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.