We’re going to win the series, right? Even England can’t screw this one up.
It’s the eve of the fourth and final Test against South Africa and yours truly is feeling confident. I’m almost smug. How refreshing it all feels. England have the edge on paper in this game (Kasigo Rabada is banned of course) and we’ve certainly got the psychological edge too.
Surely only losing a vital toss (or making the wrong decision at the toss) plus some really boneheaded team selection can sink our prospects now? It’s a bit of a worry, therefore, that Joe Root and Chris Silverwood, who completely ballsed up Centurion, are making the big decisions.
They won’t do it again … will they?
Although I’m pretty confident that England will win whatever XI takes the field in Johannesburg – South African looked shot at Port Elizabeth – I have been somewhat disturbed by rumours that England will field 5 seamers and no specialist spinner again.
Dropping Dom Bess at this stage would be beyond daft in my opinion. He’s bowling well, he can bowl long spells, he offers the captain control, and consequently he makes everyone else look better. The best attack England can put out (irrespective of conditions) is a balanced attack. Good batsmen are always tested more when there’s proper variety. They can set themselves against a diet of seam.
Yes England have Root and Denly as part-time options, but the captain would do well not to overrate his own capabilities with the ball after his surprise success in the third Test. What’s more, he should realise that his wickets came in part because Bess had tied SA down so successfully at the other end. The guy that picks up the wickets isn’t always the guy who bowls the best.
The problem England’s management have got is that Jofra Archer is fit again and bowling thunderbolts in the nets; therefore he’s a must-pick. What’s more, Mark Wood performed really well in the last game and England don’t want to leave him out either – despite concerns about his ability to get through back-to-back Tests. This obviously means that England would need to leave out Stuart Broad, who is the senior bowler in the side, or young Sam Curran to keep Bess.
Although they should clearly omit the left-armer in my humble opinion – he was poor in the second innings at PE and we really don’t need him wasting the new ball when Jofra is fit – it’s a much easier option to leave out the young spinner. So that’s what England will probably do – no matter how boneheaded and weak, for want of a better word, doing this would be.
It will be interesting to see what England will say if / when Wood’s body begins to ache. They’ll probably say ‘good thing we picked the extra seamer then’ whilst ignoring the fact that a spinner is worth his weight in gold when a team is a bowler down. He can tie up and end and let the other pacemen rotate at the other end.
Luckily, however, South Africa are in a complete mess so the finer points of England’s strategy might not matter in the end. Heaven knows what XI the hosts will pick or how they’ll balance their side.
We’ve heard that Temba Bavuma will probably play. We’ve also heard rumours that K Peterson (who is definitely no K Pietersen) might get the nod at 3. Will it make much difference? Probably not. I’ve always thought that Bavuma looks an organised player but his record is particularly mediocre. In fact, it makes Jos Buttler’s Test career look positively fulfilled.
Talking of Buttler, it’s crossed my mind that this could be his last ever Test match. It probably won’t be but it might. How he could use a good score here.
I’ve got very mixed feelings about Jos at this point. I savaged his recall, which I thought was left-field, undeserved, and unlikely to succeed at the time, but he slowly won me round with his performances in 2018 and early 2019. I really thought he was beginning to learn how to build Test innings and found myself defending him on several occasions.
However, after a lean Ashes and a poor winter (thus far) I’m losing faith again. I’ve also found reports that he’s admitted he doesn’t know how to approach Test innings yet (after he’s played 40 games) quite disturbing.
The bottom line is that Buttler averages a very underwhelming 32 after a whopping 72 innings. That’s more than long enough to figure things out.
What’s more, he’s averaging about the same since his recall (32.8) as he did during his first failed stint in Test cricket (31.4). I’d wager than Ben Foakes could average the same (or better than this) whilst saving quite a few runs with his superior wicket-keeping.
If Buttler fails again at Johannesburg then it’s probably time for Ed Smith to realise that gut feel (or what many see as favouritism) can only keep a player in the side for so long. At some point tangible returns rather than intangible potential have to take precedence.