So there we have it, the second Test tour of the winter is over, and England are in rude health, having dispatched South Africa and found a team. So runs the more optimistic take after what became a dominant performance in the second half of the series, following a floundering one at the start. Reading too much into England’s performances at any given time is a perpetual danger, but failing to give them any credit for their successes when they have them is taking a curmudgeonly attitude too far. There were good things to take from the tour, there were examples of players finding their feet in the Test arena and the kernel of a half reasonable team was more identifiable by the end of the Tests than at the beginning.
It must be noted that South Africa weren’t far short of a rabble by the end, either broken by England or by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Triumphalism at England’s victory has been limited, given the problems afflicting both South African cricket and the wider game. Few in the media generally have spoken about it in depth, partly for fear of damaging the product even further, partly because of a lack of detailed knowledge about the particular difficulties faced. It’s wise not to pretend an awareness that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t make it any less concerning to see one of the game’s major powers in such disarray, and while there are always local factors or specific challenges (Kolpak in South Africa’s case being one), there is a pattern of struggle off the field among all the nations apart from Australia, England and India.
That doesn’t mean there can’t be good teams produced, but the financial reality of the world game is predicated on ever increasing wealth accumulation by those who already have it, and descent into penury for the rest. When ideas are mooted to “help” Test cricket (just as there have been lots of initiatives to help the FA Cup that have gone swimmingly) they always fiddle around the fringes rather than examining the fundamental imbalance in world cricket that have led to this point. Four day Tests are proposed as a means of saving money, supposedly supporting poorer national boards, but their advocacy is from one of the wealthiest – at least before the splurge to support the Hundred drained the bank account – and is indicative of the way absolutely every option must be considered apart from those that have created the major structural mess in which the sport finds itself.
The self-interest by those who have been tasked with acting as defenders of the game never stops. South Africa’s own shortcomings on and off the field can’t be directly addressed by the world game, but it can provide a sufficiently level playing field that South Africa have a chance of succeeding, rather than continuing to undermine any prospect of a viable long term future. This is why the repeated claims that Test cricket is the apex of the game, the highest form of cricket, are met with such scepticism. It’s not that every action and proposal is intended to wreck Test cricket, it’s just that if that was indeed the aim, it would be hard to see how there would be a great deal of difference in approach.
It’s not as though there aren’t enough warning signs elsewhere, even if governance has been less than stellar in many nations. The admission of Ireland and Afghanistan to Test cricket was greeted with delight as a rare instance of the game seeking to grow its international footprint, but Ireland have already cancelled scheduled Tests because they can’t afford them, such is the loss making nature of the five day game outside England and Australia. That the other formats benefit from the presence of Tests is rarely factored into the global reach of the sport anyway, but the point is that concepts such as four day Tests don’t resolve this fundamental imbalance in any way, nor is there any prospect of someone who isn’t a fan of five day Tests becoming one by virtue of removing a day.
All of which is to attempt to provide some context for an England success that showed significant promise, but was against a cricketing nation in real difficulties. The next tour to Sri Lanka will be against another country struggling to maintain its cricketing base, albeit there too there are substantial self-inflicted woes. The England players aren’t responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves, and it can seem churlish to qualify their win by rationalising the circumstances of their opponents. But as long as the gulf between the haves and the have nots continues to widen, the premier form of cricket is in peril, and the victories against those without the means to develop their own game to the same level has to come with an asterisk, as well as making clear the laughably awful administration in England that can’t even regularly make the most of its overwhelming financial and structural advantage.
This is unfortunate. For England have a collection of likeable cricketers who may not all be exciting in the sense used all too often by boards determined to reduce every facet of the sport to variations of T20, but who have shown a willingness and ability to grasp the nature of Test cricket itself. Of the batsmen, Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley and especially Ollie Pope enhanced their reputations as young players with the patience to play the long form of the game at the top level, while Zak Crawley showed flashes of potential that he might be able to do the same. Added to a core group of players in Root, the estimable Stokes and Broad whose records, whatever the blemishes, speak for themselves and there is the basis for a half decent team.
In Mark Wood and Jofra Archer there is pace to burn, and if fitness is a concern over both of them, then that is still something of an improvement on not having pace at all which has been all too frequent. The negative comment that Archer attracts continues to baffle, but he does receive a more questioning press, shall we say, than is remotely warranted. There are suspicions aplenty about the kind of briefing that is being carried out – it may well be denied, it may well be not true, but that suspicion exists because of the track record of various ECB personnel doing just that to certain players. As someone once said, this is a matter of trust.
Of the players deemed to be at risk for the Sri Lanka tour, two stand out, and for different reasons. Jos Buttler is under pressure for his place following a fairly long fallow period in Test cricket. He has his defenders, and his basic talent is not in question, more his aptitude for the red ball game. He simply doesn’t have the track record in either county or Test cricket to suggest this run of “form” is an anomaly rather than a reversion to the mean. A wicketkeeper batting at seven and averaging around 30 is no disaster, certainly. But when that wicketkeeper is primarily a batsman anyway, and when at least one of his rivals is both substantially better in that role, and also probably as a batsman too, it is increasingly difficult to make a case for him.
The other player now under pressure, to the surprise of many, is Joe Denly. He has certainly been consistent – consistently moderate perhaps, but consistent. Plenty of starts, plenty of decent contributions, but he’s lacked a big score or two to go with it. What he has done though is set the tone for those around him, absorbing the new ball, putting mileage into the legs of the bowlers, and providing a platform that the middle order , glory be, have started to turn into decent totals. To that extent, Denly’s contribution to the team could well be viewed as being significantly greater than his run totals and average might suggest. Even so, it’s not of a level that would normally make him a certainty to retain his spot, and if Burns was fit for Sri Lanka there might have been some support for thanking Denly and moving on. It is that the reported change would be for Bairstow to come in at number three instead that provoked some disbelief, both given his own poor performance which led to his dropping, and a technique that isn’t often described as tight. It is one report, so we shall see.
Prior to the series, indeed after the first Test, an analysis of what might constitute England’s best team, and what changes might be made would have been a problematic matter to debate. Not because of limited options but rather despair as to where to begin, so many were the holes in the team, so varied were the disasters. England are a hell of a long way from even approaching being the finished article, but perhaps there is the basis of something with which to work in the years ahead. All that is needed is opposition comprising more than two other teams for them to measure themselves against.