, for all his hard work doubts have continued to follow him around. An average of 41.12 after 31 tests isn't much to enthuse about, nor is his economy rate of 3.81. Opposition batsmen tend to fancy facing him, not allowing him to settle and be the man to keep things tight whilst the seamers rotate at the other end. But at the same time, really, he's the best England have got right now.

The best alternative is anyone's guess. Adil Rashid is England's number one spinner in the ODI game, where batsmen need to take risks which often punish them, but in test matches they can wait for when the bad ball inevitably comes. He has the advantage of being able to spin the ball both ways, the element of mystery that can see him run through teams as he did in the second innings against Pakistan on debut; but to his Dr Jekyll there's also his Mr Hyde, the one went at nearly five an over for figures of 0/163 in the same game. I'm a big fan of Rashid and I do desperately want him to succeed, but unfortunately sometimes the idea of him can be better than the reality.

Of the others, England brought the two Surrey men: Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari. Gareth Batty did a decent job in the first test, particularly impressing in the second innings where he picked up three wickets (and might have got more, if Cook didn't seem to forget about him for a session). He has experience and knows his game, offering control and a good fight to boot. But with an unremarkable record from his first spell around the team, and having taken fewer wickets than other county spinners such as Jack Leach and Olly Rayner, it was a controversial choice. That's ignoring his age, too - England's tests in Asia are now, so it's understandable to be selecting as such. Ansari, replacing his county teammate for the next test, might be more of a 'for the future' kind of pick, one the selectors are clearly keen on after being initially selected last winter (unfortunately withdrawing through injury). Even so, his selection still came as something of a surprise too, having suffered an injury-hit season that might have affected his chances.

But it's also a matter of trust. Moeen Ali took five wickets in the match, Batty four and Rashid three. It was far from plain sailing for them, but until the ball started reverse swinging they offered the more likely threat. But they were often expensive, and Cook's instinct was to go for defence. One hit down the ground and the fielder would go to long on, rather than making the batsman have to take the risk and try it once or twice more. Or they might be taken off completely. It was telling that in the crucial moments, when Cook wanted to break the partnerships, he would look to his seam bowlers, not trusting the spinners to keep up the pressure, seeing them as options that would leak runs in a tight chase.

Maybe it's just a matter of role reversal. It's a series where spinners have taken the new ball and seamers are better of with an older ball, and counted on to hold up an end. And it's something always likely to be a problem when travelling to Asia. There come the pitches crying out for spinners, but also the batsmen brought up facing spin and those conditions. It's not uncommon for spinners to have a hard time of it. It's a learning curve - knowing the right pace to bowl at and the balance between speed and spin, knowing the fields, the pitches, the batsmen, bowling with a new ball. But with six tests more to come, it's a learning curve to they will need to rise up fast.

Extra thoughts:
  • Moeen Ali does of course offer more to the team than just his bowling. His talent with the bat is plain to see, and really he's one of my favourites to watch. Without his lower order runs this year, who knows what England would have done.
  • Jack Leach really has to be in contention for England in the future, but spinners mature later and with his county coach suggestion caution, maybe that's the best route for now. After Simon Kerrigan's struggles on debut, England will always be wary of something similar. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

Tension, joy, and broken hearts

Monday, 24 October 2016
Darkness had come again, but still the final words had yet to be written. A thrilling test match had been left in the balance, narrow margins separating both sides from victory. For England, two wickets; for Bangladesh, 33 runs for a historic victory. A low scoring match had proven a thriller. The tension would be carried overnight.

Of course, that was just part of the story. There had been England's recovery on the first day, and Bangladesh for the most part looking comfortable with the bat on the second. They were led again by their talisman with the bat, Tamim Iqbal, who simply seems to love playing against England - as two centuries and five fifties in ten innings can attest. The last wicket of the day was the first in the game to fall to seam, when Mushfiqur Rahim (48) was caught behind off Stokes in the final over of the day. Spin dominated proceedings on a turning pitch, but it was still far from a paradise for England's trio. There were undeniably some cracking deliveries - Rashid's dismissal of Mahmudullah (38) a prime example, a classic legspinner's wicket - but a lot of the time, batsmen raised on a diet of spin were more than happy to face them.

