It’s curious how a single win can change both the narrative and the expectations for the next game. England won at Lords at a canter, but South Africa certainly had their chances, and better catching and the ability to stay behind the popping crease could have made a material difference to the outcome. Test matches are all about that kind of thing – the key moments that swing the game, although very often they are apparent afterwards rather than at the time. Few remember the errors of the side who wins the game. But the feelgood response to England’s win has led to an expectation of more of the same, and this is by no means a certainty. England have a new captain, and that always engenders feelings of a fresh start, but with a recent record before this match of losing five of the previous six Tests, it is hardly a recent history to terrify the opposition, notwithstanding India being a tough place to tour.
One of the most interesting comments Trevor Bayliss made after the first Test was that Moeen and Stokes allowed the side to be balanced in almost all conditions, meaning that England quickly confirmed the same team for Trent Bridge and thus will play two spinners while at the same time having four seam bowlers. There’s certainly a logic there, and handled properly, it could grant England the ability to ease new players into the side without taking risks as to the bowling attack. This is a rare privilege for any side, a single all rounder tends to be the hope, as it allows a five man attack with seven batsmen. England have three, including (and he certainly should be included) Jonny Bairstow. Whether the selectors make best use of the opportunity afforded is a different matter.
If South Africa shot themselves in the foot repeatedly in the first Test, the cost of that is still to be found in the second. The loss of Rabada is unquestionably a blow, and as self-inflicted as the future loss of Ben Stokes is likely to be when he falls foul of the same regulations. Timing is everything, and if Stokes can ensure he gets himself banned for a couple of end of season ODIs then few will complain – except the ticket holders of course, and they never count. Rabada may be out, but the return of Faf du Plessis certainly strengthens the batting, and of course having the captain back should in itself allow some stability within the side. Rabada will certainly be replaced by Duanne Olivier, but there have been suggestions that two quicks could come in instead, with Chris Morris becoming the fourth seamer. Should they do that, Theunis de Bruyn would most likely miss out and South Africa will go into the match with only six batsmen.
Du Plessis himself comes in to replace JP Duminy, a player who recently has provided more work for the umpires than the scorers. It may be the end of his Test career, but he has come back before, and South Africa are rather light on batsmen this tour should there be injuries. Still, even with the unsurprising news of that particular change, six batsmen would represent something of a gamble.
Trent Bridge has a reputation for offering swing and seam to the bowlers, but in recent times the pitches have tended towards the slow, and sometimes downright turgid. Two spinner in the England team may not be as unusual as might initially be thought to be the case. Recent rainfall may have lessened the dryness of the ground beneath the immediate surface, and should the pitch assist the seam bowlers, then South Africa will feel confident they have the weapons to challenge England.
It is 20 years since South Africa last lost a series in England. Lose this match and that proud record is under serious threat. But despite missing the likes of Steyn and De Villiers, for differing reasons, they are a good enough side to cause England problems. Quite simply, they just need to play better than they did at Lords.
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