2012 XI

There are still three days to go in the year proper, but 2012 ended in a cricketing sense last night as Sri Lanka collapsed to a heavy innings defeat at the MCG. It’s an interesting year on which to look back; South Africa will certainly be the happiest as they returned to the number one spot in the Test rankings, but England finished on a high and Australia made the most of their very weak opposition for most of the year.

For my XI of the year I am assuming the Test is being played in South Africa as they are the number one ranked side. I have one spinner, therefore, and although all things being equal I prefer having five bowlers it is far more common to play four bowlers/six batsmen so I am using that balance.

Alastair Cook
Cook led all openers in 2012 with 1249 runs scored and was second in average at 48.03 runs per dismissal. He also hit four centuries, the most of any opener and the last one set a new English record for career centuries.

Graeme Smith*
Smith had the best average amongst openers in 2012 with 48.52 and passed fifty more often than any other opener, eight times. He gets the captaincy in this XI after leading his team to the number one Test ranking.

Hashim Amla
Amla bats at three after 1064 runs at an average over seventy this year. His high point was the unbeaten 311 he scored as South Africa piled on the runs at the Oval, but he was brilliant throughout.

Michael Clarke
Comfortably the lead run scorer in 2012, Clarke finished the year by setting an Australian record with 1595 runs scored in a calendar year. He hit five centuries, three of them doubles and one a triple. Two of those double tons were also against South Africa, so it was not a case of weak opposition either.

AB de Villiers
De Villiers is a bit of a surprise; he bookended the year with centuries in Cape Town and Perth but had none in between. But he did still contribute consistently and averaged almost 57 in the middle order with 815 runs, fourth highest amongst middle order batsmen.

Ross Taylor
Taylor might remember this year for the captaincy debacle, but before that he scored 819 runs at an average over 54 and three centuries for good measure. The last of those came in a memorable win at Colombo.

Matt Prior
Prior was still the best overall wicket-keeper in 2012; he scored the most runs of any wicket-keeper and had the most dismissals, though in both cases he was helped by playing in rather more matches than all of his competitors. But he was the only one to excel with both bat and gloves.

Vernon Philander
It was another excellent year for Philander; he took 43 wickets in nine Tests at an average just over 21. He was at his best early in the year, but he still took an important five wickets in the last innings of the Lord’s Test to ensure a series win for South Africa.

Kemar Roach
Roach was far from the most heralded bowler this year, but he took 39 wickets in only seven Tests at an average of 22. His zenith was the five wickets he took in each innings against Australia at Port of Spain in April.

James Anderson
Statistically this will not go down as Anderson’s best year, but that hardly tells the full story. Nine of the 14 Tests in which he played this year were in subcontinent conditions and he still proved a threat, taking thirty wickets at under 27 apiece. His spells in Galle, Calcutta and Nagpur in particular were incredible.

Saeed Ajmal
It was a very tough call for the spinner’s place between Ajmal and Ragnara Herath. Herath was actually the lead wicket taker in 2012, but Ajmal took 39 wicket in only six Tests and of course baffled England at the start of the year. Herath going wicketless in the last Test of the year finally tipped the selection to Ajmal.

England 0-2 South Africa review and player marks

It should have been more than just three matches. The second two Tests were very good, very close and very much left one wanting more. But fortunately the possibility that the reduced series might have robbed us all of a proper result did not come to pass. South Africa were very much the better side and deserved to win. England came close in the last two Tests, but never looked like outplaying South Africa and I don’t think even the most partisan Englishman would begrudge South Africa their victory.

England were always up against it after their dismal performance in the first Test. The batsmen gave away a good start, the bowlers toiled for three days on a flat wicket and then the batsmen succumbed to the pressure of trying to bat out the draw. Whilst they did improve dramatically in the next two Tests, it was always going to be a tough task to come back and South Africa were simply too good. Michael Vaughan put it well on TMS when he said that throughout the series when England built partnerships one always got the feeling that South Africa would find a way to break them, but when South Africa built partnerships it felt like they would bat indefinitely. Part of this was that England threw wickets away too regularly (though South Africa did so as well) and part was that England dropped too many catches in the field. But I think a lot of it was to due with the fact that the English bowling often just looked too flat. South Africa seemed to always have something whether it be swing, bite or just raw pace and aggression. When the ball stopped swinging for England, however, all too often one simply could not see how they were going to get a wicket. It was a fairly harsh come down after they had performed so well in the subcontinent in the winter.

Both sides have slightly to somewhat tricky tours up next in the forms of India and Australia, but first here are how the players did in this series:

England (75/140, average 5.36)
Andrew Strauss* – 5
Stayed calm, measured and reasonable as the KP problem overshadowed the third Test and his hundredth. Led the side admirably as England went for the runs both at Headingley and Lord’s, but his own form was quite poor. His nemesis, Morkel, got him with the fourth ball of the series and the best Strauss could do after that was just making starts. His dismissal on the fourth day at Lord’s told of a someone who had a trying week.

