England 385, 102-4. South Africa 637,000-2 dec
Well done South Africa for an unbelievable weekend of sport. If somebody had told Nelson Mandela on Thursday morning that Ernie Els would win The Open, and that the Proteas would humiliate England at the Oval (with Hashim Amla scoring a triple hundred) he probably would have laughed. But that’s exactly what’s happened – and it’s thoroughly deserved too.
As Englishmen, we’ve usually booed South African sportsmen over the years. Guys like Corne Krige raised our blood pressure and perpetuated the rather unfair stereotype that South African sportsmen are all the same: humourless, aggressive and about as likable as Hannibal Lecter. However, the two South African sportsmen who have emerged as champions this weekend couldn’t be more likable.
Hashim Amla and Ernie Els are two of the most humble and generous people in world sport. The former is driven by an unshakable belief in Allah (and has devoted himself to a moral lifestyle), whilst Els is true gent; he almost seemed apologetic about winning at St Annes – you could see that he felt deeply for his Australian opponent, Adam Scott, who threw away victory by bogeying the last four holes. Hmmm. A South African feeling sorry for an Australian; now that really is something special.
England have no hope in hell of saving the test tomorrow, so we’re not going to bother entertaining the thought. Instead, we might as well begin the inquest now. My personal view is that South Africa deserve to be the number one side in the world. They have also beaten Australia in Australia in recent times, but they’ve played considerably better than us in the subcontinent. They also have four world class batsmen to England’s two and two halves (the halves are Trott and Bell), whilst their bowling has genuine pace and aggression (which is why they’ve got more out of this Oval surface than England).
Back in the 1990s, I scoffed at suggestions that Hansie Cronje’s team were as good as Steve Waugh’s Australians. This is because the Proteas’ game plan was often mind numbingly conservative and their plans in the field tedious to say the least. They frequently gave up trying to get batsmen out, and bowled two feet wide of off-stump in an attempt to stifle the run rate. As a result they usually strangled the life out of the game.
Andrew Strauss’ England are very similar to Cronje’s team. We are conservatism personified. Selection is always cautious – we leave out our fastest bowler despite the fact we’ve got a player as handy as Swann coming in at ten – and our only bowler with any pace in the XI, Broad, is told to bowl well within himself, stick to predetermined plans, and never use his considerable cricketing instincts. Watching England in the field is as joyless as I can remember. Bring back the halycion days of Darren Gough and Dominic Cork – guys who snarled at the batsmen and tried every trick in the book to squeeze out a wicket.
England’s current plan is to bowl tightly and wait for mistakes. Improvisation and individuality is forbidden. Steven Finn was dropped in the Ashes for going at four runs per over, despite the fact he was the leading wicket taker. Ask Michael Holding what he made of that decision.
The simple fact of the matter is this: in the current era when T20 cricket is king, many teams have forgotten the art of test match batting. They do not have the requisite patience. As a result, England’s plan of boring out the opposition usually works. However, when we’ve come up against batsmen of genuine class, we’ve usually been found wanting: Dravid, Chanderpaul and Hussey are all throwbacks from a previous era when batting at the top level required mental strength more than anything else. It’s a shame for them that India, the West Indies and Australia only have one player of their ilk: them (Tendulkar and Ponting aren’t what they used to be). And it’s a shame for England that South Africa have four. Is it any surprise that our tedious strategy has been found out?
The warning signs were there. If England’s bowling attack is so good, why were average players like Samuels, Ramdin and Sammy able to score centuries against us? And why have we played poorly in eight of the last nine test matches. Yes, we beat the West Indies in the end, but we squandered incredibly strong positions with the bat twice, and our bowlers were embarrassed to the extent that the West Indies tail had a ball several times.
The truth of the matter is that this team is on a downward curve and changes need to be made. My personal view is that we have no sixth batsmen of international standard so we must pick Finn instead. At least we wouldn’t look so bloody one paced in the field again. With Morgan, Bairstow and Bopara struggling over the last ten months, we’ve effectively been playing with ten men. And believe me, there is nobody in county cricket capable of stepping up a level. The likes of Hales and Taylor simply aren’t ready yet.
Of course, apologists for Strauss and Flower will say ‘well, England got to number one in the world with this team, so why should they change it after one bad performance?’ My answer to this is twofold: firstly, it is not one sloppy performance, it is eight; secondly, the ‘it aint broke so don’t fix it’ logic is lazy. Spain are the best football team in the history of the game. They have won three major tournaments on the bounce. Do they pick the same XI every game? Of course not. They adapt according to conditions and the opposition. Does Sir Alex Ferguson pick the same team every week? Does Roberto Mancini? In professional sport, whatever the sport, those who stand still go backwards. The tragic thing is that England will probably pick exactly the same XI at Headingly.
Genuine pace and mystery spin historically wins test matches. The current England team do not possess either. The management need to remember this. England’s success in recent seasons has simply been down to two things: (a) we are now more professionally prepared (central contracts has helped considerably, and (b) the rest of the world has gone backwards. The exception to this rule, however, is South Africa, who are much stronger in batting than they were, and only mildly poorer with the ball.
In terms of talent, I genuinely do not believe that the current England team is that much better than the one which was captained by Gooch & Stewart in the 1990s. I do not think that Alastair Cook is better than Graham Gooch (although he’s no worse). I do not believe that Pietersen is much better than Graham Thorpe. The difference is that Stewart’s team had to face Ambrose, Walsh, McGrath Warne, Wasim and Waqar, whereas Bell and Trott face Roach, Edwards, Hilfenhaus, Doherty, Junaid Khan and Gul.
Now let’s compare the bowlers. Graeme Swann is clearly the best spinner we’ve had since Phil Edmonds, but what about the seamers? The facts will demonstrate my point for me. Please place the following bowlers in order of their career test averages: Anderson, Broad, Cork, Caddick, Gough and Fraser.
The answer, you might be surprised to learn, is that Fraser has the best record (average 27), then Gough (28), Caddick (28), Cork (29) and finally Anderson (31) and Broad (32). Now tell me England can afford to leave out Finn and persevere with this toothless four man, medium paced, seam attack.