Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The struggle for consistency

Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Just when you think England have got the hang of this cricket thing, you get days like today. Matches like this and like the fifth test of the Ashes, where the series has been won, the focus has slipped away, and a heavy defeat has followed. It's hard to be too upset with a 2-1 series victory away from home and against the team who had been ranked number one in the world, yet it's a defeat that has made the series win slightly less sweet at its conclusion.

But still, there has been so much good from England in the series. They have delivered the sort of performances that show why they're a team to be excited about, and a team to believe in. Like that innings from Ben Stokes - the match was ultimately a draw with England in danger towards the end - but the innings will live on in the memory for years to come. Stokes has given that balance to the side - showing he can deliver with the bat at number six, and be a genuine wicket taking option with the ball. There was Broad's spell at the Wanderers, another one of his magic moments where he takes a team apart in the blink of an eye. In the same match came a brilliant century from Joe Root, one of his finest yet for England. There have been many fine innings from Jonny Bairstow, making a real impact at number seven, and bowling displays from Steven Finn before injury cut his tour short. They delivered when it mattered, and it was a well deserved series win.

Yet still consistency remains a challenge. As in the summer, when it felt like every high was followed by another low, England have again shown that pattern of having one strong display, and then not quite being able to follow it up. After Stokes helped England score 629/6 at five runs per over, they had an error-strewn display in the field, frequently dropping catches and handing the initiative back to South Africa. After running through the South African batsmen in the third test, the bowlers could never quite follow it up in the fourth, and again England were the victims of missed chances. The batsmen never showed enough fight, dismissed for 101.

That said, South Africa were excellent. It was a considerably different line up to the team that had lost the third test - five changes in all. It worked. The debutant Stephen Cook made a century on his first attempt, with Hashim Amla making 109 alongside him. England clawed their way back in - pulling South Africa back to 273/5 after they had been 237/1 - but then keeper Quinton de Kock took it away from them all over again. It was his maiden test century, 129 from 128 balls, that sort of counterattacking innings from a keeper that instantly brings echoes of Gilchrist. But it was a bowler, 20 year old Kagiso Rabada, that stole the show. South Africa needed a bowler to step up with Philander absent and Steyn also missing most of the series, and Rabada was that man. Three five wicket hauls in the last three innings, 13 wickets in this match, the youngest South African to complete a ten wicket match. They may have lost the series, but a star was born along the way.

England are still left with questions to ponder. Again, the batting is the most pressing among them. Compton and Taylor shared one of the most significant stands of the series on its very first day, but since then the runs largely dried up. With Compton it seems largely the same problem as in his first stint in the side: the pace at which he scores. And perhaps the issue got lodged in his head: at times he was calm and unflustered, at others he would be frenetic and taking uncharacteristic risks. He wasn't the weakest of England's batsmen and probably should have another chance in the summer, but he risks being leapfrogged by others before then. James Taylor will likewise be looking over his shoulder, having made less runs than Compton, though his fielding at short leg at least offers an extra string to his bow. Unlike Compton, he also has the benefit of limited-overs involvement to impress the selectors, and with tours to India and Bangladesh also on the horizon he should still be a prominent figure in selectors' thoughts.

Alex Hales though might have the most to worry about. England have come out of another series still considering their options at the top. Though four tests is hardly a fair run for Hales, with his predecessors generally being given seven games to make their mark, he remains in danger of the drop. So far England's hopes that he could become their David Warner haven't yet been realised and he's looked far from the confident, attacking player of the limited overs formats. Maybe it's part of that urge to prove himself in the test arena, maybe it's that the game isn't quite so suited to him. That said, Bayliss is looking for an attacking player in the top three and Hales still could be that man. He has a lot to play for over the rest of the winter, but so will many once the new county season begins.

So where are England at now? They've beaten both Australia and South Africa over the past year, drawn series with West Indies and New Zealand, and lost to Pakistan without completely disgracing themselves. It's a mixed bag really, and a reflection of a young team still finding their feet in many ways. But the hype is building, and it's easy to be excited. In the summer come tests against Sri Lanka and Pakistan that England will back themselves to win, and they will also want to build the sort of consistency and ruthlessness that the best teams have - no more one match on, one match off; no more heavy defeats in dead rubbers.

