Whatever was expected for day three, it wasn’t this. England grabbed the moment, and with it the match and the series. The headlines will be all about Stuart Broad, and so they should be. For he has now taken 5 wickets in a bowling spell seven times in his career, which is remarkable. I was fortunate enough to see the first “Stuart Broad Day” back in 2009 when he ripped through the Australian batting order to effectively win the Ashes back for England, and there’s something about him when he gets going that makes him irresistible, he goes through batsmen like a knife through butter.
Broad is one of those players who seems to attract as much criticism as praise, and he’s not even close to being one of the best loved of England cricketers. His demeanour over the years has sometimes irked people, and his tendency to blow hot and cold has often frustrated – as tends to be the case with explosive players, some remember the bad times rather more than the good. The same applied to Kevin Pietersen of course, where some would choose to deny the match winning performances and point to the failures, as if that meant anything. Those who make the game look easy at times are cursed to be berated for not producing excellence on every occasion. Yet Broad’s overall record as a bowler is now a genuinely fine one. He didn’t have a great start, and his bowling average didn’t dip permanently below 40 until his 21st Test, and only went below 30 after 76 matches. And yet that average continues to fall and is now at 28.54, which is more than respectable.
Nor is this just a golden spell for him, for his bowling average over the last five years is 25.67, and over the last two it is 23.97. This suggests not only a player who is of Test class which has been apparent for years, but one who is now world class. He should now be at his peak, and James Anderson may well be nervously looking over his shoulder as the England record wicket taker, for over the last year or so Broad is just beginning to reel him in.
England have been on the receiving end of games like this often enough, where the team becomes crippled by uncertainty, unable to score, and reduced to resembling startled rabbits, transfixed in the headlights of a rampaging bowler. And yet few of his wickets were batting errors, they were instead outstanding bowling. He won the man of the match award for it, and although some felt Joe Root’s hundred the greater contribution, it was Broad who created the result, and perhaps given the name of the award, that is the right approach to it.
South Africa are unquestionably a team in transition, the loss of their great players to retirement and the absence of Steyn and Philander through injury have reduced them to a shadow of the outfit that reached number one status in Tests, but both age and injury are facts of sporting life, and it’s never been an excuse when England have lost, so nor should it be now. However, there is a strong sense that these are two sides heading in opposite directions. If this is purely a cricketing circumstance, then for the English it would be a reason for celebration; this England side is one that is full of verve and vigour, playing an attacking and incisive style, and responding to adversity by going after the opposition. There is much to like about them.
The trouble is that with Test cricket in the state it is, any pleasure from it has to be tempered with real concern about the future. The ICC stitch up with the resulting loss in relative income means that the potential for South Africa to lose their best players to T20 wealth is high, and if that is so, then building another fine side could prove beyond them. For the point about Test cricket is that to take the maximum pleasure from your own side winning so handsomely, it must be in the knowledge that in future the tables will be turned. That is after all why the English and Australians gleefully tease the other, because they know next time they’ll get it back to the same extent. Success is only special when failure is an option.
England’s win means that South Africa are dethroned as the side at the top of the ICC rankings. India for now take over, with Australia in second place. England may well be currently fifth, but with home series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan to come, are more than likely to move up the table quite quickly. In short order the top three Test sides will almost certainly be India, Australia and England. Quite the coincidence.
With that proviso, it remains an outstanding feat to win the series, for since being accepted back into international cricket, Australia and England are the only sides to have won series there. That is perhaps not so surprising as it might seem, for South African conditions are entirely alien to all other sides bar perhaps New Zealand, who you wouldn’t expect to win there often if at all. Yet those predicting a healthy England win before the series were considered outliers, and understandably so. England have unquestionably exceeded expectations, the younger players have brought verve and joie de vivre, and the side appears a very different one to the nervous, hidebound and risk-averse outfit under late era Flower and Moores.
Which means praise for Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace in particular – and indeed Andrew Strauss for appointing the former and backing the latter. Good decisions should always be acknowledged, in the same way that bad ones should never be brushed under the carpet. The style of Bayliss and Farbrace appears to be to remain in the background, encourage the players to express themselves, ensure the captain runs the side rather than being a cipher for the backroom staff, and to play attacking cricket wherever possible. What sets them apart is that so far they’ve actually done it, for every coach says these things, but they have managed the ultimate coaching trick of getting out of the way. Cricket is not football, and prescriptive management isn’t going to work. Being a support and an adviser is, and early stages though it might be, the signs are excellent.
England aren’t a very good side just yet. But they might become one. From the depths of disaster, largely self-inflicted, that’s considerable progress.