Does proper cricket still need proper batting?

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE in London

“VERY, very poor.” Say what you like about Geoffrey Boycott — people do, more often what they don’t like about him — you’re never in doubt what he thinks. And that’s what he thinks about Keaton Jennings’ technique.

Boycott made his pronouncement on Test Match Special on Thursday after Jennings had jabbed at the ninth ball he faced and splintered it to third slip to record his second duck in five innings.

The stroke was as stiff as the delivery was subtle, one of those Vernon Philander specials that might have done for Boycott himself; a fuller, straighter effort set up by the ball before, which had skewed off the seam and made Jennings look like he was trying to get a key in the front door after a long night in the pub.

The edge found, Dean Elgar stopped moaning about whatever it was he would have been moaning about for long enough to dive forward and make a fine grab a stump’s width above The Oval’s turf. It was slick stuff all round, Jennings excepted.

But it would be unfair to pick on Jennings in a series that, going into the third test, had not produced an innings anywhere near as monumental as Hashim Amla’s pillar to patience and persistence at this very ground five years ago.

Not that Amla’s undefeated 311 has been easily matched on any score. Or has it?

Test cricket’s first triple century was scored in 1930, and 30 scores of 300 or more have been recorded. Half of those have been made since 2002 and four of them since Amla’s innings, a frequency influenced by the increased number of tests played today — it took cricket 21 years to reach 55 tests, which is how many were staged in 2001 alone.

But, Joe Root’s classy 190 in the first match of this series at Lord’s apart, no-one had scored a century going into the third test. And that’s despite 16 half-centuries being scored in the first two games.

One series does not a summer make, much less alter the way test cricket is played. But it will prompt us to ask whether the nature of longform batting is changing.

“That’s the biggest difference between the era of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis and this one,” Temba Bavuma said. “Batsmen then were able to get big hundreds.

“But what stands out with us is that on any given day someone can put in a performance. It might not be a hundred, it might not be five-for. But guys are willing to fight for the team.

“We’ve scrapped our way over the line. We’re not reliant on specific individuals. Everyone knows that if the opportunity’s there they should put their hand up for the team. It’s a collective effort.”

That said, as a specialist batsman, Bavuma knew better than to try and hide from his responsibility.

“That’s your role if you’re batting in the top six — to get in and get scores in excess of a hundred. Unfortunately, with the way the game goes, it doesn’t always happen.

“We’re definitely aware of it as the batsmen — it’s hanging in the room.”

Faf du Plessis, himself no shirker of marathon innings, might want to banish that thought from its hanging place.

“If you keep talking too much about it, it can derail you from keeping things really simple,” Du Plessis said. “If you’re hungry to make big plays for the team the hundreds will come.”

Much separates Boycott from Du Plessis in cricket and in life, but on that they no doubt agree.

Leading Edge: Only one winner in Oval v Lord’s

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE in London

HER voice could have frozen the foam atop a pint of bitter: “Excuse me!” It was the voice of someone used to issuing orders and having them carried out. Or else. Because that’s what being alive means. Of course it does. You’re stupid if you think otherwise.

“Excuse me!”

She spoke from a dark place, and not just of the soul. The coldness came from an open window leading into a small, glum, gloomy room just inside the North Gate at Lord’s.

It was early last Saturday evening, and a couple of reporters who had been beavering away for hours on stories about the next day’s World Cup final had discredited themselves — an in-joke: they had packed away their accreditation passes — and were on their way out of the ground, babbling to one another as they walked. To the pub perchance …

“Excuse! Me!”

Finally, she had their attention.

“Yes?”

She fixed them with a stare of contempt.

“Where have you come from!”

The reporters had been shot in this kind of movie before.

One of them entertained, briefly, the thought of saying: “From East London, originally. Then a few years in Durban — nice, laid-back — another few in Johannesburg — manic, but it’s not hard to see why — and now Cape Town, which is wonderful. So, where are you from?”

Instead, he said, as deadpan as his rising bile allowed, “South Africa.”

She rolled the greys of her eyes, and, no doubt, offered up a prayer for divine intervention to St Theresa May.

“No! Where have you come from now!”

“Ah,” he said. “The pressbox.”

Disappointment slid across her face. Bugger. They can’t be detained and abused for much longer.

“Can I see some accreditation! Please!”

The reporters removed their bags from their backs, fished out their passes, and thrust them through the window with an awkward mix of triumph and pity.

