Category Archives: Cricket

England’s Root ahead starts here

Some people would say that the toughest job in sport is the captain of the England cricket team. And they are probably right. Since Mike Brearley retired in 1981 fourteen men have been appointed England captain* and on Thursday Joe Root will become number fifteen. In 36 years! For comparison there have been fourteen different UK Prime Ministers since the war! The nadir was reached in 1988 when England had four captains in six Tests that summer. No doubt about it this job does not have long term security. Even in recent years the captain tends to have a shelf life of four or five years before the pressure of the job gets to them and they end up as broken men as anyone that saw former captain Alistair Cook on last year’s tour of India will testify.

So how will Joe Root fare? The fixture list has not helped him. In a normal summer the weakest of the two touring teams (this year West Indies) would have toured first in May/June and the stronger team (this year South Africa) would have toured in July/August. But because England hosted the Champions Trophy in June this year the fixture list has been reversed with South Africa touring first – still in July/August – while West Indies have been moved to August/September. So instead of the luxury of a debut against a poor West Indies team he has been plunged into a tough debut series against South Africa. 

South Africa are so tough that the last three times they have been here the England captaincy has either changed hands mid series (2003 and 2008) or immediately after the series (2012). At least we know this won’t happen this time – Root has only just been appointed so he won’t be removed after four Tests regardless of what happens – but only an Ashes series or a tour of India could have offered a tougher debut. 

The remarkable thing about South Africa is they will be without argubaly their best batsman – AB de Villiers – and their best fast bowler – Dale Steyn. Had one been told a year ago that South Africa would be without these players one would have anticipated an easy win for England. But it won’t be. This past winter South Africa won 2-1 in Australia, 1-0 in New Zealand and whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0 at home to climb to number 2 in the World Test rankings. De Villiers did not play in one of those nine Tests and Steyn only one – and he broke down after two days in that match. The fact is South Africa have moved on from the Steyn/de Villiers era. 

Their strength is still the pace bowling. Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were key parts of the team who won in 2012 to which can be added the best young fast bowler in the world today Kagiso Rabada and another youngster in Duanne Olivier. They also have the best counter attacking wicket keeper batsman in the world in Quinton de Kock – who is as dangerous coming in at 80 for 5 as 300 for 5 –  a promising spinner in Keshav Maharaj who was their leading wicket taker in the New Zealand series and who could make England pay if they fall into the trap of underestimating him – easy to do as he will seem like light relief after the fast bowlers. And another strength is Faf du Plessis’ captaincy which is so impressive that South African fans wanted him to stay captain even if previous captain de Villiers was fit and available. 

But there are weaknesses too and I think South Africa’s batting could be vulnerable. Only Hashim Amla of South Africa’s top seven batsmen has played Test cricket in England before – even captain du Plessis hasn’t. Plus they have never really replaced former captain Graeme Smith in the opening position. Dean Elgar is a solid opener but they have struggled to find a partner for him. Stephen Cook has been dropped and Elgar’s new partner will either be a debutant (Heino Kuhn or Andre Markham) or a player with only one unsuccessful Test (Theunis De Bruyn). Add to that Duminy and Temba Bavuma could be vulnerable at no 4 and 5 respectively and there is plenty of hope for the England bowlers. 

But England have their problems too. One good thing to come out of a dreadful tour of India was that England had appeared to solve their opening batting problems with the emergence of Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings. Unfortunately Haseeb has had such a nightmare season so far that he has not scored a first class fifty for Lancashire never mind a hundred. Unsurprisingly he has not been picked but I’m surprised that the selectors have recalled Gary Ballance who has been picked and dropped twice in three years and is in danger of being this era’s answer to Grahame Hick or Mark Ramprakash. Yes he is averaging 100 for Yorkshire but has he sorted out his technical flaws? We’ll only find out when he steps back into the Test arena…

But the main worry for England is their pace bowlers – or rather their fitness (or lack thereof). James Anderson and Stuart Broad have missed parts of the season, Chris Woakes and Jake Ball are out, Mark Wood is fit at the moment but cannot be relied upon to last a full series and all rounder Ben Stokes is struggling with a knee injury which only affects him when he is bowling apparently.  Because of these injuries England are likely to go in with four pace bowlers plus Stokes which is really too many but the selectors are probably thinking that if we play five pace bowlers at least three of them should last the game! As for spin Liam Dawson is a depressing safety first selection when they should have kept faith with Adil Rashid or more bravely picked Hampshire youngster Mason Crane who got AB de Villiers out in the recent T20 series between the countries. 

