Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 29, 2019

Five County Cricketers of the Year – 2019

Following 2017’s inaugural list and last year’s quintet, 99.94 recognises five county cricketers of the year – in the style of a publication that has done something similar for 120 years longer.

Dominic Sibley – Finding his feet

The transition from child star to well, adult, never mind star, is a difficult one in any walk of life. For every Michael Jackson, there’s an er… Michael Jackson I suppose, but you don’t need to see Britney in the barber’s or Miley on the wrecking ball to know that it can take a few years to work things out.

Dominic Sibley was a schoolboy when he scored a maiden century in his third first class match for Surrey, enough to make the most jaded of county cricket’s legion of denigrators to prick up their ears. He was branded “A Talent” (if not quite “An FEC”) a burden that seemed to grow heavy on his shoulders.

He struggled to find an identity at The Oval. I last saw him there bashing and biffing in the T20 before having a bit of a bowl, keen to contribute, but almost too keen, that “A Talent” label all but visible as it tarnished, Sibley trying to justify it almost minute-by-minute.

It was no real surprise when he set off up the M1 to Edgbaston, away from the eyes that had seen the debut double and wondered (consciously or subconsciously) why they hadn’t seen another.

In 2018, he made four centuries as Warwickshire gained promotion and has backed that form up in 2019, topping the Division One scoring charts by a distance with over 1300 including five centuries. And it wasn’t all about runs.

Sibley takes guard at the top of the order and then bats. And bats. And bats. For over 3000 balls, he did that in the Champo, with no other batsman facing more than 2005, scoring just the one six (this from  a man with the power to hit plenty). “A Talent” had arrived.

The brave new world of “No Fear” batting has put a World Cup on the ECB mantelpiece a mere 44 years after England hosted the first final, so job done. But that approach didn’t work in Tests for Jason Roy and now Jonny Bairstow has paid the price too. At 24, Sibley has passed through the kind of crisis of confidence and form that many teenage prodigies face and emerged as exactly the kind of batsman England need for 2020 and beyond. Whether he can continue that journey remains to be seen, but there’s plenty a bowler in the shires to attest to the width of his bat and the power of his concentration. Old fashioned virtues they may be, but Sibley’s timing may be as sweet as it was when compiling 242 against Yorkshire six long years ago.

Oh, the man who faced 2005 balls in Division One this season, second to Sibley? Sir Alastair Cook.

Darren Stevens – Him again?

I had people contacting me asking who this Darren Stevens was. “He can’t be a professional athlete – I’ve seen the photographs”.

I explained that he was indeed a professional athlete (and will be next year – at 44 – after Kent renewed his contract, like they had a choice). I continued, saying that he was a bits and pieces merchant all-rounder who knew his game and applied that nous mercilessly to score runs and take wickets. After 88 and 5-39 and 5-53 at Trent Bridge and 237 and 5-20 at Headingley in this month alone, a few records got the taverna treatment.

There’s more to it than that of course, Stevens being the kind of county pro you could find in any season since 1900 (maybe 1800 if we interpret county and pro liberally). Stevens just knows when and how to get into a game – as useful an instinct now as it was when the shepherds first bashed a few pieces of wood into Hampshire’s loamy soil.

Bowling, he’s there or thereabouts, a shorter, slower Glenn McGrath, but just about as demanding to face if there’s juice in the pitch, preying on batsmen whose concentration may need a little work after the biff-bash-bosh of T20. He keeps going too, fit enough to deal with the physical side, strong enough to deal with the mental side.

Batting, he blocks the good ones and hits the bad ones – hard. He senses when it’s his day too, and seeks to cash in, knowing the value (for the team and individually) of bowling with a few runs in the bank.

22 years on from his first appearance in county cricket, he appears to be improving – and anyone who is still getting better at anything, two decades or more since they started, is worthy of all the praise in the world.

Tom Abell – A season to remember

They say that England’s captains have a tough time because they don’t get experience in the domestic game. Perhaps Ed Smith should have a look at Somerset’s Tom Abell, who may not have the numbers to warrant a place as a batsman (or all-rounder) but, at 25, has delivered a season no Somerset fan will ever forget – in all three formats of the game.

His men got off to a lightning start in 2019, racing away in the County Championship and cruising to a win in the Royal London One Day Cup Final, the last at Lord’s, to put a trophy in the cabinet. Inevitably, a sticky patch would come and, after five wins and a draw, they ran into Jamie Porter, Aaron Beard, Peter Siddle and Simon Harmer, and were mugged in Chelmsford.

They won four of the next five, but fell short in the T20 Blast, before Kyle Abbott’s flood of wickets and September’s flood of rain scuppered their chance of an inaugural, romantic, hell I’ll say it, deserved(ish) pennant.

Abell played all 14 Champo matches, topping the batting averages and chipping in with 13 wickets as less than 25. And he played all the RLODC matches too, doing what he needed to do to get through the group stages and knockout matches. And he played all the Blast matches, second in the averages to Babar Azam, but scoring at a strike rate 28 higher than the Pakistani international. And he was captain in most of those matches, Lewis Gregory not available through England commitments and injury more than anyone might have anticipated.

Tom Abell is the kind of cricketer who might never play for England and, looking into the crystal ball, might never play for a franchise either, but should a player like that be squeezed to the margins of the game? The men with the Gantt charts and the powerpoints will make their case, but us cricket fans? We say no.

Ravi Bopara – Experience counts

When the Essex boy with the half-smile about the lips made three consecutive Test hundreds for England ten long years ago, his future looked assured. With Alastair Cook to mentor him, he’d bat at three for a decade and play plenty of white ball cricket too, his bustling liquorice allsorts with the ball a handy second string.

But the West Indies tourists were followed by the Australians and even that 2009 squad proved a different prospect for Ravi after the easy pickings of pummelling very cold Lionel Baker and co. In international cricket, he became a white ball specialist, but was culled after the World Cup 2015 debacle.

He had played 171 times in all for England and was soon playing lots of franchise cricket too, so why would he bother with Chelmsford’s, less say homely, environs? It seems the dinghy bijoux old ground has a pull that demands an escape velocity greater than Ravi can muster.

