Wonder of Headingley should make ECB realise value of first-class cricket
Batsmen must be given more opportunities to learn how to build an innings in championship
When Ben Stokes had his selfinflicted difficulty with the police, and subsequently with cricket’s disciplinary authorities, I expressed my severe disappointment at the example he set younger followers of the game, and felt he had been let off lightly. He has pursued the path of redemption by playing a straight bat off the field ever since; and his innings to win the Headingley Test was simply astonishing, with the game itself possibly the most remarkable I have ever seen. Such things turn heads, however, and the purpose of this column is to turn them back again.
Stokes’s abilities as a player are immense, and undoubted. The same cannot be said for those of his team-mates who, lest we forget, managed to be bowled out in the first innings of that game for a derisory 67. That was why Stokes’s exceptional heroics were required. He not only has the physical capabilities to turn in the highest performance, but also can adapt to the state of mind demanded in such a predicament.
With England either having to make 359 to win or to bat for eight sessions, and several about him losing their heads, he took the responsibility for victory upon himself. In doing so, he provided not just a lesson to his team-mates, but a lesson for life. You cannot always expect someone else to do the dirty work for you.
One also senses that Stokes felt ashamed of the hideous shot that caused him to get out in the first innings, and that it provided the stimulus to operate a different approach, and psychology, in the second.
What a pity the same could not be said for everyone else. Joe Root, on whom all burdens of leadership ultimately fall, unquestionably raised his game, having in the first innings looked as though he thought he was in a T20.
Jason Roy seems incapable of learning the difference between the formats, and it surprises me he
remains in the squad (though, having said that, I hope he proves me wrong at Old Trafford and scores a double century). Jos Buttler’s five and one continued a dismal series for him, a man who excels in one-day cricket but not, at the moment, in the long game. Jonny Bairstow, despite a creditable second innings, looks out of form. Thanks to the brilliance of Stokes and the heroic levelheadedness of Jack Leach, England won. It might not always be so straightforward to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat.
Australia went to pieces under pressure. Apart from the demoralisation of their defeat they are not a great batting side, though if they can field both Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith for the rest of the series that may change. One would fancy England for the Ashes for these reasons, though the sides are evenly matched and anything could happen.
If England do win the Ashes, the England and Wales Cricket Board should think long and hard before drawing any conclusions from that
Perhaps 2020 will be the season when the public finally overdoses on short-form cricket
victory about the true state of English cricket.
Labuschagne, unlike most of the England line-up, has had a pretty good run playing proper cricket this summer, notably in the County Championship, for Glamorgan. Is there anyone in the ECB with the grey matter to draw the obvious conclusion from that? After Stokes’s victory, one could hardly move for pundits and, indeed, members of the cricket-watching public, protesting that however great the World Cup was – it was entirely forgettable by comparison, actually – Test cricket was the game’s greatest form. And they were right. But this series has also proved so far that you can have a number of very good one-day players, get them to play one-day cricket intensively and to succeed in it, and yet they resemble a flock of turkeys when you put them in the Test arena.
And then, because you have to compress a five-match series into little more than six weeks, none of the regular international players has the chance to play any county cricket between Tests to see whether he can get back into form in the first-class game before another Test is upon him. The ECB sought to take enormous credit from the Headingley wonder; but it happened in spite of the governing body, not because of it, and there is nothing in the pipeline to make it any easier for us to shine at Test cricket.
There is no World Cup next summer but there is the Hundred, which is not even cricket as most of us define the term – yet each side are promised a Test player who could be far better employed. Division One of the County Championship will again be only 14 matches a side, and absent at the height of the season. The West Indies, currently having a horrid time against India, are touring here in the first part of next season. July is devoted to three T20s and three ODIS against Australia, then there are three Tests against Pakistan followed by T20s against them and ODIS against Ireland. Once more, England players will play hardly any championship cricket.
This mad scheduling is, of course, all about money. Perhaps 2020 will be the season when the public finally overdoses on highly-forgettable short-form cricket, and then the money would start to drain out of that variety of the game.
If the ability to play five-day cricket properly is lost, because batsmen forget how to build an innings, then it will not be long before punters who already wonder whether it is worth buying a fourth-day ticket will start to question the third day.
Stokes’s victory should have made the ECB think that maybe there is something to be said for first-class cricket after all; that counties should play more of it, even if over three rather than four days; that it should be marketed to the public as a game capable of being far more exciting than the one-dayers. It must also seek to spread championship matches throughout the season, and spread out Tests too, to give players a chance to recapture form and to grow more, and better, Test players. After all, what happens if Stokes has an off day? And when he eventually goes, where will we find his successors?
On the ball: Jack Leach (left) and Jason Roy play football during practice