South Africa vs England, 1st Test: Omnishambles (Slight Return)

This Test might have lacked one of England’s now iconic 50 all outs, but taken as a whole this match has highlighted once again the deep structural problems in the England team.  Yes, there has been illness, and as a result even those players who were fully healthy by the start of the game were likely undercooked, but as excuses go, this only offers up a plausible response if the team generally performs at a higher level than this.  England don’t, this is more of the same, more of the usual failings.

Putting the opposition in might have been a gamble, but this game wasn’t won or lost at the toss, but in the manner of the performances thereafter.  England had South Africa in trouble at 111-5 and let them get away to a workable total.  This happens all the time, to the point that England in recent times have the highest bowling average of any Test side for the last three wickets.  They followed that up with the normal abject collapse in the first innings losing their last 7 wickets for 39 runs.  Again, so customary, so repetitive.

Having conceded a sizeable first innings lead, England again bowled pretty well initially, only to utterly fall apart as the deficit grew, whether by accident (which lacks discipline) or design (which lacks brains).  And then when given a virtually impossible target, they batted pretty well, but were still needing to rely on a miracle of Headingley proportions to pull off the win.  Those events just don’t happen very often, which is why they’re considered miracles.

And here’s the rub.  We’ve written all this before.  You’ve read it all before.  You’ve screamed at the television watching another middle order player with their feet in treacle throwing their hands at a wide one and getting caught.  We’ve seen Jos Buttler end up holing out because he has no choice but to go into T20 mode when batting with the tail.  That doesn’t for a moment exempt him from the longer term problems of which he is part, but it is another repeat of the same old afflictions and the entirely predictable way this game ultimately panned out.

For South Africa came into this Test match in disarray, and England not only didn’t take advantage, but they were pretty heavily beaten.  Again.  Sickness throughout the squad can be pointed to as a factor, but patience has been exhausted with this team – there’s always a damn excuse for yet another capitulation.

It’s not so many years since England smugly discarded players with Test records the current lot could only dream of on the grounds of preparing for the future.  That future is now, and it really doesn’t look very good at all.  Individual players are still scapegoated, – Jofra Archer before his five wickets in the second innings was getting plenty of stick, a new, raw fast bowler ground into the dirt with a workload more suited to a stock bowler than a strike one; he was mishandled in New Zealand, and then berated for failing to put right all the myriad flaws in English cricket.

Broad and Anderson have been superb servants of English cricket, but they are coming to the end, and they aren’t, can’t be, at the same kind of level they were in years past, and the cupboard is pretty bare. For all their peculiar flaws upstairs for players with so much experience, it’s hard to believe things are going to get better once they’re gone. On the batting front, Rory Burns has shown there is something there to work with, but while the top scoring player should never be singled out, it’s still true that when that top score is 84, the team won’t be winning many matches.  Joe Root and Ben Stokes are the big names in the middle order, but the most solid player in the line up is a 33 year old who responds to a deficit in ability at Test level with sheer bloody-mindedness.  Joe Denly deserves immense respect for extracting every ounce of talent he has, but when he is the one most likely to dig in for the long haul, and a feeling of impending doom with his dismissal is present, it says everything about the level England are operating at.

Even those players who do have the ability have compromised their Test games in pursuit of white ball riches.  Joe Root, however frustrated a figure he cuts when he gets out, is a shadow of the Test batsman he looked prior to attempting to move into T20 leagues, Jonny Bairstow’s technique (never his strongest feature) has disintegrated to the point where the tactics against him have been simplified to either bowling straight or bowling wide and waiting for him to get out.  Jos Buttler shows little sign of becoming a fully fledged Test batsman after nearly 40 Tests.

If the players just aren’t that good, the thinking and the planning at every level of English cricket is worse.  The mentality of the approach is invariably wanting, epitomised by the tactics of bowling bouncers on a surface crying out for the ball to be pitched up.  England do this time and again, misreading conditions, making the wrong call in selection and at the toss.  They are less than the sum of their parts on every occasion, and the antithesis of a team like New Zealand who still manage to compete overall with a fraction of the resources despite their recent hammerings in Australia.  The difference between a side that has a strategy and one wildly thrashing about in the dark is apparent.

It isn’t just about the Test team either.  This is an endemic, systemic issue afflicting the whole of English cricket.  The Hundred in itself is just another form of cricket, the mentality and approach that resulted in its formation though, is another instance of failing to see the wood for the trees.  This is institutional incompetence from top to bottom, and while they can legitimately point to a World Cup victory as proof of a strategy, the response to that of effectively scrapping the domestic 50 over competition was most representative of the utter confusion throughout the administration.

England just don’t learn, English cricket just doesn’t learn.  In this Test match the spirited attempt at a preposterously unlikely target is considered mitigation for the circumstances that led them to need such a low probability outcome in the first place.  Whether it be Stokes or Kusal Perera, the fact that every team is going to be nervous while they’re at the crease doesn’t make it any more likely they’ll turn once a career performances into once a series ones, and hoping for them to do so is a triumph of hope over reality.

Test cricket fundamentals haven’t changed, not even in an era of T20 dominance.  A big first innings score means a team will win a lot more matches than they lose, and for England a big first innings is now 300, not 500.  There are three tours scheduled this winter, as things stand, and even playing teams that aren’t all that great, the distinct possibility of losing the lot is a live issue.  South Africa are a long way from the powerful unit that they have been in the past, but in comparison (and in comparison is the important point here) they look cohesive, well drilled and simply superior.  They didn’t even have to play that well to hand out a drubbing this match.

If the performance of the team itself is a kick to the nether regions of increasingly annoyed supporters, the awarding of an honour to Colin Graves in the New Year list was more of a laughable joke.  The honours system is one that people either approve or disapprove of, and it’s always going to cause ructions when it comes to the individuals chosen.  Yet as usual, it’s a faceless suit that picks up the best gong going in English cricket (a knighthood for Clive Lloyd, a pleasure, isn’t a reflection on cricket in this country), and once again for no apparent reason apart from climbing the greasy pole of the establishment.  It’s not that it is reprehensible as such, it’s that it leaves a sour taste for all those up and down the land doing their level best to ensure the survival of their local club despite the official indifference towards their efforts and in a sport where they are fighting a losing battle, such has been the mismanagement from the top.

Over Christmas news leaked out that England were open to an Indian idea of an annual four way white ball competition, including Australia and one invited country.  There had been suggestions of an additional ICC tournament, nixed by the Big Three on the grounds of insufficient gaps in the calendar, yet suddenly the dollar signs appeared before the eyes of the administrators and at least two of those Big Three seemed to find a space in the diary for it to happen.  That this would be disastrous for the world game is fairly obvious.  That the mendacious, avaricious, self-interested cockalorums in charge of the world game would think it a magnificent wheeze equally unsurprising.

England head to Cape Town for the second Test.  Pope will presumably come in for Bairstow, and if England want to play a spinner it leaves an interesting decision as to which seam bowler to drop.  But it’s still likely to be more of the same – the personnel might change, the coaching staff might change, but the confusion and modest performances continue, along with the excuses.  If there’s one thing that’s improving in English cricket beyond all measure, it is the excuses.  Good work everyone.



34 thoughts on “South Africa vs England, 1st Test: Omnishambles (Slight Return)

  1. dlpthomas Dec 29, 2019 / 2:32 pm

    “If the players just aren’t that good, the thinking and the planning at every level of English cricket is worse.”

    I believe you nailed it.


  2. growltiger Dec 29, 2019 / 3:07 pm

    Haven’t read any excuses yet. But they will need to be ingenious.

    The two card trick that Barstow fell for today was real candy-from-baby stuff. The second ball swung lusciously and straight from the hand, but started wide enough to make it inevitable that it would end up somewhere in the slip/gulley region. Whatever they spent on his rehab at Potchefstroom was money down the drain. At least the news from Pope is better.