Where England were strong, however, proved to be where Bangladesh were weaker. In the first innings, England's last five wickets contributed 187, transforming a struggling innings to a decent score on the board of 293. Bangladesh's lower order were less successful, the last six wickets falling for only 27 runs; their hopes of a lead at 221/4 faltering as they stumbled to 248. Ben Stokes had been the pick for England, striking three times on that third morning for figures of 4/26, his reverse swing proving a potent weapon.

As is the glory of all-rounders, he wasn't done for the day. Frustratingly, England's top order faltered once again - and I really hate sounding like a broken record, but it just keeps happening. Gary Balance is one whose place looks increasingly under threat, and as much as I would desperately like him to succeed, even I'm not sure how much longer he can hold down his place. Hameed, Buttler, and Ansari are all waiting in the wings. But, at 62/5, Ben Stokes (85) stood up and made his mark for the second time in the day. His batting on the subcontinent has come on hugely already this tour, and his growing maturity shone through in a patient innings that was still aggressive when needed, and thoroughly hard-fought. Bairstow of course joined him, chipping in 47 runs as the two shared a partnership worth 127 runs. England's innings was rescued again, a total of 240 setting Bangladesh 286 runs to win.

The big wicket of Tamim Iqbal fell early, a start that boded well for England. But Bangladesh were on the counterpunch, Imrul Kayes scoring a 61-ball 43 that saw the initiative go back in the host's favour. It was an approach enough to put Alastair Cook on the back foot, a captain always likely to edge towards the defensive, particularly when bowling his spinners. But either side of lunch, England wrested control again - first through Rashid's dismissal of Kayes, and then Gareth Batty picking up the wickets of Mominul Haque and Mahmudullah in quick succession. Batty's call up for this tour - at 39 years old and with a gap of 142 tests since his last cap in 2005 - certainly raised some eyebrows, mine included. But this was him doing exactly what he was picked for - always having the fight about him, and often more control than his younger spin colleagues. At 108/4 and then 140/5, England looked in control again.

Sabbir Rahman had other ideas. It might have been his debut, Bangladesh might have been chasing their most significant test victory to date, but you couldn't tell that from the way he batted. He took on England's bowlers from the start, putting the pressure back on Cook and testing his faith in his trio of spinners. It was a battle Sabbir won when after tea England bowled a pair of quicks together in Woakes and Stokes, with the ball not yet offering a great deal of reverse swing. In terms of the run rate, the thinking was clear - spin went at over three an over whilst pace went at under two - but when Batty returned and picked up the wicket of Mushfiqur almost straight away, it felt that maybe an opportunity had been missed. It was the key breakthrough, a partnership that was starting to look like a matchwinning effort as Bangladesh edged ever closer to England's target. With it broken, England looked the most likely winners.

But Sabbir fought until the very end. Stuart Broad ran in to bowl - a nine over spell on the fourth evening - and whilst his partners were dismissed, Sabbir was still there, still batting. Broad might have been anonymous for periods of the game, but at the crunch end he was delivering, doing his job as the leader of the attack. Darkness had fallen, but Broad was bowling too well to be taken off. The contest would be carried overnight.

Cricket is a cruel and beautiful game. For all Bangladesh's fight, for all Sabbir Rahman's best efforts, he could only watch from the other end when Stokes had his way, two LBWs in three deliveries wrapping up the game for England. Sabbir finished with 64*, but it will be the 23 unscored runs that will have the most impact. The match ended in heartbreak for the hosts, elation and relief for the visitors.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

New battles and familiar struggles

Thursday, 20 October 2016
With every new season comes a new challenge. Today England's marathon test winter begun, starting off a sequence of seven tests in just nine weeks - two in Bangladesh followed by a five test tour of India just a week later. There is no doubting that it'll be tough. They may be the favourites in Bangladesh, but even the most optimistic part of me struggles to see them coming away from India with much.

Despite the change in scenery, England found themselves again in that familiar scenario. 21/3, yet another stutter at the start of the innings. The trial by spin had begun, Bangladesh's teenage debutant Mehedi Hasan dismissing England's debutant Ben Duckett, with Gary Ballance and Alastair Cook also falling in the space of three overs. It was easy for the pessimism to creep in already; they have a long winter ahead where they'll only face more of the same. But the recovery duly came, as ever led by the vice-captain Joe Root. He's the batsman that doesn't play to the script, the set pattern you would expect when three quick wickets fall within the first hour. Always he is looking around for the gaps, for the runs, shifting the onus back on to the bowler but without any rash judgement. He was joined at the crease by Moeen Ali, up the order to number five - perhaps a more naturally fit for an all rounder particularly gifted with the bat.

