Just over two months ago, England were being crushed by an innings against the Blackcaps in Mount Maunganui as their familiar Test failings resurfaced once again. Joe Root’s captaincy credentials were being examined microscopically, as were Chris Silverwood’s services to lead England’s Test ‘revival’.
Five Tests later, the tables have turned considerably and England are actually looking like a proper red-ball side. Despite a sickness bug which decimated nearly half of their travelling squad for the first Test against South Africa in Centurion, the visitors have fought back in style to stitch together a winning run of three Tests.
They have battled further handicaps along the way in the four-match series, with injuries or illness sidelining key players such as James Anderson, Rory Burns, Jack Leach and Jofra Archer at various stages. Yet, they have turned in a dominant display that has earned them their second straight Test series win on South African soil.
The flickers of the signs that were displayed in such bold letters in South Africa were already there in the second Test against New Zealand in Hamilton, where they displayed some excellent cricket for a greater part of four days in a drawn clash.
This might not have been the greatest of South African sides to beat, with the Proteas a shadow of its former self following a slew of retirements. After all, this was the same side which was turned over on home soil by a lowly Sri Lanka last year and had come into the England series on the back of a comprehensive series whitewash against India.
Yet, the positives that have emerged for Root’s men from their 3-1 triumph are many. The most encouraging aspect of their series win is the core group of youngsters who have stood up in what is always a difficult overseas tour. The performances of openers Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope in the middle-order and even Dominic Bess in the spin department, have been worth celebrating for the tourists. Throw the ever-reliable Sam Curran into the mix and England have five promising youngsters aged 24 or below in their Test setup.
The mere fact that England now have three openers who look like they can cut it in Test cricket is a far cry from their travails in recent years. Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, a new batsman to partner Alastair Cook at the top had become something of a tradition for England with none of the candidates able to tie down that spot. Now, Burns is a proven performer already while the emergence of Sibley and Crawley is creating a problem for Root and the team management.
Below them, Joe Denly continues to chip in with valuable 30s and 40s while Root can always be relied upon for his usual fifties despite his century conversion woes.
What has really bolstered the batting unit is Pope finally starting to fulfil that immense hype that has followed him since his breakthrough displays for Surrey in the 2018 County Championship.
Among his stand-out innings were two half-centuries and an excellent maiden Test ton as he averaged nearly 89 with the bat over the course of the series. His performances at No5 gave England the edge in the batting department and were crucial to them posting totals over 400 in the first innings of the Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg Tests.
Ben Stokes showed why is the most elite all-rounder in the world with a man-of-the-series display, although the Durham man is still never far away from controversy. The only real blemish for England in the series has been Jos Buttler’s continuously downward spiral. After just 117 runs in seven innings, it might be finally time to end the Buttler Test experiment which achieved such roaring success in 2018.
With the ball, England were superb despite a multitude of injuries, thanks in no small part to Mark Wood’s remarkable resurgence. Having managed to endure back-to-back Tests for the first time since 2017, Woods scripted a dream comeback in an all-round avatar which saw him average 47.50 with the bat and 13.58 with the ball.
The team now have two express pacers in the form of Wood and Archer and the duo could prove to be a handful in England’s ultimate quest to regain the Ashes (2021-22) Down Under in Australia. Hopefully for England, Anderson will still be around for that battle which will be the true test of their Test credentials.
“We started something in New Zealand, and you can see the blueprint that we said we wanted,” Silverwood told Sky Sports after England’s series triumph.
“Big first innings runs, and we were also learning to take 20 wickets with the Kookaburra ball. So to see it come to fruition – to see some of the youngsters come through and put their hands up, and for the older guys to do the same – is obviously really pleasing.”
The England head coach has emphasised that the side’s Test revival is a two-year project and it will be the Ashes in Australia which will be the true barometer of its success. For now though, England’s Test renaissance is properly under way after years of mediocrity and inconsistency.
The red-ball fortunes have arguably suffered due to England’s single-minded World Cup focus under Silverwood’s predecessor Trevor Bayliss. To be fair to Bayliss and England, the pay-off was worth it in the end with Eoin Morgan’s men ending an excruciating wait for a 50-over World Cup title last year.
Under Silverwood, England seem to be returning to the fundamentals of Test cricket and old-school basics were evidently key in their South African conquest.
Silverwood’s mandate was clear from the very start – to get England’s Test fortunes up and running once again. The omens, for now, are positive and there are several winnable Test battles up ahead for Root’s army. A tour of Sri Lanka, followed by a home summer comprising of Tests against West Indies and Pakistan, means there is a potential for England to forge a long winning streak.
The challenge now for Silverwood is to ensure that the promising sparks, which have emanated from his brief tenure so far, can turn into a flame in the coming months. The makings of a great Test team are there but success has to become a habit instead of a flash in the pan.
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