Butcher: Still question marks over England top five
If there was ever any chance that England might produce a complacent performance in Centurion, AB de Villiers surely banished it with his comments in the pre-match media conferences.
Much of what de Villiers said about England is undeniable. There are cracks in the England battling line-up and their two senior bowlers are probably unable to sustain the pace they once could throughout a day’s play. England are clearly not unbeatable.
Whether his comments were wise, though, is debatable. As England found ahead of their series in the Caribbean, when Colin Graves referred to West Indies as “mediocre”, it tends not to pay to criticise your opposition. Even if the criticism is true.
That England have, even with their “weaknesses”, proved themselves to be better than South Africa must be a sobering thought for de Villiers. He might also reflect that, while England are investing in players who will at their peak in three years, South Africa are investing in players who will be retired in three years. Stephen Cook, for example, who is poised to make his debut in this Test, is 33. The sense remains that, while England are yet to peak with their rise, South Africa have not yet hit rock bottom in their descent.
In truth, it never seemed likely that this England team would be complacent. Too many of them require strong performances for their own career progression and, having suffered setbacks in the relatively recent past (seven of this squad played in the 5-0 Ashes thrashing in Australia just two years ago), they have been instilled with a hunger to progress far further than their current position. Team ranked No. 5 in the world really don’t have much right to complacency.
It appears Chris Woakes will win the chance to fill the seamer’s position vacated by the injured Steven Finn. While Alastair Cook said England had yet to make up their minds over the role, it was Woakes who bowled out in the middle alongside Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Moeen Ali on Thursday. After five Tests have brought just seven wickets and a bowling average the wrong side of 50, Woakes is one of those with plenty to prove.
If he does play, it will mean considerable disappointment for Mark Footitt. Already aged 30 – not an age when many seamers make their debut – he will know that England’s next Test tours, to Bangladesh and India, render it even more unlikely that he will be required. He may well be reliant on an unlikely glut of injuries to win a chance.
Another man requiring a strong performance is Alex Hales. While he has rarely looked out of place at this level, he has not gone on to score the runs that will be required to win a longer audition in the role. A fragility outside the off stump is the most obvious concern, but it may be his dismissal in the second innings at Durban – driving to long-on when on 26 and well set – that he looks back on with regret. With Nick Compton an option for the opening berth and Gary Ballance pushing for a recall at No. 3 or No. 5, he has no room for complacency.
Alastair Cook inspects the pitch with Trevor Bayliss, hoping to end the series in the runs © Getty Images
The same could be said for Compton, James Taylor and Moeen. While Taylor has contributed with some excellent catches at short leg and some promising innings, he is searching for the large score that would cement his place in the side. Going into this, his seventh Test, he has a top score of 76 and an average below 30.
Moeen, bowling with greater control, is fulfilling his holding job nicely – his economy-rate is 2.69 in the series – but a batting average of 15 and bowling average of 40 will hardly have him basking in fulfilment. He has, with the bat in particular, plenty to prove.
“A lot of runs have been scored by Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow in this series,” Cook, who has endured a modest series personally, agreed. “Which is great, but other guys haven’t quite contributed, myself included, and we’ve got a chance to do that in this game.”
Cook requires 117 more runs – 14 more than he has managed in the three Tests so far – to become the 12th man (and first England player) to reach 10,000 Test runs. Such milestones, he knows, will come in their own time. For now he is bursting to contribute more tangibly to England’s successful series.
“It hasn’t quite happened for me this series,” he said. “But I will just try to score a hundred and set the tone for England and if you get to these milestones along the way then it’s all well and good.”
Even Anderson, England’s top wicket-taker in Test cricket, has something to prove. With only three wickets – and a bowling average of 54.33 – from the two Tests he has played on this tour, he will be itching to show that he retains the pace and skill to force de Villiers’ words back down his throat. It is only a couple of months since he bowled masterfully in conditions offering him nothing in the UAE.
“It’s a brave man to call Jimmy Anderson out, but I guess it will spice up the match a little,” Cook said.
Perhaps it will. But England already knew they were only in the early stages of their redevelopment and very few of them are fulfilled individually or from a team perspective. They didn’t need de Villiers to remind them.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo