A day of mixed emotions at Centurion. The good news is that we’ve still got a sniff thanks to some remarkably resilient batting in the evening session. But after what we witnessed during the morning session, which was as lamentable a performance as I’ve seen from an England team in the field, I’m not sure whether I can say (hand on heart) that we deserve to win.
First let’s deal ‘with the positives’ (© ECB media training vernacular). How good was Rory Burns today? He survived a close LBW decision early on, and was also dropped in the slips, but he didn’t ‘alf make the South Africans pay.
What I’m about to say now will be hugely controversial. You’ll scoff. You’ll scowl. You’ll argue that I’m nuts. But Burns’s innings tonight was just the kind of knock that Alastair Cook, for all his attributes, rarely played. Alastair was a master when it came to batting big against somewhat limited seam attacks on flat surfaces, but when the opposition contained two world class pacemen and the ball was moving around, he often failed. His technique just wasn’t quite good enough.
Now I’m not going to suggest that Rory Burns has a perfect method by any means. But the way he played today was excellent in the toughest conditions imaginable. Rabada and Philander are world class, the match situation was dire, and the pitch offered plenty with the new ball. But Rory stuck in there, played positively, and came through with flying colours. Let’s hope he can convert this innings into a third Test century tomorrow.
If Burns can score runs in these circumstances, he can score runs against any seam attack. He’ll probably never be as good as Alastair Cook (he can’t play spin anywhere near as well for example), but his efforts today, plus the guts he showed at home in The Ashes – it’s worth mentioning that Cook never scored an Ashes hundred at home – shows how far he’s come. Rory may always need a little luck here and there but that’s true of most international openers. Basically he’s doing fine.
I also thought that Dom Sibley’s stock went up. Yes he only made 29 runs, and he rarely looked totally at ease, but he ate up a lot of deliveries and did exactly what Test openers should do i.e. see off the new ball. The jury is still out of course, and some remain unconvinced, but it’s worth remembering that the alternative is probably Keaton Jennings. I don’t think anyone wants England to go back there. Although Zak Crawley is also waiting in the wings, something tells me that Jennings is the man Ed Smith really wants back in the side. I sense young Zak is on this tour for development purposes.
And now, lamentably, we must address England’s performance in the field. Yuk. I know that Root was off the field for a spell, and that it’s hardly ideal when your skipper is absent, but the lack of coherent planning was shocking for a bowling attack with the experience of Anderson, Broad, and Stokes. The new coach Chris Silverwood must also take his fair share the blame. What on earth was he telling them?
England’s policy of bowling short, rather than aiming for the top of off, was as brainless as picking an all seam attack to begin with. It was remarkably village. I really struggle to see how any management team / leadership group with any cricketing IQ whatsoever could have sanctioned such absurd tactics. It really makes you wonder.
The only silver lining is that Archer picked up 5 wickets. However, I doubt even the chairman of the Jofra fan club would argue that he bowled brilliantly. In truth none of the bowlers covered themselves in glory. Oh for the inclusion of a spinner. Sigh. At least a bit of variation would’ve made life harder for the batsmen and possibly even bought a wicket or two.
Can England pull off a win tomorrow? It’s unlikely but possible. This pitch hasn’t deteriorated as expected so there is some hope. But don’t get your hopes up too much. Root is feeling under the weather, Jos Buttler may be too sick to take the field, and wickets tend to fall in clusters (or perhaps I should say avalanches) when England are at the crease. It’s going to be extremely tough.
PS Before I sign off I should quickly mention the cricketers awarded gongs in the New Year’s Honours list. Eoin Morgan got a CBE, Ben Stokes and Trevor Bayliss secured OBEs, whilst Joe Root and Jos Buttler were awarded MBEs. Congratulations to all of them.
However, part of me is somewhat annoyed. When England’s rugby players won the 2003 World Cup, all 31 members of the squad received MBEs whilst captain Martin Johnson was upgraded to a CBE. The head coach Clive Woodward was knighted. So how come only 5 members of the cricket team won gongs? It’s a team game so all of them deserved to be honoured. That’s what happened after the 2005 Ashes after all.
The whole honours system seems random in my opinion. In what universe do Andy Gomarsall and Iain Balshaw deserve to be MBEs when Jason Roy, Jofra Archer and Co are not? What’s more, if we’re splitting hairs, it seems unfair that Jos Buttler (who had a slightly underwhelming World Cup) received a gong when Roy and Bairstow, for example, scored a lot more runs. It’s weird to honour specific individuals but ignore others.
The biggest insult, however, was the fact that Colin Graves secured a CBE. I assumed this was a joke when I first read the news on social media. Graves has been a highly controversial and polarising chairman of the ECB. He’s about as popular with the fans as a turd in a swimming pool. His gong therefore makes absolutely no sense. It’s quite disturbing really and undermines the credibility of the whole system.