It won’t be great if England play the Ashes with eight

Alec Swann Columnist

By Alec Swann, Alec Swann is a Roar Expert

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    Now that Cricket Australia and the ACA have seemingly kissed and made up, it looks as though the Ashes will take place as scheduled.

    Given that so much was at stake – advertising, sponsors, broadcast revenue, the goodwill of those providing the aforementioned, commitment of the supporters etc. – the chances of the biggest and most traditional of contests being allowed to sail by unchecked were negligible at best, whatever any of the protagonists may have said.

    Fouling on your own doorstep is one thing, and this whole fiasco has been a shabbily conducted PR gaffe, but being unprepared to clean it up is another entirely. The proverbial bullet will have been successfully dodged when Jimmy Anderson/Mitchell Starc delivers the first ball to David Warner/Alastair Cook at the Gabba in late November.

    And now that the ticket sellers can go about their business confident they actually have a product to sell, it seems apt to start making some robust predictions.

    With the future always looking more assured in the warm glow of victory, and the thumping of South Africa warrants as much, it is ‘safe’ to say that come the first couple of weeks in January it will be Joe Root, and not Steve Smith, holding the small urn up for the cameras.

    This may be jumping the gun a little bit, but if you’re going to support your team then you’ve got to support your team and that means optimism in large amounts.

    Watching Anderson, Stuart Broad and Moeen Ali make mincemeat of Faf du Plessis et al at Old Trafford, it was tricky to see anything other than a comprehensive series triumph Down Under, in homage to that of 2010-11. I’m going to phone the bookmakers right away.

    Okay, I’ll stop with the patriotic jingoism and climb back down to reality, one which finds England in decent shape, especially on the bowling front where there is a good balance, but with worryingly big cracks in the facade.

    Question marks over the odd player is usual and not many sides have taken to the field with a completely unchallengeable XI, but to have a top five with three under the hammer is hardly desirable. A strong lower middle order is all well and good, and it is very good, but they will only bail you out so many times.

    However, if England turn up in Brisbane with no decent opening partner for Cook, a number three with obvious technical shortcomings, and a far from convincing number five they are serving themselves up for the taking.

    If I was Starc or Josh Hazlewood I’d be licking my lips at the prospect of bowling at Keaton Jennings, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan. The first is a catch behind the wicket waiting to happen, the second has a tendency to try and hit balls from outside off through mid-on, and the third just doesn’t appear to have the game for the highest level.

    Westley has looked the most at home of the trio, and his debut at the Oval was nice and composed, but it didn’t take long for a high-class attack to pinpoint a weakness – I’ve never seen a top order batsman at Test level faced with no cover point – and the Australian seamers are no mugs.

    If the Essex man can iron this out then he could prosper as there is enough there to suggest an ability to contribute on a consistent basis, but the same can’t be said for Jennings and Malan. Both have had their respective temperaments praised and this is undoubtedly a major asset but the mind doesn’t hit the ball.

    Keaton Jennings plays a shot for England.

    (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

    In Jennings’ defence, he had an excellent season for Durham last year and started his Test career brightly, but at this moment in time he’s either out of form, devoid of confidence, or has been found out. Keep the ball off his legs and he doesn’t look like scoring at all.

    As for Malan, his selection at least made up for the rather strange choice of an average spinner in Liam Dawson, who is more accomplished as a batsman than bowler, to go in at eight, yet it looked like a short-term fix initially and that hasn’t changed. There, surely, has to be better option out there and that goes for the opening slot as well.

    The one saving grace is three Tests against the West Indies for the selectors to get their hunches right. It isn’t as if they will be making decisions based on a series defeat, and any hope some of those under pressure still have would’ve been extinguished by such a scenario, yet if it is going to be done then it has to be done immediately.

    Basing everything around the Ashes, certainly a year or so out as some are wont to do, is the best way to ignore what is in front of you but at some stage this has to be the focus.

    A strong England XI, especially if their bowling unit are fit and firing, will have a good chance of holding on to the urn.

    A strong England eight, regardless of whether they’ve thumped South Africa or not, won’t.

    Alec Swann
    Alec Swann

    Alec Swann is a former Northants and Lancashire opener turned cricket writer. Outside of the joys of a Test match, Newcastle United and golf generally occupy his other sporting interests with a soft spot for the Newcastle Knights.