Alastair Cook – 6
Scored 195 runs in the series, but 115 of them were in his first innings. Threw his wicket away a few times (once out of necessity at Headingley), but also had problems with the bowlers nipping it back into him and was lbw to Philander twice.

Jonathan Trott – 4
Somehow managed to average over forty in the series despite looking terrible throughout. Had a decent knock in the first Test before getting out to a terrible waft outside off. He also threw away his wicket after a good start at Headingley and edged his way to 63 at the Oval whilst running out Taylor for good measure. Starts show he is seeing the ball okay, but needs to regain the patience he showed most notably in the last Ashes.

Ian Bell – 6
Played some good innings in the series, but had the same trouble as most of the batsmen in getting out to poor shots. Played very well to try to save England at the Oval and dig them out of a first innings hole at Lord’s, but should have gone on in both innings. The fifties were useful, but England needed hundreds.

James Taylor – 5
Replaced Bopara for the Headingley Test and had a decent debut. His 34 was hardly going to set the world alight, but it was very patiently scored over the course of 104 balls in fairly difficult circumstances. Didn’t get many at Lord’s but was the victim of a decent ball in the first innings and was done up by Prior in the second. Should have a spot on the plane to India.

Jonny Bairstow – 9
Harshly dropped for the first two Tests after it was perceived that he had a problem with the short ball against the West Indies, but made a strong statement when he returned for the last one. Came in with the score 54-4 in the first innings, rescued England and came agonisingly close to getting on the Lord’s honours board. Came in with the score 45-4 in the second innings and scored a fifty at better than a run a ball to (amazingly) keep England in the match. Could not have asked for much more.

Matt Prior† – 8
England’s leading run scorer in the series by a distance; he scored valuable runs with the tail in four of the six innings and had a fifty in each Test. The only marks against him with the bat were some soft dismissals after he had got to fifty. Somewhat offset though by his stunning 73 in the last Test which gave England a sniff of a very improbable victory. Was good with the gloves, but dropped Amla on two in the last Test (his first drop standing back for two years) which ultimately cost England 119 runs.

Stuart Broad – 4
Came into the series having averaged 19 with the ball in the past twelve months, but had a very poor series. His pace was well down for most of the series and he only had one really good spell, in the second innings at Headingley. He did swing the ball some in the last Test, but never looked as threatening as he had last year. Fairly poor series with the bat as well, but found a bit of form at Lord’s.

Graeme Swann – 4
Had trouble really getting into the series with the ball. Bowed some very good spells in the two Tests he played, but by and large the South African batsmen were equal to the challenge. Took only four wickets, all of them in the last Test and one thanks only to a very clever bit of work from Prior. Managed to average exactly fifty with the bat, however, which was good enough for third best in the series on the English side and hit a thrilling 41 on the last day.

James Anderson – 6
Desperately unlucky for most of the series; he had a few spells where he beat the bat with regularity but was not rewarded. Unlike in the winter, though, he could not always coax enough movement out of it to trouble the batsmen when they were well set. Looked flat at periods when the ball was not swinging and ended up without a lot of reward.

Steven Finn – 8
Finally got his chance when Swann was left out for the Headingley Test and had problems with his knee hitting the stumps, denying him a wicket in the first innings. Did well enough to keep his place for the Lord’s Test though and was brilliant there. He provided a much needed pace option when the ball was not swinging and his spell on the fourth day almost got England back into the Test. Has given Bresnan a bit of work to do to get back in the side.

Kevin Pietersen – 8
His off-the-pitch antics were almost the only story in the run up to the third Test, for which he was dropped. My thoughts on that matter are well documented, but on the pitch he had a good series. His 149 at Headingley was an absolutely staggering innings and included hitting Dale Steyn back over his head for six. Tempered somewhat by his throwing his wicket away in both innings at the Oval and costing England a good position in the first. Also performed admirably with the ball at Headingley when Swann was absent. Was outdone by his replacement, Bairstow, at Lord’s.

Ravi Bopara – 1
Scored 22 runs total in the only Test he played. Threw his wicket away to an appalling shot in the first innings and then to a poor one in the second, though in that innings he had at least hung on for a while before hand. Missed the next two Test due to personal reasons and the performances of Taylor and Bairstow will make it tricky for him to reclaim that spot. Inexplicably, he is expected to have a chance anyway.

Tim Bresnan – 1
A very poor series for the Yorkshireman saw him dropped for the Lord’s Test in favour of Steven Finn. Before that he had taken just two wickets, both of Smith and both in rather surprising ways, for over two hundred runs. His batting had suffered a bit too and he was going much more slowly than usual. Seems to still not be up to full strength.

South Africa (73/110, average 6.64)
Graeme Smith* – 8
A relatively poor tour of England for the South African skipper, he ‘only’ averaged 54 and ‘only’ scored one century. He also appears to have failed to cause the resignation of his opposite number. Still did very well, of course and his captaincy was at the best I’ve seen it. He declared aggressively at the Oval and was rewarded with an innings victory and made an odd declaration going for an unlikely win at Headingley.

