England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, Day Three – Wet

The forecast wet weather duly arrived not too long after lunch, and that was that for the day. South Africa had managed to save the follow on, and given the rain that may yet prove to be vital in going to the final match of the series all square. Temba Bavuma deserves all the plaudits for getting his team into a position whereby with some help from on high, it’s just about possible to see a potential escape. He was helped in adding 50 to the team’s overnight score by Vernon Philander, fresh out of hospital, but clearly far from recovered given his repeated trips off the field during England’s second innings. He’s plainly still not well at all. 

Toby Roland-Jones was the man to take the final wicket, and in doing so completed a five wicket haul. Cricket history is littered with examples of players who shone brightly at the start only to fade, and while nothing should be read into his achievement in terms of his international career, if nothing else he will have this match. But he’s bowled well, and certainly added to the potency of the England attack in helpful conditions. 

With no follow on option, it was for England to follow the pattern of the first two Tests and go out in the third innings and build a lead. The overhead cloud still assisted the bowlers and Morne Morkel in particular made life especially difficult, accounting for Cook for the 11th time with a good one that left him and clattered into off stump. At the other end Keaton Jennings was struggling badly against Philander, escaping being caught in the slips via a cordon that couldn’t react in time as the ball flew off the edge. 

That he’s struggled this series is obvious, but all players need a bit of luck, and perhaps that was just what he needed. He also escaped being given lbw on review, but towards the end of the possible play he was starting to look more fluent and more assured. Should he go on tomorrow, on such fine margins can sporting careers be made. 

Tom Westley in contrast has looked like he’s been waiting to bat in a Test match for years. Both in the first innings and today, his stroke making has been notable, his ease at the crease remarkable. Once again, it means little in terms of the longer term, but on brief evidence, he does at least appear at home in the environment. 

With England 252 ahead, a better forecast for the next two days and a pitch still offering some assistance to  the seamers, it’s hard to see much other than England creating a huge lead and then asking South Africa to bat the best part of four sessions to try and save it.  As so often, it might be best if England were bowled out removing the need for a decision, but even if South Africa were to have a great morning, the chances are the target won’t be below 350.

The people most pleased with today will be those with tickets for tomorrow.

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day four – Shambles

England were always going to lose this match, the question was whether it would be today or tomorrow, and how they lost it.  The difference between the teams after the first innings was substantial, and probably meant defeat anyway, but with South Africa batting well on the third day, England’s target was always going to be far beyond them.  But how you lose is often as important as how you win, for it demonstrates the qualities of the team in adversity, and the character therein.  England’s abysmal collapse today was entirely predictable (indeed yesterday’s post did predict it) but it’s still disappointing to see the worst fears confirmed.

Amidst the storm of criticism England received after the denouement, it was interesting to note how many of the same people who castigated South Africa for not pressing on and playing shots yesterday now complained that England were reckless today.  The circumstances aren’t the same of course, but the selectivity with which one side can be criticised for playing decent Test cricket (and winning) and the other attacked for failing to do so is indicative of the confused approach so many have got into in this T20 era.

In the first innings England’s wickets didn’t fall because of too many reckless shots, but the attitude was one of a side that didn’t have too much confidence in their ability to defend.  It’s been a regular feature of the England side in recent times, but not exclusively so, they have on occasion batted defensively, even in defeat in India, but the reality is that the middle order are stroke players, and it goes against the grain for them to block.  That middle order is outstanding at counter attacking and ramming home an advantage and is more than capable of changing the direction of a match in a session.  But what looks terrific as a calculated gamble looks dire when a backs to the wall performance is required.  Yet it may well be that those who blame them are looking in the wrong place, for those players have particular strengths, and ones which have been evident as recently as the last Test match, when Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen all plundered runs with their attacking approach.  Criticising Stuart Broad for being caught on the boundary this afternoon seems a peculiar line to take for example given the match was long dead by then.  The problems arise when they are exposed much too early, and the loss of early wickets in a paper thin top order is always going to generate disaster in such circumstances.

It’s not to say the middle order aren’t capable.  Moeen batted extraordinarily well in carrying his bat during another dire defeat – to Sri Lanka at Leeds – but having created a role for him in the lower middle order where he is to play freely, it is a bit rich to complain when he does the same thing with the game already lost.  That’s not to excuse him, for it wasn’t a great shot to say the least, but in the criticism of that middle order, there are some short memories about that working superbly only one Test ago.

