Latest victim swerves chucking-out time at last-chance saloon
There is always an England batsman in the lastchance saloon, or else about to enter its swing doors. The players should make a joke of it. They should demarcate a corner of their dressing-room, hang a sign above it marked LCS, and equip it with a little noose above and trapdoor below.
Almost every England batsman is in danger of losing their spot at some point – or, rather, is perceived to be. For it is largely a creation of the media, written and social. Occasionally a batsman is playing what is going to be his last Test, and everybody knows it, including the man himself – like Nick Compton at Lord’s last year when he walked out against Sri Lanka – but often the player is in the LCS only if he believes it to be so, when the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling.
Alastair Cook, England’s highest Test run-scorer, was there seven years ago at the Oval. His predecessor as England captain, Andrew Strauss, was in the LCS at Napier on a tour of New Zealand in the spring of 2007, all the nearer to the drop because he was being made to bat out of position at number three. Paul Collingwood was a regular inhabitant, but especially before the Edgbaston Test of 2008.
All these distinguished occupants may have been given another chance, or several. The point is that they thought the end was nigh, and they reacted to the challenge like champions by scoring a century, thereby extending their careers until fulfilment.
Other Test-playing countries seldom play this game within the game. If an Indian journalist were to suggest Virat Kohli should either score runs in his next Test or be dropped, he might not be given a pass to cover the match.
Ireland have been given Test status, in spite of thinning resources, such that few of their batsmen can hold down a regular place in a county side: so if their media were to adopt this practice of putting them in the last-chance saloon after a few failures, it would soon be buzzing like a Dublin bar on a Saturday night, while their dressing-room would be fairly empty.
Before this Test, Keaton Jennings was installed in the LCS, even though this is only his fifth match. But then Ben Duckett disappeared through the trapdoor after only four Tests last autumn, and James Vince after seven Tests last summer.
Cook’s opening partners in particular have not evaded the noose with the same dexterity as he: Sam Robson and Adam Lyth were gone after seven Tests each, a century apiece not sufficient to save them.
Few allowances seem to be made in this game within the game. Jennings copped a wrong decision at Lord’s, when given lbw to a ball that marginally pitched outside leg and was destined to go down leg side.
He scored 33 in his second innings, a valuable contribution in the light of 19 wickets falling the next day; he had made a 50 in his previous Test, and 112 in the one before that, his debut. Yet as soon as he had one bad game at Trent Bridge, it was the same cry as the Queen of Hearts: off with his head!
Jennings has technical corrections to make – and has to make them rapidly if he is to survive at Test level. He tried one here, by taking guard outside his crease against Vernon Philander, to reduce the chances of being lbw. He has to get his head further forward when he plays on the front foot, but he can do it against spinners – Indian spinners – so he is not too inflexible to do it against pace; and he might be better suited to No3.
Test cricket is unremittingly tough, yet the game within the game is harsher still, because few allowances are made – by those who play at LCS – for Morne Morkel and Philander being top-class new-ball bowlers, especially against left-handers, operating in a cloudy summer on three pitches that have helped them. Cook himself has been dismissed for single figures in half his innings this series.
In reaching 34 before the rain wiped out the rest of day three, Jennings was dropped by third slip off Philander – but this should not be seen as luck. Dean Elgar had come in close – for Philander against Jennings – in England’s first innings, and had been rewarded when scooping up a chance that would not have otherwise carried. On the other side of this coin was the risk that Elgar would not have time to sight a harder edge, like the one from Jennings when he had scored six.
Graeme Smith, the longestserving of all Test captains, told Test Match Special listeners about the innings when he had struggled most at the outset, at Edgbaston in 2008, the same match as Collingwood’s redeeming hundred. Smith then pulled James Anderson for four and everything clicked into place – he scored a series-winning century.
For Jennings, on a more modest scale, it was a couple of square-cuts for four that he played when Kagiso Rabada replaced Philander. He was up and walking, if not running, and in the opposite direction from the LCS.
Sharp chance: Dean Elgar gave Keaton Jennings a reprieve by dropping him in the slip cordon