The woes of South African cricket… and where do the English team go next?

England have just wrapped up a thumping victory over South Africa, winning by an innings & 53 runs at Port Elizabeth. There were hugely encouraging performances from England’s young stars in the 3rd Test match, most notably the young Ollie Pope, who has seemingly cemented his place at 6 with a disciplined 135*. Pope displayed all the shots in the book, with several ramps to the boundary off Kasigo Rabada, the world’s premier quick bowler. The bowling of Dom Bess in the first innings was equally as impressive, taking the first 5 wickets in the South African batting line-up. He appears to be a player who has come on leaps-and-bounds since his brief foray into Test Cricket 2 summers ago. Moreover, Ben Stokes stood up yet again, playing quite beautifully for his 120. We are blessed to have him in the side because he is undoubtedly the best all-round cricketer in the world right now. A big win and big performances.

This all seems very positive for England cricket moving forward? Especially so, when the injuries sustained on this tour are factored in. We lost Burns, Archer, Anderson and Leach to either injury or illness, all of whom are established members of the current Test side. Yet, while we should go on to win this series in South Africa, we must be careful not to overstate it’s importance.

South Africa are a side in serious decline, stagnating slowly over the past 18 months. In fact, South Africa have lost 7 of their last 8 Test matches, getting utterly demolished by India. Of course, India is a notoriously difficult place to tour. They have a plethora of world-class talent at their disposal and an effective game-plan. The top-order consistently set intimidating targets, before unleashing the lethal spin triumvirate of Jadeja, Ashwin and Kuldeep, spinning the opposition out of the game. They are the number 1 Test side, under the determined leadership of Virat Kohli, for good reason. However, on top of the defeats, it’s the performances themselves that are most worrisome. During their tour to India, South Africa managed to score more than 300 only once. It is rare that a side will compete in a bilateral series if they do not regularly score 300+ in the first innings, especially away from home. They lost 2 of the 3 games by an innings, and the first match by 203 runs. They may have won the opening Test match of this series, but that was more down to England’s failure than South African prowess. Again, they have failed to score more than 300 in all 6 innings this series, which is nothing short of disgraceful, especially when compared to the fact that England have scored 391* and 499* in 2 of their 5 innings.

These numbers are startling. Only 2 players in the South African batting order seem proven at the top-level at present – Dean Elgar and Quinton De Kock. Elgar is an under-appreciated player in the modern game. He is a gritty opening batsman, an ode to the times of old, an antidote to the chaos of white-ball cricket. His stats are decent without being spectacular, averaging 38.38, with 12 hundreds. Yet, he is exactly what South Africa need in their forthcoming rebuilding phase. On the other hand, De Kock is a superstar, and, for me, the best wicket-keeper in the world. He regularly saves South Africa from embarrassment through his proactive batting with the tail and is a crucial player moving forward. He currently averages 38.62 in Test cricket, but I can only see this improving. Both of these players are the main options to take over the captaincy next year. However, I would go for De Kock. At the age of 27, you can build a team under his leadership for the next 5/6 years. He has enough experience to be a leader and proven quality to command respect from his team-mates. One need just look at the greatest Test match captain of all time (in my opinion), Graeme Smith, who was appointed captain at the age of 22. Put faith in him and build a team.

The real issue is that the South African captain, Faf Du Plessis, has been struggling for some time. The captain has to be the talisman, the man who leads from the front. Look at Kohli with India, Kane Williamson with New Zealand and Joe Root with England (more to come on him later). There is no question that Faf was a world class player a few years ago across all formats of the game. Yet, he has dwindled over the course of the last 18 months, failing to score a fifty in his last 9 innings. Stats matter more in cricket than any other sport and if anyone other than Faf was producing these lacklustre performances with the bat, they would be dropped. He is symptomatic of the deep fissures in South African cricket and whilst I do think he will retire in the next year or so, South Africa should be planning without him already. Let me just reiterate, I am a huge fan of Faf, and have witnessed him play many tremendous innings over his career. But, his Test days appear to be over, and he should instead focus on white-ball cricket.

He is not the only problem in the South African batting line-up though. I mentioned how only 2 players are established international batsman. Many of the newer faces are unconvincing. I mean just look at the last Test. If it wasn’t for Maharaj and Paterson putting on 99 for the last wicket, South Africa would have been demolished. Long gone are the days of Smith, Mckenzie, Amla, De Villiers and Kallis. Markram started his career off on a positive footing, reaching number 6 in the ICC batting rankings. He appeared the perfect foil to Elgar as an opening partner, with some eye-catching aggressive strokeplay. Of course, he has missed much of this series from fracturing his finger. However, he to has suffered a downward trend in his form with runs drying up. Nonetheless, at the age of 25 he still can reach those same levels and their is high hope he can be South Africa’s opener of the next era.

