Sacrificial Lambs

Ladies and gentlemen. I’d like to introduce you to Joe. No, not Joe Root, the other Joe. The one who plays for Kent. Joe Denly. Isn’t his coat nice and fluffy? He’s sure to fetch a good price at market. Now where did I put that meat cleaver?

Here at England team headquarters we love a good sheep. As long as they’re white. We don’t like black sheep like that one called Alex. We thought his superb white ball form might make make him an England opener a couple of years back but it didn’t pan out. He didn’t learn how to play the new red ball. And we didn’t learn anything from the experience either.

Fast forward a couple of years and we’ve got a shiny new sheep called Jason – although, between you and me, he’s more like a ram in terms of temperament. This lovely specimen looks as succulent as any we’ve ever had. And Ed tells us he’s got a golden fleece! Funny that, as usually it’s us supporters who get fleeced at the cricket.

Anyway, I digress. We thought Jason made a lovely sacrificial lamb at the top of the order in the first three Ashes tests. But now that he’s been eaten alive, it’s time to sacrifice another poor fluffy thing. And that’s where Joe comes in.

Jason, on the other hand, can come in at 4 – a luxury never afforded to the black sheep, or any of the other failed openers we’ve previously experimented with. Well, we all have our favourite pets.

But please don’t cry for Joe though. He’s the perfect lamb to sacrifice because he’s older and his meat’s a bit tough – although I thought he looked quite pleasant on the drive down here.

Yes, we know he’d just started to acclimatise to his new pen at second drop – and he’s only opened once in county cricket over the last 5 years – but old farmer Ed knows best. We all think England’s new batting order is bound to succeed. Don’t ewe?

Apologies for the above, but it’s hard to take the selectors’ response to the first three tests of this Ashes series entirely seriously. They’ve clearly been drinking the Kool aid again. England batsmen have been mince meat for most most of the summer – they even got humiliated by Ireland – and yet Ed Smith’s only response has been to tinker with the batting line up rather than personnel.

What’s more, I cannot agree with the decision to swap Roy and Denly around. For starters, it’s completely unfair on Denly. He’s not an opener either. He was once an opener – a promising one at that – but that was a long time ago. And he’s only made one half-century opening in his last fifteen attempts.

What’s more, I simply don’t agree with moving a bloke who’s just scored a crucial half-century. This decision smacks of favouritism, ego, and intransigence to me. The selectors have staked their reputation on Jason Roy – another attempted white ball convert – succeeding at test level but they simply can’t bear the fact that it isn’t working out. And with Jos Buttler, the other big selection of Ed Smith’s regime also looking a bit shaky at 5 (and now 7!), the selectors probably want one or two further opportunities to be proved right.

Although I can see what they’re trying to do cricket-wise, I actually think this move is just as likely to weaken the team as strengthen it. Although in theory Roy should find life easier at 4 (although it’s probably still two places too high for him) Denly’s life has just got immeasurable harder; therefore England are still likely to lose early wickets.

This presents two potential problems (a) Roy will still probably have to face a relatively new and hard ball anyway, and (b) rather than a guy who has made two test fifties (including one in his last innings) striding to the crease with two wickets down, we’ll now have a player who must be extremely low on confidence.

I’m afraid I’m not convinced that Roy will fare much better now that he’s being protected. He’ll still need to know where his off stump (an ability he hasn’t demonstrated thus far), and I imagine the sledging will be intolerable: “so you’re hiding down the order now mate … couldn’t hack it could ya?” ad nauseam. The Aussies can then recycle the same lines when Buttler comes in.

What annoys me is that England do actually have a couple of obvious alternatives this time. Although the county cricket cupboard has been quite bare of late, there are two obvious replacements waiting in the wings. Just a casual glance at the county championship division one averages should’ve told Ed Smith that.

Dom Sibley (a natural opener) has scored almost a thousand runs at an average of 56 this summer. And Sam Northeast (a natural 4) has scored a similar amount at an average of 57. One could even move Ben Stokes up to 4, and bring in Ollie Pope, who’s just scored a double hundred for Surrey, at 5 or 6.

The one problem, however, is that the county schedule is all over the place at this time of year. Our domestic cricketers don’t know whether they’re coming and going. August witnessed a staple diet of T20 Blast with the odd championship match thrown in randomly. This has led to perturbation in the ranks with Sam Billings, for example, calling the fixture list “completely brainless”. Imagine what it’s going to be like when Harrison’s Harebrained Have A Hit starts next summer.

