Hello again! (And thoughts for the first Test)

Looking at the most recent post (before this) two things stand out: first is that it begins with an apology for not writing and the second is that it is eleven months old. So apologies again. In my defence, I spent those elven months first moving house, then starting grad school and preparing to do research in astrophysics. It has been a touch busy. And there is nothing to really suggest that it will get markedly better, but we’ll see how things play out. I did actually watch sport over the winter though and have some thoughts on the winter of discontent going into the international summer.

First off is that England probably made the right choice as far as a new head coach goes. It would have been better if Andy Flower had not left, but having done so it was down to Mike Newell or Peter Moores for me. I was hoping Newell so that Moores would stay at Lancashire, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will do an excellent job. This of course ties into the big story over the winter of Kevin Pietersen. I don’t want to drag that up again too much; I made my feelings very clearly known on Twitter and I’ll only go into detail if his fanboys find some fresh stupidity.

The biggest issue going into the summer is the uncertainty regarding the actual positions. There is one spot at the top of the order free, two in the middle order (assuming that Ben Stokes plays at six in the long-term even if he is not fit for the first Test), the spinner’s role and the third seamer all up for grabs. I am not including the wicket-keeper as vacant because I do not at all think that Matt Prior was dropped for anything other than an experiment; if he is fit he will keep wicket for the first Test.

The opener’s spot is probably the most straightforward: it should go to Sam Robson. He had an excellent year last year, has started well this year and has stated an ambition to bat for England. Give him a shot. The only other option would be Nick Compton and whilst I do think he was harshly dropped he has not done as much as Robson since then. He would be the reserve choice, however.

For the middle order, Joe Root is the incumbent in one of the spots and probably will get another go at five. If he is picked, hopefully he stays there most or all of the summer; he has not had enough time to settle in to any one spot properly and that cannot have helped him. At the same time, however, he did struggle for much of last year and cannot be said to have nailed his spot down. It is mostly due to his potential that he still seems to be a fixture in the side. The other spot is more open. Gary Ballance is technically the man in possession, but as with the wicket-keeper’s spot above I am very reluctant to take the selection late in the winter too seriously. However, he earned his callup with an excellent 2013 and he has started this year well. The same is true of Moeen Ali, however, and his weight of runs has certainly pushed him into the frame. Those are the most likely options but James Taylor, after being so harshly discarded in 2012, has batted well both for Nottinghamshire and the Lions and Jonny Bairstow is technically in the current XI. I don’t see either as particularly likely candidates though. I actually would prefer to see both Ballance and Ali bat in the middle order; I think they have both done more to get the spots than Root has. If Stokes is not fit then I would have Root at six, but otherwise I would let him bat with Yorkshire for at least the series against Sri Lanka.

For Graeme Swann’s replacement, it seems like every spinner in the country has been mentioned at least once. The realistic candidates are Scott Borthwick, Simon Kerrigan, James Tredwell and Monty Panesar. I am biased, of course, but for me it has to be Kerrigan. He only bowled a handful of overs in his previous Test and simply cannot be judged on that. More importantly, none of the other candidates have come close to matching his first-class record over the past few seasons. Kerrigan is, without question, the best spinner in the County Championship and that has to make him the front runner for the vacant England role.

There is one way Kerrigan could reasonably be left out of the first Test against Sri Lanka, however, and that is if England field an all-seam attack and there is a decent argument for doing so. Steve Finn, Graham Onions, Tim Bresnan and Chris Jordan all have cases, but this is possibly the oddest of any of the contest for a place. Just judging on first-class form Finn and Onions have to be the front runners and I think they probably are. But Finn’s mechanics were apparently completely hopeless in Australia and he fell well out of favour. Meantime, Onions did everything anyone could have asked last summer and never seemed to even be considered. Bresnan looks a shadow of his former self and although Jordan looked excellent last year it was the first time he has done so.

This adds up to Bresnan probably being the longest shot; I’d like to see him bowl for Yorkshire and maybe fight his way back into the reckoning, and I think he could be quite good again, but right now he looks a long way from Test quality. There is not a lot to pick between the other three, however, which is why I think picking an all-seam attack against Sri Lanka may be the way to go. Finn and Jordan are probably the best two choices; they are similar styles of bowler and it is a style which probably fits best behind Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. In the longer term, however, I would like to see England be more willing to go ‘horses-for-courses’; if a pitch calls will suit the swing bowlers more then play another one in Onions. If more pace is needed, then supplement the attack with Finn or Jordan.

At least right now (and it is still a month until the first Test, so this may change) my XI for Lord’s would be:
Alastair Cook*
Sam Robson
Ian Bell
Moeen Ali
Gary Ballance
Ben Stokes
Matt Prior†
Stuart Broad
Chris Jordan
Steve Finn
Jimmy Anderson

England 2012 marks out of ten

Twenty-one different players represented England over fifteen Tests this calendar year. There were, as one can imagine, varying degrees of success and I have given them my year-end marks out of ten here:

Andrew Strauss – 4
The year leading up to Strauss’ resignation and retirement was, as one would expect, not the best for him. He did score a couple of battling fifties in the subcontinent and a pair of centuries to start the summer, but two defeats in four series led to him stepping down.

