Today was the sort of day that many of us Test enthusiasts love, a day where bowlers had the sort of conditions that actually gave them the upper hand and where the batsmen had to fight for every single run. Yes today was a bit of a grind and I must admit that the Old Trafford surface hasn’t been great, but I would rather see a proper fight between bat and ball than 600 play 650 on a flat, bowlers graveyard of a pitch. The day ebbed and flowed, with South Africa battling to stay in the match and England trying to eek out enough runs to feel comfortable in defending on a deteriorating pitch. By the end of the day, England managed to emerge on top; however it was tough going, which Test cricket is absolutely meant to be.
England’s batting was a tale of the downright poor and one absolutely superb innings. I think it’s safe to say that England’s top order still has more holes than a watering can, with the top 3 all getting out to woeful shots and Malan, although 2 Test’s into his England career, looking nervous and out of place in the Test arena. It would be harsh to drop Malan after only 2 games, but sometimes a player just doesn’t look international class I’m afraid. As for the Top 3, I’m afraid it looks like game, set and match for Keaton Jennings. He came out with some credit from his performance in the 2nd innings of the Oval Test, but has looked woefully short of form all summer. This is absolutely not helped by the fact that his feet look stuck to the crease, his head position is too upright on connection with the ball, which means that he doesn’t seem in control of the ball when it hits the bat and of course he genuinely doesn’t seem to know where his off stump is at the moment in the face of good, patient bowling. I think his reaction to his dismissal said a 1,000 words, he realises that its now back to Durham to try and work on his technique and to score some big runs. The opener cab rank is starting to look extremely bare.
Westley and Cook also both got out in the same way, launching ill advised flashes outside the off stump in what were very bowler friendly conditions. Westley is still learning the international game and whilst I worry about his ability against deliveries pitching outside off stump, I’ve seen enough of him in the last couple of Tests to give him the benefit of the doubt. The same can’t be said for Cook. I’m afraid that Cook looks to be in terminal decline, unable to fathom out how to score big runs now international bowlers have truly found out his weaknesses. A number of us have pointed out that he is now 50 not out since he last scored a century against either Australia or South Africa and indeed having done a little bit of digging (Nonoxcol had the same idea) it now reads that Cook has an average below 30 against these teams going all the way back to 2012 (some 26 Test matches). These cold hard facts may be difficult to swallow for those that have chosen deify Cook, but it is a fact that Cook really has been a flat track bully over the past 5 years. I will again reiterate again that I’m not advocating that Cook should be dropped, far from it, we can’t find one opener let alone two at the moment, but the fact that Cook is still easily the best opener in England is more a terrible reflection on county cricket, than it is a reflection on how good Cook actually is at the moment. Oh and just to annoy the Cook straw men on Twitter that’s 5 in 98 now.
With the dismissal of Malan and with England 77-4, with only a lead of around 200 ahead, there seemed to still be life in this Test, as whilst the pitch was doing a fair bit, if South Africa could limit the chase to fewer than 275, they still had a chance. Root played very well before getting a ball that kept low. One may be nitpicking and argue that he should have got forward to it; however equally you don’t generally expect the pitch to have demons in it on Day 3. Stokes and Bairstow both came and went, with the former getting a good delivery, which he nicked off to slip and the latter looking uncharacteristically out of touch. So enter the hour and enter the man. I admit that I’ve been particularly harsh on Moeen in the past winter, as I could see all the talent in the world, but couldn’t see any growth in his game. He has proved to be excellent with the ball in this series with 20 wickets and an innings to come and today he showed his class with the bat. England were still in a little bit of strife when Moeen came in, but boy did he play this innings to perfection. He was positive rather than being reckless, something that hasn’t always been the case, didn’t allow the South African bowlers to settle into their line and lengths and then launched a perfect counter attack with the bowlers tiring. Moeen’s counter hitting was truly a sight to behold, though Elgar will be kicking himself for dropping him on 15; however this cameo has firmly turned the dial in England’s favour. I would be amazed if South Africa can muster a batting performance on this pitch to win it from here. It is also worth noting that Moeen’s tally of 20 wickets and over 200 runs is the first time that this has been achieved since a certain Freddie Flintoff achieved it in a rather special Ashes series. Now I’m not going to try and compare apples and pears, but if Moeen can keep this level of play up in the next couple of series and beyond, then England have another true all rounder.
As for the South African bowlers, they can hold their heads up high. Morkel, Rabada and even Olivier, who looked a club bowler in the 2nd Test, bowled extremely well in conditions that suited them. They consistently made England’s batsmen play and miss and on another occasion could have easily wrapped up the England innings for under 150. The only bowler who will be slightly disappointed will be Maharaj, though whilst he looked dangerous bowling into the rough, especially against the left handers, he will be disappointed that he only took 1-92 in pretty helpful conditions, although he could do little whilst he was being smashed round the park by Moeen.
So onto Day 4 and barring a miracle or persistent rain, England should wrap up this game and the series 3-1 in the next day or so. Whether we have learnt anything more about the England line up however, is an extremely moot point.
Thoughts and comments on Day 4 below.