Consequently, although in theory Sibley and Northeast might improve the England team, the reality is possibly different. They’ve both played just one red ball game since mid-July and neither scored many runs in those fixtures. Then again, given Ed Smith’s penchant for parachuting white ball specialists into test matches at short notice, it might seem a bit rich for him (of all people) to use this as an excuse for inertia.

My personal interpretation is that Smith is simply someone who has favourites (or fetishes) about certain players. Denly owed his initial selection to this – so perhaps he can’t moan too much – but Roy now seems to be the object of his affection; therefore he’s going to be given another opportunity that he doesn’t really deserve. And in the process Denly has become the new sacrificial lamb.

It’s strange how some players are never given the opportunity to establish themselves despite the management’s mantra that they’d rather give a player one game too many than one game too few. How do the likes of Denly and Moeen Ali (the batsman) fit into this model? Denly has now played 6 test matches in which he’s already batted 2, 3, and 4. And now he’s back to 2. Why?

The case of Moeen Ali is even curiouser. During his 60 tests Mo has batted in the following positions: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9! It’s absolutely ridiculous. Every time England had a hole to fill, and weren’t sure what to do, they’d ask Mo to step into the breach. One wonders what he might have achieved if he’d been allowed to settle. It was a similar story with his old mucker Vikram Solanki who batted in every position in the top 8 in his 50 ODIs. One wonders whether Denly will become the new sacrificial lamb.

The other big news ahead of the test match is that Jimmy Anderson has been ruled out of the series. This is a big blow. Chris Woakes was under par at Edgbaston and Headlingley, and Anderson would’ve formed a lethal seam attack alongside Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad.

What worries me about Jimmy’s injury is that he’d bowled 20 overs on the first day of his Lancs 2nd XI fixture without alarm. The injury then flared up seven overs into his second day in the field. How will England be able to tell if he’s fully fit in the future if the injury can reappear without warning? I just hope that a solid period of rest can sort him out.

Obviously, at 37 years of age, some are speculating that Jimmy will never play for England again. I really hope this isn’t the case. Nobody deserves a send off in front of a packed crowd, and a guard of honour from the opposition, like Anderson.

What’s more, from a purely selfish perspective, I want to watch Anderson bowl in a game knowing that it’s his last hurrah. I’d want to savour the whole thing and soak it up. Personally I can’t remember much about the last spell Jimmy bowled for England. I guess I just took it for granted that he had plenty of miles left in the tank. It would be so disappointing if he was forced to retire and I never got to watch him again. I’d also love to see him bowl in tandem with Jofra.

Finally, a thought about the Aussies ahead of Old Trafford. It’s interesting that Steve Waugh has been recalled / retained to help them recover mentally from their disappointment at Headingley. I also wonder how much of this is for the specific benefit of Steve Smith?

People always remember Waugh as an iron man with ice in this veins. He was as tough as they come. But they forget that in his early years he struggled enormously against the short stuff. He used to take his eye off the ball, thrust his hands out, and get hit on the body a great deal too. And when he tried to fight back the pull shot was occasionally his undoing.

After working on his technique, and possibly doing a little soul searching, Waugh eventually decided to keep the pull and hook shots in his locker. He ducked absolutely everything. And he became rather adept at it. As a result he became extremely difficult to dismiss and his average soared above 50.

One wonders whether Waugh, who also has a great interest in the psychology of cricket, will spend a long time mentoring Smith about the short ball. It will be interesting if Smith decides to become a compulsive ducker too. It’s certainly the strategy I’d adopt if I was him.

It might seem strange to say this about a batsman with over six thousand test runs at an average of 63, but this next test could determine the rest of his career. Will Smith become spooked by short pitched bowling in a similar manner to Stuart Broad? Obviously Smith is a much better batsman than Broad ever was, but he’s still human.

A concussion can really shake a person up. NFL athletes with big careers ahead of them have been known to retire after suffering a single concussion because they conclude it’s just not worth the risk. And after seeing what happened to Phil Hughes, Smith might eventually conclude that he’s had a lucky escape and call it quits while he’s still ahead.

Whilst I’m sure that Smith will battle on, and it wouldn’t surprise me if getting hit my Archer has no affect on his career whatsoever, there’s at least a chance that the incident at Lord’s might lead to a career regression. It’s interesting that he only made 20 odd against Derbyshire whilst those around him were filling their boots.

One thing, however, is for sure. Smith is going to get peppered as soon as he arrives at the crease. Broad and Woakes will also have a go. It won’t just be Archer. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

With Australia looking stronger than England on paper thanks largely to an impressive middle-order axis of Smith and Labuschagne, how the former responds to the inevitable chin music could well decide the Ashes.

