England vs South Africa: 4th Test and Review

In common with the rest of the series, the fourth and last day of the final Test turned out to be a mopping up exercise, the outcome already beyond doubt, the uncertainty merely concerning the margin and how long it would take.  Early hopes for a spectacular Moeen century were dashed when Broad and Anderson were dismissed in short order, removing any argument about how long to bat on, perhaps fortuitously.  It made little difference to anything but a potential personal milestone, and by the end of the day it was hard to imagine Moeen would have been in any way disappointed with his lot.

South Africa fought hard, in a manner that has been in somewhat short supply this series, but a target of 380, on a surface that was deteriorating, was never feasible.  Both teams have been afflicted with top order fragility this series, the difference being that England’s middle and lower order are operating on a different level to their counterparts.  Moeen’s unbeaten 75 in the second innings probably wasn’t the difference between the sides, but it certainly gave a fair degree of breathing space.  The 90 runs added for the last three wickets turned a highly unlikely target into an impossible one, which given the tourists’ manful efforts with the ball to stay in the series was a case of hammering the final nail in the series coffin.

After a faltering start came a fine partnership between Amla and Du Plessis.  Neither have had outstanding series – that Vernon Philander is top of the batting averages makes that clear – though Amla has scored runs without ever going on to a match defining innings.  Broad and Anderson, particularly the latter, had bowled superbly early on, both swing and seam with the new ball making life exceptionally difficult.  For South Africa to reach 163-3 was a tribute to how well they had done, not that it was a time to worry about reaching the target.  Enter that man Moeen again, who must be feeling Test cricket is currently the easiest game in the world.  Three quick wickets and the game was just about done, as he finished with another five wicket haul, this time via the slightly less impressive manner of three wickets in four balls rather than three.  He was unsurprisingly named Man of the Series for England – Morne Morkel picking up the equivalent award for South Africa.

At the end of it, it was a comfortable enough series win.  England were the better side of the two, the depth in their batting and injuries, illness and voluntary absence hampering the visitors.  Yet the weaknesses identified in both sides at the start were no closer to being resolved by the end.  England’s new captain Joe Root did well enough, he was certainly more attacking than had been the case at any time during the Cook era, and if nothing else at no point where there obvious occasions where the tactics were utterly baffling, in itself a positive.  Where England tended to fall short, particularly but not solely at Trent Bridge, was in the top order batting, something not directly within the purview of the captain.   Ultimately England’s batting was slightly deeper and slightly less fragile than South Africa’s.

Cook had a reasonable series, like Amla not going on to make a really big score, but on one occasion for certain making a material difference to the match outcome with his fine 88 at the Oval.  Cook is without question England’s best opener, and can be expected to cash in against the West Indies later this month, but there are doubts beginning to surface about his ability to score big runs against potent pace attacks, particularly with the Ashes coming up.  He has always been a slightly odd opener, vulnerable to fast bowling but exceptional against spin, and with two series of highly contrasting outcomes down under, it really needs to be Good Cook for England to have a strong chance.  For this is the fundamental point: England are frail at the top, and overly reliant on their best players, of whom he is one, and the middle order as a collective.  Whether it be a matter of declining returns is an unknown, but the Ashes will likely provide a good answer to that question.

Who his next opening partner will be is up for debate, if not panic.  Jennings certainly didn’t show anything to suggest he’s the one, but it’s also true that whoever does the role next series has the opportunity to score heavily without answering the basic question as to whether they are good enough at the very top level.   Not being picked is becoming a useful means of advancing a cause, for Haseeb Hamed finally got runs today, which may be rather timely.  But it is all too easy to see the revolving door of England openers continuing for the foreseeable future.

Three and five are also still uncertain; Tom Westley did well enough to be persevered with, while Dawid Malan probably didn’t.  But England have got themselves in a pickle by running a lottery on three of the top five positions.  Dropping Malan after two Tests wouldn’t engender much confidence that the selectors know what they’re doing, because it implies the initial selection was a mistake.  There is a case for considering Alex Hales in that position, and his current bout of run scoring in that role might move things his way.

Further down is where England excel.  Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all got the same criticism for failing to knuckle down in the Trent Bridge Test as everyone else, but their strengths are elsewhere – and to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can (which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be more responsible on occasion) is to miss the point about the problems in the batting order.  They have bailed England out on many an occasion between them, but it is asking a lot for them to keep doing it from 120-4.  Have them coming in at 300-4 and it’s a different matter, for in those circumstances they will scare the living daylights out of any and every opposition.

Of the bowlers, Moeen of course has had an extraordinary series, on the back of a highly average one in India.  If there is a difference in his bowling, it appears less about the pace at which he is flighting the ball (though he is) and more about seeming to be bowling many fewer bad deliveries.   He’s always been a wicket taker, but this series he has also been much tighter.  It’s also true that India away is hard territory for an English spinner – few have been remotely as successful as Panesar and Swann – and although he wasn’t great, he’s certainly not the first to struggle there; something that should have been noted by those complaining about Adil Rashid too.  For the Ashes, expectations shouldn’t be too high either, even Swann has an average well north of 40 in that country.  If Moeen does the same, then he’ll have done extremely well, but after this series it’s rather likely it won’t be seen that way.  He’s a very useful performer who does takes wickets, but he’s not better than Swann and he’s not better than Panesar.  Which means his success should be celebrated, but with a proviso that it’s not going to be like this all the time.  Still, as things stand his bowling appears to have improved , and with his batting as well, he’s becoming one of this side’s key performers.