    Getting hassled by a parent or partner about spending too much time playing video games? Now, you can tell them the story of how some ordinary gamers scored $225k for just seven weeks of work.

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    The Crowd Says (99)

    • August 10th 2017 @ 6:58am
      Dan in Devon said | August 10th 2017 @ 6:58am | ! Report

      England’s bowling was flattered by very poor South African batsmen. DeCock was never a number 4 and still not a number 6. Only Amla is world class. The problem for England is that both Anderson and Broad struggle for consistent pace these days; with the kookaburra ball it is hard to see how Anderson will be effective- Broad can extract some bounce and lift but he looked far less dangerous to me this season than in years past. As for Stokes, figures don’t lie and his mid 30s bowling average shows that he really does struggle where there is little in the pitch. For me, TRJ shapes up as potentially England’s most important fast bowler, particularly given the decline of Mark Wood but he is inexperienced and how will he handle Australian conditions? This brings us to Ali. Moeen was disappointing on the subcontinent but showed his worth in England. Much will depend on him. I think Australia will set after him in the manner in which they attacked Swann in his final series. And they have the man to do this in Glenn Maxwell. Should Ali falter, England will lose badly. He is now, by far, the most important cricketer in the English team- yes, even more important than Root!

      • August 10th 2017 @ 8:07am
        George said | August 10th 2017 @ 8:07am | ! Report

        Woakes will play if it I’d say.

        • August 10th 2017 @ 1:15pm
          matth said | August 10th 2017 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

          And he is greatly improved over the past year or two

    • August 10th 2017 @ 7:48am
      Jumbo said | August 10th 2017 @ 7:48am | ! Report

      What do you think of Stoneman, Alec?

      The selectors don’t seem to fancy him – any idea why?

      • Columnist

        August 10th 2017 @ 6:31pm
        Alec Swann said | August 10th 2017 @ 6:31pm | ! Report

        Jumbo

        The bit I’ve seen of Mark Stoneman I reckon he’s a decent player and his record over the last few seasons is as good as anyone’s.

        I’ve got no idea why the selectors have been reluctant to give him a go but there’s talk in the media over here today that he’s likely to be picked for the first Test against the West Indies next week.

        It does seem strange that so many have been tried alongside Alastair Cook with no great success. The one with the best record is Joe Root but that won’t be happening again and rightly so.

        • August 10th 2017 @ 8:32pm
          Jumbo said | August 10th 2017 @ 8:32pm | ! Report

          Cheers, Alec. Stoneman definitely seems worth a shot.

        • August 11th 2017 @ 4:46am
          Samuel Honywill said | August 11th 2017 @ 4:46am | ! Report

          Speculation confirmed: Stoneman plays next week, named in the squad today.

    • Roar Guru

      August 10th 2017 @ 8:21am
      Chris Kettlewell said | August 10th 2017 @ 8:21am | ! Report

      I do think that South Africa are struggling at the moment. AB and Steyn are out, Amla is a shadow of his former self, they’ve never really recovered from the losses of Kallis and Smith. They’ve got a good production line of pace bowlers.

      But I think England at home to a struggling South Africa probably allowed them to get away with things that England travelling to Australia won’t.

      There’s still a big question mark over England’s third seamer. Causing England to really rely on their top 2. But of those, Anderson has always really struggled in Australia. And while Moeen Ali had a great series against SA, he’s still far less the top level spinner than Greame Swann was, and his career was ended by a visit to the spinners graveyard of Australia.

      England have 2 good batsmen, one who looks like he could be but it’s still early in his career, and he also has the responsibility of handling the gloves, a couple of hit and miss all rounders, and three gaping holes in their batting lineup. The England side looks considerably weaker than they did last time they visited here.

      It’s hard to see where the gaps in England’s batting lineup will be filled. I’ve seen people talking about the potentials to fill the test batting spots, and every time I’ve seen such things they are all batsmen with mid-30’s first class averages. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that they have the ability to turn that into a mid-40’s average at test level.

      • August 10th 2017 @ 11:49am
        George said | August 10th 2017 @ 11:49am | ! Report

        Not sure England only have two ‘good’ batsmen (Bairstow is very much a batsmen as well as wicketkeeper (unlike Wade who is neither). And those other ‘hit-and-miss’ allrounders have been contributing quite a bit.

