In part 1 of the World View I looked at the fortunes of the three teams up there with England at the top of the World Rankings. In this part I’ll be looking at those in the mid-division and having a peek at their future series and where they might be going in the next year. This, I must stress, relates to test matches, not other international cricket. It was also written earlier this week, before the conclusion of the South Africa v New Zealand test. Hope you enjoy it.
The Proteas were the top dogs of test cricket for quite a while (since 2012?) without ever seeming to have that aura of a dominant team. That was amusing because whichever way you looked at it, the 2-0 win in England to take the top slot was mightily impressive. It is hard to fathom that England have ever been more soundly beaten in a test match at home as they were at The Oval in 2012. South Africa’s reign at the top was assisted by the fact they rarely lost away from home, so that when they did lose at home, as they did to Australia in 2014, the away wins kept them top (along with the inconsistency of all the other nations).
The South Africans fortunes have waned recently, culminating in a horror winter of 2015/16 when they lost at home to England and were thrashed in India on what one might call some interesting surfaces. As they did so their cracks became clear. The first is at the top of the order. Walking into an England series with Elgar and Van Zyl looked like it was asking for trouble. Elgar is a solid citizen, and played well for a century in Durban, but he’s no Smith or Gibbs. Van Zyl was a middle order test player stuck up the order and did not produce. The middle order solidity of Amla, Du PLessis and DeVilliers let them down in the two series, and when that was breached, problems in other areas got exposes. DeVilliers in particular is sending out warning signals about his workload that some Saffer fans are not too happy about. DuPlessis did not score as heavily and his average dropped down to the low 40s. Amla cannot go on forever. Cook coming into the top order (some saying long after he should have been) added some strength and Bavuma has a lot of promise, but this doesn’t strike you as World Number One batting. What they seriously must hope is that Quentin de Kock is going to work as an opener. He’s great to watch in the one day matches and the South Africans would love to see him do that for them. He’s opened in this recent match, made an 80, but you suspect this is a Hales like experiment. Probably doomed to fail.
Where the cracks are really showing is in the Proteas’ main strength; their seam bowling attack. They simply can’t get their top four pacemen fit at the same time. Imagine an attack of Steyn, Morkel, Rabada and Philander in England next Summer? That is all we will do because Steyn is breaking down more than a 40 year old Trabant, Morkel is rickety, Philander has been out for quite a while and only just back, and Rabada is shouldering a large workload. South Africa have little spin threat, although Dane Piedt isn’t bad, but that’s something they are used to. The bowling just below test level is unproven – as it is most everywhere – but this doesn’t seem to be at the depth of England’s for example.
South Africa’s winter is a bitty one. They play this series against New Zealand, and look like they might win the test at Centurion, then play a five game ODI series against Australia at home. They then travel to Australia for a three test series in Perth, Hobart and then a day-nighter at Adelaide. Given Australia’s recent travails in Sri Lanka, that looks a potentially exciting series. Sri Lanka visit South Africa for three tests starting at Port Elizabeth on Boxing Day (followed by Cape Town and Johannesburg).and then a whole host of limited overs bilge. Then South Africa jet off for a series in New Zealand, playing copious amounts of ODIs before settling in to a three test series starting in early March in Dunedin – the other two matches are at Wellington and Hamilton.
With that workload their chances to get to England with the four pace bowlers intact looks limited. 11 test matches I make it, and bundles of hit and giggle. Those people sniping at AB for the workload comments (and yes, that is rich when you make the IPL your be all and end all) may need to revisit it. South Africa are at the crossroads, like so many, with younger players not really establishing themselves in blocks, but with enough green shoots to be tantalising for the future. They need to eke out as much as they can from AB and Amla before they ride off into the sunset. That may not be far away.
The legends are bowing out, one by one. Holes in the test team need to be filled. By common consent, from what you read, the authorities running the game in Sri Lanka are beyond the ECB in ridiculousness. There are perennial financial crises. The nation that brought us Murali, Vaas, Kumar, Mahela, Sanath, Aravinda et al looked firmly on the downslope of their test match fortunes. They seemed the poster children for the travails of the test game worldwide. They played a frankly miserable series in early summer England (and I use the word summer with due poetic licence) where they lost 2-0, may well have lost the final one but for rain, and all seemed doom and gloom.
Then Australia visited Sri Lanka and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, a month later, they had whitewashed the supposed World Numbe One team (and when have we ever seen a number one team thrashed like that in Asia. That never happens) despite batting weaknessess that have been opened up wherever they go.
The reasons for the Sri Lankan demise, if that is what it is, is that maybe in this modern era of test cricket, having oven ready longform players is not going to be the norm. These players are going to take time to adjust, to gel, to form decent careers. In many ways this means selectors and senior pros are going to need to take time and not a little skill to identify who the top prospects are. Sometimes they will thrill you, play the innings of their life and give you a glimpse of their ceiling, but that is just what it is, a glimpse. We’re not talking about a James Vince cover drive in a dashing 30, but a matchwinning, Mark Butcher 173-esque zone of a lifetime knock. A Chandimal. A Kusal Mendis. A Dananjaya De Silva.
