If you were ever asked which side had the ability to score over 600 and then be nervously contemplating the possibility of defeat on the final day, the answer would be England. And not just this collection of England players either; it seems almost hard wired into the psyche of the national team to scare the bejesus out of their supporters, to cause unending fits of mirth amongst Australians and ensure journalists and bloggers head to Statsguru to see if the latest potential disaster has any kind of precedent over the last 140 years.
In truth, England were never quite on the edge on the final day, but they did certainly manage to make things difficult for themselves and interesting for everyone. It’s been said before – the England cricket team do have a habit of making Test matches interesting, whether they like it or not.
As soon as South Africa had reached somewhere near parity, the pressure had transferred to England as the only side who could realistically lose, given the time remaining. The clouds that eventually did for play created just enough for the bowlers to make it rather more challenging, but the pitch was still exceptional for a fifth day surface, and it was far more about the pressure England brought on themselves than anything else. That is as it should be, for cricket is a mental game and Test cricket is the ultimate expression of it. Human beings react under pressure, and sporting pressure is still pressure.
Thus it quite often happens this way, as the side batting third has little but time and the draw to play for, and the bowling side can give their all knowing they have but a slim possibility of winning, plus the guarantee of a limited time spent in the field. Once in a while something remarkable happens, but not today. Not quite.
Ben Stokes received the Man of the Match award and that was probably inevitable given his tour de force on the first two days, yet for the second match in a row it wasn’t entirely clear cut. Amla’s double century probably had more impact on how the game concluded and was made knowing failure meant likely defeat, and with poor form over the last year. Jonny Bairstow batted beautifully in the first innings and steadied the England ship with a disciplined and important knock second time around.
Somewhat astonishingly, Stokes received some criticism for his dismissal today. It shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does, getting caught on the boundary is the flipside of seeing him batter bowlers around the park; it remains an unending frustration that those who will happily cheer when the ball evades a fielder for four or six will berate a player if it instead goes into a pair of hands. This really is how Stokes plays, and how Stokes should play. Of course, saying such a thing is no longer allowed because…
Doubtless, Swann will shortly be saying that it was a joke, and that many people were taken in by it, but he has form for this kind of thing. Only a few days ago he patronisingly expressed surprise that Simon Mann could make a pertinent point about spin bowling, only to catch himself when he realised how arrogant, supercilious and sneering it sounded. Swann is also the man who expressed amazement that home ticket prices were so expensive, saying he thought they were only about £20. To be so ignorant about those who were paying for his comfortable lifestyle beggars belief in the first place, to then dismiss any right they have to a view as well is indicative of his worldview – ungrateful, full of self-importance, smug and contemptuous. The cheeky chappie routine wore thin long ago, as he reveals what he really thinks under the guise of it being banter. He can think what he wants and he won’t read this. The personal contempt is such that I couldn’t care less, we can form our view of him as the people who pay and paid his wages.
There is now a long break until the next Test, over a week, a rest period that England’s bowlers will certainly appreciate after so long in the field in this game. South Africa have made fools of all those who wrote them off after the first Test and who gleefully anticipated England routinely flogging them for the remainder of the series. Some hasty reassessments will undoubtedly be in order. Steyn is rated as 50/50 for Johannesburg, while Philander has been ruled out of the series. Kyle Abbott will also be fit as the hosts find themselves with rather more options in the bowling ranks. Although any nonsense about “momentum” can be ignored, South Africa will certainly be feeling much better about themselves having finished this match on top. As the Wanderers is also at altitude, England will have a contest on their hands.
South Africa will also have a new captain, with Hashim Amla resigning immediately following the game. Perhaps the timing is something of a surprise, yet Amla clearly didn’t feel comfortable as captain and didn’t appear to be especially astute tactically, which may well be two sides of the same coin. Whatever the reality of that, Amla spoke impressively after the game, and his assertion that he felt he could benefit the side more as a batsman than as a captain was both honourable and quite probably true.
AB De Villiers takes over for the remainder of the series, perhaps ironically so given his less than subtle comments about his workload and the veiled threat to reduce his availability. It could be a short term option, or it could be a means of locking him into the team – few would turn down the captaincy of their country when offered after all, but at least it should rule out him doing the wicketkeeping again.
For England after two Tests the form of the captain will be a slight concern. He’s not got going at all this series. It’s slight because it’s in the sense of a key player not yet having contributed and nothing more than that; he’s had a decent enough time with the bat overall in the last twelve months after all. Yet it is a curiosity that there is an agreed silence about it in the cricketing press, while at the same time plenty of comment about Nick Compton, someone who failed to reach 40 for the first time in four innings earlier today, or Alex Hales, who scored 60 just one knock ago. As so often, it’s less about Cook himself, and more about the way so many journalists place him on an untouchable pedestal.
So far this series for England, the standout performers have been the discards, the unwanted and the damaged. Ben Stokes was considered not good enough for the England World Cup team, and even when he had been in the side he had been batting at number eight – a decision that got a fair bit of support from the great and the good at the time; Jonny Bairstow has been in and out of the side in all formats; Nick Compton appeared to fall foul of the different personality selection criteria while Steven Finn was of course unselectable. Add to that an opener whose technique was openly dismissed by the then coach and there’s a certain pattern. To look on the positive side, it amounts to a tick for the new England coaching set up.
There are no reasons to be gloomy about England’s chances in the final two Tests. South Africa had the better of the final two days in Cape Town, but the shock and surprise that exceptional players sometimes play well was amusing. The bowlers did little wrong, the fielders dropped catches and fine batsmen cashed in. That is allowed to happen. When play starts at the Wanderers, all is reset. Reading the runes based on today and yesterday is as daft as doing so based on the first Test and that went well for those who did it. Perhaps it was because apart from Geoff Boycott, they all had Test averages under 45.