Alastair Cook – 8
Cook was England’s leading run scorer in 2012 and finished the year by captaining the side to a historic 2-1 series win in India and setting a new English record for most career centuries. He also just barely missed out on finishing the year with a career average above fifty.

Nick Compton – 7
After an incredible season with Somerset, Compton got a chance to open the batting for England in India. He did not quite grab his chance with both hands, but he did play quite solidly throughout and should open again in New Zealand.

Jonathan Trott – 5
It was only an okay year for Trott; he never really played poorly and had a very good innings in Galle. But at the same time he seldom seemed to really click, at least until the excellent 143 he made to help secure a draw in Nagpur.

Kevin Pietersen – 7
On the field it was a great year for Pietersen as he made three excellent centuries, but it was rather more rocky off the field. He came around though and then played the best crafted innings of his career to help put England in a winning position in Calcutta.

Ian Bell – 4
It was a sub-par year for Bell; Saeed Ajmal ran rings around him in the UAE and although Bell batted well after that (he scored six fifties) his mind never quite seemed settled until the last match of the year.

Eoin Morgan – 0
Morgan started the year with a terrible tour of the UAE, scoring only 82 runs in six innings. This wasn’t massively worse than the rest of the team, but coming from a player whose big strength was supposed to be spin bowling it cost him his place in the side. With the number of better options England now have, he should not appear on this list in twelve months’ time.

Jonny Bairstow – 4
Bairstow had a tough start to his career as he was worked over by the West Indies quicks then dropped for the start of the South Africa series. Finally recalled for the Lord’s Test, he made a pair of excellent fifties that helped give England a sniff of victory. He then only got one Test in India and may have fallen behind Joe Root in England’s pecking order.

Ravi Bopara – 0
The reasons why Ravi Bopara should not only not be picked again, but should not have been picked in the first place are fairly well documented here. Suffice to say he did nothing to disprove any of that and seems to have finally fallen completely out of the England picture.

James Taylor – 5
It’s very hard to say anything about James Taylor. He played only two Tests and batted fairly well, being run out by Prior in his last innings. He was then inexplicably left out of the side to tour India in favour of Eoin Morgan. Hopefully he will get another chance, but there are a fair few ahead of him now.

Samit Patel – 3
Patel was picked as a subcontinent specialist in Sri Lanka and India and whilst he never really failed he never did anything of note either and gave no indication that he was a Test player. He was rightly dropped for the last Test.

Joe Root – 7
Root was included in the party to tour India after an excellent season with Yorkshire and although he missed out on the opener’s spot in favour of Compton he did get a chance at six in Nagpur and played an exceptional innings after coming in at a tricky point in the first innings. He is probably the front-runner for the spot in New Zealand, though it’s still not settled.

Matt Prior – 9
It’s hard to ask for much more from Prior. He had another almost flawless year with the gloves and batted brilliantly with England often in strife and with the tail. His biggest problem right now is needless run outs.

Stuart Broad – 6
It was a mixed year for Broad; he started out by demolishing Pakistan in the UAE and taking eleven West Indian wickets at Lord’s. But he struggled to find his pace after that and after a middling series against South Africa he had injury problems in India and was dropped after a pair of shocking Tests. He still finished with a creditable forty wickets in eleven Tests.

Tim Bresnan – 2
After coming off a brilliant 2011, Bresnan started this year with elbow surgery that kept him out of the series in the UAE. He was never quite himself after that; his pace was down and he was not swinging the ball as much. His high point was running through the West Indies at Trent Bridge, but by the end of the year he was only picked due to injuries to other bowlers. His batting is down from what it was as well.

Graeme Swann – 9
He was helped by having nine Tests on the subcontinent, but Swann finishes 2012 as England’s leading wicket taker with 58 in 14 Tests. He was a consistent attacking threat for England and even finished the year with a stylish half-century in the first innings at Nagpur.

James Anderson – 9
Anderson had an incredible year as he seems to quite often. He got swing, both conventional and reverse, even on the notoriously unhelpful subcontinent wickets. He instigated top order collapses in all conditions including twice dismissing Kumar Sangakkara first ball and becoming the all time leading wicket taker against Sachin Tendulkar.

Chris Tremlett – 0
Tremlett played one Test in 2012 in which he failed to take a wicket. Subsequent injury and the success of Steven Finn and Graham Onions means he will have a tough time getting back into the team.

Monty Panesar – 7
Panesar came in as England’s second spinner for six of the nine subcontinent Tests and overall did very well. He took eleven wickets on the raging turner in Mumbai and had a some good performances in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the first innings at Calcutta as well. He did have some trouble maintaining it and Swann will not fear for his place.

Steven Finn – 8
Finn only managed to play in five Tests partly due to injury, but in those Tests he bowled with consistent pace and an improved accuracy, taking twenty wickets. If he can stay fit he looks like he will replace Bresnan as England’s third seamer.

Graham Onions – 6
Onions was probably unlucky to only get one Test this year and especially unlucky to have that Test be almost completely washed out. He did take 4-88 in the only bowling innings though and should stay in England’s thoughts for next season.

England second Test selection

After England’s defeat in the first Test there have been many calls to change the side for the Mumbai Test and particularly change the bowling which badly underperformed. There will be an enforced change with Ian Bell leaving and so Flower et al must decide how they want their batting to look as well.

With regard to Bell’s spot I don’t think the discussion should be very long; Jonny Bairstow is the only real choice. There was some talk about playing Eoin Morgan simply because he is left-handed (and India’s spinners had more success against right handers in the first Test), but there is no way that should matter. The fact that Morgan may have a slight statistical edge must not outweigh the fact that he is far from a Test quality batsman. Not only has he never made significant runs at Test level, he has never even done it at the first class level. He is in the side because of his abilities as a pyjama batsman and a wholly mythical strength against spin. He out to be watching the Test series from England before flying out in the new year with the hard-done-by James Taylor in his place. The other option in the squad available is to push Nick Compton into the middle order and open with Joe Root. After Compton’s relative success opening with Cook in the first Test I don’t think that is wise, however, and certainly I don’t think it is necessary with Bairstow available.

But the real focus will be on the bowlers. Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan badly underperformed in the first Test and particularly in the first two sessions of the match in which India racked up 250-3. James Anderson did better, but all he could really do was try to keep it tight on a flat and slow pitch. But it is important to remember as well that the pitch never did a lot to help the bowlers at all and especially not on the first two days when India were batting. Steven Finn might have had a better time with his extra pace, but I don’t think Monty Panesar would be nearly as effective as most people seem to think. Graeme Swann was England’s best bowler, yes, but that says more about the underperforming seamers than anything else; Swann’s wickets mostly came to terrible shots. After England’s usual horrific collapse India’s spinners got another go on a wearing third and fourth day pitch. They took a collective 5-257 whilst their seamers took a combined 5-129 and that against an English side who play spin rather worse than the Indians. The pitch turned, but not sharply. Mostly it was just a road with marginally less in it for the seamers than the spinners. England simply contrived in their first innings to make it look a lot more spicy than it was.

Apart from the week’s worth of statements that Panesar ‘must’ be brought in for the second Test there have been also suggestions that Broad and/or Bresnan be dropped. None of the three are imminently unreasonable and I would not be surprised to see some change. But Finn has not recovered from his thigh injury as expected and has actually re-aggravated it which throws a spanner into the works for England. The obvious change was going to be Finn for Bresnan; now they have to wait to see if Finn will even take any further part in the series. England do have Graham Onions and Stuart Meaker still in the squad as possible replacements. Meaker offers pace as well and is the closest thing to a like-for-like replacement for Finn, though has never played Test cricket. I think, however, that Onions’ wicket-to-wicket bowling may be the better option. The umpires in the last Test only seemed to give lbws if the ball was going down leg, but they might have a better Test this time and even if they don’t England’s only success in the first Test came from consistent lines that kept the scoring down.

I would bring Onions in for Bresnan. Bresnan’s batting is making a slow comeback after his elbow surgery, but unfortunately his bowling is still miles away from where it was at this time last year. He got his place by bowling well in the warmups, but could not translate that into success in the Test. His pace is down and he does not seem to be able to get the ball to reverse swing much anymore. Stuart Broad has not had a great time either; since his eleven-fer at Lord’s to start the summer his pace has also been down and the only really good spell he had was in the second innings of the Headingley Test and that was against some declaration batting. He does, however, look more like he is simply out of form than suffering from a long-term problem as Bresnan does. He can’t be persisted with forever, of course, but I think it is still too soon to drop him. It was only nine months ago that he was running through the Pakistani batting in the UAE.

As for Panesar, I think he could play. But he should only play in place of a seamer if the pitch is a real raging turner, which by recent accounts it does not appear to be. In fact the suggestion is that it will offer more help (though not a lot more) to the seamers than the one at Ahmedabad did. If that’s the case I think the option is to either play Panesar in place of Samit Patel or not at all; England should certainly play three seamers though unless the pitch very heavily favours the spinners. It would be a bit harsh to drop Patel after he got two poor lbw decisions, but I prefer having five bowlers anyway and dropping him in favour of Panesar will give England flexibility to adapt to the conditions even if they don’t read them perfectly.

This arrangement would weaken the batting; there are only five specialists and a long tail. I don’t think England should worry too much about the tail though. Their deep batting has helped them get up to a competitive score or put matches away in the past, but mostly in England. certainly in the last Test and in the two tours last winter having a long batting lineup didn’t help. So with the bowling struggling a bit in the first Test it is imperative to ignore batting and just focus on who will get us twenty wickets. Nor should they worry greatly about only having five specialist batsmen (plus Prior). England could pick eleven specialist batsmen, but still would not get a decent score if they batted the way they did in the first innings at Ahmedabad. England have to just back the batsmen to actually do their job and pick a bowling attack that can turn that into a victory.

My XI for Mumbai: Cook*, Compton, Trott, Pietersen, Bairstow, Prior†, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Onions, Panesar

England injury concerns

Another England fast bowler has gone down with a mild injury as Stuart Broad bowled only ten overs in England’s warmup match before bruising a heel. He was actually expected to miss the last warmup anyway and this means that if he is fit for the first Test he will go in having hardly bowled a ball in a competitive match. Steven Finn is also still a doubt for both the last warmup and the first Test and he looks less likely to be fit then Broad, so England will at best be going into the first Test with only one member of their pace attack both fit and prepared. England do at least have strong reserves; Tim Bresnan is no stranger to the Test side and has already made a strong case to replace Finn.

If Broad misses the first Test then it will be down to one of Graham Onions, Stuart Meaker or possibly Monty Panesar to replace him. Panesar is the least likely as Samit Patel will already be playing (and actually took three wickets against Mumbai A), but despite the extra spinner probably not being the best balance in India England should pick whoever is most likely to take wickets. In general this won’t be an extra spinner, but with two of the top three pace bowlers out that may cease to be the case. Certainly I think they should all play in the final warmup along with Bresnan. I expect Jimmy Anderson will miss out as he played in the first two matches and Patel might rest as well to allow Graeme Swann another match.

That would make for something of a bowler-heavy XI, but with Nick Compton’s unbeaten fifty in the second innings against Mumbai A they should not now have any more questions to answer with respect to the batting. I see no reason why the top six should not be Cook, Compton, Trott, Pietersen, Bell and Patel unless someone picks up an injury in the final warmup. England, and Flower specifically, like to play to win in the warmups and that is a good thing. But in this case with question marks still hovering over the bowling I think it is a better idea to make sure that all of the possible replacements have a match worth of bowling ahead of the first Test and to fully assess who should play in case Broad turns out not to be fit.

What I suspect is more likely is that Patel will play and Panesar won’t and that England will try to play an XI as close as possible to the one who will play in the first Test with Meaker for Broad being the only difference. I think that Onions will be the one to come into the side if Broad is not fit, but that England will simply take that for granted rather than try to give him another match.

England’s selection a bit clearer

I’ve said a few times before that I don’t think England are well advised to select bits-and-pieces players just for a special occasion like India and that therefore Samit Patel should not play. I stand by the first part, but Patel has furnished solid evidence in the first warmup that he could be able to hold his own in the side as a batsman and if he can do that then there is no reason he should not play. He scored 104 in England’s first and only innings and came in when England were under a bit of pressure. Only Alastair Cook made a higher score. I would not say that this guarantees him a place; we still have yet to see what Jonny Bairstow can do and it is a bit harsh to drop him after the excellent innings he played at Lord’s. But Patel made his century against a fairly strong attack and certainly a stronger one than Bairstow will face when he gets a chance. I think Bairstow will have to be very convincing to force a place from here and given the selectors’ clear preference to having someone who can bowl a bit it may already be an impossible task.

The warmup match also clarified the bowling selection, albeit in an unfortunate way. Steven Finn started as the favourite for the final bowling position, but he picked up a thigh injury early on and missed the rest of the match. He is not a doubt for the tour as a whole, but there is little chance of his playing the first Test unless he can guarantee to Flower and Cook that he is one hundred per cent fit and I doubt that will happen. With Patel looking very likely to play that also reduces the chance that England will try to give Monty Panesar a game as a second spinner, meaning that the last bowling place appears to be down to Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions. Bresnan is certainly the initial favourite, as evidenced by the fact that he was chosen ahead of Onions to play in this match in the first place. He also took 3-59 and scored 33 not out to put Onions in a very similar position as Bairstow with two warmups remaining.

The only selection issue that was opened up more was that of Cook’s new opening partner. Nick Compton was given the first crack at the role, but lasted just three balls and failed to score. Unfortunately for him, since India A batted first he did not get a second chance in the match. He likely will in at least one of the remaining warmups, but Joe Root will also get a shot to prove that he is the best option instead. Compton is still probably the favourite until Root makes a strong case otherwise, but I actually would not be surprised to see Cook sit out one of the next two warmups and have Compton and Root go head-to-head.

There was other bad news for England as well. They did manage to put up a good score overall, but five of their wickets fell to the part time spin of Yuvraj Singh. Singh is rather better than Kevin Pietersen’s memorable assessment of him as a ‘pie-chucker’, but it is still a touch worrying that England still pick out the spinner to whom to give their wickets. The good news at least for England was of Singh’s five wickets one was a tailender, one had a century and one had fifty. The dismissals of Pietersen and Ian Bell are both issues that will need to be addressed, but it is at least not as panic inducing as a proper collapse.

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.

England squad announcement

England’s squad for the third and unfortunately final Test at Lord’s will be named tomorrow (Saturday) at 09.30 BST/03.30 CDT. Whilst that will not confirm whether Pietersen plays at Lord’s or not, it will probably be a very good indication. I would be exceptionally surprised if he was in the squad and not in the XI on Thursday. With that in mind, I am very much hoping that when the names are read out they go straight from ‘Onions’ to ‘Prior’. I have said before why Pietersen should not play and the recent ‘textgate’ only adds to that. Despite the argument I have heard that people ‘bad mouth their employers all the time’, I cannot imagine anyone who contends that to do so directly to one’s competitors during the competition is in any way the done thing. It wouldn’t be a make-or-break issue for me, but only because that time has already passed. It appears that the selectors may think otherwise, though that is not a guarantee yet. But coming as it does in conjunction with Pietersen’s snub of Strauss at the post-match press conference, I cannot see how they could justify keeping him in.

Dropping KP does raise the question of how to replace him though and I would bring Bairstow back. He had not got much of a run against the West Indies and just scored an excellent century against Australia A. That’s as a recall to the squad, however, I’m not sure I’d actually play him. Strauss and Flower are dead set against five bowlers, but they did play four seamers in the last match and with Pietersen taking four wickets as the spinner it almost was a five man attack. And that attack all but took 20 wickets and had so much time not been lost to rain there is every chance that England would have won. My first choice would be to play Swann for KP as the spinner and go with five bowlers. I would also possibly play Onions for Bresnan. Bresnan has so far had really only one good spell this summer, against the West Indies at Trent Bridge. But overall his pace has been down and he still looks short of fitness. At his best I would play him, but he is not at his best and I think he needs to regain his fitness with Yorkshire before the tour of India. There is also the fact that we can expect a typical Lord’s wicket, the ECB could send Mick Hunt the proverbial King’s ransom and he would still refuse to make a pitch to order, and those tend to suit Onions. I’d still play him in the more likely four man attack and for the same reason, but in that scenario Finn would miss out as well. Finn is talented, but he has yet to set the world alight in his two chances this summer. I would then play Bairstow at six with Bell and Taylor moving up a spot.

My preferred XI for Lord’s: Strauss*, Cook, Trott, Bell, Taylor, Prior†, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Onions, Finn.

Or with a four man attack: Strauss*, Cook, Trott, Bell, Taylor, Bairstow, Prior†, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Onions.

England v South Africa preview

The most eagerly awaited Test series in a year. The most ridiculously shortened Test series since the last time South Africa played a major opponent. The winner of the series will finish as number one in the world, though if South Africa win by one Test they will be top by only 0.16 points. A draw will see England maintain their position at the top of the table, but by a reduced margin.

The teams are almost impossibly close on paper. The series will feature the two best bowling attacks in the world and arguably the two best bowlers in the world in Dale Steyn and Jimmy Anderson. Steyn has had the better career and Jimmy has a long way to go to catch him, but over the last few years they have been on level terms with Jimmy actually faring slightly better. Steyn will have the support of the also brilliant but somewhat overshadowed Morne Morkel as well Vernon Philander. It is the last of these who I think will be most interesting to watch. He had an incredible start to his Test career, becoming the second fastest all time to fifty wickets. He is yet to really have an ‘off’ Test. But he is also yet to face top quality opposition. Of his seven Tests, five have been against Sri Lanka or New Zealand and the other two were against an Australian side in a bit of disarray. That said, he still took 5-15 in the famous 47 all out and regardless of the strength of the opposition that is quite impressive. He has, however, not quite managed to replicate that form with Somerset in the Championship. In five matches he has taken 23 wickets at 21.34. No one would argue that is anything but good, however it must be viewed in the context of the incredibly bowling friendly conditions of the early season; most sides would have been in with a chance of victory if they scored 213. It is also, rather surprisingly, a third again higher than his Test average! It will thus be very interesting to see how he gets on.

For England, Jimmy is backed up by Stuart Broad and one of Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn or Graham Onions. Bresnan is the presumable choice, though Finn and Onions are good injury replacements and (although it is very unlikely) possible fourth seamers if England decide to go that route. It is the new ball attack of Broad and Anderson that will be England’s main weapon, however. Broad is actually almost as dangerous as Jimmy as he is now the bowler that everyone expected him to be from when he first came into the side. In the past twelve months has has played ten Tests, four of them on flat Asian wickets, and taken 54 wickets at an average under 19. It’s not quite what Philander managed to do, but it is close and it is far better than what Morkel has done in the same period of time (26 wickets in eight Tests at 29). How England handle the third seamer position will be an interesting to watch. Tim Bresnan had a shaky start to the summer, but finished the series against the West Indies well whilst Finn and Onions did not manage to use the innings that they got in the third Test to demand inclusion in this series. Bresnan also strengthens the batting and as I have said before I think it strengthens it so much that England should play five bowlers. Even without the bonus of his batting, however, Bresnan is a more than capable third seamer: he bowls quick, he bowls a ‘heavy ball’ and he can get the ball to reverse swing.

That’s how the seamers align and taken as groups there is almost nothing to choose between them. Over the last few years Anderson has matched Steyn, Philander has outdone Broad with the ball and Bresnan has outdone Morkel with both bat and ball. England probably have a slight advantage due to Philander’s inexperience. Where England have a large advantage, however, is in spin. South Africa will be bringing Imran Tahir to England. Whilst he is a considerable step up from Paul Harris, he is not a match for Graeme Swann. (It’s also a personal disappointment as I think the ‘team full of Rhodesians’ joke I would have made is funnier than the ‘team full of Pakistanis’ joke I will be making instead.) The group stats support the notion that England have an advantage, but a slight one: England’s team bowling average over the last two years is 26.52 as opposed to South Africa’s 28.74, whilst the teams are neck and neck in ‘notable’ scores. England have bowled their opponents out for under 200 eleven times in 24 matches in the past two years whilst conceding 400 or more four times. In the same time period, South Africa have played 13 Tests and bowled their opponent out for under 200 six times whilst conceding two scores over 400. Interestingly, in this time period neither team has lost when conceding 400 but have each one once after doing so.

So it’s advantage England by a nose in the comparison of bowling attacks, but each side have very good batsmen as well. South Africa have the formidable Grame Smith opening and boast Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis farther down the order. The first three each average just short of fifty apiece and each over the course of fairly long Test careers. Kallis averages even higher, almost 57 in his career, but oddly has never fared well in England. In twelve Tests he only averages 29.30 with a solitary century. It will be interesting to see if he can, in what will likely be his last tour of England, turn those numbers around a bit. It will also be important for South Africa, who already have a couple of holes in their top and middle order. The injury to Boucher means that Jean-Paul Duminy will come into the side and it was already assumed that both Alviro Petersen and Jacques Rudolph will play. Both had decent series in New Zealand (the latter scoring 156 in the last Test), but apart from that none of those three have looked particularly imposing at Test level. Petersen and Rudolph have also both played in the County Championship this year and neither have been impressive. Petersen scored a big century, but it was against Glamorgan and his other ten innings yielded only ninety runs between them. Rudolph did slightly better, but for all his starts he only passed fifty once in ten innings. It also remains to be seen how AB de Villiers will react to taking the gloves. He has batted very well when keeping wicket in ODIs, but this will be the fourth time he has kept in Tests and in the first three matches he averaged only 22.

England, by contrast, have no real stars. Only Jonathan Trott averages over fifty and his average has been going steadily downward since he first established himself. However, England also have fewer weaknesses. The only batsman to average under forty is Ravi Bopara and that is offset somewhat by the fact that Tim Bresnan at number eight actually averages over forty. At the top of the order, Andrew Strauss has scored three first class centuries already this summer with his an unbeaten 127 in his most recent innings against Notts. Alastair Cook has lost the form that saw him dominate attacks last year, but he still had a decent series against the West Indies. Ian Bell has had a good summer, but as far as the middle order goes all the attention will be on Kevin Pietersen. Embroiled in controversy since retiring from pyjama cricket earlier this summer and making some rather questionable demands of the England management, he has nonetheless been in excellent form with the bat. Most recently was his jaw-dropping innings at Guildford where he treated a skilled Lancastrian attack as though they were a team of under-elevens. He will go into the South Africa series with a point to prove and whilst it could result in more rash shots for cheap dismissals, there is also every chance that it will drive him to have a huge series. KP is someone who has tended to perform when under personal pressure and saves his best for the big stage. This is a big stage and he is under pressure. South Africa will be well advised to get to him early in his innings.

England also have an advantage down the order. Whilst AB de Villiers is a better batsman overall than Prior, he is still a part time ‘keeper. Prior is much more reliable with the gloves and it remains to be seen which de Villiers will show up with the bat. But farther down is where England could really put some pressure on South Africa. England’s last four batsmen, ie: numbers eight through eleven, have a cumulative average of 101. The corresponding average for South Africa is only 58. That is a potential extra 43 runs in each innings for England, an entire extra batsman’s worth. The upshot for me is that South Africa will probably have to get an above average performance by some of their more unheralded batsmen or a very good series from someone like Smith. Even if Kallis shows his true class, I do not think South Africa will be able to get away with having any failing batsmen.

The series may well come down to little things. Neither side have had ideal preparations. England were playing ODIs, but at least winning. South Africa, meantime, did not look too impressive in their pair of tour matches and suffered the loss of Boucher in that time. Both captains are very defensive minded, especially Smith who has previously delayed declarations absurdly long. I don’t think either side will want to be in a position of having to force a victory; it will play against the natural tendency of both captains. This will favour England at first, as they only need a draw to retain the number one ranking, so this is something South Africa will want to negate early. And then there is the weather. So much time has been lost to rain in this summer both in the international and county matches. South Africa did not play the rain particularly well against New Zealand; Smith will need to take it into account better in England.

As for a prediction, the two sides are so close that it is very hard to say. The winner may simply be whichever side manages to have fewer poor days. I think a lot will come down to whether one player, probably a batsman given the skill of the attacks, can step up and dominate the series. For South Africa that may be Smith having a series like he did in 2003; for England it may be something special from KP or a captain’s series from an in-form Strauss. With the series being as short as it is, whatever numerical result is reached is unlikely to reflect the play itself (unless one side simply fails to show up of course). As outlined above, I think where there are edges to be had most of them go to England. With that and the lighter pressure on them, something with which South Africa notoriously struggle, I think England will win the series 2-0. I would say 2-1, but I don’t think the weather will co-operate enough to get three results. However it finishes, though, it should be a cracker and I cannot wait for it to start.

England v West Indies ratings

England were not troubled in their 2-0 victory over the West Indies, but they were some way short of masterful. They were a bit sloppy, especially in the last match, and they conceded almost a third again as many runs in this series (1549) as they did in the three Tests they lost in the UAE (1178). The good news for England that in they were even worse at the start of last summer, conceding 1606 runs against Sri Lanka, with no effects in the second series.

The West Indies looked like an improving side. Against Australia they never gave up, despite the regular horror-sessions. Here they always looked on the verge of collapsing with the bat, but actually did so only once. They let things get away occasionally with the ball, but did well at regrouping in between sessions and fighting back after intervals. Overall, they were outclassed by England, but can go home with their heads held high. (Or at least they could if they did not still have to play a bunch of pointless ODIs.)

My individual marks (out of ten):

Andrew Strauss* – 9
Came into the first Test at Lord’s with ‘questions’ about his place in the side and responded with a majestic first innings century. Made just one in a tricky spell in before stumps in the second innings, but then came back with a bigger hundred and at a vital time for the team. He finished at the top of the England run-scorer list and second in average. His captaincy was poor by his standards, with the players often looking unmotivated and the field settings characteristically negative.

Alastair Cook – 6
A deceptively decent series by the vice-captain. Failed in the first innings in each match, only scoring 54 runs in the three innings. Stepped up when required in the second innings, however. Contributed with an excellent and all but match-winning 79 in the second innings of the first Test and saw England home with an unbeaten 43 in the second Test.

Jonathan Trott – 3
Got himself in a few times, but only managed a solitary fifty from the first Test. Did enough to still average over thirty in the series, but it was not really enough from the number three and almost half of his runs came in relatively easy situations. A disappointing series for such a good player, his Test average is now only a little bit above fifty.

Kevin Pietersen – 7
Made more headlines off the pitch than on it, but still had a good series. Only had one failure with the bat, in the second innings of the first Test, which he followed up with consecutive half-centuries. Put Shillingford and Narine to the sword in the second and third Tests. Had a century in his sights twice, but got out slightly loosely on both occasions.

Ian Bell – 9
In four innings this series, he hit three fifties. Two of them were unbeaten and one of those was a match-winning knock in the first Test. The only time he failed to go past sixty was when he fell for 22 in the second Test. Apart from that, he looked majestic and can count himself unlucky not to have scored a century. He was stranded with the tail in the first Test and was denied by the rain in the third.

Jonny Bairstow – 0 1
Looked talented, but never passed twenty in three innings. Undone by Roach in the first two Tests, then by Best in the third. Deserves another chance against South Africa, but looks unlikely to get one. Addendum: I have accepted the suggestion given to me that he deserves one point for the brilliant run out he effected at Lord’s.

Matt Prior† – 6
Excellent as always behind the stumps, but only got two innings with the bat. Did not contribute significantly in either of them, but has the excuse of twice coming to the wicket when needing to score relatively quick runs.

Tim Bresnan – 7
A series of two halves for Bresnan. Was arguably fortunate to have even been selected for the first two Tests after looking poor in the last Test in Sri Lanka and very poor at Lord’s. Kept up that form for the first part of the second Test, despite getting some tail-end wickets on the second morning. Then showed why he was selected with a some vital runs in England’s innings and then blew away the West Indies. Finished with twelve wickets in the series, second most for either side.

Stuart Broad – 9
Was perhaps slightly flattered by his eleven wickets in the first Test, but it is very hard for someone to luck into such a feat. For comparison, no West Indian bowler took more than ten wickets in the entire series. Highest wicket taker in the series with 14 and also contributed some useful runs in the second Test.

Graeme Swann – 3
Found life difficult on pitches that were not taking appreciable turn and was only a real threat in the second innings of the first Test. Scored thirty in the first innings of that Test as well.

James Anderson – 8
Showed his value most highly in the third Test when he was rested and England were rudderless. His nine wickets in the first two Tests were insufficient reward for the skill with which he bowled, though he did not get the same swing he got last summer.

Graham Onions – 7
Only got one innings of one Test, but looked very good therein. Had the best bowling figures of the innings with 4-88 and looked much like the Onions of old. Unlikely to be picked against South Africa, but will have put himself in the selectors minds.

Steven Finn – 5
Was not picked until the third Test, despite widespread suggestion that he ought to be. Bowled well in the one innings in which he got the chance, but was a bit wayward on the fourth morning. Looks very good, but perhaps still not quite the finished product and may have slipped behind Onions in the pecking order. Made an amusing 0* as nightwatchman.

West Indies
Darren Sammy* – 7
Continues to get the most out of his side, some feat given the massive internal problems of the West Indies. Showed his batting skill in scoring a maiden hundred in the second Test, but badly threw his wicket away in the other two. His bowling was only that of a useful fourth seamer and nothing more. Should definitely be happy with his efforts, however.

Adrian Barath – 4
Not a great series for the West Indian opener, but not a dreadful won. Stuck around well in both innings of the first Test, but never managed to pass fifty and went cheaply in both innings of the second. Comfortably the best of the top three.

Keiran Powell – 2
Three single figure scores in five innings and a top score of only 33 make this a series to forget. His only saving grace was that he did manage to drag his innings out and wear the shine off the ball to protect his colleagues.

Kirk Edwards – 0
Eight runs total in four innings and seven of them came in the first innings of the second Test. For comparison, Fidel Edwards even managed to score twelve. Dropped for the third Test, needs to do a lot of work to come back.

Darren Bravo – 3
Another top order batsman to struggle, he made it into the twenties three times, but not once into the thirties. All the more disappointing after being considered the second best batsman in the order coming into the series. Comprehensively outshone by batsman down the order from him, though was unlucky to be run out by his partner in the first innings of the series.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul – 8
Another good series in England for the West Indian wall. Missed the third Test due to injury, but passed fifty (and came close to a hundred) in both innings at Lord’s, plus a 46 in the first innings at Trent Bridge. His only failure was when playing an uncharacteristically wild hook in what would be his last innings of the series.

Marlon Samuels – 10
Could almost do no wrong. Out to a loose drive in the first innings at Lord’s, he then seemed to feed off Chanderpaul’s patience (with whom he frequently batted) and after that his lowest score in the rest of the series was 76. Did not look overly threatening with the ball, but did enough to pick up five wickets and was a decent second spin option.

Denesh Ramdin† – 4
Scored a century remembered mostly for his puerile celebration in the last Test, but was very underwhelming in the first two. Should be aware that a ton in a rain-ruined dead rubber against a second choice attack is not enough to compensate for three single figure scores in the previous four innings. Was below average with the gloves, but not horrifically so.

Kemar Roach – 8
Some ferocious new ball bowling saw him top the list of West Indian wicket takers despite picking up an injury and missing the third Test. His top moment was causing some worry in the gloom at the start of the England run chase in the first Test, but was class throughout.

Fidel Edwards – 1
His mark matches the number of wickets he took in the first Test, before being dropped. Most notable for the ridiculous design cut into his hair.

Shannon Gabriel – 5
Unfortunately injured after the first Test, but looked good when he played. Someone who should boost the Windies when he returns.

Ravi Rampaul – 7
Came in for the second Test and looked quite good. Got the ball to swing and nip about off the seam. Got some important top order wickets in the first innings, especially that of KP when England looked set for a huge total and dismissed Cook twice in the series.

Shane Shillingford – 1
Desperately unlucky to have only played in one Test. Left out due to a preference for an all-seam attack at Lord’s and due to a preference for hype in the third. Did not look terribly good on an admittedly flat pitch at Trent Bridge, however as KP and Strauss scored at will off him.

Assad Fudadin – 2
Hard to say a lot about a 110 ball 28, apart from it being twenty more runs that Kirk Edwards had scored at that position in the entire series before then. No worse than any other member of the West Indian top four.

Tino Best – 7
Came in for just the last Test, but what a Test he had! Made the highest ever score by a number eleven with an aggressive but technically sound innings. Deserved a century, but suffered a rush of blood on 95. Also picked up some wickets in England’s abbreviated response.

Sunil Narine – 0
Victim of a flat pitch and two of the best players of spin in Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, but his 0-70 still did not come close to living up to the massive hype that surrounded his belated arrival. His ‘mystery’ could not even fool the number eleven, Steven Finn.

Edgbaston, day four, Eng 221-5

Today could have been, and maybe should have been, a terribly dull day. With the first three days and the forecast for tomorrow making a result almost impossible, there was almost nothing for which to play. Instead, and fortunately, we got plenty about which to talk.

England started the day much as they finished the previous one. All that time they looked keenly aware that a result was not on the cards and not at all keen on the match. It would be easy to look at the scorecard and conclude that Finn and Onions are simply not Test quality and whilst there would be an element of truth to that, the reality is that they generally bowled quite well and the team let them down. Four catches were put down all told in the innings and the fields and tactics seemed slightly more defensive than usual. More than that though, the entire team just looked like they weren’t really there. Michael Vaughan made the good point on TMS that whilst England did not seem to miss the bowling of Jimmy, they did seem to miss his energy.

It would also be easy to say that England’s rotation policy is at fault here. That is certainly true, but we always knew we would miss Jimmy. Whilst I do not agree with the policy overall, once the first two days were lost I think it was a good idea. By playing Finn and Onions we got potentially important information on how they can fare at Test level and given that the match was overwhelmingly likely to end in a draw anyway, we did not lose much if anything. I think this is probably not at all far from what Flower was expecting to have happened (though perhaps not the poor fielding) and will consider it a success.

If this was a ‘bowl-off’ for a place against South Africa, Onions was the comfortable winner with 4-88. I doubt, however, whether this will be enough to get him in the XI for the Oval next month. England are still unlikely to play five bowlers, although I disagree with that policy, and Onions and Bresnan were still close enough that Bresnan’s batting will probably keep him in the side. Onions may have passed Finn in the pecking order, however.

During all this, Tino Best batted brilliantly to get the highest ever score by a number eleven in Tests. He was finally caught for 95, but it was his partner at the other end who sparked a bit of controversy. When Denesh Ramdin reached his century, he took a note out of his pocket and displayed it to the commentary box. The note suggested that Sir Vivian Richards stop criticising him. Whilst it was not a major point, it was poor form. The job of a commentator or analyst is to criticise at times and it was hardly as though the criticism of Ramdin had been unwarranted. It was a petty gesture and did take some of the gloss off the century.

England stumbled a bit in their reply and it was with this background that Sunil Narine came on for his first bowl in Test cricket. (He could have done so in April, but we’ll let that go for now…) I had heard before the match how he would be a threat to England, how he would make the West Indies competitive again. Which is why I wrote about why he should not be picked. (After which I heard even more support of Narine. As expected, the wicket was flat and England had worked him out after about an over. Narine took 0-70 in fifteen overs. He was not a wicket taking threat, he did not even trouble Finn when the latter came in as a nightwatchman, and he was not even vaguely keeping it tight. Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen were both treating him with contempt by the time he came off. By comparison, Marlon Samuels took 1-29 in nine overs. Welcome to Test cricket…