• England: 5 talking points

    TOM SIZELAND examines the visitors ahead of the fourth Test between South Africa and England in Centurion.

    On the eve of the fifth Ashes Test last year, with the series already in the bag, England promised that they were just as motivated to win again and wrap up the series 4-1. But that clearly wasn’t the case as they were convincingly beaten in an underwhelming performance. They didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered, though, and with the coveted urn back on English shores, who could blame them? Will this be their excuse if they lose the final Test in Centurion? Quite possibly on a team level, but on an individual level, it won’t. Alex Hales, James Taylor, Moeen Ali and Nick Compton will see this Test as an opportunity to cement their spots in the team going forward. They will be all too aware of South Africa’s formidable record at Centurion, too. They will want to prove they are capable of winning at the Proteas’ fortress.

    It will likely be a case of don’t fix what isn’t broken for England, but unfortunately for Steven Finn, there will need to be a bit of a fix-up. His latest injury means England will need to bring in a third seamer. Chris Woakes is at the top of the pecking order, and was the like-for-like replacement for Jimmy Anderson in the first Test. While he didn’t let himself down, there’s nothing he can do that Anderson and Stuart Broad can’t do better. The dead rubber is a chance for experimentation, and Mark Footitt, who has been the outstanding bowler in the nets recently, offers something different. He has the pace of Finn and he’s a left-armer, something the Proteas haven’t experienced for a while in Test cricket. Footitt has the potential to unsettle them. Woakes is unlikely to do that.

    It’s all too familiar for Alastair Cook and England. A new opening partner gets a few Tests, doesn’t perform well, and gets the chop. Hales has had a challenging start to his Test career, with the likes of Geoffrey Boycott and Michael Holding calling for his head. His hand-eye co-ordination is right up there with the very best, but his footwork is of huge concern for England. He looked good for his 60 at Newlands, but there are some technical issues he needs to rectify if he wants to succeed in the longest format. Will England persist with him if he fails again at Centurion? I fear history suggests otherwise.

    Cook isn’t exactly keeping the scorers honest either. When you’re a winning captain, it tends to put a bit of a facade over individual form, but with a high score of 43, which came in their relatively simple chase of 74, Cook will be wanting runs. He’s corrected his technique outside off in recent times, which might now have paved the way for vulnerability on the leg side. He won’t be playing cricket for England again until May, so he’ll want to end the series with some runs under his belt. His partnership with Hales is also a concern, with their opening stand in the series averaging just 27. He’s the senior player, he needs to hang around for his inexperienced partner.

    Bar centuries from Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, how good has their batting actually been? Besides the freakshow at Newlands, the Proteas’ inability to post big totals has disguised the fact that a few of England’s batters are lacking form. Nick Compton has been praised for the way he’s gone about his work, as he’s brought ‘boring’, yet traditionally resilient Test cricket back into England’s top order. He needs runs to back that up, though. Despite his excellent fielding, James Taylor has done very little since the first Test. More runs would have been expected of Moeen Ali, too, as it was his partnership with Stuart Broad that proved more prolific than any other during the Ashes. And then, as discussed above, there’s Hales. If the Proteas do score big runs at SuperSport Park, contributions will be required from 1-8 to give the impression that England are indeed the complete package.

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    Tom Sizeland