The England batsmen were heavily criticised for their approach at Trent Bridge. Clearly, there were times in that test match that the top 6 needed to dig in and see off periods of pressure.
Whilst that was obviously lacking at Trent Bridge, there was a vast improvement at the Oval. In hindsight of South Africa’s first innings, 353 was a very good score. The early conditions were perfect for the seam bowlers, making batting very difficult. Although aided by Big Vern’s ‘tummy bug’, Cook, and then Stokes, demonstrated excellent determination and concentration to negotiate those conditions. This is exactly what is required from test match batsmen.
Cook and Stokes lead the way
Alistair Cook played a typical Alistair Cook innings. In addition to the seam friendly conditions, the rain constantly interrupted play on Day 1. It takes a very focussed mind to constantly have to start your innings again and again. If Cook had lost his wicket earlier, more may have followed. But he stuck in, laying the foundations for Ben Stokes on Day 2.
At the start of the Test, I had suggested that Stokes was lucky to be at 6. Our table below suggests that was probably a fair assessment. Since Bayliss took charge, his average was well below Bairstow and even 4 runs lower than Moeen Ali’s. However, he batted superbly here, scoring arguably his most impressive test hundred to date. The timing of the innings was perfect, and exactly what was required of him (excellently highlighted by this stat from @CricProf).
It seems every time we question his statistics, whether it be T20 or Test matches, he delivers the goods! Perhaps averaging below Bairstow and Ali was a statistic he was perfectly aware of. Stokes seems to respond well to pressure. He also picked up 3 wickets in the match and averages 32 with the ball since Bayliss took charge. Most teams struggle to find one genuine all-rounder. It seems England are extremely lucky enough to have 2 in Stokes and Moeen Ali. Mooen wasn’t very productive with the bat, but capped off a fine England win by taking a brilliant hat-trick. Drop the act, Trevor. Mooen is England’s number one spinner in test match cricket!
The three Newbies
This was a Test in which debutants impressed too. Toby Roland-Jones showed that good things come to those who wait. He bowled beautifully here, especially in the first innings in which his 5 wickets were all top 6 batsmen. He then broke the deadlock on Day 5 by removing Bavuma and then Philander in two balls. TRJ looks quite capable with the bat in hand too, adding to the seemingly long list of England all-round players. This was a superb debut.
Tom Westley also put in a very accomplished performance at number 3. His technique and temperament reminded me of Jonathan Trott. Like Trott he looked solid in defence and punished anything that was too straight by whipping it off his legs for 4. There was a lot of focus on this seemingly one-sided technique from the sky commentary team. But it didn’t hamper Trott too much. It’s also arguably better than having an overly off-side orientated technique, as James Vince found out last year.
Dawid Malan was the one debutant to miss out. He got an unplayable delivery in the first innings from Rabada. There was also a lot of talk about his technique and how it might make him susceptible to being dismissed lbw or bowled. But this was his first go, let’s give him time!
More headaches for the selectors
Despite a brilliant performance, there are still a few general selection dilemmas for England. The main question being, did Keaton Jennings do enough to secure his place for the next test? It seemed only a matter of time before Philander got him to nick off in the first innings. But he performed much better in the second innings, scoring a battling 48. It was interesting that on the Saturday morning Kevin Pietersen had demonstrated an excellent ‘Master Class’ on Sky Sports advising batsmen to get their head over the ball. It may be a coincidence, but he seemed to be doing this more in the 2nd innings, perhaps doing just about enough to keep his place. However, as George Dobell pointed out on Twitter, if he’d been caught on 0 on debut in Mumbai, he would be averaging 12 from 8 innings.
There’s also another, albeit good, question raised by the sensational debut of Roland-Jones. That being, is there any doubt about whether Woakes will immediately return to the side when fit? If it were a choice, intuitively I’d say you’d have to go for Woakes. He’s earned his place after consistent performances over the last year. Whether or not England can afford to have both in the team is of debate. Earlier in the summer Bayliss suggested England were comfortable with Ali at 7 with four front-line bowlers. It does hint at some muddled thinking again from the England management (check out Dobell’s excellent piece on the subject if you haven’t already). Once again, poor old Moeen finds himself changing position in the order. Still, if England can take 20 wickets, having such an accomplished batsmen that low down is a huge strength.
Back to square one for South Africa
As it was after the first test, it is now South Africa who will be scrambling for ideas on how to turn their fortunes around. Heino Kuhn looks to be a bit of a walking wicket (averaging only 13). Faf Du Plessis is also looking a bit short of form, perhaps suffering from a lack of time in the middle. Also, after loud calls for his promotion up the order, Quinton De Kock may be too high at number 4. As journalist Simon Wilde tweeted, wicket keepers historically average only 27 at number 4 in test cricket. Further, neither Rabada nor Morris provided enough support for Morkel and Philander on this occasion. However, there were excellent batting displays from Temba Bavuma and Dean Elgar. In particular, Elgar battled hard with a damaged finger for a ‘gritty’ hundred (excuse the cliché)!
But for now England can basque in the glory of a comprehensive win. The real test now will be to match this performance with another at Old Trafford next weekend.