England v India 2018 Test Series Preview

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The England v India 5 test series begins at Edgbaston on Wednesday 1st August

Football didn’t come home.  Andy Murray missed Wimbledon.  Jack and Dani won Love Island.  So now, in August, the British public should have few distractions (apart from the latest Brexit disaster/scaremongering, depending on your allegiance) as they prepare to enjoy a 5 match test series between England and India.

For the visitors there is little doubt that this is their best chance of winning a test series in England since their 1-0 triumph under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy in 2007.  They have a formidable batting line up, depth in their seam-bowling resources, and two of the best spinners in the world, as well as a third that befuddled England’s batsmen during the preceding ODI series.   For the host nation meanwhile, they are still searching for an opening partner for Alastair Cook, a reliable spinner, a genuine fast bowler, and need to find two fast-medium bowlers to replace Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad in the near future.

The ICC test rankings tell a story (India are ranked 1st compared to England’s 5th), and with England currently experiencing one of its hottest and driest summers since 1976, conditions should not assist the home side’s bowlers to the same degree that they so often have in recent years.  Let’s look at the key areas of each side in more detail:

Opening batsmen    

England: Alastair Cook looked to have rediscovered his touch in the 2 tests against Pakistan, and got his eye in with 180 for England Lions against India A a fortnight ago.  Keaton Jennings meanwhile will have fond memories of his debut test hundred against India just over 18 months ago, but having only recently been recalled for the 2nd test vs Pakistan, he will be under pressure to deliver, with Rory Burns and Nick Gubbins both knocking on the door.

India: The visitors are blessed to have 3 quality opening batsmen to pick from: the left-handed dasher Shikhar Dhawan, the solid but stylish Murali Vijay, and Lokesh Rahul, who combines Dhawan’s shot-making with Vijay’s technical correctness.  Which two out of the three get the nod for the first test may be a toss-up, but expect Vijay to be one of them.

Verdict: England have 1 proven test opener, who may well be on the downslope of his career, whilst India have 3 to pick from.  With conditions likely to be dry and hot, England’s bowlers may struggle to move the new ball and dislodge India’s opening pair.  Winner: India.

Batsmen 3-7

England: Joe Root will have to turn his propensity for making stylish fifties and then getting out, into one for making big hundreds, and soon, if England are to avoid a series defeat.  Dawid Malan deserves to be persevered with after a fine Ashes series in which he showcased an unflappable temperament, but he knows that he must make another hundred sooner or later this Summer to cement his place at number 4. Jonny Bairstow meanwhile has quickly become the key man in the England ‘engine room’, coming in at 5, whilst also keeping wicket.  Ben Stokes should bat at 6 and along with Jos Buttler at 7, gives England an exciting trio of middle-order stroke makers, capable of taking the game away from the opposition. Whether they can match this undoubted attacking flair with the necessary patience to grind out runs when the going gets tough, remains to be seen.

India: In Cheteshwar Pujara the visitors quickly found a like for like replacement for ‘The Wall’.  Having spent two successful short stints at Yorkshire over the last year, he has experience of English conditions, and can be expected to be the most difficult of all India’s batsmen for England to prize from the crease.  Virat Kohli knows that he has a point to prove, having endured a horror series in England in 2014 (138 runs at 13.8).  Expect him to enjoy a much more fruitful series this time.  Ajinkya Rahane is likely to get the nod at number 5, and needs a successful series after a prolonged lean spell in test cricket.  Dinesh Karthik should slot in at 6 with all-rounder Hardik Pandya taking on the Buttler role of being the aggressive stroke-maker at number 7.

Verdict: Root, Malan, Bairstow, Stokes, and Buttler are an exciting group of stroke-makers for England.  However as was exposed in New Zealand, and the 1st test against Pakistan, it is also a brittle line-up when the ball moves about early on.  Kohli holds the key for India and as long as his openers and Pujara can keep him away from the new ball, he should make hay while the sun shines. However Rahane is under pressure, Karthik is on the comeback trail and Pandya is still finding his way in test cricket.  Draw.

Wicket-keeping

Jonny Bairstow and Dinesh Karthik’s keeping has both improved markedly in recent years.  Don’t expect many chances to go down behind the stumps. Verdict: Draw.

Slip-fielding and close catching

Slip fielding though is a different story , with India’s cordon in particular having a severe case of ‘butter fingers’ in recent series.  England have not been much better, and have also struggled to find a reliable man to field under the lid at short-leg.  India’s better fielding round the bat to their spinners should cancel out England’s marginally better slip cordon.  Verdict: Draw.

