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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