Both teams are not going into this match in great form. England had a nightmare tour of India and have only won three of their last twelve Tests while South Africa might be undercooked having had only one (rain affected) first class warn up match plus captain du Plessis might not make it back to the UK on time to play in the first Test because of the difficult birth of his first child back in South Africa. 

This series could go either way. But in English conditions I would say England’s batting line up might be marginally less incompetent than South Africa’s. England have already beaten South Africa 2-1 in both 50 over and 20 over series this summer. It would not surprise me if England completed a hat trick of 2-1 wins in a hard fought series that would mean England’s new “Root” in Test cricket gets off to a good start…

*I have not counted Allan Lamb or Andrew Flintoff in the number of England captains as although both did the job they were never officially appointed as England captain. Both only captained when the appointed captain (Graham Gooch for Lamb, Michael Vaughan for Flintoff) were injured. 

Today’s history making event is unnecessary. 

History has been made today – unlike the bogus history of last week’s WWE Women’s Money in the Bank Ladder match genuine history. For the first time in history a full round of English County Championship matches started at 2pm instead of 11pm, will be played under lights ( even though we are only a week removed from the longest day of the year !) and with a pink ball. Revolutionary change ( unlike the so called WWE “Women’s Revolution) but unlike that so called “revolution” totally unnecessary. There was no demand from the English counties for the change.

So why was it done? Simple. England are playing a Test match under lights and with the pink ball against the West Indies starting on August 17th at Edgbaston so this round of County Championship matches is being played under lights with a pink ball in order to prepare England’s elite players for this match. But there was no demand from England’s players or fans for a floodlit pink ball Test in England. So why is this Test taking place?

The answer is because of a spineless, pathetic capitulation by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) which could cost England dear in this winter’s Ashes series. In November 2015 (see previous post “Test Cricket Joins the 21st Century”) Australia played New Zealand at the Adelaide Oval in the first ever floodlit/pink ball Test. The next year Australia played South Africa and Pakistan in floodlit/pink ball Tests at Adelaide and Brisbane respectively. The Tests were great successes all won by Australia and all attracted bigger crowds than the day only Tests played previously in the same cities. So Cricket Australia (CA) asked the ECB to agree to play a floodlit Test in the 2017-18 Ashes series and shamefully they agreed so the floodlit Ashes Test will be played at Adelaide starting on December 2nd. But the ECB should not have agreed to this. And here’s why.

The only raison d’être for day/night Test cricket in my opinion is to increase attendences. But the Ashes always sells out – regardless of whether it is played in England or Australia. If the Ashes always sells out why have a day/night Test? The answer is that CA have laid a trap for England and the ECB have walked straight into it. Australia are used to playing with a pink ball – they have played and won three home Tests with it. So if they could lure England into accepting the day/night Test it would give Australia a big advantage. And the pea brains at the ECB did just that.

But of course they could not send England to Australia this winter without any experience of pink ball cricket hence the Test against the West Indies in August and hence why they had nine pink ball County Championship matches starting today. But again there was no demand for pink ball day/night cricket in England.

So in summary to appease Australia the ECB have agreed to two unnecessary pink ball Tests – as day/night Tests are unnecessary in England (where Test cricket has always been well supported). Because the ECB was too spineless to tell Australia where to go. Playing a floodlit Test in England in August is asking for trouble. And it is so unnecessary…

PS – if you read previous post “Test Cricket Joins the 21st century” you will know I am in favour of day/night Tests.  But – and this is the caveat – only as a way of boosting attendences. Ashes Tests – plus Tests in England generally – do not have problems attracting spectators. Plus the climate in the UK is not suitable for day/ night pink ball Test cricket. Therefore these Tests are unnecessary.

Cook must stay for a year – or go now 

England finally won a game on their Indian tour yesterday -at the eighth time of asking. Having lost the Test series 4-0 and also lost the one day series by losing the first two matches they finally scraped a five run win in the dead third match. 

Still at least the one day team was competitive. The Test series was a complete disaster with England reaching a nadir when in the last two Tests England batted first scored 400 (Fourth Test) and 477 (Fifth Test) and yet managed to lose both by an innings. In the Fifth Test India scored 759 for seven declared the highest score ever conceded by England in 139 years of playing Test cricket.

Unsurprisingly there have been rumours about captain Alistair Cook’s future. Since the end of the Test series he has met with England managing director Andrew Strauss to consider his future but no descion has been made. Cook has time on his side – in a ludicrous piece of scheduling England’s first Test of 2017 is not until July 6th against South Africa – so we don’t know what he will decide. At the end of the Indian debacle he seemed a demoralised man and when he mentioned that he considered his vice captain and almost certain successor Joe Root to be ready for Test captaincy most people thought he would go. It hasn’t happened yet – but it still could. Or maybe being back in England with his friends and family has reinvigorated his appetite for Test captaincy.

One thing is certain in my opinion. If Cook wants to carry on as Test captain he must agree to stay in post at least until January 8th 2018. This is the last scheduled day of the 2017-18 Ashes series in Australia where Cook – if he is still captain – will be trying to avenge the 5-0 humiliation inflicted on his team in 2013-14. If he wants to captain England in that series fine. He has done enough for England to deserve to choose his own departure date. If he wants to resign now hand the captaincy over to Root and give him the summer’s Tests against South Africa and West Indies to bed him into the captaincy job that is fine too. But it’s a possible third scenario that worries me.

I think it’s fair to say that if Cook decides to stay in the job he will be under more pressure post India than he was pre India. So imagine that the home Test series against South Africa does not go well – not an impossible scenario after South Africa’s impressive 2-1 away win against Australia last year. If England lose to South Africa under Cook’s captaincy will he want to carry on or will he want to give up? The last three South African tours to England have seen the England captain either resign during the series (Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan) or immediately afterwards (Strauss). This is the doomsday secenario for England. If Cook did resign after the South African series Root is left with just three Tests against a poor West Indies team to gain captaincy experience before the Ashes series starts in Brisbane on November 23rd. Not enough time in my opinion. 

I hope that Strauss during their meeting told Cook that if he wants to keep the job that he is in it for the next year (he can be reassessed after the Ashes series). It would be a disaster if another England captain was seen off during or immediately after a home series against South Africa. England cannot afford to change the captaincy midway through a pre Ashes summer.

For that reason though I wouldn’t mind if Cook stayed my preference is for him to stand down in favour of Root now. It would take the pressure off Cook and the team as he will be under huge pressure after India (as he was after the 2013-14 Ashes shambles). In contrast Root will be a new captain enjoying his honeymoon period in the job. With the captaincy issue settled there will be less pressure on the team with the result that they might play better. 

One thing is certain. If Cook wants to remain captain – and Strauss wants to let him –  he must committ to the whole year. If he stayed in the captaincy then changed his mind during the summer it would be a disaster. Cook must be told that he must either stay in the captaincy for a year – or go now. 

Australia are now like 1990s England 

On July 26th the Australian cricket team started a Test series in Sri Lanka as the number one Test team in the world – at least according to the ICC rankings. Since then they have been whitewashed 3-0 in Sri Lanka, whitewashed 5-0 in an ODI series in South Africa and have lost the first two Tests at home to a South Africa team whose best batsman AB de Villiers is out injured and whose best bowler Dale Steyn disappeared from the series on its second day. The defeat in Hobart was pathetic – Australia were bowled out for 85 and 161 and they lost in two and a bit days playing time. Only David Warner, captain Steve Smith, Usman Khawaja, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood looked Test quality. 

Watching this current Australian team reminded me of the dumpster fire that was England in the 1990s when failure was expected by England cricket fans and the team supplied it. Here are the ways in my opinion that the Australian cricket team resembles England in the 1990s.