Spin-bowling

England: The home side’s search for a match-winning spinner to replace Graeme Swann has been almost as fruitless as their quest for a reliable opening partner for Alastair Cook.  Moeen Ali seemed to have filled the void until a chastening Ashes series last winter, and the unlucky Jack Leach and wet behind the ears Dom Bess have since been looked at and, for the moment, jettisoned.  That leaves leg-spinner Adil Rashid as the man in possession; a bowler who has not played any first-class cricket all season.  It is a far from ideal situation and whilst Rashid has performed creditably in recent ODIs, his propensity to send down one ‘four ball’ per over in his previous tests may well resurface in the pressure of a test match.

India: Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja form an incisive combination at home, but previous outings in England have been a different story.  With England in the grip of a month long heatwave which shows little sign of abating, English pitches may for once play into India’s spinners’ hands.  Kuldeep Yadav’s left-arm wristspin can also not be discounted, and he may actually get the nod ahead of Jadeja as India’s second spinner.  Winner: India.

Seam bowling

England: Jimmy Anderson, even at 36, continues to lead England’s attack manfully.  Stuart Broad has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent tests, but England’s third seamer is young left-armer Sam Curran, who may lack sufficient pace to trouble test batsmen, unless he can conjure up consistent swing to compensate.  Ben Stokes will be unlikely to bowl too many overs having suffered injury problems in recent times.  Essex’s Jamie Porter is also likely to get a chance to show his wares during the series.

India: Mohammad Shami’s return from injury could prove crucial for India, especially if he is able to find the reverse swing that has made him a dangerous proposition on dry Indian pitches.  Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav and Hardik Pandya give India the best fast-bowling depth they have had in living memory.

Verdict: If England can keep Jimmy Anderson fit for all 5 tests, they have a chance.  However if he or a rejuvenated Stuart Broad succumb to injury, then their seam attack will begin to look threadbare.  India can confidently rotate amongst 5 seam bowlers for 3 likely spots (with Pandya batting at 7), and with that crucial factor of the weather likely to keep the pitches and outfields dry to assist reverse swing, they may actually hold the advantage over the hosts.  Winner (just): India

Final Verdict:

India have a stronger opening pair (for which they have 3 proven performers to choose from), better spinners and more depth in pace-bowling, and so they should come out on top over the course of 5 tests.  It will take a monumental effort from England’s key men, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jimmy Anderson, to stave off a series defeat.  With the weather likely to stay hot and dry, and with few tests now lasting 5 days, expect at least 4 positive results.  This writer predicts India to win the series, 3 matches to 1.

 

Cricket in 2028

Crystal Ball
What Cricketing stories will be in the news in 2028?  Let’s take a gaze into the crystal ball…

Women’s Softball

New research has found that the ECB’s long-running Women’s softball ‘Prosecco’ festivals have had a neglible effect on the number of women graduating to play hardball cricket.  It has, however, led to a five-fold increase in the number of ‘functioning alcoholics’ amongst suburban middle-class mothers of cricket-playing children.

The ECB’s latest plans for their new league

Plans continue apace for the ECB’s new 11 ball league.  Under the proposals, each player will bowl 1 ball, and each batsman will get to face 1 ball, in each 11 ball innings.  Matches are expected to last half an hour, fitting into the key 5.30-6.00 slot, after kids get home from school and just before they settle down to an evening in front of Youtube or on their Playstation 6.  With the simplified format, the ECB are hoping to appeal to the key target markets of women and young children.  In a recent survey amongst 10 year old state-educated schoolchildren, when asked what they thought about cricket, 93% of the respondents replied with ‘What’s Cricket?’.  The remaining 7% replied that it was a small green insect, similar to a grasshopper.

Ball tampering

The fallout from ‘cough sweet-gate’ continues.  England’s recent Ashes victory has been put down in some quarters to their fast bowlers’ ability to reverse swing the ball.  Several England players were seen applying saliva to the ball, moments after chewing on what appeared to be a Hall’s Soother.  The England management commented that this was just sour grapes on Australia’s part, and that it had been an unusually cold Summer, with several England players suffering from serious bouts of ‘the sniffles’.  The ECB refused to comment on rumours that Locketts are now in a bidding war with Halls to become the main sponsors of the England Cricket team.

New Afghan IPL star

Afghan spin sensation Rashid Zadran continues to attract interest from several IPL teams. The 13 year-old, who has taken 217 T20 wickets since his debut 2 years ago, is expected to be sold for a figure around 20,000 lakh rupees (£ God knows)  at the upcoming IPL auction.  Having helped Afghanistan to win the recent U19 World Cup, with 23 wickets in 7 matches, allegations surfaced that Zadran is actually a 29 year-old father of four.  The ICC is investigating.

