Rarely can an England Test side have enjoyed such dominance in an away Test series against major opposition as they did in the recently concluded one in South Africa.
Discuss, might well be the response. After all, it was only fifteen months ago that Joe Root’s team won 3-0 in Sri Lanka, in conditions at least as alien and hostile as those found in South Africa. But we soon seemed to be back to square one in Test cricket.
The first Test in Sri Lanka, at the hosts’ traditional fortress in Galle, was dominated by England, if not from the start – they lost five wickets before lunch on the first day – pretty well throughout. But the other two Tests, if not exactly close, were reasonably competitive, England winning by 57 runs and 42 runs respectively.
In South Africa it was different. England, ravaged by sickness, barely turned up at Centurion. But they won the next three games by substantial margins, 189 runs, an innings and 53 runs and 191 runs. And for two of those games their team included five players under the age of 25, all of whom made significant contributions at some point.
To what extent can South Africa be classified as “major opposition”? As recently as 18 months or so ago that might have seemed an absurd question. But before their victory at Centurion they had lost five matches in a row, two to Sri Lanka in South Africa – pretty much the same Sri Lankan side that had lost to England and was subsequently thrashed in Australia – and three to India in India. People talk about teams being in transition but for South Africa it somehow seems more serious than that. They have lost three all-time greats in Dale Steyn, A B de Villiers and Hashim Amla. That is bad, but the best sides have to deal with that sort of issue. South Africa’s plight is worse because of the dismal state of the economy and the collapse of the rand, which, combined with the operation of the quota system that affects the selection process, has meant that many promising cricketers – Hampshire’s Kyle Abbott at one stage of his career and Surrey’s Morne Morkel at another – have been tempted by the security and relative wealth offered by English county cricket. These are complex problems which are not going to be solved overnight.
So a victory over South Africa (England have now won three series in a row), even an away victory, is no guarantee that they will regain The Ashes in 2021-22 or beat India in 2020-21, their two most significant upcoming challenges. Yet there were so many good things about England’s performance in South Africa that it is difficult to believe they won’t have a sporting chance.
Perhaps the most important development was the improvement at the top of the batting order. This has been a long-running problem, evident since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, and compounded by the departure of Alastair Cook in 2018. Rory Burns seemed to have made one spot his own with some solid performances in the Ashes series of 2019. Dominic Sibley, top scorer in Division One of the County Championship in 2019, did not convince many observers during a difficult tour of New Zealand in the closing weeks of the year but in the second innings of the second Test at Cape Town he played a coming of age innings that helped to achieve a famous victory. His 133 not out occupied eight and a quarter hours. Burns, meanwhile, went back home injured after the first Test and was replaced by the 21-year old Zak Crawley, who looked more authoritative each time he batted. At the Wanderers he and Sibley put on England’s first century opening stand since Cook and Keaton Jennings put on 103 against India in Chennai in 2016-17. Unless Joe Denly makes lots of runs in Sri Lanka, the three of them – Burns, Sibley and Crawley – should constitute the top three between them for the foreseeable future.
The best thing about this development was the recognition it seemed to demonstrate that Test cricket requires a certain type of mentality. In Joe Root’s earlier days as captain the mantra had been to be positive and aggressive, whatever the situation. There is nothing wrong with being positive, but you can be positive in defence as well as in attack. As always in top level sport, the critical thing is decision-making. England’s batsmen’s decision-making improved dramatically. Denly was the only one of the unproved batsmen who didn’t enhance his reputation. He was simply too one-paced but at least he showed he could “bat time”.
At number six Ollie Pope showed that he probably is the real thing. Averaging 70 in first-class cricket, apart from a little blip against India in 2018 when he was asked to bat at number four, never having batted higher than six for Surrey, he has passed every test he has been set. It is intriguing how great players emerge. Sometimes it is gradual, sometimes quite sudden. One thinks of David Gower hitting his first ball in Test cricket for four. I was there that day at Edgbaston in 1978 when he made his debut against Pakistan. I am not saying one knew immediately that he was a great player – but he was clearly something very special. Eminent judges are very clear about the quality and class displayed by Pope. It is not so much weight of runs – he has made just one century – as the way in which he makes them that strikes the observer. In Australia, Marnus Labushagne, Test cricket’s first concussion substitute, is similarly emerging as a great player. In his case it really is through weight of runs. He and Pope will be the Steve Smith and Joe Root of their day.
In some ways the most exciting moment of the series was a delivery bowled to Pope at The Wanderers by debutant Beuran Hendricks. It reared spitefully and followed Pope, who jerked his head out of the way at the last moment and ended up on his backside. A terrific ball, brilliantly played – sensational stuff.