    More generally, our bowlers (except perhaps Curran) seem bereft of even simple wicket-taking strategies, unless the ball is a Duke. The captain is a dolt.


    • LordCanisLupus Dec 29, 2019 / 3:22 pm

      We won’t be using it as an excuse, but we will.

      Captain Joe Root said England will not use the illness that affected much of their squad as an excuse for the first-Test defeat in South Africa.

      Ten players were hit in the build-up to or during the match in Centurion, which England lost by 107 runs.

      “There has been a huge amount thrown at the group, on and off the field,” Root told BBC Sport.

      “It would be wrong to hide behind that, but it has disrupted preparations for a lot of the guys.”

      As well as the illness, which also affected four members of the backroom staff, all-rounder Ben Stokes’ father was admitted to hospital three days before the Test began.

      Stokes missed training on 24 December to be with his father Ged, who has since left intensive care.

      “We showed a huge amount of character throughout the whole week,” said Root. “No-one has moaned about it.”

      Next time I battle through the commute and shit weather, get to my office coughing and spluttering, working at 30% because I want to go to sleep, I’m going to tell my boss I showed a “huge amount of character” turning up today, despite messing up one of my major transactions.

      The headline is saying they aren’t using illness as an excuse. Then The Cheaper Option does little but witter on about it:

      Coach Chris Silverwood, who is now without a win in three Tests since taking charge, said the illness left England with an “unpredictable” build-up.

      “I’ve never been involved in a build-up like this, to have a morning of a game where you’re getting told that players are falling over,” he said.

      “Guys that were coming back from being poorly were training while others were on the park, to keep them separate.

      “When Jos Buttler was poorly yesterday, he was in a different room. We’ve had hand sanitisers. You name it, it’s all happening.”


      • Mark Dec 29, 2019 / 3:58 pm

        I don’t doubt the sickness has had an effect , but two points. 1 if people are feeling shakey why field first on the opening day? Why not sit in the pavilion and hope some of it improves?

        2nd, was it an illness that turns players into idiots? Even when you have a bug, and are weak you still know not to bowl short on a pitch which is going up and down.


      • simpsonlong1 Dec 29, 2019 / 5:40 pm

        Ebony Double-Barrell on Sky said this only accounted for 20% at most of the failure


  3. man in a barrel Dec 29, 2019 / 3:09 pm


    Amazing that Big Vern took no wickets in the second innings… But they find it hard to hit him off the square


  4. man in a barrel Dec 29, 2019 / 3:12 pm

    Anderson match figures of 2-136…. Was it worth the risk of bringing him back?


    • LordCanisLupus Dec 29, 2019 / 3:27 pm

      He will break down during the series. I don’t know how he will leave the stage, but I sense a personal target of 600 wickets might come into it. He won’t make the KP mistake of speaking it out loud.

      Liked by 3 people

      • pktroll (@pktroll) Dec 30, 2019 / 9:04 am

        Hi, been a while since I’ve posted on here. I have just been pointing out elsewhere to a staunch Anderson fan that his returns overseas in the last four years, starting with the series against SA four years ago haven’t been that impressive. He averages 33.75 with a strike rate of 82. This corresponds with his loss of pace and often going back to the bad old days of bowling dry not to concede runs. Sure he’s had his successful days in the past away from home, but his most striking successes are now mainly with the Dukes ball. Sure he is far smarter cookie than he was, but the sands of time are clearly against him now.

        I am pro him being rotated out of this side to perhaps comeback at a more swing/seam friendly ground than what Cape Town usually is.


      • jennyah46 Jan 1, 2020 / 8:11 am

        That is my worry. He is far from looking himself.


  5. LordCanisLupus Dec 29, 2019 / 3:28 pm

    I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.

    (I’m angry, of course I am).


  6. Mark Dec 29, 2019 / 3:43 pm

    Remember when Cook said a few years ago that the standard of Test cricket was as good as its ever been? One of the more idiotic statements from him, and one a normal functioning media would have pulled him up on. But he was one of the Special people that could not be criticised.

