Ruthless South Africa Expose England’s Need For Flexibility

There is a phenomenon in English society known as “tall poppy syndrome”. Briefly it means to build somebody up in order to knock them down, the idea being that the tallest poppies that stand out from the others in the field are the most likely to be cut down to size. 

Having spent the best part of the season signing the praises ofEngland’s new management team of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum it would seem peculiarly English to bury them in criticism after one defeat, however desperate that defeat may have been. 

There are a number of reasons that England had won 1 of their last 17 Tests before this summer, and it was not solely due to the leadership of Joe Root and Chris Silverwood. There are glaring deficiencies in both batting and bowling and Stokes and McCullum are no more likely to fix these overnight than Eric Ten Haag is to suddenly turn Manchester United into Premier League title contenders. There will be bumps in the road and there will be abject performances. This does not mean that the captain and the coach are failures or that England’s new positive approach is worthy of going the same way as the DeLorean and the Betamax. 

Amidst all the naysayers in the written and social mediashaking their heads and saying “I told you so” over Bazball’s failure this week, it is worth noting one fact. England did not play in anywhere near as aggressive a manner as they have in the previous four Test matches this summer, with the possible exception of the Lord’s Test against New Zealand. Ben Stokes, in particular, started his innings in this match in far more controlled fashion than the almost manic slogging we have become used to witnessing from him this summer. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, likewise, seemed to have dialled down the more extreme aggression of their earlier outings.

The reason that England did not go hell for leather at Lords is because South Africa did not allow them to. The Proteas attack was just too good for England to adopt their new approach. Stokes himself admitted as much in his post match interview. The brutal fact of the matter is that England would have lost this match heavily regardless of their approach to it and who their captain and coach were. The home side were blown away by what is quickly becoming the most exciting attack in the Test game. Lungi Ngidi bowled with control,Marco Jansen shows great promise and Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada bring back memories of Alan Donald, Dale Steyn and the other great South African fast bowlers of the past. They outgunned England’s attack to a remarkable degree. The 130 fastest balls of the match were all bowled by South Africans. Until Stokes and McCullum can find bowlers capable of bowling 90mph plus and, far more importantly, staying fit, there will always be the danger of their attack looking embarrassingly popgun in the face of opponents with serious pace.

The main l criticism that can be levelled at England after this game is the staggeringly inept tactics applied to bowling out the tail, which, yet again, failed spectacularly. At Edgbaston against India, they got lucky. Stuart Broad’s 35 run over and the carnage either side of it did not cost them the game. At Lords yesterday, however, the same tactics resulted in making a difficult task nearly impossible.

It is almost painful to keep repeating the same obvious yet simple truth, if line and length is good enough for the top order it will be too good for the tail. England had fought back into the game when Keshav Maharaj walked to the crease on Thursday evening. What followed for the rest of the innings stretched the boundaries of credulity. Stokes had persisted with four slips for the majority of South Africa’s top order but as soon as the lower order batsmen, who could reasonably be expected to edge the ball to slip with more frequency, arrived in the middle the cordon scattered to leave a field that left no doubt as to what the approach would be. The results were equally predictable. This is the biggest concern so far with Stokes captaincy, an almost rigid way of thinking that leaves no flexibility to adjust to the changing situation of the game. The tail are in, the field must go back and the bowlers must bang it in short, or so goes the thought process. The fact that James Anderson was left unused for the whole of Friday morning, as Anrich Nortje pummelled England’s bowlers, was bizarre to say the least. Of course, once England did pack the slip cordon and bring Stuart Broad on to pitch the ball up,they quickly bowled South Africa out. One has a feeling this will not change Stokes and McCullum’s thinking for the next match, however. 

Loyalty to one’s players is admirable but persisting with Zak Crawley is becoming almost an act of cruelty. He was so horribly out of form during England’s second innings yesterday that, at one point, he even managed to chip a leg stump half volley straight up in the air while trying to glance it through the onside. The Kent man is a talented stroke player but surely must be given a rest from the side for his own good. 

England’s second innings surrender left one with a slightly hollow feeling. Once the top order had been blown away by Nortje there seemed precious little will to resist or play for pride amongst the lower order. Matthew Potts shot in particular, with Ben Stokes farming the strike at the other end and only one ball left to survive in the over, bordered on a dereliction of duty. If that sounds harsh, consider the consequences if Jack Leach had played a similar shot at Headingly in 2019. When Stokes is at the crease the impossible is possible. The job of the man at the other end is simply to stay with him. 

One defeat does not spoil a summer, however. There is a sense that the slightly staid atmosphere of Lords does not suit this team. They play to the crowd on the raucous terraces of Edgbaston, Trent Bridge and Headingly. Perhaps next week’s venue of Old Trafford will be more suited to them.

What England must not do is allow “Bazball” to become a millstone round their necks. There has been so much talk of the term in the build up to this match that it almost feels as if it is something that England have to live up to every time they are out in the middle. This will bring unnecessary pressure. Stokes team must just play the game and the conditions. The rest will take care of itself.