Toby Roland-Jones came in and did well, though as is so often the case he was hailed as the answer one match into his Test career.  It’s neither fair nor is it reasonable, but he can be pleased with his start, and once again the obsession with sheer pace (despite Philander clearly being a fine bowler anywhere at about 80mph) comes up against the reality that good bowlers can operate at any speed.  That being said, he was in the side because of the injury to Chris Woakes, who can be expected to return, and of course who strengthens the already absurdly powerful middle and lower order even further.

Stokes is Stokes, a player who is perhaps by the strictest of measures not someone who fully qualifies for the genuine all rounder role in that neither his batting nor his bowling alone are truly good enough in isolation.  But he tends to contribute in one discipline or the other (or by catching flies at slip) most matches these days.  It makes him a highly unusual cricketer, for in terms of raw numbers he could be termed one of those bits and pieces cricketers, but he clearly is far more than that.  It may be that in years to come he reaches even greater heights, but he’s the heartbeat of this team and he knows it.  And a matchwinner.

Broad and Anderson are now the old stagers in the side, and it’s probably worth appreciating seeing them in tandem, for it won’t last forever.  Broad bowled well enough without necessarily getting the rewards, while Anderson finished top of the bowling averages.  That in itself is interesting because there was a subtle shift in his role.  Root was quick to remove him from the attack whenever he wasn’t doing what he wanted him to, which clearly irked him, and he responded in the best possible way, by coming back and taking wickets.  Today was one of those where he had the ball on a piece of string, swinging it both ways and seaming it off the surface.  Some were quite simply unplayable by anyone.  Perhaps he is finally embracing his elder statesman role, in which case it is good news for England, for as he gets older and his workload necessarily needs easing, his sheer skill will remain.  He bowled beautifully, and it’s unlikely too many West Indies batsmen will be excited at facing him under lights in Birmingham.  Career wise, today was the day when his Test bowling average dipped into the 27s.  He’s been lowering it steadily for five years, and may well finish a point or two lower yet.

It was also striking how much time he spent at midoff, talking to the other bowlers, something that Joe Root was quick to say was no coincidence.  It’s distinctly possible Anderson might make a very good coach, not just because he’s been there and done it, but because he’s had his own career mangled at various points by those who follow technical strictures in preference to common sense.  Getting the best out of those already good enough to be picked could well be a future for him.

For South Africa the next Tests on the agenda are home ones against Bangladesh, which should at least provide the opportunity to make some changes in favourable circumstances.  Heino Kuhn has likely played his last Test but the brittleness has affected the team throughout the top order, in a side that relies on it far more than England do (not that England should, but that’s how it has transpired).  Elgar had a decent series, undone twice here by two balls that would trouble anyone, but Bavuma flattered to deceive too often, as he has done in much of his Test career, while the core middle order of Du Plessis and De Kock struggled.  The loss of De Villiers undoubtedly hurts them, and that is a symptom of a wider malaise in the game where players are paid little to turn out for their national team, and fortunes to play for a franchise.  But even without him, the returns from the batting will have been a serious disappointment.

Losing Steyn before the series was a blow, losing Philander during it may have been pivotal. But all of the seamers did reasonably well at different times, and Maharaj too looked a cut above the normal South African spinner.  Lamenting the losses in the bowling department may ease the irritation at the result, but it was the batting that ultimately cost them, along with too many dropped catches.

This hasn’t been a great series, despite the wishful thinking of the broadcasters.  Each match has been one sided, and the interest in the outcome has dissipated often within two days.  It is a problem for Test cricket without question, but there have been highlights such as Root’s 190, Stokes brilliant 112 and Moeen’s hat-trick.  Perhaps it’s not enough, but at the moment it’s all there is to hang on to.

 

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South Africa vs England 2nd ODI Review

In these days of scores approaching 400, there’s something curiously old fashioned about a game where 260 is the target and it goes down to the last few overs. It’s almost a throwback to the 1990s, with Ben Stokes playing the Derek Pringle role by going for six an over and being given out twice, and not out once when he probably should have been for a duck of glorious proportions.

It all meant that after the pyrotechnics of the first match, this seemed relatively low key throughout, where you notice that the Port Elizabeth crowd are not only fond of singing, but offer a rarity at any sporting location of being very much in tune. There’s something rather beautiful about it.

Perhaps South Africa did rather make heavy work of their last ten overs, but at that point a score of around 285 would have been towards the top of their aspirations anyway, so while 262 was disappointing, it is hard to make a case that they lost it just in that short period.

