Flower fulminates while Joe takes root

England’s first Test series of the summer is over, with a 2-0 win over New Zealand.

It seems churlish to cavil about it now, but I’m glad I wasn’t the only one baffled by England’s tactics in the Test at Headingley just gone. Having bowled New Zealand out for 174, Alastair Cook chose not to enforce the follow-on. This was disappointing but not completely unexpected; Cook is of the “safety first” school, and with the series as good as in the bag, the fact that the most the Kiwis could reasonably do was draw this game seemed good enough. The gulf between the sides on England’s home soil was stark after the more close-fought encounters over the winter, and England’s bowling attack seems once again revved up and ready to go ahead of the Ashes: Graeme Swann with a fully-functioning elbow; Jimmy Anderson giving us a refresher course in physics with the marvellous things he can do with a cricket ball through the air at high velocity; Steven Finn with his mojo (and long run) restored; and Stuart Broad in new-found “warrior mode” (sounds like sports psychology bullshit to me, but it seems to work for him).

To bat again was one thing, but by the time England ended the third day on 116-1, with Compton gone and Jonathan Trott at his watchful, guard-taking, crease-scraping best (read: slow) one could be forgiven for wondering what the hell was going on. Bemusement turned to irritation as England batted on the next day till twenty minutes after lunch – setting the visitors a monumental target of 468.

The problem with this is that the thinking behind this approach – to not bat last on a turning pitch and to bat New Zealand out of the game, which is bonkers considering the 220 New Zealand subsequently managed to make was their highest innings total of the series – was the fact it seemed to completely ignore the rain forecast for the last day. “I think if you start believing British forecasters you’re in a lot of trouble,” Swann said, grinning, to a query from Sky’s Ian Ward after stumps on Day 3 as to whether he’d seen the forecast for Tuesday. That may have been the case when Michael Fish was on the job back in 1987 and the night of the 15th of October turned out slightly more breezy than was expected (I slept through the whole thing, I remember, which also seems apropos in light of the tedium of England’s batting on the Sunday) but in the UK it’s generally a rule of thumb to assume that when there’s likely to be some rain, it’s time to start piling sandbags round your doorstep.

Hence, the dawning of a very grey, overcast and wet Tuesday, and a very grumpy Andy Flower remonstrating with the groundsmen to remove the sheeting. Aside from the irony of the England coach being annoyed at the groundstaff for time-wasting, the fact that the win now seemed vastly preferable to the draw England had hitherto settled for also raised the obvious question as to why they hadn’t declared earlier. True, England only needed two 11-over stints to win the game, but the weather was so dire they were lucky to get out there at all (and the second stint was played in light but continuous rain, though by that time even the umpires wanted the game over with).

Cook and Flower said afterwards the fact the game had been won was vindication enough, but in reality it was because the weather gave them just enough of a break. It was Lefty Gomez, pitcher for the New York Yankees, who coined the phrase “I’d rather be lucky than good”. It’s just as well for Andy Flower and Alastair Cook that on this occasion, England managed to be both.

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England have had their fun lately, with watching the fallout from Australia’s recent dressing-room ructions, Twitter meltdowns and missing homework assignments; one suspects that Australia are now running the rule over England for any chinks in their armour. At the moment, Nick Compton seems to be the weakest link. Since his back-to-back centuries in New Zealand, he’s posted scores of 13, 2, 16, 15, 1 and 7 – an average of only 9. At Headingley on Sunday he not only resembled a rabbit in the headlights, but one whose only chance of survival is not to move so the juggernaut’s wheels will pass either side of him. Footwork and balance have deserted him, as has his confidence – the self-fulfilling cycle of failure – and Andy Flower’s glowing praise for the batting of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, along with a pointed reminder that Compton now has several opportunities to find his form with Somerset before the commencement of Ashes hostilities at Trent Bridge, will have piled the pressure on even further.

I’d like to see Compton succeed as England opener, not only because a settled side is infinitely preferable to chopping and changing, but also because should Compton get dropped it’ll reopen the debate over the standard of county versus international cricket, and there have been enough slings and arrows – whether rightly or wrongly – directed at England’s domestic system recently. I also suspect that if this was ahead of any other series, Compton would be afforded more leeway, certainly more time – but every decision, be it tactics, or who plays or doesn’t play, assumes greater significance when an Ashes series rolls around. The potential for triumph or catastrophe becomes infinitely greater. I think Compton will take guard against Australia, at least at Trent Bridge, but I also think Joe Root would cope at the top of the order, despite his indifferent record against the new ball at five.

One suspects there isn’t much Root would struggle to adapt to, and this too will probably colour the selectors’ decision. His maiden Test hundred at Headingley was the stuff of dreams – his home ground, family in attendance, cheered on by the Yorkshire faithful and with his Yorkshire teammate Bairstow at the other end to congratulate him as he raised his bat. His future seems bright, his place in the team assured.

The main factor in who’ll be batting at Nottingham, of course, will be whether Kevin Pietersen returns. It probably won’t have soothed Compton’s nerves to learn that Pietersen, a batsman who lights up an Ashes contest like no other, is back in the nets and batting without pain. “BOOM,” as the great man tweeted. For Compton, named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in April, his boom could yet turn to bust.

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