Alviro Petersen – 7
Out for a duck at the Oval and had three days to think about it whilst his teammates batted and batted. If anything though, that time seemed to help him as he scored 182 at Headingley to see South Africa to a decent score. Didn’t get many in the second innings after injuring his hamstring and only had a couple of starts in the third Test, but still did enough to average over sixty in the series.

Hashim Amla – 10
Amla is the sort of batsman one could watch forever and for England fans that seemed to be what happened. Hit an unbeaten triple century in the first Test (when he came to the wicket in the third over) and then backed that up with a vital and arguably match-winning hundred in the second innings of the last Test. Only looked human when he hit a full toss straight to cover in the second Test and when he got a jaffa from Finn in the third. England fans will be relieved to see him bat against the Aussies for a while.

Jacques Kallis – 7
Came into the series with a very poor record in England and looked like turning it around with 182* at the Oval. His next highest score in the series was 31, however, though he was brutally given out in the first innings at Lord’s. Did manage to pick up four wickets in the series as well, including the important one of Broad on the last day at Lord’s.

AB de Villiers† – 5
Did well with the gloves in his spell as Test ‘keeper. Made few clear mistakes and none which might not have been made by a full-time gloveman. Did not perform as well as South Africa might have liked with the bat though; he scored no fifties in four innings. He did pass forty three times, however.

Jacques Rudolph – 4
Not a great series for the former Yorkshire batsman. He did not get to bat at the Oval, of course, and somehow managed to get out twice to Pietersen at Headingley. Finished the series with just one fifty to his name and an average of 35.

JP Duminy – 6
His highest score in the series was the 61 he made in the first innings at Lord’s, but that disguises the fact that he put on some incredibly frustrating runs with the tail. His second innings partnership with Philander probably won the third Test for South Africa. Was also stranded on 48* at Headingley and was South Africa’s best spinner.

Vernon Philander – 9
He did not run through England the way he had done to other teams in his career, but he did bowl extremely well. He consistently bowled a good line and length and got the ball to nip around making life very difficult for the batsmen. Man of the Match in the last Test with 96 runs in the two innings and a five-fer to bowl England out. Might have been Man of the Series were it not for Amla.

Dale Steyn – 9
Bowled with his usual pace, hostility and accuracy and was rewarded with the 15 wickets, the most of any bowler in the series. His five-fer at the Oval made sure that England could not bat out a draw and he picked up important wickets throughout the series. Was only made to look bad by Pietersen at Headingley.

Morne Morkel – 6
Drifted between brilliant and wayward. Usually opened the bowling to Strauss and Cook as both have problems with him at his best, but this was only effective twice as he was simply too inaccurate most of the time. One of those times was in the fourth ball of the series, however, which seemed to convince Smith to keep trying it.

Imran Tahir – 2
It’s never a good series when one is outbowled by both JP Duminy and Kevin Pietersen and that is what happened to Imran Tahir. Only managed one top order wicket in the series, that of Strauss, and his only strength seemed to be an ability to get Prior late in the innings as the latter went for quick runs. Was utterly taken apart on the last day of the series as England tried to get a win.

Lord’s, day four: England 16-2

Barring a miracle, today was the last day of England being number one in the world. As they have in most of the series, England had some very good spells with the ball. But they never got the kind of collapse they needed to keep the South Africans down to a reasonable total. Steven Finn was the best bowler for England and for the first time in the three Tests he has got this summer he really looked like fulfilling his potential. He bowled a hostile spell with the old ball in the morning and then coming on as first change with the second new ball in the afternoon he had a spell of 3-14 to give England an opening. It was an excellent demonstration of his value in a four man attack; neither Jimmy nor Broad were getting any appreciable swing and were looking innocuous. Finn, however, used his pace and height to good effect with the still hard ball. As useful as Bresnan is when he is on song, I think that variation in the attack is very important for England. Ideally both Bresnan and Finn would play, but since that does not seem likely I would go for Finn.

Finn gave England a bit of a chance; he gave them an opening. But he had to come off eventually and after tea South Africa regrouped with their tail again. JP Duminy and Vernon Philander built another frustrating partnership and by the time Philander gifted his wicket to Anderson it was already too late for England. It was the same sort of frustrating partnership that the two put on in the first innings. It wasn’t as long, but in the circumstances it was more important and although the Amla-De Villiers partnership was worth more I think there is a fair case to be made that if South Africa win it will be because of that eighth wicket partnership instead. It took the momentum and indeed the match away from England who were otherwise in with a chance.

That partnership took the game away from England, but where England all but lost it was in the 13 overs of batting before stumps. Three hundred and forty-six was always going to be a very tough ask and probably too much (it would have been a record for a Lord’s Test). But there was still some faint sense of hope that maybe, maybe on a flat wicket England could do something special. That hope lasted approximately four overs, in which time Philander (that man again) got both openers lbw. Strauss’s dismissal was particularly horrific. He completely misjudged the length of a ball and left one that hit him halfway up the pad. Michael Vaughan described it simply as the shot (lack thereof, more accurately) of a man who had too much on his plate this week and whose mind was just a bit scrambled. It definitely did seem as though the Pietersen issue had got to him. It was far less than he deserved in his hundredth Test. England were left needing another 330 to win with eight wickets in hand, but the simple expression does not do justice to how unlikely that really is. England only have ninety overs and so would have to not only bat better than they have all year, but do so quickly. There is little to no chance that tomorrow will be anything other than a formality.

