South Africa vs England: 4th Test and series review

It’s quite an achievement for England to finish a series in South Africa as victors, and still leave a trail of furious supporters in their wake, but they’ve managed it well enough.  The spineless capitulation of today reached such impressive levels that they’d managed to lose the game before most of the country had arrived at their desks, sipped a coffee and turned the desktop on to check the score.  Alastair Cook had good reason to look embarrassed as he collected the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy, as even Mike Selvey suggested he should, for even by England’s historically impressive standards of collapses, this was abject.

The succession of batsmen arriving and departing can be covered quickly enough, not much less time than it took them in real time, for few of them were got out.  Bairstow perhaps got a decent enough ball as did Taylor, while Moeen Ali can at least hold his head up from the shambles having batted well in both innings with little support down the order.

In reality, in this Test England were lucky to finish second, having been outplayed throughout, but it shouldn’t alter the truth that they won this series, and won it well.  Yet that England have lost the final Test in seven of their last eight series shouldn’t be ignored either.  Ian Botham tried to pass this off as being human nature when a series is won, only for a rather pointed Michael Holding to comment that it wasn’t in the team he played in.  Nor is it a matter of dead rubbers, for in four of those series the overall outcome has been on the line.  Why England have this issue is hard to pin down, but these final match defeats also have a habit of being extremely heavy.

Part of the problem is that England are being portrayed in some quarters as being an exceptional side in the making, but the recent performances don’t completely support that.  Yes, they have won in South Africa, and that is certainly meritorious.  They also won the Ashes, as curious and bizarre a series as you could wish to see.  But they lost in the UAE too, showing many of the same vulnerabilities as they have done today, and furthermore beat a South Africa shorn of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander.

That’s not a mean-spirited summary, for any team can only beat what is in front of them, and not many sides at all go to South Africa and win, irrespective of how strong they are at a given time, while England’s defeats when players are missing are never excused by such a thing.  It must also be added that had the two of them been fit, then there would have been no place for Rabada, who looks a serious prospect.  Yet although South Africa may have lost the series, by the end of it they are the team who look to have learned something and discovered players for the future.  This is entirely against the narrative the media are all too often wishing to push, but it is undoubtedly England who have the thinking to do.

Stephen Cook may not necessarily be a long term solution as opener (although with his father’s genes that can’t be entirely assumed), but with Elgar having a decent series, it at least looks like South Africa have one more opener than England do, while Rabada, Bavuma and De Kock all look excellent cricketers to form the core of the side in years to come.  Add in to that two genuinely world class batsmen in Amla, back to his best, and De Villiers – around whom there is more debate, though not about his ability – and there is more than enough to work with.

In contrast, England have some issues to address, and Geoff Boycott was scathing about the way they haven’t moved on this series.  Alex Hales is clearly a big question mark at the top of the order, having had a poor series with a solitary half century.  There do appear to be technical issues with his footwork, for he is consistently failing to get across to the ball, but there’s another element to it, whereby he appears constrained from his natural game.  This was hardly uncommon in the England set up of the past, and there have been and at this point still are hopes that under Bayliss’ tutelage players will be allowed to play their own game.  Yet far from being the dashing opener Bayliss clearly wants, having stated he wishes to see two of the top three being positive, he has been subdued and attempting to play differently than to his strengths.  No one expected him to offer the levels of solidity of Boycott himself, for that is not his game, but nor is it David Warner’s game, and he has been encouraged to attack and play to his strengths.  Whether Hales ever makes it or not is one thing, but it would be a dismal end if he is discarded without ever having the chance to show what he is good at, rather than what we know he isn’t good at.

Compton too had a mixed series; he started superbly and was arguably man of the match in the first Test, for his two innings did more than anyone to set up the platform for victory.  Yet his returns diminished as the series went on, and more worryingly, he too appeared to playing in a manner alien to his own skills.  Compton is a plodder, an accumulator, who possesses excellent concentration, a limited range of shots and a decent defence.  If he is picked on that basis, he should be capable of demonstrating them.  But his dismissals were all too often down to overly aggressive batting, which is simply not his forte.  Again, if that is his own approach, then it is self-inflicted, but one way or the other, he’s attempting to be what he is not.

Joe Root had a good series, with the only proviso that on too many occasions he got himself out when set.  It is to his credit that this can be used as a mild criticism of a player who averaged 55, for Root is looking so very very good, it is a major surprise and disappointment these days when he doesn’t cash in.

