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.

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