Cook in command of England's new beginnings

Play 04:12

A changing of the guard at The Wanderers?

Alastair Cook isn’t really the type to flash a ‘Talk nah, KP’ note in the moment of triumph, but he probably could have been forgiven had he done so in Johannesburg.

Victory here means Cook is the only man in history to lead his side to Test series victories in India and South Africa. When you add in a couple of Ashes wins, you have what has become – despite all the criticism – a deeply impressive track record. History may reflect on Cook, as a batsman and a leader, and wonder what all the fuss was about.

He has experienced a modest series with the bat. In correcting his weakness outside off stump, he may have created another one off his hip. But we have experienced blips in Cook’s form before and know enough to suggest patience will be rewarded. Besides, it is not as if England have a surplus of opening batsmen demanding selection.

But Cook did enjoy a couple of fine moments as leader on the final day here. The first was the decision to persist with Stuart Broad after three wicketless overs at the start of the innings – in the first innings he replaced him with Steven Finn after a similarly unpromising start. The second was the placement of James Taylor at an unusually deep short-leg position. As he claimed two inspired catches – chances that he would have had no chance of holding had he been in the conventional short-leg position – Cook could feel quietly satisfied with himself.

So could Broad. After a disappointing first innings – he admitted he bowled too short and confirmed rumours that he had been struggling with a stomach ailment – he harnessed helpful conditions perfectly in the second innings. His spell of five wickets for one run – and that run was from a dropped catch – included two of the best batsmen in the world. These spells are occurring too frequently to be dismissed as fortunate. The truth is, in conditions offering some assistance, he really is a terrific bowler.

Some will point to the absence of Dale Steyn and suggest England’s victory is a little hollow. It is true that Steyn, and Vernon Philander, would have strengthened this South Africa side. But it hasn’t been their bowling that has let them down, it has been their batting. And, odd though it sounds, they lost this Test as much in the first innings, when their soft dismissals failed to punish an under-par bowling display from England, as in the second, when they were undone by fine bowling and outstanding fielding on a very tricky surface.

But the most impressive aspect of this victory – a three-day victory over the No. 1-ranked Test side – from an England perspective was that it felt like the beginning.

That is probably just the way it should be. This is, in truth, a South Africa side in decline – especially without Steyn – and hugely impressive though England have been, they are going to face tougher challenges in the next couple of years. Already the five-match series in India (later this year) and Australia (late in 2017) look mouth-watering.

Besides, if England require any sobering-up on Sunday morning – Cook said at the presentation that Andrew Strauss, England’s director of cricket, had personally sanctioned a very late night – they will receive it with a reminder of where they stand in the grand scheme of things. Win, lose or draw in Centurion, England will be no higher than No. 5 when the ICC Test rankings are published at the end of the series.

If that seems low – and it does seem incongruous that the new No. 1 side, India, have lost nine of their last 13 Tests against England – it is worth remembering the defeat in Barbados, the defeats in Leeds (against Sri Lanka and New Zealand), the defeats in the UAE and, most of all, the defeat against Australia at Lord’s. They remain a work in progress.

“They are much better than that ranking,” AB de Villiers said afterwards. “They are a good, well-balanced team. Hopefully we won’t let them get to No. 1 in the rankings, but they have a bright future.”

It is, in an odd way, encouraging that Jimmy Anderson has played a relatively minor role in this victory. There was a time – most memorably at Trent Bridge in 2013, but also in India in 2012 – when the England seam attack was too heavily reliant upon him. While it is too early to predict his demise – if anyone has earned a modest game, it is Anderson – it does bode well that Ben Stokes and Finn are developing into potent figures in their own right. Finn may well miss the final Test with a side strain, but he has cemented his position as a first-choice selection now.

There were many architects of this victory. There was Jonny Bairstow, who again contributed valuable runs – no England wicketkeeper has scored as many runs in a Test series since 2007 – and claimed nine catches and run-out. There was Joe Root, who confirmed his position alongside Steven Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson as one of the best young batsmen in the world with an innings that dwarfed all other batting performances in the match. There was Stokes, who batted and bowled with a class that is becoming familiar. And there was Broad.

The Wanderers scoreboard tells the story © Getty Images

There have been a couple of key differences between the sides in this series. The first, and most obvious, is the depth of the England side in batting and bowling. Whereas England have nearly always (Cape Town pushed this theory to its limits) had a fresh bowler to turn to, South Africa have rotated four decent bowlers to the point of exhaustion. The rise of Ben Stokes and the departure of Jacques Kallis has changed the dynamic between these teams drastically since 2012.

The other key difference is harder to quantify. But while much of the talk around the South Africa camp in recent weeks has been about potential retirements and T20 commitments, the talk in the England camp has been about winning this Test series. The fact is, England’s players can afford to focus entirely on Test cricket.

That’s why, when the BCCI announce the list of players involved in the IPL auction, there will be no Alex Hales, no Moeen Ali (the first Andrew Strauss knew of his intention to enter into the auction was when he read it on ESPNcricinfo), no David Willey and no Adil Rashid. In a perfect world, all of them would love to go. But they value a Test place above all and the benefit of the ECB’s relative financial strength is they need not prioritise T20 for their long-term financial future. Right or wrong, money talks in international cricket these days.

There have been many parallels in this series to the last encounter between these sides in 2012. At that time, England were the No. 1 side, on the wane and beset by internal troubles, and South Africa the hungry challengers, pushing for the crown and on the brink of a few years of Test domination.

This time the roles are reversed. It is too early to say whether England will go on to enjoy a similar period at the top of the rankings, but they are heading in the right direction.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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