So that was that. England wrapped up victory on day 4 at The Wanderers with consummate ease. There was no dramatic “they think it’s all over” moment because this series was effectively won at Port Elizabeth. However, England still needed to apply the finishing touches in Johannesburg, and we did so in style. You can’t ask for more than that.
Sadly (for them) the Proteas were never really in the contest this week – partly because they’re a weak side playing badly, whereas England are an inconsistent side (sometimes good, sometimes bad) playing particularly well at the moment. The 4th Test was therefore incredibly one-sided. It was like watching Buster Douglas beat up a Care Bear.
The 3-1 series win reversed a succession of poor England results away from home – defeats in India, Australia, New Zealand, and West Indies with a solitary victory in Sri Lanka. It also sealed the South Africans’ first back-to-back series defeats at home for 70 years. That’s gotta sting. England, meanwhile, will be eyeing up back-to-back series wins away for the first time since … erm … ever (?) when we go back to Sri Lanka in March.
I think most people predicted that the end would come sometime after tea today and so it proved. There was some ephemeral resistance from Elgar and Malan, and then some more sustained resistance from the improving van der Dussen and the expiring du Plessis, but the cricket literate majority could always see the writing on the wall. England knew it. And South Africa knew it too.
Having said that, previous England teams might have laboured harder to take the necessary ten wickets today. The difference with the current team is that they have an enforcer worthy of the name in Ben Stokes, plus an out-and-out speedster in Mark Wood. When confronted with genuine pace, aggression, and the possibility of physical danger, teams that realise defeat is inevitable aren’t inclined to stick around. Therefore, when the end came it came rather quickly.
As predicted England’s worrying failure to pick a spinner didn’t cost them in the end – although it won’t have escaped the critics’ attention that Root and Denly bowled ten profligate overs for 56 runs (without ever looking like taking a wicket). Hopefully this will dissuade the skipper from overrating his own usefulness as a Test bowler in future.
With the series autopsies already underway, I’ll quickly summarise why I personally think this is a significant victory for England … although it might not end up being as significant as we think.
This series might not mean much in the end because England actually won the last time we toured South Africa in 2016 too. And we did it against a stronger Cricket Boks side than this one. Unfortunately this surprising victory turned out to be a false dawn. Alastair Cook’s team only managed a disappointing 2-2 draw at home to Pakistan the following summer, then drew 1-1 in Bangladesh, and lost 0-4 in India. Hmmm.
Having said that, I do feel that the current side will be better equipped to succeed in the future because the bowling attack has more firepower. In fact, I believe the current squad is slightly stronger in all departments than the 2016 team.
Four years ago, the standout performers on that tour were Jonny Bairstow (who averaged 72), Ben Stokes and Joe Root. The supporting batsmen were Nick Compton, Alex Hales, Moeen Ali, and James Taylor – none of whom threatened to have long and successful careers as top quality Test batsmen (not in my view anyway).
The good news is that England still have Root and Stokes at the peak of their powers, Bairstow is currently surplus to requirements, and the supporting batsmen include Ollie Pope, Rory Burns (who has already passed an examination against Australia), Dom Sibley (who has scored runs in this series whereas Compton, Moeen and Taylor failed their auditions), and the wet-behind-the-ears but highly promising Zak Crawley.
The bowling also looks stronger. Broad and Finn were the star performers in 2016, and the support was provided by Jimmy Anderson (who had a poor tour) and Chris Woakes. The hugely inconsistent Moeen was the only spinner in sight.
Finn has obviously lost it big time since, but Broad is still going strong, Anderson and Woakes are still around, and now we have some genuine firepower in Wood and Jofra Archer. There’s also Sam Curran for some left arm variety. What’s more, Bess and Leach look like authentic spin bowling prospects rather than part-timers being somewhat unfairly forced to learn on the job.
Consequently I feel a lot more positive about the future of the team than I did in 2016. Hales isn’t opening the batting for a start! What’s more, for the first time in a very long time there aren’t any glaring vacancies in the XI.
England are no longer scratching around to find an opening partner for Cook – who predictably averaged just 23 against the high quality pace attack of Steyn, Rabada, and Morkel in 2016 by the way. What’s more, we’ve finally found some specialist batsmen for specialist positions rather than relying on a plethora of all-rounders. That’s got to be progress, right?
Before I sign off, you’ll no doubt read a lot of copy elsewhere about the players South Africa were missing in this series: Kyle Abbott, Duanne Olivier, Simon Harmer, Rilee Rossouw etc. Whilst this is obviously very unfortunate, and I wish that the situation in world cricket was very different, on reflection I’m not sure these specific Kolpaks would have made that much difference.
Kyle Abbott played in that 2016 series and was ineffective. Meanwhile, the absence of Olivier has helped the impressive Anrich Nortje to emerge. Yes, Simon Harmer is a quality bowler, and he would’ve been an upgrade on Maharaj, but I don’t think that the bowling was South Africa’s main problem.
What disturbs me most about the Proteas is their lack of quality batsmen. Where’s the next Jacques Kallis? Where’s the next Hashim Amla? Where’s the next AB de Villiers?
South African cricket has many, many problems. And these will obviously need to be solved. But I’m not sure that the answer to these problems (or the would-be answer) is currently strutting his stuff on the county circuit.