Mark Nicholas
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Former Hampshire batsman; host of Channel 9's cricket coverage

England v New Zealand, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 5th day

England must end insularity to become great

If England had indicated a greater arrogance born of their total control of the match, there would have been no need for today's weather-led nervousness

Mark Nicholas at Headingley

May 28, 2013

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Alastair Cook leads his team off after a word with Marais Erasmus and Steve Davis, England v New Zealand, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 5th day, May 28, 2013
Final day nerves should have been avoided © Getty Images
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It was a tortured process but we got there in the end. A surprisingly generous weather god and two empathetic umpires saw the second Test match to a conclusion. From it came embarrassment for New Zealand and the satisfaction of a job extremely well done by England.

It was a close-run thing and might easily have not worked out so well. The splendid umpires, Marais Erasmus and Steve Davis, of no-nonsense South African and Australian hue respectively, had kept the players at it through murky light on day four and annoying drizzle on the final day. Only clearly unfair conditions took them from the field of play.

There was much to admire in England's performance, not just here but at Lord's too. The hiccup a couple of months back in New Zealand has been sorted. England are firing much as they should and thus will worry the heck out of Michael Clarke and the boys, who had watched in Dunedin and Auckland and thought there were lines to breach.

Outside of Alastair Cook and Graeme Swann, who both played some sublime cricket, it was fresh faces that caught the eye. Joe Root for his original talent. Johnny Bairstow for his intent and Steve Finn for being a no-frills old-fashioned fast bower when England needed just that. The balance in the attack is one of its strengths. That, and the way in which the bowlers sustain their attack on the stumps.

Afterwards, when asked about Jonathan Trott's indifference on Sunday afternoon - he scored 11 from 69 balls - Cook made reference to the "one percenters". His implication was not to dwell on minutia at a time of celebration but to recognise and learn. Fair call, let's do that for a moment.

The captain will now appreciate that there is more than one way to skin the cat. He might have enforced the follow-on on Sunday afternoon but, reasonably enough, he chose not to. He should have declared earlier than he did on Monday afternoon, to give himself the best chance of finishing the game before the predicted rains came. He would not wish to be a slave to the forecasters - Michael Fish put everyone off forever - but if they say it will rain in Yorkshire in May, they are probably right.

First the follow-on. Three good reasons persuaded Cook to bat again. Firstly, protection of his bowlers from burnout. Four man attacks and seven Tests, six of which are back-to-back, mean careful player management. Secondly, modernism - the international captains of the moment love to squeeze every drop of hope from the opposition's portfolio of response. Richie Benaud will not refer to a "declaration" in instances where the game is shut down by the batting side, rather he talks of "closure". And thirdly, ensuring further deterioration of the pitch by batting on it yourself while natural wear and tear takes its course and while the New Zealand bowlers run all over the bits that Swann aims at. There is a fourth reason and not such a good one. We will come to it later.

There is no doubt that Steve Waugh's decision to enforce the follow-on in Kolkata in 2001 - a decision that famously backfired - changed the Australian approach. Waugh liked the term "mental disintegration" and applied it to his tactics as much as to vulnerable members of the opposition. Back then, the game was in thrall of the Australians and most captains followed their lead. Michael Vaughan was not one. He made Ricky Ponting's fine team follow on at Trent Bridge in 2005, a brave move that worked out well in the end - though not without Shane Warne's Herculean effort to embarrass him.

 
 
There should have been no need for Andy Flower's animated exhortations to the groundstaff, desperate appeals and pleading looks to the sky
 

The key is flexibility: repeat, there is more than one way to skin the cat. Cook opted for safety first and then a crushing of the enemy spirit. When interviewed on Monday evening Trott called it the natural course of the match, which is as he knows it but not necessarily how it must be. The great sides have options and they create, even reinvent. Cook had bowlers who were fresh enough and who do not play another Test until July. It was a good time for him to see another place. Mind you, this is not an argument you would win with England's captain and fair enough. His team won the match by a mile and everyone had a good workout. The excellent quality of most of the cricket confirmed they are clear favourites for the Ashes. We can hardly quibble.

