South Africa vs England: Fourth Test, day four [Sticky – Other Posts Below]

Providing the weather holds, South Africa ought to win the final Test of the series some point tomorrow afternoon.  For the match has been thoroughly one sided throughout and unless England somehow escape through their own endeavours, which is possible but unlikely, a draw seems most possible only with the help of a thunderstorm or two.

If that were to happen, then perhaps the finger could be pointed firmly at the home team’s captain and coaching staff, for the lack of urgency in building the lead in the second session and after tea was unusual to say the least.  It’s not exactly a matter of batting on too long, more that with a more positive mindset they would have been able to declare somewhat earlier.  Still, with three early wickets already taken South Africa would be disappointed if they failed to finish England off, so the point will probably be a moot one, but just occasionally, this conservatism comes back to haunt teams, as England found on a number of occasions, most notably in managing to lose a series in the Caribbean they dominated, but where sheer timidity cost them two Tests and one collapse ultimately the series.

Certainly South Africa’s reluctance to take risks was justified early on, for with Anderson taking two wickets in an over early on, there would have been some concern even though at 182 ahead for three wickets down, it was hardly disastrous; given the collapse in the last Test, perhaps it was forgivable.  But the lack of acceleration after lunch was less so, as by that point they were 254 runs ahead with four wickets down.  England probably weren’t too upset.  Between lunch and tea they only scored 102 runs in 30 overs, and after tea 65 runs in 15.2 overs – a small acceleration, but hardly putting their collective foot down.

By that point, and with England going through the motions to an even greater extent than they have in the Test is a whole – bowling wide of the off stump and wide of the leg stump in an effort to restrain the scoring and keep them out there, the Test really wasn’t going anywhere, except for a debate as to whether they were intending to let Bavuma score a century.  It was a touch peculiar, and suggested a side seriously lacking confidence, for there was no sign of an imminent declaration.

The rain break forced their hand and with a pretty nominal 382 required in 109 overs, England were left with just a draw to play for.  They didn’t exactly start very well.  Alex Hales did get one that kept a touch low, but that he hasn’t had a great series is plain.  As ever, it needs to be qualified that he’s hardly alone in not having a great series.  The radio report from Jonathan Agnew this evening highlighted that he’s averaged 17 across the Tests, and that is indeed not great.  Yet it is as striking as it always is that this point was followed with saying that Cook was the next to be dismissed, with no mention of him only averaging 23 in the series.

It is tiresome to have to keep writing this, but it does Cook no favours to be treated as the prodigal son all the time.  Yes, he has a very strong record behind him, and yes anyone can have a bad series.  But to specifically, repeatedly and consistently overlook when the chosen one doesn’t do well as though it is of no consequence is failing to properly scrutinise matters.  That does not mean for a second that Cook is or should be in any kind of danger of his place, for he had a decent 2015 after a disastrous 2013 and 2014 and has the fine career as evidence of his skill and ability.  But what it does mean is that he has had a bad series.  It happens.  It’s worth noting.  It’s worth mentioning.  It is something that when totally ignored draws attention to the disparity in treatment.  Sky have managed to skilfully ignore his poor series but still mention that he’s closing in on 10,000 Test runs.  That will be a fine achievement, and worthy of comment as the first England player to reach that mark – though another would probably have done so sooner had his career not been curtailed.  It is also true that he’s not had a great tour.  It is quite astounding how the media will go out of their way to ever mention these things.  Once again, it is not a case of criticising him heavily, querying his position, calling for his removal or any such thing, but it unquestionably is about highlighting how TMS can entirely ignore it, yet tweet a question as to whether Compton has convinced in this series with an average of 30.

