The final scoreline probably disguises the true gap between the way the two sides played. England won the first day, but ought to have done better. South Africa dominated from there. That said, England probably should still have escaped with a draw. The pitch was still a very flat one even on the last day, though it had broken up a bit by then. Jimmy Anderson and Tim Bresnan made it very clear that once batsmen played themselves in they were hard to dislodge. England simply threw too many wickets away in their effort to get a draw and more broadly in the Test itself.
England’s first innings total of 385 always looked a bit under par and South Africa showed just how far short it was. South Africa in general and Hashim Amla in particular batted with incredible patience on a flat wicket. They did very seldom played outside the off stump and Graeme Smith did well to survive and negate a testing spell from Graeme Swann on the third morning. It was an example of how to bat in stark contrast to the way England went about their affairs for far too much of the match. The first day was especially galling. England were in a great position with the wicket looking very flat and South Africa’s attack looking a bit rusty, but still Trott fished outside his off-stump to get out and Kevin Pietersen played an idiotic attempt at a hook just before the new ball. The next day Bopara played a half a hook to nick behind and Tim Bresnan somehow contrived to play a wide long hop from Tahir onto his stumps. Those sort of mental lapses cost England dearly, especially as South Africa never seemed in any great danger of making them. I count eight avoidable dismissals by batsmen who ought to have known better and I am being rather generous. That number could easily be expanded to twelve or more. England were probably never going to put up 637-2, of course, but 450 should have been a minimum and those extra 65 runs probably would have been the difference in the match.
England’s bowling was lacklustre though. There was a period on the second day where the conditions very much favoured the bowlers and in that time England looked fantastic. Jimmy got an early wicket and Broad looked very threatening. But after the sun came out, there was suddenly nothing. The best thing South Africa did with the ball was that they kept testing England and making things a bit difficult even when there was not a lot out there. All of England’s bowlers seemed a bit down on pace and there was no out and out aggression of the type that South Africa occasionally produced. Once the long partnerships started to develop with the ball not swinging England looked out of ideas. This is where a fifth bowler, especially one such as Steven Finn who offered a bit of variety, would have been very useful. Especially seeing as Bopara made nought and 22 and threw his wicket away twice. England can say that South Africa had the rub of the conditions, and that would be true, but it is not enough to account for the disparity. England looked short a bowler and the bowlers who were there looked short of match fitness. Almost as if not playing any red ball cricket in almost two months was not a good lead up to the series.
England will take few positives from this match. They do not even have another three or four Tests in which to come back, only two thanks to the ECB. They must play a lot better at Headingley in two weeks, though that is something of a result ground and there will likely be more in it for the bowlers. Work must be done, however, to ensure that the other bowlers are properly match-fit. There was some suggestion that a few were carrying niggles; we have good replacements for Broad and Bresnan so if one or both of them is not fit they should not play. I would also play Finn no matter what. As alluded to above, he offers some variation in an attack that can otherwise look bereft of ideas when the ball is not swinging. Ideally for me Finn would come in for Bopara. I know people say that since our batting failed we should not drop a batsman, but playing six batsmen for the sake thereof is pointless. We cannot just play any batsman because that does not shore up anything; it just weakens the bowling. If we can find a batsman who can regularly contribute then that would be excellent, but Bopara is not that batsmen and there are not currently any others who would not in some way be a gamble. Now is not the time to gamble; Finn has a Test average of 14, that’s as high as Bopara’s average against teams other than the West Indies.
I don’t think England will drop Bopara, but I still think Finn ought to play. More or less by definition, this means Bresnan is to miss out unless Broad is injured. I have seen a few calls to drop Broad and although he had a poor Test I think they are very rash. Coming into the Test he had over fifty wickets at an average under 19 in the previous twelve months. One bad Test is no reason to drop him, meaning that Bresnan is the unlucky bowler. It is an unfortunate aspect of England’s current strength in depth and also a slightly ridiculous one given that they persist in playing a non-performing batsman at six.
England have a lot of work to do both going into and following the Headingley Test to rescue this series, but they did not get to be number one in the world by accident. It was a poor performance this time, but it is far too early to draw any conclusions just yet.