South Africa v England: fourth Test preview
“When we were bad, we were very bad and when we were good we managed to be good enough.”
Andrew Strauss’ assessment of the summer Ashes win said it all. England were outplayed by Australia for long stretches of the series but won the key passages of play and regained the Ashes at the Oval.
Fast forward four months and from a cynic’s perspective, little has changed. England hold a 1-0 lead going into the final Test of the series against South Africa on Thursday but the score-line tells only a fraction of the story.
Straddled either side of their magnificent innings and 98 runs victory in Durban were two remarkable final innings, 9 wickets down survivals. As more than one wag has gleefully pointed out, England are singlehandedly keeping Test alive. That is utter nonsense of course as Pakistan are giving it an equally good go, but is a fair point to say that England have been on the right side of some pretty spectacular cricket of late.
Are England improving as a team then, or have they simply struck on a formula designed to produce thrilling victories whilst simultaneously slicing the life expectancy of their fans in half?
In short, they are much better but there is still some way to go.
Firstly, denying the opposition victory with just one wicket remaining might be a fluke once, but when it happens three times in eight Test matches it becomes an incredibly positive reflection on the mental durability of the current side. England teams of the past, even some good ones, would have folded in similar situations but there was something remarkably soothing about the way Graham Onions blocked out the final over from Morne Morkel.
Batting wise, we have all heard repeatedly about how important the second innings effort from Ian Bell could be in his career but it is worth reiterating. He is the most gifted, aesthetically enchanting player of his generation and despite his 52 Test’s and 9 centuries, he should regard his career so far as an underachievement.
If England manage to escape with a victory from this series, they will have done so without major contributions from Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen, two batsmen who they have been overly reliant upon in the recent past. In their absence Bell, Cook and Collingwood have been crucial in bridging the gap, with some useful contributions from Matt Prior and the inexperienced Jonathan Trott.
The decision to pick six front line batsmen has therefore then been the correct one. England’s bowler’s might not yet be consistent enough to regularly bowl side’s out twice in matches but the belligerence of a strong batting line-up means they are incredibly difficult to beat; they lost just twice in 13 Test’s last year.
So Strauss’ men should be favourites to at least hold onto their lead in the final act of a gripping series. Indeed, recent form also suggests that the standard English response to being pushed right up against the wall is to retaliate with a thumping victory.
Regardless of how they do it, if managing to be “good enough,” continues to translate to series victories then not too many of those involved in English cricket will complain.