MCC loses its mind over Steven Finn’s knee

The MCC today made an absolutely ridiculous decision to institute a law so that as of 1 October of this year if a bowler kicks the stumps in his run up it will be a no-ball. This is in response to the ongoing ‘problem’ of Steven Finn doing just that. But the affair has been blown wildly out of proportion and this new law is utterly misguided.

Finn is far from the first bowler to regularly to kick the stumps in his delivery stride and his habit of doing so is far from a new one. The issue only cropped up last summer when Graeme Smith claimed that it was a distraction. Whether or not that is true can never be known, though given the very large number of times it had already happened with no complaints from batsmen it seems rather unlikely. Still, Smith was within his rights to say it was a distraction and in that case he should pull out of the shot and the umpire should call dead ball. That is all well and good and as long as it all happens before or just as the ball is bowled there should be no problem.

But then the umpires and ICC mysteriously decided that despite Smith being in an overwhelming minority in finding the bails distracting, they were going to start calling kicking the stumps a dead ball almost every single time. Except sometimes they weren’t and they weren’t ever going to make it clear when they were or weren’t. What ought to have happened and what still ought to happen is nothing. If the batsman is distracted let him pull out, but otherwise play on. Given how often the resulting ball goes for four it seems they aren’t generally too put off. It is a simple solution to what is really an exceedingly minor issue. There is no need to penalise the batsmen certainly and if they are truly distracted they still have recourse. The matter need not go further.

It is good that the MCC decided to deal with the uncertainty surrounding the issue, but deciding to punish the bowler for committing no crime is insane. There is no advantage gained by the bowler in hitting the stumps; he is not releasing the ball unreasonably close to the batsman nor at an unreasonably large angle. If it is distracting then the batsman already has the means to ensure that no advantage is gained by the bowler. (And if the batsman truly is distracted, then that is a matter for a dead ball, not a no-ball. It is just like someone walking behind the sightscreen.) This is another law tilting the scales in even more in favour of the batsmen and with no rational justification at all.

One person who will be delighted at this is Smith. Never in his wildest dreams could he have hoped that his little bit of gamesmanship last August would be this effective.

South Africa win by 211 runs

As good as South Africa were (and take nothing away from them, Dale Steyn in particular was outstanding) Pakistan left a bit to be desired with the bat. They had given themselves an opportunity by bowling South Africa out relatively cheaply, but utterly squandered it and looked generally clueless for good measure. They went into the series with only one warmup match and without playing a Test in seaming conditions for two years and it showed. England were rightly criticised for not having enough warmup time before they were whitewashed by Pakistan in the UAE a year ago and now Pakistan have made that exact same mistake. With the South African bowlers already on song and very dangerous, Pakistan barely had a chance.

South Africa actually had a chance to enforce the follow-on, which is saying a lot after they were bowled out for 253. I think Graeme Smith was correct to do so though; South Africa had a lot of momentum it was true, but the lead was still ‘only’ two hundred. It’s pretty common now for teams to not enforce the follow-on when the lead is under 250 and even though this was a special case with the scores so small, I think the reasoning still applies. It’s doubtful that Pakistan would have put South Africa under any pressure, but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility and there was plenty of time for South Africa to simply bat Pakistan out of the match, which they did. It’s easy to see it as another example of Smith’s inherent negativity, and strictly speaking it is, but I think in this case it was justified negativity and certainly it did not hurt his side’s chances.

Pakistan have a two day match against a Western Province Invitational XI ahead of the second Test and they must use it to get some time in the middle for their batsmen. They need to at least get comfortable enough in the conditions to make South Africa work for their wickets in the next two Tests. Pakistan’s bowers can cause damage to the South African batting order, but at least right now their batsmen don’t look like being able to back them up.

The Test was also much hyped as Smith’s hundredth as captain. Technically that is true, but one of those hundred Tests was the farcical ‘ICC Super Test’ from 2005. There is no conceivable justification for that match counting as an official Test and many do not count it at all. Being named captain of that side especially is nothing to celebrate; any member of the XI could have done so for all the difference it would have made. It was worlds away from the considered selection of a national Test captain and should be completely discounted along with the rest of the statistics from that waste of time.

What is particularly annoying about all the misplaced hype is that Smith’s true hundredth Test as captain is the second Test and will go all but unnoticed. Even if one thinks that the Super Test should count, the second Test is still Smith’s hundredth time captaining his country which is a major achievement and should get a lot more recognition than it will. Unfortunately, Cricket South Africa have spoiled the celebrations by staging them too soon.

2012 XI

There are still three days to go in the year proper, but 2012 ended in a cricketing sense last night as Sri Lanka collapsed to a heavy innings defeat at the MCG. It’s an interesting year on which to look back; South Africa will certainly be the happiest as they returned to the number one spot in the Test rankings, but England finished on a high and Australia made the most of their very weak opposition for most of the year.

