Thursday, March 8, 2018

Back to the Future at the Cake Tin: New Zealand v England, ODI, the Cake Tin, 3 March 2018

“Shocking…terrible” – Paul Newman of the Daily Mail.

“Dreadful” – Scyld Berry of the Daily Telegraph.

Representative reactions from the British media about the pitch at the Cake Tin for the third ODI between New Zealand and England (both offered at an early stage of the contest). Yet this apparent travesty of a surface produced a wonderful game of cricket, tested different skills and thinking from the usual, and begat one of the finest one-day innings that it has been my pleasure to witness.

The pitch was different, certainly. Initial examination intimated that it had recently staged a performance of Riverdance, and the dust and dirt that sprang from it in the early overs suggested—one for the older reader here—that Wilson, Keppel and Betty would have been reasonable selections.

At some point during the 1967 blogging I wrote that it would be interesting to see players like Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow on the pitches of that era, and that I thought they would be successful by taking a more attacking approach. This very pair came together early in the England innings and it occurred to me that I was getting my wish: cricket getting into the De Lorean and going back in time. What happened was that, on the whole, class triumphed and the inadequate were exposed. It was brilliant.

New Zealand won the toss and put England in. Kane Williamson was back from injury, but Ross Taylor was out with a hip problem. Ish Sodhi came back for Lockie Ferguson. Mark Wood replaced David Willey for the visitors.

The first couple of overs did not reassure the batsmen. A couple from Southee went like leg breaks and Boult got one to rear like an unbroken stallion. It was surprising that England got as far as the eighth over before losing a wicket, Roy caught at slip by Guptill off Boult. 

Root came in and from the start timed the ball better than anybody else, Williamson apart, all day. It was at this point in my notes that I wrote “this is fascinating”, an observation that I could have made over and over again as the day went on.

The pitch got Root soon enough, when he went down the pitch to de Grandhomme and was caught at mid on by Sodhi. Bairstow was bowled by a Sodhi googly and it seemed that 1967 was having its revenge. The modern-day players were disappearing from the photo.

Now Morgan and Stokes came together. Both found it difficult to get going, but had the sense and skill to adjust and compromise as only the best players can. Stokes will never take 73 balls to score 39 again, but will play many higher scoring innings of less value and craft.

What do we think of Stokes (who bears the modern mark of shame—a plain bat bereft of sponsor’s logo)? For me, a drunken brawl with idiots at 3 am should have less bearing on his status as an international cricketer than mocking a severely disabled young person does.

New Zealand bowled well in this period, giving England few loose balls, just as well as one of the few that was delivered Morgan put in the stand. But Morgan and Stokes didn’t get out until the 36th over, by which time they had put on 71 and the score was 139 for four, making achievable what they had identified as a decent target.

The remaining six wickets added only 96 runs in the last 14 overs, showing how difficult acceleration was. But everybody chipped in. All of the top nine reached double figures, whereas only three of New Zealand’s did. The home side remains too reliant on a couple of players doing really well in lieu of a team effort, which means crossing the ravine on a tightrope instead of a bridge.

De Grandhomme was the best bowler, with one for 24 off ten. His little dobbers contain more skill and guile than is at apparent. I thought that Williamson persevered for too long with Munro’s very slow-medium. He was taken for almost six an over with little risk to the batsmen, an advantage to England in the circumstances. Santner never returned after conceding 12 from two overs, even though he was turning it. That seemed a mistake at the time, more so as the spinners had such an impact on the New Zealand innings.

New Zealand’s target was 235, a decent target on a 1967 pitch. Guptill went in the same manner as Root had earlier, bringing Doc Brown aka Kane Williamson to the middle.

At the other end Colin Munro was playing an innings as grotesque as I have seen in many a long day. He began by refusing to adapt his usual gung ho approach to the occasion, and came close to being out pretty much every ball, twice on one occasion, when he set off on a suicidal run as a decent lbw decision was turned down. He has a first-class average of 50, but forgets. When he started playing properly he was as adept as Williamson at nudging the singles. He didn’t deserve 50, but did merit 49, which is what he got.

