I have decided that if I am to put myself forward as a serious cricket writer I need to broaden my scope of work. The next two months could be momentous for Somerset County Cricket Club but I’m trying not to think too much about that at the moment and so am going to set myself the challenge of writing about another form of cricket. Something which I am, while still partisan, less emotionally invested in.
Red ball cricket is back. It may not be the County Championship but it is the next best thing, The Ashes. It has been two weeks since the last round of County Championship games and another two and a half until the next and that is far too long a gap for someone who loves the longer form of the game more than any other.
When I was growing up Test Match cricket was live on both BBC TV and radio and apart from the BBC having to share coverage while either Wimbledon or The Open was covered in its entirety. I feel lucky to have formed my knowledge and love of the greatest sport at this time when access was far easier, everything was less rushed and the stars were more like stars because they were, in the pre-social media era, more distant from the public. I was allowed to form an appreciation of the subtle nuances the longer forms of the game provides in a much more approachable way.
So much has changed. The only free to air live coverage at present is radio, the five-Test series which used to run from early June to late August are now compressed into an almost back to back 6 weeks and the players you see representing England tomorrow hardly ever play for their counties.
Let me give you an example of how much things have changed. In 1981 Ian Botham (of Somerset) was the England captain. He played in the second test at Lord’s which ran from Thursday to Tuesday – Sunday was a “rest” day. At the end of that test he was sacked as England captain but the next morning he was back in Taunton and starting for Somerset in the quarter-final of the Benson & Hedges Cup.
There were no central contracts, no thought that after such adversity he should be allowed some time off – straight back into the action for his county. Botham by the way took 3-23 as Somerset beat Kent by 5 wickets!
The existence of central contracts has changed hugely the way the England players are seen by their county’s supporters. They have become distant figures with only a loose association to their clubs in the form of an odd game at the start of the season if international and franchise commitments allow.
Joe Root, who plays more for his county, Yorkshire, than most of his England counterparts has appeared no more than twice a season since 2014 and in 2015 did not feature once for the White Rose. Contrast that with Botham who in 1981 played nine time for Somerset in the Championship alone and 16 times in the various one-day formats.
Having established that Test cricket is a very different, and in many ways far inferior “product” (I hate myself for using that word but what alternatives are there?) to what it was, the fact that this series has such history means it is still compelling.
The last time the two sides faced each other in 2018/18 Australia won 4-0 meaning that England will need to win the series outright to regain The Ashes and that is a very big ask.
It is almost certain that this is a series that will be dominated by the bowlers even if the conditions through August and September are batsman friendly. The profusion of one-day cricket, necessary form a financial point of view in most cricket playing countries, has resulted in a generation of batsmen who are unable to bat for long periods of time. Both England and Australia lack top order players with the mental fortitude and technique to go through long periods where they do not score and survive to prosper later.
The passage of play where the bowlers are on top and the batsmen play and miss constantly now results, more often than not, in the approach being adopted of getting as many as you can before you are out as opposed to toughing it out, applying you technical and mental powers to survive for a period of time and wait until, as they inevitably will, the bowlers tire and scoring becomes relatively easier..
This for me is the essence of test cricket. A period of low scoring where batsmen bide their time and wait for the scoring opportunities is far more fascinating that a sequence of four, four, OUT. I am not talking with rose-tinted spectacles about the Boycotts and Edrichs of the sixties and seventies but thinking back to the 2005 Ashes when England’s top order was Trescothick, Strauss and Vaughan, all of whom were capable of batting for long periods of time and accumulating slowly to build an innings.
None of this is aimed at denigrating the bowlers we will see over the next few weeks. The likes of Anderson and Broad for England and Cummings, Siddle and Patterson for Australia are all fine bowlers who would do well in any era. But they will be assisted by the approach of the batsmen and will have to work less hard for their wickets than they should at this level.
So in my opinion there is, unless the weather intervenes little prospect of any draws in this series and little chance of a game going into the fifth and final day. But, having said all of this I suspect this is going to be a really exciting series as neither side is strong enough to dominate the other and both possess outstanding talents.
I make Australia favourites because in David Warner and Steve Smith they have the two batsmen on either side most likely to make significant scores. If either has a good series England are going to be hard pressed to match them and will find themselves under “scoreboard pressure” on many occasions.
England’s batting line up has been subject to a huge amount of scrutiny all summer in the build-up to this series. Being bowled all out before lunch on the first day by Ireland last week hasn’t exactly inspired confidence, nor has the fact that Jack Leach, who usually bats at 11 for Somerset, top scored with 92 in England’s second innings while none of the recognised batsmen made any significant contribution.
Joe Root it seems has been persuaded to move up one in the order to bat in England’s perennial problem position of 3 with Joe Denly moving to 4. Personally I would like to see Jos Buttler bat at 4 as, leaving Somerset loyalties aside, he is a highly intelligent cricketer which, allied to his natural ability, gives real hope that he can succeed in that role. Denly should open with Jason Roy which although harsh on Rory Burns is the right thing to do as he is so hopelessly out of form at the moment.
As far as the bowlers go I doubt if Anderson will be risked meaning that the two Warwickshire boys Chris Woakes and Olly Stone should play. Given that I would also select Sam Curran to bat at 7 and provide left arm over variety leaving the final spot between Moeen and Rashid as the sole spinner now that Somerset’s finest has been discarded post Lord’s.
What will it take for England to triumph and regain the Little Urn? Joe Root has to have a big series both with bat and tactically and he will need Buttler and Stokes to have good series with the bat to support him. Buttler’s role could be even more crucial as he may need to take over the gloves at some point if Jonny Bairstow can’t arrest his alarming slump in form. Passed up, wrongly, for the vice-captaincy Buttler will be a vital lieutenant to Root throughout the series.
From a bowling point of view one of Archer, Stone or Wood needs to make a big contribution to support Anderson and Broad while the sooner the selectors realise that Jack Leach is the country’s premier spinner the better. Australia will feast on Moeen and Rashid whatever the conditions.
As far as the series goes the first test is going to be crucial. If Australia win that, given their almost flawless record at Lords where the second test is being played England could quickly find themselves 2-0 down with no realistic way back. But if England can, as I think they might, somehow squeak home at Edgbaston it sets the series up nicely. Probably 1-1 after 2 tests the third at Headingley which often favours seam bowlers, will be decided by the battle between Anderson and his Australian counterparts.
For me, sorry it’s Australia 3-2.