Lord’s, day three: South Africa 145-3

It has been another absorbing day of Test cricket and once again it feels as though South Africa have just about had the better of it. It has been close enough, however, that they are still only on top by a bit. They might be a bit disappointed though as they did have a chance to take control of the match in a similar way as England did yesterday. It was not as good a chance and they did not miss it as utterly, but it was still there.

South Africa had that opening partly thanks to some generosity from England and in particular Matt Prior. After seeing off the eight overs to the new ball comfortably, Prior had a flash at the first delivery from the new ball which was well wide and edged it to slip. It was an absolutely terrible shot and was the sort that one expects to see Brad Haddin play. Jonny Bairstow also became the second England batsman to have been bowled through the gate by Morkel in gutting circumstances this Test as he fell short of his ton. But from 264-8 England still got a first innings lead as South Africa had the same sort of problem in dismissing the tail that hurt England. Graeme Swann played a very good, restrained, innings of 37 not out and was supported by double figure scores from both Anderson and Finn. Whilst a lead of six is not significant, it had looked like England would be facing a significant deficit and batted well to avoid that.

The most interesting part of the day was South Africa’s innings though. The pitch throughout the match has looked flat and for the first time South Africa would be batting with the sun out. They did make a fairly untroubled start, but England never really let them get away. I criticise Andrew Strauss’ field placings and bowling strategy a lot, but this is a time where it worked very well. England had to keep South Africa from getting away and let the odd good ball keep the pressure on and that is what they did. Strauss also made the excellent decision to bowl Swann as first change after it was clear that the seamers were not getting much out of the pitch. Swann bowled very well, especially after tea. He beat the bat of Smith more than once (and once so comprehensively that England for some reason decided to waste a review on it) and ultimately trapped him lbw. He also forced Amla to take an off stump guard to negate the possibility of an lbw. Although the bowlers never really looked on top of the batsmen they managed to winkle three batsmen out and kept it tight enough to keep England well in the match. The only real blot was Prior’s drop of Amla when the latter was on only two.

With two days left in the Test, there is very likely going to be a result. South Africa are on top at the moment with a lead of 139, but England have an opening and South Africa actually have a nightwatchman in after the late dismissal of Kallis. So far in this Test, neither attack has been able to instigate a collapse without some help either from the batsmen or from the umpire, so South Africa will basically need to keep batting sensibly. England aren’t letting them get away, but anything short of a proper collapse will probably be okay for South Africa if possibly not ideal. I don’t think England will want to chase too many on the last day and a bit; although it is a flat wicket, both sides barely got to 300 and there have been no centurions in the match. I think the pitch is a lot harder on which to bat than it looks and the way England bowled today suggests that there is the occasional bit of help in the pitch to keep the batsmen from getting very settled. It is also worth remembering that England were bowled out for 240 on a very flat pitch at the Oval. Whilst they don’t have Pietersen or Bopara to throw it away this time, it is still by no means certain that they will not succumb to pressure during the run chase. There have been a lot of suggestions that 300 is gettable for England and whilst it may be, I would not expect them to succeed. I think England will not be favourites in chasing anything over 275, which means the bowlers have a lot of work to do tomorrow.

Headingley, day five: match drawn

I said yesterday the match would be drawn and so it was. But that would be too easy and what should have been the least interesting day of the match (and for the first session made it look absolutely certain to be) ended up the most exciting. England went out in the morning looking to instigate a quick collapse. They had a decent go, the bowling was good, but South Africa really had the rub of the green with possible catches evading fielders and the ball beating the bat entirely. They also came off for rain a couple of times and it was not until a couple of overs before a late lunch that England finally shifted South Africa’s makeshift opening partnership. Incredibly, it was Kevin Pietersen to Jacques Rudolph again. Pietersen bowled four balls to Rudolph in the match and dismissed him twice.

A few days ago, I said that I thought England had made the right call by bowling four seamers as Swann had not bowled well at Headingley and there was not any turn on the first four days. Today, however, there was turn and Pietersen found it. Whilst I still do see the logic of the decision, it is now clear that it was indeed the wrong one. Pietersen got good turn, good bounce and three wickets in the innings. The only caveat to those wickets was that one of them, the dismissal of Smith, was very questionable and Amla’s dismissal was nothing whatsoever to do with spin as he tamely hit a full toss straight to cover. The Smith dismissal was an interesting one as he was given out caught at short leg and discussed it with his partner before deciding to review it. The replay showed that he had hit his boot, but the actual view of where the ball either did or did not hit the bat was obscured by James Taylor. If one was to make a decision based off that alone one would say not out, but there was certainly not enough evidence to overturn the umpire’s call of out and so it stayed. To his credit, Smith took the decision with good grace.

