England’s All Rounders Make All The Difference, Again

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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?!

James Morgan

29 comments

  • Having looked at the Windies at Canterbury for the last couple of days, playing what was essentially a Kent second XI plus Dickson & Billings, I’d be worried that we won’t learn anything from the next three Tests. For me Hales has done enough to earn a recall (at no. 5 where he bats for Notts) and Stoneman or Hameed opening.

  • “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.”

    Agreed completely, but you could argue that Westley, who showed some toughness in the third test making a genuinely valuable 50 against a (even sans Steyn) strong South Africa attack, and has generally looked good even if he hasn’t instantly announced himself as a potential world class player, has earned the chance to score some bigger runs and find his feet in international cricket against a weaker West Indies Attack.

    Will also be intrigued to see if they bring Hameed back – he genuinely played well in his against India last winter, and seemed to make a positive impression amongst the rest of the England squad, who had a lot of praise for him after his injury. But he hasn’t scored a lot of runs this summer – let’s hope his fifty yesterday is the start of him turning things around and making a strong case for himself getting on the plane for the Ashes tour.

    Re. the final batting slot – I’d advocate for having Moeen, Stokes, and Barstow at five, six, and seven instead of at six, seven, and eight. You could argue that five is slightly too high for each of them, but they all have multiple test centuries, and average around 35 (40 in Barstow’s case) and I think there’s a stronger case for having them at five than any specialist batsmen you can name right now. Plus, when Woakes comes back, they’ll have another allrounder coming in late in the batting order. I can see why England want five specialist batsmen, and this solution could result in having one bowler too many (a six man attack probably has the opposite problems to a five man attack), but then, there aren’t any perfect solutions to the sheer lack of quality specialist batsmen in English cricket right now.

    • “a six man attack probably has the opposite problems to a five man attack” should be a six man attack probably has the opposite problems to a four man attack.

    • Whilst I appreciate that this is test cricket and we don’t need a team full of fast scorers, Hameed’s problem in test cricket seemed to be a lack of scoring shots that allowed him to get bogged down and put pressure on whoever he was batting with to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

      People criticised Compton, but he was like Trumper compared to Hameed.

      Hameed has now scored at 50… at a strike rate of 35. A strike rate of 35 against a county bowling attack does not for me warrant a recall. I’d like to see him score a couple of tons in county cricket with a strike rate around 60 before I would think about calling him up.

      • I wouldn’t take Hameed to Australia. He seems to have a weakness outside off-stump and keeps edging it behind to the keeper and slips. He’s still a very talented player, and I expect him to have a long career, but taking him to Australia when he has the technical weakness (he gets opened up too much and his bottom hand is possibly too strong) could do more harm than good imho.

      • Hameed still has technical problems (Vaughan, not the world’s worst judge, confirmed as much after watching him in the nets).
        I’m not sure that calling him back up would be the best move in sorting them out ?

        • All players have technical problems to some extent. Even Tendulkar’s technique was regularly exposed in English conditions. Its really about whether they can put together a game-plan that minimises those problems whilst maximising certain strengths, like favourite shots, and about whether that game-plan will still work in a variety of different situations.

          • True, but they have clearly seriously affected Hameed’s game this season, and bringing him back too early risks damaging his confidence to compete at the highest level.
            Not to mention harming the team’s prospects.

  • I watched the first day at Old Trafford live, and I think Westley has plenty to offer. He seems to have time to play (Jennings doesn’t)*. Hales at 5 sounds a good call. I like having Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen at 6, 7 and 8. It has something of the same effect that Gilly walking out at 7 used to have for Australia. Obviously, SA missed Philander, Steyn and AB in the last test. I also think they missed Morris, who bowls some very good balls (and some rubbish).
    *Time to play seems to be a hallmark of good batsmen. The first time I noticed it was watching a young lad playing for Somerset in about 1971 or 1972. His name? Greg Chappell.

  • Do sides batting second win less frequently than they used to? It would be interesting if someone could provide the stats.

  • Still, to discuss happier topics, pretty much all of England’s known performers provided valuable contributions this series. Broad and Cook were a little quiet, but still got crucial runs and wickets when needed to. Bairstow and Stokes both made excellent runs – Stokes didn’t have the best series with the ball, but remains a more than useful fourth pace option, and played easily his best innings in an England shirt with his vital century in the third test. Root and Anderson were superb – frustrations remain with Root’s conversion rate – one century (where he was reprieved three times) to three fifties and one score of 49 probably sums up the one issue with his career as a test batsmen, but it seems churlish to overly criticise a man who scored 130 more runs, and averaged 15 runs per innings more, than any top order batsmen on either side. And Anderson remains outstanding in English conditions – top of the bowling averages with 20 wickets at less than 15, and I honestly barely even noticed he was doing so well, which I think shows how easy it is to take him for granted – we’re going to miss him so much when he retires.

    Saving the best for last, what a series Moeen Ali’s had. I’ve always felt he justifies his place in the side, but more as a batting all rounder than a front line spinner, even if there were no better options in England’s spin bowling cupboard. He went and proved me completely wrong this series – yes, he had a solid average with the bat, and contributed with two incredibly important (and typically entertaining) half centuries, but he’s been a match winner with the ball on multiple occasions, and visibly continues to look more and more like an international spinner. I think Australia will be tough for him – it’s not an easy place for a finger spinner to tour and perform in. But if anything can give him the confidence to step up and perform as a bowler in Australia, it’s a series like the one he’s just had. And he’s such a likeable cricketer – how could I be anything other than thrilled for him?