Billy Crawford


  • It must always have been obvious, even to committed people like Stokes and MCCullum, as it was to everyone else, that we need a plan B, as we’re not good enough to steamroller opposition, even on good wickets in perfect batting conditions. So when the ball starts to swing and seam playing the Bazball way will always come unstuck. Maybe we don’t have half a dozen batsmen left in this country who know how wait for the ball to come to them rather than going hard at it when the ball is not there to hit. Lees looks a technical mess now. You’ve got 5 days to get a result in test cricket, why get impatient. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times. Quick 50’s don’t win test matches.
    The irony is that Collingwood, who made his name in test cricket as a grafter seems reluctant to tolerate this direction as a coach. Being positive is fine, being inflexible isn’t. South Africa still scored quicker than us in the first innings anyway.
    Oh and by the way who decided that a bevy of short pitchers without a quickie was a good idea. Seems braindead to me.

    • The whole side is brain dead including the captain. Look they beat a tired, declining and undercooked NZ on flat pitches where their white ball mentality comes into its own. That doesn’t make a top Test team however exciting. These guys have played no red ball games, in most cases for 6 weeks. Where is the infamous “red ball reset” we were promised? Nowhere because of the stinking 100 blocking it out in mid summer. You can see where the ECBs priorities lie and it’s not with Test cricket. Next year they want to reduce the Champioship even further.
      But back to the team, or rather the old boys club. They contain one real great batsman, Root with Stokes as back up when he’s not dancing down the pitch playing stupid Bazball. Crawley is a Division 2 player at best, oh look we’ve been through all this to the point of boredom. But really how can you compete with a bowling attack spearheaded by a 40 year old? Still good yes but no pace anywhere.I
      And look even Barstow himself does not like the imbecilic term Bazball. It smacks of the Crisp Packet 100.

      • The Hundred can be blamed for a lot of things but I don’t think this is one of them–and your claim that they haven’t played any red-ball cricket is largely wrong.

        Only two of the top seven have played any amount of white-ball cricket over the last six weeks–mainly for England rather than a franchise. Four of them haven’t been anywhere near the Hundred–and the only batter to score any significant runs in either innings was one of the ones who did. Two of them played three f-c games in July and two more (plus one of the bowlers) played two. Another of the seam bowlers got through almost 30 overs in a Championship game.

        In any case, that argument wouldn’t explain why SA (only one of whose players has played any red-ball cricket since mid-April) were so much better than a group of players who’ve generally played between five and ten (and in some cases more) f-c matches since then.

        Taking away the Hundred also wouldn’t at all guarantee the kind of change you’re asking for based on your assumption that the players haven’t played any red-ball cricket. There were three Championship rounds in July plus a Lions match against the tourists in August. In some recent years (both 2018 and 2019 if I recall correctly) there really was no f-c cricket for around six weeks before the second test series of the summer–and no Hundred either. The counties would I suspect be keener to fill that time slot with the Blast than the Championship–which has been why July and August haven’t featured much Championship cricket in recent years.

  • Shane Warner summed up bowling to a new batsman perfectly, defensive bowling with attacking fields. Make them play the ball.

    • I don’t think that Gatting was undone by the astute field placing, nor do I think that ball from Warne was particularly defensive !

  • Splendid post. Agree with the analysis, and I would add that the England attack as it is would look embarrassingly popgun in the face of any opponents. It is hopeless going into Tests against capable or even less than capable Test batsmen without any bowlers who can manage to get the ball down the other end faster than about 82 mph. This deficiency can be disguised (and has been) if a few batsmen, ie Root and Bairstow, play a blinder. That is not going to happen every time.

    The message given to fringe players trying to get into the XI by the continued devotion to the hapless Crawley is really appalling. You can’t be picked? It’s high time there was a proper selection panel – not McCullum and Stokes – that can bring a dispassionate approach to team selection. For heaven’s sake, I would back Keaton Jennings to score twice as many as Crawley.

  • The management may be new but a lot of it was the same old same old:

    1) England lose when Root fails.
    2) SA got lucky with the conditions playing to their one strength, the seam bowling. Still, does anyone rate Rabada-Ngidi-Nortje-Jansen higher than Steyn-Philander-Morkel-Kallis? I’d love to think this means something in the long-term but that batting line-up still looks like a collapse waiting to happen. They didn’t need many runs and eeked out enough through everyone chipping in a bit.

    The bigger picture is it’s another test over within 3 days and no test cricket on an August Saturday when soon there won’t be any ever again in England. England’s defeat was the fourth quickest since WW2 in terms of deliveries received (two of the others were very recent and the only exception was on a sticky dog in the early 1950s). Anyone wanting to watch cricket this Saturday had to watch The Hundred – I bet the ECB are heartbroken.

    Finally, why on earth was Strauss on commentary?

      • At least their batsman played test cricket. Ours largely don’t due to their brains full of white ball batting. Vastly over rated old boys club.

      • Even though five of the top seven have played much more red-ball cricket recently than white-ball?

