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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Cricket - SI­MON HEF­FER

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

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