Wednesday, August 22, 2012

England 0-2 South Africa: Where Do We Go From Here?

I, for one, welcome our new South African overlords.
It was a boiling hot day at a packed Oval this time last year. Fans had flocked to the ground to witness history, whether it be Sachin Tendulkar's 100th international century or England's historic rise to number 1 status. When Sreesanth was bowled by Graeme Swann to hand England another innings victory, the celebrations began, despite nobody in the England squad really knowing what to do with the Test mace. After years of turmoil, a dawn for a golden age of English cricket was heralded and many believed that it was a chance for this team to dominate international cricket like no other English side had before.

That was the plan. Instead, woeful batting performances against a resurgent Pakistan in their adopted home saw England slump to a 3-0 whitewash, their first since the fateful 2006/07 Ashes series. A further loss to Sri Lanka in Galle meant that England had begun 2012 with four straight Test defeats. Their number one status was already in the balance having been in possession of it for less than eight months. England managed to win in Colombo and the rain in New Zealand meant that they headed into the English summer clinging onto a status they had worked so hard to obtain.

Had South Africa been able to bowl out Graham Onions in 2010, highlighting an example of where they've been unable to win at home, there may not have even been a debate about the best team in the world. Still, it meant that South Africa arrived in England knowing that even the slenderest of victories would propel them to world number one. Their preparation for the series couldn't have been much worse, rain hindered opportunities out in the middle, Peter Trego took a fancy to Morne Morkel and then Mark Boucher's horrible eye injury against Somerset, forcing him into retirement, meant that concern for his well-being was always at the forefront of their minds.

After a testing first day to the series, in which Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott combined to once again steady England after the early loss of Andrew Strauss, South Africa bounced back on the second day and, since then, never really looked anything other than the best team in the world. At The Oval, Alviro Petersen could only watch on in despair for his duck as Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and the record breaking Hashim Amla piled on the runs, and the misery, against a flagging England attack. After this thrashing at The Oval, South Africa went on to mostly out bat, out bowl and out field their opponents. In the case of fielding, England didn't help themselves and the old cricketing cliché of 'catches win matches' should probably be scrawled on the wall of every dressing room England enter this winter. 

Had it not been for Kevin Pietersen's innings at Headingley, England may well have lost this series 3-0. As South Africa, wearing shirts dedicated to Mark Boucher, walked around the Lord's outfield showing the mace off to the gathered South African and a few curious England fans, England watched on from the home dressing room wondering where to go from here.

There are concerns for England on and off the pitch. Firstly, there is the whole sorry saga surrounding Pietersen to sort out. With each passing day, the story becomes more and more ridiculous with accusations, breaches of trust and Piers Morgan/Michael Henderson leaving many people questioning their stance on it all. As it currently stands, it would appear that so long as Strauss and Flower are in charge of this England side, there is no way back for Pietersen.

The whole thing has been handled with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop and, at times, feels more like a teenage drama in high school than a serious international cricket team. Both sides have their faults, but Pietersen's are far more publicised thanks to his own idiocy. For now, until Strauss and Pietersen have their meeting, it would seem that England are heading into the future without their box office, but insecure and troublesome, batsman in tow. This may well lead to a sense of team unity returning, but we would be kidding ourselves if we believed that this is the only area of concern.

England's batting line up has looked a shadow of its former self this year. Since becoming captain, Strauss has only scored centuries against Australia and the West Indies. His captaincy has always been conservative, but with a negated attack and his fellow top order being out of touch and patience, Strauss' batting form and tactics have once again been exposed. After a break with his family, Strauss has a meeting with Pietersen and then a couple of County Championship matches for Middlesex before England head to India.

Strauss, like the rest of the England top order, has made some starts. But the problem is, compared to the South African batsmen, that throughout the series, they never looked set. South Africa made five centuries this series. England? Only two. The English batsmen wasted good starts by wafting outside off stump, missing straight ones or running themselves out. Cook, Bell and Trott have all been guilty of this, with only Prior, and Pietersen, looking like they could take on a very strong South African bowling attack.

England's bowling attack has been a proud part of the rise to number one, but for this series they haven't seemed at their best. Anderson, who was economical but unlucky at times, picked up 9 wickets at 40.66, whilst Broad and Bresnan looked way off their best. Bresnan has been struggling with an elbow injury for much of the year whilst Broad can't decide whether he's gone back to his 'enforcer' stage. Steven Finn showed glimpses of his ODI form, especially in a spell in the second innings at Lord's, but he is still developing as a Test player. His ability to take wickets is impressive, but some of these wickets have come off absolute tripe and sometimes his figures do not make pretty reading. He has, however, managed to stop his habit of knocking over the stumps with his knee after South Africa complained that it was a 'distraction' during the Headingley Test. Graeme Swann didn't have the impact he would've hoped to have had with only 4 wickets at 77. Whilst he was economical, there is a worry surrounding the state of Swann's elbow and England will be hoping that Swann can return to having some kind of impact for when they head to India this winter.

Whilst the South Africa series has been one to forget for most of the England side, there are some reasons to be cheerful. James Taylor didn't take full advantage of Ravi Bopara's latest setback, but he looks like he's got the technique and the head for international cricket. He played well at Headingley before he was bowled by Morkel and at Lord's a good delivery and a stupid run out proved to be his downfall. His performance may not have completely closed the door on Bopara, but the Lord's batting display of a certain ginger lad from Yorkshire may well have done.

Jonny Bairstow was given a good working over with the short ball by the West Indies. He was dropped and sent back to Yorkshire where he struggled for a while before making a century against Leicestershire in July. His timely century for the England Lions at Old Trafford against the touring Australia A side and the dropping of Kevin Pietersen meant that he returned to the Test fold. Predictably, as soon as he walked to the crease, South Africa set about the short ball barrage. But Bairstow coped, in both innings, and fell agonisingly short of  a well deserved maiden century in the first innings after trying to play a flick through midwicket off Morkel. He followed this 95 up with another half century in the second innings, an innings which displayed his aggressive potential.

This winter sees England head back to the subcontinent and then head off to New Zealand. The pressure will be off England, as they have returned to the 'hunters' status, but India will be seeking revenge for that 4-0 hammering inflicted upon them last year. Without Pietersen, question marks over the form of some in the top six and with two youngsters who've never played a Test match in India in the top order, England may well be in for a tough winter. Cracking the subcontinent is something that Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss want to do and they must hope that the team can come back together again as they begin their challenge to South Africa for that number one status.

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