The series win was clinched yesterday and it’s one to savour. Since readmission we’ve won one series at home and two away against South Africa, and while we can get the feeling that we are beating a side on the way down, it’s also a salient point to remember that in 2005 we were thinking much the same thing. A number of us on this blog remember that 2004/5 series win as probably one of the greatest away wins England had, and we aren’t wrong. But there were also some similarities as well.
Any victory, in fact any tour result, has an obvious series to compare it to. 2005 Ashes had 1981, the whitewash of 2013-14 had the whitewash of 2006-7, every dominant Aussie side will be compared to the number 1 team of the late 90s, early 2000s. England’s series win here will be compared to 2004/5, so let’s do some of that now. I’m going purely on memory of 2004/5, so any errors, please let me know.
Going into that tour England had had an amazing 2004 – they’d won all but one test match they played, and that was due to playing against Brian Lara on the Antiguan equivalent of Heathrow Airport’s main runway. Some of these wins came from blowing the oppo away, but many came from gritty batting displays chasing down some very itchy totals – I’m thinking New Zealand at Lord’s (the Nasser farewell), New Zealand at Trent Bridge (all hail Thorpe) and West Indies at a very gloomy Old Trafford (a grossly unfairly forgotten knock by Rob Key). During that spell we’d drafted a new opener (Strauss) who had settled in well, and a new keeper (Jones) who made a ton in his third test. The bowling was gelling as a unit, without Simon Jones, but with Hoggard, Harmison, Flintoff and Giles. The batting was solid, Strauss, Tres, Butcher/Key, Vaughan, Thorpe, with Ian Bell waiting in the wings. The focus was on 2005, and the Ashes. This was our chance. But in the way, and as it turned out, how great it was that it was, was a tour to South Africa.
Readers will know that I went to the Cape Town test, and also two days of the Jo’burg match on that tour. You may also know that by pure chance we booked into the Guest House run by the former manager of the South African cricket team who had just recently been reassigned when the Board sacked coach Eric Symons and installed Ray Jennings. This was also the time when the South Africans had a right downer on Mark Boucher. On our first full day in the country the hosts arranged for a friend to take us round the Cape Coast, and it turned out he was a retired sports journalist. We’ll always remember (I went with Sir Peter) his rationale for the exclusion of Boucher (“the board hate him. I hate him. He suffers from “little man syndrome”).
At this stage the home side were 1-0 down and had just narrowly avoided it being 2-0. The first test at Port Elizabeth was a triumph for Andrew Strauss, who made a ton in the first innings and an unbeaten 90-odd to see us home in the second innings. It was a top test match, as the game ebbed and flowed, and it also saw two reasonably decent players make their debuts, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. I think it fair to say we were far more impressed by the latter at the time. That team looked unbalanced, with Tsolokile keeping wicket, new players, and confused selection. The coach had come over as some sort of boot camp sergeant (infamously pinging a ball of Smith’s head in catching practice in Joburg) lacking any degree of sophistication.
The second test in Durban was one of those “stake in the ground” matches for England which made you utterly proud of them. The first two days could hardly have gone worse. Put in on a helpful wicket, England were skittled in the first innings for 139 and then felt the brilliance of Kallis who made a brilliant 162 and put the hosts nearly 200 in front. Three days left and the situation looked bleak. England did not wilt. They erased the deficit for no loss, piled on 570 for 7 declared and gave themselves time to bowl South Africa out. The hosts were clinging on (just as Sir Peter and I were venturing out for a beer in Cape Town – we were successful in our pursuit) and arguably were saved by the bad light.
The third test, in Cape Town, was a wake up call. England conceded 400+ in the first innings, fell foul of Charl Langeveldt on debut by collapsing in the reply, with the hosts putting on the required runs in enough time to give them to bowl us out for a second time. The game was sealed mid-way through Day 5, giving us enough time to belt up Table Mountain before our flight out the following day.