For tomorrow, England do have a long batting line up, but assuming a full day’s play of 98 overs, pulling off a draw here would be an outstanding achievement.  Indeed, nigh on impossible though the target might be, with a middle order as attacking as England’s is, it would probably be more likely that England win rather than bat out a draw, and that’s very unlikely indeed.  And if South Africa do win the Test, then Scyld Berry’s point that it would have set up a fifth Test perfectly is ever more apposite.  It was meant to happen, for the ECB promised it would a few years ago. It didn’t.  And while the home team have to approve the scheduling, there has been a remarkable silence on the part of the ECB that their desire for five has been flouted.  Four Tests is at least an improvement on the dreadful three match series in 2012 that was blamed on the Olympics, but five is the best Test format for big series for very good reason – as previous England – South Africa encounters have demonstrated amply.  It’s not being wise after the event, plenty of people who love cricket were disappointed it wasn’t five before the series started.  Apparently, only India and Australia are deserving of this.  The Big Three who have accrued all the power and money to themselves, allowing five match series between themselves.  Try to contain your shock.

England’s repeated defeats in the final Test of a series, dead rubber or otherwise, is beginning to look careless.  Curiously, it isn’t so long ago that they suffered from losing the first Test of a tour consistently.  The series win is a fine achievement, and whether South Africa are quite the side they were doesn’t change that.  But if they do want to be the best side in the world, there’s plenty of work ahead of them yet.

Day Five discussion below.

 

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South Africa vs England: 3rd Test day two

In the world of Formula One racing it’s been said that in order to make the sport exciting, just add water.  And so it is with cricket, though adding water isn’t a great idea.  Instead, add a pitch that has some pace and bounce to it, where bowlers feel they are in with a chance, and good batsmen can play shots and score centuries if they play well.  Quite simply, it makes for better, more exciting cricket.  The trouble is, a surface like this tends to be exception rather than the norm, with a tendency towards slow, turgid pitches that can be nigh on guaranteed to last into a fifth day and thus make more money for grounds and boards.

It’s a quite astoundingly short sighted view, for endless slow pitches just make for boring cricket, as fast bowlers end up on their knees from the exertion of trying to extract something, while batsmen find playing shots difficult and merely accumulate.  The result is slow scoring, few wickets and a crowd who have either drifted off to sleep or haven’t bothered to turn up in the first place.

Of course, cricket needs to be played in all conditions, and home advantage should be just that.  And the domestic cricket played on the pitches the domestic structure creates informs the strengths of the home side.  Yet when Test cricket is in dire need of support from its boards – and the suspicion is they couldn’t care less about Test cricket because it doesn’t make them money – the refusal to comprehend what is right in front of them is part of the damage being done.  Of course, the disparity in incomes, both for players not from the Big Three countries, and their respective boards is the biggest factor in the current swathe of articles about the danger the game is in, but it’s not just that – or rather there’s a corollary point that’s related to it.

It all comes back to money and to power.  The crisis in Test cricket due to the land-grab by India, England and Australia has finally got the attention of at least some of the newspapers.  These are the papers who generally ignored the whole matter with the odd honourable exception who pointed out what the likely impact was.  Those terrible bloggers added their voices to the writers retaining their integrity and lambasted the others for their ignorance or lack of interest (or both in at least one case).  Perhaps we should be grateful they’ve noticed at all, certainly the British newspapers managed to pretend Death of a Gentleman didn’t exist.  And given the wider issue and the importance of it to a game we love, it is better late than never.  Just.  But if they have noticed the trouble Tests are in, they still haven’t joined up all the dots.  Chairman’s Pitches are part of the same equation; the players certainly don’t love them, on the few occasions they can be persuaded to venture a real opinion (the deliciously outspoken Moeen Ali apart ) the one thing they will loudly criticise are pitches that have nothing in them.

The ball is also part of that.  It really doesn’t matter whether the ball is a Duke, a Kookaburra or an SG, it just needs to last long enough to keep the bowlers in the game and not become a rag after 15 overs.  The pitch and the ball are clearly critical, and get those right and we at least have a sport that is worth watching.

The best, most exciting Test matches tend to be the ones that don’t go the distance.  In fact in some instances they are done and dusted in three days or even less, which is a disaster if that’s due to one-sidedness, thrilling if it’s a proper fight.  Nor is it about rapid scoring or wicket-taking per se, for a slow but tense passage of play can be the most exciting of all.  Test cricket might be considered the purist’s version of the sport, but the attractiveness of T20 stems partly from the fact there is plenty of action.  In Tests, cricket with uncertainty, whether with bat or ball, is very watchable cricket.  And very sellable cricket.  And very broadcastable cricket.  It’s not bloody complicated.

