If this was a boxing match, the ref might well have stopped the contest at Port Elizabeth. After all, this series stopped being just that – a contest – quite a long time ago.
However, the struggling side gets no such respite in cricket. There’s a duty to fulfil the fixtures. And therefore South Africa’s humiliation – or perhaps ’emasculation’ might be a better word – continues to be played out in a very public manner. No wonder the local spectators have largely stayed away.
It’s a shame that a series which promised so much is ending in such a one-sided manner. However, as an England supporter there’s obviously plenty to cheer about. Our attack looks good in these conditions – perhaps England’s historic problems overseas have been pitch related rather than Kookaburra ball related – and enough of our batsmen have found form to put competitive totals on the board.
When England lost 5 wickets for just 60 runs this morning it looked (albeit briefly) that the hosts might be bowling their way back into the game. However, a manic last wicket stand between Wood and Broad put paid to that. It’s amazing how last wicket partnerships seem to bless sides with the psychological edge whilst cursing those on the back foot.
If the Cricket Boks were staggering around the (Bull)ring beforehand, this 82-run stand was clearly the knockout blow. It wasn’t just the number of runs that did for the hosts, it was the manner in which they were scored. Watching England’s last two batsmen cream their bowlers for a succession of sixes must have been completely deflating for Du Plessis’ team.
When the South Africans started their response to England’s mighty total of 400, a collapse always seemed likely. We’ve seen it so many times in the past when England have been on the receiving end. Once you’re beaten, you’re beaten. Nothing’s going to stop a team with sky-high confidence and a spring in their step from destroying an inferior force that’s had its will totally broken.
South Africa’s problem is that they’ve only got 5 players of proven international class – Elgar, du Plessis, de Kock, Philander, and Rabada. The first two are completely out of form, Philander doesn’t look sprightly enough to play back-to-back Tests anymore, and the latter is banned.
There are other quality South African cricketers out there, of course, but they’ve all turned their backs on their country (understandably so in most cases) to take up lucrative county contracts. This 1-3 series defeat therefore shouldn’t be a surprise in the circumstances.
Having said that, England have played a lot better than most observers (including me) expected. Sibley and Crawley have been revelations, Ben Stokes continues to make decisive interventions, Ollie Pope looks yum class, whilst Mark Wood continues to makes friends and influence games.
A fit and firing Wood makes such a difference to England. It’s not just his pace; it’s the energy he brings to the side. His enthusiasm really is infectious (if you excuse the cliche). Did you see the ball that dismissed Malan? It was the small matter of 94mph – the second fastest wicket-taking delivery by an England bowler in history.
Whereas Philander and the South African bowlers (with the notable exception of the promising Nortje) look short of rhythm, all of England’s bowlers look in fine fettle. In fact, I’m no longer sure what our best quartet actually is moving forward. You could make a strong case for all five of Anderson, Broad, Wood, Archer, and Curran. The reality is, however, that England only have room for three of them in normal circumstances. Chris Woakes also bowled well today.
The only disappointment for England has been the poor form of Jos Buttler. He was probably drinking in the last chance saloon today but missed his whiskey when the barman slid it down the bar. His dismissal was horrible – precisely the opposite of what was required.
England won’t want to drop Buttler because they probably see him as a potential captain in waiting if Root finally decides that he should focus on his batting. Perhaps that will be the next excuse they can find to keep him in the side? Jos Buttler, specialist captain. It would certainly be one way to lower the bar of expectations again. Mike Brearley averaged just 23.
However, perhaps it’s unfair to be facetious at this juncture. Buttler is an outstanding talent and he’s probably England’s greatest white ball batsman of all time. However, like other hugely gifted ODI players – Neil Fairbrother and Graeme Hick immediately spring to mind – Test cricket isn’t for everyone. And, as George Dobell argues here, there’s no shame in that.