For Chandimal, who also keeps wicket, that’s not such an issue, but Kusal and Dananjaya have given us a tempting look at the future. All around there is uncertainy, save for the trojan captain Angelo Mathews, who can’t go on forever. The fleeting sights of a Karunaratne ton are outweighed by maddening inconsistency. Kaushal Silva shows flashes of brilliance. There seems no shortage of those flashing lights, but they aren’t as world savvy as their predecessors, and aren’t coming into a team protected by the genius bowling of Murali. And while Herath is a lovely bowler, a joy to watch, and of full of width as your author (actually, I wish), he isn’t Murali and we can never hope to see another.
That 3-0 win was a shot in the arm for test cricket. In each test they won the scraps. When it got tight, they got out of it. In each match they exposed the visitors’ weaknesses and held sway. In doing so they threw Australia into crisis. The spin bowling was brilliant, and although the seam bowling, despite Sanath’s cries, is not the best in the world, it has enough going for it. Will it be worldly wise enough to carry them through the next few years? Only time will tell. But watching Sri Lanka will be fascinating going forward. I think they are the bellwether for tests (along with the West Indies). When Sri Lanka’s production line is strong, then there’s warmth in my heart for tests.
This winter Sri Lanka seem to have no test cricket until December when they travel to South Africa for the three tests mentioned above. They outstrip England for a stupid tour (our’s to the West Indies for 3 ODIs) with one to Australia for three T20 internationals in February. And that is it. There is nothing on Cricinfo suggesting they will be going anywhere else. Are they going to Zimbabwe? Their future tour programme shows a massive blank up until five tests at home after the Champions Trophy (2 v Zimbabwe, yeah right, and 3 v India).
So how can you develop with a patchy program like this? So those that shout from the rooftops that Sri Lanka’s win against Australia vindicates test cricket, should look at the bigger picture and wonder why they are spread so thin this winter? Sri Lanka are one of those teams to nurture, not shun. We won’t be any further forward in knowing what we have in 9 months. Staying strong in South Africa would be an achievement, and then…. we may have quite a wait.
With those two series defeats, home and away, against Australia, together with the retirement of their talisman, Brendon McCullum, it really looks like an end of an era for New Zealand. Such as it was. The most patronised of international cricket teams might still be ultra competitive in the shorter forms with their explosive, brutal batting, but in tests the flaws are too great for them to march forward, and you don’t sense a production line of Kane Williamsons are there to keep them afloat.
The upcoming winter, if you include this series, sees New Zealand play 12 test matches, which is a considerable number compared to recent years and probably going to test them well. Two in South Africa, (well one given what happened in Durban) is followed by a series in India with three tests (see India section in previous post for venues). Then New Zealand host Pakistan in a two test series, have South Africa at home in three, and according to the FTP, Bangladesh visit as well with two tests in Wellington and Christchurch in January.
Of course, as English-centric as we are, we can only refer back to the last series between our two teams as a marker. Some have claimed it to be the most important series of test cricket played in recent years, which is lachrymose nonsense. It was a two test series contested between two evenly matched teams, and the cricket reached very good quality at times. It produced excellent performances, and it also contained some absolute nonsense (Day 4 at Headingley again…). The key message should have been that a two test abomination at the start of a summer treated a good team with contempt. Instead it was Stokes and Cook.
So what do we have with New Zealand now? In common with pretty much all test teams (India aside?) there are problems with openers. Latham and Guptill don’t seem to be that secure but they don’t appear as though they are going to be left out. The replacement is Rutherford, I presume. The next two batsmen are plenty solid enough – Kane Williamson is in the top echelon of players, and as I write he’s the only one not falling apart against South Africa. Ross Taylor has had some top innings in the past year, and is a major player. After that we have promising players, unproven players and insecurity. That is except BJ Watling, who is one of the most unsung cricketers I’ve ever seen. I’m a huge fan, and it is always a sense of consternation to me that his innings at Headingley is hardly ever mentioned. He’s a total pest to shake off when he is in.
Then there is the bowling. Trent Boult and Tim Southee are a good opening pair, and there is back up in the seam department with Wagner, Bracewell, Henry and Milne. The spin bowling is taken care of by Santner at the moment, but like many others, the lack of mystery spin, or even a Swann-type hinders many teams these days. New Zealand are no exception. Will we have any more idea where New Zealand will be in the next 12 months? There is a feeling of a slightly managed decline, with the odd top performance being countered by continued problems against foes they struggle against. Pakistan at home for two games, and South Africa for three look to set the tone for the next couple of years.
The Final Part will be around in a week or so, dealing with West Indies, Bangladesh and England. Zimbabwe? Why bother? Who knows when they play?