It is true however that the innings as a whole was spectacularly spineless.  Cook did show how to do it early on, but with wickets falling about him it had the air of being in vain from half an hour into play.  It was a good ball that got him, and an even better one that got Root, but both of them could have survived on another day.  Good bowling yes, totally unplayable no.  In neither case does that make them responsible for what happened (to emphasise the point, they were definitely good balls), but it was still part of the pattern where no batsman (apart from possibly Dawson) came out with much credit, it is merely a matter of degree.  Cook at his very best exudes a sense of certainty missing here, and while others were infinitely more culpable, he will be as disappointed  as anyone not to have gone on.  Mentioning Cook today is in one sense harsh, but it is only from the perspective of him being about the only player in the side who has the concentration levels to bat for a couple of days.  That he doesn’t do it in the fourth innings to save a match that often (not many do) is rather beside the point.  He could, which is why the celebrations for his wicket are always the loudest.  But Cook has always been vulnerable to pace, and outstanding against spin, and South Africa have a terrific pace attack – his record against both them and Australia is markedly lower than against others.  That’s fair enough, for only the very best have no real flaws.  Cook is just below that level, but he is very good and the same applies to him as to others – to look at what he can do rather than what he can’t.

England have gone through opening batsmen not called Cook at a rate of knots in the past few years, and Jennings will be aghast at the gaping hole between bat and pad that led to him being bowled, while Ballance was once again stuck on the crease and lbw on review.  In the first case, England really do have to decide what they are doing with the opening position and show some faith that whoever they pick will learn the role.  In the second, whatever Ballance’s shortcomings at this level, England’s decision to put him in at three, a position he doesn’t hold for his county, and where he struggled last time he was selected, is throwing him to the wolves, irrespective of him apparently being injured this match.  Facing the new ball and being in the middle order are entirely different roles, albeit in this England side the middle order is getting used to it quite quickly.  England are hoping the square peg can be pushed in to the round hole.

If those two appear to be vulnerable to being dropped, the question is who could come in to replace them.  The new schedule for county cricket precludes county championship cricket during the meat of the season, meaning any replacements will not have played anything other than T20 recently.  This was of course pointed out at the time the schedule was agreed, but ignored.  Change will smack of shuffling the chairs on the Titanic, for it’s a big ask of anyone to come in and get used to different format from the off.

The other player who may give way is Liam Dawson.  He is victim of the extraordinarily muddled thinking that passes for selection – he hasn’t proved a success so far, but he’s done about as well as might have been expected given his record.  The dropping of Adil Rashid looked reckless at the time, to now give his replacement the boot so soon would make a nonsense of his initial selection.  It would also – along with the potential less likely removal of Mark Wood, be following the time honoured England tradition of blaming the bowlers for the failure of the batsmen.

Where to go from here?  It should always be said that a team is never so good in victory or as bad in defeat as they seem, and the euphoria of the first Test win was completely misplaced as some kind of barometer for following games.  England’s recent record is so poor that this effort today shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone, yet apparently it has.  Putting the boot in when they’ve played as badly as today is nothing but rampant hypocrisy given the excuse making for the last tour, the home defeats last summer, and the pretence that all was well, fully exonerating everyone from the captain to the Chairman.  It’s already been the case that some of our media friends have decided to criticise Root as captain, a mere two Tests into the job, having made endless excuses to this point when it was Cook in charge.  That’s not to pick on Cook either, it is to say that these problems with the England side have been apparent for quite some time, yet some were too busy pronouncing all was well when it clearly wasn’t.  Equally, those problems don’t mean that it’s fine to rip into the whole side just because of today.  Failing to be aware that this happens to the current England – or more specifically, to pretend it hasn’t done because of some misguided cheerleading of those in charge – does a disservice to everyone both then and now, including the players.  This is how England have been for a while, with all the concomitant strengths and flaws.  It is this apparent new found freedom in the fourth estate to say what has been obvious for a long time that grates so much.

For South Africa, this match couldn’t have gone better – and in the absence of Kagiso Rabada as well.  The seam attack had England under pressure from ball one in both innings, and Keshav Maharaj was excellent in support.  Yet as in the first Test, the margin of victory disguised the fact that both teams had opportunities.  There is absolutely nothing to suggest certainty about the outcome of the next two games, although doubtless there will be much discussion around how England change the “momentum” of the series.

After a day like today, it’s hard to know what is more irritating – the performance, or the apparent amazement that it happened at all.  There has been far too much absolving of the past, and so far, far too much criticism today from those who previously stayed silent and pretended the flaws in the team didn’t exist.  This is where England are, and yes they can certainly do better in these circumstances than they have today.  But it’s not new, and it’s not unusual.  A degree of honesty all round about where England have been for the last couple of years wouldn’t go amiss rather than responding day to day.

 

 

England vs South Africa: 2nd Test, Day 3 – Doomed

Barring the kind of sporting miracle that a few always cling to, England will lose this match, probably tomorrow, and it’s all down to their batting performance on the second day.  Today certainly wasn’t the worst England have played – they bowled reasonably enough – but the gap between the sides after the first innings meant that to have even the slightest chance they would have needed something exceptional, indeed to skittle a South African side entirely content to accumulate runs.