Batting collapses. England in the 1990s were notorious for batting collapses. The nadir was probably 1994 when they were bowled out for less than 100 three times – for 46 by West Indies in Port-of-Spain, 99 by South Africa at Lords, and 92 by Australia at Melbourne. The current Australia team have been bowled out for 88 against Pakistan at Headingley in 2010, 98 by England in Melbourne also in 2010, 47 (after being 21 for nine) by South Africa at Cape Town in 2011, 60 by England at Trent Bridge in last year’s Ashes, and 85 by South Africa in their most recent Test. In fact in their last three Tests they have lost all ten wickets for less than 100 runs in an innings. 

Injured bowlers. England in the 1990s had good fast bowlers – Devon Malcolm, Angus Fraser, Darren Gough, Dominic Cork and Andrew Caddick for instance – but they were never all fit at the same time. The current Australia team has Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood. Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle but again they are never all fit – in fact Cummins has only played one Test five years ago because he is always injured. 

Picking all rounders who are not good enough. Between the Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff eras England kept picking players who both batted and bowled but we’re not Test class in either discipline – Mark Ealham, Ronnie Irani and Adam Hollioake being the best examples. Today’s Australia team has picked players like Mitchell Marsh, Moises Henriques and Glenn Maxwell who can bat and bowl but can do neither to Test standard. If Australia recall Maxwell for the next Test they are making a dreadful mistake. If you don’t have an all rounder of Test class don’t pick one. South Africa have learnt this in the post Jacques Kallis era so should Australia. 

Not making their minds up about players. England in the 1990s kept dropping and recalling the same players the two best examples being Mark Ramprakash and current Australia batting coach Graeme Hick. Again Australia keep dropping and recalling players like Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja. They should make up their minds. If they are good enough persevere with them. If not drop them for good. 

An over reliance on old players. England in the 1990s kept recalling veteran players even when they were past their best – Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting and John Emburey being the best examples. One amazing statistic will show how much Australia has relied on old players. Of the Australian XI who whitewashed England in the 2013-14 Ashes only four have played a part in the current South Africa series. Six of that XI have retired from Test cricket and that is a series that finished less than three years ago! In contrast of the England XI that played in the fifth Test of that series six are on the current tour of India yet England were the team that lost that series 5-0. You would think more Australians than Englishmen would be still playing but its the other way around. Australia have kept going for short term options like Adam Voges -who averages 162.28 against West Indies and New Zealand and only 20.52 against good teams like England, Sri Lanka and South Africa. 

It’s as if the countries have swapped roles. In the 1990s Australia picked young players like Ricky Ponting, Michael Slater and Damian Martyn while England picked veterans. Former Australia captain Ian Chappell was able to reply to an MCC member who asked him “How come you Australians always produce good young batsmen?” by saying “We play them.” But now it is England who pick their young batting talent as the participation of Hassem Hameed and Ben Duckett on the current India tour shows while it is Australia who pick old players like Voges and 31 year old debutant Callum Ferguson. 

I think it is clear that Australia are now England in the 1990s. For that to change Australia need to go back to basics. Australia historically have always given youth a chance. They need to go back to that. There is hope for Australia. Cricket can change suddenly. They need only look at their current opponents for an example of this. As recently as January this year South Africa were bowled out for 83 by England in Johannesburg lost the series and were totally humiliated. South African cricket was in crisis. Now they have won a series in Australia with a Test to spare. And two of the main contributors to this success have been Quinton de Kock (age 23) and Kagiso Rabada (age 21). Both proving that good things can happen if you give youth its head. And this is something Australia have to do. The “make do and mend” policy of picking old players has failed and must go. It cannot get any worse than Hobart. And take it from me you do NOT want to be like England in the 1990s….

England are in danger of a humiliating spinwash 

The England Test cricket team will end 2016 the same way they started it – in a tough away series against the world’s number one Test team. But unlike their famous 2-1 win against South Africa back in January the chances of England winning their five Test series in India which starts on Wednesday are very slim and they are in serious danger of suffering a humiliating 5-0 series defeat.

England’s warm up in Bangladesh did not go well. Before this tour England had won eight out of eight against Test cricket’s minnows. But they only won the first Test by 22 runs because of a mixture of the heroics of Ben Stokes and Bangladesh “bottling it” under pressure. In the second Test England needing 273 to win collapsed from 100-0 to a pathetic 164 all out to lose by an embarrassing 108 runs. The batting was clueless against Bangladesh’s spinners while England’s four spinners Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Gareth Barry and Zafar Ansari bowled far too many bad balls and struggled to contain the Bangladeshi batsmen.

