“It’s a tough one. I don’t know what is the best way to go,” said Stuart Broad on Friday evening. He was not talking about the game’s reaction to bad light, a wet outfield, an absence of sunshine and how the players in lockdown have been compelled to stare ever more aimlessly from their dressing rooms at grey clouds rather than wet rain. No, Broad was referring to the passage of play when a little partnership of 39 was conjured up between Mohammad Rizwan, a handy batsman, and Mohammad Abbas, a pretty hopeless batsman, on the second afternoon of this soggy Test match.
If the players are ever allowed to return to the middle for any length of time those 39 runs might prove very important. Before tea on Friday England backed off against Rizwan, sending several players to the boundary, and the whole tempo of the game changed. Batting was no longer such a trial and for half an hour England lost control.
Broad’s observation, though not obviously penetrating, was nonetheless striking. It hinted at a certain humility as well as reminding us of the wonderful complexity of the game. Out on the field during that ninth wicket partnership were Broad and Jimmy Anderson, who share about 1100 Test wickets between them, plus an experienced Test captain, Joe Root. And they weren’t sure what to do. There is no carte blanche rule, no incontrovertible way to play in these circumstances. Every situation is different, posing tricky questions. Is the ball moving (it was on Friday)? Should we change our length against a batsman hellbent on aggression (probably not, given how much the ball was still swinging)? How good is that batsman at switching to an all-out attacking mode? The beauty of the game is that there are no absolute right answers even for the most experienced pair of pacemen on the globe.
In the end that partnership may not matter much because the weather forecast remains grim for the final two days of this Test match. England will end up being in the field until the fourth day. Yet none of their bowlers will be begging for rotation when the final Test of the summer starts at the Ageas Bowl on Friday. They will all be desperate to play and they might well argue that the series is still in the balance, they have not been unduly taxed because of the all the time lost and the best side should be selected again – they naturally assume that England are currently playing their best team.
Broad, in particular, is in one of those streaks when bowling is an effortless process; he is in rhythm and in luck despite the odd dropped catch. It’s hard to leave him out when the force is with him – and what will he say this time when he is ushered to the Mastermind chair if he has been omitted again? Anderson, after his self-confessed Old Trafford nightmare (actually he just bowled moderately), now seems back on track and remains desperate to play while the dark clouds hover and the ball keeps swinging; Chris Woakes is currently undroppable since they need his potential to score runs at number seven and he is also bowling well.
There will, however, be debate about the last two bowling places before the final Test. Sam Curran has bowled handily and in the past he has been a good source of runs down the order though it’s hard to establish whether he is in form with the bat – he scored 17 in his solitary knock of the summer. It might just be that Root prefers the extra pace of a Mark Wood or a Jofra Archer, who might put a quicker stop to any tail-end resistance. Or he might play Curran as well as all the other pacemen.
This would mean omitting Dom Bess. It is almost sacrilegious to omit a specialist spinner for a five day game in August. But they might if the forecast for the next match is similar to the gruesome experience of the last three days. Bess did not bowl in the victory over Pakistan at Old Trafford and so far he has not bowled at the Ageas Bowl. He may yet go two Tests in succession without turning his arm over. Now Bess must have an inkling of what it must be like for the Ryder Cup rookie who is not asked to play until the singles on the final day. He will be keeping a sly eye in the nets during the build up to the next Test just to check how much bowling Root is doing.