De Villiers’ dismissal to another exceptional catch, this time by Chris Jordan, did come at just the wrong time, but De Villiers was looking to go fully on the attack at that point anyway, with all the risks associated.

Much had been written about the surface being slower and less conducive to hitting, but it still felt at least 30 or 40 short. Of course, the change in mentality couldn’t be better expressed than in the feeling that if the England of a year ago had set that total they’d have walked off to applause from people pointing at their laptops, saying that would win most games historically. South Africa weren’t aiming for a score around that level, it’s simply how it turned out.  In any one ODI, this can and does happen.

In truth England seemed in control for most of the run chase. Alex Hales will bat better than that for many fewer runs, and in some ways those are the most satisfying innings. It was cruel on him to be dismissed one short of a hundred he’d have worked so hard for.

When Hales was dismissed England still needed 61 off 52 balls and with half the side out, surely a tight finish was likely. 20 minutes later it was all over, as IPL bound Jos Buttler, aided and abetted by Moeen Ali, finished the match in a flurry of fours and sixes. He’s in some form.

2-0, and England’s transformation continues.

South Africa vs England: 2nd Test, day five and review

If you were ever asked which side had the ability to score over 600 and then be nervously contemplating the possibility of defeat on the final day, the answer would be England. And not just this collection of England players either; it seems almost hard wired into the psyche of the national team to scare the bejesus out of their supporters, to cause unending fits of mirth amongst Australians and ensure journalists and bloggers head to Statsguru to see if the latest potential disaster has any kind of precedent over the last 140 years.

In truth, England were never quite on the edge on the final day, but they did certainly manage to make things difficult for themselves and interesting for everyone.   It’s been said before – the England cricket team do have a habit of making Test matches interesting, whether they like it or not.

As soon as South Africa had reached somewhere near parity, the pressure had transferred to England as the only side who could realistically lose, given the time remaining.  The clouds that eventually did for play created just enough for the bowlers to make it rather more challenging, but the pitch was still exceptional for a fifth day surface, and it was far more about the pressure England brought on themselves than anything else.  That is as it should be, for cricket is a mental game and Test cricket is the ultimate expression of it.  Human beings react under pressure, and sporting pressure is still pressure.

Thus it quite often happens this way, as the side batting third has little but time and the draw to play for, and the bowling side can give their all knowing they have but a slim possibility of winning, plus the guarantee of a limited time spent in the field.  Once in a while something remarkable happens, but not today.  Not quite.

Ben Stokes received the Man of the Match award and that was probably inevitable given his tour de force on the first two days, yet for the second match in a row it wasn’t entirely clear cut.  Amla’s double century probably had more impact on how the game concluded and was made knowing failure meant likely defeat, and with poor form over the last year.  Jonny Bairstow batted beautifully in the first innings and steadied the England ship with a disciplined and important knock second time around.

Somewhat astonishingly, Stokes received some criticism for his dismissal today.  It shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does, getting caught on the boundary is the flipside of seeing him batter bowlers around the park; it remains an unending frustration that those who will happily cheer when the ball evades a fielder for four or six will berate a player if it instead goes into a pair of hands.  This really is how Stokes plays, and how Stokes should play.  Of course, saying such a thing is no longer allowed because…

Doubtless, Swann will shortly be saying that it was a joke, and that many people were taken in by it, but he has form for this kind of thing.  Only a few days ago he patronisingly expressed surprise that Simon Mann could make a pertinent point about spin bowling, only to catch himself when he realised how arrogant, supercilious and sneering it sounded.  Swann is also the man who expressed amazement that home ticket prices were so expensive, saying he thought they were only about £20.  To be so ignorant about those who were paying for his comfortable lifestyle beggars belief in the first place, to then dismiss any right they have to a view as well is indicative of his worldview – ungrateful, full of self-importance, smug and contemptuous.  The cheeky chappie routine wore thin long ago, as he reveals what he really thinks under the guise of it being banter.  He can think what he wants and he won’t read this.  The personal contempt is such that I couldn’t care less, we can form our view of him as the people who pay and paid his wages.

There is now a long break until the next Test, over a week, a rest period that England’s bowlers will certainly appreciate after so long in the field in this game.  South Africa have made fools of all those who wrote them off after the first Test and who gleefully anticipated England routinely flogging them for the remainder of the series.  Some hasty reassessments will undoubtedly be in order.  Steyn is rated as 50/50 for Johannesburg, while Philander has been ruled out of the series.  Kyle Abbott will also be fit as the hosts find themselves with rather more options in the bowling ranks.  Although any nonsense about “momentum” can be ignored, South Africa will certainly be feeling much better about themselves having finished this match on top.  As the Wanderers is also at altitude, England will have a contest on their hands.

South Africa will also have a new captain, with Hashim Amla resigning immediately following the game.  Perhaps the timing is something of a surprise, yet Amla clearly didn’t feel comfortable as captain and didn’t appear to be especially astute tactically, which may well be two sides of the same coin.  Whatever the reality of that, Amla spoke impressively after the game, and his assertion that he felt he could benefit the side more as a batsman than as a captain was both honourable  and quite probably true.

AB De Villiers takes over for the remainder of the series, perhaps ironically so given his less than subtle comments about his workload and the veiled threat to reduce his availability.  It could be a short term option, or it could be a means of locking him into the team – few would turn down the captaincy of their country when offered after all, but at least it should rule out him doing the wicketkeeping again.

For England after two Tests the form of the captain will be a slight concern.  He’s not got going at all this series.  It’s slight because it’s in the sense of a key player not yet having contributed and nothing more than that; he’s had a decent enough time with the bat overall in the last twelve months after all.  Yet it is a curiosity that there is an agreed silence about it in the cricketing press, while at the same time plenty of comment about Nick Compton, someone who failed to reach 40 for the first time in four innings earlier today, or Alex Hales, who scored 60 just one knock ago.  As so often, it’s less about Cook himself, and more about the way so many journalists place him on an untouchable pedestal.

So far this series for England, the standout performers have been the discards, the unwanted and the damaged.  Ben Stokes was considered not good enough for the England World Cup team, and even when he had been in the side he had been batting at number eight – a decision that got a fair bit of support from the great and the good at the time; Jonny Bairstow has been in and out of the side in all formats; Nick Compton appeared to fall foul of the different personality selection criteria while Steven Finn was of course unselectable.  Add to that an opener whose technique was openly dismissed by the then coach and there’s a certain pattern.  To look on the positive side, it amounts to a tick for the new England coaching set up.

There are no reasons to be gloomy about England’s chances in the final two Tests.  South Africa had the better of the final two days in Cape Town, but the shock and surprise that exceptional players sometimes play well was amusing.  The bowlers did little wrong, the fielders dropped catches and fine batsmen cashed in.  That is allowed to happen.  When play starts at the Wanderers, all is reset.  Reading the runes based on today and yesterday is as daft as doing so based on the first Test and that went well for those who did it.  Perhaps it was because apart from Geoff Boycott, they all had Test averages under 45.

South Africa vs England: 2nd Test day three

If there’s one thing the cricket media never seem to learn, it’s that writing off a team after one Test is always dangerous.  South Africa today fought back splendidly and for the first time this series were the unequivocal winners of a day’s play.  More than that, they showed why such dismissal was misguided in the first place, as the two big guns of the home team’s batting line up both made runs, which augurs well for the remainder of their series.

With only 212 runs scored in the day, it was clearly far more sedate than yesterday, indeed the day total barely exceeded what England scored in the morning session yesterday but that is hardly surprising given a match situation where South Africa can only play for the draw.  And they did so with grit, determination and no little skill, losing only De Villiers over the course of the day, and leaving themselves in a position where they really ought to save the match.

England had their chances, two further catches going down to add to the one last night, and had those been taken then the situation could have been very different.  The pitch is flat, to the point the groundsman has expressed his dissatisfaction with it.  It shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, for while Stokes’ innings was certainly special, teams don’t score over 600 on a surface that is offering assistance to the bowlers.  That can happen first innings, what is more of an issue for this Test is that there are no signs of deterioration, meaning it was and is only scoreboard pressure that creates the peril, and it is to that South Africa have stood up well.

Could England have done much more?  Well, apart from holding their catches, they perhaps could have attacked more than they did, especially early on.  There were a couple of occasions where an outside edge flew through a vacant gap, but it couldn’t be said they got it entirely wrong without nit-picking a touch.

South Africa aren’t out of the woods yet, for England have controlled the run rate to an extent that a bad session in the morning could yet leave the hosts in difficulties, but all things being equal, this appears most likely a bore draw with exceptional levels of ennui for the last two days.

If that is the case, then although England are a long way ahead here, South Africa will be by far the happier.  The return to form of Hashim Amla shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, he is what he has been for a decade, a quality batsman who happened to be having a poor run. Having come out the other side of his rough spell, he is a serious danger to England for the last two Tests.

Likewise Faf du Plessis, a player almost born to play the rearguard knock, will benefit hugely from time in the middle, and all of a sudden the South African batting order doesn’t appear remotely as fragile as portrayed after Durban.  For England certainly didn’t bowl badly, they maintained their discipline throughout – Alex Hales’ startling appearance as a bowler was matched onky by the shock of seeing him only go for two runs in his three overs; presumably abject terror on the part of the batsmen at the idea of getting out to him played a role there.  The dropped catches cost them dear, but it would have been hard labour anyway.

In such circumstances, the pattern is that when the team batting second reaches the point they have saved the game, the pressure then transfers to the other side, for they are then the only ones who can lose – the third innings problem.  But given the slow scoring rate, it is unlikely that South Africa would reach parity before the end of tomorrow, should they bat that long.  The prospects of them being able to put England under much pressure appear slim, meaning that by mid way through tomorrow, the sides could well be going through the motions.