That dismissal cost South Africa in an odd way later though as it meant that South Africa were out of reviews. This was very unlucky for South Africa as I have seen teams get the review back in similar situations in the past and I am not entirely sure why South Africa did not. When Broad then trapped AB de Villiers lbw, South Africa could not review and the replay showed that the ball was sliding down leg. That said, it looked plumb live and there is actually every chance it would not have been reviewed. Unfortunately we won’t ever know, but regardless of whether or not it would have been reviewed it was a poor decision by the umpire which South Africa did not have the opportunity to correct.

This was the start of a fearsome spell by Stuart Broad that very much livened up the match. He had previously started to bowl too short again, but here he remembered to pitch the ball up and try to hit the stumps and he was rewarded. De Villiers may have got a poor decision, but he was still entirely beaten by the delivery and ended up playing all around a fairly straight one. JP Duminy was then trapped lbw (correctly this time) to a very similarly full and straight delivery that he played poorly. A few overs later, Vernon Philander departed to one that had nipped back and hit him in front of off. This is what Broad does when he is bowling at his best and it is so important for England that he remembers to do so. Only once he establishes that danger for the batsmen can he use the short ball to any effect, as he subsequently did to get rid of Kallis. Broad finished with an excellent and well deserved five-fer.

Broad’s heroics led to the best part of the day and possibly the match: Smith and Strauss, two of the most defensive captains in world cricket, had a mini contest to see which one could grab some sort of initiative and mental edge over the other heading into the Lord’s Test. Smith declared with nine down in a purely symbolic gesture (Tahir is very much a number eleven) but the gesture was clear. In response, Strauss juggled the England batting order and sent Kevin Pietersen out to open the run chase. Despite this, however, neither side still really went all out for it. South Africa had a reasonably attacking field, but only about the standard for the start of an innings and England, despite being up with or close to the required rate for a long period still sent Trott in at number four. Trott is a good ODI batsman, and actually was scoring at over a run a ball for the start of his innings, but it was still more of a defensive move than anything else. England’s entire approach actually seemed quite muddled. Prior, a very attacking option, came in after Trott and it was only when he was finally out that England stopped going for it. Taylor and Broad never got to bat at all though. As nice as it was to see England try to win the match, the execution was poor and one was left with the impression that England could have come a lot closer.

In a way, England have already lost the series. Whilst they can still get out with a draw, their excellent home series winning streak (seven consecutive home series won, dating back to the last time South Africa toured) is over and all they can do is try to make it a less impressive unbeaten streak. They will also still have not managed to beat South Africa and put to rest the discussion of which side is better. They have only themselves to blame for this; not entirely because of the actual results (though obviously that as well) but because the series is only three Tests. This is always a possibility of a three Test series; the ECB could have and should have scheduled another Test and now it will cost them.

South Africa win by an innings and twelve runs

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.

The Oval, day four: Eng 102-4

Spare a thought for Alviro Petersen. Two days ago he got a peach of a delivery from James Anderson; it which swung back in at him, beat the inside edge of the bat and trapped him plumb leg before for an eleven ball duck. In the 48 hours after that, South Africa lost just one wicket and three batsmen all scored centuries. One of those batsmen was Hashim Amla who remained patience personified at the crease and went on to record the first triple hundred in South Africa’s history. It was an absolutely amazing innings and it was only as he neared the mark that he started to show any sign of nerves. He became only the second batsman ever to score more than 300 at the Oval, with the other being Len Hutton in that famous match against Australia. The 13 hours and ten minutes he spent making Amla unbeaten 311 was also only seven minutes short of the time Hutton was at the crease in 1938. That was not the only significant mark of the day as South Africa’s 637-2 declared was the first time England have conceded over 600 in an innings since the 2009 Cardiff Test.

England were given exactly four sessions to bat as South Africa declared at tea. It was a declaration that was perhaps only aggressive by Graeme Smith’s standards, but it was very clever as it meant that runs would be important as well. He gave England an incentive to try to score the 252 needed to make South Africa bat again. It really should have been possible. The pitch had been sucking the life out of the Test for most of four days and the batsmen had only struggled under cloud. England, however, promptly did their best to make the pitch look much spicier than it had ever been. Cook did get a good ball to get out and Trott got a decent one, though he followed it a bit. Kevin Pietersen threw his wicket away again. He had already offered a dolly of a chance to Kallis at slip that had been put down when he got a straight one from Morkel and somehow played inside the line to a ball that knocked over middle stump. He played the sort of defensive shot that I have been known to play and that is not a compliment. It was simply appalling. It was Strauss’ dismissal, the last of the day, that was the real blow to England. Strauss was the last batsman who one would back to bat deep in the innings, but he went out top edging a sweep to Tahir. It was a bad shot, but to his and Tahir’s credit it was a bad shot borne of very good bowling. The previous two balls from Tahir had really leapt out of the rough and it was clear that Strauss felt that he had to find a counter. To be fair, he was probably right; there was every chance he would have got out if he had stayed as he was too.