The middle-order are the matter in question. Zubayr Hamza has been poor this series and England have seemingly sussed a weakness down the leg-side. Rassie van der Dussen has played a couple of patient innings and deserves a run in the side. He has also been spectacular in the ODI team, averaging over 70, and the hope is he can replicate the form. The South African tail is extremely long. Vernon Philander has been a superb servant for his country and an underrated all-rounder, but they need to bring in a batting all-rounder to replace him. Maybe even 2. Look at England – Stokes and Curran are superb with the bat. Their bowling department was always going to take time to rebuild after losing Steyn, Morkel and now Philander, 3 modern greats; however, it is less of an issue. Rabada is world-class. Nortje looks like he has genuine pace and Maharaj can hold his own. 2 genuine all-rounders are needed for South Africa, to add balance to the side.

I have gone fairly in depth about South Africa’s issues so far, but that should not detract enormously from the huge amount of positives that England can take from this tour. As mentioned, the South African bowling attack is still fairly formidable and for England to post some big scores is a confidence booster. We finally seem to have found an opening pair in Burns and Sibley, which we have been searching for since Strauss’ retirement. Sibley batted brilliantly in the 2nd Test match and proved all his doubters wrong (including me), showing real grit. Ollie Pope as well, as aforementioned, was outstanding in the last Test match and both should be stalwarts of the England side for the next decade. Add in Sam Curran, Jofra Archer and potentially Zak Crawley and Bess; suddenly, England have a young core to be excited about in Test cricket. Stokes and Root are also relatively young, so there are the makings of a world-class side.

Yet, if we do go on to win the series, which we should, it is important not to get carried away. South Africa are a weakened side, and we did lose to New Zealand just a few months ago, failing to overcome a challenge. The problem is we should also beat Sri Lanka because they have been mired in the mud of mediocrity for some time. The sub-continent pitches will provide some questions for our batsmen but it is nothing like facing India. The lack of real challenge of our side should not be pushed to the wayside.

We also have some problems that need to be examined. The first is at wicket-keeper. Neither Jos Buttler or Jonny Bairstow have been convincing in Test cricket over the past 2 years, with Bairstow being dropped entirely for his sub-standard batting displays. I really do not understand why Ben Foakes has not been given more of a chance. He started off his career promisingly, with a ton in Sri Lanka. Not to mention, he is the finest gloveman in the country. He should be given a run in the side after this series, especially considering his success in Sri Lanka last year.

Secondly, I have questioned Root’s captaincy material for some time now and those questions still linger. I think the pressure has affected his batting consistency for some time and his ability to make brave calls. He is a world-class player, arguably our greatest ever, and we need him back to that level. This may appear a left-field suggestion, but I think Rory Burns should be given a chance to be captain. Ben Stokes may seem more obvious, but he is a maverick, much in line with Botham and Flintoff, and look what happened to them when made captain. Burns has been a solid opener in the past year and yes, he may be relatively new the Test arena, but he has captained Surrey to a County Championship and will be our opening bat for the next few years at least. He will offer some stability and knows many of the young England players well from Surrey.

Additionally, there are matters on the horizon that need to be prepared for. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, our greatest bowling combination, are both at the twilight of their careers. With over 1000 Test wickets between them, they will be nigh on impossible to replace. Who is going to become the leader of the attack for England? Jofra is certainly the first name that comes to mind but if he is a mainstay in the side in all formats of the game, then injuries could become an issue. This has been illustrated already. If managed correctly, there is no doubt he will be a world-class Test bowler, already showing glimpses in the Ashes last summer. I think Curran will be a handy first-change bowler, but also predict him morphing into more of a batting all-rounder as his career progresses. Thus, the other seamer is a position that needs to be filled. There are a number of thrilling young fast bowlers on the County circuit who should be looked at, including Ollie Robinson, Saqib Mahmood and Henry Brookes. I suppose it is important to mention that we do lack a world-class spinner at present (I am still unconvinced by Leach). However, I think Bess, Matty Parkinson and Amar Virdi all have the potential to be our leading spinner for the next phase of English cricket. There is less worry in this department.

It will take time for England to rebuild completely, but all the pieces seem to be there or thereabouts. Our ideal Test line-up for the next couple of years should look something like: Burns, Sibley, Denly, Root, Stokes, Pope, Foakes, Curran, Archer, Bess and Robinson. This is a well-balanced, exciting side that has no clear weaknesses, and can obviously be tinkered with to suit the pitch we play on. England should strive to match the achievements of the great England side of 2010-2013, where we won in both Australia and India. Back these young players, plug a few holes and there is no reason why we cannot win the Test championship. Again, it is important to stay grounded after this series, as the real tests are later this year. Yet, for the first time in a while, I feel hope.

Hope you enjoyed the read!

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