Looking In The Mirror

If Hashim Amla asked a magic mirror ‘who is the fairest test team of them all’, I doubt he’d get a straight answer. There isn’t one. The rankings say it’s South Africa but keen observers of the game, not to mention the whole of India, might beg to differ.

South Africa’s tour of India was an absolute disaster. They got hammered. The Proteas couldn’t play India’s spinners and seemed utterly devoid of confidence. They looked nothing like the world’s best side; they looked like a team in transition – which is exactly what they are.

Although Hasim Amla’s men still have four world-class cricketers – DeVilliers, Steyn, Morkel and the skipper himself – they’re a team under a cloud with big questions to answer. The batting is inconsistent and lacks depth; they have question marks at the top of the order; they lack a world-class spinner; even the wicket keeper can’t be sure of his place.

Sound familiar? It should do. Alastair Cook’s England team is the mirror image of the South Africans. We also rely on four world-class players ourselves – Root, Anderson, Broad and Cook himself – and have several new batsmen finding their way. We too have an unsettled opening partnership, lack a world-class spinner, and have a wicket-keeper who can’t buy a run. It’s almost spooky.

The good news for supporters is that contests between two flawed, or should I say ‘developing’, teams is usually fun to watch. Expect batting collapses, shifts in momentum and nervy run chases where disaster lurks around every corner. They say that one wicket often leads to two in test cricket, so don’t be surprised if one wicket leads to six or seven in this series. Whichever side’s brittle batting battalion actually manages to show some resistance will probably win.

A year ago I wouldn’t have given England an ice cream in hell’s chance of beating South Africa. But things look rather different now. I still make the Proteas slight favourites – especially if the rumours about Graeme Smith coming out of retirement are true – but England can emerge victorious if they play their best.

South Africa’s opening partnership is about as convincing as a bag of biltong promising ‘no bush meat’. Dean Elgar is rapidly becoming the new Shane Watson – good for an attractive thirty off before giving it away – while Temba Bavuma looks organised but lacks experience. How will he cope against England’s attack on pitches that should help the seamers? Stiaan Van Zyl, meanwhile, has looked out of his depth.

AB DeVillers is still the best all round batsman in the world, but Amla’s form has fallen off a cliff – perhaps he could compare notes with Cook about coping with the demands of captaincy (not to mention handling spin bowlers). Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy are also struggling badly for form. It could be the latter’s bowling that secures his place.

It’s been a while since England’s seamers could look at South Africa’s batting and lick their lips, but I think we’re finally there now. The Proteas have found it just as hard to replace Smith and Kallis as England have to replace Trott and Pietersen. Top batsmen don’t grow on trees, no matter how many times James Whitaker says the words ‘Gary Balance’ in a single interview.

The problem for England, of course, is that our line-up is equally weak. If Root and Cook can’t score big runs we’ll struggle to make two hundred. Alex Hales is a makeshift opener who has struggled against the new ball in one-day cricket. It’s possible he finds some form, but the way he fends at the ball flatfooted outside off-stump suggests the odds are probably against it.

If England lose an early wicket then Nick Compton, recalled after a couple of years in the wilderness in which his form has been somewhat mixed, will stroll to the crease. We wish Compton all the best, as he was a little unlucky to lose his test spot in the first place, but it’s hard to see his selection as anything other than a short-term fix.

Compton has been given a recall at 32 years of age. South Africa have ignored the best openers in their domestic competition, Stephen Cook and Andrew Puttick, because they’re 33 and 34 respectively. Perhaps England’s desperation is greater than South Africa’s? Not that anyone’s panicking Mr Mainwaring.

The selectors obviously have their doubts about both Hales and Compton (which is presumably why they haven’t been tried before). Consequently it’s hard to expect too much from the pair. Had Ian Bell made this trip, I would’ve expected him to average about 30 to 35 (perhaps more given his decent record against South Africa). If Hales and Compton average somewhere in the mid-30s, I imagine everyone will be pleasantly surprised. The selectors’ logic doesn’t add up.