There are things England could have done better; certainly the delayed introduction of spin was highlighted by the way Dawson and in particular Moeen took wickets once they were finally used, but any suggestion that this was the difference between winning and losing would be rather extreme.  England toiled hard and bowled well enough in the morning session, but they were always going to be in a situation of trying to limit the damage as much as they could after the initial burst failed to bring results.  South Africa played it exactly right – not for them the abandon of attacking batting, they played as though it was a Test match, taking minimal risks and continuing to build on their already overwhelming advantage.  It was curious to hear the commentators criticising them for this fairly early on.  Despite at the time the best part of three days to go, the desire to see them throw the bat was present on both television and radio.  Perhaps it was a subconscious wish for England to get back into the game, for it is hard to comprehend why with so much time left to play it was remotely in the tourists’ interests to take risks with their position.  Perhaps the influence of T20 has become so pervasive that even observers can’t cope with a team playing decent Test cricket any more, for South Africa were hardly particularly slow – they were simply using the time honoured tactic of grinding England into the dirt.

Elgar and Amla did the damage early on, looking in little trouble as they made a strong position completely dominant.  By the time both were dismissed their team already had enough on the board to be strong favourites even if they’d stopped there, and neither dismissal was expected at the time given their level of comfort.  England did miss one opportunity, failing to spot a thin edge from Amla when on 25, but of their DRS problems this series, that was the least damning – players have missed hearing edges from the dawn of time.  They did get one right when Amla had reached 87, Dawson’s introduction bringing the overturning of a not out decision that was entirely understandable as he advanced down the pitch.

By this stage the surface was showing signs of some wear, if a long way from being unplayable.  The lbw of Faf Du Plessis will have sent tremors of uncertainty through England ranks given how low it kept from short of a length, but for the seamers at least, it was unusual to see the ball misbehave that much.  There was some spin to be had, as should be expected in the second half of a Test match.  Dawson had the advantage of bowling into the footholes to the left handers, but it was Moeen Ali who extracted more life, and looked the more threatening.  Part time offspinner England may consider him, but in the absence of Adil Rashid, he looks by far the more potent of the two spinners on show.  Dawson has done little to suggest he is the future, albeit from three Tests, and there are already whispers that his place might be under threat.  This is unfair because he hasn’t had anything like long enough to get used to Test cricket, or to learn, and should he not be retained then questions should be asked about his initial selection more than his performance, for if he isn’t deemed good enough, why was he thought good enough so recently?

Towards the back end of the innings, Philander and Morkel decided to attack, with Moeen bearing the brunt of their assault as he also took wickets.  In microcosm, this was a good sample of Moeen’s bowling career – expensive but taking wickets at frequent intervals.  His 4-78 represented unusually good figures for a spinner at Trent Bridge, albeit three of the wickets came from attempts to hit him out of the ground.  By that stage though, the target had exceeded world record levels, and with Philander’s departure, that was sufficient to invite the declaration and ask England to bat for a tricky 20 minute spell.

One thing is abundantly clear, short of an unexpected monsoon, this match is never going to be a draw.  England would have to bat 184 overs and if they did that they’d probably reach the target anyway.  Either they reach 474 (they won’t) or they will lose, and to that end to have even the slightest possibility (virtually nil) of winning then a good start was essential.  It so nearly got off to the worst possible start, Cook given out lbw first ball to Morne Morkel before successfully reviewing it.  In truth, it wasn’t a great decision, it always looked high and so it proved on Hawkeye.  But it must also be said it really wasn’t a great shot either – Cook was attempting to clip a good length straight ball through square leg.  He got away with it because Morkel is so tall, but it was a reminder that those who berated Moeen Ali for being caught at point tend to go much quieter when poor semi-defensive or defensive shots are played instead.

For the remainder of the four overs the two openers were under huge pressure.  Cook had another close lbw call against him when he again played across a pretty straight ball, while Jennings just about managed to control an outside edge and push it down in to the slip cordon.  Both these players could do with some runs.  Cook hasn’t been in the greatest of touch in Tests recently, but hardly disastrously so, while Jennings is suffering the murmurs of the press despite a more recent century of the two of them, and is only in his fourth match.  Cook quite clearly has a long fine record, but that observation is about him, it is about the seeming lack of patience with new players and the immediate pressure placed on them to succeed.  Cook had faith placed in him at various stages of his career, and perhaps dividends would be reaped if others received half that faith.  England are becoming very careless with opening batsmen.

They got through it, one way or another, and England can at least begin day four with all ten wickets intact.  It is hard to see anything other than a South Africa win, and a convincing one.  If England bat as they did in the first innings, it could be over in short order, but at least with Cook still there they have someone who could bat long and keep the game alive.  He’s not alone in that for the inexperienced Jennings has the temperament to do so, and so could Gary Ballance.  In the last case he really needs it.  Ballance does suffer in terms of perception from being anything but elegant, and this series he’s batted reasonably and not looked out of his depth, but without ever going on to make a score.

England could do themselves a big favour, even in defeat, by making a decent fist of their run chase.  There are question marks over their defensive techniques as a collective, and their ability to bat for long periods.  Falling over in a heap would make those criticisms louder and highlight to the opposition what they must already suspect – keep England subdued and they’ll get themselves out.  For England to come out of this match with their heads held high, they really need Alastair Cook to lead the way.

The trouble is, it’s all too easy to see England being all out by tea.