‘The Big 3’

ECB President Giles Clarke is enthusiastic about the upcoming 7 match test series against India. Following on from the winter tour of India, which India won 7-0, and just ahead of next winter’s Ashes series, Clarke commented that ‘This series will give the English public a rare chance to see the Indian stars in the flesh, ahead of another hugely important Ashes series.’  This winter’s Ashes will be followed by a 12 match tri-series, between England, Australia and India, which will lead into next Summer’s 7 match Ashes series. Meanwhile Clarke said that he was excited about the plans for the 2031 World Cup, which will be a 50 match round-robin tournament, to be held in India, featuring India, England and Australia.  One journalist questioned the wisdom of a 3 team world cup in a sport that as long ago as 2018 had 103 members, to which Clarke replied ‘We invented the sport, the Aussies have the best team and the Indians bring in most of the money.  Now piss off.’

David Warner’s next career move

Recently retired former Australian player David Warner has signed a multi-million dollar deal to become the new face of Makita belt sanders.  ‘I’ve always been a keen DIY enthusiast, and i’m a big fan of Makita’s products.  I never took any sandpaper onto the pitch all those years ago in South Africa though, honest’.

 

Will there ever be a London NFL Franchise?

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The writer attended NFL games at Wembley in 2007 and 2013 (pictured below, when the Steelers beat the Vikings 34-27 in a thrilling finish)

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Whilst there has been some fevered speculation on the subject over the years since the first regular season NFL game was held at Wembley in 2007, and there has been mention from NFL bigwigs of a London-based franchise by 2022, there are many significant issues that such a venture would need to overcome.

  • Re-locating the players and coaches to London. The NFL regular season may only comprise 16 games, but with training camps starting in July and 4 pre-season games in August, any London-based team would need to transplant its players and coaches from the US to the UK for a minimum of 6 months each year.   How easy would it be for a London franchise to keep their players and coaches happy when they are away from their friends and family for such a significant chunk of time?  How high would the turnover of players and coaches be at such a Franchise?  Can you imagine many players committing themselves to long-term, multi-year deals in a foreign country that, for all the talk of the ‘Special Relationship’, will still be a culture shock from what they are used to back home?

 

  • The travel distance to each away game. Whilst NFL players are used to flying to each away game, how would upwards of ten (including pre-season) 4,000+ mile flights per season affect the players’ minds and bodies, their preparation time for each game, and their recovery time from their previous game?

 

  • Recruiting college players, coaches and free agents. Most NFL players dream of playing for one of the Marquee Franchises.  The Patriots, the Cowboys, the Redskins etc.  It’s difficult enough for less prestigious teams such as the Cleveland Browns to get players fresh out of college to sign on the dotted line, but what if that team was based 3,500 miles from their nearest NFL rival?  Would the ‘British Bulldogs’, or whatever moniker a London-based NFL team ends up being known by, find it easy to sign promising young players straight out of college, coaches looking for their next NFL gig, or a sought-after free agent?  It seems unlikely.

 

  • Is there the demand from existing UK NFL fans for a London Franchise? Having been to a couple of NFL Wembley games, including the first one in 2007, one thing is obvious.  The vast majority of NFL fans in the UK already have a team that they root for, as can be seen from the wide variety of replica shirts being worn in the stands at the Wembley games.  Most of the existing 32 teams are represented in the stands, hell even the odd Browns fan can be spotted!  Will a London-based franchise win over their affections, ahead of their existing team, which they may have already followed for anything from a few months to 30+ years?  Or will they become their second team, and if so will the fans be willing to spend their pounds going along to support them, once the novelty of having an NFL team in London has worn off?  Similarly whilst the Wembley games have regularly sold out and have enjoyed something of a carnival atmosphere, when the number of games is upped from 3 a year to 8, will the demand still be there?  With a London team coming about either as a new expansion team, or more likely a relocated and re-named struggling Franchise from a small market, such as the Jaguars, Panthers, Bills etc., a London-based team is very likely to have a tough time of it for their first few seasons.  Will the fans still turn up after a couple of 2-14 or 3-13 years?

 

  • NFL’s status in the UK and the lack of media coverage. For all of the work done by the NFL in recent years, the increased support shown by the BBC, and the long-standing coverage on Sky Sports, American Football remains a minority sport in the UK.  For a London Franchise to be sustainable it will need more than the support of a couple of hundred thousand hardcore followers, that subscribe to Sky Sports, pay for NFL Gamepass, and that may have been following the sport since the days of Mick Luckhurst and Gary Imlach on Channel 4.  The NFL will need to bring in a new generation of fans to add to and eventually replace their existing, rather middle-aged UK fanbase.  With only the Wembley games and the Superbowl currently being shown live on UK terrestrial TV each year, how will they introduce these youngsters to the sport and then hook them on it for life?  One could add that Cricket, Rugby League and Golf have as little or even less live terrestrial TV coverage than the NFL, but they are three sports that have been woven into the fabric of British society for well over a hundred years each, and in any case the lack of live, ‘free to air’ coverage for a sport such as cricket has had an obviously damaging effect over the past decade, as the sport has slowly but surely lost its place in the British public’s consciousness.  As for newspapers and radio, when was the last time you read an NFL story on the back pages of a British paper, or heard an NFL phone-in on the radio?