For my XI of the year I am assuming the Test is being played in South Africa as they are the number one ranked side. I have one spinner, therefore, and although all things being equal I prefer having five bowlers it is far more common to play four bowlers/six batsmen so I am using that balance.

Alastair Cook
Cook led all openers in 2012 with 1249 runs scored and was second in average at 48.03 runs per dismissal. He also hit four centuries, the most of any opener and the last one set a new English record for career centuries.

Graeme Smith*
Smith had the best average amongst openers in 2012 with 48.52 and passed fifty more often than any other opener, eight times. He gets the captaincy in this XI after leading his team to the number one Test ranking.

Hashim Amla
Amla bats at three after 1064 runs at an average over seventy this year. His high point was the unbeaten 311 he scored as South Africa piled on the runs at the Oval, but he was brilliant throughout.

Michael Clarke
Comfortably the lead run scorer in 2012, Clarke finished the year by setting an Australian record with 1595 runs scored in a calendar year. He hit five centuries, three of them doubles and one a triple. Two of those double tons were also against South Africa, so it was not a case of weak opposition either.

AB de Villiers
De Villiers is a bit of a surprise; he bookended the year with centuries in Cape Town and Perth but had none in between. But he did still contribute consistently and averaged almost 57 in the middle order with 815 runs, fourth highest amongst middle order batsmen.

Ross Taylor
Taylor might remember this year for the captaincy debacle, but before that he scored 819 runs at an average over 54 and three centuries for good measure. The last of those came in a memorable win at Colombo.

Matt Prior
Prior was still the best overall wicket-keeper in 2012; he scored the most runs of any wicket-keeper and had the most dismissals, though in both cases he was helped by playing in rather more matches than all of his competitors. But he was the only one to excel with both bat and gloves.

Vernon Philander
It was another excellent year for Philander; he took 43 wickets in nine Tests at an average just over 21. He was at his best early in the year, but he still took an important five wickets in the last innings of the Lord’s Test to ensure a series win for South Africa.

Kemar Roach
Roach was far from the most heralded bowler this year, but he took 39 wickets in only seven Tests at an average of 22. His zenith was the five wickets he took in each innings against Australia at Port of Spain in April.

James Anderson
Statistically this will not go down as Anderson’s best year, but that hardly tells the full story. Nine of the 14 Tests in which he played this year were in subcontinent conditions and he still proved a threat, taking thirty wickets at under 27 apiece. His spells in Galle, Calcutta and Nagpur in particular were incredible.

Saeed Ajmal
It was a very tough call for the spinner’s place between Ajmal and Ragnara Herath. Herath was actually the lead wicket taker in 2012, but Ajmal took 39 wicket in only six Tests and of course baffled England at the start of the year. Herath going wicketless in the last Test of the year finally tipped the selection to Ajmal.

Steven Finn’s knee

With a recall for Steven Finn looking very likely for the Calcutta Test, there will almost certainly be more discussion about his recurring problem of kicking the stumps in his delivery stride. It’s something that has gone from a mild curiosity to almost a controversy after Graeme Smith claimed during the summer that it was a distraction and the umpire called a dead ball. Since then the ICC drafted in a playing condition for the T20 World Cup that the first instance would be a warming and anything further would be a dead ball. Since this has tended to penalise the batsmen more than the bowler (assuming it’s roughly random it is far more likely to impact a run-scoring delivery than a wicket-taking one) there have been suggestions that a version of ‘advantage’ should be called or even an outright no-ball.

But both the ICC’s response and the calls for a harsher punishment are silly. Finn is not the first bowler to occasionally kick the stumps and whilst it most certainly is something he would be well advised to stop doing it, there is no need for the ICC to come up with a new regulation about it. If it is a distraction then the batsman can inform the umpires and risk losing out on a scoring shot or they could pull out as they would do for any other distraction. They do so quite late for other distractions without any problem. But whether or not it really is a distraction is something that entirely rests with the batsman at the crease; none of the batsmen before Smith seemed to have a problem with it and whilst I am sceptical that he did either that should not really matter. If the batsman says it’s a distraction then the umpires need to take him at his word, but it is a mistake to draft in a blanket regulation covering all batsmen as clearly not all of them find it problematic. Giving a ‘warning’ is even more ridiculous. If the batsman is distracted and gets out because of it then why should it be different if it is the first instance or the second instance?

