The tourists seem light in key areas but will be looking to regroup and find the right balance in South Africa, writes LAWRENCE BOOTH in Sport Monthly.
It’s been a long time – too long – since England last toured South Africa, securing a 1-1 draw in 2009-10 that didn’t even begin to tell the tale.
If England’s Ashes obsession and determination to cosy up to India have both contributed to this scandalous six-year absence, then it may at least have helped locals banish from their minds the faintly traumatic sight of No 11 Graham Onions celebrating a pair of improbable escapes in Centurion and Cape Town.
On both occasions Onions helped earn draws, which – thanks to England’s crushing victory in Durban – meant Andrew Strauss’ team arrived at the Wanderers with possibly the most misleading 1-0 lead in the history of Test cricket. South Africa righted that wrong with an innings win, but finished the series knowing that two more balls might have been enough to claim it 3-1.
But it is curious to think that when an England team led this time by Alastair Cook land in December, they will be able to claim that their unbeaten Test record there stretches back to 1999-2000 – which, for darker reasons, is not a series South Africans regard with much fondness either.
Whether that record will extend beyond the fourth Test in Centurion at the end of January is another matter entirely. The rankings suggest England will once more need all the help they can get. And while their recent 2-0 defeat by Pakistan in the UAE left them sixth in the ICC’s table, South Africa remain in pole position.
This is partly down to their phenomenal away record, but they’re not too shabby at home either. Since a polished England side, captained by Michael Vaughan, beat them 2-1 in 2004-05, South Africa have lost at home only to Australia (though this has happened three times), and of the remaining 15 series have won 12. No visiting team other than the Australians have even won a Test in South Africa since Sri Lanka stunned Graeme Smith’s men at Durban in December 2011.
And it would be stretching a point to say England have been travelling well of late. Since their shock victory in India at the end of 2012, they have won only one of 14 overseas Tests, against a middling West Indies in Grenada in April. If you were a betting man, you might be inclined to keep your money in your pocket.
England’s task has not been helped by injuries to Steven Finn and Mark Wood, two men from different branches of fast-bowling’s family tree who might have formed part of a formidable pace unit along with Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes.
Finn’s bounce and Wood’s skiddiness complement Anderson’s swing and Broad’s seam movement, and England might have unleashed all four at once in a country which has never been overburdened with turning tracks.
Instead, the tourists will lean heavily – as they did against Pakistan – on their two senior seamers (Anderson and Broad now have 741 Test wickets between them, and are bowling as incisively as they ever have done), and hope that Stokes continues the progress he showed with the ball during the Ashes. When he swung his way to second-innings figures of 6-36 against Australia at Trent Bridge, it was as if England had unearthed a red-headed – and even grumpier – version of Anderson.
And while the absence of Finn and Wood has robbed England of some seam-bowling depth, others will now have their chance. That, at least, is the positive spin being applied by the England camp.
The 16-man squad announced on 19 November included seam-bowling all-rounders Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan, both of whom need to convince sceptics about their worth at Test level.
Woakes has added a yard of pace after struggling on debut against Australia in 2013, while Jordan’s world-class slip fielding, especially off the spinners, does not quite off-set his inconsistency with the ball. While Jordan’s 21 Test wickets have cost nearly 36 apiece, Woakes has managed six at 52. They are not figures to strike fear into the hearts of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, let alone Dean Elgar and Dane Vilas.
More intriguing, perhaps, is the selection of left-arm fast bowler Mark Footitt, who in the past two English seasons has picked up 158 wickets in the County Championship for Derbyshire, earning him an upmarket move to neighbours Nottinghamshire.
Footitt, who recently turned 30, broke into the fringes of the Test squad earlier this year, and was said by those who faced him to be the best bowler in the nets on two successive days before the game against New Zealand at Lord’s in May.
He came close to selection at Trent Bridge against Australia, and could yet be the rabbit plucked from Cook’s hat if England decide they need a like-for-like response to South Africa’s fast-bowling aggression. If nothing else, Footitt will be fun to watch. On an international circuit where faces quickly become familiar, an unknown quantity can raise the spirits.
If there is any spin bowling to be done – and there tends not to be in South Africa – the onus will fall on Moeen Ali. And yet the further away we get from the summer of 2014, when he stunned a careless Indian batting lineup by taking 19 wickets at 23 apiece, the closer we seem to be getting to the truth: Ali could be stranded for ever in the limbo land between proper spinner and part-timer.
Since the India series, his 32 Test wickets have cost 45 each and he has conceded more than four an over, supplying his captain with neither penetration nor control.
England wisely withdrew leg-spinner Adil Rashid from the firing line after an often harrowing debut Test series in the UAE – perhaps bearing in mind what the South Africans did to Australian leggie Bryce McGain a few years back.