So the man who was born in East London found Essex to his tastes (as so many do) and at 34, he brought all that experience to bear, especially in limited overs cricket. He also wore that face that radiates calmness when he wins and complacency when he loses – in T20 this year, it was calmness.

In the run of five must-win games that Essex won to lift the trophy, Ravi made 219 runs off 125 balls, a strike rate of 175, always under pressure, for once out. He averaged nearly 40 in the Champo (second to Cook, natch) and chipped in 12 wickets in the Blast to go with an average 13 runs higher than any team-mate.

Ravi always looked like he felt the game came easy to him – remember those fielding lapses that spoke of a mind elsewhere? – but he’s now done the work and growing up to back up the insouciance with results. The man who would frustrate fans now delights us. Yes, it’s calmness not complacency for sure.

Dane Vilas – Barking out the orders

Another South African mercenary padding out his pension with a cruise round the Division Two grounds making two centuries and three fifties to average 34? What car did you say I would get?

When Lancashire asked their great Dane to bark out the orders in 2019, he’d already proved himself much more than that hackneyed cliché, but strong men have wilted when asked to lead out the Red Rose. With a (metaphorical – he wasn’t that good) glove on one hand and gauntlet on the other and a head full of welcome but tricky selection dilemmas, Vilas got almost every call right. (Okay, Liam Livingstone in the T20 vs Essex, I know).

If it was Lancashire’s riches with the ball that got them promoted, Vilas’s 1000+ runs at nearly 80 played a full part too. His daddy (and he likes a daddy) came at Colwyn Bay, where Glamorgan were marmalised for 266 en route to eight Lanky wins for the season, promotion secured by 66 points.

Vilas played 14 Champo matches, 12 Blast matches and 10 RLODC matches – sometimes those mercenaries earn their money.

This column concludes 99.94’s coverage of the 2019 county season. My thanks to readers who have stuck with the domestic game in tumultuous times on and off the field for English cricket and, especially, for those who take time to comment, their warmth and wisdom is much appreciated. And a huge h/t to Paul Campbell at The Guardian, who cheerfully bowls uphill into the wind, week after week, to bring these words to you.

 

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Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 27, 2019

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 27 September 2019

You’d be smiling too

Ball One – They dreamed a dream

It wasn’t just the weather that was miserable at Taunton – or was it? Somerset failed again in the quest to raise the pennnant over the pavilion, too much time lost to rain, too many wickets to get, too much history hanging in the dank air. But (though I can’t speak for them) I suspect fans – and, I hope, players – do consider second place to be that joyless descriptor “first loser”, but second winner. Maybe it’s the length of the matches, maybe it’s the season starting in Spring and not concluding until England looks very different, glorious in its Autumnal beauty, but finishing second after a season fought long, hard and true is worth – and here comes an old-fashioned word – honouring.

Ball Two – Make enough runs + take enough wickets quickly = Champions

To the victors, the spoils. Essex, the best county side in 2017 and again in 2019 and making a pitch to be called the best this century, won the head-to-head at Chelmsford in midsummer and benefited from Kyle Abbott’s record-breaking turn for Hampshire against Somerset in September, but there was more, much more, to it than that. No batsman was truly outstanding in the Championship, but the six regular specialists all made centuries, usually when others had not, timing as ever critical in sport. But cricket matches are won by bowlers taking wickets and Simon Harmer (83), Jamie Porter (48), Peter Siddle (34), Sam Cook (32) and Aaron Beard (17) did that all summer long. They paid paltry sums for them too (Porter, at 26, the most spendthrift) and they were never far away from a breakthrough, their strike rates all in the 40s. The core of that bowling unit looks likely to be around for a while longer too – so Essex will continue to win a lot of cricket matches.

Ball Three – For Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire, Division One may prove a challenge

The weather won out in Division Two too, Northamptonshire, having taken the champagne off ice last week, up in all but name, joined by Gloucestershire as Division One goes up to ten teams for 2020. It’s hard to guess anything about how next season will go in county and er… franchise cricket and who knows what effect Nottinghamshire disastrous 2019 campaign will have on coaches and players contemplating close season moves, but both promoted counties might have to do some recruitment if they’re to compete regularly at the higher level. That said, it’ll be fascinating to see how Gloucestershire’s Ryan Higgins goes (he’s very much this column’s type of player) and also the highly rated James Bracey. For Northamptonshire, keeper-batsman-captain, Adam Rossington, will have a plate as full as Mike Gatting’s at a Lord’s buffet and the admirable Ben Sanderson and Brett Hutton are going to need a lot more support with the ball to get the twenty wickets wins demand.

Ball Four – Finals Day not carmen down just yet

Twenty20 Finals Day strikes me as being a little like grand opera. If you analyse it too much, all you get is a set of discrete elements each of which is absurd – some very absurd indeed. But if you sit back and accept the big picture and avoid too much of the whys and wherefores, there’s nothing quite like it. The spectacle, the scale, the skills rolled up, stuffed into a barrel called Edgbaston and cast down the mountainside with us inside the bouncing along. Like grand opera, Finals Day has its detractors, but it’s like nothing else, having taken a few years to find its unique smorgasbord of thrills and spills. Wholly unique occasions like Finals Day do not emerge fully formed from the heads of marketing men.

Ball Five – Moeen no moaner

In a world in which decency is becoming as rare as a cricket fan claiming that the one thing the game needs is another format, a decent man had a fine match in the T20 semi-final. It may have been an unforgettable summer for English cricket, but Moeen will be one of the few who will look back on 2019 without much affection, his international future now in some doubt. He could have sulked, he could have taken a break, he could have been playing for The Blitzin’ Buttkickers or whoever in a franchise league somewhere, but he was captaining Worcestershire. He was player of the match in the semi-final, making 21 off 9 balls, then keeping his team in with a shout with 1-13 off his four overs and ultimately making the right calls as Nottinghamshire failed to realise 11 off the last two overs, eight wickets in hand.