What I suspect, however, is that the warning is an artefact of the apparent thinking of the ICC and several others that this is supposed to be a punishment for the bowler so he gets one warning. This also explains the suggestion that there should be an advantage or a no-ball. But they all completely miss the fact that the bowler has done nothing for which he should be punished! He has contravened no laws and as is evidenced by the large number of times it has happened before this episode he has not gained an unfair advantage either. It would be as ridiculously unfair to punish the bowler for kicking the stumps as it would be to call a no-ball every time someone walked in front of the sightscreen. There is no merit to the notion that if the batsman gets a run it was not a distraction, but if he gets out it was. Batsmen get out without being distracted all the time and they cannot have this both ways. It’s either a distraction and therefore a dead ball or it isn’t, but it is certainly not like the bowler overstepping and gaining an unfair advantage by bowling closer to the stumps.

If the Indian batsmen lose runs to dead balls and are not happy about it then they should tell the umpire they do not find kicking the stumps to be a distraction. If the umpires call it anyway then it is a) a mistake by the umpires and ICC, not the bowler, and b) something I am sure the BCCI will change in no time at all.

England 0-2 South Africa review and player marks

It should have been more than just three matches. The second two Tests were very good, very close and very much left one wanting more. But fortunately the possibility that the reduced series might have robbed us all of a proper result did not come to pass. South Africa were very much the better side and deserved to win. England came close in the last two Tests, but never looked like outplaying South Africa and I don’t think even the most partisan Englishman would begrudge South Africa their victory.

England were always up against it after their dismal performance in the first Test. The batsmen gave away a good start, the bowlers toiled for three days on a flat wicket and then the batsmen succumbed to the pressure of trying to bat out the draw. Whilst they did improve dramatically in the next two Tests, it was always going to be a tough task to come back and South Africa were simply too good. Michael Vaughan put it well on TMS when he said that throughout the series when England built partnerships one always got the feeling that South Africa would find a way to break them, but when South Africa built partnerships it felt like they would bat indefinitely. Part of this was that England threw wickets away too regularly (though South Africa did so as well) and part was that England dropped too many catches in the field. But I think a lot of it was to due with the fact that the English bowling often just looked too flat. South Africa seemed to always have something whether it be swing, bite or just raw pace and aggression. When the ball stopped swinging for England, however, all too often one simply could not see how they were going to get a wicket. It was a fairly harsh come down after they had performed so well in the subcontinent in the winter.

Both sides have slightly to somewhat tricky tours up next in the forms of India and Australia, but first here are how the players did in this series:

England (75/140, average 5.36)
Andrew Strauss* – 5
Stayed calm, measured and reasonable as the KP problem overshadowed the third Test and his hundredth. Led the side admirably as England went for the runs both at Headingley and Lord’s, but his own form was quite poor. His nemesis, Morkel, got him with the fourth ball of the series and the best Strauss could do after that was just making starts. His dismissal on the fourth day at Lord’s told of a someone who had a trying week.

Alastair Cook – 6
Scored 195 runs in the series, but 115 of them were in his first innings. Threw his wicket away a few times (once out of necessity at Headingley), but also had problems with the bowlers nipping it back into him and was lbw to Philander twice.

Jonathan Trott – 4
Somehow managed to average over forty in the series despite looking terrible throughout. Had a decent knock in the first Test before getting out to a terrible waft outside off. He also threw away his wicket after a good start at Headingley and edged his way to 63 at the Oval whilst running out Taylor for good measure. Starts show he is seeing the ball okay, but needs to regain the patience he showed most notably in the last Ashes.

Ian Bell – 6
Played some good innings in the series, but had the same trouble as most of the batsmen in getting out to poor shots. Played very well to try to save England at the Oval and dig them out of a first innings hole at Lord’s, but should have gone on in both innings. The fifties were useful, but England needed hundreds.

James Taylor – 5
Replaced Bopara for the Headingley Test and had a decent debut. His 34 was hardly going to set the world alight, but it was very patiently scored over the course of 104 balls in fairly difficult circumstances. Didn’t get many at Lord’s but was the victim of a decent ball in the first innings and was done up by Prior in the second. Should have a spot on the plane to India.

Jonny Bairstow – 9
Harshly dropped for the first two Tests after it was perceived that he had a problem with the short ball against the West Indies, but made a strong statement when he returned for the last one. Came in with the score 54-4 in the first innings, rescued England and came agonisingly close to getting on the Lord’s honours board. Came in with the score 45-4 in the second innings and scored a fifty at better than a run a ball to (amazingly) keep England in the match. Could not have asked for much more.

Matt Prior† – 8
England’s leading run scorer in the series by a distance; he scored valuable runs with the tail in four of the six innings and had a fifty in each Test. The only marks against him with the bat were some soft dismissals after he had got to fifty. Somewhat offset though by his stunning 73 in the last Test which gave England a sniff of a very improbable victory. Was good with the gloves, but dropped Amla on two in the last Test (his first drop standing back for two years) which ultimately cost England 119 runs.