England’s position at stumps is one that looks hopeless. They still trail by exactly 150 runs and have lost the three batsmen most likely to grind out an innings to save the match. Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell are the two not out batsmen and they are England’s last two middle order players. Tomorrow will tell us a lot about whether or not the selectors knew what they were doing in selecting Bopara. He and Bell simply must find a way to build a partnership. There is still a chance that England could at least make South Africa bat again, though I think the odds of England actually drawing the Test are low. England will have to have Bell, Bopara and Prior erase almost all of the deficit and then hope that the pressure to get wickets shifts to South Africa enough that Bresnan, Broad and Swann can build a lead big enough that South Africa do not have time to chase it. Tomorrow is supposed to be the best day for batting in the Test, but England will simply have to do much better than they did today.

There are a few causes for English optimism. One is of course that the last time these two side played each other, England managed to cling on for nine-down draws twice. Another relates to the earlier alluded to Cardiff Test of 2009. It was the last time that England conceded 600 in an innings and the scores are quite similar to those so far in this Test. At Cardiff, England needed 240 to make Australia bat again and found themselves 46-4 and later 70-5. That ended in a draw, though England did not have as much time to bat then. A little bit farther back, however, England have actually not lost any of the last three matches in which we have conceded over 600 in an innings.

All of that could be construed as simply grasping at straws though and to be honest that is exactly what it is. The history and stats are interesting, but tomorrow it will come down to whether or not England’s remaining seven batsmen can find a way to keep out the vaunted South African attack for the better part of ninety overs. The result will say a lot about both sides.

The Oval, day three: SA 403-2

At the start of today the match was well set up between South Africa and England. At stumps it is well set up between South Africa and the draw. England bowled very well for the first hour and decently well all day, but had no help from the weather, pitch or batsmen. Graeme Smith survived a working over from Graeme Swann, but after that it was one-way traffic as South Africa batted and batted and batted. The one wicket that fell in the day, Smith bowled by Bresnan, was even a bit fortuitous as it came off an inside edge, pad and boot before tricking onto the stumps.

South Africa batted very, very well today. One does not expect Smith, Amla and Kallis to bat poorly, of course, but this was special by even their standards. England could not have done a lot more than they did. Whilst there was the usual slight lack of inventiveness by Strauss and Bresnan was very underbowled, there was never much of an impression that it would have made a difference. For the most part, England did what I suggested they do yesterday. Anderson, Broad and Bresnan all mostly bowled wide of off stump; the only exceptions were the occasional bits of waywardness. There was just about enough of that waywardness that the batsmen could still get runs however and with no swing at all there was never a lot of danger for them. All they had to do was avoid making the sort of mistakes that Trott and KP did for England, at which they succeeded with aplomb.

South Africa had enough time to take a lead of 18 runs into the close with eight wickets still in hand. With two days (187 overs by my understanding) left in the match the question is now not whether England can pull off a victory, but whether South Africa can get enough to win with enough time left to force a victory. It is something with which they have struggled a bit in the relatively recent past. They have declared in either the second or third innings of a match ten times in the past three years and managed to win in just three of them. Also in the last three years they have played 23 matches and won nine of them, but failed to bowl their opposition out on the last day eight times. Smith is very conservative with his declarations and I think he will be looking for at least a lead of 200. (Given that he usually bats for about fifty runs beyond what I think the highest reasonable total is, he could be headed for 650.) Unless Smith is much more aggressive than usual or England’s bowlers allow them to score very quickly, South Africa will probably have to bat past tea tomorrow which will not leave them a lot of time on what is still a very flat wicket. It will be interesting to see how tomorrow changes things, but right now I think the draw is the most likely result.

The Oval, day two: SA 86-1

Yesterday belonged to England, but due to the carelessness of Trott and Pietersen not by as much as may have been the case. That is something that looms large now as South Africa took today by about as much as England took yesterday. I said then that South Africa would need to use the more favourable conditions in the first hour to get one of Cook or Bell out and then get into Prior et al before England had a good platform. That is exactly what they did and actually a bit more. Cook went first, followed by Bopara for a duck and then Bell was bowled by a bail-trimmer all in under an hour. Even with some good fight by the lower order, England only got to 385. Most of the credit should go to South Africa who bowled much better than they did yesterday. They got more help from the almost perfect conditions for swing and England did throw a couple of wickets away, but it was most of all an excellent performance and 385 is probably lower than they dared hope last night.

England actually got a bit unfortunate with the weather when they bowled. Broad was getting some good movement and Anderson was swinging the ball around corners. The delivery from the latter to trap Alviro Petersen leg before was all but unplayable and both Smith and Amla had some close calls. England had eleven overs of that before tea and looked like they could really make some inroads after the interval, but the rain which had been skirting the Oval all day finally hit and fell for almost two hours. The ball had stopped swinging by the time they got back out and there was a real lack of intensity from England as well. Smith and Amla were relatively carefree; their only worries being a ball from Swann which spun narrowly past Smith’s off stump and a streaky edge from Amla (off Bopara of all bowlers). The overnight score does not yet put South Africa on top, but leaves the match well set up for tomorrow.