The Joburg test was one of those seminal moments for that team. A great first day (when we were driving down from Hluhluwe to catch our flight from Durban for Day 2) by England was eagerly taken in on the radio and the airport TV, but as we were in the air Strauss got out for his third hundred of the tour, Key was dismissed for 80 odd, and Thorpe a duck. It wasn’t so great. Nor was the weather in Joburg on Day 2, but there was enough play to see Vaughan regain some nick and he and Harmison put the hosts through the wringer before Bucknor took everyone off for bad light. England had over 400, declared overnight, and a lovely sunny Day 3, spent sitting next to Kevin Whateley while not uttering a word to him, saw Herschelle Gibbs make a century, and South Africa claw their way back into the game. We flew home that night. What followed was possibly Tres’s greatest knock for England, and then possibly Hoggy’s greatest spell of bowling. With time running out England knocked over the hosts and took a 2-1 lead.
Centurion was blighted by weather, saw AB make his first test hundred (having got out in the 90s in the first innings), Kallis make his third of the series in mystifyingly slow circumstances, and England wobbling in a nervy last session. There wasn’t really a doubt, but we’d suffered enough in the past to have it in our minds that it was. But even in that test there was confused thinking from the hosts. DeVilliers opened with Gibbs with Smith batting at 5! Seems odd to think that now, doesn’t it?
So, using this as a tenuous reference point, what are the similarities. Well, there was a feeling that England were on the up, with a team coming together. The batting had largely held up, but we knew Thorpe was nearing the end and the assumption was that Bell would come in. Butcher had played his last test, although we didn’t know that at the time, and I’m not sure Key ever played again, either. We know who came in for that slot, and we were a matter of days from hearing the name that partially dominated the newsline for the next decade. Our bowling was solid as a rock, even allowing for Jones not quite nailing it and Anderson having a bad time at Joburg.Harmison didn’t have a great tour, but then we won without our main bowler having an impact. Broad went into this series as Anderson’s oppo. Now he’s on top of the pile.
Jones was a concern at keeper as he had developed a habit of going for pretty much all that was heading for first slip and not nailing it. Bairstow finds himself a bit more advanced on the batting front but with still major keeping concerns.
We encountered a South Africa unsure of themselves and it permeated the team. Van Jaarsveld had a decent second test, playing a big role in saving the game, and was bunted out straight away and turned into the Surrey-killing Kolpak. Tsolokile was keeper for one test, then it was AB, then Boucher. Openers were changed. Pollock wasn’t long from the end of his career. South Africa had a Nathan Lyon complex over Nicky Boje. But they also had two gun young players in their midst – Steyn and AB and that meant hope sprung eternal. Also in that series we saw Amla. This Hashim Amla was a walking wicket, a man no-one feared. Stick with someone and you never know what you might have might be the mantra.
For AB and Steyn the hosts must be hoping Bavuma and Rabada are somewhere in the same zipcode. Can you rely on that and also, there are othere ageing players in that line-up too. But all the comments I’m seeing on the future for the South Africans are grim. When your not quite made it test players can go back to first class cricket and immediately dominate, it does not look great. A number subscribe to the “cyclical nature” of cricket but that’s not happened for the West Indies, is not looking likely for Sri Lanka, and who is to say Pakistan will continue to churn out talent? The noises around AB, that has inspired huge discomfort from the Saffers I come across on Twitter, have not eased anyone’s soul. There’s a lot of discontent that AB took his first captaincy press conference to pour cold water on the future spoke volumes. It may not be the cause, but the effect is that if you feel your leader’s heart isn’t 100% in it, then nor should your’s – even sub-consciously. South Africa have been under the leadership of two players who don’t really exude commitment to being the main man. The fish rots from the head.
For England this is a great win. Let’s not get churlish about this from the team’s standpoint. Durban was won due to important batting contributions from Compton and Taylor, not our usual old faithfuls. It was won without Anderson. Then there was Stokes and Bairstow at CT, and then two of our old reliables, Broad and Root in Joburg. The batting isn’t world number 1 class, it just isn’t making the runs across the board, the opening slot is a mess, the number 3 in flux, Taylor hasn’t nailed down five (nor is he letting us down) and it’s because the batting has depth down, arguably, to nine, that this is not as crucial. While 2-0 in South Africa is a tremendous result, it doesn’t, for example mean 2-0 in UAE should be ignored, not with the challenges of India this winter on the horizon. This is the World #1 opposition in name only, and a #1 in flux and down in the mouth. We did what we should do. Beat a team in that shape, and make it worse.
Just for laughs, I thought I’d pick a composite team of the two from those winning squads. I bet this will go down well.
- Vaughan (c)
- Bairstow (Wk)
Five from this team, six from 2005.
Have a great rest of the day.