Despite being the first side in 7 years to come away from South Africa with a series victory under their belt, England’s cricketers may want to spend the return flight pondering on their efforts across the 5 game Test.
In what has been a disturbing frequency of late, England’s batsmen have, as an order so blessed with obvious talent, failed to live up to expectation to such an extent that Alistair Cook may be scratching his head as to how such an order have conjured up innings across many a Test that have been nothing short of damaging. Furthermore, Cook may want to thank his guardian angel that his batting order did not have to deal with the scything attack bowling of Dale Steyn for any of the Tests.
Cook may be questioning himself here, his batting performances exemplary in steadiness if little else, but given the displays he has overseen during this Test, it would seem there are very few names in the batting order than can be considered secure for the next Test against Sri Lanka.
For yet another time, his higher order have failed to shine. None more so than his fellow opening batsman, Alex Hales. Notts batsman Hales, in his first Test outing for England, hit just 126 runs across the five game series in South Africa, top scoring with 60. In the series as a whole, he made less than half the runs that Ben Stokes accrued in the second Test alone. In cruelly disappointing manner, Hales displayed the rash instincts, and the impatience seen in many a rookie batsman down the years. Such a shame it has begun in this fashion, as Hales’ Notts record speaks for itself.
Nick Compton was another who’s potency seemed significantly diluted during the Tour. Although his run rate was a little more consistent than Hales (little being the operative word here), he flirted with danger on an uncomfortably regular basis. Hales Nott’s counterpart James Taylor may have top scored during the Fifth (24), but as with Hales, he looked vulnerable and out of his depth. If Cook is to stick with them, which seems likely, they must come good sooner rather than later. Cook desperately needs some consistency in his higher ranks if he is to bridge a gap between England’s world ranking of 6th, and the might of South Africa and India occupying positions 1 and 2. They’ve already demonstrated that they are capable of it.
But the so far failure of Hales as 2nd batsman is a significant one. He is Cook’s eighth opener since the 2012 retirement of Andrew Strauss, with past men of the names of Adam Lyth and Jonathan Trott demonstrating ineptitude at the crease, and leaving Cook with a big headache every time such a crisis occurs. Hales is the latest, will he come good? A second chance is in order, but Cook’s patience is already running short.
But the whole series was not a write off. Let’s not forget, however bittersweet it appeared, England actually won the series, on South Arican soil. With Joe Root, Cook has a seasoned batsman at the very top of his game, a healthy mixture of accuracy, consistency, and patience. Though a man of his talents is clearly deserving of a #2 place, Cook’s decision to keep him at #4 may be his best batting call. The calmness he demonstrated, particularly during the nerve fraught Fourth, bode very well for batsman like Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes, merely to eke out the runs slowly but surely.
At an estimate, Cook can gift a substantial chunk of this victory to Stuart Broad, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. Broad seems to have these episodes of ripping through some of the best assembled batting orders in contemporary cricket, reducing them to single figure runs, and fireline bowling of the utmost quality. Taking 7-44 in the fourth virtually sealed an England victory. Since coming in as wicket keeper, Bairstow has been a key figure of consistency with the gloves, successfully ousting Jos Buttler’s attempts at regaining his place, and proving himself more than capable with the bat in his hands. Together he and Stokes have formed a partnership which, if not already, looks very fruitful with both bat and ball. As for Stokes, the big man’s astonishing 258 smashed so many records it was scarcely believable. Though he failed to follow this us with quite the same veneer and poise, it showed signs of promise. To top it off, his bowling figures brought down the brilliance of AB de Villiers, and Sasha Amla, altogether contributing to a massively important Second Test victory.
The words of Michael Vaughan and Geoffrey Boycott may well ring in Cook’s ears for the next few days. But whilst his batting order once again remains his primary problem, he can at least celebrate some positives of a significant job well done.