England have lurched from one extreme to another for a number of years in Test cricket, their inconsistency crystallised perfectly by their performances at Lord’s and Trent Bridge. Their attacking style came off in the first Test, counterattacking after a difficult first hour to seize control of the match. The opposite was the case in Nottingham – while South Africa bounced back superbly, England’s batting was reckless and careless, to the extent where they were bowled out twice in under 100 overs. A seventh defeat in ten Tests does not bode well ahead of the Ashes tour.
By their own admission the tourists did not perform well at Lord’s – they clearly missed the captaincy and leadership of Faf du Plessis but that doesn’t account for the sloppy fielding and inconsistent bowling. They made three personnel changes for the second Test and in the main they paid off. The return of du Plessis added depth to the batting as well as good organisation and strategy in the field, and Chris Morris gave South Africa the performance they needed from number 8 – valuable runs and aggressive, testing fast-medium bowling. Duanne Olivier did little to suggest he will become a Test regular in future, though this won’t be a concern for now with Rabada returning from suspension for the next Test.
The key to the tourists’ victory was the hard graft on the first day. After the early loss of Dean Elgar, Heino Kuhn and Hashim Amla patiently saw off the new ball and set the platform for Quinton de Kock – promoted to number 4 – to play in his natural aggressive style, scoring 68 from 81 deliveries. They reached the close on 309-6, and despite their slump to 335 all out the next morning they had put enough runs on the board to pressurize England, who have not reacted well to similar situations in recent years. Sadly for the home crowd it was a case of deja vu – both openers fell in the first five overs, leaving Gary Ballance and captain Root to rebuild the innings. They went on the attack, looking to put the pressure back on the bowlers and for a while it worked. Ballance fell for 27 but Root continued at a run a ball, joined at the crease by a sketchy Jonny Bairstow. 143-3 quickly became 205 all out as a combination of accurate bowling and questionable shot selection put South Africa in total control of the game.
A lead of 130 gave South Africa a buffer in case they had a collapse of their own, but this never looked likely with the second innings following a similar pattern to the first. After an early wicket – Kuhn on this occasion – Elgar and Amla knuckled down and essentially ended the game as a contest with a partnership of 135. A half-century for du Plessis and 42 from Philander cemented their dominance, and the declaration coming around half an hour from the end of day 3 with a lead of 473 on the board. England’s bowling was generally good, in particular Trent Bridge expert James Anderson, though Mark Wood was wicketless and lacked his usual pace and aggression. Liam Dawson was largely unthreatening and showed little sign that he can be England’s frontline spinner in the long term.
England in recent years have put in some heroic performances in the face of almost certain defeat – think Matt Prior’s defiance in Auckland, Anderson and Panesar at Cardiff or Graham Onions in South Africa. That never-say-die attitude seems to be missing from the current side, evidenced by the numerous collapses and meek fourth innings performances in the previous three or four years. This latest display could be seen as a new low, crumbling to 133 all out in a miserable 44.2 overs. There was little either Cook or Root could do about their dismissals – falling to a superbly directed bouncer and searing yorker from Morris respectively – but a number of wickets were the result of thoughtless and reckless strokeplay.
It would be wrong to overreact to one defeat – after all, England have been inconsistent for a number of years and could easily win at The Oval – but fans and pundits could be forgiven for running low on patience with the batting in particular. The individual batting statistics under Bayliss make for uncomfortable reading – only Root, Bairstow, Cook and Hameed have averaged over 40, and of the rest only Stokes and Moeen Ali average over 30. The list of discarded batsmen is long – Hales, Bell, Compton, Lyth, Vince and Duckett, among others – while Ballance has only reached fifty twice in 11 matches.
In the aftermath there has been criticism of Bayliss from a number of pundits, with the suggestion being made that his attacking philosophy isn’t best suited to Test cricket. He deserves more time to get things right but it’s not entirely clear what his role is in the England setup, beyond creating a ‘positive environment’. He has admitted previously that he doesn’t watch county cricket, so in terms of selection he is entirely reliant on the judgement of the selectors. His comments about Ali – claiming that he is both the number 2 spinner and the best spinner in the side – won’t help public perception.
The teams return to London for the next Test. Both sides will make changes – Essex’s Tom Westley will debut at 3 in place of the injured Gary Ballance and Kagiso Rabada will surely replace Duanne Olivier for the South Africans. The inconsistency demonstrated by both sides makes it difficult to make predictions, but recent history suggests that the first innings could be pivotal.