Let’s get the ball around Smith’s ‘chops’ – oh dear, the lamb references are back – and see what the bloke’s made of.

James Morgan


  • As long as Smith stands square on. He won’t be able to duck.
    Good article. It is becoming obvious, Smith as you say has his favourites and it’s getting embarrassing now.

  • James is consistent in his criticism of the selectors and I have some sympathy with his points. I do not think though that being a selector is quite as easy as suggested. Points to consider:

    – do we want to put a debutant into the middle of an Ashes series perhaps the most pressurised Test cricket environment of them all. Taking two of the best to South Africa this winter is worth consideration.
    – there are apparent options from County Cricket. I am concerned that the past few batting selections based on Championship form have not really worked out.
    -experimenting with order is not likely to make too much difference. I personally would give Jason Roy another chance as an opener in South Africa this winter when there is less lateral movement. His natural hand eye co-ordination may prove more successful.

    Agree that Smith is the difference along with a more consistent bowling attack for Australia.This may be less so if Stark replaces Patterson. I have reluctantly concluded we will not recover the Ashes but hope I am wrong.

    • Hi Michael. Actually I agree that it’s tough being a selector at the moment. The ECB have really hamstrung them. The schedule does make it tough to drop in replacements at short notice, and there aren’t too many good players to choose from. What annoys me about Smith, however, is his preference for trying to make white ball players good red ball ones (plus his penchant for all-rounders). It just goes against what the history of cricket has told us over the years.

      Re: Roy, I don’t think there’s much point nurturing an opener who might only excel on flat wickets overseas when we play half our test matches in England. I agree that Starc might play at OT. It would create some rough for Nathan Lyon to work with. This could also be the reason why Sam Curran hasn’t yet featured in this series either. England don’t want to help Lyon.


  • I agree they should have brought Sibley in to open, kept Denley at 4, and if they wanted to give Roy another chance drop Buttler and put Roy at 6.

    • I hadn’t considered that Roy might replace Buttler. It’s an option. At least then we’d only have one white ball specialist in the top 6 rather than 2. However, I’d personally Buttler more time to sink or swim against this quality Aussie attack.

  • Does Smith have time in his Twitching and Twatching crease show, for ducking and diving as well?

  • There is plenty of evidence by now…

    England’s Test team has a poor coach, a poor chief selector (and *completely* unqualified second in command), and a poor captain.

    The Test teams are always carrying several ridiculous selections, have several appalling exclusions; and have several (sometimes all) players batting in the wrong positions – these are then mismanaged on the field.

    Consequently, every match is half-lost even before the toss. In the circumstances, it is remarkable that they ever win.

  • Roy has hardly played red ball cricket for Surrey in 2.5 years, and when he did normally at 5 or 6. If England were 175/4 (ha ha) he has licence to play his normal game. The problem is that he can’t play the moving ball so he nicks it, and also doesn’t know where his stumps are. Unless it’s just vanity, why do we need 4 all rounders in a Test side? ROy, Butler, Bairstow and Stokes. Stokes is enough.
    Denly as James says is also not an opener, England persist in playing guys in the wrong positions. What’s wrong with Sibly, Northeast, Pope and Foakes?
    England allowed Anderson to play in FIVE Championship games and told Surrey to rest Sam Curan, a guy of 20 who needs to play. No wonder Anderson now possibly has a career ending injury. I hope not.
    I anticipate 40/4 again and request Stokes and Archer to bail us out!

  • I have little regard for the England management team, we can’t just keep moving the same players around the order and not confront the real problems, we mustn’t forget this is their fulltime job that they are paid handsomely to perform. Surely Ed Smith and his team must be aware that they need options and should be working to ensure if x doesn’t work what does y look like.
    Do we have something to learn from the rugby team. I would suggest Eddie Jones has his faults but he’s certainly increased the pool of players he has to pick from and in the process has jettisoned much of the old guard and given youngsters a go and probably similar participation levels, mainly public school.
    In athletics we often hear athletes talking about performing at world record level in training and once in competition know what they’re capable of achieving. In football we know how much running per match top players must achieve and they train to that level and are monitored in matches.
    If the step up from County level to Test level is a big step how do we close that gap to give greater surety of performance when selected? Surely with modern methods we can replicate Test match conditions tailored to each player to gauge preparation. We also mustn’t forget that for all the management and coaching staff we have on board Joffra came through without it.
    I hope I’m wrong but I think Roy is shot and should have been dropped but we’ll still win the Ashes.