And in India they will face far better players than they did in Bangladesh. India’s spinners Ravi Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja are far superior to their Bangladeshi counterparts who humiliated England and their seam bowlers are far superior. While Bangladesh collapsed from 171-1 to 220 all out in the Second Test India’s batsmen will not be so obliging. All in all England face a daunting task.

To show how daunting the task is since England’s 2-1 win in India back in 2012, four non subcontinental teams have toured India – Australia and West Indies (both 2013), South Africa (2015) and New Zealand (September/October this year). They have played a combined thirteen Tests in India between them losing twelve and drawing one. Australia, West Indies and New Zealand lost all their Tests in India and but for rain in Bangalore South Africa would very probably lost all their Tests as well. Between them in 25 innings Australia, West Indies, South Africa and New Zealand could muster only two totals of over 300 and only one century was scored – despite batsmen of the calibre of Michael Clarke. David Warner, Steve Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Kane Williamson being in the visiting teams. All four struggled against India’s spinners especially Ashwin who took a total of 99 wickets in those thirteen Tests. It is clear that England’s task is daunting. 

But why is batting in India so tough? Former England captain Tony Lewis (who captained an England tour to India in 1972-73) has the answer. He said this (in “The Innings of My Life” by Jack Bannister (pages 144- 145)).

“It doesn’t take much for Indian spinners to dominate and, once they are on top, they never let go. It makes for exciting cricket of a type we never see in England. Each time the ball does something, the bowlers and fielders get more wound up -as do the crowd to whom every ball is life and death. Batsmen can hardly hear themselves think – communication with your partner has to be at close quarters – and it seems as though the pair of you haven’t got a friend in the world. 

You lose wickets in clusters, so you are never safe, and the dressing room is always teetering on the edge of a combined nervous breakdown. For instance, in our second innings at Eden Gardens, we went from 17 for four to 114 for five, and then 138 for nine. In Madras we lost our first five wickets for 98, but then got to 242, and in the second innings we were 30 for three, 97 for four, 152 for six and 159 all out. It is an emotional rollercoaster you can laugh at when you have retired, but it is so easy for players to become demoralised when it is happening”. 

Apart from the fact that the crowds for Tests in India are nowhere near as big as in 1972-73, everything Lewis said about batting in India is as true now as it was in 1972-73 (apart from neutral umpires and the Decision Review System (DRS) – which India have finally accepted). It is especially tough to start an innings in India with world class spinners a sharply turning ball and fielders round the bat. So if an English batsman gets to say 50 in India he must go on to at least 100 or even 150 as once a wicket falls the Indian spinners can go “Bang bang bang” and take two, three or four wickets very quickly. As the two batsmen most capable of producing innings of 150+ this puts huge pressure on captain Alistair Cook and Joe Root. But Australia, New Zealand and South Africa also have world class batsmen and they failed in India. Can Cook and Root do better? They have to. Also England’s spinners must improve. Spinners should put pressure on batsmen by bowling maidens but England’s spinners bowled a lot of garbage in Bangladesh and if they do the same in India Virat Kholi and company will feast on the easy pickings.

Is there any hope for England? Only in the past. In 1976-77, 1984-85, and 2012 England were in terrible form before they went to India. But on all three occasions England won famous victories – 3-1 in 1976-77, and 2-1 – after losing the first Test – in both 1984-8 5 and 2012. But in 1976-77 England had a world class spinner in Derek Underwood and in 2012 they had two – Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. The Indians were hoist by their own petard. In 1984-85 the Indian team were divided among themselves. 

None of this applies today. England’s spinners – as was painfully obvious in Bangladesh – are poor. And Kohli leads a strong, confident rampant Indian team who aim to win all thirteen home Tests this winter (they already have beaten New Zealand 3-0, and after England play one Test against Bangladesh and four against Australia). Frankly this is as pessimistic as I’ve felt about an England Test series since the 2002-3 Ashes – which I thought they would lose 5-0 and if Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne had stayed fit they probably would have lost 5-0 instead of 4-1. Frankly considering England’s form in Bangladesh and the dominating performances of India at home I fear it will take a miracle – or rain – for England to avoid a humiliating 5-0 spinwash. 

