England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 5th day July 23, 2012

England limitations exposed

Technical deficiencies on slow, dry pitches mean England have now lost five from nine

Let's talk about England. A consistent batting group were given first use of a good pitch and cocked it up. A celebrated bowling attack took two wickets during a match that lasted almost five days. The opposition took 20 wickets and made more than 600 runs. There you go. Like the story of World War Two, you can tell it on the back of a cigarette packet if you have to.

England are not half the team if the pitch is dry and slow. Dry with pace, fine. Slow with seam movement, fine. Dry and slow, big question mark. Five out of nine Tests lost this year, all on dry and slow surfaces. The whisper before the match was that England were after something that spins, backing Graeme Swann against Imran Tahir and figuring everyone else would cancel themselves out. During the match this whisper did a splendid u-turn and became England asking for, but not getting, a pitch with pace that offered some lateral movement to seam bowling. I am inclined to run with the first of these, manly because it makes some sense and worked well at The Oval three years ago against Australia. But that pitch had more pace than this one. This might just as well have been the subcontinent, so foreign were the conditions.

Any which way: whoops. The wheels came off and now need Formula One pit-change-speed replacements if the series is to be saved. Andrew Strauss admitted mistakes and an off-colour performance while reiterating his faith in a high-class set of bowlers. Quite right. He will also hope that Headingley is, shall we say, a little more English.

England have started badly in a number of relatively recent and important series. Cardiff 2009, the bizarre Panesar draw; Centurion 2009, the squeaky Onions draw; Brisbane 2010, the top-three inspired miracle. You could, if in a mind for it, argue the right to those escapes. Not this time, not close. If the contest had been in a ring, the ref would have stopped it. Perhaps we should have known that in the week of Nelson Mandela's birthday, all things South African would flourish. Poor Adam Scott, the force was against him. Think about it, even the sun shone.

Hunted, haunted during the winter in the UAE; initially whipped in Sri Lanka in the spring and now this, a proper midsummer shellacking. Why are England so much less good on dry, slow pitches? Limitation is the answer. There is an inherently mechanical nature to English batsmanship and a culture of line and length amongst bowlers. English batsmen are body and arms, not wrists and twinkling toes. English bowlers are seam, swing and orthodox spin not pace, bounce, reverse, leggies and doosras.

Of course, this is not across the board. In fact, the most obvious improvement to England's cricket since the beginning of Michael Vaughan's period in the seat has been the range of bowling talent and, in particular, the ability to reverse swing. That four-man seam attack in 2005 had everything but a left-arm pacer. In Australia in 2010-11 the bases were covered by three bowlers in perfect harmony and Swann's considerable fortitude and talent. But during this long weekend South Africa neutered Swann brilliantly - oh Hasim, what an innings! - and the others, well they got the snip too. Sometimes it it not obvious why. Sometimes, the other blokes just played better.

"England in the main are thoroughness before invention, practicality before originality"

There was a bit of that and there is superb batting to consider too. The modern Test match game sets over-defensive fields in the knowledge that freewheeling, dubiously disciplined batsmen will press the self-destruct button eventually. Not Graeme Smith though, not in his 100th Test. Not Jacques Kallis, who had never quite conquered England. And not Amla, who speaks for mankind with each hour he spends at the wicket. They wound back the clock, they occupied the crease. They out-thought and out-lasted the No. 1 team in the world.

English cricket rarely thinks out of the proverbial box and it showed at The Oval, at times quite shockingly so. The great bounce back in Sri Lanka came via one man's amazing expression, the South African Kevin Pietersen. England won because he ripped up the rule book and played a very exceptional, often outrageous innings. It was a fine victory to level the series - set up by the touch of genius, stamped by the thoroughness that supported it. That is England in the main, thoroughness before invention; practicality before originality.

None of which begins to explain the madness that actually cost the match. Agreed, it was daft of Pietersen to fall for Kallis' slow-bouncer, fast-bouncer thing - the old one-two - on Thursday evening, but 267 for 3 is a nice overnight platform by any book. No, it was Friday morning what done it. Alastair Cook's tired stroke; Ian Bell's lapse of judgement; Ravi Bopara's lack of conviction; Tim Bresnan's waft, etc. That was the morning that was and it cost the match. Sure, the ball moved around at pace but England were caught asleep, deep in the dreams of assumption, and South Africa had sprung from their sheets.

Do not count against England turning this around, there is a history of it. Strauss is no quitter and alongside him is a coach, Andrew Flower, who will wring every inch from the next ten days. But then again, do not count on South Africa's dereliction. Smith and Flower's opposite number, Gary Kirsten, are not the sort to ignore their duty.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shubham on July 26, 2012, 13:34 GMT

    12 months back they said that Indians were holding #1 spot merely because of their strong batting line-up. Is it not reasonable to say now that English are #1 attributed to their bowling, viz, pacers?

