Thoughts on England’s African Safari

The England Test team’s 2015 has resembled one of those gauntlet matches Mr McMahon used to put wrestlers he hated through where the wrestler would fight five men in succession with each opponent getting progressively harder. England’s schedule has also involved five opponents and has got progressively harder. Their year started away to the West Indies, then went on to a home series against New Zealand. The challenge got harder with the home Ashes series against Australia and harder still with an away series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emarites. And while the rest of us are recovering from the Christmas festivities England will be starting another challenge. And in theory this series is the toughest of the lot. On Boxing Day England will start a four Test series away to South Africa the World’s number one ranked Test team. It should be their toughest test yet.

And yet there is hope for England. For South Africa start this series in total disarray. Their last Test series was a complete disaster. The Proteas were humiliated 3-0 in India. Their batting was an absolute disaster. In the four Test matches in India South Africa’s batsmen produced totals of 184, 109, 214, 79, 185, 121 and 143. The brilliant AB de Villiers – arguably the best batsman in the world – coped reasonably well with India’s spinners – averaging 36.85 with two fifties. No other South African who played two Tests or more could average even 20, or score fifty in an innings. Captain Hashim Amla only averaged 16.85 in India and has not scored a Test century in a year. The opening partnership struggled horribly. Stiaan van Zyl and Dean Elgar were hopelessly out of their depth so much so that van Zyl was dropped and replaced by Temba Bavuma even though he is usually a number five. South Africa are struggling to replace Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis both of whom have retired since the Proteas easily beat England 2-0 in England back in 2012. Since then South Africa have lost two great batsmen – Smith and Kallis – and one good one (Alviro
Petersen) while producing only one good batsman (Faf du Plessis). The batting is vulnerable and James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn must fancy their chances. Plus the disastrous batting perfomance of South Africa’s A team against England in a warm up match suggests there is not a queue of young batsmen waiting to break into the Test team.

South Africa’s bowling is still formidable however. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are arguably the best new ball pair in the world and although Vernon Philander will miss the first two Tests Kyle Abbott and 20-year-old Kagiso Rahada offer useful back up.

This means the key for England will be their batting line up which has not exactly been reliable – Alistair Cook and Joe Root apart. After the UAE series the selectors took action dropping Ian Bell – probably for good – and recalling Nick Compton and Gary Ballance. But for some reason they look like opening with Alex Hales who is a 20 20 specialist who looked out of his depth against Australia’s fast bowlers in fifty over cricket never mind Test cricket. They should open with Compton – who had some success as a Test opener in 2012-13 and was probably dropped prematurely. England’s best batsman Root should bat at three, James Taylor at four and Ballance should bat at five where he bats for Yorkshire. Add Jonny Bairstow and fit again Ben Stokes and it is probably the best batting line up England can field.

It is still not reliable though. Like South Africa’s batting it is horribly dependant on two players (Cook and Root for England, Amla and de Villiers for South Africa). The key will be if – and for how long – the other players give them support plus which “big two” fires the most.

England do have a chance. But they must hit the ground running. South Africa struggle on Boxing Day – one home Boxing Day win since 2003. Plus their confidence must be in tatters after the trauma of India. If England get stuck in early they can keep South Africa’s wounds fresh. I reckon England must be ahead by the end of the Second Test in Cape Town. The precedent of England’s last South African tour in 2009-10 suggests South Africa will get better as the series goes on. Plus South Africa do better in the Highveld altitude venues of Johannesburg and Centurion and Philander – a formidable bowler – could be back by then.

Back in 2009-10 England were 1-0 up after two Tests but South Africa fought back to draw 1-1 and but for number eleven Graham Onions they would have won the series. This suggests if England don’t start well they will have no chance. But on the eve of the series it is clear England do have a chance away to the best Test team in the world. And when England started this gauntlet in Antigua back in April no one would have given them a hope of winning in South Africa.

Finally I would just like to wish everyone who reads me a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thanks for reading me!

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