Monday, July 31, 2006

Second Test: England win by an innings and 120 runs



England are back on form! This crushing victory inside three days has re-established English cricket as resurgent and confident. This is going to be a long post, so do click 'More' to read it in full.

Discounting matches against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, this is England's joint biggest victory since 1974 (they also beat Pakistan by an innings and 120 runs back in 1978), and although it was another team effort, one bright shining new English star has emerged into the media's glaring, cruel eye: Mudhsuden Singh Panesar.

Monty is a bowler of enormous promise. He already has 25 Test wickets from only eight matches. Although a finger spinner, he can turn the ball sharply. Despite a lack of variation in pace and of a doosra, he managed to trick and trap the Pakistani batsmen - traditionally brilliant players of spin - into gifting their wickets. Doubtless he had some assistance from the pitch, yet this assistance mysteriously vanished when the Pakistani spinners were bowling; leaving one to draw the obvious conclusion that it was sheer talent, and not just a dodgy surface, that accounted for Panesar's match figures of 8-93. At last, England have a spin bowler who is not only handy (as Giles was before him) but capable of winning matches (as Giles, for all his talent, was not).

Let's not overlook the other positives that have emerged from this match, however. Steve Harmison, who for a good couple of years has frightened batsmen all over the world yet has rarely lived up to his billing, stormed his way through eleven Pakistani wickets. He bowled furiously and often accurately, forcing the batsmen into errors (watching Inzamam - one of the top ten batsmen in the world - completely misreading Harmison's length, and trying to duck a ball which only rose to hip height, was a joy). Harmison now has a performance to match his achievements against the West Indies at Sabina Park and his devastating (but sadly not match-winning) return at Lord's in last year's Ashes.

On the batting front there were delights as well. Alistair Cook and Ian Bell have now made hundreds in consecutive matches. Whether or not Cook is entirely secure in the No. 3 position is a question for another day. For the time being, he is the proud holder of a Test average of 59.40 after only seven matches, with three hundreds - a record only exceeded among current England players by his captain, Andrew Strauss. To say that he is gifted is an understatement. And, come the winter, the Australians will remember the double century he scored against their bowlers last year at Chelmsford.

Ian Bell's century was his most assured innings in an England shirt. Aware that, after his poor performances in last year's Ashes, he has merely been keeping the seat warm for the injured Andrew Flintoff, he has given the English selectors the delightful headache of showing himself to be a viable option should they decide to play six batsmen and only four bowlers. Although I have reservations about using this tactic in Australia, Bell's self-confidence in the middle order and the brilliance of Panesar make a strong case for dropping Flintoff down to No. 7 (where he will be a frightening prospect for the opposition, matched only by Gilchrist for the Australians).

And, last but not least, Strauss is now able to relax in his sudden role as England captain, since Flintoff will be recuperating from his operation until October. At Lord's he erred on the side of caution, delaying his declaration until he was sure the game was safe. At Old Trafford he was prepared to countenance more aggressive tactics (although there was a case for declaring the moment Bell made his hundred). English captains have tended to under-bowl their spinners, but Strauss recognised that Panesar was the man for the job and he was not afraid to let the left-armer operate unbroken at one end while the latter ploughed his steady way through the formidable Pakistani line-up, and Harmison scared the wits out of them at the other.

There is one positive remaining to be mentioned, and I have left it until last as it is shrouded in irony. Geraint Jones had a marvellous match behind the stumps, taking six catches and pulling off a marvellous rapid-reaction stumping. This achievement is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that five of those dismissals took place in Pakistan's second innings, during which Jones was keeping with a broken finger. While he has failed to live up to his early promise with the bat, Jones's keeping has improved from frankly amateur (none of his blunders cost England the Ashes, but there would have been plenty of opportunities for criticism had the series not gone England's way) to international standard. Yet England have used the broken finger as a chance to drop him from the team - not to give his finger time to recover, but to punish him for his overall poor performance.

The questions that arise are: if Jones's form with the bat was considered below standard (the reason given for dropping him) why was he not excluded from the team sooner, ie at the start of the summer, allowing his replacement ample time to get some international experience under his belt before the trip Down Under this winter? If his form with the bat was considered good enough to play these matches, why has he been dropped for a player (Chris Read) whose own record with the bat at international level is equally miserable? If the England selectors were not convinced Jones's performances were adequate, why did they wait until the convenient excuse of his injury emerged - why did they not have the courage to drop him on merit alone? If Read was treated shoddily two years ago, by being dropped by selectors seduced by Jones's batting form on the county circuit, then Jones has been treated just as shoddily. It's behaviour like this that is holding back English cricket from being on a par with the Australians.

On the bright side, England have six strong batsmen, all of whom have made a Test century this summer, two pacemen in the world's top ten bowlers, a spinner capable of bowling a side out and not just holding up an end, and a captain beginning to look assured in his role. Flintoff, Simon Jones and Anderson may well be fit in time for the Ashes tour, and several other Young Turks are making a good case for consideration (Dalrymple, Loudon, Joyce, Shah, Plunkett). The future of English cricket, if it can only overcome its natural hesitancy and its tendency to pay too much attention to individual performances, looks bright indeed.


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