England will also need contributions from James Taylor (who I expect to bat 5) and Ben Stokes to make competitive scores. Once again, I’d be surprised if either averages much above thirty. If England are going to be competitive, we’ll need runs from the lower-order too. I’m going to borrow a phrase from the lexicon of sporting clichés here and argue it will need to be ‘a team effort’ all the way down the order.

When it comes to the bowling, it’s also a remarkably similar story. Both teams have good seam attacks whose potency has been compromised by injury. Dale Steyn missed the last three tests in India but he’s expected to be fit. The fate of Vernon Philander is a little more uncertain though. He’ll probably miss at least one test while his ankle heals. Kyle Abbott is a decent but hardly intimidating replacement.

As for England, I fear that Mark Wood will be a big miss. As our fastest bowler, I expected Wood to play a crucial role in South Africa – especially if we wanted to fight fire with fire. With Steve Finn also struggling with injury, I expect either Chris Woakes or Chris Jordan to play as the 4th seamer instead. These guys simply aren’t as threatening as Wood. In the absence of Liam Plunkett, who should’ve been on the plane, I actually hope Mark Footitt plays. At least he’ll give the attack something different.

The seam bowlers will be absolutely crucial in this series. Both attacks should dominate. Don’t be surprised if South Africa play four seamers with Duminy offering some part-time spin. Imran Tahir took quite a few wickets in India but was comprehensively out-bowled by Ashwin (and even Simon Harmer) at times. I think Amla trusts Tahir about as much as Cook trusts Adil Rashid – which is about as much as pheasants trust foxes.

Playing four seamers also gives the Proteas a chance to pick 20 year-old paceman Ragiso Rabada, who boasts a very good first class record and has impressed in ten ODIs for South Africa. Picking Rabada would also help the selectors to shoehorn a black African into the side. It will be fascinating to see what Rabada can do in his own backyard.

Overall I think South Africa will be much tougher than they looked in India. Their batsmen will feel a lot more comfortable in home conditions away from the dust and elaborate turn. However, England have reasons to be optimistic too – especially if Cook can finally win a few tosses. The Proteas’ confidence is low. If England can start well, the Proteas will feel under enormous pressure.

So can England pull it off, and beat the number one ranked test team away from home? My heart says ‘yes’ but my head says ‘possibly … but probably not’. Why? Because I’ve just asked my own cricket loving magic mirror who the fairest team in the world is. It provided the same answer it usually gives: ‘the home team’.

James Morgan


  • There have been a few England batsmen who first made their mark in one-day, then became really good test players – Marcus Trescothick springs to mind. Of the current crop, I think James Vince looks to have more potential to make the grade at test level than Alex Hales. Why is he not being tried?

    I suppose the experiment of opening with Joe Root has been abandoned for good?

  • Think SA will be a different prospect at home. I wouldn’t read too much into their thrashing by India, it was on under-prepared pitches tailor made for India’s spinners, and SA’s spin attack wasn’t anywhere near good enough to exploit them. I can see both sides playing 4 seamers, which for us will mean Moeen keeps his place but drops back to 7.

  • I still laugh whenever I hear people talking up JP’s bowling. Its decent club standard, at very best.

    • So rather better than ours on the showing in the UAE? I played in many decent league sides with better spin bowling than we demonstrated.

  • The performances of both teams in recent times have given food for thought. I agree that both sides are in a considerable period of transition. In retrospect it was always going to be tough for SA to replace Smith and Kallis, two highly skilled players of spin and not expect to struggle with younger players who simply aren’t of that calibre. The fact that the dice was even more loaded in India’s favour with pitch preparation only added to that fact.

    However, I can only see SA wishing to bounce back by preparing fast, bouncy pitches and trying to open England’s old wounds of 2 years ago, even though of course the England side is a bit different from them. In those conditions you would expect a faster SA attack to do somewhat better than England over 4 tests. I would also expect that the SA batting line-up to look far better in their own back yard.

  • Have India now won 9 games in a row at home since losing the series to KP-inspired England?

