Two Countries, Two Directions

I’ve seen this movie plenty of times. It starts off with what looks like a pretty even fight, but one team gradually gets on top, and then the weaker side eventually folds. And when the end happens it often happens quickly – as if the inferior force knows that its cause is hopeless and submits almost willingly.

The major difference this movie, however, is that it’s England in the ascendancy and their opponents on their knees. I think I prefer this version. Don’t you?

This Test has been a surreal experience. It reminds me so much of watching England losing in India. Kohli and Co win a crucial toss, ground our bowlers into the dust, and then our weary batsmen crumble as the pitch itself crumbles. Defeat is almost inevitable after day one because our batters simply don’t have the skill or knowhow to resist the Indian spinners once our opponents have put a big score on the board.

This particular defeat in Port Elizabeth is a lot more alarming for South Africa, however. When England lose in India it’s disappointing but understandable. The Indian batsmen can really play – Kohli, Pujara and Co are obviously world class – and their spinners like Ashwin and Jadeja have sensational records at home.

The Cricket Boks, on the other hand, have been thrashed at home by a team that rarely travels well. Their nemesis with the bat was Ollie Pope, a youngster who’d never scored a Test hundred before, and they’ve been blown away by the bowling of Dom Bess, a rookie off-spinner who was packed off to Yorkshire on loan not so long ago, and the part-time spin of Joe Root (who before today averaged 50 with the ball in Test cricket). It’s pretty bleak stuff.

South African cricket is a mess. It’s a shambles. Whereas the South African rugby team are world champions, and produce ferociously competitive sides even when its talent levels aren’t particularly high, the cricketers are a pale imitation of what South African sport is supposed to be about. I knew that the Proteas weren’t particularly strong before this tour, but I didn’t expect them to be this bad.

Is this the worst South African batting line-up of all time? If might well be. The likes of Kirsten, Kallis, and Amla have been replaced by a sorry collection of wannabes and probably never will bes. Quinton de Kock is their only world class operator. And as for Faf du Plessis, well, I watch a lot of cricket and I’ve rarely seen him make runs. I thought he was overrated at Lancashire all those years ago and I’ve seen little to change my mind. He’s an average Test player at best.

But sorry as I feel for the Cricket Boks – mainly because the English county system has played a significant role in their downfall – I can’t help but feel very encouraged by England. We seem to be heading in a very different direction. Although, given the advantages that English cricket enjoys over South African cricket – the ICC and the Big Three need to take a long hard look at themselves – perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

Joe Root’s team have been absolutely fantastic in these last two games. Yes there’s a chance we’ll return to earth with a considerable bump when we play stronger XIs, and English domestic cricket clearly has its own (mostly self inflicted) problems, but you can only beat the teams in front of you. And we’ve done this rather well recently. In times gone by we might have won a crucial toss and squandered the opportunity.

What’s more, our emerging generation of players looks more promising than the last (at least in the light of a comprehensive win). Dom Bess is learning how to bowl off-spin much faster than Moeen Ali, with his career economy rate of 3.5, ever did. Bess picked up the first five wickets to fall in South Africa’s first innings – only the third English spinner to achieve this unusual feat – and although he’s yet to pick up a wicket in the second innings, he’s conceded less than one run per over. This has put the Saffers under enormous pressure. So much so, in fact, that they seemed to switch off against Root and play down the wrong line.

I’ve really enjoyed watching Bess in this game. He’s accurate, varies his pace a bit, uses the crease well, and even flattens his angle of delivery on occasion to surprise the batsman. I don’t recall Moeen ever doing those things in combination. Mo gave it a rip, which was perhaps his greatest asset, but he never filled me with confidence away from home. What’s more, poor Mo never seemed confident when expectations were high and conditions suited him. Bess, on the other hand, looks like he’s a thinking bowler who relishes the challenge. I certainly wouldn’t go back now. Our youngster need to be given time to develop.

Time will tell, of course, as South Africa’s batsmen haven’t put Bess under any pressure at all – they seem totally unable to balance attack and defence – but I feel a lot more confident about the Somerset combination (I assume Leach will be the second spinner when required) than I ever did about the talented but somewhat mercurial Mo and Adil Rashid. England should go to Sri Lanka in March and compete just as well if not better than we did last year.

