There was a bit of resistance from Amla and du Plessis, but it was always going to be futile. South Africa have been in the country since May. It has been a long and disappointing tour for the Cricket Boks. They must be mentally fatigued and a fed up with being on the wrong end of results.
Normally I wouldn’t have much sympathy for them – after all, South Africa usually do very well in England and end up getting whoever our captain is sacked – but on this occasion I do feel for them … albeit just a bit.
Losing Dale Steyn, potentially forever, must hurt a great deal. And Vernon Philander, probably their best bowler in English conditions, kept succumbing to random injuries and illness. Morkel was heroic in his absence but he can’t do everything on his own.
And then there’s the AB de Villiers situation. If Joe Root suddenly took a sabbatical from test cricket to ‘rest’ after playing money-spinning T20 competitions, England would be up the creek without a paddle too. The bottom line is that South Africa (a bit like England) simply don’t have the batting reserves to cope.
Despite South Africa’s frailties, however, there’s no doubt that England’s performances at The Oval and Old Trafford were top draw. We went into those games under pressure, having lost eight of our previous thirteen tests, and somehow managed to secure our first series win in ages. And it was mostly thanks to our three world class all-rounders, Stokes, Bairstow and Ali.
England’s batting strength in the middle-order, and our ability to field five or six bowlers without lengthening the tail, was the decisive factor in the series. Both sides frequently lost early wickets, but England’s three amigos at six, seven and eight usually bit back brilliantly. South Africa’s lower middle-order, on the other hand, was about as convincing as Donald Trump’s attempts to spin the latest scandal in Washington.
Ben Stokes played the crucial hand in South London, Moeen Ali was magnificent in Manchester, and Jonny Bairstow kept making good scores (whilst keeping well) throughout the series.
Du Plessis must have been tearing his hair out. England basically won with nine men … although it probably felt like we were picking thirteen to him. No matter how many wickets South Africa took, good batsmen just kept walking out to the middle. Perhaps they should thank their lucky stars that Chris Woakes wasn’t playing too!
Whilst England obviously still have things to work on, this 3-1 win is hugely gratifying for a number of reasons. First of all it was a really good series to watch. Both the attendances and the atmosphere within the grounds proved that test cricket is still alive and well in England. The pitches were excellent too, mainly because they had something for everyone.
The only slightly disappointing thing is that the team batting first dominated each match. I don’t know whether this was a coincidence – some will argue that the prevalence of white ball cricket means teams can’t fight back like they used to – but the one-sided nature of each test certainly made the outcomes somewhat predictable. I guess we don’t mind so much when it’s our team that emerges victorious.
After a series finishes I always like to assess whether England have progressed as a team. Have new players established themselves or existing players improved? The one big positive, of course, was Moeen. He’s now cemented his place as our frontline spinner, and looked like a class act throughout the series: he spun the ball appreciably, showed better control, and repeatedly got good players out. Let’s just hope he can start doing this overseas.
After his five-wicket haul yesterday, Mo now has a better test strike rate than Graeme Swann (60 versus 60.1). Just pause to take that statistic in for a second … it’s quite remarkable really. What’s more, nobody can claim it’s a fluke. Mo’s has played 41 test matches. It’s a large enough sample. I’m not trying to argue that Mo is a better bowler than Swann (far from it), but as I argued last week, it’s about time all supporters realised just how valuable Moeen is. He’s a true all-rounder because he’s now worth his place in the side as both a batsman and a bowler. We don’t need another spinner for home test matches.
The area that continues to disappoint, however, is the failure of another three batsmen to cement a place in the side. Gary Ballance looked slightly better than he did before (although that’s not saying much), Keaton Jennings performed poorly, and Dawid Malan hasn’t shown much. Meanwhile, although he looked pretty good at times, Tom Westley has yet to prove that he’s any better than James Vince. Attractive twenties and thirties don’t win test matches.
Because of these failures, and despite England’s win, it’s therefore possible to argue that our test side hasn’t actually improved much. The top order is still as fragile as Donald Trump’s hair, and there are still three big holes to fill. I was hoping we’d fill at least one of them this summer. Instead we’ll have to go to Australia this winter with only eight proven test cricketers. Yelp!
In some ways England could do without these upcoming tests against the West Indies. The day-nighter at Edgbaston will be a circus, and thereafter England’s batsmen will probably fill their boots against what is a weak West Indies attack.
If the likes of Malan finally score some runs it will mean absolutely nothing. In fact, all it does is create a misleading impression and lull everyone into a false sense of security. Ravi Bopara scored three test hundreds against the Windies between February and May 2009, and then averaged precisely 15 in seven innings in the subsequent Ashes series.
Anyway, perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s just enjoy this victory for now. South Africa have been our bête noire for some time, so to finally beat them home and away is a great feeling … even if they weren’t quite at full strength.
What’s more, our victory yesterday means that we’ve leapfrogged Australia in the world test rankings. Surely we can claim some bragging rights from that?!