Wondering About Wanderers – Who’s In The Spotlight?

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.

James Morgan


  • I don’t know if Ben Foakes will end up even averaging the same as Buttler, but I’d still take him on account of his wicketkeeping

    • Absolutely. Bairstow is worth at least 5 runs per innings with the gloves compared with Buttler, so imagine how much a real test keeper like Foakes would be worth. And it is not just the runs he saves by preventing byes and avoiding drops. A top class keeper also gives the bowlers more options and confidence.

    • He will probably average more than Buttler in a prolonged run in Tests, given that he still averages over 40 in Tests after apparently going into a decline and getting dropped. In First Class overall, not quite so good, but still a cut above Buttler. So it is a probable win on the batting, and a definite win on the keeping. Jos was dreadful behind the stumps by the end of the last match (12 byes in the second innings).

  • If England do drop Bess because they cannot decide which seamer to leave out it will be a dreadful decision (though probably would not cost too much, since South Africa are in total disarray). Personally from here I would regard any final series score other than SA 1 Eng 3 as a clear failure – England could probably invite Afghanistan to take their place without it changing the result.

    • Dropping Bess would be crazy after the way he performed in PE – I think the way Root was savaged by the SA last pair has given him a reality check about his bowling. I would leave Curran out – perhaps a little harsh, but still think he’s got to find a way to take wickets more consistently outside England.

      Buttler has done OK in the Test side – but I fear he’s still caught in two minds as to how to play Test cricket. He can’t decide whether to play his natural game or to rein his shots in and play like he thinks a Test player should. I would be minded to leave him out and tell him to concentrate on making himself the best white ball batsman in the world.

  • I am not quite as confident in ruling out SA, although I do not expect England to lose the test (and so to take the series). If the wicket is good SA have 3 decent bats who, if they concentrate and succeed, could see out the game – Elgar, De Kock and Malan. I know Elgar has been out of sorts and De Kock is not exactly suited to attrition, but they have not suddenly become bad batsmen. And Malan looks a genuine find, with an excellent temperament. I really hope it is a competitive game as that will be much more interesting.

    • Oh come on.. this SA are tripe and have been for years now (2014/5 was the last decent side).. this England side is very ordinary but still way ahead

  • Add the somewhat relevant observation that England U 19’s have failed to qualify for the next round of their world cup.

    • I do wonder about the selection and whether it is the usual problem of knowing the right people or playing for the right team. It seems to be exemplified by the strange case of Warwickshire. I am delighted to see Mousley in the team and happy to see him play well, but most at Edgbaston would have expected Ethan Brookes (brother of Henry) to have been our first name on the U19 list.

  • If both are fit, Wood and Archer must both play, particularly as it’s Jo’burg. I’m afraid that means either Bess or Curran will miss out; I would drop Curran, though I value his variation and his batting.
    I don’t think Bairstow for Buttler significantly improves the keeping, though I accept that Foakes would. Buttler looked rather untidy in the last Test (and I’m a fan!)

  • Definitely Curran for the drop, he is a better option in the UK than overseas where Bess should come to the fore. Anyone heard of Lyon!

    • But in the UK Woakes is several classes better than Curran (5mph faster, better control and can move it both ways – and late – instead of one way from the hand).

      • Yes, but Woakes is more or less a lesser Anderson clone. Curran gives more variety.
        A couple of years ago, Woakes was bowling quite fast. Before and after that period he was/is rather innocuous (though he does bat pretty well).

        • The only variety Curran provides is the leftie dimension. Woakes is still consistent around 84/85 whilst Curran averaged 78 in the last test.

  • There should be no talk about dropping Bess, because of the obvious benefit to the rotating quicks at the other end. Someone who can keep an end going at below 2 an over for hours on end is priceless. So if they are going to risk Archer, they need to drop one other seam bowler. The history of what happens when Wood is made to play back to back Tests suggests this is not a great idea. They shouldn’t try to play both Archer and Wood, as the risk of a double break down is quite high (much more probable than the two of them taking nearly 20 wickets first).

