South Africa in disarray, England exultant. No doubt the word “momentum” will be used.
Taking four wickets for seven runs (including du Plessis last night) probably wasn’t the expectation of anyone, with the game effectively done and dusted within half an hour of the start. But on reflection it probably shouldn’t come as that much of a shock, from the start of the fourth day South Africa seemed almost resigned to defeat, with only the brief passage of play at the top of the second innings suggesting some degree of fight.
It was Moeen Ali, named man of the match, who did the damage, removing AB De Villiers with the third ball of the morning. Moeen hasn’t had an unquestioned role in the side, not helped by being shunted up and down the batting order and a lack of clarity about what his role is meant to be. He isn’t one of the six best batsmen in the country, though he is one of the six best to watch, so his primary role has to be as spinner, with his batting complementing that. There has been considerable development in his bowling since his debut, and it’s now time to start thinking of him as much much more than the part-timer he was then called. It wasn’t an unreasonable description either at the start, but by all accounts he works harder than anyone and is keen to learn. The fruits of that are starting to show, though how much further he can develop is an open question.
His Test bowling average isn’t anything special, though in recent historic terms for England it’s not bad either – Swann is an outlier amongst English finger spinners – but after 20 Tests his statistics are starting to become meaningful. The one that reflects well on him is his strike rate, with a wicket every 56 balls. That is actually better than Swann, though no one would argue he’s remotely the equivalent as a bowler, for Swann was vastly better at the defensive role. But Moeen does have the knack of taking wickets, and just as with Finn, this is a skill that the England are finally starting to pay attention to; “bowling dry” is unquestionably a part of the game and England’s ability to strangle sides into submission was impressive. But the ability to take wickets out of nowhere is more impressive still – the holy grail is to have both of course, but if it was that easy every side would do it.
Therefore it could be argued that 18 months into his Test career, Moeen is actually underrated. It is his batting where he is underperforming somewhat which is slightly ironic.
He would have had more wickets in his career had numerous stumping opportunities been taken, so Bairstow will have been delighted to get Bavuma, particularly after missing De Villiers last night. And here we need to talk about wicketkeeping, because it is the one area of the game where people who have played at the highest level and can talk with wisdom and experience about cricket have no knowledge or understanding except in a couple of very obvious cases.
The stumping this morning was an easy one, because it went past the outside edge of the bat. That means the keeper is following the line of the ball all the way down and the hands are automatically in the right position. It’s therefore straightforward unless there is excessive spin taking it beyond the reach of the gloves. The difficult ones are those that go between bat and pad. Bairstow, just like Buttler, is a part-time wicketkeeper, and that creates a number of issues. The taking or missing of a particular ball can’t be seen in isolation. More than anyone else on the field, more even than the batsmen who get to switch off to some extent for half of their time out there, the wicketkeeper is involved in every single ball of the game. Concentration is an obvious requirement, but it’s about more than that – or rather it’s only part of the story – it’s about expecting the ball to miss the bat and come into the gloves. When it goes between bat and pad there is an expectation that it will be hit, and the eyes follow the line of the bat rather than the ball.
This is not a technical issue as such, Bairstow is more than capable of taking it, and so is Buttler; the difference between a good full time keeper and a talented but part-time one is the automatic expectation that the ball will continue on its path and not be intercepted by the bat. The best keepers do this, and it’s why in the case of either Bairstow or Buttler they will learn it should they continue to keep over the longer period. That doesn’t mean they then become good keepers, for there are technical flaws in both of them compared to the best, but it is to explain why that one was missed, and why in itself it shouldn’t be a concern – those kinds of stumpings will come. Prior in his first incarnation also missed them regularly for example, in his second having focused on his keeping much more, he would take them.
Still, Bairstow took the opportunity today well enough, and will certainly gain confidence from it, which also is part of the equation.
From there it was something of a procession, Finn producing one that moved away just a fraction off the seam and was frankly wasted on Dale Steyn, Moeen again got bite and turn to account for Abbott while Woakes finally got a wicket, which was the least he deserved – he has bowled well without reward this Test.