Pope’s century played a crucial part in the rout of South Africa by an innings in the third Test at Port Elizabeth. Equally important was the contribution made by off-spinner Dom Bess. Six months ago, Bess couldn’t get a game for Somerset, let alone England; literally – he went on loan to Yorkshire, just to get some cricket. Now, with Somerset teammate Jack Leach sick, the apparent second spinner Matt Parkinson not trusted to make a debut, Moeen Ali on sabbatical, Liam Dawson out of favour, England were running out of spin options. Bess didn’t let anyone down. Some experts – Phil Tufnell in particular – were critical of his performance at Cape Town in that the South African batsmen allowed him to get away with some fairly ordinary bowling. But he bowled really well at Port Elizabeth, taking five wickets in the first innings. Nobody thinks he is the world’s greatest off-spinner. But Bess has got something. Actually this was evident when he made his debut in 2018 against Pakistan. Then it was his batting that caught the eye. There may be more talented cricketers around but one wouldn’t bet against Bess having a successful Test career.
Sam Curran is another whose character is such that he seems impossible to drop. When there is a selection quandary for some reason Curran’s place always seems to be at risk. His problem is partly that he is still too young for anyone, including himself, to be sure whether he is a bowler who bats or a batsman who bowls. He often opens the bowling, and people always complain about it though he often makes a breakthrough. Most important of all, he has a knack of turning up on the winning side. He played in all four Tests here and, without achieving anything sensational in terms of figures, he always seemed likely to produce something useful and interesting.
Mark Wood’s return for the last two Tests was among the very best things to happen to England this winter. He had played no red ball cricket since the tour of the Caribbean at the beginning of 2019 and no cricket at all since the World Cup final in July. Nonetheless he was immediately at his best, contributing to the victory at Port Elizabeth with bat and ball. He won the match award at The Wanderers, taking nine wickets in the Test for exactly 100 runs, his pace exceeding 151 kph at points. (Both Darren Gough and Mark Nicholas have suggested he might be England’s fastest bowler of all time.) Equally significant was his contribution with the bat. When Stuart Broad walked out to join him on the fall of the ninth wicket in England’s first innings, the score was 318 for nine, and South Africa were still in the game. They put on 82 in what seemed like about 20 minutes. South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis simply had no idea how to deal with it.
The thought of Wood operating with Jofra Archer in Australia is certainly an exciting prospect. Archer had a challenging winter. He took a five-for in the defeat at Centurion, with an economy rate of 6, but suffered an elbow injury and missed the rest of the series. England, and Root in particular, seem still to be working out how best to use this exceptional bowler.
Broad and James Anderson may well be expecting to lead the attack in the next Ashes series. Anderson will be 39 by then. He took five for 40 in Cape Town and seemed back to his best, but then picked up one of his more unusual injuries, contriving to break a rib while bowling in the second innings. Broad, meanwhile, carried on from his excellent Ashes summer, leading the attack with some incisive bursts and maintaining energy till the end of the series.
Root, at the end, said the series win was “right up there” as far as his captaincy was concerned. That must surely be so. England needs him to get more runs though. The same is true of Buttler, who failed to reach 30 in the series.
There cannot have been much difficulty in choosing the Player of the Series. Ben Stokes confirmed that he is the world’s leading allrounder, and surely one of England’s greatest cricketers. He single-handedly changed the course of the series with his 72 off 47 balls in Cape Town, and then won the match with his dramatic 3-wicket burst as Quinton de Kock and the tail fought to save it on the final evening. He made a marvellous hundred in Port Elizabeth, and caught like a man possessed. He also dropped a few – Matt Prior was not the only pundit to express relief that he was, after all, only human.
The contest was a magnificent advertisement for five-day Test cricket. This was important as it coincided with an apparent move by cricket administrators in the direction of four-day Tests.
Cricket’s tragedy – in England (and Wales) and globally, is that it is administered by administrators (and board members). One almost longs for the old days, when everything was arranged by Don Bradman and Gubby Allen. At least they knew what they were doing. And they cared. Neither quality is required of the modern administrator. Some of them may have some understanding of the game but few have a “feel” for it. Most are bean counters or self-obsessed businessmen (there are not enough women in cricket’s ruling elite). They are already doing their best to rob Test cricket of its magic by insisting on two-match series. Can you have a “series” of two anything? What does “serial” mean?
In a sense there is no magic to the five day Test. In its extraordinary history Test cricket has accommodated a variety of durations from three days to “timeless” – play to a finish. But you can be sure that the inclination in favour of four day Tests is not motivated by concern about cricket’s supporters or players. Fingers crossed for the future of our wonderful game.
Featured image: England batsman Dominic Sibley celebrates after reaching his maiden Test century s during day four of the second Test against South Africa at Newlands in Cape Town. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
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