This series has in many ways shown what England are capable of - and what they still have to learn.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

A sudden victory

Sunday, 17 January 2016
At the start of day three, not many would have expected the game to be over at the close of play. England were still in their first innings, Joe Root not out with a century to his name. He was there at the end of the day too, but England were in their second innings, wrapping up the match and a series win. What happened in between was magic.

Stuart Broad has long been that bowler capable of having those magic moments, the spells that make a game his within a blink of an eye. We saw it this year at Trent Bridge, we saw it early on in his career with that magic spell at The Oval in 2009, and we've seen it many times in between. But Broad is no longer simply the bowler of magic spells. Over these past few years he has been one of England's most consistent performers, and deservedly leads the list of wicket takers so far in this series. He might not always be the best loved player - and certainly revels in playing the villain when away from home - but he now finds himself as the number one ranked bowler in the world. It's a mark of his continued excellence in the past year, more than just the odd spell.

But even so, those magic spells sure are magic. The two sides were pretty much level pegging after one innings apiece - South Africa with 313, England with 323. South Africa even made it through to lunch unscathed - a tricky little five over period where things could easily go wrong. But it was the hour after lunch instead when the damage was done. A spell of five wickets for one run in 36 balls from Broad saw South Africa fall from 23/1 to 35/5. South Africa were being demolished; Broad was rampant once again, the echoes of Trent Bridge apparent. The other bowlers got themselves in on the act, too: Stokes getting the ball swinging violently, dismissing Morris and Rabada; Finn doing for Vilas; and Anderson taking debutant Viljoen. But of course it was Broad who got that final wicket, that final moment - diving for the ball with one hand to take number six caught and bowled. Figures of 12.1-6-17-6, the latest edition in his collection of magic moments. South Africa all out for 83.

England are really starting to deliver better performances as a team, not relying so much on the same old faces to get them through matches. The big names of Cook and Anderson are yet to make telling contributions in this series, yet England have already sealed the series win with a match to spare. The batting, whilst not the finished article, has been less of the two-man show it was with Cook and Root for much of last summer - instead Stokes and Bairstow lead the runscorers, and really all but Cook in that top seven have made an important contribution at some stage. The bowling attack looks exciting, with Anderson and Broad one of England's most successful partnerships of all time, Finn being one of the most dangerous bowlers in the series, and Stokes the fourth pace option who provides just as much of a threat. Moeen Ali too has been important, being economical and being especially threatening on wearing pitches like in the first test. Even the fielding, something that went so wrong in the previous match (though that being an anomaly in itself since Bayliss took over), was exceptional. Look at both those catches by James Taylor at short leg, with barely half a second to react. Absolutely electric.

Joe Root's innings must be mentioned as well. It was a pitch that offered something for the bowlers, one of those always described as 'a good toss to lose'. South Africa's batsmen got themselves in but never capitalised on their starts - all reaching double figures, but none making it to fifty. England's bowlers might have done better on the first day, too - really not hitting the right lengths for the conditions. But when Joe Root came out to bat, he just looked at ease. He so often does. And this time he went to the full three figures, not falling between 50 and 100 as he has done on several occasions recently. It was perhaps one of his best innings for England, his second century away from home and scored with a strike rate near 80. Stokes was there alongside him, pretty much picking up where he left off in the last game with 58 from 54; the pair scored at seven an over during their century stand. Bairstow again delivered important runs in the lower order with 45, another success story for England in this series.

