Winning but not convincing. South Africa vs England 2016
England have won a series in South Africa, yet end a successful comeback from the woes of UAE with a humbling defeat in the final test. There is nothing strange about this – sides that win a test series early, often lose the last one; Australia kept English hopes alive for years by letting us have a victory in the 6th test. However, the manner in which this game has played out exposes old problems that England still haven’t resolved. South Africa, losers in the series, can feel like they are the ones moving forward.
South Africa came into the series in disarray yet seem to have sorted things out a bit. They have found an opener in Steven Cook while Dean Elgar, despite a bad last game, has had a good series, carrying his bat in the first test first innings while wickets fell around him. AB De Villiers no longer has to keep wicket and Hashim Amla no longer has the burden of captaincy. Temba Bavuma looks a good find at number six, batting excellently in testing conditions with Amla yesterday, and Quentin De Kock (if he can stay away from further dog-related injuries) could be a Gilchrist-like destructive number seven and a very good gloves man. De Villiers needs to find some form again and neither Duminy nor Du Plessis inspire me with confidence. However, they seem on their way to sorting out their batting problems. With the bowling, Morne Morkel looks like he is fading as a force but he is always going to pick up wickets and not often going to be crashed around the park. Dane Piedt is a decent though not world-beating spinner, but 20 year old Kagiso Rabada is clearly an emerging star, bowling good lengths at good pace, getting some swing and bowling with heart and they still have Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander to come back.
What a player Hashim Amla is! Just one moment from the second innings at Centurion. James Anderson bowls him a short one outside off, he sets to cut it and the ball keeps low, Amla looks a little silly as the ball disappears beneath his bat. A few balls later, Anderson bowls something similar, Amla waits on the back foot and this time the ball does rise, as you would expect on ordinary wickets, so he plays a sublime back foot cover drive, reminiscent of the great Caribbean batsmen. Indeed, back foot or front foot, his cover driving, which he can play on the up or the half volley, is exceptional. And of course he can work it on the on side with ease.
And as a team, what a contrast their body language makes with Team England! On the evening of a terrible 4th day for England at Centurion, Morkel picked up a caught and bowled against Alaister Cook on the walk, pushing limply back to the bowler. If there were any doubts left that England might have got away with it, they were over now. Rabada hugged Morkel so tightly round the waist it almost seemed to embarrass him. Aside from the whole rainbow nation image it presented, the moment made South Africa look like a team who enjoyed each other’s success. Can that be said of England?
Nick Compton’s woeful last test is a worrying sign. 245 runs at an average of 30 is an ok return to the team but what concerns me is the way he has fallen apart across the series. He could well have been man of the match in the first test, walking out at 3-1 when Cook fell early and watching as Hales and then Root were out cheaply. I watched a fair bit of him over the summer for Middlesex and it came as no surprise to me that he got out with a century not far away. In the second innings, with the openers out early again, he got out for 49. He is one of those players who seems to freeze when a landmark is in sight. But it was undoubtedly a successful comeback test for Compton. He gets on the front foot to fast bowling and for a modern player he has a rare strength of technique of defence. When he is in form, his leave outside off-stump is truly disdainful. Strange it was therefore that Tevor Bayliss came out and said “Ultimately, I’d like to see two of the top three guys as attacking-style batters … it puts pressure on the opposition a lot easier.” England had won with only 24 overs bowled on the final day. There was plenty of time left. They have in their middle and lower middle order quick scoring players. Alex Hales at the top of the order can (in theory) smash it about. Why does Compton need to change his natural game? And once again, we see England meddling with a player’s technique and that player losing form and confidence. They have done it with almost every bowler they have worked with over the last decade. And we have seen good batsmen come and go without really establishing themselves in the team – Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel, Michael Carberry, Adam Lyth. Even amongst those who did make it, their careers were not quite what they should have been. Poor Jonathan Trott mentally fell apart. With KP, the team could not find room for its best batsman and chose to exclude their only world-class player. Ian Bell, famously indulged in the kind of chances we can only wish had been given to Mark Ramprakash, apart from his golden summer of 2011, was never as consistent as he should have been. He was reportedly ‘quiet’ in the dressing room, jumpy at the crease and likely to give his wicket away with some ridiculous shot trying to prove himself man enough to dominate the opposition when that clearly was not his game.