        Australia will probably beat England at home, but this constant dismissal of opposition players at a time when Australia loses Test series regularly is baffling. Other than Smith, the whole Australian team was more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’ in the last series it played, and I don’t think beating Pakistan at home swept aside ongoing flaws.

        As for the batting averages, Vaughan and Trescothick didn’t have stellar county records either – the overhead conditions in England makes scoring heavily a tad tricky, as seen in recent Ashes contests there.

        • Roar Guru

          August 10th 2017 @ 1:42pm
          Chris Kettlewell said | August 10th 2017 @ 1:42pm | ! Report

          Bairstow is the “one who looks like he could be but it’s still early’. The point being that he may well go on to be a very good batsman, and of late he’s done well, but need a larger data set to be bracketing him with Cook and Root at this point. But I did count him among their good 3 batsmen.

          So many people laud Ben Stokes as this amazing cricketer, but he averages 34 with the bat and 35 with the ball. Shane Watson constantly had people in Australia on his back as not being good enough and he averaged 35 with the bat and 33 with the ball. I’m not saying he’s not a useful cricketer, but I don’t know how he can be considered a great test cricketer with slightly worse stats than Watson who was constantly criticised for not being good enough.

          I wonder if Stokes being in the side has made things harder for Moeen Ali too. If Stokes wasn’t there, they’d probably have just made Ali the “bat at 6 and bowl a bit” allrounder. But with that position already taken they’ve shuffled him around all over the place. He may actually turn out to be the more useful player of the two long term if England can know what to do with him.

          The danger of those two is if neither ends up quite good enough to really be the genuine fourth bowler, but having both in the team keeps making the selectors think about only picking 3 genuine bowlers. That could leave them light on bowling. On the other hand if they do well enough with the ball to allow that, then they can have a very strong lower order.

          In reality, if Bairstow manages to make it stick being a genuine top-5 batsman while keeping, that is what gives them the flexibility to carry the two allrounders. We’ll see how he goes with that though. More often than not, batsmen who bat in the top 5 and keep eventually end up giving up the gloves at test level as it becomes too much for them and to maintain that level with the bat they need to avoid having to focus on keeping also.

          • August 10th 2017 @ 1:47pm
            George said | August 10th 2017 @ 1:47pm | ! Report

            If an Aussie had Bairstow’s record in the past 18 months, you’d possibly claim they were a great.

            Certainly, can’t be talking up Renshaw, Handscomb, Maxwell or Wade if you don’t rate Bairstow.

            Personally, I think England should play Foakes as a ‘keeper (batting at 8) so that No.5 is sorted. More likely, Foakes will wasted (like Read and Foster).

            With Stokes, he’s one of those (like, say, Flintoff or Anderson) who took a while to find his feet. He is contributing strongly these days.

            Watson – pfft. I think Stokes already has more tons than he managed.

            • August 10th 2017 @ 1:53pm
              jameswm said | August 10th 2017 @ 1:53pm | ! Report

              Chris said: “But I did count him among their good 3 batsmen”.

              How can you say he doesn’t rate Bairstow?

              • August 10th 2017 @ 2:57pm
                George said | August 10th 2017 @ 2:57pm | ! Report

                Because in his earlier post he said ‘2 batsmen’.

              • August 10th 2017 @ 2:58pm
                George said | August 10th 2017 @ 2:58pm | ! Report

                And I assumed he meant Cook and Root.

              • Roar Guru

                August 11th 2017 @ 8:14am
                Chris Kettlewell said | August 11th 2017 @ 8:14am | ! Report

                2 fully established good batsman and one who looks like he could be but it’s still a bit early to fully tell. I think that suggests I rate Bairstow to this point. I put Handscomb and Renshaw in a similar bucket. Look like they could be good, but it’s still too early to tell. Bairstow is probably slightly further along.

                I do worry about Bairstow as one of the top 3 batsmen when he’s the keeper though. History shows that when a keeper has been one of the main batsmen they’ve generally had to give up the gloves. Very few examples where they didn’t. Andy Flower is probably the only one I can think of who just didn’t give up the gloves and focus on batting.

