Not Bad Lads, Not Bad

Morning everyone. It’s James here. I’m temporarily back to comment on England’s victory in the 1st Test against Sri Lanka. You can’t ask for much more than a 7 wicket win away from home – even if the hosts didn’t wake up until the third day.

Now before I get into the nitty-gritty, I have a quick confession to make. I didn’t watch all of the Test match. In fact, I missed most of it. One of the reasons that I’ve scaled back my involvement with TFT is the demands of a young family (as well as work commitments). Consequently, while Jack Leach was ripping through the Sri Lankan lower order yesterday, I was playing Lord Of The Rings Risk. Sigh. However, I was following the action as much as I could via my phone so I got the general gist.

The game was obviously defined by how poorly Sri Lanka batted on day one. They were sloppier than a melting Mr Softy. However, I’m not entirely surprised given that they were playing in South Africa as recently as last week. They probably didn’t know whether they were coming or going. The schedule seems ridiculous. The lack of preparation (and adjustment time) is certainly reducing standards. Not that the Sri Lankans didn’t contribute to their own demise.

The story of the first innings from England’s perspective was Dom Bess’s 5-fer. On first inspection this seemed like great news … until I saw the actual wickets. WTF? Bess will never take an easier five wicket haul. More about him later.

England’s first innings was actually a bit of a mixed bag. Root was exceptional. Bairstow was good. Lawrence was composed and looks a decent player of spin – batting against Simon Harmer in the Chelmsford nets must help – but the others were disappointing really.

Is this the start of big things for Joe? I certainly hope so. However, his technical problems in recent years have come against good pace bowling not spin. He’s always been a pretty solid player of spin because he’s light on his feet and, of course, he’s an extremely talented guy. We’ll have to wait and see if this innings is a turning point.

It’s worth remembering, of course, that Joe’s last big knock for England came in New Zealand on the most benign surface imaginable i.e. a pitch that nullified the seamers. Consequently, I’m yet to be convinced that the old Root is back. Having said that, scoring a double hundred in any conditions (especially when so many of your colleagues have struggled) is a fantastic feat. Joe held England’s innings together brilliantly in Galle and we may have lost without him.

As for England’s bowlers, it was steady eddie stuff really. The seamers, especially Stuart Broad, stuck to the task as well as could be expected on the dead Sri Lankan wicket. All eyes were obviously on the spinners though.

There was much gnashing of teeth on social media when Sri Lanka started to climb their way back into the game in their second innings. And it’s true that our bowling didn’t look particularly dangerous. However – and this is a big however – it’s really harsh to judge any bowler, let alone a pair of relatively inexperienced spinners, on one game when they haven’t played for so long. It takes time to find a rhythm.

Consequently, I was absolutely delighted when Jack Leach finally began to find his feet. He’s a decent bowler and England should invest in him.

Leach will never be a world beater. He’s no Shane Warne, Murali, or Saqlain. And he’ll probably never delight purists in quite the same way as Phil Tufnell (although he’ll probably finish with better career stats). However, there are very few world class spinners around. Most teams have to rely on guys who are accurate enough, and canny enough, to provide control when it’s not turning and then take wickets when conditions suit. I think Leach is easily good enough to fulfil this traditional role. What’s more, I believe he can improve IF he’s managed the right way.

Bess, on the other hand, is a curate’s egg at this point. Sometimes he genuinely impresses me. And other times he makes me want to tear what’s left of my hair out (which is just my vellus hair if I’m being honest).

I can see why England like Bess. He’s a good cricketer; he can bat; and he’s energetic in the field. However, he needs to find a more consistent length. One hopes this will come with more game time. I suspect, however, that England will rush Moeen back into the side at the first opportunity.

The final thing I’d like to mention is England’s travails at the top of the order. The openers could prove problematic this winter. Sibley is an admirable batsman but he’s not the best against spin. He’s not exactly nimble or light on his feet like Root, and his hands can look heavy too. This isn’t a good combination. However, he’s a battler and we shouldn’t write him off if he does indeed struggle this winter.

The problem, of course, is that England are short of options. Rory Burns will inevitably return. However, much as I like Burns, he’s not a particularly adept player of spin either. Therefore, England may end up thinking outside the box.

I’m less concerned about Zak Crawley, as I believe he’s too talented and intelligent not to work things out, but neither do I want to move him around the order. I liked him at 3 and it’s a shame he’s been shunted up a spot presumably to accommodate Bairstow and / or cover for Burns. It’s a tough one to figure out though.

Maybe we’ll see a surprise at the top of the order against India? With Lawrence looking composed on debut, and Ollie Pope and Ben Stokes set to return at some point, England have more middle-order options than there are words in Ed Smith’s copious vocabulary. I wouldn’t be shocked if one of them finds themselves facing the new ball.

Jos Buttler opened in the IPL, right? Just kidding.

James Morgan


  • A good assessment. Both sides went into this game not so much ‘undercooked’ as ‘completely raw’. Leach thoroughly earned his second innings ‘Michelle’, whereas Bess was largely given his in the first innings. This was never going to be a surface on which quicker bowlers took big wicket hauls, but Broad, Curran and Wood all bowled respectably, Broad in particular doing a good job of building pressure by keeping things tight, something the Sri Lankans were never able to do. The other huge plus was Lawrence, who handled his debut test like a veteran, playing a fine first innings and then steadying the ship in the second when it looked like England were going into a tailspin.

  • It was nice of the upcountry XI to wake up after two days and give the tourists something of a decent warm-up for the big one ahead.

    Meanwhile, despite playing against what’s barely India’s Second XI the Australia Test goes to a “cliff-hanging” final day. What a surprise….

  • WILL Burns “inevitably” return? I’m not so sure.

    He averages 32 after over twenty tests, which is not the kind of average which makes you an automatic pick in a starting XI (unless you’re Lahiru Thirimanne!). He averaged 26 in his only previous tour of Asia, 28 last summer and he hasn’t gone beyond 10 in his last three tests.

    Meanwhile Bairstow is already batting at three, did OK if not very spectacularly in this game and has an average several runs higher than Burns. And I would think they’ll be loathe to drop Lawrence even when Pope and Stokes come back, and his unflappability has been widely commended–so it wouldn’t surprise me if they move him to three. All of which suggests to me that Burns isn’t a sure-fire pick even if they drop Sibley (which I wouldn’t, and certainly not for Burns).

    Btw, you were beaten to the idea of Buttler opening by almost two weeks! Scyld Berry suggested it…seriously.

      • Somehow that comment got cut short / hopelessly mis-pasted. There are plenty of England players with middling averages in the low thirties (if that) that have become automatic picks. So to single out Burns, seems a bit problematic, since pretty much all of his other opening alternatives struggled to even average 25.

        And if you give someone 80 innings, they’ll be bound to score the occasional ton, or actually perform up to standards a few times in those 80 innings. See Buttler, Bairstow, …

      • Well, I was only “singling out” Burns because I was replying to a comment in the post which was about him!

        But broadly, I agree. As you know I’ve posted elsewhere, the problem with Buttler is that they left it too long to drop him, with the result that he’s had one of those occasional good runs. My rule in that kind of situation would be to give the mediocre player who’s suddenly produced a good run, the same number of tests as the good run again after it finishes–which in Buttler’s case means I would drop him for the summer if he averages 32 again this winter. For all that people were happy with his keeping this week, for me it’s somewhat irrelevant–Foakes is clearly a better keeper, so if Buttler doesn’t produce runs then you pick the better keeper (who we know can also produce runs).

        I can’t see any logic at all behind Bairstow’s recall other than lack of alternatives–and even then the selectors could have avoided it by picking Foakes. To me he seems even more undroppable than Buttler.

        What I think you’re putting your finger on is two selection mistakes England have been making in the last few years (see also your openers averaging 25!) One is to confuse the numbers required of a starting XI player with those of a squad player who plays occasionally–although in the case of the openers the problem was that there literally wasn’t anyone who fitted the bill: as you suggest, Burns was probably the closest. But averages of between 30 and 35 simply aren’t good enough for a team that aspires to be one of the best in the world.

        The other is to see 30-year-olds as still having “potential”. That’s too old for potential–it’s the age for delivering on that potential. So a 23-year-old might be cut a bit of slack if they average 35 a couple of series if they have a lot of talent; a 31-year-old should get less, unless they’re coming off a long run of much better form.

        There’s an interesting article on Cricinfo today making the same points about Australia. If England are serious about becoming the best team in the world, then they probably need to start thinking that way too.

  • India can’t win away anywhere (except SL and WI, two dire teams with spin-friendly conditions) and have their virtual third XI playing – and win. For the second series running.

    Australia don’t lose at home against anyone (except SA) – and lose. For the second series running.

    There’s “the glorious unpredictability of sport” – and there’s bs.

    (TBC I’m not Australian and I don’t think this Australian team is that great, especially the batting. This is not sour grapes – it’s an assessment based on a dispassionate weighing of form and finances).

    • Oh dear–this really isn’t a dispassionate weighing of anything: it simply refuses to believe in “the glorious unpredictability of sport” and is skewed by a very heavy dose of paranoia and curmudgeonliness.

      I read so many of your posts here, Simon, and wonder why you follow sport at all: it seems to be such a joyless experience for you. You seem not to get any sense of the wonder–or even interest–of the game and substitute for it an endless vista of corruption, squalor, decay and predictability. What do you get out of it?

      It’s a real shame that you can’t get more enthused about a wonderful, see-sawing test series which was won against all sorts of odds–and I don’t mean literal ones.


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