They didn’t ask what the point was of demanding to see their accreditation on their way out of the ground. They didn’t ask how she ended up living this sad life. They didn’t want an apology. They just wanted to go to the pub.

“Lovely! Thank you! You have a lovely evening now!”

They did, and the next day they returned to cover one of the most thrilling matches they will ever see. Heather Knight’s England beat Mithali Raj’s India, and there was a certain jadedness among the reporters about the fact that the spontaneity was over and in a few days they would again be trying to find new ways to describe the same-old, same-old of the men’s game in the third test between England and South Africa.

But at least they would do so at The Oval, just eight kilometres to the south-east from Lord’s but in a different world.

“Lord’s is the home of cricket,” an Oval Steward said as the same two reporters pitched up for a press conference, “but The Oval is its heart.”

Another steward at The Oval, seeing someone walk from the stands towards the Alec Stewart Gate, leapt after them — not to hold up their leaving but to offer them an umbrella against the falling rain.

The Oval is celebrating its 100th test this weekend, and making a damn good job of it despite some iffy weather. The Lord’s tests should be played there, too.

SA need little big men to keep standing tall

Times Media


TELFORD VICE at The Oval

HOW heavily is the prospect of having to survive the last day of the third test on Monday weighing on South Africa?

Not at all, if the mood of their assistant coach after stumps on Sunday was anything to go by.

Adrian Birrell entered the room for the post-play press conference with a cheery: “Hello!”

And when he had answered all questions asked of him he left with an equally ebullient, “Bye-bye! I’ll see you when we’re in trouble again!”

If you didn’t know the visitors were 117/4 in search of what would be a world record target of 492, you wouldn’t have guessed it.

Neither, it seems, would you have seen signs of stress in South Africa’s dressingroom.

“We will fight — we’ve fought before,” Birrell said. “It’s quite a buoyant changeroom, actually. There is hope.”

Much of the remaining fighting will have to be done by Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma, who are 72 and 16 not out in a partnership that has endured for 21 overs and is worth 64 runs.

Bavuma, Birrell said, should “do what he does best — he toughs it out. He’s a tough little guy and he’s not going to get overawed”.

Elgar soaked up the pain of being hit on his left hand by Ben Stokes, which followed a blow he took on the same hand while bowling in England’s second innings.

“When I walked past [Elgar] on my way here he had his finger cup of ice,” Birrell said.

“I don’t know if it’s broken, and if it is broken it won’t matter — he’ll bat …”

Whereupon he was interrupted by the team’s media officer, who shook her head at him.

“It isn’t broken?”

With that Birrell turned back to the listening, scribbling reporters.

“It’s not broken, and if it was it wouldn’t have made a difference — he will bat.”

And bat, and bat, and bat, and bat, and bat some more, Birrell did not say.

“Our two fantastic blockers are out; someone else is going to have to do it,” he said with reference to Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis.

Amla scored an undefeated 311 in more than 13 hours in South Africa’s only victory in a test at The Oval, in July 2012, and Du Plessis batted for more than a day to score 110 not out to save the Perth test against Australia in November of the same year.

But on Sunday they were dismissed for five and nought.

That brings us back to Elgar and Bavuma, who prompted Graeme Smith to wonder out loud on Test Match Special what the record was for the shortest pair of batsmen to share a test partnership.

Fun and games all round, then. But utter seriousness will be required when South Africa resume on Monday.

Good thing they have two big men at the crease.

Elgar, Bavuma stand firm in face of towering total

Times Media


TELFORD VICE at The Oval

SOUTH Africa’s chances of winning their test series in England all but evaporated on Sunday.

Stumps on the fourth day of the third test couldn’t come soon enough for the visitors, who teetered on 117/4 in search of 492 to win.

They looked out on their feet at the crease, from Heino Kuhn’s limp leap that saw him bowled, to Hashim Amla trying to leave and instead steering a catch to second slip, to Quinton de Kock being yorked off his boot, to Faf du Plessis being trapped in front playing no stroke — for the second time in the match.

But, for all that, there were a couple of hard bastards out there. Their names were Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma, and they will be back on Monday.

Elgar, hit on the left hand when he fielded off his own bowling in England’s second innings and again when he batted, and dropped on nought, was 72 not out.

Bavuma, his back against the wall not for the first time and probably not the last in his fire-fighting career, faced 59 balls for his unbeaten 16.