Ball Six – Harmer’s armour of confidence sees Essex home in a thriller

But Worcestershire were not destined to retain their title – though what a magnificent defence they put up. It was those greedy boys from up the A12 who grabbed it, the first of a double in a decent week for the Chelmsford posse. Down to the last two overs again, this time the numbers very much with Worcestershire, who were defending 22 and were getting into the bowlers who bat. But Ravi Bopara has the coldest blood in any chase and Simon Harmer? Well, he’s Simon Harmer, and he went 4, 1, 1, 2, 2, 4, 4 to win it off the last ball. Essex’s trophy, Essex’s year, Harmer’s year.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 20, 2019

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 20 September 2019

Darren Stevens pictured last week

Ball One – Wild West (Country) showdown looms

As in an old Western, the two gunslingers will ride into town for the shootout in the last reel – as we have known they would for months now. Somerset (for most people wearing the white stetson) will “welcome” Essex to Taunton and a pitch that might just make Rock Ridge’s dusty old Main Street look like the M1, given the host’s need for the 16 points that comes with a win. But let’s hope Jack Leach (cleared by the ECB to turn out for Somerset – if selected) is only cleaning his glasses of condensation and not rain, and leave any arguments about the pitch – and there will be arguments no matter how green, how dry, how slow, how fast – for another day. For now, let’s just let the grand old County Championship have its week in the sun – God knows, enough people have tried to lock it away under the stairs for long enough.

Ball Two – Seam + Centuries + Harmer = win

Essex ride into town on the back of an innings win over last season’s runaway champions, Surrey, whose defence of the pennant has been a little embarrassing, even with the mitigation of international calls and injuries. Seam did the job first time round for Essex at Chelmsford, Jamie Porter and Sam Cook bagging a fivefer each, before Simon Harmer (whose head-to-head with Leach next week will be fascinating) did the Simon Harmer thing with 7-58. In between, Essex just needed a couple of batsmen to get in and go on, and this week they were Dan Lawrence and Ryan ten Doeschate, whose 250 runs aggregate was only 97 fewer than all ten Surrey batsmen managed twice over. The 2017 Champions will hope that old formula works one last time in 2019.

Ball Three – Abbott illuminates records manuscript

Somerset picked a bad time to run into Kyle Abbott in record-breaking form, his 9-40 and 8-46 blowing away the opposition both on the field and off, every bowler who has turned their arm over in first class cricket since Tony Lock got one wicket in the Old Trafford Test of 1956 bested. Hat well and truly tipped, but the win needed more than just the spirit of Roy Castle to acclaim such dedication, because amidst the backslapping and jug buying, runs were still required to win the match and centuries from England’s somewhat forgotten men, Liam Dawson and James Vince, ensured that the match was more than just a statistical oddity, no matter how oddly that statistic stands out. (And if you get close to figures such as FW Lillywhite’s 18-? and FP Fenner’s 17-?, you know you’ve strayed into a very strange land).

Ball Four – DI Stevens solves cricket (the sequel)

Incredibly, Abbott’s was not the deepest push into cricket’s arcane records last week. Darren Stevens (about whom this column must have written more words than anyone else since its inception seven years ago), made the mere matter of 237 runs, as he and Sam Billings (whose twin centuries were consigned to a footnote) rescued Kent from 39-5. The grizzled old pro sealed his spot in posterity (and a coveted mention in Andrew Samson’s Twitter feed) with his fifth second innings wicket, as Yorkshire, who must have been feeling quite chipper on the first morning, went down by 433 runs. 433 runs! Stevens (at 57) became the oldest man since Dr W.G. Grace to score a double century and take a fiverfer in a first class match. [Stevens is 43 years and 142 days old, but he looks older than me, so I’m claiming that he’s 57 and he’ll have to prove otherwise].

Ball Five – Northamptonshire almost up

In a good week for seamers who nag away there or thereabouts, Ben Sanderson and Brett Hutton shared 15 wickets to kill off Durham’s late bid for promotion and all but secure Division One cricket at Wantage Road come 2020. The match was a microcosm of Northants’ season, with no real standout performances (not compared to some this week anyway) but solid contributions with bat and ball accumulating the runs required to allow the bowlers to take the 20 wickets that forms line one of their collective job description. Wicketkeeper-batsman-captain, Adam Rossington, extended his season’s run aggregate to a club leading 787 with twin half-centuries, but no batsman averages over 50 from six innings or more, and Hutton and Sanderson have, more or less, carried the bowling between them. They might need reinforcements over the winter, but, for now, (barring freak results) it’s time to reflect on a job well done.

Ball Six – G-Men Fear Blizzard Interventions

Glamorgan and Gloucestershire both won last week to set up a fight between the near neighbours for the third promotion slot. With a 16 points advantage and Northamptonshire having to resist packing their flip-flops for the trip to Bristol, Gloucestershire are favourites to go up, but the weather might have a part to play and, capricious though it might be, it’s unlikely to be the same for both sides, Glamorgan heading just south of the Arctic Circle to Chester-le-Street. It’ll be a shame if John Kettley and co are continually sending the umpires out to inspect the pitch (well, the outfield usually) and everyone is looking at Jackson Pollocky pictures of satellite projections on their phones instead of the middle, but cricket has always been in thrall to the weather. Which is why they should play more Champo matches in the summer.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 16, 2019

The Ashes 2019 – Australia Report Card

Tim Paine (180 runs at 20; 20 catches) – Grade C

Didn’t bat particularly well, didn’t keep particularly well, reviewed particularly badly, but he got his team off the floor between Headingley and Old Trafford to become the first Australian captain to take The Ashes home since Stephen Waugh in 2001. So who’s laughing now? How long Australia can afford to trade off his lack of output for his leadership remains to be seen, but fixing something that isn’t broken – or, rather, is not broken enough – is seldom a smart move.

David Warner (95 at 10) – Grade D-

And speaking of things that are partly broken… Stuart Broad had David Warner in his pocket all series long, the pugnacious left-hander mesmerised into chasing the ball that angled in from round the wicket and seamed away – Flintoff to Gilchrist style. After a year out of Test cricket, he seems to have lost the location of his off stump and needs to find it pretty quickly if the likes of Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns are not to take his spot.