Samit Patel, more of a batsman than a slow left-armer, will provide spin-bowling backup, but it’s hard to see him getting a game, unless Stokes exacerbates the shoulder injury he picked up against Pakistan.
So much for England’s hopes of taking 20 South African wickets on a regular basis. What of their chances of withstanding barrages from Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander – or whichever combination of South Africa quicks manages to pass their fitness tests?
The concern against Pakistan was that England’s batting lineup was in danger of becoming a two-man effort. Cook was at his bloody-minded best while averaging 90, including an innings of 263 in Abu Dhabi which ended up being the third-longest in the history of Test cricket. He needs only 220 more to become the first England batsman to 10 000 runs, and looks set to go well beyond.
Joe Root, meanwhile, was in the purplest of form against the Pakistanis until he faded in the final match in Sharjah. Among all-format batsmen, he is now a regular in the world’s top three or four, not too many miles behind De Villiers. In the UAE, however, the other England batsmen provided only threads and patches.
And, for the first time in a long time, they will be without Ian Bell. If that deprives South African crowds of the chance to soak up cricket’s loveliest cover drive, it also says much about his state of mind ever since he helped win England the 2013 Ashes with a trio of attractive hundreds.
Critics of the decision to drop Bell point to the instant loss of 118 Test caps of experience and knowhow, but that has counted for little in recent times. Since his 2013 high-water mark, Bell has spent 25 Tests averaging under 30 – an unacceptable figure for a player who should be churning out big innings under pressure, as Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq did for Pakistan.
Bell will be 34 by the start of England’s next home summer – and must decide which fork in the road he will take. We may have seen the last of him.
In the meantime, England have revisited two southern African batsmen in their bid to lend stability to a top order that has been horribly reliant on Cook.
The Durban-born Nick Compton was dispensed with in 2013 by coach Andy Flower only two Tests after a tour of New Zealand in which he had scored two hundreds. Some felt his intensity was not ideal for dressing-room spirit, but his technique and seriousness could come in handy for those mini-sessions in which Steyn is in the mood. At 32, and with a point to prove, Compton may just be a canny selection.
Then there’s Harare-born Gary Ballance, who made a prolific start to his Test career, only to be dropped two games into the recent Ashes series. Always a back-foot player, he had begun retreating so far into his crease that his forward defensives resembled French cricket on the beach.
But the selectors admire his temperament – even with a homespun technique he has averaged 47 in Tests – and by all accounts he has been working hard on his failings at Yorkshire. South Africa, though, will know to aim straight and full.
Perhaps more to the point, there are precious few alternatives, not least when it comes to the question of who will partner Cook against the new ball.
That honour looks set to go to Alex Hales, who is yet to win a Test cap but would become the eighth player to open with the captain since the retirement of Andrew Strauss after South Africa’s 2-0 win in England in 2012. It is a musical chair that is in danger of becoming a poisoned chalice.
And Hales, who has already formed a lively limited-overs opening partnership with Jason Roy, would also become Cook’s fourth different ally in 2015 alone – after failed experiments with Jonathan Trott, Adam Lyth and, in the UAE, Moeen Ali, who will in all likelihood return to No 8, where he counter-attacked superbly against Australia.
A Boxing Day Test debut against Steyn and co may not anyone’s idea of a late Christmas present, but Hales has the kind of aggressive approach to opening the batting that has worked so well for Australia’s David Warner. One thing he will never be is dull.
With Root slotting in at No 4, and Stokes at No 6, the meat in the sandwich will be either the pint-sized James Taylor, who has spent the past few months snubbing his nose at Kevin Pietersen’s suggestion that he would be better suited to being a jockey, and Jonny Bairstow.
Under normal circumstances, Bairstow would expect to start in Durban on Boxing Day after playing in the third Test at Sharjah after the dropping of Jos Buttler. But, since then, Buttler has smashed a one-day century in 46 balls against Pakistan, in the process rediscovering the joie de vivre that made him such an irresistible pick in the first place.
On the basis that you should pick the team who can do most damage to the opposition, England will be tempted to return the gloves to Buttler at the earliest possible opportunity.
Of course, all this debate may prove academic. South Africa may not quite be the force they were a year or two ago, but their nucleus of tried-and-tested stars is as glittering as anything in the world game.
And while they have got the better of England on both their most recent tours of the UK, in 2008 and 2012, they still wince at the fact that the record books tells us that the 2009-10 series was shared.
There is a point to be made.
For South Africa, the worst-case scenario is that Cook is immovable, Root has the series of his life, and Anderson and Broad exploit whatever conditions the groundsmen serve up for Steyn, Morkel and Philander.
For England, it will be a case of digging in, crossing their fingers – and praying the spirit of Onions can bring tears to local eyes once more.