    England have existed in the last decade by preparing green seamers at home with a Duke ball. I’m not saying there have never been poor pitches in England before this time. But Lords used to be a good pitch and The Oval was one of the best batting pitches in the world. A first innings under 400 was seen as failure. Trent bridge was a good batting track as well. Headingly could be a minefield and Old Trafford used to take spin later in the game, I know it’s easy to look through rose tinted glasses but I don’t believe for one moment they would have taken as many wickets at home if they had played in the 1980s and 1990s. When there is no swing they are befreft of any potency and the only plan b is start bowling short.

    England will probably bounce back because this SA team is really not that good. Particularly the batting. But the wheels have come off English cricket. The worse part is the money keeps rolling in so who cares.? For most of the top players in this team, TINA really is in operation, and they know it. The cupboard is bare.


  7. Deep Purple Fred Dec 29, 2019 / 5:03 pm

    “Jonny Bairstow’s technique (never his strongest feature) has disintegrated to the point where the tactics against him have been simplified to either bowling straight or bowling wide and waiting for him to get out.”
    Bowling wide or bowling straight? In other words, just bowl at him. Ouch. Can’t argue though, what he did today was stupid, and predictable.

    Also, thank you for introducing me to the word cockalorum. It sounds perfectly suited to the ECB. And others.

    I think you’re being too harsh. The team was decimated by a virus, and yet stayed in the game and managed a very respectable 270 in the fourth innings. In the first test of a series away from home over Christmas. They’ve done worse.
    I do concede though that in the broader context, this was part of a pattern, rather than just a one-off medical issue. Once Root and Stokes are gone, you know nothing much else is going to happen. And probably never would have anyway with Root.

    I guess it all depends on what your expectations of England are. Mine aren’t high, so today they exceeded them.

    As for the Graves Gong, no surprise. That system seems to be largely about the powerful giving themselves a pat on the back. Graves was pretty predictable.


    • Deep Purple Fred Dec 29, 2019 / 5:09 pm

      Actually, England “staying in the game” might be overstating it a bit. I guess “desperately clung on after an abysmal first innings” might be more accurate.


    • LordCanisLupus Dec 29, 2019 / 6:13 pm

      Partly Fred, it’s the “smartest guys in the room” stuff. Things like, we’ve done the analysis and spin does nothing here. So we’ll play five seam bowlers. Just as they did in Hamilton. This means you really have to stick the opposition in.

      There’s a reason there is a received wisdom that you pretty much bat first whenever you win the toss. Especially if you don’t have an all time great bowling attack in their pomp. But Silverwood is sticking himself out there already as Mr Damn Moneyball, and frankly, looking like a bit of a plonker.

      That’s what grates.


      • Deep Purple Fred Dec 29, 2019 / 10:43 pm

        Yeah, OK. I guess both things can be true at the same time. 270 wasn’t a bad effort in the circumstances, but also England are chronically stupid/shooting themselves in the foot/led by idiots/unconcerned about test cricket (take your pick).

        England are not as good as they think they are. They should stick to the basics, and build up from there. Others have done it. They only lasted 4 days.

        A thought buzzing around my head about brexit, hubris, entitlement, blue passports etc but probably best left unsaid.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Marek Dec 29, 2019 / 8:03 pm

      For me the Hamilton selection–made, lest we forget, when Leach was fit although with hindsight it’s probably good he wasn’t picked!–was a much worse selection per se.

      Here, they only had six fit bowlers on the morning of the match. Of those–although actually nothing went wrong on that front–two were uncertain of surviving the match due to their state of health and a third due to their father’s state of health. A fourth was coming back from injury, and hadn’t got through the match last time he tried coming back from the same injury. They’d have looked chumps if they’d picked four seamers and lost three of them within the first three hours…which could have happened.

