Amidst the tumult, a return to more familiar rhythms – albeit with the expectation of a modernist twist here and there. For five days this week, it might even be possible to pretend it is Situation Normal in the febrile world of international cricket, where a packed house at Lord’s will burble and murmur in that inimitably disinterested fashion as England and South Africa do battle once again in the grandest old format.
It is rare, but hardly unique, for the Lord’s Test – the traditional centrepiece of the English summer – to begin this late in the season. Last year’s India Test got underway on August 12, an early indicator of the sport’s direction of travel given the onset of the maiden season of the Hundred, while in 2017, West Indies became the first visiting team to play a Test at the ground in September.
But with the provisional dates for next summer’s Ashes suggesting no August Tests at all for the first time in 139 years – thereby clearing the players’ decks for full participation in the ECB’s new centrepiece event – the challenge to an inherently insecure format seems especially real this year. Just as the County Championship has been condemned in recent years to the margins of the summer, so it seems the parent format is to be shunted the same way. The forecast week of rain, amid the hottest, driest summer on record, feels like an apt comment on such prioritisation.
All of which seems deeply ironic given the narrative of the summer so far. England’s world-beating white-ball team has failed to win a home series for the first time since 2013, and while the Hundred has had its moments (where there’s a Will, there’s a way, as Messrs Smeed and Jacks can attest) it would take a well-remunerated cheerleading commentator to pretend that the contests we’ve so far witnessed have been the apogee of sporting endeavour.
“The Yorkshireman inside me is still saying ‘dig in, play straight and get behind it’,” Root said after his matchwinning 142 not out against India. “Then there’s the captain on the other shoulder saying ‘be a rockstar’. So you’re fighting between the two of them, sometimes.”
Quite apart from the entertainment that England’s new attitude has offered, the imperative for such fireworks is equally plain to see. It’s not simply the Hundred that is putting the squeeze on Test cricket – the explosion of franchise tournaments is turning the screw like never before, with Cricket South Africa’s IPL satellite event and the oil-rich pickings of the UAE-based International League chief among them, meaning that the five-day game needs to adapt to survive.
The format needs to be entertaining, both to encourage the best players to keep putting themselves forward to play it, but also to be recognisable to the coming generation that might not have the defensive techniques to dig out for a 180-over draw, but possess the range and power of strokes that might even make a 500-run chase seem attainable.
Such are the genre-busting issues that England’s new approach has brought bubbling to the surface. Not that South Africa yet seems fully sold on such nonsense, of course. Dean Elgar, their hard-bitten captain whose nuggetty technique so resembles that of his forebear Graeme Smith, has spoken in withering terms about the “Bazball” phenomenon, and having played an integral part in two hugely impressive, albeit old-school, run-chases against India earlier in the year, he’s well within his rights to point out that traditional Test values still have their place.
“I don’t see that there’s longevity in brave cricket,” he told Wisden Cricket Monthly. “I see things evening out over time in Test cricket. Had New Zealand taken their opportunities, England would have come away with egg on their faces.”
And yet, they come into this game off the back of a full-frontal Bazballing against England Lions at Canterbury – defeat by an innings after conceding 672 at close to a run a ball. As the Lions skipper Sam Billings put it afterwards: “You’d be pretty stupid to ignore that, if I’m honest. If that’s not a wake-up call…. because we’re not even the best XI.”
England: WWWWL (last five completed matches; most recent first)
South Africa: WLWWL
In the spotlight
England: 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Alex Lees, 3 Ollie Pope, 4 Joe Root, 5 Jonny Bairstow, 6 Ben Stokes (capt.), 7 Ben Foakes, 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Jack Leach, 10 Matthew Potts, 11 James Anderson
South Africa (probable): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Sarel Erwee, 3 Keegan Petersen, 4 Aiden Markram, 5 Rassie van der Dussen, 6 Kyle Verreynne, 7 Keshav Maharaj, 8 Marco Jansen, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Lungi Ngidi, 11 Anrich Nortje
Kagiso Rabada underwent a fitness test on Tuesday and is due another check-up after straining the medial ligament on his right ankle. With Duanne Olivier already ruled out of the series with a torn hip flexor muscle, South Africa will be particularly keen for their attack leader to come through fit and firing, and signs were promising on match eve. Beyond that assessment, the main decision could come down to the selection of an extra batter if they choose to overlook the up-and-coming allrounder Marco Jansen. Ryan Rickelton has been in fine form in the Championship for Northamptonshire, although there’s the outside chance that Khaya Zondo could be called up for his second cap, having not batted on debut against Bangladesh in April.
Pitch and conditions
Rain is in the offing after weeks of drought in London, with the contest set to traverse the downpours over the coming five days. That may, in turn, play a part in the conditions, with Lord’s traditionally a venue where you look up, not down, at the toss. To date, the pitch looks fairly green, although a lot of that grass is likely to be removed before the first ball is bowled.
Stats and Trivia
“The opposition seem to be doing a lot of talking about it. We don’t really speak about it that much. They’ve got a style of play, we’ve got a style of play.” Stokes on Elgar’s criticism of the term “Bazball”
“With all due respect, I am really not going to entertain that anymore. We’ve chatted about it long and hard. I just want to crack on with the cricket. I think the game deserves that respect. Mudslinging is a thing of the past for me and we are not going to go back and forth on that.” Elgar’s last word on the B-word
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket