Strong England Or Weak South Africa?

Professional sportsmen can’t win sometimes. If they lose they’re losers. And if they win it’s often because the opposition are losers rather than them being winners.

Sometimes this approach – unfair as it might seem – might seem appropriate. After all, there’s no point declaring a team world-beaters when they’ve only beaten poor opposition. The rest of the world might have something to say about cocky upstarts getting ahead of themselves.

However, equally one must also appreciate that a team can only beat the opposition in front of them. And if they do it convincingly, then there’s nothing wrong with feeling optimistic about their future – even if all the usual caveats should apply.

I sense that England are in this position right now. Yes South Africa aren’t particularly good, and we haven’t suddenly become a world class team after years of disappointment away from home, but it would be churlish to deny that some of the pieces are slowly beginning to fit.

Pessimists will say, of course, that we don’t actually know whether the individual pieces – the likes of Ollie Pope, Dom Sibley, Sam Curran, Dom Bess, and even Rory Burns – will be longterm solutions or flashes in the pan yet. Maybe they (as individuals) have only looked good because South Africa are poor.

However, I’m inclined to think that the batsmen at the very least have displayed a veneer of permanence. Why? Because the Cricket Boks clearly aren’t a bad bowling side.

Although the pitches at Cape Town (in the second innings) and Port Elizabeth (in the first) were conducive to big totals – they were generally slow surfaces offering limited movement in the air or off the pitch – scoring runs against Philander, Rabada and Nortje (who has genuine pace) can surely never be easy?

Sibley and Pope’s hundreds were not buffet runs at home against Sri Lanka, or scored on a day one featherbed in India or the UAE, they were good innings that suggested these guys can hack it at the highest level in a way that Sam Robson, Keaton Jennings, or Gary Ballance never quite managed.

Time will tell, of course, but pundits haven’t been as excited about a young player as they are about Pope for a long time. The last time the hype meter struck def con 5 was when Joe Root scored 73 and 20* on debut Nagpur in 2012, and before that when Alastair Cook scored a double hundred for Essex against the touring Australians in 2005.

Meanwhile, although Sibley and Burns had / have their doubters, mainly due to their somewhat quirky techniques, at least their success is bringing about a change of attitude in selection. Funky old Ed Smith is beginning to realise that his policy of picking all-rounders – the total cricket strategy – wasn’t so clever after all.

Although TFT argued passionately that Smith was wrong from the start, and that Test cricket has always been a game for specialists, we should at least give Ed credit for changing course when his ship began to flounder. Previous national selectors would’ve been too stupid, and far too stubborn, to adapt.

This promised change of emphasis, where players performing well in the county championship will surely be given opportunities before white ball specialists and IPL stars in the future, is perhaps the single biggest reason for my guarded optimism. Although there’s no doubt that The Hundred will handicap the Test team by forcing even more matches to the fringes of the season, at least the ECB are creating opportunities for young players to learn overseas outside of the usual curriculum.

The time Bess has spent with Jeetan Patel and Rangana Herath at a training camp this winter, for example, has clearly helped him no end. In fact, Mark Ramprakash, who is obviously well connected to the England camp as a former batting coach, predicted before Cape Town that Bess had improved no end as a bowler and would make a bigger impact than most expected.

Although we can’t be sure that the bowlers will enjoy sustained success at Test level on the basis of their recent performances – the Proteas batting is nowhere near as strong as their bowling – we can at least trust our eyes and instincts. Bess has bowled cleverly with decent flight and good control. There’s enough there to work with.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the seamers, the pace of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood will unsettle batsmen all around the world. They might not run through stiffer opposition, but they at least give the side more menace than we’ve had since the days of Harmison and Flintoff. There’s also Olly Stone waiting in the wings, although the solidity of his body sadly doesn’t seem to reflect his name.

The performances of Stuart Broad this winter also suggest that he might have a couple of good years left. The future of Jimmy Anderson looks a bit more uncertain, but England have rarely been short of fast-medium seamers who can be effective at home. It’s the genuine quicks, spinners, and the batsmen who should determine how well we compete overseas – and it these areas, at least, that we’ve taken tentative steps forward.

Although I can’t pretend that I expect England to reach No.1 in the rankings anytime soon – and maybe appearances can be deceptive when viewing life through the lens of back-to-back victories – but I can’t help feeling a little more enthused about the future. There are even positives to be taken from the appointment of Chris Silverwood.

Yes selecting an all-seam attack two Tests in a row was alarming, and the ECB clearly erred by selecting a continuity candidate after Trevor Bayliss – apparently because he did a better PowerPoint presentation than Gary Kirsten – at least Silverwood has told the lads to abandon their macho testosterone-based approach to batting and focus on occupying the crease.

As a result, I expect England to win in Johannesburg and wrap up the series with a resounding 3-1 scoreline – as long as Joe Root doesn’t open the bowling in the hope of securing that elusive Test five-fer.

Basically, I’ve ever been so confident before a Test match away from home. And although I have great sympathy for South Africa, with their political problems and economy-driven talent exodus, there’s one easy way to forget all the guilt …

Just remember how bloody hard it used to be to dismiss Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla. And remember when Allan Donald did this to us.

South Africa are one of England’s greatest sporting rivals. If we can’t celebrate beating them comfortably in their own backyard – even for a moment – then I doubt we’ll ever be happy.

James Morgan

18 comments

  • Yes South Africa showed appalling spinelessness with the bat in this match (apart from their last wicket pair in the second innings having a bit of fun when the game was already over), but England also bowled well, and crucially put up a score of real substance, creating the pressure under which SA buckled twice. At Melbourne in 2010 England won the penultimate test by an innings to go 2-1 up in the series, and they won the final game of that series by an innings as well to make it 3-1 – that is the target for this England team now, especially with SA in such disarray that they have named a squad of 16 for said final game.

  • One match never changed a side at any level in my experience, whatever the sport. Confidence is such a fragile thing that it takes a long time to mature and a very short time to dissipate and to me confidence is the key factor in performance, clearly this has been reflected in this series.
    We are now playing a more pragmatic game at test level and not relying on white ball matchwinners, so we have a better base to work from but South Africa would struggle to beat the likes of Bangladesh at present.
    Was going to work on the bus yesterday and reading the Birmingham Metro, which had pretty much blanket coverage of the final day, giving the last 3 full pages over to a half decent report and even some analysis, very unusual during a busy soccer season. However the headline read, ‘England’s young lions challenging for number 1 spot’. This is exactly the sort of nonsense that helps no one. Firstly the likes of Denley, Root, Stokes, Butler, Broad and Wood can hardly be called young and more importantly it fails to acknowledge the difference in class between the likes of India and Australia, whom we have to compare ourselves with when making that sort of claim. That said you can only play who is put in front of you, so as the man said, we still have reasons to be cheerful.
    Even Root has acknowledged we are far from the finished article so hopefully no one will jump the gun. To me the most important thing during this series, has been the more mature approach under Silverwood, which was only fleetingly apparant in New Zealand. To me we are now thinking red ball not just playing at it.

  • Beating a weak Quotea side is a good start. When we start winning in WI and NZ, then I’ll really sit up and take notice.

    • When England started to improve as a Test side it was obvious to all watchers. Jumping from that to No 1 took 11 years. I think cricket doesn’t need tabloid hyperbole. Save that for the ill fated Hundred. Cricket is a great game that can be enjoyed for individual performances as well as the result of the game. I hope you enjoy the matches to come.

  • There are signs of improvement, Young batsmen actually scoring centuries is a considerable uplift given the years of promising partnerships, careless dismissals and going over in a heap. I acknowledge the weakness of the opposition batting though.

  • It’s certainly reasonable to argue the England batsmen have faced tougher opposition than the bowlers. SA picked a five-man attack (crazily BTW) and three of the five bowlers had 100+ Test wickets. Philander and Rabada were ranked in the ICC top five at the start of the series. Nortje is raw but clearly has some potential. It looks a very good attack.

    However I’d point to some reasons why those appearances are somewhat deceptive. Philander is 34 and obviously not in great condition. He’s posed very little wicket-taking threat since the 1st innings at Centurion. He’s canny enough to be economical but your No.1 strike bowler needs to be taking wickets. Rabada has been below his best for a while which very bowler-friendly wickets has masked. He’s had a big workload and there are suspicions he’s carrying an injury. He’s still the top wicket-taker in the series but has leaked a lot of runs to take them. Maharaj took an absolute beating in India and looks like his confidence is at rock-bottom. Nortje has some pace and is a trier but he’s very raw and one-dimensional at the moment. The best Kolpak attack of Morkel-Abbott-Olivier-Harmer looks a better line-up to me (ar at least certainly no worse). It also needs remembering that Ngidi is out injured.

    As for England’s discoveries, I’d be surprised if Pope doesn’t have a long career at the top level but remain to be convinced about Sibley and Bess. They should have more than enough for SL although need Leach fit. The real question in this Giles Clarke created cricket world is how one thinks this team will go in India and Australia. FWIW I can’t yet see this team seriously challenging in either (which should be the minimum expectation for a team of England’s resources – not that they can necessarily win in this places but they should push the hosts hard and not pretend that “only losing 4-0” is somehow good).

    Meanwhile the U19s lost heavily to WI.

  • Since AB retired, South Africa lost 9 Tests, and won 4. 3 of those wins came at home against a hapless Pakistan side in South Africa, the other against England. They were whitewashed by Sri Lanka at home, who had never even won a series in South Africa (and became the first Asian side to achieve that in the process). The English equivalent would be that England somehow managed to lose a 2-Test series against say Bangladesh, at home. Somehow I don’t think anyone would think such an outcome remotely likely (if such a series were played of course).

    Three losses were by an innings (and often plenty of runs on top of that), 4 losses were by more than 180 runs, another 2 losses by more than 100 runs, and if we’re looking at targets being chased down against them, there have been losses by 1 wicket (the actual innings of the year in Test cricket, which was not dependent on umpires not doing their jobs, and fielders missing runouts), and 8-wickets trashing as well.

    A good bowling side does not average north of 34 in its last 13 Tests, while the average first innings score by the same team is 246 over those 13 Tests. And only twice did they even go past 300 in 13 Tests in those first innings. In fact South Africa have been bowled out for less than 200 in the first innings more often (3 times) than that they made more than 300.

    As for the batting, even in the first innings, only Quinton de Kock (who averages nearly 50) averages more than 35. Yet again the thinktank / fishtank sees no reason to even play fewer than 5 bowlers. Philander faced more balls in those first innings in 9 Tests than Bavuma and Markram managed in 10, and averaged substantially more balls / innings than Amla (who averaged 15 with the willow in the post-AB period), and de Bruyn. Of course, it does not help that the English domestic batsmen do get to face Test class bowling by South Africans, while the batsmen in the country that produced said bowlers do not. It is more unusual to see that South Africa are 80/1 than 100/4 in this period. In fact in those same 13 Tests, only once did South Africa (in the team’s first innings) manage to lose the 4th wicket after crossing 200 , but that was after a hapless Pakistan had already folded for less than 180, so the pressure was greatly reduced. If memory serves maybe one other time after scoring 150. They have had just one 50+ partnership for the opening wicket in the last 12 months, and that was in Cape Town against England.

    Even in this series, it has been the bowlers who have done better than the specialist wicket-gifters, with the exception of Cape Town’s second innings. Centurion was won by the batting of the bowlers, not the heroic 100/5s that the top order produced. In Port Elizabeth, Nortje played the longest innings for the hosts. And the guy barely averages 15 in FC cricket.

    • Sorry, I messed up slightly. It is 3 losses by an innings, 4 losses by 180+ runs, one loss by 1 wicket (Kusal Perera special), and one loss by 8 wickets (when Sri Lanka chased down 200 for the loss of 2 wickets in Port Elizabeth, not exactly pointing to great bowling strength either).

  • One game at a time. England look better today than at the start of the series but I’ve seen better keepers than Buttler playing 2nd XI County Cricket. Much as I like Denly I’m unconvinced by him. Nor am I sure about Curren but he seems to have the happy art of intervening at crucial points. I’m very happy with Pope who looks the business. We’re heading in the right direction.

    Not so South Africa. It’s not my job, thankfully, to find excuses for their performances. They are a poor team, poorly led (winning tosses occasionally helps, Faf) and the kindest thing I ca say is that they appear to be in transition. At least they have a coaching set-up that should be able to do something about it.

  • KJ & Curran seem to be two cricketers who get a lot of stick, but I think some of it is uncalled for. Curran has bowled well, and batted below par, but he has not been a weak link in teh team, and his knack of picking crucial wickets helps. KJ seems to do well in Asian conditions, perhaps England could take him to SL and play him at 3.

  • Are England the finished article? No!
    But the fact that this winter 5 of the top 6 have scored a hundred is a massive positive.
    Our bowling also seems to be developing. Archer attracts a lot of criticism, but the fact remains he has enjoyed a good start to his career and is real Test class. Broad keeps rolling on. Anderson/Wood/Woakes/Curran/etc. offer us real depth in the seam department. We even, seemingly, have two series spinners – Leach is IMO an excellent bowler who has returned good figures and Bess has done well in the last tow Tests.
    So, the green shoots of a good team. There will be ups and downs and there are continuing questions (who bats at 3, who keeps, Moeen, Curran,etc.) but I am feeling (unusually) optimistic.

  • Curran is only taking a couple of wickets per match (not enough for a thrid seamer) and going at about 3.5 an over (too much for a third seamer who doesn’t take many wickets) – his bowling average is flattering because his economy is too poor for him to bowl many overs. Thus Curran is de facto a fourth seamer… but batting at 8 (and with the batting ability of a number 8). His selection doesn’t make sense, when there are better bowling options (e.g. Woakes). If Curran could improve his batting he might be worth his place (I don’t suppose that his bowling will get significantly better, unless he can increase speed by 4-5 mph) – but that still leaves the need for a seamer to bowl plenty of overs at an economy of 2.5 runs: not Stokes, nor Wood, nor Archer… Broad could do it, but he would need to cut down on pace and step back from being the opener.

    I am heartened by the improvement in performance, but I can’t see that the selector/ coach/ captain can take much credit – the beneficial changes seem to have been forced on them (by injuries, and by ridiculously long runs of mediocrity before dropping (Bairstow and Ali – and Buttler, I hope), and much too late to avoid a long run of poor performances.

    Joe Root is – I suspect – no better really. His batting still has not recovered, and never will while he remains captain. Bowling himself forever to get a fifth wicket shows his selfishness – his indifference to the team (as does his refusal to pick players who aren’t his pals/ slaves (cough-Foakes-couugh). And he has destroyed, for the present – let’s hope he recovers – Archer; who was our best bowling prospect for some decades; by persistent and savage overbowling match after match. Even the sixth over he made Mark Wood bowl at the end of the fourth day was sheer stupidity, given the match context (four wickets to go), and what is needed from Wood.

    Root is a dumb as a box of rocks, and nothing can be done about dumbness.

  • Very very very weak SA

    ENG are also very ordinary (Curran, buttler, denly especially) with rookies at 1-2

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