                It’s also a worry i have with South Africa promoting Quentin de Kock up the order.

              • August 11th 2017 @ 8:50am
                George said | August 11th 2017 @ 8:50am | ! Report

                Agreed. He shouldn’t keep.

          • August 10th 2017 @ 4:09pm
            Mike Dugg said | August 10th 2017 @ 4:09pm | ! Report

            Chris, look at Stokes’ and Ali’s records over the last year or so. Same with Bairstow. I’d kill to have them in the Aussie side. Stokes would solve our number 6 problem easily. He’s a guy that thrives under pressure like Flintoff. Watson was flaky at best. Ali is not consistent with the ball but Lyon is hardly that either. Lyon averages over 32 with the ball and Ali 36. The benefit of Ali is his batting(averages close to 36 as well with recent times being very good) and his cool head. Bairstow has averaged around 50 since his time has been made permanent in the English side. If I was them I’d make him a specialist batsman and bring back Butler who can take an attack apart on his day. He averages 35 with the bat in around 20 tests even after a form dip in last few tests. If they brought in Hales in his preferred middle order position they’d only have the problem of another opener to find. Carberry should’ve been stuck with until a younger guy presented himself.
            Cook, ?, Root, Hales, Bairstow, Stokes, Ali, Butler, Roland Jones, Broad, Anderson is a pretty decent lineup.

            • August 10th 2017 @ 9:02pm
              JW89 said | August 10th 2017 @ 9:02pm | ! Report

              Mike,

              Thanks for a good balanced comment, it’s good to hear an Aussie say they would actually want some of our players in their team – wouldn’t have thought it 20 years ago!

              Bairstow, Stokes, and Ali all form a pretty good middle / lower middle order for sure. I’m not entirely confident of your call for Butler to come in, I love how he plays and would want to see that translate to a longer format but I’m not sure how well it would do. For me, that places Root and Hales a place too high too – but I agree with giving Hales a go at 5 given his form.

              Stoneman or Davies (Lancashire) to open for me, I think Stoneman has deserve his chance. I like Westley at 3 and think he can make runs as well, despite having an obvious flaw!

              JW

            • Roar Guru

              August 11th 2017 @ 8:22am
              Chris Kettlewell said | August 11th 2017 @ 8:22am | ! Report

              I’m not saying Stokes isn’t a decent test cricket, but simply that he’s not as good as he seems to get talked up. Looking at his record over the last 12 months he’s had a couple of good scores, and a lot of mediocre stuff. His last 12 months sits around about his overall average in the mid-30s. I’m just saying that while you say we’d kill to have Stokes in the Aussie side, I disagree because we had a player who was very similar to Stokes output with bat and ball, in fact, slightly better overall, and he was widely panned. Throughout his career people were calling for him to be dropped. With that in mind I would think that if Stokes were playing for Australia we would see Aussie fans calling for him to be dropped like we did with Watson, not thinking he was some lynchpin of a strong middle order.

              • August 11th 2017 @ 8:32pm
                JW89 said | August 11th 2017 @ 8:32pm | ! Report

                Chris,

                With all due respect I must disagree. I can’t name a single time Watson won a game, played a game changing innings, or had a destructive spell with the ball (maybe this is just my ignorance). I can name all three for Stokes.

                I think the reason for our disagreement is that you’re basing this in the stats – I agree that stats wise they are very similar right now, but I would bet a lot of money I don’t have on that changing throughout the next 5/10 years of Stokes!

                JW

              • Roar Guru

                August 14th 2017 @ 1:09pm
                Chris Kettlewell said | August 14th 2017 @ 1:09pm | ! Report

                I suppose the big difference is, if a player plays those great innings / takes those vital wickets, then overall has averages slightly worse than someone who never seems to do that, it’s because in between those “match defining performances” that player has basically done very little, while the other produces less amazing performances, but is a lot more consistent. So it really comes down to which is better, a player who might play a match winning innings every 10 matches but basically be a passenger in between, or a player who does consistently decent but less often amazing, but also fails a lot less often.

                ie Which is better scoring a hundred and then 10 single figures scores, or scoring consistent 30’s and 40’s?

        • August 10th 2017 @ 6:17pm
          Samuel Honywill said | August 10th 2017 @ 6:17pm | ! Report

          The dismissal of South Africa as a team is odd too, considering Australia lost to them at home less than a year ago.

