England vs South Africa: 3rd Test, day two – rampant

There’s a strange contradiction in being the Grumpy Old Men of the cricket blogging world. At the time England were being well beaten in India there appeared to be some kind of denial in many circles about the weaknesses of the team and the personnel. Excuses were made, post facto predictions were changed to meet the reality rather than how it had been seen in advance. Yet with really bad defeats (such as in the last Test) the press piled in, slating all and sundry for an abject display and questioning the very ability of the team to play the game.

Mild observations that sides are never as good or bad in defeat or victory as they seem to be never quite fit the zeitgeist, with kneejerk responses always a more fitting way to meet events. Yet with England today having an exceptional time of it, doubtless the same overreactions will apply, despite little of material fact changing.

England have played well here, but in a similar manner to how they have done so when succeeding over the last few years. Cook batted beautifully yesterday, and drew the sting from some fine bowling. He didn’t carry on for too long today, but can count himself unlucky to say the least to be on the rough end of a marginal lbw call. He deserved a hundred, but as has been pointed out, context free discussion of Root’s conversion problem can apply equally well to an unlucky Cook.

With his removal, Stokes and Bairstow went on the attack. Ah, now there’s a thing. It came off. Both players took some chances, played their shots and changed the context of the day, South Africa unable to contain them as the runs flowed at 5 an over. Outcome is all, for had that calculated risk not succeeded, it really isn’t hard to imagine the plethora of comment about being unable to play at a Test match tempo, preferably blaming current shibboleth, T20. The point there is that those critics aren’t wrong, but nor are they right just to point it out when it goes wrong. Responding to every move on the basis of whether it works or not is no way of assessing whether the strategy is a sound one, it’s a far deeper question than that.

That Stokes batted beautifully is not the point, it’s a matter of whether he (and the rest of the middle order) are given the latitude to fail as well as succeed playing this way. Forgetting the bad days just because today was a good one is as flawed as the other way around. England haven’t changed, nor has that middle order, it’s just that today they batted well in a similar style to when they did badly, and not just when failing spectacularly to save a match.

That’s not to downplay how good today was for a moment, for 353 always looked above par, even before what followed. There were decent contributions most of the way down, it was – as often – a surprise that Bairstow got out, while Moeen Ali took his controversial dismissal on review remarkably well. Toby Roland-Jones will think Test cricket is easy given he scored his runs at a healthy lick before having something of a party in his primary role.  He may or may not succeed as a Test cricketer, but not every player gets to have days like this.

Stokes certainly knows how to be the showman, and the three consecutive sixes that raced him through the nineties to a well deserved century were simply marvellous to watch. Some players simply make you smile or gasp when you watch them. It is those who make the game special, even if the less eye catching tend to be the ones who are more consistent.

South Africa, who had bowled so well on day one, were certainly hampered by the absence of Vernon Philander, off the field to much amusement due to tummy trouble, only for that to die away as it transpired he’d ended up in hospital for tests. His absence was keenly felt on a day where his bowling seemed ideal for the conditions.

If runs and wickets are the obvious measures of success, Joe Root had a good day as captain too. It wasn’t just that every bowling change he made seemed to work, it was also that he appeared to assert his authority as captain. The new ball was being wasted, a succession of pleasant, swinging deliveries from Anderson harmlessly passing outside the off stump. Good for the economy rate, not so much for taking wickets. It’s an observation that has been made before, and all too often considered heresy given it concerns England’s leading wicket taker. It’s curious how some, and only some players are considered beyond criticism. An observation may be right or wrong, but it doesn’t dismiss an entire terrific career either way. Still, Root’s response was to remove him from the attack after just three overs, something Anderson didn’t seem overjoyed about looking at his body language.

But here’s the thing: when he returned later in the innings he was right on the money; hostile, threatening the stumps and the edge, and every inch the bowler any England fan loves watching torment opponents with his skill. Captain and senior bowler could be an interesting dynamic to watch over the coming months, but it seemed here to get the best from him.

It was of course Toby Roland-Jones’ day. The merits of an old fashioned England seamer are often overlooked (yet curiously someone like Philander is lauded for showing exactly the same kinds of skills, albeit at a very high level), and here was someone who, after initial nerves, pitched it up, made the batsmen play and did a bit off the seam. Where he led, others followed, and at 61-7, and with the absence of Philander effectively 61-8, the only question, and surely not a serious one, was whether England would enforce the follow on.

Temba Bavuma has shown himself to be a batsman with good temperament before, and the task of extracting his side from the wreckage was one he seemed to relish. In company with Rabada he at least stopped the rot, a partnership of 53 not enough to change the direction of the match, but one at least to narrow the gap from catastrophic to merely disastrous.

It’s possible Philander will be fit to bat tomorrow, but it will take something truly remarkable to move this game away from what appears an inevitable England win. With some inclement weather around, saving the follow on has to be the first and only aim, but only two days have gone, it’s hard to see how it can delay England long enough to prevent victory.

All of which leads back to the beginning. England have had a great day, but just as the fourth day at Trent Bridge didn’t alter the known strengths in the team, nor does this cover up the multiple flaws. Today went well, and they should win this game. It hasn’t re-written the book.

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South Africa vs England: 2nd Test day four

It is when a Test reaches this kind of stage that the thoughts of England supporters turn to the Test Which Must Not Be Mentioned.  As we go into the final day, only South Africa can win the game, a scenario that seemed unlikely to say the least as Stokes and Bairstow flogged the hosts’ bowling around Newlands a couple of days ago.