And so the groundsman at the Wanderers deserves immense credit; it’s not an exact science, and wickets can sometimes perform in a manner that leaves the ground staff tearing out their hair.  That’s a given, it can happen.  But the intent has to be there, as it is in Johannesburg and as it all too often isn’t in England.  And this is still trying to make use of home advantage, for a bouncy, pacy track is one where South Africa unquestionably fancy their chances of a win.  Not a thing wrong with that either, no matter how much certain hypocritical Australians might bleat about it.

And so this game has see-sawed, from South Africa throwing away a decent position on day one only to roar back with late runs, positively made, and then to leave England in trouble before Stokes and especially Root dragged England back into a position of parity.  We’re at the end of day two and we don’t know where this Test is going, except to say there will probably be a result.  This is perfect, this is Test cricket as it should be, where a cricket lover can’t take his or her eyes off the screen because something is going to happen.  You don’t know what, and you don’t know who – but something is.

The South African total of 313 is in that sweet spot where there is uncertainty as to whether it is a good one or not.  It’s one the home team will probably be fairly satisfied with, and has the notable record of being the highest Test total where no one has made a half century.  And when England were 22-2 and 91-4 they would have been ecstatic with it, and confident of a first innings lead of some size.  That this is now in question – and England really should reach parity at the least – is largely to do with one partnership that bounced along at seven an over.  Stokes of course was Stokes, a player who is lethally dangerous with the bat, and able to take a match away from the opposition in a session.  But Joe Root was the central figure, making his ninth Test century in a career that is rapidly flowering to be very special indeed.

Root has looked in form all series, making good contributions before getting out when set, to his clear frustration.  He’s now far enough into his career that we can start making proper judgements about him.  He’s had the poor run of form and come out the other side grinning – as he does a lot.  We may have someone truly special on our hands.  If he stays in any length of time on day three, South Africa are in trouble.  It’s quite striking how he seems to get to 30 without anyone noticing; he scores his runs at a fair lick without ever seeming to really attack; it’s his ability to find gaps for singles and twos that marks him out, for he doesn’t have an obviously rock solid technique defensively.  He can be caught on the crease, he can be lured into playing away from his body, and early on the slip cordon will be licking their lips.  But when he gets in, and when he gets going, he’s a joy to watch.

Alastair Cook was again caught down the legside cheaply.  It’s clearly an opposition tactic and a technical problem for him, where he is too far over to the offside and playing the ball outside the line of his body.  He has had a poor series with the bat to date.  Let’s be clear about this, batsmen can have poor series, they can be slightly out of sync with their movements and they can struggle somewhat.  You take the rough with the smooth and accept it happens.  With Cook it is what it always is, less about him having peaks and troughs, and more about his cheerleaders in the press refusing to ever acknowledge the chosen one has been anything other than magnificent.  Instead they will openly criticise other players who have done better across the series.  Some sympathy for Cook in this area is due, for this sacred cow approach is doing him a major disservice.  Acknowledging that a good player is having a rotten series doesn’t mean he’s not a good player.  It means he’s having a rotten series.  Try being honest and straightforward – it might be liberating.

A case in point resides with Compton, a player for whom there appears to be a queue formed in order to criticise him.  He made a slow start to his innings, and of course it suddenly because a topic for the usual suspects to mention it.  What is this?  Is playing yourself in suddenly unusual?  Isn’t this Test cricket, not a T20?  He got in, he got going, he scored runs – and then he got out.  He won’t be happy with the shot that led to his dismissal sure, but then the number of times a batsman is truly got out rather than bringing about his own downfall is rather few.  He’s done a mostly good job this series, and isn’t deserving of the scrutiny he’s receiving.

The hosts’ pace attack impressed too.  The absence of Steyn is giving the chance to some new, younger players.  Rabada looks a bowler of immense talent, and is a pleasure to watch, while Viljoen showed pace and hostility throughout, hurrying the England batsmen repeatedly.

Tomorrow is moving day.  It’s going to be fascinating.  Test cricket – it really can be good.

Day Three discussions below.

 

South Africa vs England: 2nd Test, day one

One of the delights about Test cricket is how often the final hour of play proves pivotal, and makes the previous five hours seem pedestrian and unimportant in comparison.  It isn’t really like that of course, but day one is a set up day to begin with, and that final hour so often determines which side is the happier, almost irrespective of how things have gone up to that point.

For at drinks in the evening session, England were 224-5, not in trouble as such, but in severe danger of thoroughly wasting the opportunity of batting first.  Stokes and Bairstow’s thrilling counter-attack, particularly against the new ball, means that England will be reasonably content with their day’s work, though much more will be needed from them in the morning to turn it into a position of strength.

The day had largely been one of England players getting in and getting out.  Only Taylor was dismissed early; Cook was loose once again outside off stump, Hales caught in the slips again off a pretty decent ball, Compton nailed a pull straight to midwicket and Root played a rotten waft outside off stump.  If that seems overly harsh, individually it probably is.  Hales made his first Test fifty and batted extremely well, Root looked a million dollars and it was a surprise when he got out, and Compton played the number three role well again.  Yet for at least three of the top order to perish needlessly risked throwing away what could and should have been a position of dominance.  Sometimes these things just happen in the game of cricket, but it looked somewhat careless; the players will know that better than anyone – certainly Root looked about to explode as he left the field.

Compton himself has 179 runs in three innings since his recall, which ought to satisfy anyone.  Not withstanding his failure to go on from a start today, he is doing well.  Yet the pundits and commentators seem awfully quick to get on his back about his scoring rate. At lunch he was 3* off 27 balls, and it was a topic of conversation.  It is hardly unusual for a batsman to start that way, especially so in the run up to a break, and nor is it putting pressure on his batting partner at such a stage.  Given his struggles in the Test before he was dropped perhaps that is a legitimate topic of conversation, but the same thing kept cropping up throughout his innings, which was ultimately at the same strike rate as that well known blocker Alex Hales.    Nor is this a one off, given how Graeme Swann criticised Compton for slow play in the first Test, where Compton’s first innings knock was not only exactly what England needed, it went a fair way towards England winning the match.

Let’s be clear about this – Compton played a perfectly normal innings for a number three.  If it’s going to referred to as “staccato” then do so for other players, not just him – there is an undercurrent of being desperate to criticise for the sake of it.

But the day belonged to Bairstow and Stokes.  Their unbroken partnership of 94 came off just 19.1 overs, but it was the new ball that they were particularly severe on, particularly Stokes.  At one stage they were scoring at 9 an over, as Amla scattered the field.  There’s something to really like about this England team, and it’s the way the younger players respond to adversity by looking to attack.  It isn’t always going to come off, and an understanding of what they’re trying to do is needed.  That means not slating a batsman who is caught on the boundary for example.  It’s high risk but a calculated risk and when it comes off it is both thrilling for the spectator and can completely change the direction of the match.  We cannot have it both ways here: we can’t praise players for taking the game by the scruff of the neck and then complain when they get out.  Stokes could have been caught in the slips on at least two occasions when the new ball was taken, and mistimed a couple of pulls as well.  Yet it doesn’t, or shouldn’t matter – it is a calculated assault that on this occasion worked.

Bairstow played largely the supporting role, but scored not much less quickly.  He’s been good this series with the bat, and looks a much more solid player defensively, which bodes well for the longer term.

The big plus for South Africa was the bowling of Kagiso Rabada.  He’s clearly raw, but has pace, and the priceless quality of hurrying the batsmen even when the speed gun doesn’t necessarily support that.  Joe Root was very late indeed on one attempted pull, and lucky to survive.  For such a young bowler his control was decent as well, certainly better than Chris Morris, who Stokes in particular took a considerable liking to.  Given the injury crisis afflicting South Africa’s frontline bowlers – and there were suspicions Morkel wasn’t entirely fit by the end of the day – this is a welcome sign of promise.

