Saturday, August 13, 2016

England A v Pakistan A, 50 overs, St Lawrence Ground, 24 July 2016


Two new spectating experiences came my way on my recent trip to the old country: floodlit cricket at Canterbury (of which more later) and an A international, England v Pakistan.

The game was part of a tri-series also involving Sri Lanka. This was the fifth and penultimate game; thus far England had won both their matches and Pakistan had defeated Sri Lanka twice.

It was a chance to see some of the young guns of English cricket: Ben Duckett, who is stacking up the runs for Northamptonshire; Brett D’Oliveira, the latest chapter of a marvellous story; and most of all the Curran brothers, infant prodigies with the ball.

It was another perfect day. My three weeks in Kent were blessed with weather reminiscent of 1976, the gold standard of English summers. A day to bat, one would have thought, but Pakistan put England in.

At 49 for four in the tenth over it looked a good decision. All four wickets fell to Bilawal Bhatti, a skiddy medium-fast right armer who CricInfo says is only five foot six, but perhaps the margin of error that applies to the measurement of the ages of Pakistan’s cricketers has been extended to their height. Bilawal maintained a superb line on and just outside off stump and induced errors from batsmen who were looking to force the pace early on a good pitch. Both Bell-Drummond and Duckett went driving at balls on this line. Bilawal was nowhere near the pace that his 30-yard run up suggested, but he was quick enough.

Bilawal was removed from the attack after seven overs, not to reappear until the end of the innings, when he was expensive against a rampant Billings. I ask my usual question: “what would McCullum have done?” “Used him as an attacking force earlier” is, of course, the answer.

Kent’s own Sam Billings came in second down and won the game with an innings that was among the best I have seen in one-day cricket: 175 from a tricky situation. He began with a shot that was a perfect imitation of that which Colin Cowdrey wished to execute as his “last act on Earth”—a drive down to the lime tree. I have always thought that impending mortality fogged Cowdrey’s mind a little as the tree (now a younger version, but in much the same place) is behind square, so it would be more of an outside edge, hardly a fitting way for such an elegant batsman to shuffle off this mortal coil. But Billings dispelled that misconception with a genuine drive to that very place.

It became clear that Billings has an astonishingly broad repertoire of shots, some of which Cowdrey would not have conceived of, let alone attempted. Neither the forward nor backward defensive are prominent among them. Billings has a McCullumesque belief in attack as the best course of action when backs are to the wall.
108 of his 175 came in boundaries, including four sixes. The prize for audacity of shot—fiercely contested—was won in the 49th over when Billings changed to a left-handed stance as the ball was released and pulled a six over what a second before had been cover. What will the next step be in the quest for surprise? The way Billings and co are going it might be the batsman producing a golf club at the moment of delivery, or the bowler finding that the ball has turned into a dove as he releases it. It was a treat to see Billings of Kent batting with such talent and skill on a rare international occasion at St Lawrence.

Billings put on 125 for the fifth wicket with Liam Livingstone of Lancashire. To say that Livingstone is partial to the onside is like saying that Winnie the Pooh enjoys the odd drop of honey. Both are good at finding what pleases them, but trouble sometimes results. Livingstone made deep incursions into the offside to make space for a legside biff, and did so with some success. He beat Billings to fifty, which not many do these days. Though he twice dispatched slow left-armer Mohammad Nawaz into the building site that occupies the northern side of the ground, the ball turning away from Livingstone caused him some difficulty and he must learn not to spurn half the field if he is to do take his talent to a higher level.

Eighty-nine came from the final ten overs, which was as good as Pakistan could have realistically hoped for. England finished on 324 for eight, a tall order but possible on a trustworthy pitch.

The Curran brothers opened the attack and both claimed an early wicket. I saw a lot of their late father Kevin in his Gloucestershire days. Only the qualification criteria prevented him from being an international cricketer. It looks as if both his boys will surpass him in this respect; they have his talent, and perhaps a touch more purpose.

Jaahid Ali and skipper Babar Azam put on 97 for the third wicket at a decent pace. Babar made a half-century the last time I saw him, at the Basin’s ODI earlier this year. Now he made another, just as composed.

The partnership was progressing well when, in the 20th over, Jaahid went down the pitch to slow left-armer Dawson only for the ball to pass the outside edge. Billings’ hands did not move and a straightforward stumping chance was missed. Jaahid was on 39 at the time, and went on to make a century. More than that, when he was out, in the 39th over, Pakistan were five down requiring a shade over nine an over. Had he stayed there for just a few more overs he might have won the game for Pakistan. Billings’ miss was closer to costing England the game—and negating his own brilliant innings—than the apparently comfortable 56-run margin of victory suggests.

It was good to see the Campaign for Real Ale flourishing still, its marquee bursting at every match I attended. What about a Campaign for Real Wicketkeepers? Billings’ international class as a batsman is obvious; his lack of it as a keeper equally so. He has this is common with all the other contenders including Bairstow and Buttler. All are capable of winning the game with the bat and losing it with the gloves. England’s profusion of all-rounders offers the selectors all sorts of options. One is to pick the best wicketkeeper in the country; it would win a test match soon enough.

Who is the best keeper in England? It would be interesting to hear the views of those who watch county cricket.

Only last year Mark Wood was first choice as the back up to Anderson and Broad for England. Injury has laid him low, but on the evidence of this performance he will be a strong contender again soon. Wood generates real pace from a short run up and bowls with intimidating intelligence. He ended Jaahid’s threatening innings and followed up with two more soon after to close out the game. Dawson also impressed, exercising control in mid-innings.

It was a treat for an occasional spectator to see so much young home talent in one place. Well done the ECB (and we don’t hear that very often) for offering Pakistan the chance to develop its second rank, a level that has always been a deficiency in that country’s game, even in more stable times. For all the grand talk about a global game, cricket’s talent is concentrated in just a few places. Preserving it where it already exists must be a priority over speculative expansion.

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