South African sunshine: what to take from England’s winter tour

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It has been all too rare in the past few years for the England cricket team to be able to come back from an international tour with their heads held high and their confidence brimming. What a relief, then, that the two-month tour of South Africa this winter provided exactly that. Only a second overseas Test series win since the last time they visited South Africa, four years ago.

And where the England Test squad showed a glimmer of genuine progress, shaking off the demons of the arduous last few years, the shorter format teams also successfully reaffirmed their fortitudes. We witnessed the coming of age of some players, notably Ollie Pope and Dom Sibley, and the re-emergence of Test captain Root’s form with the bat.

On the other side of the coin, South Africa’s selectors have many more questions than answers as Philander, the last star of their golden age, hangs up his gloves and leaves behind him a team in relative tatters.

Ed Smith, national selector, and Chris Silverwood, new head coach, have some more favourable questions to address for their Test team. Zak Crawley, Dom Sibley, Keaton Jennings, Rory Burns, Joe Denly. These are the five players battling for contention in England’s top order. Such is the turbulent and merciless nature of the top order since Strauss (!) and now Alistair Cook’s retirement, none of them have more than 20 caps.

At present, the wisest long-term option seems to be an opening partnership of Burns and Sibley, two gritty but less pretty batsmen who have the capacity to wear down the new ball and grind out big scores. Both have impressed in their brief international careers. Unfortunately, an ankle injury ruled Burns out of South Africa, and he will miss the upcoming Sri Lanka tour as a result too. This does, however, gift Silverwood with the chance to further blood 22-year-old Crawley in, who made a mark but did not dazzle in South Africa. His potential is undoubted, and his selection, for now at least, inevitable.

To fill the final top three spot in Sri Lanka will therefore be a scrap between Denly and Jennings. Jennings’ stop-start international career appeared to have ground to a terminal halt last year, but he has been recalled to the squad for the impending tour to the country in which he scored one of his only two Test centuries. A subcontinental specialist, this may be Jennings’ final international cricketing lifeline. He may do well to displace Denly, though, who has established himself over the last 12 months as a reliable, if not electrifying, number three, and whose batting average of 30 is considerably better than Jennings’.

One huge positive of the South Africa tour, from an English perspective, was the explosive resurfacing of Mark Wood as one of the team’s most potent bowlers. With Archer side-lined by injury and seemingly out of form, England were in need of an incisive, quick, flat pitch bowler. Come forth Wood. Entering the team in the third Test, he showed glimpses of his capabilities, but it was in the fourth and final test that he showed us exactly what England have been missing. Miserly, hostile bowling, taking nine wickets, he ended the series with an average of just 13.58, which was coupled with some more than handy contributions with the bat. Having struggled with injury for so much of his career, perhaps Wood will finally fulfil his Test potential.

The question thus posed is how to condense a highly talented seam-bowling unit into just three players. On an English swinging pitch, is there room for Jofra and Wood? Who of Sam Curran and Chris Woakes to pick, when the two can excel with both bat and ball? And Jimmy Anderson, at the age of 37, remains England’s best Test bowler – when fit – so does Silverwood stick with him until his powers wane? Lest we forget Stuart Broad, much-maligned but very much back in form, and England’s leading wicket taker in South Africa. An abundance of riches, certainly, but some highly talented players will have to miss out during this coming summer.

We can only hope that for Joe Root, this winter, and particularly the South Africa series, has proved a significant turning point. The captain is back. His double century in New Zealand, the second of his career, was outstanding, and he continued his good form with the bat in South Africa, averaging 45 across the series. Tactically, he was outstanding, barely putting a foot wrong after the first Test failure, and he showed a command over the team hitherto unseen. He declared the series his “proudest result as captain”, as it tipped his win ratio as captain to above 50 per cent.

The middle order as a whole was exceptional against the Proteas. Ben Stokes’ stunning 2019 form continued as he smashed 318 runs in the series, including a century at Port Elizabeth, the venue where Ollie Pope would himself hit his maiden Test century. Dubbed by many as England’s most exciting new player since Root, and with a technique like that of Ian Bell, Pope looks destined for an illustrious career indeed.

The only disappointment was the continued poor form of Jos Buttler, whose confidence seems to have plummeted both at the crease and behind the stumps. Though Silverwood pledges to stand by Buttler, one can only wonder whether he will turn to Ben Foakes, a centurion in Galle 2018, to take the gloves this March.

When the Proteas comprehensively defeated England in the first Test at Centurion, fans and coaches alike would have hoped they had finally put the woes of their five-match losing streak behind them. In fact, in Vernon Philander’s send-off series, it looked like the great paceman would get the farewell his career deserved.

Yet from then on, the South Africans were bulldozed mercilessly. That’s not to say they put up much of a fight. While captain Root thrived, his opposite number Du Plessis scored 115 runs at an average of 16.42 in the Test series and has not hit a century for over a year. After the tour, Du Plessis decided to step down from the captaincy, to be replaced most likely by Quinton de Kock, South Africa’s wicketkeeper and stand out performer across all three formats.

Test match life is looking relatively bleak for the Proteas, who can now add Philander to their list of retiring greats, with A.B. de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn already chalked down. Philander can look back with pride at a typically strong series, yielding eight wickets with a miserly economy rate, and an exceptional career. His 224 Test career wickets came at an average of just 22.32, which compares very favourably to many of the greats. He will thus pass the task of carrying the bowling unit onto the more than proficient shoulders of Kagiso Rabada, who will have both Nortje and Ngidi as capable back-up. Batting-wise, the coaches have more cause for concern. It seems it will be down to de Kock to revitalise this team. If anyone is capable, it is him.

It is an exciting time to be an England cricket fan. Now third in the ICC Test team rankings, which seems a fair reflection of the team’s quality, the only way, we hope, is up. Bring on Sri Lanka, and indeed the Twenty20 World Cup this coming Autumn. For the limited-overs sides, the sky is the limit. For the Test side, baby-steps are first required. It is justifiably rare for English sports fans to have a positive outlook, but perhaps now is the time to start dreaming.

Image: Badger Swan via Flickr and Creative Commons

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