On the toughest job in sport

So who has the toughest job in sport? Some would say it’s the England football manager Sam Allardyce, some would say it is Joe Maddon as he tries to lead the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years, some would say it is José Mourinho and Pep Guadiola as they try to restore Manchester to the pinnacle of English football. But at least these four men are all qualified to do their jobs. My nomination is a totally unique job in sport that you only get if you are not good at what you do.

The job is that of nightwatchman in cricket. For those who don’t know about cricket a nightwatchman is used when a wicket falls and there are only a few minutes left in the day’s play. Nobody in cricket really likes batting for a few minutes at the end of a day – you can only score a few runs at best and at worst you can get out. So a lot of teams don’t use good batsmen and instead use bowlers since most of them are not very good at batting and therefore they are expendable. If they get out it is disappointing but not a disaster as they are not very good. So in effect – totally unlike any other job inside or outside sport – you get the nightwatchman’s job because you are not good. The equivalent in baseball would be using a pitcher as a pinch hitter – which happens far more rarely than the use of a nightwatchman in cricket.

The nightwatchman job in cricket is a tough one because not only is it done by someone who is not a good batsman but the fielding side is inevitably buoyed up by capturing a wicket near the close of play. Also one of the unwritten rules of cricket is the nightwatchman – the not good batsman – has to take most of the strike as he is the one that is expendable – which is why he is out there in the first place. Then if he survives the night he has to go out again at the start of the next day’s play to face fired up fresh fast bowlers who are out for blood and want early wickets.

One member of the “nightwatchman’s union” sums up the role perfectly. Pat Pocock played 25 Tests for England between 1968 and 1985. His career Test batting average was 6.24 which is not good (as in baseball the lower the average the worse the player is.) But because his batting average was so poor – he was in the team as a bowler – he was considered perfect for the nightwatchman’s role. As David Tossell in his book “Grovel! – The Story and Legacy of the Summer of 1976” – put it (Page 119) the role was one that Pocock “frequently filled but rarely relished”.

Here’s what the man himself had to say about the nightwatchman’s role (ibid page 119) “Nightwatchman is the absolute arse end of cricket. Generally the bowlers have had their feet up all day and they are fresh; they know they only have to bowl five overs at you and have a new ball in their hands. It is a tail gunner’s job, the worst job in the world”.

Another nightwatchman story from 1976 appears in the same book (page 38) when batsman Dennis Amiss was hit on the skull by a ball from Michael Holding near the end of the first day of the MCC v West Indies game at Lord’s. Bowler Phil Carrick was sent in as nightwatchman while Amiss’s blood was still on the pitch. The other batsman Mike Brearley greeted Carrick with a line from a “Beyond the Fringe” sketch. “The time has come, Perkins, for a useless sacrifice”. And in fact that’s what nightwatchmen are most of the time. A useless sacrifice whose only purpose is to protect better batsmen from having to bat late in the day (hence the word “nightwatchman”). A truly horrible job.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Sometimes the nightwatchman bats on well into the next day and makes a big important score. The four most famous nightwatchman innings for England are Harold Larwood’s 98 against Australia at Sydney in 1933 (he is more famous in that series for reducing Don Bradman to mere mortality with his controversial “Bodyline” bowling that nearly wrecked relations between the UK and Australia), Eddie Hemmings’ 93 in 1983 against Australia at Sydney in 1983 which helped saved the game, Jack Russell’s 94 against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in 1988 on his Test debut – ironically delayed because the selectors in their infinite (lack of) wisdom thought he could not bat! – and Alex Tudor’s 99 not out against New Zealand at Edgbaston where he was denied a century because his Surrey team mate Graham Thorpe scored so quickly England had reached their victory target before Tudor could complete his hundred.

But the most remarkable nightwatchman’s innings in Test cricket came from Australia’s Jason Gillespie in 2006. Sent in near the end of the first day’s play in the second Test against Bangladesh in Chittagong he was still batting on the fouth day when Australia declared on 581 for 4 with Gillespie on 201 not out. What makes that amazing is Gillespie is not a batsman but has a higher Test score than some of the best batsmen in history – among them famous Australia captains Ian Chappell and Steve Waugh and famous England captains Colin Cowdrey and Mike Atherton!

