England v South Africa: Where now for the chastened hosts?
England’s selectors must be prepared to make brave calls ahead of the second Test at Headingley, says Henry Cowen
One swallow doesn’t make a summer but England are at something of a crisis point.
The best Test team in the world, according to the rankings, have now lost five out of their last nine matches. The momentum that had been building over the last three years has been well and truly halted. The question is whether Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss feel changes are required to respond to this rather extended blip.
Everything was going so well, the batsmen were helping themselves to runs and the bowlers were the most feared in the world, but the vast gulf in class at The Oval saw England humiliated by South Africa on home turf.
No excuses about sub-continent conditions here (although, as ever, the infamous sweep shot continued to cause problems), quite simply two cricket teams went up against each other and one was much, much better than the other.
And it wasn’t a plucky defeat; it wasn’t two sides slugging it out over five days of memorable Test cricket. To adapt old Tony Greig, Strauss and his men were made to grovel. Like in the UAE and Sri Lanka, the batting line-up looked flimsy, displaying none of the ‘bat and bat and bat’ approach we saw in the last Ashes series. The bowlers, ruthless over the last two years, looked insipid.
Is change the answer? The England set-up is built on strong principles, one of which is consistency of selection, but there must be a response to such a crushing defeat. That change does not necessarily need to be in the line-up itself, it might simply be in terms of mind-set or approach, but is there a danger of England being too loyal?
Flower and Strauss haven’t shied away from the big decisions before. Steven Finn was the leading wicket-taker during the Ashes but found himself dropped after the third Test because of his poor economy rate and dwindling fitness levels.
Similarly Kevin Pietersen was left out of the ODI squad to face Pakistan in 2010 because of a slump in form and Jimmy Anderson hasn’t played a Twenty20 match since 2009. The dye was cast early in Flower and Strauss’ tenure when Ian Bell was axed in the West Indies, while putting Ravi Bopara in at No.3 for the Ashes was another brave decision.
The current regime has a reputation for cautious conservatism, but those examples demonstrate change is not necessarily something they are afraid of. Tim Bresnan is the man in the most precarious position. Averaging 40 with the ball in the calendar year he, like all of England’s seamers, was made to look timid by Amla, Kallis and Smith.
Steven Finn is primed and ready to go and from a South African point of view you would imagine they would opt to face Bresnan rather than a 6ft 7in, 23-year-old who bowls at 90mph and is absolutely desperate to take his chance at Test level.
Predicting what the opposition least want you to do is something that often marks the great teams from the good, a fact demonstrated by the timing of Graeme Smith’s declaration in the first Test, and the England selectors should consider that when they name their XI for Headingley.
Bopara is another in the spotlight after scores of 0 and 22 at The Oval but England need someone to nail down the No.6 spot and his history with the side, which admittedly is fairly chequered, suggests he is the man best equipped for the role.
He clearly has the talent, his style of play fits perfectly with the position, and he has made runs at Test level before, albeit nearly all of them against West Indies. Like Eoin Morgan before him, Bopara deserves a proper run in the side before he is cast aside.
Strauss and Flower made it clear that getting to No.1 in the Test rankings was only half the battle; staying there and fighting off the competition is yet to be achieved. There is no need to hit the panic button yet but good sides need to continually evolve and England cannot afford to fall into the trap of not moving with the times.
Whether that means a change in personnel remains to be seen, but what is clear is that on current form it is only the statistical world of the ICC rankings that rates England the best Test side in the world.
At present that mantle surely belongs to the tourists and England need to improve drastically if they are to avoid relinquishing the ICC Test mace at Lord’s on 20 August.
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