ENGLAND will head into their cricketing summer on a high after a deserving 2-1 series win away to the world number one test playing nation, South Africa. However, despite the win, England are still left with many unanswered questions in their top order batting, a problem that has been lingering for a couple of years now.
England knew it wasn’t going to be an easy series against the Proteas in their own back yard but got off to the perfect start with a straightforward victory in Durban. A dire batting performance from South Africa, bar opener Dean Elgar who managed to carry his bat in the first innings to score a mightily impressive 118 not out, saw England hardly break a sweat in the 241 run win. With no England batsman reaching three figures themselves and only four half centuries, it really shouldn’t have been so easy for Alistair Cook’s men. In the absence of leading wicket taker Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad led from the front in the first innings taking 4-25 and was supported well by the increasingly impressive spin of Moeen Ali, taking 7 in the match to pick up the man of the match award.
A two-nil lead looked inevitable in the second test at Newlands after Ben Stokes’s remarkable knock of 258 off a mere 198 balls, the second fastest double century in test cricket history and the highest score by a number six batsman ever. Supported by another incredible knock by Yorkshire’s own Jonny Bairstow (150*), the pair helped England to declare on 629-6 before tea on day 2. Together the pair putting on 399 for the sixth wicket, another record in the demolition of the inexperienced South African bowlers. With a huge mountain to climb to just avoid the follow on, Captain Hashim Amla led from the front to score a double century of his own (201) which saw his side reduce the deficit comfortably. Amla was supported well by Temba Bavuma who became the first black South African batsman to ever score a test match hundred, a feat that will no doubt inspire millions of young South Africans. With both sides amassing over 600 each, the match fizzled out to end in an obvious draw.
To the shock of many, directly after the second test concluded, Amla announced his decision to step down as South African captain after going a year without a test win. Amla pointed out that he did not believe he was the best man for the job and felt that, despite being half way through a series, the time was right to step aside and give the job to someone else. AB de Villiers was given the nod but it would be unlikely if he will lead South Africa in the long-term future as only weeks beforehand declaring how he wanted to reduce his work load.
The third test saw both sides desperate for the win as England aimed to complete the series victory and South Africa requiring a win to hold on to their number one status. England took a small 10 run lead after the first innings’ after a Joe Root hundred (110), arguably his finest in his already successful but short career. The turning point of the match, and series, occurred early on in South Africa’s second innings as a truly breath-taking spell of fast bowling by Broad saw him take 5 wickets in six overs, only conceding one run to leave the opposition reeling at 35-5. There was no way back for the home team as they were dismissed for 83, Broad claiming 6-17. Despite a couple of minor scares at the end of their chase, England easily scored the 74 required for victory to secure their first series victory over South Africa since 2004/05.
South Africa did manage a consolation win in the fourth and final test after debutant Stephen Cook (115), Amla (109) and reinstated wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock (129*) all hit centuries. England replied respectively with Alistair Cook, Root and Ali all hitting half centuries but 20-year-old fast bowler Kagiso Rabada almost single headedly restricting England claiming his career best figures of 7-112. After being set 382 runs to win, England showed zero resistance as Rabada picked up where he left off in the first innings. Rabada claimed another 6 wickets for only 32 runs as England were skittled for 101, leaving him with match figures of 13-144, the second best ever by a South African bowler and a sure sign of things to come from this exciting young talent.
Despite both the 2-1 series victory, England still have many questions to answer as their top order once again failed to make an impact on the series. Cook, Alex Hales, James Taylor and Nick Compton all averaging around 30 or below for the series, a statistic that is just not good enough if England want to continue climbing the rankings. England won the series through the exciting and explosive all-rounder Stokes, someone whom the management should aim to build the team around for the long-term. Stokes has the potential and flare to be classed in the same breath as the likes of all-time greats Ian Botham and Freddie Flintoff if he continues on his current path.
England now look ahead to five ODIs against South Africa starting on February 3rd and then two T20 internationals in a build up to the T20 World Cup in India starting in March. The World Cup will give Trevor Bayliss’s side the first opportunity to get over the disappointment of the 50-over World Cup last year and another chance at some silverware after England’s 2010 victory.
Featured image: The Independent