England bowlers might be laid low with a bug / flu / ebola but England’s batsmen were in fine fettle on day one of the warm up game against South Africa A in Benoci yesterday. 395-6 was an excellent return and a highly promising start against a decent attack. Two of our batsmen also made centuries – something we’re used to seeing once per season (or once per series) rather than in the same innings. Joy!
It’s a shame that this match has been disrupted by illness and no longer carries first class status. However, in terms of batting preparation England couldn’t have asked for much more. Everyone except from Joe Root (who we shouldn’t be worried about) and Dom Sibley spent valuable time in the middle. And Joe Denly and Ollie Pope really caught the eye.
From the brief highlights I’ve seen online it looks like Denly played a blinder. He’s such an elegant player in full flow. He pulls magnificently and was particularly brutal on Lutho Sipamla and Parking Phehlukwayo.
Brutal is probably the wrong word – he wields his willow like a rapier rather than a club – but the ball skims its way to the midwicket boundary rapidly nevertheless.
It’s such a shame that Denly’s only finding his feet at the top level now. He’ll be 34 in March so unless he’s one of these rare batsmen who keep going effectively until they’re 40 (and these kinds of players are few and far between) then every series could be his last. General fitness won’t be a concern of course, as Denly is a fine fielder and clearly in great shape, but a batsman never knows when his eye is going to deteriorate.
Batsmen can generally keep going in county cricket, where the bowlers aren’t so quick, for a long time but international level is different. Michael Vaughan, for example, was retired by the age of 34. He reminded everyone that once your eye goes by just 1% it can be crucial if you’re facing genuinely fast bowling. Ian Bell was another who suddenly lost form and was generally unable to recapture the magic (even at county level) once he turned 35.
Let’s just hope that Denly falls into the Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart, or even Misbah Ul Haq category. England have been looking for a reliable No.3 for so long that it would be a shame if Joe can’t stick around for a few years.
I really enjoy watching Denly bat. He’s shown a lot of guts and no little talent over the last year. Credit must also go to Ed Smith for finding such an effective stop-gap. Few people praised the decision to pluck Denly from obscurity back in September 2018 – I took a bit of stick for defending what looked like a backward step at the time – but it’s clearly paid off so far.
With Denly scoring runs at 3 and Pope looking star of the future at 6, England’s batting is finally starting to congeal a bit. It’s not quite solid but it’s getting there. Having Buttler or Bairstow at 7 also feels like a reassuring comfort blanket. Neither player has entirely convinced me they’re a specialist top 5 batter but 7 looks more than fine for either of them.
The real test in this game, however, will be in the field. England’s attack looks pretty threadbare without Archer, Broad, and Leach. So much so, in fact, that Dom Bess and Craig Overton have been called up at short notice as cover.
I thought the call up of Overton was a bit strange to be honest. Bess I can understand, because England like his batting and they probably suspect that Amar Virdi is too wet behind the ears (although how they know the moisture content beneath his turban is beyond me). Overton, on the other hand, is a bit of a head scratcher.
I like Craig Overton as a cricketer, and think he offers a hell of a lot at county level, but sadly I just don’t see him as a Test bowler. He’s wholehearted but not quite quick or skilful enough – at least that’s the impression I’ve got in his four Tests thus far. He’s taken just 9 wickets at an average of 45. One suspects he’ll need some assistance from the surface to take wickets at the highest level but I hope he proves me wrong.
Although Craig’s average for Somerset was good last year – 37 championship wickets at an average of 22 – it’s worth pointing out that this was only good for 6th place in the team’s bowling averages. Lewis Gregory, Josh Davey, Jamie Overton (plus the spinners Jack Leach and Roelof van der Meerwe) all took their wickets at a cost of under 20. No Somerset batsman, by the way, averaged more than 32, which gives some indication of the kinds of pitches they were playing on.
Although Saqib Mahmood didn’t exactly light up division two of the championship last summer (his stand out performances tended to be in white ball cricket) one wonders why he’s been leapfrogged in the pecking order when he hasn’t even played a game? Perhaps he didn’t look the part in practice or – and I hate to say this – England have gone for Overton because he’s more likely to contribute runs down the order. It would be a shame if it’s the latter.
It will be interesting to see which bowlers England pick for the first Test now. Personally I wouldn’t pick Broad now. Rhythm is such an important part of Broad’s armoury that it’s very difficult to have faith in him if he hasn’t played in the warm-ups. I’m not so worried about Archer because his pace seems to come from natural athleticism.
When it comes to Jack Leach I really couldn’t say. Perhaps we can expect England to field 5 seamers again just to troll everyone. Dom Bess is a promising cricketer but Joe Root might feel that he can do a holding job with the ball himself. Bess is, after all, just an off-spinner who won’t add much variation.
One senses that door might be open for Matt Parkinson if he can bowl well at the weekend. Let’s hope he grabs this opportunity.