    • Whilst I agree entirely, wasn’t it this blog who used to whinge about Cook..

      Probably at the point of no return now with this batting unit and the ashes. Suppose we just have to hope one of them can come good. Perfectly conceivable we will will Lose a test to weather so if a couple of the bat’s fire at the same time in the remaining one then who knows.

      Re Sam Northeast… another 29 year old. How many players aged 28 to 30 have we got. I knew the sky sell off hurt the game but starting to think that literally overnight everyone under 16 stopped playing in 2005.

      • I know it is orthodoxy on these blogs to wail about the exile from terrestrial television, a chant that neglects terrestrial TV being a legacy technology, with broadcasting being a legacy cultural medium. These are not the days of a 25m audience for Coronation Street, or 8m for peak sport. Tennis has embraced the idea that narrow cast streaming is the delivery mode that maximises its access to the market, for instance, and seems to be getting it right. It is not obvious any longer, if it ever was, that the alliance between Cricket and Sky is any kind of mistake.

        Supposing that is all wrong, your theory about everyone under 16 stopping playing after 2005 is not right. What about Sam Currran, Ollie Pope, Zak Crawley, all of whom are at the least promising and were then aged about 7? In any case, your arithmetic seems a bit dodgy. 2005 was 14 years ago, so the 29 year olds of today were 15 at the time.

        • “These are not the days of a 25m audience for Coronation Street, or 8m for peak sport.”

          I’m not sure how many views Coronation St pulls in but the World Cup final this year DID attract 8 million viewers despite it running concurrently with the Wimbledon final which pulled in 10 million. I can’t recall the exact figures off the top of my head but it was something like that. Meanwhile, the women’s world cup semi between England and the US attracted almost 12 million earlier this summer.

          You might argue that terrestrial TV is legacy technology – and yes people do digest sports in different ways these days – bit it’s still clearly pulling in the viewers. And there has been a spike in cricket participation and engagement this summer as a result. The Cricketer’s online traffic has trebled this summer for example. This shows that sadly yes, selling out to Sky was a massive, massive mistake. Even the ECB has tacitly admitted as much by finally trying to get some cricket back on the BBC.

          • It’s not so much a matter of terrestrial TV. It’s more that all English cricket is on a pay TV channel (Sky sports). Even having it on BT sport would be an improvement in terms of access.

  • Climb up on my knee, Little ‘T’
    Tell me what you see, Jimmy ‘T’
    Who is going to open?
    I am clearly hopin’
    That it won’t be me, Little ‘T’.

  • The Aussies pick players on form. Where as we pick on past performance and allow players egos to dictate terms. It’s a pity we don’t have Dave Brailsford in the England setup. He picks riders purely on form and even Sir Bradley Wiggins was dropped for a few disciplines in the last Olympic Games because there was someone on better form than him.

    Anderson has been a great servant to England and his record speaks for itself. Should he be allowed to play a test match just to allow fans to say goodbye to him? No!! I don’t think he’d want that either. He’s either fit to play 5 days at full tilt or he isn’t and if that’s it then that’s it.
    As far as openers are concerned, their job is to stick in soften up & knock the shine off the conker and hopefully get a decent number of runs too. If Roy comes in at 40-2 he might just as well open the batting.

    • To be fair to Jimmy, his record in his mid to late 30s suggests if anyone is given every shot to prove he can still do it then it’s him.

      I would rather put Jimmy in with a 50 percent chance he will last the game than pick the likes of Denly, Roy and Co.

  • Tough call on Denly, who has looked to be improving with every innings. I doubt Burns is going to score many more either, Aussies have worked him out. Expect another low-scoring shootout as two brilliant bowling line-ups make hay again. I expect Smith coming back to be the difference, but it will be interesting to see if he’s shaken up at all. Can’t wait, and everything crossed that Jofra’s body hangs together for another 2 tests!

    • The “working out” process goes in cycles. They have worked out that Burns, when playing regularly, is not particularly fallible around off stump on a good length. In short, he looks the part of a competent Test opener. So they switched to the short stuff aimed at the blind spot under his right arm-pit. It is obvious that Burns will since have been thinking about how to avoid getting bounced out. As he is a very thoughtful and adaptive cricketer, I would expect him to have an answer (dropping the hands early to the short ball, eschewing the hook).