      But why not admit that? “We’ve picked five seamers because we’re not sure how many of them are going to last the match”. Then you bat or bowl first depending on which decision is better. But if you’re picking five seamers because you genuinely think it’s a good tactical move here, then it could appear to commit you to bowling first….which is actually a non-sequitur. I mean, you wouldn’t automatically bat first on a pitch known to move sidewards in the first session just because you’d picked a specialist batsman not an all-rounder at no. 7

      It’s also a result of the only spinner not being trusted–as he wasn’t by his county coach in ten out of 14 matches last summer. (And that wasn’t to play four–or five!–seamers either: generally he either went with eight–count ’em!–specialist batsmen and once with a 33-year-old who’s played around 30 red-ball matches in a career lasting ten years). That player’s emergency replacement wasn’t a regular either.

      That’s something which should result in heads being banged together: they’ve lost three spinners and the best of the rest can’t even get in their county team–in Division 2 in one case. They’ll be looking at playing four seamers in Bengaluru this time next year if they’re not careful!


  8. simpsonlong1 Dec 29, 2019 / 5:45 pm

    I have just been on another Cricket Blog (you know who it is) and ranted at length so will spare you all but my main point is that it does not matter what you or I or ANYBODY says, the england team Do Not Listen. The ignore criticism, both good and bad and carry on in their arrogant little bubble.

    I thought Nasser was going to spontaneously combust today. He had a hard job keeping his fury in check.

    Farbrace and Ramps on the Verdict were putting the case for Stokes to be captain. Bet they never said that when their wages were being paid by the England set up.

    I am sick and tired of this ghastly bunch and oh please somebody have the courage to tell Broad and Anderson to retire. The way Broad got out was pure slapstick .

    Oh dear I had better stop.


    • LordCanisLupus Dec 29, 2019 / 6:11 pm

      Why do you post your rants elsewhere? 🙂 We are the natural home!


      • simpsonlong1 Dec 30, 2019 / 1:54 pm

        I know but I have a second cricketing blog home.can’t afford areal one. X


  9. man in a barrel Dec 29, 2019 / 6:18 pm

    In a shadow world, a captain wins the toss and considers that he has a team of people, some of whom are ill, some worse than that. So he decides to field.

    In some fields of life, there are authorities who would seek to determine who benefited financially from that. Root did not even write it on a bus


    • Mark Dec 29, 2019 / 6:43 pm

      Why do we have all these back room people, and what do they do? I propose pulling the ejector seat, and then forcing players to think for themselves. Hold that frightening thought …….

      Perhaps they are incapable of any basic common sense. Root looks out of his depth. But I’m not sure he is in fact making the captaincy calls. I have long since thought since Flower that we have moved to a football style manager model. The captain is just The front man.


    • Deep Purple Fred Dec 29, 2019 / 10:47 pm

      Alas, no one seems to care any more about what gets written on buses, or where the money came from to write it. Perversely, you even get rewarded for lying and cheating.


  10. metatone Dec 29, 2019 / 7:55 pm

    It’s the mediocrity that is getting to me at the moment. You look at the scorecard and it’s pretty damn clear that par on this pitch is about 270. Sometimes we’ve lost the toss, sometimes – Nasser – we’ve taken the wrong option and the oppo have built up a big score and the game is gone. And while that’s grim as a fan, it happens.

    BUT This game was not gone, SA scored par in the 1st innings. All we had to do is get near to it and the game was alive, but no. But no. We just don’t do we? Useless deagles.


    • quebecer Dec 30, 2019 / 1:35 am

      And this is where the flu virus thing doesn’t really add up. We were no worse and no better than normal. This is… normal.


  11. dlpthomas Dec 29, 2019 / 11:18 pm

    If England do play a spinner in the next test, who gets left out? My guess it will be either Archer or Curran which will really piss me off.

    As a complete aside is Verdi likely to have a future as an England player?


    • quebecer Dec 30, 2019 / 1:45 am

      Dunno. That Dom Bess is the new Murali.


