England v Sri Lanka: Lord's first Test thriller leaves crucial questions unanswered
England are no closer to finding a successor to Graeme Swann, Sam Robson was unconvincing – and where is Ben Stokes?
Where is the real spinner?
Part of the reason England failed to win the first Test at Lord’s was unquestionably the lack of a spinner. The efforts of all four fast bowlers were noble, Moeen Ali’s off-breaks were adequate when called on, but the missing dimension was clear.
Peter Moores, the England coach, recognises the shortcoming. “We are going to have to identify our next spinner, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “All sides need the option of a front-line spinner to be able to play in all conditions.”
The what is obvious, the who seems to be as much a mystery to the selectors as to the rest of the country. It speaks poorly for all the systems put in place in the last decade to rear international cricketers (as does the fact that three of the new section of England’s team at Lord’s – Gary Ballance, Chris Jordan and Sam Robson – were born and, in truth, learned their cricket in other countries).
Never can there have been such desperate casting around to the extent that a 22-year-old Kent off-spinner, Adam Riley, never mentioned in despatches until this summer and not part of age-group sides previously, is now one of the front-runners.
Simon Kerrigan, of Lancashire, has been the most prodigious spinner in recent seasons but he had a fraught Test debut last season and is reported not to be performing well for Lancashire this summer. Neither of the leg-spinners, Adil Rashid and Scott Borthwick, is yet viable.
If Monty Panesar seems the obvious choice, his personal life is still ruining his chances of a recall. There is always somebody, of course, but it is a dire period for spin in this country. It may yet be Ali by default but nobody should kid themselves that he is the proper solution.
Can Cook find form?
Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Of course, Alastair Cook needs runs quickly to cement his place in the side. He is carrying a rookie opener with him and therefore the captain’s contribution simply becomes more vital.
But the volleys of abuse that Cook’s captaincy received in the wake of the Lord’s match were unjustified. An early declaration would have been bold but on that featherbed of a pitch it might also have been foolhardy.
Cook was not to blame for the second-innings collapse – well, only partly as the catalyst for it – and had to protect what he had. Some of his field placings, especially on the last day, were funky to the point of unprecedented but his off-the-wall strategy for Kumar Sangakkara led, even if indirectly, to taking his wicket.
The captain was trying, perhaps too hard. England’s over-rate was a disgrace and he was lucky to escape only with a fine of 20 per cent of his match fee – he faces a one-match ban if he offends again in a Test match within the next 12 months.
It was not good enough, as Moores conceded. But there were many good points. “The fields, I think that was part of his evolution,” he said. “Fields are always a combination of the bowler and captain working hard to put the batsmen under pressure.
“He would love to have got a score but I thought he captained well, his bowling changes were good right down to the end. We are talking about a player here who is England’s most successful centurion.”
Has Prior silenced debate?
For now, at least, Matt Prior has reclaimed the wicketkeeping berth as his own. His 86 in the first innings was like the old days – busy, positive, assertive – though his second-innings dismissal was redolent of last year’s carelessness.
Prior kept with uniform excellence almost throughout, a fact recognised by Moores, a wicketkeeper himself who can spot the small glitches. He took three or four catches with a deceptive simplicity and his last-over take to send back Rangana Herath, albeit that the batsman had a hand off the bat, was wonderfully alert in most tense circumstances.
The chronic Achilles injury which blighted his early season and threatened his career appears to have subsided. Perhaps the selectors missed an opportunity in denying Jos Buttler the place behind the stumps, but the admirable Prior has responded.
How about the new batsmen?
The resounding success was Gary Ballance, not only because he made a hundred but because he did so in an unfamiliar position at No 3. It seemed a slightly ridiculous gamble by England to place the burly Zimbabwean in the blue-riband role but there was method in the madness.
“I’ve watched him play,” said Moores. “He sets up like a top-three player, leaves very well, he’s prepared to let the ball come to him and bats time as well. He’s proved he goes on to get big hundreds, which are all the traits you want at the top of the order. Speaking to him, he was very keen to take on the position and it’s important that a player really wants to grab a spot, which he did.”
Ali, too, looked the part at No 6, though his audacity overcame him twice. As Moores put it: “He looked very comfortable out there.” Unlike Sam Robson, the new opener, who looked most uncomfortable with his low crouch and hard hands.
Moores was correct to point out that it may be a little early to judge Robson. But his technique has been traduced by television pundits.
“It often makes me smile,” said Moores. “If you analyse any player you can always find faults – it is how they apply what they’ve got and score runs at the crease. The test is over time.”
The brutal fact is that the Australian-born player has to come good quickly.
What now of Ben Stokes?
The only bright hope of England’s winter has been consigned to Durham, the resumption of his Test career delayed by the broken hand he suffered when thumping a dressing-room locker on the spring tour of the West Indies.
There seems no rush to pick him and it is as if his sterling hundred at Perth, his six wickets at Sydney and his general up-and-at-’em style have been dangerously forgotten.
“Ben had a fantastic winter and is one of the most exciting young cricketers around England at the moment,” Moores said. “He has to get himself where he wants to be as a player. For his selection, one is how well he is playing and two, how well the side is performing at that time.”
It made it sound as though Test cricketers are pouring off the England production line. They aren’t. Stokes should be in soon.
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