There were some interesting asides during the day; De Villiers rarely looked comfortable against Steven Finn for example.  The placid pitch meant it could never quite be said Finn roughed him up, but he was undoubtedly less certain in his play than he was against anyone else.  On the high veldt this may become more of an issue, though with the proviso that England may well have to face Steyn and possibly Philander in those conditions too.

Lest that sound overly pessimistic, it shouldn’t, for England could and perhaps should be in an even better position than they are, but dropped catches are a fact of cricketing life, and the old aphorism has it right.  But if South Africa do get away with a draw as seems most likely, then the sides will go into the third Test much more evenly matched than some anticipated.

For the third day running the sides were short of their supposedly compulsory 90 overs.  Day one saw 87 overs bowled, day two was 82 – but 84 in reality given the change of innings – and day three was again 87.  Thus far in the match 12 overs have been lost due to nothing other than the sides failing to bowl their overs quick enough.  Given there has also been an extra 90 minutes to allow them to catch up, and however boring it is to keep repeating the point, this is entirely unacceptable and treating the paying spectator with contempt.  To date there has been no sign of the match referee taking any kind of action.  90 overs in a day has become nothing more than aspiration rather than a requirement.

Day Four comments can be made below

South Africa v England: 1st Test, day five and match review

South Africa in disarray, England exultant.  No doubt the word “momentum” will be used.

Taking four wickets for seven runs (including du Plessis last night) probably wasn’t the expectation of anyone, with the game effectively done and dusted within half an hour of the start.  But on reflection it probably shouldn’t come as that much of a shock, from the start of the fourth day South Africa seemed almost resigned to defeat, with only the brief passage of play at the top of the second innings suggesting some degree of fight.

It was Moeen Ali, named man of the match, who did the damage, removing AB De Villiers with the third ball of the morning.  Moeen hasn’t had an unquestioned role in the side, not helped by being shunted up and down the batting order and a lack of clarity about what his role is meant to be.  He isn’t one of the six best batsmen in the country, though he is one of the six best to watch, so his primary role has to be as spinner, with his batting complementing that.  There has been considerable development in his bowling since his debut, and it’s now time to start thinking of him as much much more than the part-timer he was then called.  It wasn’t an unreasonable description either at the start, but by all accounts he works harder than anyone and is keen to learn.   The fruits of that are starting to show, though how much further he can develop is an open question.

His Test bowling average isn’t anything special, though in recent historic terms for England it’s not bad either – Swann is an outlier amongst English finger spinners – but after 20 Tests his statistics are starting to become meaningful.  The one that reflects well on him is his strike rate, with a wicket every 56 balls.  That is actually better than Swann, though no one would argue he’s remotely the equivalent as a bowler, for Swann was vastly better at the defensive role.  But Moeen does have the knack of taking wickets, and just as with Finn, this is a skill that the England are finally starting to pay attention to; “bowling dry” is unquestionably a part of the game and England’s ability to strangle sides into submission was impressive.  But the ability to take wickets out of nowhere is more impressive still – the holy grail is to have both of course, but if it was that easy every side would do it.

Therefore it could be argued that 18 months into his Test career, Moeen is actually underrated.  It is his batting where he is underperforming somewhat which is slightly ironic.

He would have had more wickets in his career had numerous stumping opportunities been taken, so Bairstow will have been delighted to get Bavuma, particularly after missing De Villiers last night.  And here we need to talk about wicketkeeping, because it is the one area of the game where people who have played at the highest level and can talk with wisdom and experience about cricket have no knowledge or understanding except in a couple of very obvious cases.

The stumping this morning was an easy one, because it went past the outside edge of the bat.  That means the keeper is following the line of the ball all the way down and the hands are automatically in the right position.  It’s therefore straightforward unless there is excessive spin taking it beyond the reach of the gloves.  The difficult ones are those that go between bat and pad.  Bairstow, just like Buttler, is a part-time wicketkeeper, and that creates a number of issues.  The taking or missing of a particular ball can’t be seen in isolation.  More than anyone else on the field, more even than the batsmen who get to switch off to some extent for half of their time out there, the wicketkeeper is involved in every single ball of the game. Concentration is an obvious requirement, but it’s about more than that – or rather it’s only part of the story – it’s about expecting the ball to miss the bat and come into the gloves.  When it goes between bat and pad there is an expectation that it will be hit, and the eyes follow the line of the bat rather than the ball.

This is not a technical issue as such, Bairstow is more than capable of taking it, and so is Buttler; the difference between a good full time keeper and a talented but part-time one is the automatic expectation that the ball will continue on its path and not be intercepted by the bat.  The best keepers do this, and it’s why in the case of either Bairstow or Buttler they will learn it should they continue to keep over the longer period.  That doesn’t mean they then become good keepers, for there are technical flaws in both of them compared to the best, but it is to explain why that one was missed, and why in itself it shouldn’t be a concern – those kinds of stumpings will come.  Prior in his first incarnation also missed them regularly for example, in his second having focused on his keeping much more, he would take them.

Still, Bairstow took the opportunity today well enough, and will certainly gain confidence from it, which also is part of the equation.

From there it was something of a procession, Finn producing one that moved away just a fraction off the seam and was frankly wasted on Dale Steyn,  Moeen again got bite and turn to account for Abbott while Woakes finally got a wicket, which was the least he deserved – he has bowled well without reward this Test.

Fittingly, Stuart Broad delivered the coup de grace to give England a thumping win by 241 runs.

This is a remarkable margin of victory having been sent to bat in difficult conditions with England finding themselves 12-2 and then 49-3.  South Africa’s abundant problems will be much discussed in consequence, but there is always the danger of underplaying England’s wins and overplaying their defeats.  Too often England only win because the opposition were rubbish, and lose because they are rubbish.  It isn’t particularly fair, they won this game and won it well.

The first innings total of 303 is what set up the game.  It’s not a huge score but given the conditions and a pitch where run scoring wasn’t easy, it was a decent one.  Taylor and Compton can reflect on  their performances in that crucial period and be very satisfied with it.  As a combination they batted beautifully, and Graeme Swann’s bizarre and consistent criticism of Compton for batting too slowly gave something of an insight into the environment of the England team during his first spell in the side.  Compton did an outstanding job here, and deserves high praise not snide dismissal.  Had Alastair Cook done the same thing, he would have received considerable plaudits for it, for it was every bit a Cook type innings in pace, style and above all importance.  Rightly so too when Cook does it, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Swann is blinded by favouritism rather than what is going on in front of him.  It is distasteful.

If Compton had a case for being man of the match, so did James Taylor.  Doubtless Kevin Pietersen’s view that he wasn’t good enough for Test cricket in 2012 will be thrown back at him, but firstly Taylor is a better player now than he was then, but also Pietersen’s view at the time was quite clearly echoed by the selectors, who didn’t pick him.  Here he was busy at the crease, and turned the pressure back on to the bowlers.  As a combination with the doughty Compton, it worked beautifully.

That the man of the match award wasn’t an easy one to choose is evidenced by Broad being the fourth player who must have felt in with a shout.  He took fewer wickets than either Moeen or Finn, but the timing of his was the key, breaking the back of South Africa first time round, and ensuring England had a big lead at half way.  Broad is becoming a very, very fine bowler indeed.  And he seems to have got his batting back to at least some extent.  It’s going to be a big few years from him.

Lastly Finn himself can count himself a trifle unlucky to be overlooked too.  Having written about him yesterday there is no point repeating it, but he is looking in fine fettle.

England do have the nice problem of finding a place for Anderson, and Woakes seems certain to make way for him.  Harsh on Woakes if so, but it’s hard to criticise bringing back England’s record wicket taker.

Whither South Africa?

The first thing here is that a side can be comprehensively beaten in one match and gel in the next.  Even those without long memories ought to know that from the last Ashes series where the teams took it in turns to batter the other.  With that said, they do look in some disarray.  The injury to Steyn looks highly likely to keep him out of at least the second Test, but the rest of the attack – and Morkel in particular – compensated admirably here.  Their problems were not in the bowling.

De Villiers’ less than subtle hint about his workload appears to have been listened to, with de Kock being brought in to the squad for Cape Town and seemingly certain to play.  Overloading the best batsman in the side always seemed a peculiar approach, but it’s not in and of itself a reason for how this Test unfolded.  Yet for all the talk about Bairstow behind the stumps it shouldn’t be overlooked that De Villiers had a poor time with the gloves in this game anyway.

Elgar had an excellent match, looking solid and but for being on the losing team probably was the outstanding performer on either side, while Van Zyl in the second innings could well have played himself back into some kind of form without going on to make a substantial score.

The captain is clearly a concern, but Amla is a high class player and has been for a decade.  He was all at sea in the first innings, but much better in the second.  Anyone writing him off does so at their peril, for he will come good, and when he does England will suffer for it.

The immediate response to their performance has a hint of overreaction about it; England are not that good and South Africa are not that bad.  It’s one Test, and South Africa’s difficult tour of India notwithstanding, they have not become a bad side overnight, but they are clearly very low on confidence.

Newlands is a fortress of South African cricket, and while England will go there with confidence, suggestions that they are favourites to win based on this game are a triumph of hope over experience.  South Africa will probably not play as badly as they have done in Durban – if they do they are indeed in real trouble, and at that point a reassessment might be in order.

This isn’t going to stop some getting carried away, and it will be the same people who usually do so.  C’est la vie.

 

South Africa v England: 1st Test, Day Four

By no stretch of the imagination could this Test be called a classic, for one thing England have been edging ever further ahead in it over the course of the game, but to go into the final day with all results (just about) possible is indicative of a match that has been fascinating throughout.  The most likely outcome remains that England will go 1-0 up some time tomorrow afternoon, but South Africa showed admirable grit in their second innings; had they done so in the first innings, it could be argued they wouldn’t have been in such trouble.  Yet ironically enough, they finished the day with a near identical score to that they had at the close on day two.  Perception is a funny thing.

