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Plenty to Celebrate Despite England's Feeble Ending

England had shown it last summer when, with the Ashes series level at 1-1, they nipped in to win the Edgbaston and Trent Bridge Tests.

Published: 27th January 2016 07:42 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th January 2016 07:42 AM   |  A+A-

England Cricket_Anderson_AFP

England's bowler Jimmy Anderson (C) celebrates the dismissal of South African batsman Dean Elgar (not pictured) during day 3 of the fourth Test match between England and South Africa at Supersport stadium in Centurion, South Africa. |AFP

As badly as England capitulated in losing their last seven wickets in an hour - and their captain Alastair Cook was right to label it "a very limp batting performance" -  England deserved to win this series 2-1 because of their quality of  opportunism.

England had shown it last summer when, with the Ashes series level at 1-1, they nipped in to win the Edgbaston and Trent Bridge Tests. They needed some restraint by the groundsman in using his mower, but they still overwhelmed an Australian side that was stronger on hard pitches and paper.

In their two warm-ups in South Africa before Christmas, England prepared well enough to seize the opportunity which the home side offered at the outset. It was almost exactly the same in 2004-05, the last time England won a Test series here (and the only other time since 1964-65).

In both cases, the South Africans returned from a long and arduous tour of India too late to be refreshed and ready for England. South Africa's batsmen, out of touch, did not have the chance to play a couple of domestic first-class games before tackling England. Politics rumbled about whether the non-white players were worth their place, and the selectors chose wrongly.

Into this gap England nipped in Durban. By the end of this series, the South African selectors were choosing their right batting line-up, but at the start they had a makeshift opener in Stiaan van Zyl instead of the highly proficient Stephen Cook, and Hashim Amla as a reluctant captain, and AB de Villiers as an even more reluctant wicketkeeper.

Opportunism also won the third Test for England. Nothing in it at the halfway stage in Johannesburg. Head coach Trevor Bayliss then breaks his silence to sound the call to arms, Stuart Broad leads the charge, and England's pace -bowlers pitch the ball up as well as Kagiso Rabada was to do in the fourth Test.

In bowling, South Africa were unusually unlucky with injuries. England lost James Anderson and Steve Finn for one Test each, while Mark Wood missed the whole tour, but South Africa lost their two opening bowlers: Dale Steyn after England's first innings in Durban, and Vernon Philander, who still has not recovered from his ankle injury and is out of the one-day series.

Steyn, Philander, Rabada and Morne Morkel: that is one powerful bowling attack. And besides the point. England had the wit and skill to nip in twice when South Africa were vulnerable, and ultimately that is what mattered.

Another reason not to place too much emphasis on England's defeat is that it conformed to Centurion's template. Probably no ground in world cricket is so predictable: if the teams are in any way matched, the side that bats first and third defeats the one batting second and fourth because the pitch cracks up in the heat. Cook was correct again to say the toss was "important".

Still, the haste with which England rolled over was unseemly. James Taylor got an unplayable lifter from Morkel, or rather a lifter that was unplayable for one of his stature. But Joe Root's head was not in it - he cannot salvage England every time - and neither was anybody else's. If Root had not been dropped behind the wicket off Dane Piedt and Bairstow caught at first slip off a Rabada no-ball, England would not have lasted one hour.

Cecil Rhodes banned a non-white pace bowler - a Cape Coloured called Hendricks, first name unrecorded - from South Africa's first cricket tour of England in 1894, which he funded. Rabada will not be going to England either, not until the Champions Trophy in 2017 and South Africa's next Test tour in 2018.

Rewind to Oct 11 of last year. First ODI between India and South Africa in Kanpur. India, with MS Dhoni on strike, need 11 off the final over, which Rabada volunteers to bowl - in only his sixth ODI. He bowls  2-1-1-W-W-1 and South Africa win by five runs.

Equipped with such a mature head at 20, and such an immature body that he has an extra yard of pace at least in him, Rabada is not destined for county cricket but the Indian Premier League.

England, meanwhile, remain a side inconsistent in their batting and catching, which includes their wicketkeeping, and short of attacking spin. On their day they are truly brilliant, capable of defeating anyone, and the received wisdom is that, given hard work, they will develop into No?1 in two or three years.

England's supporters must hope this to be the case. Yet there is another explanation for their batting collapses: that their young players are children of the T20 era, programmed to hit out or get out. They will always be very, very good, or horrid, and not much in between.

England's whole innings was shorter than South Africa's fifth-wicket stand between Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma on the same pitch. They came at the problem from a different angle and culture, playing the ball on its merits.

All the better Test sides have a hard core that maintains minimum standards: i.e. they are not bowled out in a couple of hours. The developing core that England had at the start of last summer - Root at five, Stokes at six, Jos Buttler at seven and Moeen Ali at eight - has been revised. The main interest when this narrative resumes in May will be whether a world-class core can be forged, or whether England, for all their match-winners led by Stokes, will remain an entertaining, inconsistent, mid-table team.



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