It was a sticky morning at Lord’s, the sort when even a short walk makes your shirt cling to your skin. And the strike meant everyone had hiked in and arrived red and glistening. There was a lot of talk about what the morning would bring, and given the conditions, an expectation the ball would swing. England had a new one due, too, three overs the start of play, and, as always, the two of the very best men to use it. The odd thing was that they ended up standing in the outfield while Matt Potts and Ben Stokes did the bowling. It was all part of Ben Stokes’s grand plan to bounce out the tail. Like Lance Corporal Jones, he is absolutely convinced they don’t like it up ’em.
So his bowling went like this: short, short, full, a grimace, a sigh, a smile, and short, short, full. The next over was the same, short, full, full, short, short, full, short, and the one after that too. Anrich Nortje played it all with the confidence of a man who bowls at 95mph himself. He rode some, wore others, slapped at a couple, swayed away from the rest. He was wearing an outsize chest guard which made it look like he’d stuffed a pillow up his vest, and he and Stokes joked about it at the end of the over. Then when Broad replaced Potts at the Nursery End, it was more of the same, short, short, full, short, full, full.
After nine overs of this, Nortje had made it to 20 and Marco Jansen was closing in on his 50. It was roundabout then that someone in the crowd snapped and shouted out “pitch the ball up”. Soon after Broad did exactly that and got Jansen out caught at slip. He did the same thing to dismiss Lungi Ngidi in his very next over. By then, Stokes had flogged himself through six overs of short stuff for 18 runs, and won exactly nothing for it. It was like watching a man handing over fistfuls of change to have another go throwing at coconuts because he hasn’t realised that they’ve all been nailed to the shy.
All of which will end up a footnote in the story this Test, way down the bottom of the long list of things England got wrong in the two-and-a-half days’ play. But it still felt worth telling, because it was such a revealing little detail. Stokes had a clear idea about the way he wanted to play and wasn’t going to move away from it whatever anyone else had to say. He is dogmatic that way. As a captain, he has all the flexibility of a brick.
This approach has its advantages, it’s just that very few of them were apparent in this match, when England seemed to be wedded to all sorts of odd ideas, like keeping in five slips, and opening the batting with Zak Crawley.
At this point, you don’t really need to make the argument for dropping Crawley, he’s doing it all by himself. His average is 20 in all forms of cricket this year, with a top score of 84 against Northamptonshire back in May. In Test matches the figure’s down to 16. Right now, there are only two men in the history of the game who have opened the batting as often as he has, and done so poorly at it, Alick Bannerman, who played his last game 127 years ago, and, Javed Omar, who propped up Bangladesh in the years after they first started playing Test cricket.
Here at Lord’s, Crawley batted like a man who was almost entirely unfamiliar with the act. It was like a living anxiety dream in which he’d rushed out to bat then looked down and found he brought an umbrella with him. He got out here, plumb LBW, throwing a sweep at a full straight delivery from Keshav Maharaj which he didn’t even come close to hitting. As Mark Butcher said while he was watching it on TV, it almost feels cruel that they keep on picking him. The sensible thing to do would be to let him go back to first class cricket (if only there was some scheduled for him to play in) and work on his game. After all, he is young enough to come again.
But Stokes doesn’t want to do it, because he believes it would be a backward step for the team. He wants everyone to know that they will get a run of games, even when they fail. So Crawley is living off the hope that someday soon everything will click for him again, and he will play one of those innings of his that reminds everyone what England saw in him when they picked him to begin with, like his 257 against Pakistan, his 77 against Australia, or his 121 against the West Indies. There was a little glimmer of it against India in the last Test, when his drive finally started working for him and he made 46.
Which is the innings assistant coach Paul Collingwood brought up when he was defending the selection before the match. “We don’t necessarily look for consistency with Zak,” Collingwood said, “it’s about being able to do special things.” Unfortunately, consistency is exactly what he’s giving them. He’s made six single figure scores in 10 innings. At this point the case for dropping seems as obvious to everyone watching as, well, asking Anderson to use the new ball in the morning.