Five Days in January

Given the news that England are pushing for four day Tests, the worst outcome at Newlands for the ECB would doubtless be a match that went into the fifth day.  Or that would be the case if anyone truly thought that cricketing requirements made the slightest difference in their quest for short term cash.  Still, it would have the advantage of being mildly embarrassing to have them reminded yet again that at least half of Tests do go to the fifth day, and the groundstaff at Newlands are rumoured to be playing their part by preparing a batting friendly pitch.  That being said, unless it’s slow and low, England have shown plenty of aptitude in terms of backing up their board on the pitch by flopping badly with the bat whenever the opportunity arises, so guarantees are in short supply.

England’s biggest doubt (at least until Rory Burns injured himself playing football) seems to be Jofra Archer, struggling with an elbow injury in the build up.  Should he not make it, then a one paced seam attack will be the outcome, and the Archer-meter will veer back to the “essential” side of the display, highlighting yet again that a player is never more valuable than when he’s not in the team.  If Archer is missing it will also postpone any decision about who to leave out from Centurion.  England made protestations about being happy to make the tough decisions over Broad and Anderson, which more than anything suggested they weren’t happy at all about it, though given the difference in performance between the two in the first Test, it’s curious that anyone would think it that hard a decision in the first place.

The main difference is potentially (though apparently not certainly) the selection of a spinner this time around, with the speculation being that Dom Bess is likely to get the nod in the continued absence of Jack Leach.  Not for the first time, selection policy is where eyes roll and heads shake, and in terms of how England handle their spinners, it’s more a permanent fixture over the last half decade or so, as they forever undermine their own processes and their own players.

Will MacPherson wrote a piece highlighting how the mismanagement of Moeen Ali has left England without the option of recalling him this series, and while Moeen’s dropping from the England team last summer was more a mercy than a blow, it is symptomatic of the inability of the management structure to treat players like valued staff instead of commodities that they managed to turn a necessary decision into a mess.  Moeen had and has severe limitations, but in that he is little different to any of the other options who don’t have even his level of Test success to fall back on.  This is forever the conundrum – awareness that the alternatives are unlikely to be any better shouldn’t be a reason to never make a change, but when making that change, to burn bridges with those who have had at least some success is the kind of ineptitude that England appear to specialise in.

That Leach has been poorly for a while is just unfortunate, though it should be noted that his main contributions in his Test career to date have been more with the bat than the ball – a particular irony given Moeen’s status as a batsman and part-time spinner converted into the main slow bowler – re-inforcing the central issue that the dearth of spin in the English game has no obvious resolution in current circumstances.  That those circumstances are self-inflicted by a board who prefer white ball cricket to the challenge of the longer game is a wider point that should never be overlooked.

The more immediate sour taste would be at the treatment of Matt Parkinson, the second spinner in the Test party until illness spread through the squad prior to the first Test resulting in Bess’s call up.  While it’s true that selection shouldn’t be automatic, to select a player in the original squad and then overlook them in favour of someone not even in it originally will hardly motivate Parkinson to feel he’s part of the set up.  That he’s a leg spinner is part of the problem, for England haven’t shown a great deal of faith or management skill in any of the options they’ve had for the hardest of bowling arts over many years, with Adil Rashid being the latest whipping boy all too often, in the press as much as elsewhere.  The revolving door of England spin selection for players not called Swann and over-expectation of what they might achieve has been a constant for a number of years now, with no sign that it will change any time soon.

The batting options were initially confined to a question of whether Ollie Pope comes in for Jonny Bairstow or not.  England have defended the latter with the age old “playing well in the nets” rationale, but Bairstow only played in the first Test due to Pope being ill, so it seems likely he will return to the middle order.  However, the news today that Burns had hurt his ankle playing football set off another round of comment about whether the team should be playing such a sport in advance of matches.  My own view on this is pretty simple – injuries happen in practice, warm ups are necessary in themselves, and  young athletes want to play games.  Wrapping them in cotton wool is neither possible nor desirable.  Players forced to sit around or do gentle sit ups for fear of breaking would go stir crazy anyway, and that’s before the likely increase in muscular injuries without regular and fairly intense exercise.  Shit happens.

For South Africa, the one probable change is the injury enforced omission of Aiden Markram, with Pieter Malan the man tipped to replace him at the top of the order.  Temba Bavuma has been released from the squad and told to go and make domestic runs, so the superbly named Rassie van der Dussen keeps his place.  Having progressively demolished England in the first Test, all is pretty well with the hosts’ camp, an illustration of how rapidly things can change in short order.  The fundamentals of this series haven’t particularly changed, South Africa’s batting is still brittle, and their back up bowling is as much a concern as it was before the series got under way.  But it is indicative of the way one side seized their opportunities and the other wilted under pressure.

Momentum is as irrelevant in a Test series as it’s ever been, but England will have to perform dramatically better in all facets of the game to get back into this, and while it’s possible that they may do so, another defeat will only increase the clamour from the stands and the press box for a plan to improve.  If only the problems afflicting English cricket had been in any way predictable.