England triumph in South Africa

Just over a month ago, England began their South African campaign with many predicting a tough series for the visitors. How would England’s batting order cope with the Proteas’ quick bowlers, Steyn and Morkel, and how would James Anderson and Stuart Broad fare against Amla, DeVilliers and co.?

All of these questions have now been answered, as England rose magnificently to the occasion and came away with a 2-1 series victory. Stuart Broad claimed top spot in the ICC test bowler rankings, as he spearheaded the attack to great effect. Ben Stokes asserted himself as a truly fantastic all-rounder, while Alastair Cook and Joe Root made their fair share of runs. Having a world-class fast bowler, a dynamic all-rounder, and a few relaible top-order batsmen is almost a prerequisite for sides hoping to succeed in international cricket, and England seem to have just that. While articles will be written that focus on South Africa’s failings, England’s efforts should not be undervalued. Granted, they missed the injured Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, and AB DeVilliers was clearly lacking in both form and confidence, but make no mistake, the visitors earned and warranted their triumph.

As for England’s star performers, one need look no further than the official man of the series in Ben Stokes. The firery all-rounder took South Africa’s attack apart at times, most notably during his sublime double hundred the second test. That innings proved, in the end, to be of little consequence as the match was drawn, but Stokes was consistent across the four matches. At no point did he attempt to change the way he played, maintaining his counter-attacking mentality throughout. As far as comparisons go, Stokes has already proven that he is a better batsman than his immediate predecessor, Andrew Flintoff, ever was. He’s not quite up there with Freddie with the ball just yet, but he’s quickly improving. He swings the ball both ways and has shown he can get good players out. A little bit of controversy never hurt anyone, and with the Durham all-rounder it seems to inspire his performances. Stokes will go through the odd rough patch, but England simply must stick with him. Everyone has seen what this man can do, and he must be allowed to do it his way.

Next on the list comes Stuart Broad: another contender for man of the series. In fact, in most other series Broad might have felt disappointed not to get the award. After all, he won England the third game and, in turn, the series. That devastating spell of bowling in which he took 5 for 1 in 31 balls sealed an emphatic third test victory, as well as sending the tall fast bowler to the top of the test rankings. Broad has had the ability to produce match-turning spells for along time now, with his five-for at the Oval in 2009 against Australia springing to mind. What he’s lacked, though, is the consistency of a world-class performer. He’s often been criticised for bowling too short, particularly during that frustrating period where he encouraged the title ‘the enforcer’. Now, however, Broad rarely fails to produce. He consistently hits the right length, and has worked out his angles to left and right handers. He bowls with enough pace and is able to do just enough with the ball to find any batsman’s edge. Against New Zealand last May, against Australia last summer, against Pakistan in the UAE and now in South Africa Stuart Broad has been outstanding. If any one thing might have concerned England’s bowling unit over the past few years, it’s been that Jimmy Anderson won’t last forever. He might have another English summer in him, maybe even one more ashes series, but sooner or later his body’s going to kick up a fuss too big to ignore. Fear not, England fans, the future is bright with Stuart Broad leading the attack.

Arguably England’s weakest point this series has been their batting. Although Joe Root has once again proven his worth, and while Jonny Bairstow has provided plenty of encouragement, there have been issues. Top of that list is the issue of Alastair Cook’s batting partner. Alex Hales has not looked sharp, and has clearly struggled. To his credit, he has endeavoured to play his natural game, but that hasn’t quite been good enough. He’s been found wanting on a number of occasions, with the vast majority of his dismissals coming as a result of poor shots. Had he played one or two innings of convincing substance, the story might be a little different. However, he has failed to make an impact in any of the four games, and has left England’s selectors with a real dilemma ahead of the next test series. Nick Compton’s return has also been a bit of a mixed bag. Despite his promising start, where he combined effectively with James Taylor to lead an England recovery on the first day of the series, his performances have lacked something. There is no problem with the tempo at which he bats, due to England’s plethora of stroke makers down the order. A mere look at his stats, though, will tell anyone that he’s not quite produced the goods. For me, he should keep his spot at number three at least for the next series. England should stick with him, and should certainly not consider batting Joe Root at number 3 in his place. Root’s rise to the top of his trade has been from the position of number 4, so there is absolutely no sense in changing it. Either Compton keeps his spot, or another number 3 replaces him.

James Taylor was England’s other new addition to the side. While he failed to score a hundred, and did suffer a few low scores at times, he is clearly a very good player. The Notts man is busy, compact, and difficult to bowl at, and is well-suited to his place at number 5. He must be given more time to adjust to the pace of test cricket; if he is, then he can cement that position for some time to come. Let’s not forget his blinding catches at short leg either. Someone in the side has to field there, after all.

Clearly, this was an extremely positive result for England. Jonny Bairstow (despite some slightly suspect glovework at times) has been another success story, while Steven Finn has also replicated his ashes form. Unfortunately, there is not time to systematically evaluate the performances of both sides’ squads, as much as I’d like there to be. Perhaps I’ll save that for a post-ODI series analysis, if the demands of writing a history dissertation will let me.

For now, we can be content that Broad, Stokes and Root are the men to lead England forward. Perhaps, in 6 months’ time we might even be talking about them as contenders for the number one spot again.

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