By Neil Leverett

  • England take 2-1 series in four-match series against South Africa at St. George’s Park, Port Elizabeth
  • Tourists ride weather delays to win by innings and 53 runs after enforcing follow-on versus Proteas
  • Ollie Pope hits maiden Test century, as Joe Root’s men produce all-round superlative showing
PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA – After England took a 2-1 series lead against South Africa by dismantling the hosts in Port Elizabeth, what did we learn from the third Test?

 

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England’s new dawn?

It really is remarkable how different things now look for English Test cricket. With the World champions appearing to have let the long form of the game slip in favour of global domination over limited overs in recent years, suddenly the gloom over the tourists has lifted almost immeasurably with the very real prospect of an away series win against the Rainbow Nation.

Back-to-back wins have given coach Chris Silverwood and captain Joe Root a huge boost to the outlook of the Test picture in England, and with the emergence of Ollie Pope, Dom Bess and Dom Sibley in their ranks, last summer’s Ashes defeat seems a far distant memory.

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With signs of confidence in both top and middle order batting returning, and with a bowling attack that is beginning to shape up as one of the most menacing in the game, the early weeks of 2020 have begun with huge promise for England.

Root himself can without an umpire’s call of a sensational five-wicket haul to join Bess, but aside from small disappointments, England’s game management was superb also with P.E. constantly threatened by its’ unseasonably inclement weather.

The proving ground of the subcontinent will prove another vital test for the tourists in March, but for now at least with the dangling carrot of a series win, there is genuine optimism that English cricket could be on the brink a bright and youthful new era – much like the national football team has undergone.

 

Perfect Pope

For Pope, the current tour of South Africa could prove to be his making and after hinting at his potential with an unbeaten 61 at Newlands, the Surrey man put the excitement gear into overdrive knocking his maiden Test century and again failing to be removed for 135.

Forming a formidable partnership with Ben Stokes in the middle order, the man who has impressed at County level for some seasons now finally has grabbed his opportunity with both hands. Indeed, his hands are also a big facet of his burgeoning game – not just with the willow.

Since James Taylor‘s enforced retirement from the game for health reasons, England have lacked a number four or five batsman to tick the runs over, but who also exhibits superb catching technique and ability at short leg. As Pope displayed in Port Elizabeth, the tourists may have now filled that void.

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With awards season in full-swing, the Two Popes has taken centre-stage in regard to potential gong-hauls, and predictably, the memes of Pope’s sudden rise in cricket have followed in their droves during and after the third Test.

Whilst his position has not yet reached idolic levels as yet, those who have always preached that Pope could be something very special at the top level may have left many eating humble pie. And, there could be many more helpings to come.

 

Wood must be managed

The expectations of many before the third Test – with James Anderson having returned home with a side strain – were that Jofra Archer or Chris Woakes were set to be drafted into the England XI, but despite continuing to nurse injuries and with a lack of overs under his belt this winter, Mark Wood was given the nod and rewarded the selectors with a display of blood and thunder.

Taking 3-32 to help the tourists’ cause of skittling out the Proteas in following on, Wood showed the menace with which he can bowl when able to and taking the scalp of Dean Elgar in the top order, the Northumbrian instigated the final efforts of England’s emphatic victory.

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As both England and Wood are fully aware of however, the Durham quickie must be wrapped up in cotton wool with his lack of match fitness, so in attempting to manage the 30-year-old’s condition, Wood could make way at The Wanderers.

Wood is as pivotal as any of he current pieces in the English Test cricket jigsaw – not least with both Anderson and Stuart Broad in the twilight years of their respective careers – and with Sri Lanka and the subcontinent’s hard decks next on the menu after South Africa, Johannesburg is likely to see Wood rested. But, given his exploits of the past week, can England afford to be without him? Instead, then the ball will lie in the court of explosive Archer.

 

Difficult questions for Proteas

As the tourists close in on a rare series win in the Southern hemisphere, South Africa meanwhile are left again licking their wounds and after a claiming perhaps two session only during the third Test, the unrest is building on the Proteas, particularly skipper Faf Du Plessis.

With his side’s position of fifth in the ICC Test ranking hanging in the balance – with Root’s men set to leapfrog them – the 35-year-old Pretorian’s stance as captain is holding shaky ground for the first time since taking the reins from AB De Villiers in December 2016.

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It should be considered that this is perhaps one of the weakest South African XIs for some time aside from Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar and Kagiso Rabada – with Dale Steyn still absent – but nevertheless coach Mark Boucher must be pondering his options in regard to his leader.

As BBC Sport reported on Monday, Du Plessis has batted away questions of his own retirement, but should he be pushed before he walks, where does 2019’s South African Cricketer of the Year stand in relation to playing for his country, at a significantly reduced capacity? If South Africa do fall to a series defeat – particularly a 3-1 loss – Cricket SA may be forced to make some tough decisions in the coming weeks and months.

 

Series win beckons

With three games down, attention now switches to the capital and Jo’berg this weekend, as The Wanderers plays a fitting venue to close out the series beginning on Friday. For England, everything points toward a series victory.

Knowing they cannot lose it however will be a big fillip for England management, but the difference between a win, lose or draw could lay the foundations for not only the coming year but for the foreseeable future – for both sides.

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The fourth Test could see a number of changes for the hosts, with Keegan Petersen widely tipped to be brought in by the Proteas to bolster a a brittle batting line-up, whilst Andile Phehlukwayo, Temba Bavuma and left-arm seamer Beuran Hendricks possibilities to be given berths, having joined up with the squad.

In the case of a buoyant England, the as documented likely change could come in the bowling with either Woakes or Archer unleashed with the Kookaburra – depending on the fitness of Wood, but elsewhere it will be a case a more of the same please. For the land of South Africa, a once plane of pittance and misery for England touring parties from a cricketing point of view in so many years past, The Wanderers could see the tourists return home with the full series spoils.

 

The fourth and final Test between South Africa and England begins on Friday morning at The Wanderers in Johannesburg. 

 

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