Unlike the summer of 2019, England’s tour of South Africa didn’t have any of the greatest cricket matches of all-time. It was, considering the current state of South African cricket, a downbeat few weeks.
England’s eventual 3-1 series win was important, it represents a huge stride forward for England’s Test team, but it must be viewed in the context of the South African team they were playing.
After an illness-riddled first Test, Joe Root’s captaincy was a topic of debate once again.
The balance of the side, the Chris Silverwood regime, were both under varying degrees of scrutiny. What followed in the next three Tests served as a reminder of the talent England have at their disposal.
Ben Stokes was again the hero in Cape Town, the force of cricketing nature powering England over the line. Ollie Pope starred with the bat, and Dom Bess the ball, as England dominated in Port Elizabeth. Mark Wood rattled through South Africa in Johannesburg.
Here are five things we learned from the Test series.
This, all of a sudden, felt like Joe Root’s team. Despite Rory Burns’ injury, a new group of English players were ushered in.
Pope and Bess had played previously, but their performances in this series were the moments they consolidated their standing as Test cricketers.
Dom Sibley got a century (though it remains to be seen if he’s a long-term answer), Zak Crawley looked good and proved to be a thinking, ambitious cricketer.
Wood hadn’t played a first-class match since the St Lucia Test. His body has let him down frequently throughout his career.
For all the pace, the glimpses of brilliance, his Test record was ordinary before this series. With a lengthened run up, he starred in the final two matches, his body holding up through back-to-back Tests.
It hasn’t been an overhaul. England didn’t need that, they needed a transition, they needed players to prove they were capable of becoming long-term Test cricketers.
Problems remain, of course, but this series could be viewed as the starting point of the next great England Test team. Cricket bets for England to win the next Ashes series no longer seem quite as wild.
Fast Bowling Depth
Fast bowling worldwide is in superb health. England have not been left behind.
James Anderson – prior to his injury – and Stuart Broad gave a nudge to those who questioned them, a reminder that they are still two of the best around.
The new superstar of 2019, Jofra Archer, took yet another five-wicket haul in the first Test despite illness in the build-up. England managed him sensibly and held him back with this troubling elbow issue.
Wood excelled, terrorising batsmen with short stuff and bowling some pitched up jaffers. Chris Woakes was very good in Jo’burg. Sam Curran’s effectiveness abroad is still a puzzling topic, but the Surrey all-rounder found a way to take wickets.
And, last but not least, Ben Stokes bowled some of his best spells in Test cricket. Stokes bowled fast and accurately. His presence changes cricket tips and predictions, he gives Root an option with the ball that few captains have.
Get Excited About Ollie Pope
Pope played two Tests against India in 2018. England unfairly put him in at four, despite not batting that high for Surrey. The scores (28, 10, 16) were unimpressive.
Bucket loads of runs in the County Championship have followed. An injury gave time to put further work into his game.
Recalled for New Zealand earlier this winter, Pope scored 75 in the second Test, but illness kept him out of the first match in South Africa.
A wonderful 61 not out was an appetiser for the Michelin star main served up in Port Elizabeth. Pope’s maiden Test hundred, and a huge partnership with Stokes, turned the match in England’s favour from a point of potential crisis.
Defensively superb and with every attacking shot in the book (and some that aren’t), Pope is the most exciting English batsman since Root.
His 54 in Johannesburg was glorious, and it felt like a missed opportunity when he was dismissed. Not to worry, though, there’s destined to be plenty more where that came from.
Top Order Uncertainty Lingers
Sibley’s century could be a breakthrough, Crawley’s game looked in good order and Joe Denly continues to serve a purpose at three. With Burns set to return for the English summer, England have a good problem with their top order.
Denly should keep his place for Sri Lanka, though scores of 50, 31, 38, 31, 25, 27 and 8 were nondescript. He did a job occupying the crease. That’s about it. He needs a big score to avoid being the one left out when Burns returns.
All three took up balls. They saw off more overs than any England top three in longer than anyone cares to remember. Unlike Pope, it would be premature to anoint Sibley or Crawley as guarantees for the next Ashes series.
Sri Lanka brings very different challenges. Denly’s rotation of strike needs to improve – Crawley and Sibley will be tested against spin in a way they haven’t been previously.
*Credit for the main photo belongs to Ricardo Mazalan / AP Photo*