    • Agreed. Fingers spinners usually struggle in Australia. Even Swann’s record down under is poor. I hope people have realistic hopes for Moeen down there. I’d be happy if he does a good supporting role and picks up valuable wickets. I’d think that whoever we pick. It might be a good idea to pick the best leggie in the squad too, as another option if it’s likely to turn.

        • I’ll answer my own question:

          Of the 11 visiting spinners to have taken at least 30 wickets in Australia in the past 100 years, 10 have been finger spinners.

          The lone exception? Kumble.

          • Guess it depends on the quality of said wrist / fingers spinners. Australia have had quite a lot of success with leggies. Except Beau Casson of course!

          • A slightly misleading statistic as 30 wickets in total generally requires a bowler to have visited more than once.

            Looking at top individual series performances, 3 of the top 10 (wickets taken) are by Chandrasekar and Kumble, while Mushtaq took 18 wickets in 2 tests.

            It’s interesting that a lot of the top performers in Oz have been left armers (Bedi, Tayfield, Valentine) so maybe it’s spinners that turn away from the RH bat than finger versus wrist spinners…..

  • I’m somewhat disappointed with the series as a whole if I’m honest, the first couple of each test were good, with some quality test cricket being played, but as you say in the article, once 1 side got behind they showed very little fight, such a shame as on paper the sides are evenly matched and it could/should have been a lot closer.

    SA have serious issues with the batting line up and Faf really needs to step up to the mark, sending QDK and then Bavuma in ahead of him is just hiding, and I can’t believe we’ll see Kuhn again.
    As for England I think you’ve summed it up very well.

    Moving forward, we have this series vs the West Indies which we really don’t need (should have invited New Zealand instead) and a couple of people will get on the Ashes plane because of it.
    I hope one is Hales, he is in the form of his life and deserves a chance at 5. Of course this doesn’t solve the opener issue that we’ve had for 5 years. Maybe we should just let Jennings carry on..

    A thought on Woakes, many seem to think it’s inevitable he comes back but who for?

    • Roland Jones would make way imho. Woakes is a better bowler and batsman. TRJ has earned his place on tour though.

      • I’d agree with that, but I’d also like to see Mark Wood in the team. On Australian pitches you need the extra pace, especially at Brisbane and Perth. I know this is sacrilegious, but maybe in place of Jimmy (who had a poor last Ashes tour)? Does Rashid get the leg spinner’s spot? He’s done well in the Big Bash. In the old days, Aus used to have the first 2 tests at the Gabba and the WACA (when they were really quick). Works fine as long as the opposition fast bowling attack isn’t demonstrably better than Aus’. So, in 1984/5, West Indies went with Marshall, Holding, Garner and Walsh (young tyro doing the uphill, into the wind stuff), which must be one of the greatest attacks ever seen.

      • The BBC is really getting with the bash England’s management program…

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/40862946
        In Bayliss’ 30 Tests in charge, 12 players have been given England Test debuts. None of those 12 has established himself at Test level, although it is too early to judge Westley, Malan and seamer Toby Roland-Jones…

        …Bayliss, part of the four-man selection panel, gets to see next to no domestic cricket because of his international commitments and his home still being in his native Australia.

  • So in four tests, two supposed world class teams can’t even come close to saving a game!!

    Pathetic test cricket

  • Once Chris Woakes is back fit we have the best all round attack we’ve had in decades. Would certainly take Wood for the quicker Aussie pitches. Rashid must go for the same reasons. Moeen needs established support as finger spinning is notoriously difficult over there. Broad and Stokes offer pace and bounce and Woakes a bit of guile and craft. Anderson must go as he’s got to be the best new ball bowler in the world at present. A bit concerned about TRJ going for 50 in less than 10 overs, but he’s at least earned a place as cover.
    Because of the hostile nature of the atmosphere in Oz I would hesitate to blood new youngsters there. Hameed scored runs on slow low pitches, not fast bouncy ones. No one is forcing themselves forward with the bat and they would undoubtedly be targeted on and off the pitch. Cook, Root and Bairstow pick themselves. Westley bothers me with his tendency to play to leg. Bowl outside off stump to him and scoring runs becomes a problem. Good to see him at the nets working on one handed off driving with the coaches. At least this shows they recognise the potential problem and are prepared to work with him to sort it. Jennings has had enough chances. I would continue with Malan next week, as I feel he is solid and has had some bad luck coming in either with early wickets down or quick runs needed, against a top attack. Never easy when you’re looking to establish yourself. Hales is certainly a possibile alternative. He has the confidence, experience and technically no more deficiencies than the present Incumbents.
    If Stoneham is selected against the Windies he is under pressure to make an instant impact. Maybe opening with Westley, as an all Essex opening pair, with Root at 3 (where he has effectively been playing this series anyway) Malan or Hales at 4, Stokes at 5, Bairstow at 6, Ali at 7, Woakes at 8, Rashid or TRJ (depending on conditions) at 9, Broad at 10 and Anderson.
    As for the toss in this series, it only goes to emphasise how important batting first is in test cricket. As Ritchie Benaud always said, ‘Win the toss, think about fielding, then bat’ No one wants to have to bat on day 5, everyone wants a bowl.
    Long range weather for Brum next week looks bad, so we may not learn much there. I think it’s a bit late to blood new boys for the Ashes. I would like to think the selectors could almost name their squad now.
    Postscript- can a coach get Broad to stop backing away from pace bowlers so he can start scoring runs again. He never used to, so it’s clearly a mental thing.

  • Gotta feel bad for Alastair Cook here. Put in all the hard yards, stood up for the team when it mattered the most but doesn’t have many runs to show for the series. Yet I’d rate it as one of his best and defining series.

By James Morgan

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