Monday 19 February 2018

Tommy Conlon: Sky's former captains in a stew over sacrificial lamb

The Couch

Tommy Conlon

It was an awful hour of the morning to be looking at cricket, let alone talking about it, but the pundits had no choice in the matter.

They had no choice because the governing body in India had demanded £500,000 from Sky Sports to let their broadcast team into the stadium in Ahmedabad, where the first Test match between England and the host nation began on Thursday.

Sky told the Board of Control for Cricket in India where to go; the BCCI told Sky they'd have to make do, so, with a live television feed from the local broadcaster.

Instead of being on the ground therefore, the match pundits and commentators were holed up in a studio in west London. The five-and-a-half hour time difference meant that David Gower, Ian Botham, Nasser Hussain and David Lloyd would be getting up in the middle of the night to follow proceedings – coverage would begin at 3.55am. Mind you, as Giles Smith pointed out in The Times on Friday, "the jury is still out on whether Botham jawing away on a stool at 3.30am qualifies as a sports broadcast or a pub lock-in."

By the time the rest of England had woken up later on Friday morning, India were in full control of the match. For two days their batsmen had hammered England's pace bowlers to all parts of the pitch. It was a merciless destruction. India compiled 521 runs before their captain declared.

It was a tactical decision, calculated to send England in to bat late on Friday evening after, as Michael Atherton pointed out, "two very wearying days under the hot sun in the field." India then immediately deployed their spin bowlers and by the end of play England had lost three men for a paltry 41 runs.

One of the victims was Jimmy Anderson, a pace bowler who would normally be used as a tail-end batsman. But when their opening batsman, the debutant Nick Compton, was bowled, management sent in Anderson to perform the nightwatchman role. It is established practice in these situations, done to preserve the frontline batsmen for the next morning rather than risking them at the fag-end of a day's play. But it was all in vain anyway: Anderson was despatched after six balls.

It had been a harrowing experience for Compton especially, tormented by the spinners in the heat and dust of Gujarat. Atherton, the former England captain, was actually in Ahmedabad and talking to the chaps in London from outside the stadium. Compton was now, he said, "a long way from the green fields of Taunton".

At the close of play on Friday, England were 480 runs behind. The match was still alive but the autopsy was about to begin. Gower, Botham and Hussain are also former England captains. As the conversation unfolded, all sorts of insights emerged in passing. Devotees of cricket were perhaps not hearing anything original but, for this uneducated student of the game, there was the pleasurable sensation of learning new things while they spoke. It felt like you were eavesdropping on a very enjoyable seminar.

They talked of spin bowling, seam bowling, strategies, captains, managers, team selection, pitch conditions, stats, tempo, soft hands, hard hands, technique and of course players. All of it steered with a light touch by the insouciant Gower in the presenter's chair.

When he raised the subject of the nightwatchman, he did it with a smirk, knowing well he was pushing one of Botham's buttons. "A joke, absolute joke," fulminated the old legend. Anderson, he said, had been the "sacrificial lamb".

But it was Hussain who opened a door into cricket's dressing room with his take on the subject. Nighwatchmen are used, he said, because even the best batsmen are mentally vulnerable. "I'll be perfectly honest: it's weakness from batsmen over the years, because they're given that option. When you're sat there in the dressing room with your pads on and the coach comes up and says, 'You can either go out and face (Ravichandran) Ashwin for 10 minutes or we're sending Jimmy out, which option do you want?', you (say) 'Go on Jim.' So it's weakness. It really is. I'll admit it, I've done it! 'Go on Jim, I'd rather be batting tomorrow than 10 minutes tonight, what have I got to gain?'" And the sacrificial lamb is duly sent out to face the music.

Yesterday, the remaining seven England batsmen were lambs to

the slaughter too. They were all out for 191 and forced to follow on, still 330 runs behind. England, said Lloyd, had been "brainless" in that first innings.

But, lo and behold, they managed to staunch the haemorrhage in their second innings.

Compton started to get to grips with the spinners while Alastair Cook, at the other end, began to flourish. They managed to see out the rest of Saturday's play safely while adding 111 runs. At close of play England were 219 behind but they had at least a foothold in the game going into the fourth day of play earlier this morning.

With just a few overs remaining yesterday the cameras panned along the balcony of the England dressing room. Various players were visible, but not the unfortunate nightwatchman.

"Now," asked a mischievous Botham on commentary, "do you see any signs of Jimmy there?" "Probably packed his bags," replied Hussain, "and gone back to the hotel just so they don't ask him again."

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