MS Dhoni

Australia become number 2 and England give India a real blue

Seismic shifts in world cricket. They’re busting up proceedings all the time. Last week England were in  tatters. They hadn’t won in 10 Tests, their Captain was eyeing off a bloody guillotine and the wicket-keeper had walked away. Today their Captain sits comfortably at slip and marshals a buoyant and aggressive bowling unit who have the scent of Indian blood firmly ensconced in their nasal passage.

Overnight their batsmen plundered an indolent India and declared after scoring over half a thousand runs. Their new wicket keeper battered 85 off 83 – leading to ridiculously premature comparisons with Adam Gilchrist – and Gary Ballance and Ian Bell looked a million pounds on their way to 156 and 167. On Day 1 Ali Cook had at least bequeathed some of the pressure on his batting towards his leadership qualities by scoring a gritty 95. Now he has India precariously perched on 1/25.

England must win this Test Match. Mathematically, if they don’t they can still win the series, but the bounce they’ll get and the critics they’ll savagely retort (including me) at least in the immediate short term will propel the dressing room and startle India – who are known for lacking a bit of fight when things get tough away from home. But, let’s not get carried away. England’s had two better days at playing cricket than they’ve had for a little while. The uncertainty of Cook’s leadership and tactical nous remains and administrative and dressing room issues require much more work.

A development that might stir up an incredulous response from Australian cricket fans is the change in ICC Test Rankings overnight. South Africa have retaken number one billing off Australia after winning a 2 Test Series 1-0 in Sri Lanka. It could have been so different. On a dreary last day of the 2nd Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo South Africa resisted a desperate Sri Lankan bowling attack to nut out a thrilling draw. With the Proteas leading 1-0 their foci lay on preservation and defiance. At 6/118 with 13 overs remaining rain fell. But, it quickly subsided and the Proteas had to face the wrath – or more accurately the Rangana Herath, who took 5/40 off 45 overs. But, South Africa’s tail clung on at 8/159 securing a 1-0 win and a return to the top of the pops.

In other news the ICC is to “investigate” pro-Gaza wrist bands worn by England’s Moeen Ali during the Test v India. Apparently political messages are banned by the ICC. And Kevin Pietersen has signed up to play for the Melbourne Stars in Australia’s Big Bash League in the southern summer. Could be the first time the bloke isn’t unanimously booed at the MCG?

KP has also come out and said that he “feels sorry for the geezer” when discussing former England Captain Andrew Strauss’s recent on air gaffe where he labelled KP “an absolute c***”. Clearly the personality feud continues even though both men are now ex team-mates.

10 Tests without victory: Has England lost its spine?

England are only 1-0 down in the series against India, but it feels like they’ve just been beaten 5-0 again. The reaction to yesterday’s defeat at Lords and the projections radiating from England are all dire. A lack of quality, bad execution, ordinary tactics, poor fielding and troubled county and player development systems… I’ve read it all in recent days, but the dressing room problems that stalked England’s tour of Australia appear most relevant.

India bounced England’s batsmen out on a day five wicket, that on day 1, looked as green as the 18th at Royal Liverpool. Chasing 318 for victory with 4 sessions to play, England were in the box seat, but Ishant Sharma shredded them with 7 wickets – many of which were caught in the deep. England asked India to bat first on a green top and failed to capitalise, with their seamers consistently bowling too short on a pitch demanding a full, seam-nibbling length. India toiled hard with the bat throughout and set a competitive 4th innings chase. It was more than a touch ironic that short bowling undid England’s batsmen in the end. The difference between carefully executed, field appropriate short bowling and banging it in too often has never been plainer.

Twelve months ago England were ranked 2 in the world and were on the way to beating Australia 3-0. Now you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 1999. It’s not and England shouldn’t be this bad, but a packet of off-field problems are destroying them in the middle.

The big question for me is why somebody like Matt Prior is now quitting after two Tests?

“To treat injuries” is his reasoning, but Prior is the third (Trott and Swann) top 11 player to walk out on England mid-series is less than 9 months. They’re all legitimate reasons you say? Well ok, maybe so, but if England were preparing as well as they should be then Trott’s mental state would have been exposed and managed internally before he was obliterated after one Test in Australia and Prior’s “injuries” (and perhaps stomach for a fight) been adequately appraised before this absolutely vital home series against India. The bloke has quit when times are tough and injuries aside, I wouldn’t expect he’ll play for England ever again as some of England’s insiders are smarting.

The second issue is Alistair Cook. A great player with an incredible batting record that has seemingly been in steep decline ever since Andy Strauss stepped aside. Cook seems like a “lovely lad” as described by Strauss overnight, but is he a leader of men? I’m not convinced and the sight of bowlers changing fielders behind his back without consent and the general body language of certain players towards him looks bad, but I wouldn’t be demoting him during this series. This again, for me, comes back to preparation. If the head honchos at England cricket do not believe that he is the man to lead the  side then why go into this series with him at the helm? Why do these things keep needing to be dealt with mid-series?

Australia’s terrible, ill-fated tour of India in 2013 threw up several mid-series dressing room fiascos. When these incidents began to emerge on the subsequent tour of England and it was evident that they had not been managed, the head coach was sacked and a new leadership group redrawn before the first Test. Some decried the timing, but it has turned out for the better.

Cook absolutely needs runs to take some of the sting out of the criticism being fired his way. But, he could score hundreds and if England keep losing and their bowling and fielding plans lack shape and distinctive strategy, then his leadership will continue to be questioned.

The upshot is that England are only 1-0 down with three Tests to play. India are a very good side, but they’re not at the top yet and England is a difficult place to win (Australia hasn’t won in England for 12 years). Cook and the rest of the England unit must fight on and win this series at home, or be the subject of a rabid inquisition unseen in English cricket for at least a decade.