      • dlpthomas Dec 30, 2019 / 9:31 am

        Bess will get picked as the spinner because he can bat. I agree about Silverwood.


      • Marek Dec 30, 2019 / 1:49 pm

        Absolutely–or rather the new new Murali! The ECB sieve has now told two different journalists that he “is said to be a hugely improved bowler since he was sent to a spin bowling camp under the instruction of Sri Lanka legend Rangana Herath in Mumbai earlier this winter”. (Ah, the passive voice–don’t you just love it?!)

        Same as Bairstow magically managed to iron out his technical issues in the nets without checking in a match situation to see if the ironing had worked. That went well.

        (Sieve also reporting that Anderson may well be the one left out, which should make the New Year party interesting….!)


    • Marek Dec 30, 2019 / 1:51 pm

      You mean, it isn’t over till the fat spinner sings…, as some Surrey coaches were apparently saying last summer?


    • jennyah46 Jan 1, 2020 / 8:32 am

      I doubt that it will be Archer. I fear for Curran because he’s the easiest to confront and be told he’s not playing. His slower, left arm seam is a useful variation. We need him.

      Imagine Joe Root telling Anderson that he’s dropped. I can visualise a tantrum worse than YJB at 3. Broad might take it a bit more phlegmatically.

      It’s not an easy decision. On paper it should be Anderson, but does he just need time? He could come on at first change. I don’t know!


  12. quebecer Dec 30, 2019 / 1:43 am

    Well, obviously I’m not in agreement with Fred higher up the thread. Our 2nd dig was flattered by the 90odd partnership yesterday. Today was just bog standard poor, and our 2nd innings total quite flattering.

    I do wonder if an Australian lower order batted in that manner – in any circumstance – whether they’d get picked for the next test. Effort matters. Being as hard to beat as you can possibly be matters. The situation is less the point than doing absolutely whatever you can regardless. This white flag waving we do at the end of games – and the absolutely ridiculous reaction we seem to have to being 6 or 7 down where we suddenly throw the kitchen sink at everything and therefore go down meekly – is incredibly damaging to a team.

    Such things are leadership issues. I’m already over Chris Silverwood.


    • Deep Purple Fred Dec 30, 2019 / 5:02 pm

      “Well, obviously I’m not in agreement with Fred higher up the thread.”
      Well, obviously. Never really needs saying.

      I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending an English performance, that no one else will. Not my natural habitat. I just thought that after being beaten in the NZ series (is 2 a series?), they would obviously be beaten by SA, so the 270 looked good in that context.

      Entirely happy to admit that winning and putting the opposition in, not selecting a spinner, selecting Bairstow who you’ve just dropped, and batting like you’re the masters of the universe when you’re actually just poor-to-middling, were all avoidable errors. (Along with all the other errors people more knowledgeable than me have pointed out above). Go and study NZ, and learn how to be absolute pain in the arses for the opposition, despite being outgunned.

      And yes, any Australian who batted like that wouldn’t last long. On the whole, Australia is pretty ruthless, which helps the team overall. The Marshes are the exception which highlight how unusual it is to tolerate mediocity. (Of course the flip side is, you have to have someone better to replace the dropped player with). It’s probably why patience with Maxwell has always been thin, because his style suggests flippancy and lack of seriousness. (So does Smith for that matter, he bats like a clown, but he delivers).

      But with England it’s not just a question of selecting on talent, it’s a question of playing like a bloody idiot. I only saw video of a few wickets, but Bairstow, Root and Broad didn’t need to get out like that. Those three alone could have taken SA to Day 5. Broad smiling sheepishly at the end after backing away and having his stumps splattered, his team having been smashed. He should be furious, not rueful.

      Interesting comment from Root afterwards re Anderson, implying a generational change may be coming. First time I’ve heard Anderson’s future questioned publically.


  13. simpsonlong1 Dec 30, 2019 / 1:56 pm

    I found the interview with Silverwood embarrassing. Worse than Cooky and that is saving something. I presume he is now Woodsy?


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