Cameron Bancroft (44 at 11) – Grade D

Faced plenty of deliveries, but seemed to look less and less “in” as they ticked by, he was pulled and replaced by a man who looked no more in than he did – but spent fewer deliveries doing so

Marcus Harris (58 at 10) – Grade D-

That man was Harris, who came with a growing reputation, but looked somewhat lost against the Duke ball in English conditions. None of the pitches were particularly capricious, but all England’s grounds require an opener to play for his off stump, leaving plenty and driving few – at least for an hour or so.

Usman Khawaja (122 at 21) – Grade C-

Three scratchy Test matches and he was dropped despite the credit built up over 44 Tests and the fact that it wasn’t exactly Stuart Law waiting in the wings. You can’t help thinking that was all a little premature and that a little more belief from the selectors might have engendered a little more belief in the man himself.

Marnus Labuschagne (353 at 50; 1 wicket at 56) – Grade B+

A concussion substitute after Smith had fallen, stricken, at Lord’s, he immediately looked like a man in form and scoring runs – which is what he was, having plundered plenty for Glamorgan in Division Two of the County Championship. His technique is reassuringly orthodox, punching and driving, cutting and pulling and never getting out of shape trying to hit the ball too hard. A top score of 80 suggests he needs to work on converting good scores into those that shape matches.

Steven Smith (774 at 111) – Grade A+

The kind of scores Steven Smith made pretty much every time he took guard. I made up my mind a couple of years ago as to where he stands in cricket history and since then, he’s only got better. That’s the technical side, with the tics more and more pronounced between deliveries, but the head, hands and feet in harmony as ball meets bat. No batsman in history can ever have got off strike with a nudge into the leg side quite as often as Smith does and surely none has handled the expectations attendant on a comeback with such insouciant brilliance. Jofra Archer’s adrenaline charged helmet rattling spell at Lord’s aside, Smith seemed to be playing against history as much as the opposition, but none of those 774 runs were cheap and without them, even this hotchpotch of an England side would have won the series.

Matthew Wade (333 at 37) – Grade B

Some might say I’m being churlish, but both his centuries, though plenty busy and aggressive, were made in second innings when the shape of the match had been (largely) determined. He batted like the wicketkeeper he once was and was just about as mouthy, which might not be a good idea when Archer is bowling as it merely advances his speedometer.

Travis Head (191 at 27) – Grade C-

Lost his place to Mitchell Marsh at The Oval when Paine fancied the idea of a little more bowling in a back-to-back Test. Started with a solid Test at Edgbaston, but fell away and the change was an obvious one to make. He can come back a better player in 2023.

Mitchell Marsh (41 at 21; 7 at 12) – Grade B+

Always seems to have to prove himself whenever he dons the Baggy Green and he did that this time round with as fine a spell of swing bowling as we saw throughout the series. He didn’t quite nail his batting, which is the more obvious route into the XI, but he looks a fine addition to the squad of pacers.

Patrick Cummins (71 at 10; 29 at 20) – Grade A

Would have been a worthy player of the series were Steven Smith not on another plane altogether. A captain’s dream, he charged in day after day, the hostility never dialled back as much as a single notch. World Number One, he justified that ranking with some jaffas that might even have got Steven Smith out, but it was his stamina that stood out, working hard for every wicket and getting his just deserts across all five Tests.

James Pattinson (69 at 23; 5 at 33) – Grade B-

Quick and reliable, it was a surprise to see him turn out just twice in the series, particularly in the light of his extensive experience in England and his near all-rounder level batting. That said, a captain might wonder what he offers that differs from Cummins (quicker) and Hazlewood (who moves it more). Good to see an old pro back in the saddle after so many injuries.

Peter Siddle (72 at 24; 7 at 42) – Grade C

Was it really him? Given a holding brief, he nevertheless went at three an over, but made a critical contribution in the tone-setting First Test, getting Aus out of the depths of 122-8 to 210-9 in the company of – well, you know who. Siddle had found a way to make a difference.

Nathan Lyon (79 at 20; 20 at 33) – Grade B

A great start looked like it would set up another fine series for the man they call The Goat, but he was strangely anonymous, his rhythm slightly off key, his output below his standards. He’ll point to 20 wickets as a decent return, but this was not the metronome that England feared.

Josh Hazlewood (9 at n/a; 20 at 22) – Grade A-

Sat out the First Test but bowled beautifully from then on, rather like an old-fashioned English seamer, but 5mph quicker and from a 5 inches higher release point. He moved the Duke ball no matter its age and had the splice-slamming heavy ball to keep the batsmen honest. Doesn’t have the snarl of a Cummins or the regular 90mph thunderbolts of Starc, but causes the best batsmen problems whether they’re on 2 or 102.

Mitchell Starc (57 at n/a; 4 at 32) – Grade B

There’s no better indicator of the strength of the Australian pace phalanx than the fact that he played just one Test in which he went for a few, knocked over a few in a sensational spell and biffed a few off tiring bowlers. He may have fallen out of favour with his own selectors, but I’m pretty sure other countries’ would bite his hand off.

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 16, 2019

The Ashes 2019 – England Report Card

Joe Root (325 runs at 33; 3 wickets at 41) – Grade C

A shadow of the bustling batsman and dressing room joker of not so long ago. No century in the series, and not much fun either. He won’t ever say that he’s had enough of cricket, but it sure looks like that now – and who can blame him? His captaincy attracted a lot of criticism, but when you have only one batsman average more than 40, you’re going to spend a lot of time playing catch-up, never a good look for a skipper. Out-reviewed his opposite number comfortably. Bowled well in the rush for the line at The Oval – amazing what the release of pressure does.

Rory Burns (390 at 39) – Grade B

Started with a century that deserved more than to be somewhat forgotten in a 250+ runs Steven Smith dominated defeat, but was sorted out by the short ball subsequently. Having worked on his game, that flaw is still there but much diminished – so he’s a quick learner. His acrobatic catching in the cordon is a bonus – he might be better employed at first slip. He’s probably be a couple of centuries off being penned in as next captain, a particularly seductive proposition as he’s a red ball specialist.

Jason Roy (110 at 14) – Grade E

Removed from the firing line when his “stand still and slash at it” technique that works in white ball cricket was horribly exposed in Test matches.

Joe Denly (312 at 31) – Grade B-

The James Vince question persists – do the lovely cover drives outweigh the windy wafts? Benefited from the unfounded assertion that “There’s nobody pushing for a place”, but looks more like a sixth bowler option on the subcontinent who can score a fifty or two than a regular Test opener. He deserves his chance to prove me wrong.

Ben Stokes (441 at 55; 8 at 45) – Grade A

That it is not “Stokes’s Ashes” is hardly his fault, his epic innings to win the Headingley Test one for the ages. Now a batsman who bowls, he is following the path trodden by Jacques Kallis – a top order bat who can break partnerships or capitalise further if it’s his day. Like some of his team-mates, looked exhausted by the demands of a summer that cannot – and should not – be repeated.

Jonny Bairstow (214 at 24; 20 catches, 2 stumpings) – Grade C

Regressing to some of his technical problems of the past, hands pushing hard at the ball, the gate an inviting target for a bowler prepared to home in on the stumps. A run of low scores improved (if that’s the word) to a run of starts that he failed to convert. Given the fact that he’s not the best keeper in the country, maybe not the best in the team, that’s a disappointing return. England’s policy of playing two keepers looks like it might have run its course.

Jos Buttler (247 at 25) – Grade B-

No batsman is deliberately given the role of batting with the tail, but such was Buttler’s lot for much of the series and it undoubtedly impacted on his numbers. Like Jason Roy, his one day virtue is something of a five day vice, the firm base and arms-free approach inevitably making him vulnerable to the moving ball, as even straight ones are not lined up properly. He’ll almost certainly retain his spot, but he has to start scoring centuries soon if he is to warrant a top six slot.

Moeen Ali (4 at 2; 3 at 57) – Grade E

A feast or famine player who was definitely in famine mode before he was hooked after the Edgbaston defeat. Too gifted to be written off already, but how patient selectors can be with a bowler who gives away so many boundaries and a batsman who so often rolls the dice, remains to be seen.

Chris Woakes (120 at 20; 10 at 33) – Grade C+

A strangely anonymous series for the English conditions specialist whose bit part status was as much the result of Joe Root’s reluctance to bowl him as it was of his own inability to take wickets in bursts. Perhaps it’s perception as much as anything, the captain’s new all-action man toy, with its 90mph arrows, looking a lot shinier than his old reliable, slightly vanilla, ex-favourite.

Sam Curran (32 at 16; 3 at 23) – Grade B-

Added variety and no little skill with his left arm bustlers ducking in and holding their line out. Promoted to Number 7, he batted like a Number 9, his skittishness unworthy of a man who has plenty enough ability to make 50s on a regular basis. Like so many in this England squad, his role is not clearly defined – which can’t be fair to a 21 year-old.

Craig Overton (26 at 13; 2 at 54) – Grade C-

Batted with great heart, but looked rather pedestrian in a series dominated by speedsters and seamers. Might need a similar number of injuries to pacers to get another gig in Test cricket – but, with the schedules as they are, expect to see him trundling in again some time soon.

Jofra Archer (48 at 7; 22 at 20) – Grade A

An effortless fast bowler, an effortless star player, we really do believe the hype. Wasn’t at full tilt all the time, but when he was, he could knock over anyone, metaphorically and literally. Like another Yorkshire Ashes captain with a Sussex quick (Ray Illingworth and John Snow) Joe Root knew how valuable Archer’s pace was and went to the well a little too often for the Bajan’s own good. A superstar is born – however you look at it.

Jack Leach (54 at 14; 12 at 26) – Grade B

Decent bowler, competent late order batsman, handy fielder – a perfect example of how analysis can rather miss the story. Leach was the sung as much as unsung hero of Headingley, with his 1* an essential component of an extraordinary win. he’s much more than a turn though, his ability to hold an end in the first innings while attacking in the second, a brief that’s far easier to say than to deliver. Plenty of courage – moral and physical.

Stuart Broad (61 at 12; 23 at 27) – Grade A-

Lost his old mucker almost before the series started, but shouldered the responsibility of leading the attack with real gusto, charging in for spell after spell and spell, many of them excellent, few (if any) poor. At 33, he got through more overs than anyone except Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon, and almost all were at full gas. Had David Warner on toast, but his seam movement troubled all the Aussie bats (yes, even “him”).

James Anderson – Grade N/A

Injured.

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 16, 2019

Fifth Ashes Test Day Four – The Final Over of the Day

Ball One – Broad mugs Harris

There is no good way to get out – okay, I’ll give you caught at long on setting up a declaration –  but there are bad and very bad ways to take the long walk, especially for openers. Marcus Harris has some mitigation, an injury picked up in shocking light late on Day Two and dreadful form, but an opener shouldn’t really be bowled failing to cover his off stump. Broad, knees pumping and confidence high, had delivered a good one, but even he must have expected the edge rather than the death rattle to see off his man.

Ball Two – Leach sucks a little more Australian resolve away

In a 21st century Test match that has seen plenty of 20th century style play, Jack Leach’s dismissal of Marnus Labuschagne was as old school as it gets in the age of DRS. The left-armer beat the defensive bat with a bit of flight and a bit of spin and Jonny Bairstow gathered, whipped and celebrated in the blinking of an eye. Everyone on the ground knew he was out, including all 13 players in the middle, with the TV umpire’s verdict a formality. Evidence again that Leach can deliver both elements of the 21st century spinner’s brief – holding an end in the first innings and taking wickets in the second.

I’ll be over there tomorrow, in the pavilion.

Ball Three – Warner and Smith

The return of David Warner and Steven Smith from their involuntary exile from Test cricket can be counted a success, the pair combining to score 869 runs at an average of 51. Justin Langer would have taken that as the pair felt their way back into the toughest form of the game. Which only goes to prove two things – Steven Smith’s genius and the old cliché about lies, damned lies and statistics.