England appeared relatively untroubled by the loss of wickets in the morning, a lead already approaching 300 tends to limit any sense of panic after all, and it was Bairstow who was the undoubted star of the show.  On a surface that started slow and is edging towards the turgid as we approach the conclusion, fluent run scoring has proved difficult, yet Bairstow merrily thrashed his way to 79 at better than a run a ball.  England do have an abundance of strokemakers, but they also require the latitude to play that way, both in terms of the match situation and the allowance from the captain and management above.  The signs are positive that coach Trevor Bayliss is keen to allow the players to express themselves, a welcome change from the years of rigid game management, but it still requires the groundwork done by others – Compton’s 85 and 49 are not going to win any awards for entertainment, but a team requires different kinds of batsmen who play in their own way to to bring out the best in the others; he did exceptionally well, and while no judgements can be made going forward on the basis of a single game, it can be said he played the role of the perfect number three here.

England’s long batting order also demonstrated its value, as first Moeen Ali and then Chris Woakes provided competent support, with South Africa merely looking to limit the damage.

Indeed the approach from the hosts was quite instructive.  The new ball was already available when Taylor was dismissed to leave England 224-6, 313 ahead.  It wasn’t taken.  What this betrayed was that South Africa didn’t truly believe they could win the game; for a side that did would surely have wanted to grab the new nut, knock over the tail and set off in pursuit of 330, with a belief it was possible.  Sure, England would have been strong favourites to win still, but it would have by no means been out of the question.  Equally of course, the new ball could have gone around the park, but not to take it was extraordinarily defensive given from there South Africa could still have won.  It is hard to credit that the view of Amla and/or the coaching staff was that their best chance of doing so was to retain the old ball, it seemed purely about being content to stay in the field as long as possible to avoid batting, and that is fair enough if the opposition are already 450 ahead, but not when they are only 300 and a bit on, with six wickets down.   A few things about this South Africa outfit seem rather muddled.

The debate then turned to the timing of any declaration.  Once again though, there was so much time left in the game.  As it happened, England were dismissed before it became an issue, but with a target of 416 and the best part of 150 overs remaining, it was by no means a pressing matter.  Put simply, if South Africa batted the remainder of the match – and no rain was or is forecast – they wouldn’t be too far away from that target.  Therefore England weren’t going to be losing potential overs that might be needed to take a last wicket or two.  Had they gone on much longer, then yes, it would have become a topic of debate, but it didn’t arise.

In the customary manner, South Africa batted much better second time around initially.  Van Zyl in particular started off exceptionally positively, to the point one or two who had been questioning England for not setting about 350 actually queried whether they should have (if they could) gone on longer to make the game safe.  Sometimes there is a desire to have it all ways.  For let’s put it simply, if South Africa were to achieve the second highest run chase in Test history, then you simply doff your caps to them and say they deserve it.  If they instead manage to bat out the game for a draw, then you may wonder why they didn’t get close enough to win in the time available, but you still doff that cap.  The target was exceptionally challenging, the time remaining extensive.  England and Cook did nothing wrong, however it turns out tomorrow.

After that strong start by the Proteas, and with a ball that resolutely refused to swing or seam to any great extent, it was Stokes and then Finn who made the difference.  Firstly, patience is always needed in these situations, for the wickets will usually come, and secondly you need to have a strike bowler who takes those wickets.  Earlier in his career Finn was criticised – and then dropped – for leaking runs, but he takes wickets.  His strike rate is the best of any England bowler with 100 Test victims, at an outstanding 47 balls per wicket.  This is a serious weapon.  Who cares if he goes for a few runs when he can do that?  So does Dale Steyn for that matter, and while his economy rate is a little better than Finn’s, it’s hardly impressive either.  Trying to force the square peg of potent strike bowler into the round hole of line and length operator consistently missed the point about the attacking wealth offered by him.  When he comes on to bowl it’s quite clear he will drop the odd one short and get hit to the boundary.  It’s also equally clear there is a decent prospect of sending one or two opponents back to the shed.  Leave him be, let him do what he’s excellent at – England have other bowlers to tie an end up.

And on that particular matter, Broad is becoming nigh on unhittable in Test cricket these days.  Indeed an economy rate in this innings of 2.27 probably represents something of a disappointment to him.  Add to that that he takes wickets, as his record over this calendar year shows only too well, and it is time that it was more widely acknowledged that he’s a fantastic bowler, one of the best England have had in a long time.  Appreciation of his skills (if not his DRS expertise) is overdue.

Standing in the way of England emerging victorious is one AB De Villiers.   England did have a chance to get him, Moeen Ali’s beautifully flighted delivery turning sharply through the gate with De Villiers out of his ground, only for Bairstow to miss the stumping.  England are choosing wicketkeepers who are primarily batsmen, and the reality is that while they do so, stumpings like this are going to be missed.  The same applies when it’s Jos Buttler doing the job.  In both cases they tend to miss the stumpings when the ball goes between bat and pad.  The eyes follow the bat rather than ball, expecting it to make contact, and by the time the ball has passed the bat, it’s far too late to adjust.  This certainly isn’t to excuse an error that Bairstow himself was in despair over, but it is to explain how it happens and why.  The very best wicketkeepers don’t make that kind of mistake because they always follow the line of the ball instinctively.  It’s a much much harder skill than might be supposed.