Compton has a bizarre stance, absolutely upright, bat at an exact 90 degrees, head turned, almost squinting at the bowler. But he plays late and courageously, getting forward to the quicks and, when he gets on with it, he has a range of shots. Yes, he could learn to rotate the strike a little more but he needs time to settle in as a test player. He has been criticised for his ‘demeanour’, called a ‘loner’ and ‘intense’. The inner-clique that Pietersen devastatingly – and perhaps overdramatically – exposed in his autobiography, must wonder to themselves why all the best England batsmen have got such bad banter. Why can’t they fit in better? Graeme Swann’s commentary on TMS during the first test barely disguised his personal dislike for Compton. Perhaps they, like David Cameron, should stop to think about how integration works as a two-way process. Carberry said it in an interview with The Guardian after his Ashes tour, burning his bridges in the process. Only the second non-privately educated batsman to be capped by England this century (the first was Trott, who was schooled in South Africa) and the first batsman of Caribbean heritage since Mark Butcher, he told the newspaper that “throughout my England career, even as a schoolboy, I’ve always had that shorter rope – for some reason. I don’t think much has changed now that I’ve stepped into the Test and one-day arena.” He explains how the ECB would not pay for his mother to come and watch him at Melbourne. The rules state that only wives or girlfriends are allowed. Carberry was single. He wanted his mum to see him play but management said no. One wonders if an openly gay player like Steven Davies could bring their boyfriend. “I don’t think it’s me alone saying this sort of thing. There’ve been players before me and current players now who have felt the same thing. It’s fine when you’re in the team but just outside the playing squad you’re not really sure if you fit in at all.” Carberry started the tour with a century in the warm up game, top scored in the first innings of the first test and again in the last innings of the last one as his team mates capitulated. He was then ignored for the one day series and not featured since.
Carberry’s comments suggest race and class matter in English cricket. Certainly there seems a ‘type’ that this generation of England team accept. Butcher won more caps than any other English cricketer of Caribbean origin. Yet in a CricInfo article from ten years ago, he is open about why race mattered less for him: “That’s because my dad’s white and was involved at Surrey and opened a lot of doors for me, and I went to the better schools: I wasn’t just this 15-year-old in an Afro who turned up to nets. I’m not black in the way Alex Tudor is.” In summer 2013, Kit Caless and I picked a current non-white England XI for a radio show we were doing on NTS. Since then, Carberry, Jordan, Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid have all been capped and Samit Patel restored to the side. Yet Moeen is the only one who has established himself -and he has had to make himself into an off-spinner who bats rather than being the batsman who bowls a bit that he was before. In a country where the demographic of people playing and following cricket is disproportionately Asian it is shame that the England team remains so white. Perhaps they need a South African style quota system…
Of course, there were positives. Root looks like a serious player now. Bairstow is not a great keeper but has batted quite brilliantly at times and deserves his place in the side. Then there’s Ben Stokes of course. Flat-track bully, perhaps; not so good on turning wickets against good spin bowling; a disappointing bowling average; but on hard, fast, bouncy pitches, he is likely to make things happen with bat or ball. Steven Finn has come back from the misguided attempts to change his action that left him shorn of form and confidence. He now bowls in a way that seems natural to him and gets wickets. Someone said to Michael Holding on Sky commentary in the first test, ‘on wickets like this you’d like to have Finn in your team’. Holding, who should know these things, replied, ‘I would pick Finn for every England team whatever the conditions.’ Finn, like other tall, fast bowlers, picks up wickets with bad balls because he hurries them up with the good ones. Unlike Chris Woakes. Woakes seems to me like management’s pet project, an attempt to create a new Jimmy Anderson in the petri dish of academies. If this is the case it has not worked. Rightly left out when Anderson returned for the second test, he should never have been picked for the final game. I understand this idea that he is next in line and management are showing faith in him but having watched him in the first test where his 0-28 and 1-25 (number 10 Dane Peit with South Africa already down and out) did not inspire me that he can ever be a devasting wicket-taking test match bowler. It would have made more sense to replace Finn with Chris Jordan, who has been dragged around on tour doing nets and carrying drinks. Jordan may be wayward at times, but he picks up wickets and that, after all, is the idea.
England have an excellent lower middle order but games cannot always be won there. They need a top three who can hold it down against the best in the most difficult conditions. Hales does not appear to have the head for test cricket, although he perhaps should (unlike Compton the first time around, Carberry, Sam Robson or Lyth), have another series to sort it out. Cook, despite his incredible stats, has always been a limited player with weaknesses that the right bowlers can exploit. Carberry could still be there now. Compton should be allowed to slot in but watching him in this last test, chasing at wide ones, not moving his feet, nearly running out Cook on a crazy single then reviewing a caught behind which (unless someone was maliciously adding a noise in the effects mic) he clearly nicked, something has gone wrong. With this way of bringing in decent players and then ruining their confidence, their technique and sometimes their mental health, can you see England beating Pakistan at home this summer?