Ball Four – Broad, Smith and Stokes

That it was Smith, Stokes and Broad who were the principals of the (other) defining moment of the match was no surprise, England’s great bowler getting one in the right place, England’s great hero swooping low to take a fine catch, cricket’s greatest post-war batsman having miscalculated for once, his deflection on the way down, but not quickly enough. So ends one of the greatest performances in Ashes history, a man who should have been feeling his way back into the Test arena, dominating it and retaining the Ashes for his country for the first time in 18 years. The crowd’s wholehearted standing ovation was thoroughly earned, the dismal booers of Edgbaston not even a footnote in history.

Ball Five – Fat lady gargling, but not singing just yet

By all accounts, when Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed, most of the crowd would file out – who would want to see VVS Laxman make a ton after all? There was something of that feeling after Smith retreated to the dressing room one last time, the match all over bar the shouting for most of a capacity crowd. Of course, it wasn’t, the Australians only four down, but such has been Smith’s towering pile of runs, that even the most professional of players must have relaxed a little. That change in atmosphere allowed first Matthew Wade and then Mitchell Marsh to play with the kind of freedom men who have spent their careers at 6 or 7 tend to enjoy. Their target was still almost as distant as Hobart, but they were going to have some fun en route.

Ball Six – Tosser

It’s easy to be wise after the event, but the astonishment that greeted Tim Paine’s decision to bowl first was fully vindicated by a pitch that was offering plenty of turn to the spinners and bounce to the pacers as the fourth day progressed. Maybe he would have done it differently had The Ashes been on the line (and maybe if the batting preparation had been more thorough, just three days between Old Trafford and The Oval with celebrating to be done), but the maxim of not doing what your opponent wants you to do, is never a bad thing to bear in mind. I’m pretty certain Joe Root would have batted – after all, it’s what you do in South London.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 15, 2019

Fifth Ashes Test Day Three – The Final Over of the Day

“Now, darling, let’s see that Glasto after two nights on the MDMA look.”

Ball One – The root of Root’s problems

Take a look at that photograph on the front of the official programme. It’s a look I know, the look of too much stress at work, of too many hours of fitful sleep, of not enough time to do too many things. Now there are many who will say that England’s captain is not working down t’pit or doing double shifts in an A&E department, but his job has broken many before him – and it’ll break a few that come after him too. 57 and 21 are two tired scores, the products of two tired dismissals, goodish balls that the Root of 2015 would have defended decisively. Give him a winter off to have his sleep disrupted by his family not by his job.

Ball Two – Denly a convincing version of Vince

Watching Joe Denly feels a lot like watching James Vince – the cover drives flow, there are oohs and aahs from the crowd who appreciate the aesthetics of the batting and… he could get out at any moment. It may not be his fault and, for a man with 29 first class centuries, it might not even be fair, but there’s a “luxury player” tag that seems to cling to the Kent man as much as it did to the Hampshire captain. And being a luxury player is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is in a batting order that is needs the grit rather than the pearls just now.

Ball Three – Lyon looking for a big game

If Nathan Lyon were a batsman, he’d be said to be out of nick. Against a batting order that sometimes gives the impression that any ball, any time could be good enough to induce a collapse, he started the second innings on the back of 0-12, 2-51, 0-89, 2-114, 0-2, 0-102 and 3-68 since Edgbaston. Phil Tufnell, who, when not playing class clown, has much to say about spin bowling, speculated on his losing his action a little, not quite driving over the front leg, not quite following through. Those mechanics are more critical for a bowler like Lyon, who is as much an over-spinner as an off-spinner and who needs the revs to generate the dip. England may have had similar thoughts about Lyon being out of sorts, with Joe Denly smacking him back over his head for six early on to add a few more doubts. But you don’t play 90 Tests without learning a bit about the game and a lot about yourself – Lyon had two wickets before the morning session was out.

Ball Four – Paine’s call, umpire’s call and Denly having a ball

Half way through the day, I was wondering what felt strange about the cricket. 133-2, run rate about 3, 50 overs left to bowl, sun out, crowd calm and in conventional dress. What was strange was, of course, the lack of strangeness, the day progressing as so many Test days once did – until we were catapulted out of the 20th century and into the 21st when Tim Paine refuse to review an LBW decision that looked Umpire’s Call at the very worst. It wasn’t – it was three red lights and out, but Denly lived on, Tim Paine’s review record besmirched still further.

Ball Five – Four day Tests and six week series

If the umpiring was tired last night and Joe Root tired this morning, Australia looked collectively tired this afternoon, the fielding scrappy, the decision-making muddled, the game drifting. Credit to Joe Denly and Ben Stokes (who have played a fair bit of cricket themselves in the last seven weeks), but batting on a hot day is an easier gig than bowling and fielding. Just 45 days after the first shot in the battle was fired and six days after the Australians’ mission was accomplished, 22 players are half way through another Test match – and we’re really expecting them to give of their very best? If the ECB had an employee Well-Being policy (such things do exist elsewhere as, would you believe it, they improve productivity) such scheduling would never happen again. But you just know there’s a management consultant type who’ll soon be presenting a powerpoint on how five Tests in six weeks is perfectly possible and might help when negotiating next TV contract. Four days comprising three 35 overs sessions = one Test match anyone?

Ball Six – Champagne moment and Labuschagne moment

After a wicketless, mojo-free afternoon, Australia reined it in a little in the evening as England sought quick runs against a flagging attack. Joe Denly will be kicking himself for missing out on a maiden century, while Ben Stokes will eye his 67 as only a partial success – after all, there were catches dropped and reviews left uncalled. Not even a sensational brace of catches from Smith and Labuschagne matters that much in the context of the match, which sees England go into Day Four with a lead of 382 runs and two wickets in hand. The batsmen have done their jobs, now it’s up to the bowlers to do theirs.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 15, 2019

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 15 September 2019

Somerset fans pay homage to their skipper

Ball One – Tail chimes in with Abell

Somerset’s win over Yorkshire opened up an eight point gap on Essex, who could only draw at Edgbaston – but it still looks like a pennant showdown in the last match of the season. The second halves of the two first innings proved the turning points of the match – as lower orders so often do in low scoring affairs. With Somerset’s admirable captain, Tom Abell, en route to a near four hour 66 (Ed Smith take note) he needed late order support – and got it, with double figure scores from numbers six to ten. Contrast with Yorkshire, whose score of 88-5 represented an advantage of 18 at the same stage. But a collapse to 103 all out left them trailing by 96 runs on first innings and the Tykes were never going to get close to chasing 400+ after a more solid showing from the host’s middle order second time round.

