The “start” in Test cricket is a truly perverse thing. Think of it as an activity part done. Like doing a bit of the clearing up after a house party or reading part of a novel. Undertaken with noble intentions - cleanliness or broadening your horizons – but, ultimately, not seen through. Self-satisfaction without completion.
But if you’re going to collect the empy bottles, you may as well wipe the tables and clear up the broken vase too. If you’re serious about reading East of Eden, don’t keep flicking to the back to check that it really is 600 pages.
And if you want to score big runs in Test matches Dom, Joe, Joe, Ben and Jos, then you’re going to need to make more of getting settled on a flat pitch, with the sun shining down, and a 1-0 scoreline to overturn. A score of 262 for nine on what might be the best batting surface England play on in 2020 is not going to cut it.
If there’s one compliment you can pay to this England side, nursing a 107-run defeat and injuries to two of his standout players from that match, is that they are well-meaning. They genuinely do want to be good at Test cricket, just as you might want to get fit this January. They have batsmen who want to learn to make hundreds just as you few want to understand those who voted Brexit, or those who did not.
When Joe Root won the toss, with an XI shorn of Rory Burns and Jofra Archer at the last moment, he had no qualms in batting first. This might have been the first time England have fielded a boyband’s worth of under-22s and the lowest collection of top three caps since 1963. But to watch the last innings of the Centurion Test – 93 overs of graft and calculated run-getting, albeit in vain - showed that these lot understand. And after a week shorn of the bug that threw preparations for that fixture in the trash, messages were clear. Do at the beginning what you do at the end when you’re up against it. And to do that effectively, you need a start.
So as Sibley ticked over nicely through midwicket to a career-best 34, when Denly got himself out of a funk of 46 balls on 21, Root got away with an edge dropped at first slip when on 35, Stokes had helicopter-flicked a Anrich Nortje through midwicket to move within a strike of his fifty and Buttler had shuffled his way to 29, the foundations were set. For each, the hardest part was done.
That’s the thing about “starts” - they are the toughest to get right. Fraught with deep uncertainty with your eyes yet to focus and nerves yet to settle. Sibley’s outside edge was beaten. Denly was struck in the head. Root wore a blow in the chest. Buttler, forever unsure of himself against the red-ball, had summoned his white-ball persona, complete with the shoulder swagger that often follows his sixes, such as the one he beasted off Keshav Maharaj that almost put a hole in the press box.
And in many ways, this is why the situation England found themselves in when all five of those batsmen had departed, of 221 for six in the 75th over, is so much worse than being bowled out in a session, or being rolled for 181 from 142 for three as they were in the first innings of the last Test.
The chaos of those collapses, the physical and mental disarray of a dressing room and the minds of those scuttling around inside of it – and the “oh Christ, not again” that this group of players carry around with them – has almost been legitimised.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, it is not double-digit totals and misjudgments outside off stump that make a bad Test line-up. It is not appreciating that this form rewards those who accept it is difficult. Patience only brings reward to those who are truly patient, not just for their first 30 or 40 runs.
It’s tempting to dip into lazy slurs on their professionalism: that they don’t want it, are shirking responsibility or not caring enough. But such rhetoric, while not true, falls off the tongue because they made the difficult bit look so easy and spurned not just their chances at big scores but those of the team.
Were it not for Ollie Pope (56 not out), who turned 22 on Thursday and is playing in his fifth Test, things would have been indescribably bad. That he could ramp Rabada twice over the cordon with such ease showed just how good a batting wicket this was. His application did not just bring a second career half-century but also a chance for a hopeful dash towards 300 on day two. Somehow, England are still in this, no thanks to those who started and stopped.
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