    Whatever the case, it certainly casts that performance in a good light.

    • That was a fantastic win by England. A real high in what was generally a slow downward spiral towards the end of Flower’s tenure. Cook, Pietersen and Swann were superb. India, meanwhile, were strangely off colour that series. People were even questioning Ashwin’s place in the side I recall. The pitches helped the spinners but I don’t recall them being raging bunsens. That would’ve helped Swann too!

  • Kind of wish Rashid were playing. I think he has potential that Ali doesn’t have and will only improve with experience and a sustained backing of the England management.

    I expect Taylor to continue to cement his place. Would love to see him at three and Ballance come back in at five which I honestly think would suit him better. I’m not sure I completely buy the argument that he has a fundamental flaw – his Test record is extremely good and from my recollection the wheels came off against Australia and Mitchell Johnson in Australia, and let’s face it – none of the other batsmen really did that much better.

    Otherwise on the batting I think Vince has shown enough dimensions to be a very good Test player but not sure if / when he’ll get a chance.

    Unlike most I think Woakes has something to offer and hope that he gets a chance as I feel his record doesn’t tell the whole story. I think he’s more naturally cut out for Tests than ODIs. Will watch with interest if he’s selected.

    SA clearly are not the force they were a couple of years ago so should make for a good, close series.

    • I agree re: Rashid. Your 5th bowler should be a wicket taking option. There shouldn’t be an onus on containment. Rashid would primarily be there for variation and to mop up the tail.

      I also agree it’s easy to underestimate Woakes. He’s fine as a 4th seamer and there’s a lot of potential in his batting. I just feel that England need a bit of extra menace in their attack without Wood.

  • Vernon Philander is out of the first two Tests with the ankle injury he sustained in India.
    That’s a big loss for SA – he’s their bowler most likely to trouble Cook (who he dismissed three times in six innings in 2012) and the only one of their bowlers who’s a decent No.8 batsman.

    Steyn’s fitness is still uncertain but he didn’t play after the First Test in India because of a groin injury.

    • Yes a big blow. Cook seems to get lucky with these injuries. It was Harris before the Ashes, Yasir Shah in the UAE and now Philander. Great news for England!

      Is this breaking news re: Philander mate? When I wrote the article all I could find was that he got injured on approx Nov 11th and they thought the injury would take 6-8 weeks to heal. I figured he’d miss the first test but not necessarily the next one.

      My understanding re: Steyn is that he almost played in the final three tests in India but never quite got himself right. Unless they’ve misdiagnosed the injury, I imagine time off will get him sorted. I expect him to play at this point.

      • Yes, the Philander news broke yesterday evening. The first two Tests are back-to-back again so it’s not too surprising that if he’s unfit for the first, he won’t be fit for the second. There is more of a gap (eight days) to the third Test. Philander has a particularly good record in CT (31 wickets at 19.9), the second Test venue. The hints on Steyn seem to indicate they expect him to recover.

        By the way, Cook needs 125 (and Root 194) in the First Test to overtake Vaughan’s record of runs for England in a year (1481 in 2002).

        • Interesting stuff. Was that the year Vaughan dominated in the Ashes down under? I think that’s the best I’ve ever seen an England batsman play. Considering he was up against McGrath and Warne at their peak, plus a bloody quick and young Gillespie.

  • Unless the SA groundsmen go mad and prepare slow variable bounce turners I expect that SA will play like an entirely different team at home and they will easily put the loss behind them.

    Its a shame though you don’t get to test yourselves against the full SA bowling line up though at least until the third test.

    Anyway for once Australia will be hoping you win :). If we can beat the WI 3-0 and then NZ at home we would then take the number one spot.

  • Also with regard Compton’s age. I think Australia have demonstrated with Rogers and now Voges that sometimes putting faith in an older guy who is in great form is worth while. Aus were dire in the period when they were ditching good players based on age rather than performance (see Katich, Simon). Clearly at some point you need to draw a line but a 32 year old could have 4-5 good years in him.


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