Mark Wood has also impressed me in this game. In fact, I no longer feel that Jofra Archer should be a shoo in at Johannesburg (if he’s fit). Jofra is a star, and he should play many Test matches for England, but if it’s a choice between Wood and Archer then I’m sticking with the man in possession. Personally I’d like to include both of them (with Sam Curran missing out) but I can’t see England’s management team being so ruthless.

My hope moving forward is that England can now find some elusive consistency. Therefore, after we complete the victory tomorrow – and all the weather forecasts I’ve seen suggest there will be more than enough play to do so – then it’s vital for us to back up this performance with another positive display in the 4th Test. This doesn’t feel like another false dawn but we’ve been burned before.

James Morgan


  • To me, Archer should be a shoo-in at the moment any time he’s fit–although let’s wait to see if Wood lasts the match before selecting him for the Wanderers!

    Re Moeen never looking confident with high expectations–the cynic in me suggests that that’s what you get when you transform a part-time spin-bowling top-order batsman into a bowling all-rounder. I mean, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann were wonderful to have coming in at eight and nine several years ago, but no-one suggested playing them in place of Paul Collingwood or Andrew Strauss when they retired. I actually think Moeen’s done extraordinarily well considering….that he’s not actually a specialist bowler. I can only think of one Test player who’s done that in my memory (Ravi Shastri, the other way round).

  • Maybe a bit tough on Faf? He still averages over 40 in Tests. I seem to recall wistful comments about having batters averaging that high in the England squad not that long ago :) And he seems to have the additional factor of being a Captain that the team greatly respects and will follow.

    • I’d argue that an average of 41 is about average for an established Test batsman over the last two decades. It’s not poor; it’s not great. It’s ok. It’s respectable. It’s ‘average’.

      England’s problem for many years is that we haven’t had many established Test batsmen. Faf just about meets that 40+ benchmark. He’s decent. But you’d expect a bit more from a team’s best specialist batsman. And that’s my point really. If a guy averaging 41 is your best player then you’re probably not particularly good.

      • It may be fair to class 41 as average, but where does that leave Jos Buttler? His selection can only be justified for his batting as his keeping is mediocre at best, but his test batting average is under 33.

        • Absolutely. Buttler simply hasn’t performed adequately in his test career, although he is an all rounder (given that he’s the keeper) rather than a specialist batsman.

        • Other than the white ball lovers no sane test loving fan has ever said buttler was red ball quality. He is trying bless him but sadly he’s just not good enough (neither is Curran but he’s flavour of the month currently)

          Stokes still only avg’s in the 30’s but he is at least finally pushing those stats the right way and looks like he’s blossoming

          • Feel english fans are being too hard on Curran, he hasn’t had a bad series, he’s bowled well (albeit in patches) and batted adequately, expecting Stokes level of performance from him is ludicrious. He’s still young, and has time to improve.

      • I think James that if Stokes manages a test average of 41 by the end of his career he’ll be pretty pleased with that and so would most England supporters and he is certainly better than an average test batsman.
        I think with the amount of international cricket most regulars are required to play these days, adapting to various formats, the end of career stats have to be assessed differently.
        The days of 50+ test averages are probably over, but that doesn’t mean batsmen are generally less effective. The workload and versatility required is greater then ever.

        • “…if Stokes manages a test average of 41 by the end of his career he’ll be pretty pleased”

          Yes, but he’s an allrounder, not specialist batsman like Faf

          • The implication is that a test average of 41 only denotes an average test batsman. Stokes is clearly better than an everage test batsman and is ensconsed at no 5 in the order, the position of a specialist batsman, whether he bowls or not. So as a batsman he needs to be judged on that position.

  • It is hard to calibrate the performance of the bowlers because the SA batting is so weak, de Kock being more or less their only class batsman, on current form. The bowlers have, therefore, all done well, and bowled with obvious discipline in Tests 2 and 3. The value of the wickets obtained is rather devalued because so many of them have been Hamza et al. Whoever is fit, though, I would not drop Sam Curran, who has the wood on de Kock in a big way (three times so far, I think). The batsmen, however, have had more to contend with, as Rabada and Nortje have been pretty testing, and the others reasonable Test standard (Philander more absent than present, though). As a result, the fine innings played by Burns (forgotten man) Sibley, Stokes and Pope, all get full tariff for difficulty, as well as any appropriate style points

    • Giving Curran credit for tempting De Kock with rank bad balls whilst ignoring his ability to average better than 78mph or move the ball other than one way from the hand is simply applying the distorted standards of England selectors and why we are so exposed when faced with better opposition. We need to replace both Curran and Buttler as not good enough for a test side with pretensions to being the best. And a better captain would also be a good idea (although Root certainly merits his place under another skipper).

      • Hitting the top of the middle stump is about all you can ask (De Kock, this morning). I don’t know about the 78 mph, but get a strong whiff of speedo-pessimism. Anyhow, Curran’s strike rate of 56 in 16 Tests is respectable (compare Wood 66, Woakes 60, Broad 58, Stokes 60) and his average is under 30 (unlike Woakes, Stokes, Wood). Against Australia last summer – presumably what you mean by stronger opposition – he only got one outing and took 3/46 in the first innings (Archer got 6). Useful cricketer. Agree with you, reluctantly, about Buttler.

  • South African cricket will only improve after Brexit and the Kolpak rule is addressed. With the Rand relatively weak so many of their top players are over here playing for our counties. Their ‘depth’ has been decimated.

  • For years certain BTL types told us that all was wrong with SA was the ‘transformation agenda’. It’s been quietly ditched recently – and look at the difference it’s made! It never was the main problem.

    I was reminded of it because of talk Bavuma will be recalled. I really wanted him to do well and he’s given some great moments (especially running out Warner in Perth) but the bottom line is he’s had nearly 40 tests and is averaging only just over 30. he couldn’t average 40 in D2 of the CC. It’s that desperate.

    Perhaps CSA should encourage all their players who can get Kolpaks to take them (that would be Elgar and Pretorius for starters) and then withdraw from international competiton saying they can no longer field a side worthy of the name. It needs something dramatic or the game will just jog on pretending nothing’s happening. The ICC will probably have something in place to screw any board that tries something drastic. Kolpaks aren’t the whole problem because there aren’t loads of SA batsmen on them. The problem is they aren’t producing much batting talent and that which they are was promptly poached by the Big Three (and I don’t blame Labuschagne but when he went to Australia he didn’t speak English and nobody pronounced his name correctly – but an income 10x as high and the certitude of more fixtures against top sides was no something he, or probably anyone, was going to turn down).

    BTW this isn’t the worst SA batting ever but it is the worst since pre-WW1. I keep expecting to see that George Lohmann or SF Barnes has taken 17 wickets in the match.

    • Transformation in South African cricket is a bit more complicated than picking a certain number of non-Whites for international sides. It also means that, for instance there is only place for a limited number of White players in the South African provincial and franchise sides. Which means that (due to access to cricket is dictated to a large extent by economics) that relatively huge numbers of White players are competing for a select few spots. And relatively few non-Whites for relatively many spots. And that may well impact on the quality of the talent that surfaces.
      That may well mean that some of the talent decides to take the ‘safe’ option of going abroad and qualify for England / New Zealand / Australia. Because even if they go to New Zealand, they are competing for one of more slots than are available in South Africa. Never mind dealing with all the uncertainty surrounding the transformation targets, low pay, coaching standards, support, and what-have-you-not. Honestly, these days, New Zealand could also field a South Africa-born XI, and probably give the South Africa XI that is eligible to represent South Africa a fair run for their money (if not outright beat them).

      Add to that, that due to Kolpakshire happily harvesting quite a bit of talent, it is increasingly true that South African batsmen don’t face the quality of say Kyle Abbott, Simon Harmer, Morne Morkel, Marchant de Lange, etc. Which is not exactly great, and is exactly the same problem that is often bemoaned in England – that batsmen don’t get to face the likes of Anderson, Broad, Woakes (and whoever else is in favour) too often. The English domestic game solved that partially by importing quality bowlers from elsewhere. So the English domestic batsmen get to face Test class bowling, while the batsmen in the country that produces said bowlers do not. Yeah, something wrong with that picture.