But "closure?" We can quibble with that. The perfect time might have been at lunch, with the lead at 429, though there was a case to allow Root and Bairstow such abandon. The time at which the two tyros - high, happy and unbeaten - had hurried the lead to 450 was the next time to pull out. The opportunity to outwit nature and New Zealand on the same day was spurned by this caution.

If this sounds pedantic, it is only to make a point. If England are to become the best team in the world and to play a brand of cricket that leaves some sort of legacy, they have to move out of insularity and into some rarified space. Witness the unambitious fields that were placed once the hardness had worn off the ball. The reason for setting a mammoth target is that it is not attainable and therefore aggressive plays are at your fingertips for the remainder of the match. Yet England had sweepers out, protecting the boundaries and, for a time to Ross Taylor, placed only one slip.

If England had shown greater urgency, had imposed themselves without apprehension, had indicated a greater arrogance born of their total control of the match, there would have been no need for today's weather-led nervousness. No need for Andy Flower's animated exhortations to the groundstaff; no need for desperate appeals to the umpires and pleading looks to the sky; no need to crank up the bowlers on a cold, damp day.

Maybe, in a reversal of Australia's Kolkata experience, the captain will be once bitten and now shy. Maybe the follow-on floodgates will open again, though more likely he will tell Trott to press on next time, for in truth, Monday's declaration procrastination arose out of Trott's tardy fare on Sunday afternoon. There was an excuse for Nick Compton's go-slow - 7 from 45 balls - but not for Trott, who was chained by self-absorption.

Finally then to Compton: the fourth possible reason for not enforcing the follow-on. It is a worthy policy of both selectors and team management to back the ones they choose. It will go against their grain to leave Compton out in Nottingham against Australia, so surely, here in Leeds in a match with only one winner, the opportunity to see if he might let go a bit, might break free of the tension that has engulfed him, was a temptation. It may be that his painful inability to do so has made their decision easier. Of course, a good batsman has not become a bad one in a fortnight. Somerset will have the benefit of his rehabilitation and which of us dare say it will not be complete in time for him to have another crack at the dream that must now haunt him.

Meanwhile, it's Root to open, Kevin Pietersen to return and Bairstow to stay at No. 6. Simple really. Go Joe.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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Posted by BRUTALANALYST on (May 30, 2013, 23:10 GMT)

I still think Carberry who averages the same as Compton in FC 43/44 (without the privilege of playing half his cricket at Taunton) deserves another shot as he scores at a much faster rate Root for time being should stay at 6 where he's been having great success and KP should replace Bairstow.

Posted by   on (May 30, 2013, 19:59 GMT)

Ok, Root to opn, Bairstow to stay and KP to come back in. Makes sense... if KP is fit. if not, what then?

Posted by Harmony111 on (May 30, 2013, 18:25 GMT)

@Shan156: Reg my original comment here, I do see your point and agree that perhaps that was what Mark actually meant but at cursory reading what I took it to be may be the more natural meaning. However, building on my prev point, such flexibilities of seeing which of the alternate interpretation holds well are not in general available to most of the Indian Commentators. If they say something that can be interpreted in two or more ways then the one with a higher sensation or nuisance potential is selected, sometime mischievously.

Talking about Bell, I've often said that Bell is/could be Eng's best batsman. He is a combo of Cook and KP to me. He looks elegant, plays his shots, plays long knocks, is ok vs spin as well as fast bowling. Given all this, he ought to be higher in the list but as of now not many would pick Bell in their top 4-5 Eng batsmen list. Trott & Prior too would canter ahead. Btw, I often joke with my friends when Bell plays a good shot that "Bell Played".

