Like attending a wedding and pointing out that nearly half of marriages end in divorce, it seems churlish to find fault in England’s Test team in the immediate aftermath of their series victory in South Africa.
To defeat the No. 1-ranked side in the world on their own pitches is a fine achievement. Yes, South Africa are in decline – or at least transition – and yes, they have missed Dale Steyn for much of the series. But their team still contains some fine players and history makes it clear how tough it is to win here. Nobody is claiming England are the finished article, but they have demonstrated improvement. They deserve a great deal of credit.
But if England really want to rise up the world rankings, if they really want to be the best team in the world, there are several areas in which they will need to strengthen.
Already the tours of Bangladesh and India loom at the end of the year. Given England’s issues with spin – both playing it and bowling it – they look desperately tough assignments. England have recently taken steps to encourage the development of more spin bowlers – such as experimenting with allowing the visiting captain to chose to bat in county championship cricket – but even if those policies are successful, it will take time for them to take effect. Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Zafar Ansari are being asked to compensate for several years’ mismanagement. It is a daunting requirement.
But England’s most pressing concern is their top-order batting. While the excellence of the middle-order – Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow – has partially masked the problem, the fact remains that, in all three Tests, the top-order has failed to contribute the platform required.
From 49 for 3 in the first innings in Durban, England were 223 for 5 in Cape Town (if that sounds reasonable, it is worth checking what the final totals were in that run-drenched match and reflecting on how much trouble England would have been in if they had been dismissed for 350) and then 91 for 4 in Johannesburg. On each occasion they were rescued, but it is asking too much of the middle-order to expect that to happen every time. They won’t reach No. 1 that way.
We have seen enough of Alastair Cook to conclude that his modest returns (he is averaging 17.16 in the series) are no more than a blip. And we can probably conclude that Alex Hales (averaging 20) requires a decent final Test if he is extend his run in the Test side into the English summer. His decision to skip the IPL to play more county cricket gives him a decent chance of retaining his place.
Nick Compton departed from his natural game in Johannesburg and suffered the consequences © Getty Images
It is, perhaps, Nick Compton who has caused most frustration. For Compton has shown that he has the technique to strengthen this team but, as the series has progressed, he appears to have departed from his natural game in pursuit of windmills and wild geese.
Compton produced a match-shaping innings in Durban. His first innings of 85 steered England from the rocks and allowed them to post a strong total. He followed up with a second-innings 49. It would have been perfectly reasonable to name him as man of the match. He provided exactly the contribution England have been missing since the best days of Jonathan Trott.
It was, in many ways, classic Compton. It was full of well-judged leaves and that stoic defence that looks as if it could keep out the rain. While there were a couple of elegant drives and pleasing cuts, Compton’s strengths are more prosaic than those of Stokes or Root. It was sedate. In Test cricket, though, there is still a place for such play. After all, England won in Johannesburg with more than two days unused; they have the time for Compton to build foundations.
A good leave is, perhaps, the least glamorous gift with which a batsman can be bestowed. But it is still a gift. And just as Compton will never emulate Stokes, so Stokes will never be able to emulate him. A well-balanced England team can accommodate both. Indeed, a well-balanced England team will see Stokes flourish more often for the groundwork that Compton can prepare.
It perhaps didn’t help that, following the first Test, his coach, Trevor Bayliss suggested that, in an ideal world, he would prefer a more dynamic No. 3. Compton is, having fought hard to return to the team, more sensitive to criticism than most and talk about his relatively slow pace of play will have eaten away inside his head.
How else to explain his increasingly bizarre play in the rest of the series? Concerned that he may be deemed too passive for this dynamic side, he has tried to prove he has a gear beyond his comfort zone. Having played himself in, he has attempted to accelerate but like a driver losing control of their car. He has tried to hit the ball too hard; tried to chase balls he would normally leave; tried to be something he is not. He is the hippo that wants to be a gazelle.
What he needs to do is be unashamedly him. He has to dare to be dull. He needs to remember why he was selected and the role he performs in county cricket. He needs to block out the talk of his pace of play as he blocked out Dale Steyn in Durban. He needs to allow Root and Stokes their glory and understand he is the Ringo to their Lennon and McCartney; the Mick Ronson to their David Bowie; the Horatio to their Hamlet. He may not make it anyway, but he has no chance if he tries to emulate them. He has to play the hand he was dealt, not the hand he wishes he was dealt.
And what the coaching staff need to do is reassure him. They need to tell him to relax and play his way. To take it easy, as Glenn Frey put it. England have struggled with top-order fragility for more than a year. They have the answer in front of them. They are in danger of squandering it.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo