Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Philby in exile; England player-by-player: More Ashes notes

I read a book review the other day describing the final years of Kim Philby in Moscow: "drinking himself insensible and reading accounts of cricket matches long since finished in old copies of The Times." He was yearning for a version of England that existed only in his mind, and in the names of players that he would never see. It evokes a very English kind of melancholy, too, a mix of nostalgia and longing that cricket, with all of its transience and meaning, represents perfectly.

In a weird way, the Ashes depends on something similar. Each new version of it relies for its heft and its significance on all of the other series that lie underneath. Without them, it's a just another tour in the endless round of modern cricket, a fleeting entertainment gone as soon as the next thing comes along.

So it's worth asking where the Ashes 2017/8 sits, a series that ended, uniquely, with one of the captains asleep in the dressing room; a series that in its dying moments was called "one sided and tedious" by the editor of Wisden, Lawrence Booth, and "the most boring Ashes in living memory - a one-sided plod on useless pitches" by Phil Walker, editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. The august, yellow side of town is unequivocal, although the glee of the green and gold, and the understandable pride in their achievement, must be weighed against it.

The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle. The pitches were drear, and England lacked the skills needed to compete on them. There is a public spin from within the camp that Root's side had "a foot in the door" in most games but could not get the damn thing open. The stats do not back that up. They are monolithic and irrefutable:

Australia scored 2,982 runs to England's 2,585, and took 89 wickets to England's 58. Australia's wickets cost England 51.42 apiece, England's cost Australia 29.05. Of the Australian batsmen, Steve Smith, David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Mitch Marsh, Tim Paine and Pat Cummins had a series average higher than their career average. Of English batsmen just Cook, Malan and Vince had the same (and the latter didn't take much exceeding). Starc, Cummins and Lyon took their wickets at less than their career average, and Hazelwood equalled his.

Steve Smith scored as many hundreds in seven innings as England's top six managed in 54. Australia's batsmen passed fifty twenty times and converted nine into hundreds. England's passed fifty thirteen times and made three hundreds. Every frontline Australian bowler took their wickets at less than thirty. England (look away now, here comes the real horror show) saw only Jimmy Anderson do the same. Broad and Woakes, the other bankers, conceded 1020 runs between them and delivered 21 wickets. Moeen and Mason Crane had a combined 6-768. No wonder England could claim that every Test went into its final day - Australia spent most of them batting.

Anyone reading the match reports as Philby once read his, in the light of rueful exile and months later, may not experience quite the yearning that a gentle and inconsequential day in the Shires brought to his endless winter in Moscow. For England there is an alien hostility to cricket down under that is starting to feel insurmountable. Australia's unrepentant mercilessness in everything from conditions to the media should chill them most of all.

Player by Player: England


Alastair Cook
(376 runs at 47.00, HS: 244*)
The reaction to Cook's Melbourne epic felt sentimental and laudatory, a signal response to his fading greatness. He ends the series as the sixth man in history with 12,000 Test runs - and so few players have experienced those heights, it would be folly to predict how Cook will react. Without the pressure of runs from any putative rival, England will have to settle for the hundreds that arrive like rainy day buses - not as frequently as you'd like, but all the more welcome when they do.

Mark Stoneman
(232 runs at 25.77, HS: 56)
Like Michael Carberry before him, Stoneman was shockingly and relentlessly exposed to bowling far above his pay grade. He should be extended the opportunity to continue that Carberry never got, although anyone imagining that Boult, Southee and Co. in New Zealand will be some kind of reward for his doughtiness may need a rethink. I'd recommend a chat with Alan Butcher about how to play the throat ball - back in Alan's day every county opener got plenty of exposure to it, and he had to face Sylvester Clarke, its ultimate exponent, in the nets, too...

James Vince
(242 run sat 26.88, HS: 83)
I crave Vince's batting like an alcoholic craves that first drink of the evening. If his cover drive had a voice it would sound like Marilyn singing happy birthday to JFK. But for every boozer, the morning dawns like needles in the eye and the damage must be picked through. There is no coherent argument to be made for his retention: instead it is a romantic one. Put simply, if Vince ever managed to bat for two or three sessions of a Test, he may produce something that would live in the memory eternally.

Joe Root
(378 runs at 47.25, HS: 83)
The conclusion at Sydney must feel like a fever dream to Root, its symbolism forgivably lost on a captain frazzled by two endless days in furnace temperatures. His last innings, bravely compiled while semi-conscious with gastroenteritis, was of course an unconverted fifty, his fifth of the series. That stat plods after him, its footfall growing louder. When England's one day side staggered from the wreckage of the 2015 World Cup, Eoin Morgan rebuilt a gun-shy and risk-averse team into a sleek and dangerous unit. Root could learn from his ODI skipper's flint-eyed and ruthless authority.

Dawid Malan
(383 runs at 42.55, HS: 140)
Malan had the wit to make a slight but significant adjustment to a more open stance, and his off-side play was a revelation, beautiful in its moment. He likes a scrap, and does not appear to have the major flaw that might be exposed with a move to number three, a growing possibility for next Summer.

Jonny Bairstow
(306 runs at 34.00, HS: 119)
This series proved why Bairstow is right to have resisted the notion that he should give up the gloves and find a place higher in the order as a batsman. Firstly his keeping was exemplary. He gave a funny interview about the amount of squats he'd done during the series - many thousands behind the pegs - yet it was tribute to his fitness that he'd just taken a wonderful late catch having kept all day. Secondly, six is plenty high enough, and seven ideal, for a player with a short backlift who goes hard at the ball - his nick-off after refusing a nightwatchman in Sydney was the perfect case in point.

Moeen Ali
(179 runs at 19.88, HS: 40; 5 wickets at 115, BB: 2/74)
Yes Moeen had a poor series, compounded by a side strain and a ripped spinning finger. Yet his treatment by mainstream and social media leaves a bad taste. Last summer he was the hero. Suddenly he was being pasted for not being something he never was in the first place, if a sentence with so many negatives can make any sense. He is a batsman who bowls, yet is expected to be a bowler who bats. To have played against type so successfully for so long is a confidence trick of sorts, and once Moeen's was dented he faced a harrowing time. Sadly, what could have been a significant career for all sorts of reasons is being damaged by misplaced expectations.

Chris Woakes
(114 runs at 16.28, HS: 36; 10 wickets at 49.50, BB: 4/36)
More culpable than Moeen, Woakes was brought to bowl briskly and aggressively - his primary skills - and managed neither. His speeds may have been fastest on the gun, but, banged on the wrong length into slow pitches, it became merely fodder. The notion that he may be a new ball bowler for England once Broad departs was, for now, exposed. Perhaps the most disappointing of the tour party.

Stuart Broad
(136 runs at 15.11, HS: 56; 11 wickets at 47.72, BB: 4-51)
There were notes of Animal Farm early in the series, as Broad, like noble Boxer the horse, strained in the harness for little effect. From memory, Boxer collapsed while building a windmill, and Broad seemed as though he may go while tilting at one - the oldest enemy of all... Yet he dragged it back with force of personality and some formidable discipline. Accepting his limitations, he bore his burden - his 195 overs were exceeded for England only by the ageless Anderson. His late career batting, conducted from somewhere near square leg and often almost behind the stumps, displayed similar fortitude, and some flair. Should get to 400 wickets, and the acclaim he has earned, in New Zealand.

James Anderson
(17 wickets at 27.82, BB: 5-43)
In his spare athleticism and astonishing fitness, Anderson resembles Roger Federer, another preternaturally young sprite. He sent down 223 overs, more than anyone but Nathan Lyon, at an economy rate of 2.11, and took 17 wickets at his career average. With everything from the ball to the pitches ranged against him, it was the work of a supreme, and supremely driven, craftsman.


Of the youth and bit-part men, Craig Overton emerged with perhaps the most immediate future. Surely a strapping lad like him has another yard to come - with the right technical coaching at least. Tom Curran also had something about him, but that something is sadly not pace. He may well become a batsman who bowls, although whether that will be at Test standard, rather than in white ball cricket, is debatable. The reality for Mason Crane, for all of the positive notices, was 1-193. He bowled as many decent deliveries as you could expect from a 20-year-old leg spinner promoted way above his station, and should at least avoid the fate of Scott Borthwick. Jake Ball fell from favour after a lame performance at Brisbane, and will have to take a ticket at the back of the queue. Ben Foakes assumed the traditional and ghostly role of the spare keeper. Does he exist in corporeal form? Who knows...  Gary Ballance may have to accept the firm hint being offered: If he couldn't get a game with this lot, a rethink is due. His refusal to accept a deep-rooted flaw in his technique might have finished him at this level.

Tomorrow: Australia...



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