          • August 11th 2017 @ 8:57am
            13th Man said | August 11th 2017 @ 8:57am | ! Report

            The current Australian lineup beat South Africa in Adelaide (and that was with carrying Maddison)
            The team that lost to South Africa had Burns, Voges, Ferguson, Siddle, S Marsh and Mennie running around. That south African side also had Steyn as well.
            Completely different side to the one that England will face at the Gabba.

      • August 10th 2017 @ 11:50am
        Brian said | August 10th 2017 @ 11:50am | ! Report

        The same poor Saffers without Steyn and AB won here pretty easily last summer. In fact the whole 2.5 batsman scenario sounds very familar. If I was England I would focus on the following
        – Ballance looks to me very similar to Handscomb, both started their Test careers on fire but Ballance has since been found out. Handscomb could be a wlkaing wicket himslef which leaves Australia 5,6,7 looking as weak as England’s.
        – Robson needs to come in for Jennings. Its the kind of selection Australia would make but its got the highest probability of coming good.
        – Westley a worry but they is no one else just have to hope on that one. They key is for the top 3 to bat as long as possible before Root comes in. I don’t think Hales can do that.

        Its all still Asutralia’s to lose but we need to see how Handscomb and Renshaw back up or it could be 2.5 batsman each.

        • August 10th 2017 @ 9:07pm
          JW89 said | August 10th 2017 @ 9:07pm | ! Report

          Brian,

          I agree with your call on Ballance. He shouldn’t be in the side at all, would get torn apart in Aus facing your attack!

          Robson for Jennings is an interesting call, he seemed to have a flaw that got found out at test level and I’m unsure if he’s ironed that out. Plus a tendency to get bogged down without scoring, increasing the pressure on Cook.

          Westley could be a worry. I will judge him more on 2 tests against a good SA bowling attack in conditions / pitches unfavourable to batting (only 3 centuries total in the whole series!). If he goes down under and fails, I could be happy with Clarke coming out to replace him! Hales at 5?

          JW

    • August 10th 2017 @ 8:53am
      jameswm said | August 10th 2017 @ 8:53am | ! Report

      It’s all very well to praise and gloss over England’s bowling, but:

      1. Anderson averages nearly 40 in Australia and has always struggled here;

      2. overseas finger spinners traditionally do poorly in Australia, even good ones like Murali and Harbajhan. Ali is not in their class, so how will he go any better? Ali has not played in Australia. Murali aveaged 22 in his career and 75 in Aust. For Harbhajan 32 and 73. Take Swann – 29 over his career and 52 in Aust.

      3. Who will be the 3rd seamer?

      Broad works well here, but is he down on pace and less effective?

      Then look at the record of Aussie batsmen in Australia, like Smith, Khawaja and Warner.

      I think our issues could be with the England 6-7-8, but otherwise I expect Australia to do better.

    • August 10th 2017 @ 9:22am
      AGordon said | August 10th 2017 @ 9:22am | ! Report

      If I were an England selector, I’d be having many sleepless nights because I not only have to pick a team to face Australia, I have to pick a squad because fast bowlers will break down, players will lose form (remember Trott & Swann from the last series out here) and batsmen techniques will get found out.

      Right now, the poms are struggling to paper over cracks at 2, 3 & 5. In reality, they’ll need to find another 3 Test quality batsmen and probably another 2 or 3 Test quality quicks. They appear to be completely reliant on Moeen as a spin option and the cupboard appears bare if he fails.

      I reckon they’ll be in complete disarray before the First Test and if Australia gets on top early, it cold be a very long summer for the touring side.

      • August 10th 2017 @ 8:56pm
        JW89 said | August 10th 2017 @ 8:56pm | ! Report

        AGordon,

        Wow there’s a lot of one-eyed fanboy stuff in there. Let’s take this line by line:

        “Fast bowlers will break down” – true, fast bowlers do break down. Remind me of your pacers injury record vs England’s pacers injury record?

        “Trott & Swann from last series” – Trott who was struggling majorly with mental health issues and clearly a shadow of his former self, Swann who was just back from injury himself.

        “Batmen techniques get found out” – true enough, just like any tour at international level, each has it’s own fairly unique examinations.