Moeen Ali was the cat with nine lives. Mehedi had picked up the prized wicket of Root in just the second over after lunch, but Moeen might have twice been dismissed the over before him - both times saved with a review. Overall he faced a staggering five reviews before reaching his half century, a charmed life if ever there was one. England had slipped to 106/5, and it was time for the recovery once again. Moeen was joined at the crease by Jonny Bairstow, the two a familiar pair in positions not too dissimilar during the English summer. And again the pair got to work. Moeen made 68, until his luck finally ran out thanks to a fine delivery from the man of the moment Mehedi.

Bairstow, meanwhile, battled to 52, along the way passing 2000 test runs and 1000 this calendar year - and only falling a fraction short of Andy Flower's record for most runs by a wicketkeeper in a single year. With another six tests before Christmas, it's a record he will surely surge past by a distance. It's been a transformative year for Bairstow. After an outstanding county season in 2015, it took a little while to really bed into the test team - but since taking on the gloves as well he hasn't looked back. His average has gone beyond the forty mark and this was his fourth half century on the bounce - the eighth time he's passed the mark this year. He has become one of the key parts of this England batting lineup, and even if there are still questions over his keeping ability, with the bat he is here to stay. In the end though, he also fell victim to Mehedi. Eighteen years old and five wickets on your test debut, it doesn't get much better than that.

But England had recovered well. Coming from 21/3, and 106/5, and reaching 258/7 by the close of play is no small achievement. Whilst Bangladesh stole the first half of the day, the second belonged to England and the match was fairly balanced by the close. England, of course, have their much vaunted team of all rounders - at the close Chris Woakes had looked good for his 36*, whilst alongside him Rashid has a game that looks well suited to these conditions. Both Gareth Batty and Stuart Broad also have first class centuries (though these days calling Broad an all rounder is a bit of a stretch). If England could make it to 300 or even beyond, it would be a very good score on the surface. And then it will be their chance to see how their spinners fare.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Selected thoughts: Bangladesh vs England ODIs

Thursday, 13 October 2016
And so the winter begins, three ODIs and two tests in Bangladesh to form the first leg of England's tour to Asia. Maybe a few years ago, it might have looked a relatively straight forward prospect. But not any more. Over the past couple of years or so, Bangladesh have been one of the most improved teams in ODI cricket - six series wins on the bounce can attest to this, and who can forget their victory over England to reach the World Cup quarter finals last year? With England another team on the rise, the series offered an interesting contest.

Game one, and it was the Bens who shone for England. Duckett, on debut, and Stokes came together at the crease at the not-so-simple position of 63/3 for England. But Duckett looked up to the task from the start, tough and ready for the challenge in the first game. It wasn't simple by any means with unfamiliar conditions and a difficult situation, but he passed his first test on the international stage, a crucial score of 60 anchoring England's innings. Alongside him, Ben Stokes made his first ODI century. Perhaps it wasn't as flamboyant as we've seen before, just over a run a ball though still with four sixes, but it showed his improvement in slow, turning conditions - and an upward curve as an ODI batsman. At the start of this year, he had passed fifty just twice in 34 games; this year he's passed the mark five times, and this was his third score above fifty in a row. The pair's partnership was worth 153, giving the captain Buttler time for his customary blitz (63 from 38, making it look all too easy), and England finished on 309/8.

Yet in response, Bangladesh looked to be cruising. At 153/4, it might have gone either way. But at 271/4, they were safely heading for the win, a brilliant century from Imrul Kayes (112) and an attacking 79 from 55 for Shakib Al Hasan setting them on the path for victory. England were drifting, a bowling attack possibly suffering from a lack of variety without the extra pace of the injured Plunkett. But they didn't give up. Somehow, Bangladesh lost five wickets in the space of nine runs and the match was transformed. Jake Ball became the first Englishman to take a five-for on debut, whilst at the other end Rashid had picked up four - with a run-out to boot. England may have been wilting in the stifling heat and humidity - and Ball looked to be running on empty as he looked for that final wicket - but they fought to the very end. Buttler had passed his first test as captain, and England had dramatically drawn the first blood.

