So, I thought I'd do the obvious thing in the middle of the Football World Cup, and talk about the cricket. England have drawn with Sri-Lanka in the first test at Lords. It looked like the most likely outcome from about day three on, when Sri-Lanka batted well in response to England's massive first innings score. But this was anything other than a boring draw, as England almost, almost managed to press the victory. In fact, they thought they'd won with a ball to spare, Broad pinning the last batsman LBW only to find out on review that he'd hit it. Even the last ball of the match fell just short of slip.
So, it was an exciting match at times, but what have we learned, and where should England go from here? My opinion is that we've learned a bit about England on flat pitches, about their tactics, and about ways the balance of the side still isn't quite there.
England are good on flat pitches without any particular demons in them. There's no doubt about that. Some of the younger players like Joe Root and Gary Ballance have really shown that they have the application to bat for long periods. I'm not quite so sure about opener Sam Robson, who seemed to scratch around too long for too little reward. Do we really need yet another blocker in the top three?
Of the new seamers, Chris Jordan was a revelation for me, while Liam Plunkett probably wasn't quite as good. Jordan has the makings of a good all rounder, bowling in the mid-high eighties and hitting the ball hard. Plunkett does those things too, but I feel like it didn't go as well for him. I think the problem here is one of billing. Chris Jordan was billed as that kind of fast but not quite express all rounder. Plunkett, we were told, was the first or second quickest bowler in the country, but I didn't see a significant difference between his speeds and those of, for example, James Anderson (who was bowling towards the quicker end of his range, admittedly). I feel like Plunkett as a 90mph + fast bowler is more than worth it, but as a mid-high 80s bowler, we might as well pick Ben Stokes, since Stokes has already done well with the bat previously.
The question of the spinner is a tricky one. I think England picked Moeen Ali in the knowledge that Lords can be a little unhelpful to the spinner, in the expectation that the Sri Lankans would play spin well, and with the thought that no out and out spinner had done so well in the domestic season as to demand inclusion. Essentially, he was picked with the expectation that he wouldn't bowl much, and he didn't. He was another batting option. Oh, and he "has the doosra" as it's now obligatory to mention whenever talking about him. England can get very over excited about bowlers with mystery balls. Just look at that phase where they picked every wrist spinner they could find in the 90s, or when they picked Alex Loudon on the basis of a carom ball that didn't land well.
Moeen Ali did exactly what he was meant to do. He got a few runs, he bowled a small number of overs, and he got one wicket. I have no problems with his performance. I just feel that if we want someone to do that, we already have Joe Root. Root's presence as a useful part timer and nailed on batsman should, in theory, free England up to pick a riskier prospect as the spinner. Maybe Borthwick, whose leg spinners look threatening but not particularly accurate.
Of course, there's the Cook factor to consider with that. Alistair Cook strikes me as still being quite defensive in his instincts. Yes, his field settings were more interesting, but the rest of it still suggests a primary ambition of trying not to lose rather than trying to win. England batted too long in both innings. There can be no argument with that when the Sri Lankans fell well short of our score, while we simply didn't have enough time to get them out. His new plans were interesting, but he seemed to stick to only one at a time, rather than allowing the bowlers to hit the batters with combinations of deliveries. And he has long under utilised his spinners, preferring to go back to Broad and Anderson again and again even when Monty Panesar and Graham Swann were available.
For the next test, I have little doubt that England will stick with much the same team. Yet I feel that going forward, they need a full time spinner, a slightly more attacking opener, and they probably need Stokes back in the side.