Their stand, which lasted 21 overs, was worth 64 — only 375 to go for what would be an outrageous win.

The good news for South Africa is that the pitch has shown few signs of deterioration.

But the continued cloud cover is likely to mean the bowlers will enjoy more assistance from the conditions.

Should England complete what has been a superior performance in all departments with victory on Monday, they will hold a 2-1 lead.

That means South Africa will be reduced to trying to draw the rubber when hostilities resume in Manchester on Friday, and the portents for that happening are good.

Only once in their 413 tests before this match have South Africa chased down more than 400 to win, and only five times have they salvaged a draw after being set a target of 400 or more.

The converse is more often true: South Africa have lost 13 tests when they have gone in search of at least 400.

England resumed on 74/1, and Keaton Jennings was dismissed in the fifth over of the day when Kagiso Rabada surprised him with extra bounce.

The ball took the shoulder of the bat and flew to gully, where Chris Morris secured the catch.

Jennings, who was dropped on six on Saturday, scored 48 — his best effort in six test innings.

That was South Africa’s only success of the first session, and although they removed Tom Westley, Joe Root, Dawid Malan, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jonny Bairstow in the space of 24 overs before tea, there was little chance of the visitors regaining the advantage.

Instead, England’s surge towards an imposing target drove the dynamic of the first two sessions, the end of which brought their declaration on 313/8.

Debutant Westley scored 59, Root made 50 — the ninth consecutive test in which he has scored at least a half-century — and Bairstow’s innovative 63 off 58 balls featured ramp shots, angled bunts and reverse sweeps.

Jennings and Westley put on 62 for the second wicket, and Westley and Root added 78 for the third.

Morris and Keshav Maharaj took two wickets each.

Corks popped, but SA have little to cheer

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE at The Oval

With a voluptuous pop, a champagne cork parted company with its bottle and leapt into in the honeyed sunshine that soaked the scene. It was 11.23am.

Ah, the sumptuous sound of summer. Of course, this being England, it didn’t last. Within the hour glum clouds had bearded the ground, and rain made its first intrusion 15 minutes before lunch. It abated long enough for another hour’s play, but not a minute more.

But if you thought not a lot could have happened in the 37 overs bowled in the third test between England and South Africa yesterday, you would be wrong.

Plenty did, and when the fight against the elements was abandoned England were 74/1 in their second innings. Or 252 ahead with two days left in the match. Two days, mind, which are forecast to be cloudy but, at this stage, dry.

That isn’t good news for the South Africans if they are to go to Manchester for next week’s fourth test with a series still to win.

Victory for England at The Oval — still the most likely of the four available outcomes — will mean South Africa can, at best, only draw the rubber at Old Trafford.

Vernon Philander will be central to whatever drama unfolds. He spent Friday night in hospital with a drip in his arm fighting a viral infection that had limited him to 17 of the 103.2 overs South Africa bowled to dismiss England for 353, and stopped him from batting in his usual position as they crashed to 126/8 in reply.

Will he be fit for Manchester? He’ll have to be.

Yesterday’s first notable event came in the seventh over, when Temba Bavuma slashed Stuart Broad to gully — where Ben Stokes dropped what would have been a fine catch.

“You are absolute shit,” Bavuma didn’t say to Stokes, which would have been harsh, even considering it was what Stokes had spat at Bavuma during his maiden century at Newlands in January last year.

South Africa were five runs away from avoiding the prospect of following on when the chance went down.

How long Morne Morkel would be able to suspend everyone’s but his own disbelief in his batting ability without Bavuma’s towering presence — figuratively, of course — at the other end and with only an ailing Philander to come was anyone’s guess.

As it happened, Morkel scored a flinty 17, Philander agonised to an unbeaten 10, and Bavuma was last out for 52, a doughty effort of more than three hours that earned his ninth half-century and his fifth scored with South Africa’s backs to the wall. It also sent Graeme Pollock and his sorry ilk back under their rocks tae think again.

England’s second innings was four overs old when Philander found Keaton Jennings’ edge. The catch flew to third slip, where it eluded Dean Elgar.

But Morkel claimed a bigger scalp five overs later when he trimmed Alastair Cook’s off stump with a delivery that veered towards the left-hander and then snaked away off the pitch.

The South Africans celebrated, of course. But not too heartily: much will have to happen in this match if they are to break out the champagne and send corks leaping into England’s scarce sunshine.

