England were always going to lose this match, the question was whether it would be today or tomorrow, and how they lost it. The difference between the teams after the first innings was substantial, and probably meant defeat anyway, but with South Africa batting well on the third day, England’s target was always going to be far beyond them. But how you lose is often as important as how you win, for it demonstrates the qualities of the team in adversity, and the character therein. England’s abysmal collapse today was entirely predictable (indeed yesterday’s post did predict it) but it’s still disappointing to see the worst fears confirmed.
Amidst the storm of criticism England received after the denouement, it was interesting to note how many of the same people who castigated South Africa for not pressing on and playing shots yesterday now complained that England were reckless today. The circumstances aren’t the same of course, but the selectivity with which one side can be criticised for playing decent Test cricket (and winning) and the other attacked for failing to do so is indicative of the confused approach so many have got into in this T20 era.
In the first innings England’s wickets didn’t fall because of too many reckless shots, but the attitude was one of a side that didn’t have too much confidence in their ability to defend. It’s been a regular feature of the England side in recent times, but not exclusively so, they have on occasion batted defensively, even in defeat in India, but the reality is that the middle order are stroke players, and it goes against the grain for them to block. That middle order is outstanding at counter attacking and ramming home an advantage and is more than capable of changing the direction of a match in a session. But what looks terrific as a calculated gamble looks dire when a backs to the wall performance is required. Yet it may well be that those who blame them are looking in the wrong place, for those players have particular strengths, and ones which have been evident as recently as the last Test match, when Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all plundered runs with their attacking approach. Criticising Stuart Broad for being caught on the boundary this afternoon seems a peculiar line to take for example given the match was long dead by then. The problems arise when they are exposed much too early, and the loss of early wickets in a paper thin top order is always going to generate disaster in such circumstances.
It’s not to say the middle order aren’t capable. Moeen batted extraordinarily well in carrying his bat during another dire defeat – to Sri Lanka at Leeds – but having created a role for him in the lower middle order where he is to play freely, it is a bit rich to complain when he does the same thing with the game already lost. That’s not to excuse him, for it wasn’t a great shot to say the least, but in the criticism of that middle order, there are some short memories about that working superbly only one Test ago.
It is true however that the innings as a whole was spectacularly spineless. Cook did show how to do it early on, but with wickets falling about him it had the air of being in vain from half an hour into play. It was a good ball that got him, and an even better one that got Root, but both of them could have survived on another day. Good bowling yes, totally unplayable no. In neither case does that make them responsible for what happened (to emphasise the point, they were definitely good balls), but it was still part of the pattern where no batsman (apart from possibly Dawson) came out with much credit, it is merely a matter of degree. Cook at his very best exudes a sense of certainty missing here, and while others were infinitely more culpable, he will be as disappointed as anyone not to have gone on. Mentioning Cook today is in one sense harsh, but it is only from the perspective of him being about the only player in the side who has the concentration levels to bat for a couple of days. That he doesn’t do it in the fourth innings to save a match that often (not many do) is rather beside the point. He could, which is why the celebrations for his wicket are always the loudest. But Cook has always been vulnerable to pace, and outstanding against spin, and South Africa have a terrific pace attack – his record against both them and Australia is markedly lower than against others. That’s fair enough, for only the very best have no real flaws. Cook is just below that level, but he is very good and the same applies to him as to others – to look at what he can do rather than what he can’t.
England have gone through opening batsmen not called Cook at a rate of knots in the past few years, and Jennings will be aghast at the gaping hole between bat and pad that led to him being bowled, while Ballance was once again stuck on the crease and lbw on review. In the first case, England really do have to decide what they are doing with the opening position and show some faith that whoever they pick will learn the role. In the second, whatever Ballance’s shortcomings at this level, England’s decision to put him in at three, a position he doesn’t hold for his county, and where he struggled last time he was selected, is throwing him to the wolves, irrespective of him apparently being injured this match. Facing the new ball and being in the middle order are entirely different roles, albeit in this England side the middle order is getting used to it quite quickly. England are hoping the square peg can be pushed in to the round hole.
If those two appear to be vulnerable to being dropped, the question is who could come in to replace them. The new schedule for county cricket precludes county championship cricket during the meat of the season, meaning any replacements will not have played anything other than T20 recently. This was of course pointed out at the time the schedule was agreed, but ignored. Change will smack of shuffling the chairs on the Titanic, for it’s a big ask of anyone to come in and get used to different format from the off.
The other player who may give way is Liam Dawson. He is victim of the extraordinarily muddled thinking that passes for selection – he hasn’t proved a success so far, but he’s done about as well as might have been expected given his record. The dropping of Adil Rashid looked reckless at the time, to now give his replacement the boot so soon would make a nonsense of his initial selection. It would also – along with the potential less likely removal of Mark Wood, be following the time honoured England tradition of blaming the bowlers for the failure of the batsmen.
Where to go from here? It should always be said that a team is never so good in victory or as bad in defeat as they seem, and the euphoria of the first Test win was completely misplaced as some kind of barometer for following games. England’s recent record is so poor that this effort today shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, yet apparently it has. Putting the boot in when they’ve played as badly as today is nothing but rampant hypocrisy given the excuse making for the last tour, the home defeats last summer, and the pretence that all was well, fully exonerating everyone from the captain to the Chairman. It’s already been the case that some of our media friends have decided to criticise Root as captain, a mere two Tests into the job, having made endless excuses to this point when it was Cook in charge. That’s not to pick on Cook either, it is to say that these problems with the England side have been apparent for quite some time, yet some were too busy pronouncing all was well when it clearly wasn’t. Equally, those problems don’t mean that it’s fine to rip into the whole side just because of today. Failing to be aware that this happens to the current England – or more specifically, to pretend it hasn’t done because of some misguided cheerleading of those in charge – does a disservice to everyone both then and now, including the players. This is how England have been for a while, with all the concomitant strengths and flaws. It is this apparent new found freedom in the fourth estate to say what has been obvious for a long time that grates so much.
For South Africa, this match couldn’t have gone better – and in the absence of Kagiso Rabada as well. The seam attack had England under pressure from ball one in both innings, and Keshav Maharaj was excellent in support. Yet as in the first Test, the margin of victory disguised the fact that both teams had opportunities. There is absolutely nothing to suggest certainty about the outcome of the next two games, although doubtless there will be much discussion around how England change the “momentum” of the series.
After a day like today, it’s hard to know what is more irritating – the performance, or the apparent amazement that it happened at all. There has been far too much absolving of the past, and so far, far too much criticism today from those who previously stayed silent and pretended the flaws in the team didn’t exist. This is where England are, and yes they can certainly do better in these circumstances than they have today. But it’s not new, and it’s not unusual. A degree of honesty all round about where England have been for the last couple of years wouldn’t go amiss rather than responding day to day.