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.
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