With Du Plessis and De Villiers at the crease, memories of their monumental match saving rearguard against Australia were well to the fore, but Finn returned just before the end to produce one that lifted just enough to take the shoulder of Du Plessis’ bat, Cook taking an excellent catch, and England will breathe much easier tonight.

There was still time for two items of note – firstly that Dale Steyn came out to bat as nightwatchman.  There are two ways of looking at that, either surprise at taking such a risk with a key player with the Cape Town Test only days away, or that he’s already ruled out and therefore there is little to be lost.  A slight puzzle though.   Secondly, immediately after Du Plessis was out the ball was changed.  It had been looked at earlier in the over, and the change itself was routine, and nothing need be inferred from the decision.  Just as nothing needed to be inferred from the decision to change the ball when South Africa were bowling.  It is unlikely that those who cast aspersions through innuendo and suggestion in that case will do so here – and that says it all.

A further 280 is required from 90 overs tomorrow.  More realistically, England need six more wickets.  It probably won’t be easy, but it probably will happen.  On the basis of the first four days, England deserve it.

 

Dubai Day 5 (and tales of heroism and error)

Dubai-City-Tour

130 for 3. It is set up with the odds in Pakistan’s favour, with two of the England batsmen capable of causing trouble for the hosts back in the hutch. Seven wickets to take and with memories of how rapidly they can go fresh from Saturday morning, the game looks to be up. But England have been resilient in the past decade and one can but hope that someone other than Root stands up to be counted. I wouldn’t rely on it, but let’s be hopeful.

You know, I could be forgiving of someone who didn’t give the impression as being so above the plebs, but in a piece dripping with his usual superiority, the inability to remember Pakistan’s first innings (and how memorable was the last over of Day 1) in a piece is, well, quite outstanding.

MIsbah hundred Cropped

Misbah missed twin hundreds, but Younus completed his, and this, of course brought out the “he is inexplicably excluded from the conversation over great players”. Well, you may have excluded him, and so do many other British cricket correspondents who last saw him play three and a half years ago, but those on here who watch cricket around the globe know of his brilliance. The winning innings in Sri Lanka being a fitting stamp of class that the experts almost revel in not paying attention to. Saying Younus Khan is unrecognised would be to label the same status on Hashim Amla, who we don’t see for every three years or so on the international circuit. I’m not quite sure what the blind spot is? All the while Asad Shafiq is having a jolly decent series too. He looks a nice little player in the bits I’d seen of him before, and I’ll be fascinated how he does in England this summer. The batting woes of 2010 may be a thing of the past.

I’ll be interested to see what the media make of Cook’s shot. Yes, he was injured – you only had to watch him run for that – but Cook can block and leave better than anyone in test cricket. He top edged a sweep to deep backward square, and there was barely a word of complaint against him. Bell, meanwhile, in Selfey’s piece is called careless for not getting his glove out of the way, while Moeen, rightly, is giving a telling-off for a waft outside off stump. I know people will say “oh no, it’s you having a go at Cook again” but it really isn’t. It’s other people being called out for brain farts, and our captain not. He’ll be excused due to an injury, but really? I was a bit miffed and wonder if any of you really were?

Also, I wish we didn’t do this. It makes us look like whingers.

That said, Cook needs to be fit for the next game. The selection policy, well sign-posted, was that Moeen was the man incumbent in the UAE and that if things went well, they’d consider him for South Africa, and if not, Alex Hales would get a go. There is a feeling out there that this was a mistake, and the worst thing that could possibly have happened would be Cook getting injured. If the captain can walk, he plays. But what if he can’t? Cook looked awful between the wickets, and while he couldn’t channel his inner Gordon Greenidge, he is still an important, no vital, part of this team when playing well. Again, no problems at all in saying that.

I do say that any thoughts of calling Joe Root the best all round player in the world were rather put to bed by another AB deVilliers masterclass in Mumbai, as the visitors destroyed the Indians and put Dhoni’s comments that it would be difficult to score rapidly in the last 10 overs under the new rules into context. Three centuries in the innings, the others by De Kock and Du Plessis, sent South Africa into the stratosphere. India never came close. De Villiers hit 11 sixes in his knock, while Du Plessis went into beast mode as his leg cramped up. England fans should circlet 12 February. We play them at the Wanderers. Hide behind the sofa.

Rain prevented play in Colombo. So all my comments yesterday roll forward to tomorrow.

All comments for Day 5, a morning when I’ll be in wall-to-wall meetings so keeping up to date is going to be tough, should be posted below.

I leave you with Newman….

The official line is that England have ‘no concerns’ about Cook and with five days before the final match in this three-Test series there is a little more time than usual in the packed international calendar for the captain to recover.

But it was painful enough to watch Cook bat let alone for the captain to actually do it as he hobbled his way through 22 balls before falling when his body restricted his attempt to execute his first sweep shot.