Stuart Broad – 4
Came into the series having averaged 19 with the ball in the past twelve months, but had a very poor series. His pace was well down for most of the series and he only had one really good spell, in the second innings at Headingley. He did swing the ball some in the last Test, but never looked as threatening as he had last year. Fairly poor series with the bat as well, but found a bit of form at Lord’s.

Graeme Swann – 4
Had trouble really getting into the series with the ball. Bowed some very good spells in the two Tests he played, but by and large the South African batsmen were equal to the challenge. Took only four wickets, all of them in the last Test and one thanks only to a very clever bit of work from Prior. Managed to average exactly fifty with the bat, however, which was good enough for third best in the series on the English side and hit a thrilling 41 on the last day.

James Anderson – 6
Desperately unlucky for most of the series; he had a few spells where he beat the bat with regularity but was not rewarded. Unlike in the winter, though, he could not always coax enough movement out of it to trouble the batsmen when they were well set. Looked flat at periods when the ball was not swinging and ended up without a lot of reward.

Steven Finn – 8
Finally got his chance when Swann was left out for the Headingley Test and had problems with his knee hitting the stumps, denying him a wicket in the first innings. Did well enough to keep his place for the Lord’s Test though and was brilliant there. He provided a much needed pace option when the ball was not swinging and his spell on the fourth day almost got England back into the Test. Has given Bresnan a bit of work to do to get back in the side.

Kevin Pietersen – 8
His off-the-pitch antics were almost the only story in the run up to the third Test, for which he was dropped. My thoughts on that matter are well documented, but on the pitch he had a good series. His 149 at Headingley was an absolutely staggering innings and included hitting Dale Steyn back over his head for six. Tempered somewhat by his throwing his wicket away in both innings at the Oval and costing England a good position in the first. Also performed admirably with the ball at Headingley when Swann was absent. Was outdone by his replacement, Bairstow, at Lord’s.

Ravi Bopara – 1
Scored 22 runs total in the only Test he played. Threw his wicket away to an appalling shot in the first innings and then to a poor one in the second, though in that innings he had at least hung on for a while before hand. Missed the next two Test due to personal reasons and the performances of Taylor and Bairstow will make it tricky for him to reclaim that spot. Inexplicably, he is expected to have a chance anyway.

Tim Bresnan – 1
A very poor series for the Yorkshireman saw him dropped for the Lord’s Test in favour of Steven Finn. Before that he had taken just two wickets, both of Smith and both in rather surprising ways, for over two hundred runs. His batting had suffered a bit too and he was going much more slowly than usual. Seems to still not be up to full strength.

South Africa (73/110, average 6.64)
Graeme Smith* – 8
A relatively poor tour of England for the South African skipper, he ‘only’ averaged 54 and ‘only’ scored one century. He also appears to have failed to cause the resignation of his opposite number. Still did very well, of course and his captaincy was at the best I’ve seen it. He declared aggressively at the Oval and was rewarded with an innings victory and made an odd declaration going for an unlikely win at Headingley.

Alviro Petersen – 7
Out for a duck at the Oval and had three days to think about it whilst his teammates batted and batted. If anything though, that time seemed to help him as he scored 182 at Headingley to see South Africa to a decent score. Didn’t get many in the second innings after injuring his hamstring and only had a couple of starts in the third Test, but still did enough to average over sixty in the series.

Hashim Amla – 10
Amla is the sort of batsman one could watch forever and for England fans that seemed to be what happened. Hit an unbeaten triple century in the first Test (when he came to the wicket in the third over) and then backed that up with a vital and arguably match-winning hundred in the second innings of the last Test. Only looked human when he hit a full toss straight to cover in the second Test and when he got a jaffa from Finn in the third. England fans will be relieved to see him bat against the Aussies for a while.

Jacques Kallis – 7
Came into the series with a very poor record in England and looked like turning it around with 182* at the Oval. His next highest score in the series was 31, however, though he was brutally given out in the first innings at Lord’s. Did manage to pick up four wickets in the series as well, including the important one of Broad on the last day at Lord’s.

AB de Villiers† – 5
Did well with the gloves in his spell as Test ‘keeper. Made few clear mistakes and none which might not have been made by a full-time gloveman. Did not perform as well as South Africa might have liked with the bat though; he scored no fifties in four innings. He did pass forty three times, however.

Jacques Rudolph – 4
Not a great series for the former Yorkshire batsman. He did not get to bat at the Oval, of course, and somehow managed to get out twice to Pietersen at Headingley. Finished the series with just one fifty to his name and an average of 35.

JP Duminy – 6
His highest score in the series was the 61 he made in the first innings at Lord’s, but that disguises the fact that he put on some incredibly frustrating runs with the tail. His second innings partnership with Philander probably won the third Test for South Africa. Was also stranded on 48* at Headingley and was South Africa’s best spinner.

Vernon Philander – 9
He did not run through England the way he had done to other teams in his career, but he did bowl extremely well. He consistently bowled a good line and length and got the ball to nip around making life very difficult for the batsmen. Man of the Match in the last Test with 96 runs in the two innings and a five-fer to bowl England out. Might have been Man of the Series were it not for Amla.

Dale Steyn – 9
Bowled with his usual pace, hostility and accuracy and was rewarded with the 15 wickets, the most of any bowler in the series. His five-fer at the Oval made sure that England could not bat out a draw and he picked up important wickets throughout the series. Was only made to look bad by Pietersen at Headingley.

Morne Morkel – 6
Drifted between brilliant and wayward. Usually opened the bowling to Strauss and Cook as both have problems with him at his best, but this was only effective twice as he was simply too inaccurate most of the time. One of those times was in the fourth ball of the series, however, which seemed to convince Smith to keep trying it.

Imran Tahir – 2
It’s never a good series when one is outbowled by both JP Duminy and Kevin Pietersen and that is what happened to Imran Tahir. Only managed one top order wicket in the series, that of Strauss, and his only strength seemed to be an ability to get Prior late in the innings as the latter went for quick runs. Was utterly taken apart on the last day of the series as England tried to get a win.

Lord’s, day one: South Africa 262-7

I suspect that Andrew Strauss will have enjoyed the first day of his hundredth Test more than Graeme Smith will have enjoyed the first day of his record-tying 93rd as captain. I said yesterday that I thought it would be a good toss to lose as both captains would likely bat despite the good bowling conditions and that seems to have been the case. Smith won the toss and batted and England bowled very well in the overcast conditions, reducing South Africa to 54-4 at lunch. It was comfortably England’s best session in the field in this series and the first time South Africa had been under real pressure.

It did not come without some fortune for England, however. Both Alviro Petersen and Jacques Kallis were ‘Kasprowiczed’: given out caught to a ball that took the glove after the bat had been released. The Kallis dismissal was particularly controversial as it was given not out by the on-field umpire and reviewed by England. The ball clearly hit the glove and Rod Tucker overturned the original decision, but he seemed to completely forget that the glove had to still be holding the bat. Whilst it was a matter of millimetres and milliseconds, there was never enough evidence to actually overturn the decision and had it been the other way there might not have even been enough evidence to uphold it. It was an absolute shocker and South Africa will no doubt feel aggrieved. For England, though, the morning session represented an overdue slice of luck after a series seemingly dominated by good balls missing the outside edge or miscued shots avoiding fielders.

Apart from those two questionable dismissals, England did bowl very well through the first part of the day and the dismissals of Smith and Amla were both down to simply excellent bowling. A very good away swinger from Anderson after lunch also accounted for de Villiers, but after that England took their foot off somewhat. It is not to say that they bowled poorly, but they were not bowling those sharp, testing balls that were helping to induce errors. Part of this was that the ball was older, of course, but once it stopped moving extravagantly England seemed to relax too much. This is all too often the case with England. Rudolph and Duminy batted well, but for most of their innings they were not under the same pressure as their predecessors. Even after Rudolph gifted his wicket to Swann, England did not seem to attack enough. Philander rode his luck a bit, but then settled into a proper innings and made it to stumps 46 not out. That’s more than any of South Africa’s top five and more than Smith, Amla and Kallis scored combined. Whilst he does have some skill with the bat, England will be very disappointed with letting him score so many.

Whilst England did get Duminy out with the second new ball, that was the only one they managed to get before stumps. They did do well overall; England are on top still and I am sure that having lost the toss Strauss would have taken 262-7 at stumps. But the tale told by South Africa going from 54-4 to 105-5 to 262-7 is not a pretty one for England and they really should be batting by now.

Tomorrow England need to finish South Africa off quickly. The pitch is not a minefield; it’s still recognisably a Lord’s wicket. But it’s not quite as flat as the usual style and we have seen deliveries misbehave already. It looks like 400 is probably a par first innings score, possibly even less. England really cannot waste any more time; they have already conceded more tail end runs than they would like and one expects that England will have to bowl South Africa out for under 300 to really still be on top. And whatever score South Africa do make, England then have to match it. England’s batsmen have good records at Lord’s, but they need to keep their heads tomorrow. We saw them get in and get out at Headingley; they must not do that here. They still have a good chance to take control of this match over the next two days and it’s crucial that they start to do so tomorrow. If they fail, however, South Africa could very easily be on top by stumps.

Eng v SA third Test preview

For the second time in as many years England go into the sixth Test of a summer knowing that a win will secure the number one spot. The pressure is much higher this time, however, as unlike against India there is no room for error. England have had a poor 2012, a fairly poor series and the preparation for this last Test has been far from ideal.

