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.