Fittingly, Stuart Broad delivered the coup de grace to give England a thumping win by 241 runs.
This is a remarkable margin of victory having been sent to bat in difficult conditions with England finding themselves 12-2 and then 49-3. South Africa’s abundant problems will be much discussed in consequence, but there is always the danger of underplaying England’s wins and overplaying their defeats. Too often England only win because the opposition were rubbish, and lose because they are rubbish. It isn’t particularly fair, they won this game and won it well.
The first innings total of 303 is what set up the game. It’s not a huge score but given the conditions and a pitch where run scoring wasn’t easy, it was a decent one. Taylor and Compton can reflect on their performances in that crucial period and be very satisfied with it. As a combination they batted beautifully, and Graeme Swann’s bizarre and consistent criticism of Compton for batting too slowly gave something of an insight into the environment of the England team during his first spell in the side. Compton did an outstanding job here, and deserves high praise not snide dismissal. Had Alastair Cook done the same thing, he would have received considerable plaudits for it, for it was every bit a Cook type innings in pace, style and above all importance. Rightly so too when Cook does it, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Swann is blinded by favouritism rather than what is going on in front of him. It is distasteful.
If Compton had a case for being man of the match, so did James Taylor. Doubtless Kevin Pietersen’s view that he wasn’t good enough for Test cricket in 2012 will be thrown back at him, but firstly Taylor is a better player now than he was then, but also Pietersen’s view at the time was quite clearly echoed by the selectors, who didn’t pick him. Here he was busy at the crease, and turned the pressure back on to the bowlers. As a combination with the doughty Compton, it worked beautifully.
That the man of the match award wasn’t an easy one to choose is evidenced by Broad being the fourth player who must have felt in with a shout. He took fewer wickets than either Moeen or Finn, but the timing of his was the key, breaking the back of South Africa first time round, and ensuring England had a big lead at half way. Broad is becoming a very, very fine bowler indeed. And he seems to have got his batting back to at least some extent. It’s going to be a big few years from him.
Lastly Finn himself can count himself a trifle unlucky to be overlooked too. Having written about him yesterday there is no point repeating it, but he is looking in fine fettle.
England do have the nice problem of finding a place for Anderson, and Woakes seems certain to make way for him. Harsh on Woakes if so, but it’s hard to criticise bringing back England’s record wicket taker.
Whither South Africa?
The first thing here is that a side can be comprehensively beaten in one match and gel in the next. Even those without long memories ought to know that from the last Ashes series where the teams took it in turns to batter the other. With that said, they do look in some disarray. The injury to Steyn looks highly likely to keep him out of at least the second Test, but the rest of the attack – and Morkel in particular – compensated admirably here. Their problems were not in the bowling.
De Villiers’ less than subtle hint about his workload appears to have been listened to, with de Kock being brought in to the squad for Cape Town and seemingly certain to play. Overloading the best batsman in the side always seemed a peculiar approach, but it’s not in and of itself a reason for how this Test unfolded. Yet for all the talk about Bairstow behind the stumps it shouldn’t be overlooked that De Villiers had a poor time with the gloves in this game anyway.
Elgar had an excellent match, looking solid and but for being on the losing team probably was the outstanding performer on either side, while Van Zyl in the second innings could well have played himself back into some kind of form without going on to make a substantial score.
The captain is clearly a concern, but Amla is a high class player and has been for a decade. He was all at sea in the first innings, but much better in the second. Anyone writing him off does so at their peril, for he will come good, and when he does England will suffer for it.
The immediate response to their performance has a hint of overreaction about it; England are not that good and South Africa are not that bad. It’s one Test, and South Africa’s difficult tour of India notwithstanding, they have not become a bad side overnight, but they are clearly very low on confidence.
Newlands is a fortress of South African cricket, and while England will go there with confidence, suggestions that they are favourites to win based on this game are a triumph of hope over experience. South Africa will probably not play as badly as they have done in Durban – if they do they are indeed in real trouble, and at that point a reassessment might be in order.
This isn’t going to stop some getting carried away, and it will be the same people who usually do so. C’est la vie.