Posted by mukesh_LOVE.cricket on (May 30, 2013, 18:14 GMT)

whats with all this talk of greatness of England team ?? SA is the best team 'at the moment' , and i really think that England will overtake them sooner rather than later but even then both these teams are far from being the greatest cricket teams ever. Australia at their peak simply had no competition (except may be playing India in India) , England just drew a series with NZ , lost to SA at home and were humiliated by Pakistan.. and most importantly as someone here pointed out aussies never had to argue on forums with twisted statistics to prove they were the best , everyone (including the England fans) knew it

Posted by Shan156 on (May 30, 2013, 17:57 GMT)

@neo-galactico, Bell's form was an enigma when he started, it remains one. One day he could dazzle you with his brilliant strokeplay (I believe Bell is technically England's best batsman) and the very next day he will be playing like a rabbit lost in the headlights. I am not talking about the normal form changes for a player over the years. As you rightly point out, Bell has remained highly inconsistent throughout his career. He has scored just one ton since his double hundred against India in the 2011 summer. I think it is more of a mental thing with him. Hopefully, Flower and the mgmt team would address it soon.

Posted by Harmony111 on (May 30, 2013, 12:40 GMT)

@Shan156:

I acknowledge your point and perhaps Mark did mean it that way only although on the face of it it seemed to mean something diff but the sole point I had made in my poor unpublished comment was that generally Indian Commentators are not given this sort of margin. If something said by them can have two meanings then that that interpretation will be chosen that makes poorer sense and shows them in poorer light. Been hard to get this comment published. Phew.

Posted by Biggus on (May 30, 2013, 7:20 GMT)

I guess it comes down to how high you set the bar vis-a-vis greatness, and I suppose I fall into the 'hard marker' category, since I don't think either the current SA or Eng teams quite deserve that accolade, which isn't to say that both SA and Eng are not very fine cricket teams. Time will tell, sometimes 'greatness' is obvious to all and sundry at the time, and sometimes it doesn't become apparent until that time has passed and one can see it within the context of what has become history.

Posted by neo-galactico on (May 30, 2013, 6:16 GMT)

@Shan I think it's fair to say that there won't be a team that'll be as dominant as the Aussies of the late 90s and early 00s for a while. None of the current side have the aura, the intimidating presence Waugh's Australia had. In addition, that team had 4 or 5 legends of the game at the peak of their powers and several very good players to support them. The current English side is good and has only two truly great players but even they have question marks about their greatness. KP although capable of dismantling any attack (like he did to Steyn last year) is rather inconsistent and Cook is an accumulator who annoys teams but is hardly feared by them. SA have Steyn and Kallis but Kallis is almost at the end of his career and the balance he gives the team is an essential part of team success. SA won't be that great though for our spin cupboard is threadbare. Having played so much cricket and being so inconsistent why isn't Bell involvement in the side not being questioned?

Posted by Shan156 on (May 30, 2013, 4:39 GMT)

@neo-galactico, first of all, thanks for being such a sport and accepting your team's weaknesses then instead of hiding behind some inane excuses like some other team fans. Truly, SA fans are humble in victory and gracious in defeat. Respect.

Fully agree with you about Warne. He was a magician and was often the difference between the two sides. Gilchrist played a few matchwinning knocks too. If SA could unearth a spinner (or two) of Swann's calibre, leave alone Warne's, then they will be on their way to joining the pantheon of the truly great teams.

Posted by neo-galactico on (May 29, 2013, 21:12 GMT)

@Shan you may be right about this England side being better than that SA side, this England side definitely has a better batting line-up but I think that SA bowling pips England's current one. SA would get trashed by an Australia side because of mainly two players Warne and Gilchrist. Gilchrist would blast a quick hundred against us when the ball is old and not moving that's when our lack of spinners hurt us. Furthermore, that SA was mentally fragile the players failed to think for themselves when backed into a corner, this current one is better in that regard but not as much as I'd like. Cronje's team was good though and was consistently no.2 and beating everyone until the Aussies come and give us a thrashing.

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Mark Nicholas A prolific and stylish middle-order batsman for Hampshire, Mark Nicholas was unlucky never to have played for England, but after captaining his county to four major trophies he made his reputation as a presenter, commentator and columnist. Named the UK Sports Presenter of the Year in 2001 and 2005 by the Royal Television Society, he has commentated all over the world, from the World Cup in the West Indies to the Indian Premier League. He now hosts the cricket coverage for Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in England.

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