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.

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