This was always going to be a possibility, given a surface that has shown no signs whatever of deterioration and has proved something of a batting paradise, and unlike one or two, for this particular blog it isn’t being wise after the event.  Of course, in reality the draw is by far the likeliest outcome, and for England to lose would represent an even worse calamity than The One That Didn’t Happen given both surface and the much more limited potency of the South African attack.  It is an amusing temptation to draw parallels, but they almost certainly aren’t going to be there.

And thus England should be able to comfortably bat out the final day, making the most of the batting practice.  Ideally, they will be able to take the same from it that South Africa have, the opportunity to play a couple of the batting line up into form, not least the captain.

The regrets will be there, England were astoundingly profligate in the field, dropping anything up to ten catches (depending who is counting) in the duration of the innings; some were tough, some were anything but.  One of the more peculiar truths of playing cricket is that dropping catches is…well, catching.  At the start of South Africa’s innings the question was whether England would create enough opportunities to take twenty wickets, to not be too far off that after the first innings, and without bowling South Africa out is quite something. A quick (and of course simplistic) totting up of what those drops cost comes to around 350 runs.   Amusing then that Stuart Broad ended the day charged with a Level One offence by the ICC for dissent, one wonders if it was directed at umpires or fielders.

If England had a slightly better day than yesterday – four wickets!  Four! – it still belonged to South Africa.  Hashim Amla duly completed his double century and Faf Du Plessis continued to provide sterling support.  What followed came completely out of the blue, as three wickets fell for ten runs including both set batsmen.  De Kock was skittish and won’t look back fondly on the shot that led to his dismissal, and with a deficit of still nearly 200, the England bowlers suddenly had a spring in their collective step.

Temba Bavuma has had a pretty terrible press this series, dismissed as being a quota player, derided for not being remotely good enough.  Of course, for English eyes it is the first time most will have seen him play, and given his travails in the first game, questions about that were reasonable enough.  Yet one game never has been sufficient to judge a player, particularly one unknown to the observer.  He didn’t look great, but a few keen watchers said he had talent.  Eleven years ago, similar aspersions were laid at the door of another South African batsman starting out, one who looked out of his depth at the highest level.  Perhaps people have heard of him – his name is Hashim Amla.

The one thing not to be is holier than thou over this; given the political element of the composition of the South African team the suspicion that better players are not going to be picked is always there, and Bavuma had hardly taken the world by storm in his first six Tests. For British observers though, he is nothing but a new player, and one who may or may not succeed – we rarely have the in depth knowledge to make assumptions about the ability of a particular player, and perhaps staying silent is the wiser course until the evidence is in place.  Plenty of people have been made to look stupid by Amla proving himself a wonderful cricketer, to risk it a second time is careless at best.

One innings doesn’t make a career, but the while the symbolism of Bavuma’s hundred is obvious, it was in itself a delightful innings, full of wonderful strokeplay.  Given the stick the England team gave him on his arrival at the crease and a slightly (but not dramatically) uncertain start, symbolism wasn’t required to take pleasure in seeing a young player ram the taunts back down English throats.

If nothing else, Bavuma’s innings lit up a day’s play of a Test that was limping towards a terminally dull conclusion.  Made off only 148 balls, it may not have had quite the brutality of Stokes, but it had style, dash and elegance.  It was, quite simply, a joy to watch.

Chris Morris deserves a word of praise as well; he had a difficult time of it with the ball, taking the brunt of Ben Stokes’ murderous assault, and for a young player on debut, it will have been a chastening experience.  Today was his day too, showing no little batting ability in making a fine 69.

England’s bowlers again didn’t do anything especially wrong, beaten by the pitch and the Kookaburra ball.  Indeed, the pitch has of course received the most criticism for being too batsman friendly, but a Duke ball might well have given the bowlers just enough for one side or the other to be able to force a result.  The pitch is only one element of the equation – although even then it would require England to have held their catches.

As far as the over-rate watch is concerned, once again the day finished with the 90 incomplete.  This time it was a solitary over short, and doubtless some will say that doesn’t matter, but the half hour additional has been invoked every day, and still the overs aren’t being completed.  In times past, this would not have mattered, as play would have continued until they were.  It was the TV broadcasters who objected to that, as late finishes played havoc with schedules.  The half hour leeway was intended to ensure all overs were bowled while still offering a definitive finishing time.  The match referee’s decision on over rates and any punishment following is not determined until the end of the match, but after four consecutive days of failing to meet their obligations, there is no excuse whatever for failing to take action.

Elsewhere today, news broke about a school match in India, where 15 year old Pranav Dhanawade shattered a century old record for the highest score in a competitive match, making a scarcely credible 1,009 in a game that redefines the term “one sided”.  It’s been interesting to follow the response to this, initially astonishment and no little awe, turning quite swiftly to criticism of the teachers for allowing it.

One final thing for now, although it is a subject which given the wider ramifications we will return to over the coming weeks and months.  The Lodha report in India on cricket governance in that country has taken something of an axe to the current BCCI structure.  What follows, whether that is court challenges or acceptance is something that will impact on cricket across the world.  What can be said, is that for the first time in a while, there is cause for a small degree of hope.  There’s a good summary on Cricinfo for those who wish to read a little more:

http://www.espncricinfo.com/india/content/story/957707.html

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