This crucial Test is also Andrew Strauss’ hundredth. Unfortunately this has largely been overshadowed by the Pietersen saga, but Strauss has handled himself extremely well and his comments on the matter of been a welcome oasis of level-headedness. Whilst England will miss Pietersen in that he is a talented batsmen, the increase in team unity should not be underestimated and nor should the benefit of having that distraction at least taken out of sight. It will leave the batting weakened, but it is important to remember that Pietersen has failed when the team needs him at least as often as he has played the sort of brilliant hundred we saw at Headingley. The batting is weakened, but not to the extent many seem to believe. England’s rise to the top of the Test ranking was built off team efforts and it is to this which they will be trying to return in their effort to stay there.

England will need their batsmen to fire, but they actually have a very good record batting at Lord’s and for all the talk about the batting I expect the key will be the bowling. England’s attack did much better at Headingley than they did at the Oval, but they won’t get a lot of help from the Lord’s surface. Despite effectively doing so at Headingley, England are unlikely to play five bowlers at Lord’s so at least one of Tim Bresnan or Steven Finn will miss out. But as I’ve said before I would actually drop them both and play Graham Onions who will likely be better suited to the conditions. Whoever is named in the XI tomorrow morning, however, they will all need to perform. England do not want to rely on Stuart Broad finding his length in a devastating spell as happened at Headingley.

South Africa meantime have little about which to worry. They will have no doubt enjoyed watching the Pietersen furore and although the Headingley match was probably closer than they might have liked they have the confidence of knowing that their plans have worked so far. There seems little chance of a change from the last Test; the only possibility was that Petersen might miss out with his hamstring injury but he has come up well. This will also be an important Test for Graeme Smith as he will tie Allan Border’s record of most Tests as captain.

The Lord’s pitch tends to flatten out at the match goes on and the rumour is that it is more green than usual to start this time so it might be a decent one on which to bowl first. The weather forecast is also for overcast conditions on the first day, which usually plays a big role at Lord’s. Strauss got a lot of flak for bowling first at Headingley, but it actually proved to be a decent decision. This must be weighed against the fact that the last time South Africa toured a very similar logic led to South Africa bowling first and conceding over 500. In the end, it might be an excellent toss to lose. I think this game will be one of steady partnerships and will probably be decided by whose bowlers can best instigate a collapse. England will have the confidence of having done so at Headingley, but still have a very formidable South African top order with which to contend.

Headingley, day five: match drawn

I said yesterday the match would be drawn and so it was. But that would be too easy and what should have been the least interesting day of the match (and for the first session made it look absolutely certain to be) ended up the most exciting. England went out in the morning looking to instigate a quick collapse. They had a decent go, the bowling was good, but South Africa really had the rub of the green with possible catches evading fielders and the ball beating the bat entirely. They also came off for rain a couple of times and it was not until a couple of overs before a late lunch that England finally shifted South Africa’s makeshift opening partnership. Incredibly, it was Kevin Pietersen to Jacques Rudolph again. Pietersen bowled four balls to Rudolph in the match and dismissed him twice.

A few days ago, I said that I thought England had made the right call by bowling four seamers as Swann had not bowled well at Headingley and there was not any turn on the first four days. Today, however, there was turn and Pietersen found it. Whilst I still do see the logic of the decision, it is now clear that it was indeed the wrong one. Pietersen got good turn, good bounce and three wickets in the innings. The only caveat to those wickets was that one of them, the dismissal of Smith, was very questionable and Amla’s dismissal was nothing whatsoever to do with spin as he tamely hit a full toss straight to cover. The Smith dismissal was an interesting one as he was given out caught at short leg and discussed it with his partner before deciding to review it. The replay showed that he had hit his boot, but the actual view of where the ball either did or did not hit the bat was obscured by James Taylor. If one was to make a decision based off that alone one would say not out, but there was certainly not enough evidence to overturn the umpire’s call of out and so it stayed. To his credit, Smith took the decision with good grace.

That dismissal cost South Africa in an odd way later though as it meant that South Africa were out of reviews. This was very unlucky for South Africa as I have seen teams get the review back in similar situations in the past and I am not entirely sure why South Africa did not. When Broad then trapped AB de Villiers lbw, South Africa could not review and the replay showed that the ball was sliding down leg. That said, it looked plumb live and there is actually every chance it would not have been reviewed. Unfortunately we won’t ever know, but regardless of whether or not it would have been reviewed it was a poor decision by the umpire which South Africa did not have the opportunity to correct.

This was the start of a fearsome spell by Stuart Broad that very much livened up the match. He had previously started to bowl too short again, but here he remembered to pitch the ball up and try to hit the stumps and he was rewarded. De Villiers may have got a poor decision, but he was still entirely beaten by the delivery and ended up playing all around a fairly straight one. JP Duminy was then trapped lbw (correctly this time) to a very similarly full and straight delivery that he played poorly. A few overs later, Vernon Philander departed to one that had nipped back and hit him in front of off. This is what Broad does when he is bowling at his best and it is so important for England that he remembers to do so. Only once he establishes that danger for the batsmen can he use the short ball to any effect, as he subsequently did to get rid of Kallis. Broad finished with an excellent and well deserved five-fer.