With one match to spare, England already have the series win secured. And deservedly so. Apart from their struggles in the second half of the previous test, they have looked the happier, more confident team throughout. They've played exciting, attacking cricket with the bat and ball, and have had some very special individual performances as well. South Africa have had their struggles - injuries like Steyn's obviously having a big impact, the captaincy an issue, and the recovery from a difficult tour of India. Now they have been knocked off the top of the test tree, India taking their crown. The last match may be a dead rubber, but South Africa will still be desperate to salvage something from this series. England, meanwhile, will just want to pick up where they left off here.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Stokes Show

Sunday, 3 January 2016
England have something of a love affair with all-rounders. Really, most countries do. Those inspirational, mesmeric figures who can take the game like no other, win a match with the bat or with the ball. We've had Botham, a player as good as they get, the one who all since have been compared to. We've had Flintoff, the hero of 2005 and an icon on the pitch, not statistically as great but still with that great ability to inspire and lead. And now, out of the same mould we have Ben Stokes. He's already brought his share of magic moments to this England side, but today he went beyond what anyone could have imagined.

When he arrived at the crease, it wasn't an easy situation, one where he could just attack from the off. Kasigo Rabada, in for Dale Steyn, was on a hat trick after knocking over Compton (45) and then Taylor first ball. When Bairstow joined him at the crease, the score was 223/5 and England were in danger of letting a good position slip. The top four had made starts - Hales making his first fifty and Root also reaching the milestone - but they'd also gotten out. Yet the recovery was made with the old ball, and then rather than just getting by with the new one before the end of the first day's play, this pair went on the attack. At the close of play England were 317/5, Stokes on 74* with a strike rate close to 80, Bairstow not out on 39. Already they had put on 94 together from only 115 deliveries. The job was far from done, but England had the advantage.

Yet nothing could prepare anyone for what was about to happen on the second morning. England might have taken the attack to South Africa the previous evening, but really we hadn't seen anything yet. There aren't enough superlatives in the world to describe how Ben Stokes batted. It was a simply extraordinary, unbelievable display of attacking batting. His strike rate was close to 80 at the start of the day's play, but on day two it was closer to 200. He hit 130 runs before lunch, the most ever by a batsman in the first session of a day's play. His century came off 105 balls, his double from 163 - the second fastest double century of all time. He hit 30 fours and 11 sixes. His overall strike rate was 130.3. 258 from 198 deliveries. The numbers are incredible in themselves, but it was still nothing compared to watching it. To experiencing the sheer wonder and amazement of seeing it happen. South Africa were in disarray, the bowlers lost and not knowing what to do. They needed to be much better, but then, when the guy at the other end is playing like that, how can you really respond?

Jonny Bairstow was there too, almost forgotten as he made his maiden test century. He played second fiddle to Stokes, content to give him the strike and let the fireworks explode at the other end. Still he made 150 off a mere 191 balls, complete with 18 fours and two sixes. It was a century that was a long time coming, but one richly deserved nevertheless, and certainly an emotional moment. Bairstow has struggled to nail down his place in the side during his test career so far - and with Buttler around, will always be looking over his shoulder - but he has looked to be one of England's most in form batsmen in these first two tests and is really starting to make a strong impression in the team. I myself have always been a massive fan, perhaps even more so after such a brilliant season at Yorkshire, and can only say how delighted I am for him right now. Together the pair put on 399 runs with a run rate of 6.91, also England's second highest partnership ever for any wicket.

How to come down from all that then? van Zyl was run out early on in South Africa's response, the kind of run out that comes after the opposition have racked up 629/6 and batted they way they did. Stokes also took a wicket, of course, dismissing Elgar for 44. South Africa were 141/2 at the close of play, with Amla making a return to form with 64*, and de Villiers alongside him on 25. They have a big job to do, trailing by 488.

2016 has certainly started with a bang. The question is, what could ever follow this?

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Bright beginnings

Saturday, 2 January 2016
England winning the first test of an away series is something of a novelty - so novel, in fact, that the last time it happened was in Bangladesh in 2010, and before that it was South Africa in 2004. By looking at the rankings, it might have been easy to think they'd struggle again as they begun this series against South Africa too: England down in fifth, whilst South Africa sit at the top of the pile.

