By Kieran Wellington
- Rain and bad light scuppered the second Test in Southampton, where only 134.3 overs were possible for the entire five days
- As a response to growing frustration, the ICC, teams and broadcasters have agreed to an earlier start if inclement weather plays a part again for the decisive Test
- The lack of match action means Pakistan won’t have to rotate their bowlers, but will England be tempted?
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – Although the Second Test didn’t reveal much about either team, it certainly underlined the problems with Test cricket and its incessant need for perfect playing conditions.
If you haven’t already realised, the world has changed pretty drastically since Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted this to herald his first full year in Number 10. The year 2020 has been wholly defined by something outside of our control, but its negative impact exacerbated by some pretty inconceivable decisions from the powers that be. Sadly, the last week of Test cricket has rather mirrored the national landscape as a whole.
Rain in an English summer is nothing new. Neither is almost pitch black skies come 6pm. So why, when the population has been craving for live sport back on our screens to make the strangest of years seem a little less unbearable have the ICC and the game as a whole shot itself in the foot by not playing cricket in conditions like this when the players are literally living on site at the ground?
As Nasser Hussain rightly pointed out from his third man chair on Sky Sports, try explaining to your children, when the floodlights are on, why umpires still take the players off for bad light when going to a day at the Test can be a highlight of many sports fans’ summers. Will broadcasters continue to pay the big bucks for live Test cricket when, during a very normal looking week in England, they could only be commentating on less than a day and a half’s worth of live action? As reported by ESPN CricInfo, these are sport-defining questions that need the right answers, especially when the ECB are due to make (at least) a loss of £100 million?
What made the lack of cricket worse – between two evenly matched teams in challenging conditions which is a recipe for exciting, breathless cricket – was that just out of Sky’s camera shot, the Pakistan T20 team were playing a practice match for the three matches vs Eoin Morgan‘s side, due to start in Manchester next Friday, while the Test cricketers were staring at a slightly grey but perfectly dry Ageas Bowl. The Second Test could’ve been a classic, low-scoring game of cricket, with momentum swinging this way and that, but slightly damp bowler’s run-ups and slightly too dark skies meant the fifth day was a non-event, and Pakistan’s no.2 and no.3 batsmen bowling for a bit of a laugh. It brought the game to the verge of disrepute.
The umpires taking a reading with their light meter and using that as the baseline for the rest of the game, while ensuring consistency, also ensures too much protection for the batsmen while sacrificing the whole reason they’re employed: playing an actual game of cricket. Shouldn’t we err on the side of keeping the players on, even if it means the batsmen find it difficult for a period? We have sight screens, we even have floodlights at these venues which weren’t around when the laws of the game were created: Test cricket has to move with the times in order to thrive in a quick fire society where patience isn’t a virtue.
The welcome news coming out from the Ageas Bowl today is a 10:30am start to make up for any lost time during this Test, rather than adding time onto the end of a day when skies are darkening. It’s a perfectly logical, easy step for teams, umpires and broadcasters to adjust to which begs the question: why has it taken a global pandemic and a dodgy forecast in a previous Test to make the change? Let’s hope it is a permanent one. Now, to the actual on-field points of interest…
England have used the tightly congested fixture schedule to chop and change through their enviable array of fast bowlers. Sam Curran took the place of Jofra Archer, to the surprise of many, during the previous Test. Ed Smith and Chris Silverwood have a big decision to make: bring back the golden boy of last year who has the enigmatical but cliche-ridden ‘X factor’ or stick with the slower left-armer who is equally chock-full of potential and has an incredible winning record at home? England’s decision will go a long way to suggesting just how important they view Archer, who has a career Test bowling average of 29.21 but a batting average of 8.68: can he really be afforded a position at no.8 or no.9 when England are missing Ben Stokes?
The forced omission of Stokes, who is in New Zealand for family reasons, has allowed Zak Crawley his place back in the team – although the second Test didn’t teach us much, it did allow for the Kent stroke maker to show his class, and the way he sets up, especially against the shorter stuff, is one that oozes Test match quality: he averages over 100 in Test cricket on the back foot, and his well-constructed 53 against a dangerous bowling attack on a helpful pitch should not be lost on people, even if the Test match as a whole will be. He is certainly looking more in-form than his direct opponent in Pakistan’s batting line-up, skipper Azhar Ali, who grinded to a thoroughly unconvincing 85-ball 20. A lot has been made of his side’s ability with the ball, but Pakistan must make top order runs in order to stand any chance of salvaging a series draw. With the exception of Shan Masood‘s brilliant 150 at Old Trafford, only Babar Azam has consistently posted scores with which Pakistan’s bowlers can defend. Masood and fellow opener Abid Ali only share 27 Tests between them (even the relatively inexperienced pair of Rory Burns and Dom Sibley have more). Therefore, it is vitally important captain Azhar steps up and uses his ten years’ worth of Test match experience to guide Pakistan to a score if they win the toss for the third successive time and bat first.
It might be beneficial for Azhar to lose the toss for a change and force Joe Root to make a brave decision to bat first. Between Sibley and Crawley’s excellent partnership, England lost three wickets for just 19 runs in the only session Pakistan got in the field for the entire Test. With tomorrow’s Test also taking place at the Ageas Bowl, and with the forecast cloudy (but mercifully less rain scheduled), it could be a great time to attack England’s batting line-up, sans Stokes, and get the hosts behind the eight ball early. With both sides’ strengths lying in their battery of bowlers, we should get a result come Tuesday, weather permitting. It’s up to the batsmen to produce, and if they do, this match could go down in the history books as one of the most exciting in recent memory.
The third and final Test between England and Pakistan starts at 11am on Friday 21 August.
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