South Africa are still far from a safe position. England might have wanted 450 or more, but that was to put the match away. Three hundred and eighty-five is still very competitive. With the pitch already turning, South Africa will want a fairly large first innings lead before they chase anything. I expect they will probably view 450 as almost a minimum. Certainly England will be happy if they can keep South Africa close to parity. Whilst Smith and Amla have recovered well, it would have been a disaster for South Africa if one of them had gone cheaply and England still have a chance to dismiss one or both of them for less than fifty. With South Africa carrying a few weaker batsmen, they really need big totals from their star players and probably need a hundred from at least one of these two. England are not in as good a position as they were, but they still definitely have a chance to take control of the match.

Tomorrow looks like it will be mostly about whether England can get the ball to move. South Africa never looked comfortable when Anderson was swinging it in the afternoon (few would with the way it was moving) and Swann got enough turn in the evening to cause a couple of problems, though not many. The weather forecast is for very batting friendly conditions tomorrow, though that does not mean a whole lot. If it is true though, England will probably rely on Swann getting turn and Bresnan getting reverse swing until the second new ball arrives in the late afternoon. England have done a very good job in recent years of plugging away relentlessly until the batsmen make an error and I expect tomorrow will be a similar sort of day, though they will probably find it easier once they break the Smith/Amla partnership. I expect South Africa will bat through the day and be close to parity by stumps. The match may hinge on how many wickets England can take before then.

England v South Africa preview

The most eagerly awaited Test series in a year. The most ridiculously shortened Test series since the last time South Africa played a major opponent. The winner of the series will finish as number one in the world, though if South Africa win by one Test they will be top by only 0.16 points. A draw will see England maintain their position at the top of the table, but by a reduced margin.

The teams are almost impossibly close on paper. The series will feature the two best bowling attacks in the world and arguably the two best bowlers in the world in Dale Steyn and Jimmy Anderson. Steyn has had the better career and Jimmy has a long way to go to catch him, but over the last few years they have been on level terms with Jimmy actually faring slightly better. Steyn will have the support of the also brilliant but somewhat overshadowed Morne Morkel as well Vernon Philander. It is the last of these who I think will be most interesting to watch. He had an incredible start to his Test career, becoming the second fastest all time to fifty wickets. He is yet to really have an ‘off’ Test. But he is also yet to face top quality opposition. Of his seven Tests, five have been against Sri Lanka or New Zealand and the other two were against an Australian side in a bit of disarray. That said, he still took 5-15 in the famous 47 all out and regardless of the strength of the opposition that is quite impressive. He has, however, not quite managed to replicate that form with Somerset in the Championship. In five matches he has taken 23 wickets at 21.34. No one would argue that is anything but good, however it must be viewed in the context of the incredibly bowling friendly conditions of the early season; most sides would have been in with a chance of victory if they scored 213. It is also, rather surprisingly, a third again higher than his Test average! It will thus be very interesting to see how he gets on.

For England, Jimmy is backed up by Stuart Broad and one of Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn or Graham Onions. Bresnan is the presumable choice, though Finn and Onions are good injury replacements and (although it is very unlikely) possible fourth seamers if England decide to go that route. It is the new ball attack of Broad and Anderson that will be England’s main weapon, however. Broad is actually almost as dangerous as Jimmy as he is now the bowler that everyone expected him to be from when he first came into the side. In the past twelve months has has played ten Tests, four of them on flat Asian wickets, and taken 54 wickets at an average under 19. It’s not quite what Philander managed to do, but it is close and it is far better than what Morkel has done in the same period of time (26 wickets in eight Tests at 29). How England handle the third seamer position will be an interesting to watch. Tim Bresnan had a shaky start to the summer, but finished the series against the West Indies well whilst Finn and Onions did not manage to use the innings that they got in the third Test to demand inclusion in this series. Bresnan also strengthens the batting and as I have said before I think it strengthens it so much that England should play five bowlers. Even without the bonus of his batting, however, Bresnan is a more than capable third seamer: he bowls quick, he bowls a ‘heavy ball’ and he can get the ball to reverse swing.

That’s how the seamers align and taken as groups there is almost nothing to choose between them. Over the last few years Anderson has matched Steyn, Philander has outdone Broad with the ball and Bresnan has outdone Morkel with both bat and ball. England probably have a slight advantage due to Philander’s inexperience. Where England have a large advantage, however, is in spin. South Africa will be bringing Imran Tahir to England. Whilst he is a considerable step up from Paul Harris, he is not a match for Graeme Swann. (It’s also a personal disappointment as I think the ‘team full of Rhodesians’ joke I would have made is funnier than the ‘team full of Pakistanis’ joke I will be making instead.) The group stats support the notion that England have an advantage, but a slight one: England’s team bowling average over the last two years is 26.52 as opposed to South Africa’s 28.74, whilst the teams are neck and neck in ‘notable’ scores. England have bowled their opponents out for under 200 eleven times in 24 matches in the past two years whilst conceding 400 or more four times. In the same time period, South Africa have played 13 Tests and bowled their opponent out for under 200 six times whilst conceding two scores over 400. Interestingly, in this time period neither team has lost when conceding 400 but have each one once after doing so.