Broad’s heroics led to the best part of the day and possibly the match: Smith and Strauss, two of the most defensive captains in world cricket, had a mini contest to see which one could grab some sort of initiative and mental edge over the other heading into the Lord’s Test. Smith declared with nine down in a purely symbolic gesture (Tahir is very much a number eleven) but the gesture was clear. In response, Strauss juggled the England batting order and sent Kevin Pietersen out to open the run chase. Despite this, however, neither side still really went all out for it. South Africa had a reasonably attacking field, but only about the standard for the start of an innings and England, despite being up with or close to the required rate for a long period still sent Trott in at number four. Trott is a good ODI batsman, and actually was scoring at over a run a ball for the start of his innings, but it was still more of a defensive move than anything else. England’s entire approach actually seemed quite muddled. Prior, a very attacking option, came in after Trott and it was only when he was finally out that England stopped going for it. Taylor and Broad never got to bat at all though. As nice as it was to see England try to win the match, the execution was poor and one was left with the impression that England could have come a lot closer.

In a way, England have already lost the series. Whilst they can still get out with a draw, their excellent home series winning streak (seven consecutive home series won, dating back to the last time South Africa toured) is over and all they can do is try to make it a less impressive unbeaten streak. They will also still have not managed to beat South Africa and put to rest the discussion of which side is better. They have only themselves to blame for this; not entirely because of the actual results (though obviously that as well) but because the series is only three Tests. This is always a possibility of a three Test series; the ECB could have and should have scheduled another Test and now it will cost them.

Headingley, day one: SA 262-5

England, for once, showed some admirable aggression today. No, they did not finally play five bowlers. But they did something similar and played four quick bowlers leaving out Swann. Partly due to this and partly due to the conditions looking bowler friendly, Strauss also opted to bowl first upon winning the toss. There was plenty of criticism of this both at the time and subsequently, but I think it was the right move. I would have preferred five bowlers with Swann included, but knowing that was never going to happen this was the next best thing. Headingley tends to favour seamers and Swann in particular has never been effective there. England have to attack in this Test; they have to find a way to win and I do think that the best way to do that was to select the four bowlers who would be getting the most out of the conditions. If I had to make a change I actually might have brought Onions in, who probably would have used the conditions very well also. The same applies to the decision to bowl first, especially once it had been decided to play four bowlers. The conditions were cloudy for a lot of the day and should be so tomorrow as well and bowling first gave us an excellent chance to try to put South Africa on the back foot. It did not come off as well as Strauss would have liked, but I definitely do not think it in any way backfired (at least not yet) either.

The first part of the day was dominated by the controversy about Steven Finn being ‘dead-balled’ for hitting the stumps with his knee during his delivery stride. This is something that Finn does with some regularity, but for the first time the batsmen, Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen, complained to the umpire that it was ‘distracting’ and Finn was informed that the ball would henceforth be declared dead whenever the bails were dislodged. All of the actions did take place in accordance with the laws and the umpires did apply this consistently; both an edge to slip and a pair of boundaries were discounted so one certainly would not say that Finn was treated unfairly. That said, the fact that no other batsman has ever complained about Finn, the fact that there was actually no precedent of any batsmen having complained about a myriad of bowlers in the past who regularly hit the stumps and the fact that Smith was not so distracted that he could not dispatch a couple of the dead balls to the boundary suggests that the complaint was borne less out of distraction and more out of a desire to put Finn off. I have a lot of trouble believing that it was anything other than gamesmanship by Smith.

England did not do as well with the ball as they would have liked, but I do think that the general suggestion that by bowling first England should have South Africa all out by now are a bit harsh. I don’t think bowling first should be considered as radical a tactic as it is often is and if South Africa had one won the toss and batted I think most would say that it was about honours even now. Perhaps a slight edge to South Africa. Certainly England are still very much in the match. Alviro Petersen is still there overnight after making an excellent hundred today (as an interesting aside: his last three Test innings are now 156, 0 and 124*), but there is not a lot of other batting left. Of the other five batsmen who are yet to be dismissed, three are tailenders and two are Rudolph and Duminy. Rudolph is a good county player, but does not fill one with confidence at Test level and Duminy was actually selected after Rudolph. This does not mean that they can not or will not score runs, of course, but England will fancy their chances of getting through them pretty quickly tomorrow morning.