For all of these reasons and others I remain sceptical of whether a London-based NFL franchise will ever be more than just a pipedream, and even if one does come to fruition over the next decade, whether it can be successful.  However I would love to be proved wrong.

Is there a case for an expanded County Championship?

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With the hullabaloo surrounding the ECB’s recently unveiled plans for ‘The 100’ (or whatever it actually ends up being called), and with the continuing success of the Natwest T20 Blast, it would be easy to forget the ongoing debate about that staple of the County game, the much maligned County Championship.

The first-class counties and the ECB are now seemingly set on seriously considering changes to the established two divisional structure, and a complicated ‘Conference’ system has been proposed in some quarters..  However this writer would encourage the powers that be to think the unthinkable, and expand the reach of the competition, rather than retreat just to the big cities, as ‘The 100’ competition proposes.  Indeed expanding the County Championship was mentioned in passing back in 2015, and both Ireland and Scotland were keen , as were Devon and Cornwall, who talked of merging to form a shared First-Class side.  3 years on such expansion of the County Championship seems unlikely, but it would have several benefits.

By adding 3 new first-class county sides, the County Championship could be split into 3 divisions of 7, with a ‘one-up, one down’ promotion and relegation system, and with each county playing a balanced schedule of 12 matches (6 home and 6 away, versus each other side in their division).  This would slightly reduce the existing number of CC fixtures from 14 to 12, but would give each match greater context, reduce the number of ‘dead rubbers’ at the end of the season, would maintain the integrity of the competition, and end the current fudge whereby Division 2 is made up of 10 teams playing 14 matches each, in an unbalanced fixture list.

From the ECB’s point of view most of the traditional county powerhouses could soon be expected to find their way into a 7 team Division 1, from which they would continue to produce most of England’s test players, whilst a 3 divisional structure could also maintain the existence of the smaller, less competitive counties in the two divisions below, playing on more of a level playing field.  As it is the likes of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northants, with their small ground capacities, low memberships, and modest gates, are nearly always going to struggle to match the likes of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Notts, Surrey and Middlesex, so why not acknowledge that reality by making the top division more streamlined and more competitive, whilst also broadening the base of the game and bringing new sides into a new Division 3?

So if we agree that expansion is a good thing, which counties should get the nod?

It is clear from a historical perspective and from simple demographics that two of the three to be added should be Staffordshire and Devon, historically the most successful and third most successful respectively of the existing Minor Counties, that are also both home to over a million people, placing them amongst the top 20 most Populous English Counties (and in Staffordshire’s case such a list excludes places such as Wolverhampton, Walsall and West Bromwich, which all fall under the ‘West Midlands’).  Both counties have a successful cricketing culture and illustrious history, befitting of promotion to the County Cricketing elite, and with it the necessary population to provide support both monetarily and in terms of young players for the future.

The third county to be added could be a matter of significant debate, but looking at the spread of the 18 existing first-class counties, East Anglia is an obvious area that is ripe for cricketing expansion.  Indeed with Glamorgan acting as a de-facto county side for the whole of Wales, why not combine Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk into a side representing the whole of ‘East Anglia’, and play two of such a side’s home fixtures each year in each of the three counties?

First Class Cricket Counties, 2018
3 new county sides covering the portion of the country highlighted in green would greatly expand the reach of the existing First-Class Counties (in red)

With 3 new full-time county staffs to fill, there would be roughly 60 more places for professional cricketers, meaning that fewer young English talents would miss out on their chance to make their mark on the professional game.  Of course there would need to be a system in place to ensure that these 60 places were not taken up mainly by ‘Kolpak’ signings or cast offs from the existing 18 counties, but a rule whereby each county had to play a certain number of ‘home grown’ players in each starting XI (starting say with 3, so as to maintain standards, and then increasing that number incrementally over time) would put a stop to that.  From a playing and spectating point of view, 3 new county sides would expand the reaches of the professional game, bringing in new players, coaches, support staff and most importantly of all, new supporters and new interest in previously untapped markets.

As noted earlier this is all rather unlikely in the current climate at the ECB, where retraction rather than expansion of the county game sadly seems far more likely.  However one should ask why, if England (and Wales) can sustain 92 professional football clubs (not including the many non-league sides that are now full time), and 24 English professional rugby union clubs, then why couldn’t 21 professional county cricket clubs be sustainable?  After all, only last year the ECB signed a £1.1 billion broadcasting deal to cover English cricket from 2020-2024.  Surely some of this money could be used to broaden the reach of the English county game?