      Transformation is a very complex issue, and it is dependent on so many factors that you would not even think about (due to not having the lived experience of the challenges Black cricketers face in particular). There are no easy solutions, no shortcuts. It needs a lot of nurturing, time and resources (both money as well as human capital, eg. coaching in schools and in poorer communities).

      If South Africa wants to achieve transformation, they need money. To go to the marginalised (which sad to say, are predominantly Black) communities, invest in cricket infrastructure and all that. That money is not there. Not after the semi-aborted tour by India in 2013, not after the Big 3 power grab (and lest we forget the current CSA chair did not even see a problem with it!), and certainly not after the failed Global T20 fiasco.

      As for not the worst batting lineup in their history, give them a few more series. Once Faf is gone, it is just Elgar and de Kock left. And I certainly would not be surprised if the former signs a quick-Kolpak deal (if he has not already done so), and I expect the latter to become yet another T20-mercenary, since he can make way more that way, than by bolstering the South African national team.

    • Good points although it should be noted that Labuschagne didn’t move to Australia for career reasons. He was just a kid (ten years old I think) so it would’ve been his parents making the decision to move as a family. Doubt cricket came into it.

    • bit harsh singing out Labuschagne, he was a 10 yo when his parents moved to Australia. What do you expect him to do? As a developing player go back to his roots? Seems to me that England are the prime, if not sole “offender” when it comes to poaching. How many players out of Africa (and Ireland) out of the last, say, 40 years? Has India ever picked a “foreigner”? Incidentally, Marnus is now fair dinkum in this brown land, otherwise he wouldn’t have been affectionately dubbed “loose bus change”.

  • I only got the early part of the days play, when SA donated their last four first innings wickets and reached 15-0 after being made to follow on. Their second innings looks even ghastlier judging by the scorecard and the identity of the bowling destroyer. Wood and Archer joining forces appeals immensely, but the person I would drop to make it happen is not Curran but Broad (his three late first innings wickets were all given rather than being taken – De Kock in particular should be ashamed of the shot he attempted to play). Du Plessis is clearly failing to inspire as a captain and his decision to delay taking the new ball on the 4th morning in Cape Town cost his side any chance they might have had of getting back into that game. I think that the final test pitch has to be quick and bouncy, not withstanding that England may have both Wood and Archer at their disposal and SA will not have Rabada – a draw there still means a lost home series for SA. Bess has clearly outbowled Maharaj in this series and SA do not apparently have another spinner that they are prepared to pick, so if they are going to do it it will be by means of pace bowling.

    • I am not sure who should make room for Archer, if anybody. However, you are slightly unfair to Broad, who bowled well without reward at the start of the first innings, and was not the beneficiary of that awful stroke by de Kock. That honour went to Curran, so you cannot hold it against Broad. I would be more inclined to play one of Archer and Wood, assuming that either of them is fit next week.

    • Curran has to go.. dilly dobbler pace and buys his wickets with bad balls.. a few slogged runs isn’t what is required

  • Just one comment. India won 1 out of the last 10 tosses against England in Tests. (4 out of 5 by Alastair Cook, which resulted in 3 losses and 1 draw, and Root won all 5 the last time India toured). So that memory must have been a very specific Test in India …

    • I was vaguely thinking about the last time we toured India not when we played them at home. You’re right though. Generally we batted first, didn’t make quite enough, India went well past us, and then we collapsed in the second dig. Bit more of a longwinded narrative but the essence is basically the same i.e. out batted and exposed against spin.

      • India have lost all of 1 Test at home since England visited in 2012. And that was against Australia in 2017, when India lost the toss. Touring sides can basically give up the moment they lose the toss there, and even when they win the toss, they are up against it, as England found out the hard way.

        Only New Zealand has a better records at home when winning the toss (they just fail to win a lot of tosses against Australia and South Africa, which have resulted in quite a few losses at home though) in the last decade. Don’t think New Zealand have lost a game at home when they have won the toss in the just finished decade (!), while India lost just two games after winning the toss, both against England in 2012. Australia lost after winning the toss 3 (2 against England 2010/11, and one against New Zealand in 2011). So that basically means that 3 sides have been pretty much been unbeaten at home when winning the toss in the last 7 or 8 years.

        Places where winning the toss is not a massive advantage can be pretty much described as England and the West Indies; South Africa will soon fall in that category, because even when they win the toss they won’t have the firepower to actually make use of it.

  • I was very interested to see Wood (again) being kept to short, sharp spells.

    Wonder if Jofra was looking on enviously? Does he have to completely break down before they manage him with kid gloves too?

    • I think the difference maybe that Wood is at top pace from ball 1 and has an action that “takes it out of him”
      Archer, to me at least, seems to build a spell. He has a lovely grooved action and seems to relish bowling. I do not know where the obsession of bowling him in short spells comes from.

  • After the largely self inflicted problems the England selectors have induced within our set up over recent years it is difficult to feel sorry for another country going through the doldrums. Let’s share it about. However that said South Africa’s problems are less easy to identify, as the game itself appears in crisis. I cannot remember a weaker looking batting line up for them and there is no sign of young talent being talked about for the future. Their collapse today was about as bad as it’s possible to get at this level, against a less than fearsome attack on a decent 4th day pitch. Stokes must be breathing huge sighs of relief after his fit of the dropsies had given them a lifeline. Now we have to drive our advantage home for the rest of the series. Confidence is always a fragile thing both ways and all it needs are a couple of their players to dig in produce to lift the entire side, so it’s important we keep our foot on the gas and don’t get complacent.
    As has been said good to see Root learning from overbowling Archer with Wood being used in short bursts.
    Hopefully they’ll both be fit for the finale and we can see how they bowl in tandem.

  • Well I don’t see any logical reasons here to drop Curran apart from some people just don’t like him. He’s actually done ok, rank balls or not he gets key wickets with his left arm
    “dobblers”. Not to compare like for like, but a certain Botham used to do the same at times. At his age he’s more likely to improve as a Test player than Butler, who just doesn’t cut it. Bring in Foakes and we will be looking a like a decent side.

  • I am not a Curran fan and have argued that I really don’t see what he brings. He has not scored a FC ton, I do not think he will run through a Test batting line up.
    But I have come to the decision that, not for the first time, I am wrong. We are simply a better team with him in it. He seems to contribute/make things happen.

    • Good post! It is interesting the way Curran divides opinion. The sample size is getting to be big enough that we can see there is a meaningful regular contribution with the ball, and potential with the bat. Given the bowling stats it is just not good enough to say, as some do, that he “only” bowls at 78mph and “only” gets wickets with rank balls. If the latter were true you would have to explain why his bad balls get wickets while others are not so lucky, but the truth is that he has the one that comes back in and the one that goes straight on, so threatens the stumps and the edge. The speed is irrelevant, and the “dibbly dobbly” epithet is also wrong, because he can do something with the Kookaburra on a flat pitch, whereas we imagine Darren Stevens probably couldn’t, apart from being 44. I think you are right that the team is better for him being in it, and this is because he not only takes decent wickets and makes occasionally crucial runs, but does both of these things when the others are not doing them. So there is something really additive. I am glad that opinion seems to be coming round!

  • Huge credit is due, in my opinion, to Joe Root. It’s not so long ago that some people were calling for him to be relieved of the caotaincy, but he must take huge credit for England’s upsurge in form. He’s put his trust in some of the younger players like Pope and Bess and he’s also been very dignified in accepting criticism, some of it justified. Of course, there are tougher tests ahead but if Root is allowed to develop this England team, there could be very exciting times ahead.

  • No mystery at all about SA weakness. Most of their best sportsmen, including cricketers but also in rugby, have always been from the white Afrikaans-speaking (Dutch descended, Boer) population – who are indeed a great sporting people. When their contributution to the team is capped, and when the quotas are getting more and more restrictive with time; as attempts are made to racially balance the team in percentages with the national population – using the same categories as under Apartheid, then SA sporting eminence will dwindle – since the end point of the process is less than one Afrikaans player per team. Also, SA whites are subjected to increasing confiscations and violence in what is one of the worst rape and murder nations of the world – it is natural that those who can do so, will want to emigrate somewhere safer.


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