One other item of business from today: even with the extra half hour, only 87 overs were bowled.  This is entirely unacceptable, there were 23 overs of spin in the day, and failing to complete the scheduled allotment is inexcusable.  The ICC have shown no kind of inclination to clamp down on what is tantamount to stealing from the paying spectator.  Fines clearly don’t work, so there is a need to find what does.  Run penalties are sometimes mooted, but there is an understandable reluctance to allow over-rates to impact on the game itself.  Yet if there was a ten run penalty for each unbowled over, does anyone really think that South Africa would have failed to get 90 in?  They would have made sure of it.  Three overs may not seem worth becoming exercised over, but this happens sufficiently often for 85 overs in a day to be considered reasonable.

Enough is enough.  The players are showing disrespect to those who pay to watch them.

317-5 is anything but a decisive score; early wickets will leave England some way below what looks like a par score on this surface.  But the ball turned for Piedt, suggesting that by days four and five spin could be a weapon, especially since Moeen gives the ball rather more of a rip than his counterpart.  In order for that to matter, England will need 400+ to put pressure on the misfiring Proteas batting order.

On balance, England will be the happier team this evening, but that is based more on the way the last hour unfolded than the score itself.  Tomorrow is another day and while the first session will not dictate how the Test will unfold, if England win it then they should be in good shape to put South Africa under pressure.  For all the plaudits Stokes will rightfully receive, this game is quite finely balanced.

Elsewhere, tonight is the start of the Australia – West Indies annihilation at the SCG.  This is nothing but depressing, not because of Australian dominance, but the desperate fall of West Indies cricket.  No fan of the game can feel anything but sadness, anger and despair about it.

Day two discussion 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: First Test, day one

If the toss is crucial in a game, and you lose said flip of the coin, then perhaps if at the end of the first day you can say you are still in the match then that represents a very good day indeed.

Weather conditions were unfriendly throughout, and the surface looked green, seaming just enough early on to be a real danger to the batsman and als0 (more surprisingly – not least for Joe Root) proving conducive to spin from the start.  Yet the forecast for improved weather for the rest of the game made this first day potentially decisive for the Test, and England will be well pleased that they are not just in the game, but in a reasonable position.

The late loss of Taylor was unquestionably a blow, for without that wicket it could have been said to not just be a good battling performance, but one where England had a chance of getting on top.  Even so, from 49-3 and in terrible trouble, to reach 179-4 is a fine recovery.

Losing early wickets probably shouldn’t be too harshly viewed, for it certainly appeared difficult batting conditions, though the nature of those wickets will grate somewhat – Cook won’t need to be told that was a poor shot – and it didn’t appear to ease greatly for the rest of the play.

For both Taylor and Compton, much praise is warranted.  Although Compton scored slowly, which is what he was criticised for first time around, in these circumstances it was exactly what England needed, and in any event at no time did it feel in any way negative – he put away the bad ball well, and turned over the strike regularly.  One might say that the difference is in a player who is backed to perform rather than failure being pounced upon, but one innings is one innings.  What is interesting is that he is batting at number three, and given the most successful recent exponent of that position for England was Trott, it may yet be a position that suits him.

Taylor has developed from the batsman who first appeared three years ago, though even then that flawed player showed there was no shortage of nerve and bottle in him.

South Africa only have three front line seamers and England must aim to keep them in the field, and put the pressure on Steyn through additional overs he has to bowl.  Certainly he appeared what he is – a class above anyone else.

England do have a deep batting line up, so will hope to capitalise on the hard work done, but they’re in that tough situation where 300 would be a pretty impressive total to reach given conditions, but likely won’t be enough as the track flattens out in the sun.  So while they have done extremely well, they will need to do extremely well again tomorrow as well – perhaps an unfair return for the effort put in.

All in all, decent effort from England – or more specifically decent effort from Compton and Taylor.  On to tomorrow, where we’ll have a better idea of the balance of the game.