Moeen, Jordan make bright beginnings
The popular talk has been of a new era for English cricket. This is an excuse, or should we say an explanation, that diverts attention from Kevin Pietersen. And yes, it is hard to write about the England team and not mention Kevin. He was the best No. 4 England had, not just in his time but one of the best and most exciting of any time. The consequences of which cannot be swept under the carpet. Let's face it, box office matters. Ian Bell has taken on KP's shirt at four and he is good too. Not KP good but good all the same. Really Bell should have gone to No. 3 but that has long been a problem position for England. So, as much as we bemoan the absence of Pietersen, we must make reference, with heavy heart, to Jonathan Trott, who made the shirt his own.
Replacing Bell at No. 5 is Joe Root. Root fought like heck against an aggressive and impressive Australian attack last winter but the battle wore out his young mind. Failing to score the runs you expect of yourself and losing Test matches brings down most people. Now refreshed and faced by a moderate group of Sri Lanka bowlers, he played the kind of innings that is required of his wonderful ability.
Root loves Lord's. If he played here all the time, he would be Bradman. A year on from his exhilarating 180 against last summer's Aussies, we saw a double-hundred borne of learning. Gone was any hint of the eccentric scoop that cost him his wicket last year. In situ was a calm and committed attention to the long vigil with no suggestion of any easy prize for the opposition. Root, the Test match batsman - no longer Root, the Milky Bar kid.
The "new era" means players and attitude more than it means management. Certainly, the captain and his men appear approachable but these are early days. What matters are the results. Prophetic statements tempt fate, better to stay quiet and achieve. Yes, a brighter form of the game will excite spectators but who cares as long as the team are winning. For all Pietersen's flamboyance, his innings won matches. He was, and still is, a cricketer of substance.
There are four new faces at Lord's, for though Gary Ballance played in the last Test in Sydney, his Test match career truly began here when selected on performance, not fallout. He grabbed No. 3 with some glee, telling a friend that he had the best spot in the order and that he didn't plan to relinquish it anytime soon. He did okay but if he is to secure himself, he shall have to go on to the chunky innings that have made his name at Yorkshire, not give them up in conception. As I write in the late afternoon, he is standing at second slip. Two matches in and he is treading the boards of many a fine player before him. England's line of second slippers includes Tony Greig, Ian Botham, Graeme Hick and Andrew Flintoff. More recently it was Graeme Swann's place, so there is much to live up to.
Early in Sri Lanka's innings, Dimuth Karunaratne edged to the slip cordon where Chris Jordan and Ballance watched it go by. Ballance was at third at that stage, with Jordan at second, where he held on to a couple of good ones in the one-day series just gone. Back in 1972, Ray Illingworth arrived at Old Trafford for the first Test against Australia without any slip fielders. John Snow put his hand up and dropped two in Geoff Arnold's second over. Greig also volunteered and dropped the other. Three spilt, in the fourth over of a Test match.
Modern teams pride themselves on attention to detail but you wonder if the selectors thought this one through. Not only should Bell bat at three, he should insist on a crack at second slip. As it was, Karuneratne only made 38 but the point remains and will not be lost on Alastair Cook, who was standing a yard or two away at first slip. Neither Cook, nor Strauss before him, began as slip fielders. It is a place for cricketers with good eyes, good hands and a penchant for hours of practice. Bell should be jumping at it.
First impressions of the other new boys were mixed. Sam Robson fell cheaply in exactly the way many an expert predicted, caught behind the wicket with his bat well away from his body. The best opening batsmen play tight and close to their body. But Robson has runs galore on his CV and the selectors picked him on the back of figures that appear to come from a strong character. The jury has barely begun its deliberations.
There was something delightful about Moeen Ali's debut, as if a door was being opened to a part of England so often misrepresented. The two other Test match batsmen of recent memory to sport such extravagant beards, Mohammad Yousuf and Hashim Amla, can bat a bit and, on this showing, so too can Moeen. With time to play, a nice, crisp execution of strokes and an even temperament, the first signs were most promising. Neither did he appear fazed by the enormity of it all, for this was the same measured chap who bats and bowls for Worcestershire. As Geoffrey Boycott pointed out, anyone who makes 48 on debut is a good 'un (you might like to check Boycott on debut against Australia back in 1964, or you might not.)
Jordan looked a gem when he began in one-day cricket for England against Australia. Now, pristine in white, he sparkled again. With bat in hand, there was enterprise; with the ball there was vim and vigour. Consistently operating at around the 87mph mark, he whistled the thing through, picked up the only wicket and left one feeling that all things were possible, even on this flattest of decks.
He is the most delightful man to meet and, by all accounts, an exemplary professional both on and off the field. His journey began in St James, Barbados and the echoes of that wonderful island and its love of cricket fill the air while he goes about his business. It is too long since the immigrant population played a part in the story of the England cricket team. With a bit of luck, Jordan and Moeen will inspire a following that allows us all, as one, to appreciate their inherent talent.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK