There’s a strange contradiction in being the Grumpy Old Men of the cricket blogging world. At the time England were being well beaten in India there appeared to be some kind of denial in many circles about the weaknesses of the team and the personnel. Excuses were made, post facto predictions were changed to meet the reality rather than how it had been seen in advance. Yet with really bad defeats (such as in the last Test) the press piled in, slating all and sundry for an abject display and questioning the very ability of the team to play the game.
Mild observations that sides are never as good or bad in defeat or victory as they seem to be never quite fit the zeitgeist, with kneejerk responses always a more fitting way to meet events. Yet with England today having an exceptional time of it, doubtless the same overreactions will apply, despite little of material fact changing.
England have played well here, but in a similar manner to how they have done so when succeeding over the last few years. Cook batted beautifully yesterday, and drew the sting from some fine bowling. He didn’t carry on for too long today, but can count himself unlucky to say the least to be on the rough end of a marginal lbw call. He deserved a hundred, but as has been pointed out, context free discussion of Root’s conversion problem can apply equally well to an unlucky Cook.
With his removal, Stokes and Bairstow went on the attack. Ah, now there’s a thing. It came off. Both players took some chances, played their shots and changed the context of the day, South Africa unable to contain them as the runs flowed at 5 an over. Outcome is all, for had that calculated risk not succeeded, it really isn’t hard to imagine the plethora of comment about being unable to play at a Test match tempo, preferably blaming current shibboleth, T20. The point there is that those critics aren’t wrong, but nor are they right just to point it out when it goes wrong. Responding to every move on the basis of whether it works or not is no way of assessing whether the strategy is a sound one, it’s a far deeper question than that.
That Stokes batted beautifully is not the point, it’s a matter of whether he (and the rest of the middle order) are given the latitude to fail as well as succeed playing this way. Forgetting the bad days just because today was a good one is as flawed as the other way around. England haven’t changed, nor has that middle order, it’s just that today they batted well in a similar style to when they did badly, and not just when failing spectacularly to save a match.
That’s not to downplay how good today was for a moment, for 353 always looked above par, even before what followed. There were decent contributions most of the way down, it was – as often – a surprise that Bairstow got out, while Moeen Ali took his controversial dismissal on review remarkably well. Toby Roland-Jones will think Test cricket is easy given he scored his runs at a healthy lick before having something of a party in his primary role. He may or may not succeed as a Test cricketer, but not every player gets to have days like this.
Stokes certainly knows how to be the showman, and the three consecutive sixes that raced him through the nineties to a well deserved century were simply marvellous to watch. Some players simply make you smile or gasp when you watch them. It is those who make the game special, even if the less eye catching tend to be the ones who are more consistent.
South Africa, who had bowled so well on day one, were certainly hampered by the absence of Vernon Philander, off the field to much amusement due to tummy trouble, only for that to die away as it transpired he’d ended up in hospital for tests. His absence was keenly felt on a day where his bowling seemed ideal for the conditions.
If runs and wickets are the obvious measures of success, Joe Root had a good day as captain too. It wasn’t just that every bowling change he made seemed to work, it was also that he appeared to assert his authority as captain. The new ball was being wasted, a succession of pleasant, swinging deliveries from Anderson harmlessly passing outside the off stump. Good for the economy rate, not so much for taking wickets. It’s an observation that has been made before, and all too often considered heresy given it concerns England’s leading wicket taker. It’s curious how some, and only some players are considered beyond criticism. An observation may be right or wrong, but it doesn’t dismiss an entire terrific career either way. Still, Root’s response was to remove him from the attack after just three overs, something Anderson didn’t seem overjoyed about looking at his body language.
But here’s the thing: when he returned later in the innings he was right on the money; hostile, threatening the stumps and the edge, and every inch the bowler any England fan loves watching torment opponents with his skill. Captain and senior bowler could be an interesting dynamic to watch over the coming months, but it seemed here to get the best from him.
It was of course Toby Roland-Jones’ day. The merits of an old fashioned England seamer are often overlooked (yet curiously someone like Philander is lauded for showing exactly the same kinds of skills, albeit at a very high level), and here was someone who, after initial nerves, pitched it up, made the batsmen play and did a bit off the seam. Where he led, others followed, and at 61-7, and with the absence of Philander effectively 61-8, the only question, and surely not a serious one, was whether England would enforce the follow on.
Temba Bavuma has shown himself to be a batsman with good temperament before, and the task of extracting his side from the wreckage was one he seemed to relish. In company with Rabada he at least stopped the rot, a partnership of 53 not enough to change the direction of the match, but one at least to narrow the gap from catastrophic to merely disastrous.
It’s possible Philander will be fit to bat tomorrow, but it will take something truly remarkable to move this game away from what appears an inevitable England win. With some inclement weather around, saving the follow on has to be the first and only aim, but only two days have gone, it’s hard to see how it can delay England long enough to prevent victory.
All of which leads back to the beginning. England have had a great day, but just as the fourth day at Trent Bridge didn’t alter the known strengths in the team, nor does this cover up the multiple flaws. Today went well, and they should win this game. It hasn’t re-written the book.