  • As Denly has played one test as opener, averaging 11.5, this seems to be enough for the brain’s trust, his average being higher than Roy’s. It’s more to do with the fact that Denly has spent a fair time at the crease this series, even if his average is only just above 20. I guess they’re looking for someone to see off the new ball, which has more to do with time than runs.
    Did anyone really believe, after the exploits of Headingly, that changes in personnel would be made? Quite clearly Roy is a selectorial experiment that is entering its second phase and will not be discarded till every avenue has been explored. Personally, if you’re going to play him I would drop him to six rather than four, below Stokes and Butler, so he has a good chance of starting his innings with an old ball.
    Woakes is a worry for me, as he looks mentally and physically tired, which needs rest to address properly. Maybe Curran could come in to provide a bit of variation and more steel on the batting front.
    With the present set up it seems county championship form is not taken seriously anymore. They seem to have made their mind up on the basis or raw talent and versatility rather than technique and mentality.
    As to Smith, getting Steve Waugh back as advisor shows how concerned they are about his state of mind. If he continues to move about in the crease as before I can’t see him avoiding another blow or two. There’s a big difference between Archer at ninety five mph and a quickie in the late eighties. How many Archers has Smith faced in his test career? Trent Boult and Dale Steyn are the only two that come to mind with that express pace and accuracy. Root must be more careful though in his handling of such a fragile frame. Use him in short four or five over bursts, something he is used to in white ball matches, where he has spent most of his career so far. With Stone and Wood out for the summer there is no ready made replacement.

  • Had a quick look at Steve Waugh’s stats. Made his dayboo (as the Aussies say) in 1985, so probably came undone trying to hook the likes of Walsh, Ambrose, Bishop and Patterson (so he’s not alone there!).

    • Weirdly he started struggling against the short ball after the 1989 Ashes. Just looking at the stats it looks like he struggled against Pakistan too. Although his dayboo was 1985 it looks like he didn’t play against the Windies until 1988. He actually did ok against them initially making 3 half centuries in the series.

      • Was that the Pakistan of Wasim Imran Khan and Waqar plus Qadir? Decent attack (to say the least).

  • Why is Jonnny Bairstow playing as wicket keeper with First class/ Test averages 44/35; when the proper wicket keeper, Foakes, has averages of 39/42 – considering that Bairstow, like nearly all wicket keepers, loses about 15 runs off his average by keeping wicket? (This is confirmed by the likes of Alex Stewart and more recently Sangakkara – who had extended runs with and without the gloves).

    Simply playing Foulkes as a keeper (which would likely also improve the bowlers confidence, get extra stumpings, have fewer dropped catches, and suppress scoring options by standing up to spin and medium pace) and Bairstow as a batter would improve the batting unit at a stroke.

    This isn’t rocket science! Although it does suggest a need for better statistics that take into account wicket keeping errors.

    By Not playing proper wicket keepers, and accepting multiple disadvantages in consequence; England and other Test sides are throwing-away runs and wickets – it is truly bizarre.

    • Bairstow actually kept pretty well in the Headingly test and batted with Positivity and responsibility under pressure, until lunch broke his concentration. The problem with Foakes this season is that his batting has been disappointing. No one doubts he is a better keeper, but is he a matchwinner?
      Changing a winning side, whatever the mature of the win, is a risky thing. Bairstow is clearly more of a potential matchwinner than Foakes with the bat, though his keeping could be a match looser. Clearly the present selectors want to win this series and so have included all the matchwinning basmen they have available. Sibley and Northeast maybe more consistent but they are not challenging batsmen.
      Good to see the selectors giving Woakes a break, as he looks a tired in mind and body.

      • I’m not sure I would include Butler, Roy and even
        Bairstow as mach wining batsman in red ball cricket currently. Maybe consistency or the technique to actually stay in is more important.

  • Sadly I fear this test will be a rain ruined draw. I have tickets for Friday which looks particularly bad (boo!). Which idiot decides to put on an Ashes series running into September? No prizes for guessing they are from the ECB.

  • Incidentally even the traffic sign writer on the A56 has a sense of humour in Manchester. The sign says “4th-8th September. Old Trafford. Sir Ben Stokes v Australia. Sand some time off your journey by using the tram.” I think we can all agree that is excellent advice!

  • Rain, rain go away,
    Come after Stokes has had his day,
    After Smith is put away,
    By an Archer’s arrow hurled his way,
    We cannot wait for this joyous day,
    So rain rain go away.

    As the late lamented Tony Butler of BRMB fame would say before every Villa Euro game in ’81;
    ‘ Roit lads, on yer prayer mats’

  • Sacrificial lambs? Probably but it hardly matters with Smith looking like he’s on for a double, maybe even a triple century.


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