  • ‘There’ll always be an England’
    And there lies the rub as a supporter of one of the most inconsistent international teams of recent years, in any sport. However, you do feel this squad is starting to get to grips with the requirements of test cricket, both with bat and ball and South Africa are losing theirs. So what conclusion do we draw from that, probably that barring serious weather interruptions there will be a result and that’s as far as most England cricket supporter says will commit themselves. We should win at a canter but ….

    • Denly ??? I mean seriously… from ball one to finally (after giving two chances!!) he was put out his misery .. that innings is indefensible.. it also undoes all thr good work of the previous games and the openers.. reckless and reminiscent of normal England… root not digging in either.. white ball seems to be bakc for this side after 2 tests .. sadly they just can’t learn and won’t learn

  • ‘There’ll always be an England’
    Yes there will, but what sort we ask. Will the most inconsistent international sporting team of recent years continue with their dizzying pyrotechnics or will the recent improvement in red ball mentality be sustained.
    We should win at a canter, but we all have enough experience of ‘should’ to wait until it actually happens.
    Good luck lads and as Mr Allen said, ‘may your god go with you’, though of course he was Irish.

  • As soon as anyone says we will “win at a canter”, almost invariably it goes wrong. Predictions in cricket are very difficult, which is what makes it so fascinating.

    • Putting your neck on the line with bold predictions that are quite likely to backfire is one of the privileges of being a blogger rather than a serious journalist. It’s all part of the fun :-)

  • Let’s put this series in comparative EPL wage bill terms and WTC standings. An ECB player on a central contract earns approx 10x as much as SA. That actually understates the differential because 1) ECB players are due to get a massive pay rise and 2) the Rand is worth little outside SA. England are currently 3rd from top of the WTC and SA 3rd from bottom (although the two teams below them have played many fewer games).

    England winning this series is roughly equivalent to Chelsea winning at Aston Villa (in truth that understates the wage differential as Chelsea’s wages are only about 4x Villa’s according to stats on givemesport). How would one regard Chelsea fans who chanted “We’re going to win the League” after winning at Villa? Admirable enthusiasts – or frankly a bit silly? Would those who urge not reading too much into it be seen as sensible realists – or lectured that they’re not clapping hard enough? Saying “but remember when Villa won the European Cup!” doesn’t have much to do with anything because we all know we live in a very different world. Of course that doesn’t mean that a poorer club that’s well run and has a bit of good fortune can’t temporarily buck the trend (cue Sheffield Utd/NZ comparison) but the odds are against it, they seldom end up actually winning anything and all that usually follows is further big boy changing of the rules to make it less likely in the future (see Ajax and the Champions League).

    Sport teams (and the club/national distinction matters less and less) are rich men’s toys. Rich men don’t get and remain rich by leaving things to chance. This is the modern world of elite sport.

    • A slightly false analysis. In club sport a team like Chelsea can go out and buy whoever they want. In international sport, with some limited leeway, the team is dictated by the nationality of players. So England are (broadly) restricted to English players and those, like Stokes and Archer, who have spent many years in England. This evens the playing field to some extent as SA have the same restrictions and can pick from a pool developed from a culture where, at least in the white community, cricket is a religion. Obviously SA have some issues (which is why the playing field is tilted rather than level) such as the Kolpak problem and racial quotas – but it is nowhere near the complete lack of balance in club football.

      • The history of football clubs the world over going out and trying to buy instant success is littered with failure, Man Utd and PSG spring to mind, where even Mbappe couldn’t help them in the champions league. Soccer is more of a team game, so players, however good they are, need to knit together in a variety of tactical systems. You might say the Barcelona side of recent years is a glittering exception, but most of that team had being playing together for years in their youth program, Messi having been signed as 10 year old. You need individuals but the team is more relevant to success, look at the likes of Sheffield Utd and Burnley and what confidence can do for a player like Danny Ings.
        Cricket it is more of an individual’s game, with no tactical systems to worry about, where having even a single great can help you over the line as the other lesser mortals are motivated by the confidence having a game changer gives you, whatever the circumstances.

          • That is now a distant memory for most fans. Since Fergurson they have completely changed the personnel, including 4 new managers, all at huge cost and look at the unpresidented empty seats at the end of the Burnley game. Solskaar’s a nice bloke but a premiership manager and the Glazers should not be involved here At any level.Compare the running of Utd to Liverpool, there is none, it’s a complete shambles.


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