Ball Two – Westley sets sail for a draw

If Essex were to keep their dream-shattering dream alive, they needed to dig in after Warwickshire’s Matt Lamb daddied his maiden century up to a seven hour 173 and six sessions’ batting for a draw stretched in front of them. They needed an Alastair Cook-like display to deliver on that brief and, when the actual Alastair Cook couldn’t oblige, Tom Westley stepped into the breach. His 141 and 97 were compiled in just short of ten hours and occupied the crease for 151 overs. It’s only three points for the draw, but the boost to morale after escaping from a hole like that, is worth far more.

Ball Three – DI Stevens solves cricket

Nottinghamshire’s miserable red ball season culminated in relegation with two matches to play – quite a feat with just one team sliding through the trap door. Given Notts’ recruitment policy over the years, that statement might produce a few sideways smiles of schadenfreude around the country but, be careful, there’s still Twenty20 Finals Day to come. Kent’s 43 year-old Darren Stevens was their chief tormentor this week, warming up with a near run a ball 88 then feasting on a confidence-free batting order with a couple of cheap fivefers. The evergreen evergrey all-rounder has 43 Division One wickets in 2019 at an average south of 20. Is he really still getting better?

Ball Four – Lanky walking tall

Lancashire’s win over Derbyshire sealed promotion back to Division One, a yoyo club being a more desirable description than merely a “yo” club. Dane Vilas had seven authentic bowling options at home to Derbyshire, so Josh “Hamilton” Bohannon was pushed up to number 4, his medium pace unlikely to be required. His reward was a maiden century which he, like Matt Lamb, daddied up to 174, enough to set up an innings win and a season in the top flight come 2020. Bohannon’s average is now nudging 50 and, if he kicks on, Glenn Maxwell returns (and his ever-present grin suggest he will) this match’s attack of Tom Bailey, Richard Gleeson, Saqib Mahmood, Glenn Maxwell, Liam Livingstone and Matt Parkinson looks like it’ll take 20 wickets often enough for a 2011 style tilt at the title.

Ball Five – A Durham promotion? Carse we can

When Durham lost their first four Champo matches of the season, shoulders were shrugged and another season consigned to the folder labelled “The long walk back from financial implosion”. But a tight win over Derbyshire got them off the mark and another tight win last week has made it five wins and three draws in their last eight matches. Nothing in it after the first digs, the difference between the sides boiled down to Durham finding support for Angus Robson (64) with a couple of 30s, when his brother, Middlesex’s Sam, failed to find a partner who could muster more than Nick Gubbins’s 17. Ben Carse had much to say about that, hitting the stumps four times in a row en route to 6-26. Durham have Northamptonshire and Glamorgan to round off what could be a fairytale promotion season and it won’t just be Durham supporters cheering them on.

Ball Six – England watch

Another half-century for Dom Sibley took him to a table-topping 1000 Division One runs at a strike rate of 40, comfortably the lowest of the top 25 run-getters. If England are looking for some craft and graft to complement plenty of bash and dash, he’s your man. The more radical approach would be to give Joe Root a tour (or winter) off and hand the captaincy to Tom Abell – rather as they used to do were Abell doing well for Cambridge or a selector’s godson. As for bowlers, well, Simon Harmer is the best in county cricket yet again, but isn’t English (in a cricketing sense, he’s not really South African either, his performances all the more remarkable given his personal circumstances). Of course, there are routes into the England team – and the last bowler who took such a path is currently doing rather well.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 14, 2019

Fifth Ashes Test Day Two – The Final Over of the Day

Irrefutable proof!

Ball One – Warner walks – aggrieved with some reason

Technology is neutral – the digital strings of 0s and 1s don’t know what they display and the electrical charge that animates the wires is just wobbles in a field. So “blaming the technology” is always something of a fool’s errand. That said, David Warner might want to blame the humans who develop the protocols governing its use and the human who looks at its output and interprets it. One set of technology (the visuals) showed no evidence of an edge: another (UltraEdge) did. But the on-field umpire had given a “Not Out” decision, so Warner may have expected the less than convincing evidence against that to be set aside and he bat on. History records otherwise and his world record of single figure scores as an opener in a series extends to 8. By all accounts, Warner has owned to edging it, but I doubt he would have been so forthcoming had the decision gone the other way. And it was probably still wrong in law, even if not in fact which is an interesting philosophical nuance that I’m sure Warner would be keen to debate.

Ball Two – Not summertime, but the livin’ is still easy

I suppose, since July had so many days seemingly borrowed from September, that there’s some justice in September being blessed with days borrowed from July. Of course, one might say that there’d be a decent crowd to see England play Australia at beer pong, so a full house – well, full houses – for The Ashes, is hardly a shock. The weather and, especially, the gate receipts might give the ECB some thought about scheduling, particularly in even years when England’s football team dominates the sports news agenda – the news agenda – pretty much into July.

Ball Three – Labuschagne’s pain moment

Marnus Labuschagne is a fine batsman in form, but pace does strange things to people. Jofra Archer was bowling fast and had hit him earlier in the spell and that just shook him up enough to get his thinking and his movements scrambled. Archer got one right up and right on the button and umpire Erasmus raised the finger. Like many England batsmen, he had got out of shape, the balance – always the key to success in any sporting endeavour – lost, the bat failing to make contact with the ball. It threw into sharp contrast the man at the other end, Steven Smith, who has batted for hours and hours only really flummoxed when roughed up good and proper by Archer at Lord’s. It’s another example of how Smith’s surface unorthodoxy disguises an underlying orthodoxy that gets the job done, over after over after over.