James Taylor had his moments, but didn’t consolidate his place.  He did look like he had more to give at least, and showed on occasion a real aptitude for the fight.  And while it has no bearing on his position in the side, his truly astounding catching at short leg cannot pass unmentioned.

Jonny Bairstow topped the averages, though his batting exploits were tempered by his problems keeping wicket.  England can all too easily go round and round in circles over this one, as they did a few years before ultimately settling on Matt Prior second time around.  The problem is one that afflicts all sides who ultimately pick a keeper for his batting, and that is for such a player the batting is what will have taken priority.  Many of Bairstow’s errors were the result of simply not being a regular, consistent wicketkeeper, and thereby keeping like a part-timer.  The missed stumping on the inside of the bat is a perfect case in point, because it isn’t a matter of technique or aptitude at that level, it is a matter of doing it sufficiently often for the eyes not to be dragged off the line of the ball by the bat.  If he is affirmed as the wicketkeeper, then the work he will have to put in will reap rewards and he will improve.  It is extremely simple here, for all Alastair Cook’s comments (of which more later) about the importance of the man behind the stumps taking the chances, some are going to be missed if that man is not a full time, regular wicketkeeper.  Bairstow is not at this time.  If England want him to be, then they will have to show patience.  Exactly the same applies to Joss Buttler, and applied thoroughly to Matt Prior too.  There are some very short memories on display.

Ben Stokes was the star of the show for the England team, mostly because of the astounding double century.  It does inflate his figures of course, but that’s what big scores do, and no one takes the ducks out of statistics to even it up.  So a batting average of 58 and a bowling one of 29 would do rather nicely to say the least over a career.   There can be quibbles with him, as there always can be, but Stokes is the beating heart of this team, a player who can change the course of a game on his own.  Such cricketers are like gold dust, and while Ian Botham’s assertion that Stokes is a better player than he was at the same age is preposterous in its modesty (Botham was a genuinely great bowler until injuries and fitness issues took their toll), he is a fantastic prospect, and one who will make every opponent deeply nervous about what he can do.

Moeen Ali had a slightly curious series.  On surfaces that were rarely truly spinner friendly – or when they were, were still more conducive to pace anyway – neither he nor Piedt had a major impact on matters.  Yet Moeen does have the ability to take wickets, and does so often out of the blue.  It is a knack that is certainly useful, and he probably is the best finger spinner England have.  The raw figures don’t look that pretty for either of the spinners in this series, but Moeen did a job.  Batting wise, his best moments tended to come, as is the nature of someone batting at number eight, at the end of the innings running out of partners.  A more selfish player could have finished with a markedly better average.

Broad had a wonderful series, taking more wickets than anyone bar Rabada, and capped off by the devastating spell of 6-17 to win the series for England.  Broad is England’s best bowler and one of the best they’ve had in a long time.  He has been excellent for four years now, not always receiving the credit he has deserved in that time.  If he’s finally being recognised for the outstanding performer he is, then it’s about time.

Steven Finn too had a good time of it, reminding everyone that he is a wicket taker first and foremost.  His strike rate of 49 is actually slightly above his career average, which quite effectively points out the stupidity of trying to make him into something other than he is over the last few years.  He goes for runs sometimes.  But he takes wickets.  That’s his job.  Deal with it.

Chris Woakes.  Ah, Chris Woakes.  A fine cricketer is in there somewhere, for he was at time unlucky, and appears to have all the attributes to succeed.  But all too often he appears entirely innocuous, and struggled throughout to take wickets.  He isn’t helped by coming in for one game, dropping out again, then being brought back, a pattern that has repeated itself over his short Test career.  It’s hard to realistically assess him when he’s used that way, but he needs to find a way to contribute more than he is.

James Anderson has had a surprising amount of stick for his efforts in this series.  It’s quite plainly a long way from being one of his best, but he was injured for the first match and struggled for the next couple.  The fourth Test he appeared to get something more of his normal zip back, and swung the ball.  At 33, for the first time he has had people prepared to say it is the beginning of the end.  Based on a single series that’s a little harsh, particularly for someone who has generally stayed so fit and who doesn’t rely on pace in the first place.  It is of course entirely possible he’s lost his nip, but it’s premature to say the least to assume so just from this series, unless 30 year old batsmen who also had a poor series are going to be treated the same – and that is most unlikely.