Mark Chapman was next in. A few weeks ago I watched him make 117 from 104 balls for Auckland against Wellington, including some of the finest driving through the offside that I have seen for quite some time. Since then, Chapman has been part of the T20 team. In one match Ross Taylor, veteran of 360-plus international appearances, came to the wicket with Chapman already there. Chapman met him halfway and proceeded to lecture him on how to go about his task, which was generally thought to be endearing. Ah, the confidence of youth! But too often it eclipses judgement, as here. He was perhaps the only person in the ground who couldn’t see the inevitable outcome of charging down the pitch at just about everything. He’d put the lot on the 100-1 outsider.

Nicholls and Latham both went lbw for ducks. Good balls, and not terrible shots, but both perhaps halfway out in their minds before they got to the crease.

Next, de Grandhomme. At this point it would be as well to be clear that my earlier remarks about his skill and guile apply exclusively to his bowling. Where cunning and dexterity are called for, the bat in his hands is as an iPad in those of a caveman. To nobody’s surprise he holed out at long on for three.

Moeen Ali took three of the wickets as New Zealand subsided. He has been foolishly written off by some after his disappointing tour of Australia, but has too much class to be cast aside. As usual, he provided an intelligent, articulate analysis of his performance after the game.

With six down and 132 more needed, Santner joined Williamson. Santer had stepped up a level in the first match of the series, in Hamilton. There, he had looked at sea at first, struggling to score at all. But he kept his head, picked the right ball to hit, and got more power from his slender frame than it looked capable of offering.

Here, he showed the same qualities in even more testing conditions.  He began carefully, waiting 15 balls before picking the right ball to attack, successfully. That was how he went on, resourceful enough to keep the singles going and with the judgement and patience to wait his moment—just twice more—to find the boundary.

So we come now to Kane Williamson, who played one of the finest against-the-odds, difficult-conditions innings I have ever seen. Of those present, only Joe Root might have matched him, as it was an innings that could be played only by a batsman of extraordinary talent, judgement and resolve. Williamson reduced risk without disregarding opportunity. Because he is so strong all around the field it was impossible for England, well as they bowled, to constrain him. Some said that the pitch eased in this period, but it just appeared that way with Williamson at the crease.

From resignation the mood of the crowd slid towards hope, then confidence. Ripples of applause for singles became rivers, boundaries were acclaimed. The fifty partnership came up in the 36th over. With seven to go, 49 were needed. It was gripping.

For the first time, New Zealand moved ahead of the Duckworth-Lewis par score. With 29 balls left, 36 were needed. Williamson hit the ball hard back down the pitch in the air. Woakes changed direction just quickly enough to get a fingertip on the ball. It was hit so straight that it barely needed deflection to break the stumps with Santner stranded. He had scored 149 runs in the series at that point, and it was his first dismissal.

Tim Southee hit one four, but was caught trying a repeat. Twenty-two were needed from twelve balls. Williamson reached a hundred with a four from the first of these and was acclaimed. He was perhaps the least excited person in the ground at that moment, but these landmarks do tend to disrupt the flow and only three came from the rest of Tom Curran’s over.

Fifteen were needed from the last over. A six from the third ball left seven from three. A two followed, but the full toss that was the fifth ball went to straight to mid off. A couple of metres wide or high and the scores would have been level. An edge from the last ball would have tied the game, but no contact was made, so England took a two-one lead in the series.

None of the critics of the Cake Tin pitch have made the connection between calling it “dreadful” and “terrible” with the lamentable performances of the England A team in the Caribbean. As long as English cricket takes such a narrow view of what constitutes a good pitch, its teams will continue to be exposed overseas and its players will not develop as fully as they otherwise might. I read just a few days ago that Somerset are pulling back from their recent practice of producing turning pitches under threat of a points fine, a change that would further constrain the learning of young cricketers, and make the game less interesting.

Most of the critics mentioned that the Cake Tin pitch is a drop-in, something seen as a southern hemisphere aberration. In fact, the problem with drop-ins (drops-in?) is their sameness, a tendency to the bland and slow, seen at its worst at Melbourne in the Boxing Day test. How refreshing for a drop-in that has its own character.

ODIs are played in series. Ideally, each venue should present a different challenge: one fast, one slow, one road, one that seams and one like this one.

More “terrible” and “shocking” pitches please.

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