England sent a message to the rest of the cricketing world with a brilliant series victory away in South Africa. There was a feel to this series that England might just fancy their chances, particularly as South Africa has just been thrashed 3-0 in India. The Proteas were also going through a bit of a transition phase, so they were slightly vulnerable and England took full advantage.
England took the series 2-1 and played some unbelievable cricket in the first three tests, including Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow’s staggering 399 partnership and Stuart Broad’s 6-for that rinsed South Africa for just 83, which showed just how threatening this team can be. The series has taught us a few things about this talented English side and also about the growing troubles South Africa’s struggling team face.
End of an era for South Africa?
Before the series, it certainly felt like this South African team were not the dominant force that was sitting so high on the test pedestal. This team were in a transition phase, which was compounded by an increasing injury list. Dale Steyn only played half of one test match, Vernon Philander did not play at all and small things were just not going right for South Africa. They had also just been wiped away in India 3-0; had one test not been washed out, it would’ve probably been a 4-0 whitewash, but the manner in which they lost was incredibly alarming. Even throughout the series, there was always something unsettling the team, whether it was Amla’s captaincy, which he gave up mid series, or De Villiers’ future disrupting the side. In 2012, South Africa knocked England off the top and now England have knocked South Africa off the top, it is a time for South Africa to consolidate and find the next generation of players to build a new team.
Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow find their feet
The highlight of the series was that majestic 399 run partnership in Cape Town between Stokes and Bairstow. Continuing the attacking cricket from the previous night, Stokes pummelled and smacked the ball around to all parts of the ground. It was the second fastest double century and the fastest 250 that killed off South Africa in one session, adding 196 runs in the morning session on day two. It is rare occasion that someone scores 150* and is classed as second fiddle, but Bairstow played his role superbly and allowed Stokes to be so free at the other end – his role in that partnership was just as crucial.
Bairstow’s batting throughout the series has been consistent and has earned him a run in the side, but his glove work will need some attention to keep Jos Buttler out of the side.
It wasn’t just that partnership, but the way in which Stokes batted throughout the series set the tone for the innings. Stokes’ counter attacking 58 in the third test drove Joe Root to score his best ton in an England shirt and get England back into the match. Broad then ripped through South Africa, but Stokes’s bowling at the other end was almost as important in routing South Africa for just 83. Stokes’ performances won him the man of the series, and announced himself on the international stage.
A new hero
England have world class bowlers in James Anderson and Stuart Broad, but this series should also be noted for the rise of Steven Finn. Finn was consistently the best bowler across the first three tests before injury unfortunately ruled him out. It seemed that Finn had finally found his role in the side and was constantly a threat to South Africa every time he bowled. His spell in the first innings of the third test where he removed Hashim Amla was probably his best spell of bowling for England. Finn has cemented his place as the third seamer for the tests against Sri Lanka and Pakistan later this year.
For South Africa, Kagiso Rabada has been the shining light for South Africa during the series. His 13 wickets in the fourth test single handily won South Africa test match. There were reports that he was overworked throughout the series, but his determination and success proved how much potential Rabada has. Even with the bat, Rabada can contribute and will probably make some important innings for his country, whilst bowling alongside Steyn, Morkel and Philander, will allow him to thrive. South Africa have the basis for a potentially world class bowling attack.
England’s top order still vulnerable
Despite the success on tour in South Africa, none of England’s top three, which remained the same in every match, managed to score a hundred. England found themselves three down for less than hundred on five of their eight innings across the series. The one excuse that could perhaps be used this time around is that is it a new look top three. With Alex Hales making his debut and Compton back into the team after a prolonged break, there was a chance that things may not run as smoothly as planned. Hales, Cook’s seventh opening partner since Andrew Strauss, did not set the world alight, but perhaps did enough to justify his selection for the summer tests against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Hales could be an incredibly fine player, but it is up to England to have faith in him to deliver and cement his place as England’s opener.
Compton was Ian Bell’s replacement, so there was a bit of pressure on him to succeed. His knock of 85 was absolutely critical in context of the match and the series, but he drifted away towards the end. Compton, like Hales, still has a bit of work today to justify his place in the England team, although hopefully the England selectors will keep faith in him this time.
England can eye the #1 test ranking
Going back to the summer and England’s series against New Zealand, the style of cricket that this team played was notable. It signified intent and showed a positive and attacking display of cricket that pleased all those watching. England were willing to take risks and the Ashes success brought a lot of confidence into the team, and this confidence was shown in South Africa.
The attacking batting, particularly by the younger players, was great to see. Stokes and Bairstow took the game away from South Africa in a session. Had England held their chances, they probably would’ve won the test match, but the way in which it was set up was magnificent. Even in the first test, players like Nick Compton, who dug in and laid the foundations, scored 85 and it was critical in England winning the first test. The batsmen were superbly backed up by the bowlers throughout the series.
Things are starting to fall into place for England now. Alistair Cook is a much improved captain and is learning the right tactics and when to implement them. More and more batsmen are scoring runs and earning their place in the side and wickets are being shared amongst the bowlers; very rarely would James Anderson be the worst performing seamer in a series for England.
There are still a few things for England to get right, but over time the other factors will fall into place and England could mount a very strong challenge for that #1 test ranking. And they could stay there too.