By Kieran Wellington
- England will head into a four-match Test series in South Africa with fresh hope, but not a fresh squad as a sickness bug swept through the camp last week
- Somerset duo Craig Overton and Dom Bess have been called up as cover with frontline bowlers Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer both affected along with spinner Jack Leach
- South Africa are in a period of major transition themselves with a catalogue of backroom staff appointments on the eve of this series – new head coach Mark Boucher has called up a number of uncapped players into the squad
CENTURION, SOUTH AFRICA – Joe Root must be cursing his luck as a sickness bug ruins England’s preparation before a hugely important Test series against a South Africa side eager to impress
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Joe Root must be sick as a parrot. After being humbled in New Zealand by a confident Black Caps side, this Test series in South Africa – where England are always fanatically supported by The Barmy Army – presented a decent opportunity to get back on track.
Not only because of the support and the fact that South Africa most closely emulates English pitches, but because South African cricket is in utter turmoil. Cricket South Africa (CSA) was rocked earlier this month as they were forced into suspending their chief executive Thabang Moroe following allegations of misconduct.
That left South Africa without any selection panel for this series, just three weeks before the first ball was due to be sent down. However, fortunes – at least on paper – have changed dramatically for both sides since then.
South Africa acted quickly in appointing legendary captain Graeme Smith as acting director of cricket until March – despite the 38-year-old initially withdrawing his interest – and he has since been joined by new head coach and former teammate Mark Boucher, and legendary all-rounder Jacques Kallis as batting consultant. No matter how inexperienced they are in their respective roles, the Proteas squad will be invigorated and inspired by being mentored by such legends of their sport.
Conversely, England have had to downgrade their final warm-up game – still taking place at time of writing – to a three-day friendly because of the virus that has struck down three of their key bowlers. By downgrading from a proper first-class fixture, this game has little validity and is the worst possible preparation for an England side that need to be primed for the inevitable intensity their hosts will provide.
With no overs in the legs of opening bowlers Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and frontline spinner Jack Leach since they touched down in the rainbow nation, England’s hierarchy have some selection dilemmas to solve. The situation has been deemed serious enough to fly out Somerset pair Craig Overton and Dom Bess, but with just 11 wickets between them at Test level, there is a serious worry England’s attack will be even more toothless than the team which only took 21 wickets in two matches against New Zealand.
The one saving grace for captain Joe Root is the return of record wicket-taker James Anderson. His reappearance is timely given Broad and Archer’s illness, but at the age of 37 cannot be relied upon to bowl long spells, especially in the South African summer sun.
All three bowlers affected by the illness did return to training this weekend, and so are in contention to start on Boxing Day. However, whether they will be fit and firing enough to bowl at their maximum is almost certainly in question and may require a smarter thought process from the same England selectors that picked Anderson against the Aussies in the summer, only for the Burnley-born bowler to break down after just four overs and he’s remained absent ever since.
England’s bowling away from home has left a lot to be desired recently, too. Chris Woakes is almost a certainty to start given the current absentees, but he must shake the mantle of being effective in English conditions only – the Warwickshire seamer averages 23.5 with the ball at home, but nearly 55 away.
Archer too must alleviate pressing concerns about his performances when away from home comforts. Despite hitting top speeds of 96mph in the Ashes, Archer looked flat in New Zealand, averaging just 84mph in both Test matches and taking two wickets at an eye-watering average of 104.5 – although according to Wisden, Archer blames the speed guns!
Spin when you’re winning?
England stepped out in their last Test in Hamilton without a recognised spinner for the first time in 2012, incidentally against South Africa (this match was better known for Kevin Pietersen and text-gate, but still a nice stat). Although they ended the first innings with a 101-run lead, this was largely down to the batsmen performing rather than a superb bowling display, further evidenced by the fact that when the pitch went flat, and Ben Stokes pulled up lame, New Zealand lost just two wickets in 75 overs.
England’s options remain the same this time around, with uncapped leg-spinner Matthew Parkinson joined by the bespectacled Leach. Leach was left out, despite having a respectable average of 29. Perhaps the fact he is a throwback to a style of spinner that stems the flow of the scoring rate rather than turning the ball to any great extent means he feels easier to be left out – he rarely catches the eye in the way the world’s best ever spinners did: the bleached-blonde hair of Shane Warne or the unique bend in the action of Muttiah Muralitharan made them entertaining to watch even before they ripped through batting line-ups.
With Leach ill and Somerset teammate Bess failing to get a consistent run for his county this season, all eyes have turned to leggie Parkinson. However, in the two warm-up games – at time of writing – he got carted around the park for 112 runs in just 20 overs against an Invitational XI and then went 14 overs without a wicket when facing South Africa A.
This may lead head coach Chris Silverwood to stick with an all-seam attack, especially in South Africa where conditions are normally conducive for the quicks. However, it leads to a feeling of imbalance and despite the part-time spin offered by Root and Joe Denly, faith must be put in one of the three specialist, but unproven, spin bowlers.
Batting order finally looks settled
Although you have to take 20 wickets to win any Test match, runs set the foundation for any victory. Ever since record run-scorer and former captain Sir Alastair Cook retired – in fact, it could be traced as far back as Andrew Strauss‘ retirement – England have had problems setting the right platform for an undoubtedly talented middle-order.
England’s middle-order power was proven in stunning style the last time England toured South Africa: the flame-haired duo of Stokes and Jonny Bairstow crashed 399 runs for the sixth-wicket in record-breaking time. It was something the likes of which will rarely be seen again in the Test arena, especially for England fans if Root and Silverwood’s patient approach is to be believed.
As reported in The Daily Mail before the New Zealand series, Root said: “We need to be prepared to play some attritional cricket at times. I think it’s an area we can get better at: maybe be a little more patient in terms of trying plans for longer and being more relentless.”
Fortunately, a more considered approach with the bat has seemingly paid off for some of the England batting line-up: opener Dom Sibley, no.3 Denly and Root all hit unbeaten half-centuries in the first warm-up, and this was followed up by fluent centuries by Denly and middle-order batsman Ollie Pope against South Africa A, with Rory Burns also passing 50.
With all of England’s top six making telling contributions in these warm-up games, there is plenty to be positive about with bat in hand, which is not something we have associated with this England team for a long time. Root placing himself back at no.4 is best for everyone – it’s where he’s happiest, which is the most important thing, and has settled everyone down in the batting order too, as it has clarified everyone’s roles. Denly’s form has been a welcome surprise, and he is my man to watch this series as he looks to claim his first Test hundred against a South Africa bowling attack which includes the rapid Kagiso Rabada and the superbly skilful Vernon Philander, who averages 23.5 with the ball and 36.5 with the bat against England. Keep an eye out for these two Proteas.
My predicted line-up for this game is: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Joe Denly, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer, Jack Leach, James Anderson.
England face South Africa in the first of four Tests starting on Boxing Day in Centurion: play starts at 8am.
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