England’s win at Cape Town was hugely satisfying. It was like finally kissing that girl at school you’d fantasised about for months. And if, like me, you never actually got to kiss that girl because you were far too shy (and not quite good looking enough) then fear not. Beating South Africa at their spiritual home feels better than a sloppy snog and a drunken fumble ever could. I finally got a girlfriend at university and found that young love was overrated anyway. And the girl subsequently turned out to be a lesbian (true story)!
But now that the dust is settling we need to work out what England’s win actually meant. Was it a one off or have the team finally turned a corner? We’ve been here before remember. Everyone assumed our series victory in Sri Lanka was the start of a brave new world … until that world came crashing down in the Caribbean a few weeks later. The sober reality is that England are probably just an infuriatingly inconsistent cricket team. And part of being inconsistent is that you do occasionally pull off a great win.
This time, however, it feels slightly different. Not hugely different but a bit. England now have two promising openers and a half-decent number three for starters. In fact, we haven’t had a reasonable top 3 since my ex-girlfriend decided she preferred Janes to James.
Dom Sibley’s century therefore brought me considerable cheer. If he can continue this form and nail down a spot then England will have their first respectable opening pair since Cook and Strauss. Yes the jury’s still out to some extent – it’s worth remembering that Sam Robson, Adam Lyth, and Keaton Jennings (twice) all scored hundreds before getting worked over and worked out – but these guys didn’t score their hundreds against quality fast bowlers away from home. Sibley therefore achieved something quite significant in England’s win at Cape Town.
Joe Denly also continues to play well. He’s no superstar – although I do think he’s more talented that some people give him credit for – but he’s doing his job. His top class fielding and ability to pick up wickets with his leg-spinners is another bonus.
Whilst a Test average of 31 after 12 Tests is clearly nothing to shout about, again it’s worth pointing out that Denly has scored his runs against the toughest opponents around. If he can average 31 (whilst looking solid and eating up a lot of deliveries) against Cummins, Hazlewood, Philander, and Rabada then one hopes he’s good enough to cash in (and improve his average) when he comes across the weaker teams. Do you know how much Alastair Cook averaged in South Africa? 31. Exactly.
The emergence of Ollie Pope also feels good. Young players with excellent domestic records have been over-hyped in the past and fallen flat on their faces. However, none of these had as many admirers as Pope – good judges really do think he’s special – and none of them have actually looked as classy as young Ollie at the crease.
I like Pope’s game because he doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. He’s compact, plays in an orthodox way, and seems to have a first class work ethic and an unflappable temperament. Yes there will probably be bumps in the road. Most players experience bad patches at some stage as international bowlers look at the tape and work them out. However, Pope is a thinking cricketer who has both the gumption and wherewithal to counter these plans and evolve into a top class player.
Then we come to the heart of the team – the skipper and vice-captain. Joe Root isn’t quite back to his best but we all know he’s a class act. At worst he’ll continue to be one of the top ten batsmen in the world. At best he’ll get back into that elite big three (or four) conversation. Joe’s captaincy might occasionally display the strategic erraticism of Donald Trump and the common sense of an aubergine but you can’t have everything. England captains have to learn on the fly because they get little to no preparation for the job in county cricket.
The bowling is also shaping up a little better than it did a month ago. Stuart Broad is proving that he can still crank it up. Sam Curran is developing nicely and possesses more skill than we originally thought. Mark Wood and Jofra Archer are on the mend – which means that pace and firepower shouldn’t be a problem like it has been in the past. And Dom Bess and Jack Leach have more potential as bowlers than Moeen Ali ever had.
Sorry Mo. I know your stock has risen since you were dropped – England players are usually perceived as better cricketers when they’re out of the side – but your golden arm was always somewhat compromised by your inability to provide control (an economy rate of 3.6 is too high, as is your average of 37). The spinner’s job on days 1-3 will always be to tie up an end and let the seamers rest. Bess can do that (economy rate 2.6) and Leach can do both (economy rate 2.8, average 29). The pundits ignore this equation when they’re pining for your return.
And then there’s Jimmy Anderson. As good as ever. We await news of his injury with baited breath. A side strain could rule him out for a couple of months but let’s not automatically attribute these injuries to old age. He picked up injuries when he was young too. I hope and pray that he still has a couple of years left.
At this stage, I’d wager that the only first choice player with a question mark above his head is Jos Buttler. But nobody in their right mind would suggest that England’s wicket-keeping cupboard is bare. There’s also Jonny Bairstow, Ben Cox, a host of competent county stumpers who could do a job if asked, plus the best option of the lot – a certain Ben Foakes esq. Maybe Jos’s travails will finally push England in a direction they should’ve embraced long ago.
Speaking of Jos, did you see the footage of him swearing at Vernon Philander in England’s win at Cape Town? It’s safe to say that his halo temporarily slipped on Tuesday – although I’m slightly disappointed that his best shot was “you’re a f**k**g k**bh**d”. A full on rendition of Spitting Image’s I’ve Never Met A Nice South African would’ve been far more entertaining.
After Jonny Bairstow was fined for swearing at himself when he was dismissed a few weeks ago, I imagine that Jos will find himself in even hotter water for swearing at an opponent. Although, to be fair, he was spot on for subsequently pointing out the copious nature of Vernon’s paunch.
Overall it’s amazing what difference a victory makes. England’s win in Cape Town has changed the lens through which all events are filtered. A week or so ago England were a bunch of losers. Teeth were being gnashed and supporters wanted to rupture the players’ spleens. But now it’s all change.
Yes English cricket still has considerable challenges. And yes the governance of our wonderful sport still fills me with dread – how ironic that the ECB have just appointed a bloke called Snowball to fulfil the brief from hell.
However, even us cantankerous and disillusioned England’s supporters deserve the occasional day off to be, well, happy for a change.