Finally there’s the captain.  As skipper, he did ok.  Not outstandingly well, for he is not an outstanding on field captain.  But he has at last become a competent one, a skipper who you tend not to notice which implies he is not doing anything wrong at least.  The one thing Bayliss has brought as coach has been an insistence that the captain run the side rather than being a cipher for a dictatorial backroom team.  Under that philosophy, Cook has flowered as captain to some extent.  That is in itself a good thing, and begs the question as to whether Cook would have been a better captain throughout his tenure if he hadn’t instead been designated classroom monitor rather than captain.  Perhaps some of the appalling displays of cluelessness in the past were less specifically down to him, and more to do with the structure of the England management.  Perhaps.  But here he was perfectly fine, though the idea that the captain won the series remains a stubbornly held meme in the media.

His batting on the other hand was fairly poor, even if towards the end of the series there were signs of improvement.  Here’s the thing, as has been repeatedly stated about Cook with every low score: good batsmen can have bad series.  AB De Villiers didn’t have a great one (though he did score more runs) either, so there’s no shame in having a poor run.  It happens, and it happens to every player.  Yet Cook’s average of 23 is the lowest he has ever had in his career in series of three Tests or longer, and has gone almost unnoticed.  Furthermore, so many of the cricket journalists have bent over backwards to avoid mentioning it, while at the same time focusing on Hales, Compton and Taylor – two of whom have performed considerably better.  This is now par for the course with Cook, and irritates no end.  It is hard to enjoy a player’s success when so many who follow England professionally (as opposed to paying to do so) are so keen to excuse and ignore the failures.  If there’s sympathy with Cook, it is that the Pravda approach which he presumably hasn’t asked for is actually damaging the perception of him through no fault of his own.

Cook then took the opportunity after the match conclusion to offer up some thoughts on other players in the side, and these were eyebrow raising to say the least.  Firstly there was the comment that

“Trevor Bayliss, myself and the selectors will have to sit down and discuss that [lack of runs by some players] because the output we’ve had in this series hasn’t been good enough if we’re trying to get to No1 in the world – which is the ultimate aim.”

which may well be a throw away line, but if true should set alarm bells ringing.  Cook is not a selector, and the captain has never been a selector.  And for good reason too, if other players feel the captain has major input on their presence in the side it is fundamentally unhealthy, as being favoured by the captain becomes much more important than it should be.  It’s especially the case when the captain himself has had such a poor series.  Few with any sense would advocate dropping Cook of course, but if others are going to be scrutinised, then so should he be, for there is little more guaranteed to cause division in the dressing room than someone who hasn’t performed holding judgement over others who haven’t performed.  He did later on include himself in the list of those who needed more runs, but for a player trying to make his way in the side, hearing the captain publicly criticising them for having done little better or worse than he did will be galling.

Likewise Jonny Bairstow, who was subject to Cook talking at length about how dropped catches by him were costly and that at Test level not acceptable.  Bairstow did have a mixed time as keeper as outlined above, but also had a huge impact on the series overall; he deserved better than having his place openly questioned by his captain at the conclusion when he would have been reflecting on a job largely well done.

For Hales, Cook went further.  Having been asked if four Tests was long enough to judge him, Cook replied

“You can certainly form an opinion. Absolutely. If Halesy has a great run now in the one-day series and back at Nottinghamshire, he’ll be pushing again. He’ll be disappointed with the number of runs he’s scored but it hasn’t been easy.”

which to Hales will read like his time is up.  This is not Cook’s place to say these things.  Yes we do criticise players for giving anodyne answers in interviews, but for the captain to say these things has a direct impact on the players.  It isn’t good enough, and it isn’t the first time he’s done it either.  A captain has a responsibility to his team mates.

Cook is no naive neophyte.  He knows what he is doing when he says these things.  It is certainly the behaviour of someone utterly sure of his position, but it perhaps would have reflected better on him had he recalled the two years he spent making very little contribution to the England batting order.  Cook is a very good player indeed, and he’s captained the side well recently.  It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make him invulnerable and it certainly doesn’t make him the person to openly judge other players unless he wants to be openly judged himself – something he seems to object to.  That’s not because it’s Alastair Cook, it’s because he’s the captain.  Not the coach, and not a selector.

The two sides now move on to the one day series, and England have a break from Test cricket until the first part of the summer, and those players not involved in the hit and giggles can come home to rest.  And that is deserved, for cricketers spend a long time away from family.  For Cook himself, he needs that break, so yes he will be doing things with sheep.  And may it re-charge his batteries for the summer ahead.