With the rate South Africa batted today they can probably expect to get to about 350 by lunch tomorrow and they will probably be thinking of 400 as something of a minimum total for the innings. Whether they can get that far will likely depend on Petersen; I expect that if he bats through to lunch South Africa will have a great chance of getting a score well over 400. One of England’s weaknesses in the past few years has been bowling out sides when a top order batsman has been shepherding the tail and even if the other players only bat to their fairly low averages alongside Petersen it should be enough to put South Africa in control of the match. On the other side of that coin though, if England can get him early tomorrow then they will have a great chance to knock South Africa over very cheaply. The second new ball is only seven overs old and the bowlers will be fresh as they always are at the start of a day. But regardless of South Africa’s total, I suspect tomorrow will mostly be about whether England can bat properly this time. It is that which will decide the match.

South Africa win by an innings and twelve runs

The final scoreline probably disguises the true gap between the way the two sides played. England won the first day, but ought to have done better. South Africa dominated from there. That said, England probably should still have escaped with a draw. The pitch was still a very flat one even on the last day, though it had broken up a bit by then. Jimmy Anderson and Tim Bresnan made it very clear that once batsmen played themselves in they were hard to dislodge. England simply threw too many wickets away in their effort to get a draw and more broadly in the Test itself.

England’s first innings total of 385 always looked a bit under par and South Africa showed just how far short it was. South Africa in general and Hashim Amla in particular batted with incredible patience on a flat wicket. They did very seldom played outside the off stump and Graeme Smith did well to survive and negate a testing spell from Graeme Swann on the third morning. It was an example of how to bat in stark contrast to the way England went about their affairs for far too much of the match. The first day was especially galling. England were in a great position with the wicket looking very flat and South Africa’s attack looking a bit rusty, but still Trott fished outside his off-stump to get out and Kevin Pietersen played an idiotic attempt at a hook just before the new ball. The next day Bopara played a half a hook to nick behind and Tim Bresnan somehow contrived to play a wide long hop from Tahir onto his stumps. Those sort of mental lapses cost England dearly, especially as South Africa never seemed in any great danger of making them. I count eight avoidable dismissals by batsmen who ought to have known better and I am being rather generous. That number could easily be expanded to twelve or more. England were probably never going to put up 637-2, of course, but 450 should have been a minimum and those extra 65 runs probably would have been the difference in the match.

England’s bowling was lacklustre though. There was a period on the second day where the conditions very much favoured the bowlers and in that time England looked fantastic. Jimmy got an early wicket and Broad looked very threatening. But after the sun came out, there was suddenly nothing. The best thing South Africa did with the ball was that they kept testing England and making things a bit difficult even when there was not a lot out there. All of England’s bowlers seemed a bit down on pace and there was no out and out aggression of the type that South Africa occasionally produced. Once the long partnerships started to develop with the ball not swinging England looked out of ideas. This is where a fifth bowler, especially one such as Steven Finn who offered a bit of variety, would have been very useful. Especially seeing as Bopara made nought and 22 and threw his wicket away twice. England can say that South Africa had the rub of the conditions, and that would be true, but it is not enough to account for the disparity. England looked short a bowler and the bowlers who were there looked short of match fitness. Almost as if not playing any red ball cricket in almost two months was not a good lead up to the series.

England will take few positives from this match. They do not even have another three or four Tests in which to come back, only two thanks to the ECB. They must play a lot better at Headingley in two weeks, though that is something of a result ground and there will likely be more in it for the bowlers. Work must be done, however, to ensure that the other bowlers are properly match-fit. There was some suggestion that a few were carrying niggles; we have good replacements for Broad and Bresnan so if one or both of them is not fit they should not play. I would also play Finn no matter what. As alluded to above, he offers some variation in an attack that can otherwise look bereft of ideas when the ball is not swinging. Ideally for me Finn would come in for Bopara. I know people say that since our batting failed we should not drop a batsman, but playing six batsmen for the sake thereof is pointless. We cannot just play any batsman because that does not shore up anything; it just weakens the bowling. If we can find a batsman who can regularly contribute then that would be excellent, but Bopara is not that batsmen and there are not currently any others who would not in some way be a gamble. Now is not the time to gamble; Finn has a Test average of 14, that’s as high as Bopara’s average against teams other than the West Indies.

I don’t think England will drop Bopara, but I still think Finn ought to play. More or less by definition, this means Bresnan is to miss out unless Broad is injured. I have seen a few calls to drop Broad and although he had a poor Test I think they are very rash. Coming into the Test he had over fifty wickets at an average under 19 in the previous twelve months. One bad Test is no reason to drop him, meaning that Bresnan is the unlucky bowler. It is an unfortunate aspect of England’s current strength in depth and also a slightly ridiculous one given that they persist in playing a non-performing batsman at six.

England have a lot of work to do both going into and following the Headingley Test to rescue this series, but they did not get to be number one in the world by accident. It was a poor performance this time, but it is far too early to draw any conclusions just yet.