        “Cracks at 2, 3 & 5” – correct. This is a weakness in our lineup and a major concern this close to an Ashes series. Hopefully those who come in (for my money Stoneman or Davies at 2, Hales or Clarke at 5) for WI can get some scores and confidence.
        (This also ignores, as previously mentioned, the potential cracks in the Aus line up too. Do they get exposed or proved to be solid in the Bangladesh tour? Who knows)

        Cupboard bare for spin – there are a few options in the county game, but none who are too close to getting capped I would say. Again, I wouldn’t have said that spin would be our main concern before a tour to Australia – if Moeen can do a good containing job and chip in with some wickets then that’s great.

        Not sure where the prediction of disarray comes from, even before a game has been played! If you could elaborate on that it would be great thank you.

        JW

        • August 11th 2017 @ 11:50pm
          Colin N said | August 11th 2017 @ 11:50pm | ! Report

          Swann, I believe, also said that he should never have gone on that Ashes tour in the first place as he was physically incapable of bowling his best.

    • August 10th 2017 @ 9:32am
      Jumbo said | August 10th 2017 @ 9:32am | ! Report

      Anderson didn’t struggle too badly in 2010/11…

      • August 10th 2017 @ 9:52am
        jameswm said | August 10th 2017 @ 9:52am | ! Report

        You mean when he was 28-29? How old is he now?

        How did he go in the following series? 14 wickets at 44.

        • August 10th 2017 @ 11:42am
          Junior Coach said | August 10th 2017 @ 11:42am | ! Report

          Agree 100% James-Anderson will not improve on his previous Australian performances at the age of 35 , Broad can get back to his best , Ali will struggle if the Australian batsman are patient with him. The english lower order will not make the big runs that they made in England- they dont like bounce and we have 3 guys over 6’4 who all get bounce

        • August 10th 2017 @ 1:14pm
          Ouch said | August 10th 2017 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

          I remember George Bailey carting him for 28 in an over.

          • August 10th 2017 @ 2:11pm
            AGordon said | August 10th 2017 @ 2:11pm | ! Report

            wasn’t that Panasaar?

            • August 10th 2017 @ 3:00pm
              matth said | August 10th 2017 @ 3:00pm | ! Report

              No, it was Gilchrist back in the day who put 30 on Monty.

              • Roar Guru

                August 10th 2017 @ 11:53pm
                Joey Johns said | August 10th 2017 @ 11:53pm | ! Report

                Gilly couldn’t have scored that many in an over off Monty.

                Gorgeous George holds the world record (alongside Lara) for most runs in an over in Test Cricket.

              • August 11th 2017 @ 1:12pm
                matth said | August 11th 2017 @ 1:12pm | ! Report

                I may have been rounding as honestly I couldn’t remember. I turned out to be 24 when Gilchrist was on his way to the fastest century by an Australian. Here is the commentary:

                106.1
                0
                Panesar to Gilchrist, no run, that’s wide and Gilchrist reaches out, a long stride, to defend on the front foot
                106.2
                2
                Panesar to Gilchrist, 2 runs, fifty this time and that’s well-driven through cover. That fifty came up in just 40 deliveries, his fastest Test fifty and it’s a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it one. Shame if you did…
                106.3
                6
                Panesar to Gilchrist, SIX, shouts of ‘Catch’ which I hope can be heard from the man in Row V. He comes down the track, eyes bulging and straight drives that like a rocket. Seeing it like a football, hitting it like a golf ball. Spectators look out
                106.4
                6
                Panesar to Gilchrist, SIX, Row ZZZ this time but there’s no sleeping up there as Gilchrist sends that straight and miles. And miles. He’s now got 95 Test sixes, I’m not sure that’s allowed
                106.5
                4
                Panesar to Gilchrist, FOUR, carnage – this time it’s a swing over midwicket, not quite middled, so it didn’t go for six… just the four. Almost like a tennis whip that one
                106.6
                6
                Panesar to Gilchrist, SIX, unbelievable stuff. If you can’t watch this, I instruct you to go and find some highlights later, oh my word, it’s well worth it. This time that’s another straight bosh and that’s travelling. By bosh, don’t misunderstand that it’s a slog, it’s not. It’s just brilliant. Some in the crowd are bowing down

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