Match two, and it was a good bowling performance from England. Bangladesh could never quite get away, England being tight with the ball and regularly breaking partnerships before they could get going. For much of the innings, only Mahmudullah (75) could really settle and score at a decent rate. But the captain came to the crease and was the man to make the difference - Mashrafe Mortaza making 44 from 29, supported by Nasir Hossain with a run-a-ball 27. A total of 238 was one England might have fancied - but that blitz at the end was the sort that could make all the difference.

Straight away England struggled. Bangladesh opened the bowling with the spin of Shakib to great effect, and with three wickets from Mortaza England were 31/4 after the first powerplay. England were rebuilding before they'd even begun. And though Bairstow (35) and the ever-impressive Buttler - using his feet in a run-a-ball 57 - had made something of a recovery, three wickets from Taskin Ahmed brought the innings crashing down again. Tensions started to fly, the normally calm duo of Buttler and Woakes riled up after the celebration of Buttler's wicket, but despite a mini-fightback from the last wicket pair of Rashid and Ball, Bangladesh sealed a deserved victory by 34 runs. The finale was set, and now with an added spice.

And so, to the decider. Bangladesh made a good start, a pair of forties from openers Imrul Kayes and Tamim Iqbal - the latter becoming the first Bangladeshi batsman to pass 5000 runs in ODI cricket. Sabbir Rahman also made 49 with Mushfiqur Rahim top scoring with 67*, while England's fast bowlers struggled to make an impact. Plunkett had returned to the side in favour of David Willey, and - though in most cases I'm an advocate of his presence - in these conditions the extra spin option of Liam Dawson would likely have been a better call. Rashid was the pick of the bowlers, finding turn to pick up 4-43 (though the bad balls picked up more wickets than the good), but a score of 277/6 still looked a tricky one to chase.

But England had their own strong start. With an injury to Jason Roy, maybe Sam Billings wasn't the most immediate choice to open the innings - but he seized his opportunity with both hands, making 62 from 69 deliveries. Duckett was also in the runs, scoring his second fifty of the series after a duck in the previous game. It was a show of the fantastic young talent England have on offer; the only problem being who will miss out when the trio of Root, Hales, and Morgan also return to the team. Stokes was also there at the end with 47*, while Chris Woakes finished the job off with a six down the ground, cool as you like. It was a fine and mature chase, and a fine performance by England to win the series.

It might not always have been plain sailing, but the best challenges never are. It was a hard fought, competitive series, and after the second game, one with that extra spice about it. But England came through at the crucial moments - when Bangladesh crumbled at the end of the first match, and with a strong run chase in the final match. Then again, had it gone the other way we would have been saying that about Bangladesh - Mashrafe Mortaza's performance in the second game especially. In a hard fought series it's often a matter of fine margins, and how a team fares in the big moments. And this time, in a stern test, England pulled through.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A thrilling finale

Saturday, 24 September 2016
At first, it all came down to 16 runs. 16 of the most tense runs I have witnessed, each one met with its own round of applause. And all this, merely to keep Yorkshire in the title race, never mind the result. 350 runs were needed to pick up that crucial batting bonus point, the one that meant Yorkshire would finish ahead of Somerset if they won the match, and here they were, nine wickets down. As if it wasn't drama enough, at 349/9, down came the rain.

But once they came out again and the sun began to shine, they got the job done. Ryan Sidebottom, an unlikely hero with the bat but a hero nonetheless, clipped the ball away to the boundary for four. The crowd roared. Sidebottom and his batting partner Tim Bresnan, who himself had played one of the great county innings for 142*, embraced. But this was only the end of act one.

Somerset had done all they needed to, their own heroes casting the die. Chris Rogers, who announced his retirement from first class cricket after the game, signing off in style with a century in each innings. Marcus Trescothick, evergreen at 40, going strong throughout the season. James Hildreth, fracturing his ankle early on in his innings but making 135 of the most crucial runs. They had their share of drama, too - a collapse from 302/2 to 322/9, including five wickets falling for no score on 322. Jack Leach and Dominic Bess came to the rescue, taking Somerset to a total of 365. They did their work with the ball too, taking eight wickets between them in Nottinghamshire's first innings before Leach picked up four in the second. The victory was by 325 runs, as comprehensive as they come. But both teams at Lord's knew a win would secure them the title. Somerset were left to wait, the hardest game of them all.

Back at Lord's, maybe the game was starting to drift. After an electric start where a wicket apiece for Sidebottom and Brooks left Middlesex 2-2, the recovery was taking place with first innings centurion Nick Gubbins (93) alongside Dawid Malan (116). Middlesex were 120 behind, and needed to dig in. And so they did, the partnership broken only on the eve of lunch the next day, when Gubbins fell just short of a second century. But a draw had started to look the most likely outcome. Somerset fans could dare to dream, but for the fact that a draw was in neither Middlesex nor Yorkshire's interests.

A spot of declaration bowling had to come. It wasn't great to watch, and certainly not for Somerset. But any team in that situation would have done the same; needs must. There was nothing to gain from either side in hanging around for a draw. 240 runs were needed then, with 40 overs to go. It offered enough time to dismiss a team, but with a score that would always keep Yorkshire interested even if a few wickets fell. One session then, stood between three teams for the title. The finale was upon us.

It might have looked a rather generous declaration at first; it turned out to be spot on. Yorkshire had gone in with just the four specialist batsmen, always having a risk of being exposed (much as they were in the first innings, when three of the top four fell for ducks). The pitch was the sort that a batsman could stay in on - but not necessarily one easy to score on. Tim Bresnan was the only man who ever really looked settled for Yorkshire, but - not for lack of trying - his second innings heroics weren't quite the match of his first. But there were still plenty of twists and turns for that last session. A fifty partnership between Bresnan and Ballance, when it looked like Yorkshire might make it. When it looked like Somerset could be the winners, with five wickets still needed from the last ten overs after Bresnan's dismissal. And then the final piece. A hat trick for Toby Roland-Jones, a wicket for Finn sandwiched between. Yorkshire were all out; Middlesex were champions.

Roland-Jones tore away, the hero of the hour. Middlesex players bundled to the ground in celebration. Somerset and Yorkshire were left heartbroken. Sixteen matches across six months, and it had all come down to the last five overs. As thrilling as it could be.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

On records, Hales, and Hameed

Tuesday, 13 September 2016
Not long ago, after Jason Roy scored 162 in an ODI against Sri Lanka, I wrote that it was only a matter of time before Robin Smith's 23-year-old record for England's highest individual ODI score would be broken. In this series against Pakistan, it happened - by Roy's opening partner, Alex Hales.

Gone were those struggles of the test series, with Hales the test batsman replaced by Hales the ODI batsman, those different characters he often seems to play. The man who had already scored three ODI centuries in the last twelve months added another, and his greatest score yet: 171, that record of Robin Smith's finally falling. And not the last record to fall in the day. England surpassed their own  highest ODI score, then it was the world's best - 444/3. Buttler (90*), Root (85), and Morgan (57*) were all involved as well. And even Pakistan got their own record too, Mohammad Amir (58) hitting the highest score by a number eleven batsmen - sadly, all futile by that stage. On went England to a 4-1 series victory, and despite defeat in the Twenty20 that followed, they showed again how they have developed into a serious force in the shortened formats.

But international cricket moves on as quickly as it ever does, and even ODI heroics would have been unlikely to save Hales for the fast approaching test series in Bangladesh. In any case, Hales will not be joining the England squads for the tour, choosing alongside the captain Eoin Morgan to sit out the tour through security fears. It's a decision that for both has brought much scrutiny and often criticism. But such a harsh fare as both, and especially Morgan, have faced feels rather unjust. Assurances have been made, but the ultimate decision was always to be given to the players themselves, with a promise of no consequences. So for the decision to then be called 'disappointing' by the ECB, and then lambasted from many quarters as well, all seems a bit unfair. Sure, I might have liked to see them tour, but it was given as a personal decision for the players and their families, and so it should be left as such.

Lancashire's Haseeb Hameed currently looks like the latest man set to be given the job as Alastair Cook's partner at the top of the order. At least, he is the man currently being 'floated' as the likely option - a recent trend by the selectors to see how the player reacts to an increased spotlight, one that didn't work out well for Scott Borthwick earlier in the summer. Of course, Hameed cannot be mentioned without reference to both his achievements, and his age. Just nineteen years old, so far this season he has scored 1129 runs at 51.31 with four centuries and seven fifties. But the flipside is that - he is just nineteen. Will it be too much, too soon?