So it’s advantage England by a nose in the comparison of bowling attacks, but each side have very good batsmen as well. South Africa have the formidable Grame Smith opening and boast Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis farther down the order. The first three each average just short of fifty apiece and each over the course of fairly long Test careers. Kallis averages even higher, almost 57 in his career, but oddly has never fared well in England. In twelve Tests he only averages 29.30 with a solitary century. It will be interesting to see if he can, in what will likely be his last tour of England, turn those numbers around a bit. It will also be important for South Africa, who already have a couple of holes in their top and middle order. The injury to Boucher means that Jean-Paul Duminy will come into the side and it was already assumed that both Alviro Petersen and Jacques Rudolph will play. Both had decent series in New Zealand (the latter scoring 156 in the last Test), but apart from that none of those three have looked particularly imposing at Test level. Petersen and Rudolph have also both played in the County Championship this year and neither have been impressive. Petersen scored a big century, but it was against Glamorgan and his other ten innings yielded only ninety runs between them. Rudolph did slightly better, but for all his starts he only passed fifty once in ten innings. It also remains to be seen how AB de Villiers will react to taking the gloves. He has batted very well when keeping wicket in ODIs, but this will be the fourth time he has kept in Tests and in the first three matches he averaged only 22.

England, by contrast, have no real stars. Only Jonathan Trott averages over fifty and his average has been going steadily downward since he first established himself. However, England also have fewer weaknesses. The only batsman to average under forty is Ravi Bopara and that is offset somewhat by the fact that Tim Bresnan at number eight actually averages over forty. At the top of the order, Andrew Strauss has scored three first class centuries already this summer with his an unbeaten 127 in his most recent innings against Notts. Alastair Cook has lost the form that saw him dominate attacks last year, but he still had a decent series against the West Indies. Ian Bell has had a good summer, but as far as the middle order goes all the attention will be on Kevin Pietersen. Embroiled in controversy since retiring from pyjama cricket earlier this summer and making some rather questionable demands of the England management, he has nonetheless been in excellent form with the bat. Most recently was his jaw-dropping innings at Guildford where he treated a skilled Lancastrian attack as though they were a team of under-elevens. He will go into the South Africa series with a point to prove and whilst it could result in more rash shots for cheap dismissals, there is also every chance that it will drive him to have a huge series. KP is someone who has tended to perform when under personal pressure and saves his best for the big stage. This is a big stage and he is under pressure. South Africa will be well advised to get to him early in his innings.

England also have an advantage down the order. Whilst AB de Villiers is a better batsman overall than Prior, he is still a part time ‘keeper. Prior is much more reliable with the gloves and it remains to be seen which de Villiers will show up with the bat. But farther down is where England could really put some pressure on South Africa. England’s last four batsmen, ie: numbers eight through eleven, have a cumulative average of 101. The corresponding average for South Africa is only 58. That is a potential extra 43 runs in each innings for England, an entire extra batsman’s worth. The upshot for me is that South Africa will probably have to get an above average performance by some of their more unheralded batsmen or a very good series from someone like Smith. Even if Kallis shows his true class, I do not think South Africa will be able to get away with having any failing batsmen.

The series may well come down to little things. Neither side have had ideal preparations. England were playing ODIs, but at least winning. South Africa, meantime, did not look too impressive in their pair of tour matches and suffered the loss of Boucher in that time. Both captains are very defensive minded, especially Smith who has previously delayed declarations absurdly long. I don’t think either side will want to be in a position of having to force a victory; it will play against the natural tendency of both captains. This will favour England at first, as they only need a draw to retain the number one ranking, so this is something South Africa will want to negate early. And then there is the weather. So much time has been lost to rain in this summer both in the international and county matches. South Africa did not play the rain particularly well against New Zealand; Smith will need to take it into account better in England.

As for a prediction, the two sides are so close that it is very hard to say. The winner may simply be whichever side manages to have fewer poor days. I think a lot will come down to whether one player, probably a batsman given the skill of the attacks, can step up and dominate the series. For South Africa that may be Smith having a series like he did in 2003; for England it may be something special from KP or a captain’s series from an in-form Strauss. With the series being as short as it is, whatever numerical result is reached is unlikely to reflect the play itself (unless one side simply fails to show up of course). As outlined above, I think where there are edges to be had most of them go to England. With that and the lighter pressure on them, something with which South Africa notoriously struggle, I think England will win the series 2-0. I would say 2-1, but I don’t think the weather will co-operate enough to get three results. However it finishes, though, it should be a cracker and I cannot wait for it to start.