        I don’t understand the reference to an old boys club. What would a not old boys club batting line-up look like?

        • Not for 6 weeks they haven’t. And indeed for over 3 weeks there has been no red ball cricket and won’t be for another 2 weeks because the ECB prioritise the 100. Old boys club means you’ll always be picked because it’s a buddy buddy thing. Example:Key including Crawley who averages 17 in Tests this year, has done nothing for Kent and shouldn’t be anywhere near a Test squad.

        • You’re simply wrong about the players not playing red-ball. Seven of the twelve players England have used so far in the series had played Championship matches in July; Crawley and Foakes, who probably looked most hapless at Lord’s, played in three. I don’t think any of the seven were involved in fewer innings of red-ball cricket than white-ball between the India test and the Lord’s test.

          Of the five who didn’t play any red-ball, two don’t play any white-ball cricket at all, so it was simply by choice (wrongly, in my opinion). That leaves three. In two of the cases (Stokes and Bairstow, neither of whom played in the Hundred), the evidence this summer so far suggests that it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference if they’d played in a red-ball game–they’d have played it the same way as a T20!

          The other is Root. he’s the no. 1 player in the world at the moment. Players at that level are at that level at least partly because they often have the ability to switch between formats more effectively than less talented players.

          And, in any case, as I pointed out above, by that logic England should have hammered South Africa, only one of whose playing XI at Lord’s had played any f-c cricket since April, who’d played a grand total of one warm-up game in which three of their bowlers took no part at all and several of whom (like Root, Bairstow and Stokes) were coming off the back of a white-ball series.

          Re the old boys club–it might be true of Crawley, who I think was a protege of Key’s at Kent (although I note that he was equally indulged by Silverwood), but I’m generally sceptical of that. You simply don’t know why selectors select players (or don’t), nor which selectors are responsible for particular selections. You seem to me to be confusing “the selectors pick their mates” with “I don’t agree with their selections”. Those aren’t the same things, any more than it was with Smith or Silverwood and Buttler.

    • Re your “had to watch the Hundred on Saturday” comment Simon–you don’t regard Leics vs Notts as cricket?! That’s a little bit Straussian…:-) I was entertained by the bit I watched, despite Leics’ bowling being its usual dross.

      And on Sunday you had a whole round of county games to choose from. I was lucky enough to watch the game on a poor pitch in Chesterfield, which–as not infrequently happens with bad pitches–produced a very low-scoring, very close game with the momentum constantly shifting.

  • At least the management team can freshen the squad up with players who are in form in the county championship. Oh hang on….

    • There’s a similar situation in Australia.

      The Sheffield Shield season is split in two, with no FC matches played for 2 months at the height of summer. It means that if Australia wants to make changes in the middle of a summer series, around Boxing Day or the new year, there’s not much recent FC form to guide selections. And anyone who comes in probably hasn’t played much FC cricket lately.

      For example, Scott Boland had played no FC cricket for more than a month before he made his Test debut against England at the MCG last December. It didn’t stop him taking 6/7 in the second innings. Maybe you guys have forgotten.

      So this idea that England are uniquely disadvantaged by their domestic fixture seems a bit rich.

      • Not really. Half the CC games are played in April/early May on seamer friendly wickets. No games in August. In fact for Surrey for example no game for almost 7 weeks because of the 100 tripe.

        • Which is different from an Australian state team how, exactly? The BBL is much longer than the Hundred.

          The “seamer-friendly wickets” has become rather a cliche I think. It didn’t do those 75mph seamers much good this year–and it seems to have been career-ending for more than one.

        • What’s “not really”?

          There’s no FC cricket in Australia in December/January.

          Why do you guys carry on like England is uniquely disadvantaged by its domestic fixture?

  • From the Guardian:
    “The International Cricket Council has released the playing schedule for 2023 to 2027. England will play 43 Tests, Australia 40, India 38 and South Africa, the third-oldest Test nation, only 28. They will play three Tests against Australia this winter, renewing one of the sport’s great rivalries, and after that they have four years of two-Test series.”

  • Is there anything more maddening than hearing England talking about a bowler playing “the enforcer” role? What on earth is it supposed to mean? It seems to involve mindless short-pitch bowling in the low 80s that tail-enders find easier to score off than normal pitched-up stuff outside off.
    Ultimately, the openers are awful, the other batsmen can’t survive against a decent attack, the pace bowlers are too slow and one-dimensional, the spinner is poor and the tail is one of the worst we’ve ever had. It’s sad to watch the consequences of the deliberate marginalisation of the best form of the game.

    • To answer your opening question, file this under “pretend toughness”. It’s as English as Pimms and cucumber sandwiches.

  • Outstsanding analysis of the ECB’s High Performance Review by Danny Franklin at Being Outside Cricket.

    The evidence has been clearly gerrymandered to make less f/c cricket and fewer teams appear to be the solution. What a surprise. Strauss and Bobat appear to love that book ‘How to lie with statistics’ almost as much as Bill Gates….


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