The argument has always been there - if you're good enough, you're old enough. The evidence has suggested Hameed is good enough, and certainly he has a huge future in the game. He's something of a throwback in this current age, more traditional in approach than is typical of the Twenty20 generation. It's an approach and mentality not dissimilar from Cook's, and one suited to the test match arena. And, by all accounts, he is a natural. Though touring the subcontinent can be a daunting start to a test career, it is a place where openers can prosper, and is often the best time in the innings to bat. Indeed, Cook made his debut in India aged only 21 - and we know what happened there. Joe Root as well, though not opening, made his mark straight away at a young age. They were good enough, so they were old enough.

If they do choose Hameed, they need to stick with him. He can be a big hit, but there will be bad days too. Some things can be learnt only from experience. It is an investment for the future as much as the present, and so the ups and downs must both be accepted. England need their opening batsman to still be their opening batsman when they visit Australia in just over a year's time. This is the chance to blood the new man, give them that experience, and not just be starting fresh with the pressures of an Ashes tour. But to focus on the present, this is the perfect chance for a new man to make his mark.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Further thoughts: England vs Pakistan

Sunday, 21 August 2016
Some further thoughts after Thursday's catch up, because after not posting for most of the series, one post just isn't enough to ramble on in. England's battle for consistency remains an issue, as it often has, and with every series it feels like the same familiar questions arise. Who should open the batting, who should make up the middle order, should Moeen Ali be the first choice spinner, which pace bowler should England pick? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here's a moment to delve into some of the issues from the Pakistan series.

It has been four years since Andrew Strauss retired, but from the looks of it England are still no closer to finding his replacement. Alex Hales showed a lot of promise against Sri Lanka: on three occasions coming so close to a maiden test century before falling at the final hurdle, and seemingly showing a lot more maturity for one often perceived as just a limited overs player. Yet this series he has struggled, and there would be few surprises if he was soon to miss out. With the white ball, yes, he looks assured, free, and much more confident; but he has yet to replicate that present in the test arena. And he's had more of a chance than most. A confrontation with the TV umpire after his first innings dismissal can hardly have helped his cause. I don't want to see England chopping and changing their openers all the time, I just want to see one stick. But I'm not sure now that Hales will be that one. Frustratingly, there still seems to end in sight to the question.

The question remains as well over England's middle order. It's been so long since it consistently fired, probably going back to that Ashes series in 2013 or before. Joe Root's move up the order to number three seems to have filled that hole at last, but the problem has just been pushed further down. Numbers four and five remain issues. Six, seven, and eight have often been getting the bulk of the runs; and as Cook said, they should be there to provide the icing on the cake, rather than being the ones to make it. James Vince may be elegant, but he hasn't looked the test player, and it's hard to see his test career continuing beyond this summer. So often it seemed to be the same dismissal, the edge behind to the keeper or the slips - a fragility that can ill be afforded at this level. Gary Ballance looked slightly more assured, but still never quite settled, and cannot yet claim to have nailed down his place either.

And again, spin - and the exact role of Moeen Ali - is still an issue as well. Moeen bats at number seven or eight, and is primarily in the team as the spin option - despite generally in his career having been more of a batting all rounder. And in this series, his batting shone; after the embarrassment of a horrific shot to get out for 2 at Lord's, Moeen went on to score a century and two fifties, and at a good strike rate too. The problem was that his bowling wasn't at the same standard. He has the knack of picking up wickets, but with an economy of 4.65 it makes it all the more difficult to apply any pressure. Spinners aren't just there as the wicket taking option, and especially for England - tying up an end is often the priority, and it's something Moeen hasn't been able to do. But is there anyone better out there, demanding their place? Or is the option for Moeen to make his way up the order, bringing in someone like Rashid as the primary spinner and number eight (an option that could be likely come tours to India and Bangladesh this winter). 

Then there's Steven Finn. He's become something of an enigma. He has proven himself, on several occasions across several series, to be a highly dangerous, threatening, wicket taking option, capable at times of producing absolute magic. After his return to the side last year, and particularly on tour in South Africa, it looked like it had finally all come together. But injury struck again, and things fell apart. He's not been at his worst, but he goes through periods where he struggles for rhythm and struggles to look the part. With Mark Wood looking dangerous as he completes his long return from injury, and Jake Ball also making a good impression on debut, he faces a lot of competition to keep his place.