Ball Four – Smith hammers out the runs – prettily

Steven Smith can be, well, if not quite dismissed, certainly reduced to, a set of twitchy tics, crazy stats and a fine eye. He is, of course, much more than that, his concentration, his balance, his temperament and – I could go on. As if to gift us with a leaving present in this season mirabilis, his return after more than a year out of Test cricket lest we forget, he played some gorgeous strokes particularly through the covers. Amongst Smith’s many unsung virtues is his ability to hit the ball hard enough – but no more – detuning the risk, simplifying the game even more. It’s not often that one praises the aesthetic charm of the Australian ex-captain, but this was a day to applaud another side of this extraordinary character’s game.

Ball Five – Electric Curran provides excellent support for Archer’s arrow straight deliveries

The news cycle moves very quickly these days, so one needs to remember that Jofra Archer is playing only his fourth Test, but he’s already the game-changer in a skilled, if slightly vanilla, attack. Sam Curran is younger than Archer, if more experienced, and doesn’t have the fear factor Archer’s 90mph bombs strike into the hearts of even the best batsmen. He’s a smart cricketer though, whose wrist is good enough to move the ball both ways and whose brain is good enough to work a batsman out. Curran bowled nine dot balls at Tim Paine before the tenth induced the flat-footed drive and the edge through to the keeper. A perfect in-ducker saw off Patrick Cummins first ball, England’s two young guns with all seven wickets between them.

Ball Six – The over rates

Not good enough.

And, even though we’re losing overs, play continues ’til 6.30 – in mid-September. Though the light is good, the low slanting sun and dark shadows make sighting the ball, particularly in the deep, very difficult, possibly unfairly so. Anyone who has played club cricket knows this, and I’m surprised that the umpires are happy to allow play to under such conditions. Of course, had England bowled their overs in time… Marcus Harris might have caught Joe Denly! With a screaming howler from Kumar Dharmasena to end the day (rescued by DRS), it was a pretty poor finish to the day for the officials.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 13, 2019

Fifth Ashes Test Day One – The Final Over of the Day

Look Tim! Look!! Maybe he knew they were toothless

Ball One – Scoreboard? Pressure? Not us…

England batted the first hour as they always do – as if the scoreboard reads 250-2. Can positive intent mean watching and waiting, knowing that if it’s easy to score eight boundaries in the first hour of the day, it’ll be easier still in the fourth and fifth hours? Joe Denly had plenty of time to reflect on that having driven at a ball only just full of a length, the edge to second slip as predictable as Steven Smith getting into the game early.

Ball Two – Australia chances go up in flames after Ashes victory saps 1%

Test cricket is a hard school. Its unforgiving nature is one reason why we like it – love it, really. You can’t put Christians in with lions anymore – outside computer games I suppose – but any shortfall in concentration or execution is punished with a (metaphorical) mauling. On Monday morning, Australia’s players woke up as the first to have retained The Ashes in England in 18 years, some perhaps a little quicker to gather those thoughts than others, whose heads may have been a tad fuzzy. Thursday morning, they are bowling on a shirtfront and dropping Joe Root three times before he had posted 32. They’re professionals, they’re skilled, but they’re human too. Perhaps that’s what 99% looks like.

Ball Three – Paine’s painful progress

At Tea, having decided to bowl, Australia have delivered 52 overs against a scheduled 60. This column’s issue is not whether they will catch up in the extra half-hour nor even with the two or three overs that the public might lose without a concomitant refund – it’s with the sporting aspect of the dilatory over rate. Crudely put, fielding captains fail to deliver on expected over rates because it gives them an advantage – why else do it otherwise? Sometimes there is mitigation – extended DRS interludes, a clatter of wickets – not none such applies in the first two sessions today. If Australia weren’t intending to bowl their full quota of overs in six hours, they shouldn’t have chosen to field. With an extra 30 minutes taken, eight overs were left unbowled, disappearing from the match – not good enough.

Ball Four – Watch the birdy? Where?

Pigeons, to Henry Blofeld’s delight and our eventual tedium, were once a fixture at The Oval, but few (if any) blessed us with their presence today. That may be the result of of the late scheduling of the Test or even Spidercam, but one sees far fewer birds in London these days, possibly because there are far fewer insects too. No doubt there’s plenty more changes less visible in local and global ecosystems that will affect cricket as much as any other aspect of our lives. Maybe more, because cricket, with its roots in agricultural practices (still present in terms like “wickets” and “scoring runs”, the pitch 22 yards, or one chain in length). Tanya Aldred has written on this point and she is not wrong. Cricket could do a lot worse than developing a comprehensive plan to address its carbon footprint – that might take time, but the problem is not going to be solved any time soon, so get on with it.

Ball Five – Patrick Cummins is very good at bowling

Patrick Cummins bowled Joe Root with yet another jaffa, pitching off and hitting off, the McGrathian half-bat’s width doing its job again. Cummins has played all five Tests, the only seamer other than Stuart Broad to do so – and Cummins is 5mph quicker than Broad (at least). He is a captain’s dream, willing to charge in all day, new ball or old ball, bouncers or yorkers. If you could ask for the perfect pacer for today’s Test cricket, you might say. “Give me a Ryan Harris, but younger, fitter and a bit quicker.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Patrick Cummins to a tee. Lose the no balls though…

Ball Six – Same old, same old… but at least we – yawn – won the World Cup

After a pretty ordinary first session from the Australians, England capitulated again to bowling that was good, but hardly unplayable, on a pitch that has lots of runs in it for those prepared to graft. But England just aren’t prepared to graft, the top six scoring between 14 and 64*, getting starts and failing to go on. The best batsmen make big runs in the first innings, because that’s when Tests take their shape. Steven Smith averages nearly 82 in the first dig, Ricky Ponting almost 58, Steve Waugh nearly 61. England’s first innings totals in the series are 374, 258, 67, 301 and 271-8 now . You’re not going to win many Test series playing catch up like that.

 

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