The Gillespie story proves one thing. Nightwatchman might be “the arse end of cricket” as Pat Pocock called it. I still say it’s the toughest job in sport. It must be the only one you get because you are not good and expendable – a “useless sacrifice”. But sometimes the useless sacrifice can have his day. As Jason Gillespie did in Chittagong on April 19 2006.

Stick to your season

Time was that in August the only international cricket that was played was in England. All the other Test countries – mainly in the southern hemisphere – were in winter hibernation unless they were touring England.

That started to change in 1992 when Sri Lanka – where the climate was suitable for cricket most of the year – hosted Australia in August. The main reason they did that was the traditional winter months of November to March were overcrowded and countries found it hard to fit in tours to Sri Lanka in that time. For a long while after 1992 Sri Lanka hosted Test series in August and September but they were the only other country to do so (apart from England obviously).

But that has totally changed. This August – apart from England v Pakistan and Sri Lanka v Australia – there have been Test series in Zimbabwe (v New Zealand), West Indies (v India) and South Africa (v New Zealand). Of the ten Test teams only Bangladesh have not been in action this month. To think that twenty five years ago in 1991 the only Test teams that were in action where England, West Indies and Sri Lanka and the only country that Test cricket was played in was England! 

But there are consequences of doing this. This past week saw Test matches scheduled between West Indies and India in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and between South Africa and New Zealand in Durban. Both Tests were the first played in these cities in August and both were total disasters. In Port-of-Spain only 22 overs were bowled-all on the first day – while in Durban only 99.4 overs were bowled-all in the first two days. So combined the two Tests lasted for 121.4 overs – lees than two days – and seven of the ten scheduled days were completely washed out. A total mess.

And an avoidable mess. The game in Port-of-Spain was arranged for Trinidad’s rainy season. So is anyone surprised when it rained? And although Durban has below average rainfall in winter the numbskulls that run South African cricket obviously don’t know that when it does rain in winter it is heavier than in summer. An example : Between 1899 and 2007 there were 135 floods at Worcestershire’s New Road ground – which is on the banks of the River Severn – but only nine occurred during the prime cricket months of May to August. And sure enough Durban was hit by record floods in late July and the wet weather continued into early August.

And another problem with playing out of season is that the grounds are not prepared for rain because they usually play in the summer where there is less of it. In Durban’s case the outfield was relaid recently which made the outfield soft and harder to dry. It was relaid at the end of May after the Comrades Marathon – soon enough if the cricket season stuck to its normal time but too late for a Test starting in August. This meant although there was no rain after overnight on the second day the combination of a soft wet outfield and a weak sun – again Cricket South Africa should know the sun is weaker in winter meaning it takes longer to get rid of water – meant that despite three dry days the outfield could not dry and the Test limped to a watery grave.

And the same thing happened in Port-of-Spain. Again a spell of rain again the outfield could not cope. Again the reason is the people that run the ground are not used to rain since they usually play in the summer when it doesn’t rain so when they were moved to what is normally the off season they were not prepared for it. The rain in Durban and Port-of-Spain is mother nature’s way of telling cricket to stick to its season. 

There is another reason not to play in your off season. The public is not interested. The attendances in both Durban and Port-of-Spain were tiny. Hardly surprising considering cricket was competing with the Rio Olympics where both the West Indies (Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson) and South Africa (Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya) had significant athletic successes and in South Africa’s case the start of the Rugby Championship featuring the Springboks, the Wallabies, the All Blacks and Argentina – a big deal in rugby mad South Africa. The public were not ready for cricket. Again the authorities should know this. When Australia tried playing winter Tests in 2003 and 2004 the public didn’t want them and the attendances were tiny so Australia had the sense to abandon them and go back to playing in summer.

The fact is cricket has an off season for a reason. In most countries the weather in August is simply not suitable for cricket. Playing cricket in South Africa and West Indies in August is about as sensible as playing baseball at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium in January. The weather and the attendances in Durban and Port-of-Spain should convince the cricket authorities in both countries that off season cricket is a disaster. Cricket has been a summer sport throughout its existence. It needs to stay that way. It needs to stick to its season.