By Neil Leverett
- England seal 3-1 series win against South Africa with 191-run fourth Test win in Johannesburg
- Tourists dominate for third successive game at The Wanderers, as Proteas crumble
- Joe Root’s men now move on to ODI series next month, before tour of Sri Lanka in March
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – After completing an emphatic 3-1 series win at The Wanderers, what did we learn from England’s Test series victory against South Africa?
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Crawley, Sibley or Burns?
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of England’s series win has been the emergence of Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley in the batting line-up. With the injured Rory Burns also convalescing back at home after surgery, the tourists are now suddenly lumbered with the problem of who to should open the batting going forward, but it is a quandary – after searching for the perfect duo at the top of the order for some time – that is a welcome one.
Whilst there are those that still consider Keaton Jennings to be England’s best option for the future, all three men now represent genuine hope that the boots of the likes of Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss and most prominently Alistair Cook could be filled and with some aplomb.
Burns’ knock of 82 at Centurion looked to the be the perfect platform for England to build on in defeat, but after the Surrey man sustained a freak injury in a training ground kick-around, his absence pushed Crawley into a start.
Though his Kent counterpart appeared somewhat a rabbit in the headlights at Newlands making just 4 and 25, P.E. saw Crawley begin to hit his stride and a century stand with Sibley saw his stock rise at The Wanderers.
Sibley however comes out of the series with the biggest credit. With signs the Warwickshire batsman was coming into his own, a second innings unbeaten 133 in the second Test set the platform for victory, with his efforts in the High Veld giving his side even greater impetus.
The question now is which two men give England the best balance going forward, and who may be forced to bid his time? There is perhaps the rather more intriguing prospect of all three man appearing in the same XI, which with Joe Denly‘s improved but still flawed offerings is a prospect that may yet transpire in the coming year.
Root’s dynamic bowling attack
The tourists’ inability to take 20 wickets in a Test has in recent months become a rather thorny issue, however after achieving that very feat at Newlands, St. George’s Park and The Wanderers, England’s lusty new bowling unit now looks to have the weaponry to test the very best.
Before Joe Root‘s men began their prowl of the Rainbow Nation, the exploits of Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes had already been evidenced, however in the case of Mark Wood, the injuries sustained in recent times by the Durham pace-man had thus far only given a glimpse of his explosive capability with both Duke and Kookaburra.
It is then rather ironic that Wood was placed in somewhat a deputy role for Archer, and with former unleashed on the Proteas, the hosts had little answer to Wood’s accuracy and menace – taking nine wickets in Johannesburg.
Of even greater pleasure for England’s selectors, Dom Bess appeared as suddenly a capable spinner within their ranks taking five-fer at Port Elizabeth, and with Jack Leach waiting in the wings also, coupled with managed spells from the match-winning Ben Stokes, Root suddenly has threat with the ball from all angles – including himself as an added and unpredictable method.
All this with both Stuart Broad and James Anderson still with another few seasons in the their respective bodies yet – although the latter’s latest side-strain could prompt England’s leading wicket taking into hanging up his boots sooner rather than later.
A role-call of Wood, Archer, Bess, Stokes, Leach and Woakes however, could cushion the blow of the departure of the tourists’ greatest-ever pace attack when indeed both men elect to call time on their careers.
Archer must address fitness issues
The rather large caveat to England’s newly-spawned bowling menace depends on the well-being of the enigmatic Archer, who has again struggled for match fitness this winter – particular in South Africa.
The Barbados-born quickie was understandably deflated to have failed a fitness test in Jo’burg, and despite his still tender age, Archer’s already problematic injury issues threaten his development and looking further ahead, his potential to be one of the finest and most lethal bowlers in the game.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that England are a more than dangerous unit, simply put, with Archer in the XI, the threat the tourists possess is akin the West Indies sides of old with Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose as a lethal tag-team.
Indeed, the cricketing fraternity has thus far be robbed of a spectacle of both Wood and Archer bowling at each end, and whilst Archer at 24-year-old remains precocious, there remains years for a potential partnership to blossom. However, for that to happen, Archer must work diligently to conquer his fitness issues.
Proteas may look to de Kock
For the Proteas meanwhile, a heavy series defeat – after winning to the first Test at SuperSport Park in Centurion no less – South African cricket is to endure a heavy dose of soul-searching an question answering, not least the position of skipper Faf du Plessis.
With Quinton de Kock already set to take over the captaincy reins for the upcoming ODI and T20 series, du Plessis could now find himself phased out in leading South Africa. Should that happen, the 35-year-old will likely be forced to again bat questions away regarding his rumoured retirement.
Whilst de Kock himself did not have his finest series – in particular the catalyst for England’s Newlands heroics with his holing out – and that the defeated are perhaps one of the weakest XIs the South Africans have had, the seeds for hope are there for all to see.
Number four Rassie van der Dussen showcased his growing reputation with the bat, whilst with Dale Steyn still sidelined, Anrich Nortje‘s 147kph is something that will cause problems for any Test nation – including a handy ability to hold down an end as an all-rounder.
The 2020 England party may have pushed Coach Mark Boucher into making difficult decisions however, and in the light of Vernon Philander having called it a day after the fourth Test, South African cricket is set to go through quite the transitional stage.
But, with de Kock waiting to take over at the helm if required, the Jo’burg native who would have seen his side crumble again in alarming fashion this test series, could be the man to begin the Proteas’ rebuilding process.
Subcontinent momentum must build
With a series victory in the Southern hemisphere in the bag, attentions will now shift to both the ODI and T20 series, with the World champions given the chance to flex their muscles in the shorter version of the game, in which they excel best in.
Thoughts however, will not be far away from the return to the subcontinent in the spring, as England play a two-test series against Sri Lanka beginning in Galle on March 19.
Making a return to the country they whitewashed 3-0 15 month ago, the Sri Lanka will present a different test for the tourists’ to conquer, and with an alternative flavour to pitches in Asia, the focus will flip to England’s spinners in favour of seam.
Bess is a likely inclusion for Root to consider as is the set to return Leach, but with the bat, Ben Foakes could supply Jos Buttler with competition for a place, with Ollie Pope‘s meteoric rise this series hoped to continue later this year.
With the space between now and Sri Lanka left to conjecture however, what is imperative is that when the respective Lions face off, England must continue their upward momentum on he subcontinent ahead their own home encounters against the West Indies and Pakistan in the coming months.
South Africa play England in the first ODI on Tuesday 4 February, at Newlands, Cape Town.
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