  • Martin on July 26, 2012, 9:40 GMT

    @zenboomerang. The weather here this "summer" has been SHOCKING. The forecast before this match was very obviously for rain/bad light/grot on Days 1 & 2. Winning the toss and putting the Saffers in was a no brainer, I even said so in the Preview before the match; Here's what I wrote; "Posted by 5wombats on (July 18 2012, 18:04 PM GMT) Be quite nice to win the toss and put SA in - then we'll really see how mentally strong they are....". So, why the hell did he do the other thing!?! I'm not usually critical of Strauss or any of the players - but I think on this one he got it completely wrong. He should know better than to look at a pitch and say "that's a belter, we'll bat" without any regard to the weather. Fellow England fans on here are too polite - they won't say anything for fear that the indians will jump all over us and call us excuse makers (which, all things considered is a bit rich), but I've spent many years in Aus and have learned to call a spade a spade.

  • Roo on July 26, 2012, 5:30 GMT

    @5wombats... re: pitch - many forget quickly that the game is often won/lost by who bats first when weather is a consideration (not excusing this loss)... Looked at the weather forecast before the match & guessed that whoever won the toss would field first... Strauss as capt has won 26 tosses & fielded 1st 8 times, so he should have picked it right... Still a lot better than Pontings stats - as capt he won 37 tosses & batted 1st 35 times, pretty much regardless of weather conditions... No reply needed :P ...

  • Geoffrey on July 25, 2012, 5:07 GMT

    @Marcio- interesting post. So England must be pretty good hey? You know beating Australia and getting to the number one ranking and all that.

  • Sanjay on July 25, 2012, 4:08 GMT

    Great article. England well and truly exposed. A limited side and goes to show how the number 1 ranking is meaningless with recent performances against SAF and PAK. The tour of Sri Lanka was not a victory but a draw. James Anderson jumped the gun earlier this year on how great a side England was. Vik Patel spot on with your thoughts. Won't say England can't come back in the series but 1 nil down in a 3 test contest makes it all the more difficult.

  • Andrew on July 25, 2012, 1:31 GMT

    Imagine what the English press will be like if Sth Africa were to whitewash them? They'll of gone from invincible aura's to hacks in a space of months. A bit of perspective, first home loss in a while, & whilst statistically it was a walloping, the fact is, it was taken to Tea time Day 5.

  • Martin on July 24, 2012, 22:27 GMT

    @cric_fan_ Yours is an honest post. You are right - there was nothing wrong with the pitch. A lot of people would have us believe that English pitches are grassy unplayable meadows. Thats BS designed as an excuse by fans of teams that lose on them. And yes - it didn't deteriorate into a minefield. In England it's Atmospherics that make the difference. Friend, conditions were NOT always great for batting... Batting in a Test Match under floodlights in the rain is NOT conditions great for batting. I was there - sat in the rain under the floodlights in sessions 1, 4 and 5 of the match. At those times and in those conditions the ball swung alarmingly - the batsmen struggled to pick it up. I know what I saw. Strauss knew that the forecast was for hot sunshine on days 3, 4, 5 and grot on days 1 & 2. SO - what does he do? He says "right, we'll have a bat" in poor damp weather with bad light and interruptions. AND "SA, you go and bat in the hot sun - enjoy". It's not rocket science. please pub

  • Matthew on July 24, 2012, 22:22 GMT

    @left Brain I don't know if you actually read the article but you just summed it perfectly in a few little words! As for "over analysing", well, that's what Mark and others are paid to do. Itwould be a pretty pointless article if it just said "England play well in conditions that suit them, but not in conditions that don't. Fact is cricket is a complex game where a lot of analysis is a necessity. if you don't like it watch another sport.

  • kumar on July 24, 2012, 18:30 GMT

    @5wombats are you sure strauss waking up the wrong side of the bed wasn't the actual reason for this defeat? That might be the real excuse. You win the toss, you make the wrong decision misreading your own pitch well that's one more weakness Eng have then. About the match, the pitch was beauty to bat on, the plan was to get SA to bat last and trap them in swann's web of spin, which never happened. The pitch didn't improve 10 times for batting by the time Eng finished their 1st innings and it certainly didn't deteriorate into a mine field by Eng's 2nd innings, the conditions were always great for batting only thig is SA bowled well and batted well and if English team can't handle a cloud or two then they should really consider playing somewhere else as in England you'll always encounter such weather conditions

  • Marcio on July 24, 2012, 17:27 GMT

    @ pommyadders "who can't beat Australia these days?" Lots. Australia hadn't lost a single series in tests or ODis for 18 months - ten total series, mostly away from home - before the recent silly series in England. You don't get ranked #2 in tests and # 1 in ODIs by being easy-beats (England's winning ratio in tests is significantly lower than Australia's since the Ashes, BTW). Maybe you should bother to do a little research before you post. But then again, you are not alone in bashing before you think. Every comment section here seems to be full of such postings.

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