England have stated their aim in selection this year, and it's an admirable idea to give a player one test too many rather than one test too few. After all, I might have wrongly given up on Chris Woakes, and many might have thought Bairstow to have had too many chances without proving himself. But there's a matter of timing, too. Of when time should be called, so you have enough time to prepare the next man. Asia won't be an easy place if a new batsman makes their debut, a steep lesson in spin and unfamiliar conditions for many Englishmen. And England can't find themselves in this position at the end of next summer, throwing a new opener into the frying pan of an Ashes test at the Gabba. There has to be a balance between giving a player a good chance, and planning for the next man in. England have made those mistakes before, and might have made them again. It's the end of the test summer, and England are again left to ponder what comes next. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Selected thoughts: England vs Pakistan

Thursday, 18 August 2016
This blog has gone somewhat quiet recently: not due to a lack of interest, merely a lack of time. As I have obviously missed the boat somewhat for lengthier reviews of the test series, here are some (slightly) shorter thoughts from the past three matches.

The comeback. After losing a hard-fought battle at Lord's, falling victim to the spin of Yasir Shah, it all went much better when the second test began at Old Trafford. For starters, England won the toss and batted - taking out the option of facing Yasir Shah in the fourth innings again. Once Alastair Cook was joined at the crease by Joe Root with the score on 25/1, England never looked back. When Cook departed, it was 210/2. When Root departed for 254, England were well past 500, with a pair of 58s from Woakes and Bairstow also aiding the cause. Yasir Shah, so devastating at Lord's, looked almost ordinary. 589 played 198 after both sides had batted, and despite not choosing to enforce the follow on - Cook and Root instead piling on the misery again - it was then fairly straightforward for England. The bowlers did the rest, and victory was won by 330 runs.

The triumph. The series was finely poised at 1-1, both teams still having everything to play for. Sohail Khan came in for Pakistan, having managed one wicket in his previous two test matches - the first in 2009, the last in 2011. His moment had come though, and he made the wickets tumble - dismissing much of England's middle order for his first five wicket haul. England's batsmen could make starts - Ballance (70) and Moeen (63) the top scorers - but they couldn't build an imposing total, with England all out for 297. Pakistan could though, hitting that 400 mark exactly, led by 139 from Azhar Ali and 82 from Sami Aslam, making his maiden test fifty aged just 20.

Act one was complete. But act two brought a twist. First of all, a rare century stand for the opening partnership, the first shared between Cook and Hales at the top. Batsmen made starts again, but this time more solid starts than before. It was enough for Bairstow and Moeen to exploit when they got their moment - Bairstow with 83, and Moeen on the attack with 86* from 96 balls. England could declare on 445/6, setting a target of 343 and somehow finding themselves in pole position to take the match. And though the breakthrough was slow to come at first, England then went rampant; including a spell of four wickets for one run inside four overs. A fantastic comeback saw England win by 141 runs, taking the series lead to boot.

The finale. England needed to avoid defeat to win the series, Pakistan needed victory to retain the series trophy. All to play for. But familiar problems arose for England. That fragile top order proved fragile again, slipping to 110/5 before Bairstow (55), Moeen (108), and Woakes (45) were there to bail England out to 328. Sohail Khan was there to pick up another five wicket haul, Wahab Riaz returning as well to take three.

Younis Khan had been having a difficult series until this point. Undeniably a brilliant batsman, but things hadn't been going quite right. Catches had gone down when in the field, and when holding the bat he was skittish, jumping around the crease, and not looking like a man of 100 tests and over 9000 test runs. But at The Oval, the real Younis Khan returned. An innings of 218 put the knife into England's hopes, racing along too with a strike rate of 70. Asad Shafiq reached the three figures before him, a comeback of his own after a pair in the previous test. Pakistan had made 542; England had been batted out of the game.

Yasir Shah might have gone quiet for the previous two tests, but he returned for the finale; five wickets to spin England out again. Wahab Riaz was there too, something of a flamethrower in human form, dealing the damage despite having to be taken out of the attack for running on the pitch. Bairstow was England's resistance, fighting as he so often has this summer, until Wahab got his man. England passed Pakistan's score, but a target of 40 was chased down with ease. The series was level once again.
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