Curtains for SA?

Times Media


TELFORD VICE at The Oval

AT least 11 sets of curtains will be pulled aside in hope and trepidation in South Africa’s hotel in London on Sunday morning, and a pertinent question asked — is it still raining?

If it is, South Africa will have a stronger chance of going to Manchester on Tuesday with the series still winnable.

But if the rain that limited Saturday’s play in the third test against England at The Oval to 37 overs has cleared up, South Africa might well be trying to earn a share of the spoils at Old Trafford.

And the forecast is that Sunday and Monday will be cloudy but free of rain.

Stumps on Saturday came with England 74/1 in their second innings. That’s a lead of 252, which would put them in the driving seat regardless of anything else.

But the home side have another major factor in their favour in the shape of Vernon Philander’s stomach.

Its health, that is. Philander spent Friday night in hospital trying to recover from a viral infection.

He succeeded well enough to score 10 not out and bowl six overs on Saturday.

But South Africa will need a lot more overs from Philander where those came from if they are to retain realistic hopes of keeping at least a draw within reach. By the look of him on Saturday, Philander is a long way from over his illness.

Morne Morkel bowled Alastair Cook for six with a pearler that kissed the outside of the left-hander off-stump.

If Philander is still struggling on Sunday, Morkel will be the visitors’ key bowler.

Temba Bavuma’s defiant 52 was the major reason South Africa — who crashed to 61/7 on Friday in reply to England’s first innings of 353 — were able to stave off the prospect of following on.

It was his ninth test half-century and the fifth time he has had to dig South Africa out of the dwang. Little wonder he is getting used to doing so.

“It’s always difficult in those situations,” Bavuma said. “But, because of where I bat, more often than not that’s where I’ll find myself — having to adapt to those kinds of situations.

“I didn’t see it any differently to all the other times I’ve batted.

“In terms of gameplan I just tried to take it ball by ball and see how long we can keep them out there in the field.”

Bavuma and co. — Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Philander — did so well enough to take South Africa to 175 before they were dismissed.

Whether that will be enough to stop England from taking complete command of the match could be revealed when curtains are opened on Sunday.

SA hope for Philander hospital pass

Times Media


TELFORD VICE at The Oval

VERNON Philander spent Friday night on a drip in hospital battling a stomach bug and will hope to be back at The Oval on Saturday to fight the good fight in a third test that is heading England’s way.

“He’s a huge cog in our wheel,” South Africa’s batting coach, Neil McKenzie, said on Friday, when Philander was able to bowl only five overs and wasn’t around to take up his usual position in the batting order.

South Africa will need him something like fit and firing in both departments if they are to stay afloat in the match, what with England ahead by 227 runs after two days.

Philander is South Africa’s last batsman left in the shed — or the hospital bed — and he will be expected to take the new ball when England bat again, assuming they don’t enforce the follow-on should they get the chance.

The visitors, who will resume on Saturday on 126/8 in reply to England’s first innings of 353, lurched to 51/7 before Temba Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada put on 53 to drag their team to three figures.

“When you’re side is 40-odd for what we were you’ve got to consider it a decent collapse,” McKenzie said.

“There’s no excuse for 126/8, but the conditions have been tough.”

Not that only two centuries being scored in the almost six innings that have comprised the series can be blamed entirely pitch and weather factors.

McKenzie offered another theory: “There are a few young guys filling gaps but maybe the experience isn’t there like it was five, six years ago.”

At 26 and playing in only his 35th test, Ben Stokes is one of those young guys. But he scored that rare thing, a century — 112, 60 of them in fours and sixes — while debutant fast bowler Toby Roland-Jones, who is three years Stokes’ senior, exploited the conditions expertly to take 4/39.

“It was the [century] I worked for the hardest,” Stokes said of his 153-ball effort.

Really? It didn’t look like it when he went from 91 to 109 with three arching sixes off consecutive deliveries from Keshav Maharaj.

Stokes’ batting partner at the time, James Anderson, would no doubt agree that Stokes had made batting look easy.

As Stokes told it: “Jimmy said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said something like, ‘Wallop’.”

Roland-Jones, too, wasn’t in the mood to talk up his feat — which he might have done considering he needed only 24 balls to dismiss South Africa’s top four.

“As far as conditions at The Oval go it was as seamer-friendly as you’re going to find,” he said.

“I was just trying to do my best and keep my foot behind the line.”

He got that right, and how.