Somehow though, the optimism had sneaked in. England's 2-0 loss against Pakistan hadn't felt quite as bad as other series losses, and they'd certainly had a better time than South Africa did in losing 3-0 away in India. England's batting line-up might still have been far from secure, but if anything South Africa's form was looking worse. The warm up games had brought promising displays, with many of the batsmen scoring runs and bowlers sharing the wickets - the return of Steven Finn from injury particularly causing hope. Anderson was to miss out with injury, naturally a big blow, yet still hopes were up ahead of match one.

England were sent in to bat by South Africa, and duly fell to 10/2, and then 49/3, as Steyn dismissed both openers and then Root fell to the first ball from spinner Dane Piedt. England were in a position they had been through much of 2015 - three down for less than fifty - and two recent returners to the team were together at the crease. Yet that pair of Compton (85) and Taylor (70) brought the fight with them. Compton played the sort of collected, composed, and calm innings at number three that it felt like England had been missing for quite a while - quietly staying in and putting on the runs, providing a solid base for a partnership and for other players to express themselves around him. Taylor was busier, as ever, making it harder for spinners to settle whilst not looking particularly troubled against pace either. Both really played the sort of innings that made you wonder why they were absent from the test side for so long in the first place. With some attacking lower order runs from Bairstow (41) and Broad (32*) too, England made it up to 303. It perhaps wasn't the score they might have achieved - another rush of wickets on the second morning stopped them from going further - but was still a good fightback from a tricky position.

South Africa's batsmen found it even tougher than England's, with only Elgar and de Villiers (49) really getting themselves in. Elgar especially showed the sticking power needed, being disciplined throughout and deservedly carrying his bat for 118*. Of the others in the top seven, all really being specialist batsmen as de Villiers took on the gloves, the highest score was 10. The woes of the tour of India had only continued. Broad and Moeen Ali were the standouts for England with four wickets apiece, Broad's including the big wickets of de Villiers and the captain Hashim Amla. 2015 has been perhaps Broad's most consistent year, and here he showed again his ability to lead the attack in the absence of Anderson.

From then on South Africa couldn't get off the downward slope. It wasn't long before Steyn pulled up with injury in England's second innings, and though a deficit of 89 wasn't insurmountable, it was certainly a lot more difficult without their main man leading the line. Compton again showed his sticking power with 49, with further contributions from Root (73) and Taylor (42). Jonny Bairstow, though, was the pick of the bunch. He found a fluency other similarly attacking players had never quite found, hitting nine fours and three sixes in a 76-ball 79. England were already on top of the game, but his innings took their lead from a chase-able total to one truly out of South Africa's reach. The match might have been a bit mixed for Bairstow, showing his keeping still needs a lot of work, but as a test batsmen he showed he deserves this chance.

And so, South Africa were set a grand total of 416 to chase; more accurately, about a day and a half to survive. The top four made some starts, but still they found themselves four down at the end of day four, Steven Finn having taken three wickets. When de Villiers fell to Moeen Ali on the morning of day five, it felt like the result was decided. Bavuma fell in Moeen's next over, England's first stumping since 2012. Steyn became Finn's fourth victim, a beauty of a delivery, before Moeen took his third of the morning. South Africa were soon all out for 174, victory by a crushing 241 runs for England.

England have a moment to enjoy a rare position away from home - having the lead going into the second test. It was a strong team performance, and yet one where there's still room for improvement. Still, the batting has room for more - there were a lot of starts but no centuries, and a first innings score of 303 often won't be enough. South Africa's batting problems might be more glaring at the moment, but England's aren't gone yet either. But still hope wins through. Players like Compton and Taylor provided the bedrock of England's win through their first innings partnership, both making an immediate impact coming back into the test side. The bowlers delivered: Moeen Ali being economical and dangerous with spin to win man of the match; while the success of Broad and Finn has continued. They also won't have too many overs in their legs, leaving them fresher as the second test begins after just a two day break.

So for once England enter the new year with a spring of hope, after the past two having begun in their own bleak ways. A series win over the best ranked team will of course still be a challenge, and you'd think that somewhere along the way South Africa's batsmen will get it back together, but it's a goal that should certainly be seen as achievable. For now, at the start of 2016, things are looking up.
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