England v SA, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 2nd day August 3, 2012

England face up to awkward truth

Despite putting in a much better showing, it appears England are up against a side that are better than them in discipline, application and skill

It was hard for England supporters to avoid a sinking feeling as South Africa extended their first innings past 400 at Leeds. It was not that England bowled poorly - far from it - and it was not that it has become impossible for England to level or even win this series.

It was more that England played some admirable cricket and it still was not quite good enough.

England bowled beautifully on the second morning. They did not concede a run in the first six overs and, finding just enough assistance from the surface to trouble both batsmen, built up pressure. Indeed, from two-thirds of the way through the first day, England's bowlers could not have bowled much better. And you cannot ask more from anyone than that.

It would, in these conditions, have been good enough for most rivals. It was good enough for Australia, good enough for India, good enough for West Indies and good enough for Pakistan.

But England have come up against a tougher foe here. They have come up against a side that seems able to better them in discipline, in application and in skill. They have come up against a side that, despite being put in and losing their four big batting guns relatively cheaply, still passed 400. In short, it is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that they have simply come up against a better side.

That has not happened too often in recent years. While England have been no strangers to defeat in recent months, there have always been some straws of consolation at which to clutch. Over the winter, they could - rightly or wrongly - take comfort from the fact that they were outclassed by Pakistan and, in one Test anyway, by Sri Lanka, in conditions of which they had little experience. England could console themselves with the thought that they remained formidably strong at home. And, while there have been one-off defeats to Pakistan and Australia at home, they were followed by resounding victories that suggested such results were aberrations.

Even after The Oval, there was a strange comfort in the fact that England had played so badly. The extent of the thrashing - quite colossal - could be partially mitigated by the fact that England, with bat and ball, had fallen well below their own high standards.

That is not the case here. Yes, England dropped an important catch and yes, they may well have erred with their selection. But their seamers have performed admirably after an uncertain start and their batsmen have started impressively. Yet an England win remains the least likely of the three realistic results with three days of the Test to go. Increasingly it is becoming clear that the biggest impediment England have is not selection issues, or dropped catches or disappointing batting or bowling, it is that they are up against a very good side.

But they can, just about, still win this game and therefore the series. Their best hope of winning here is to bat once, score in excess of 600 and bowl South Africa out cheaply in their second innings. It would be an unlikely scenario even without the poor weather forecast, but it is rendered even more unlikely by the fact that England went into this game without a specialist spinner. It is a decision that looked wrong at the time and was made to look even more wrong by Kevin Pietersen gaining extravagant turn before lunch on day two.

But it was the sort of selection decision that is made when flustered. And, sometime during the Oval Test, England's players, their management and their supporters had a reality check: South Africa are, almost certainly, the better side.

It is, for example, telling that South Africa can play seven frontline batsmen and still have a better-balanced attack than England. It is telling that South Africa's second-change seamer - a man with more than 12,000 Test runs - could bowl with more pace than England's opening bowlers and it is telling that while four of South Africa's top six have so far registered centuries in the series, only one of England's has done the same.

England could yet retain their No. 1 Test status even if they fail to win here. So long as they avoid defeat, victory at Lord's would be enough. But as Alviro Petersen and JP Duminy, two of the lesser lights of this excellent South Africa side, extended the tourists' first innings total here, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that England's grasp on the No. 1 ranking is slipping.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on August 4, 2012, 22:07 GMT

    @IndnCrktfan on (August 04 2012, 16:32 PM GMT) Thing is I don't recall any comms pre the Eng series from fans worrying about the Indian batsmen falling apart. There was nothing to suggest this was going to happen beforehand. Anyway it's not meant to be a dig at India - just an example of why Eng deserved to get to number 1.

  • John on August 4, 2012, 22:02 GMT

    @KeshavSeshadri85 on (August 04 2012, 09:05 AM GMT) We've heard all this before. Have you actually got anything original to say? We were number 1 because we were unbeaten home and away from early 2009 to early 2012 which is nearly 3 years , culminating in beating Aus in Aus and India (who were number 1) 4-0. Right now we're not playing cricket worthy of a number 1 side - no excuses. Even now (although the likelihood is SA will win this series - possibly 3-0) we've only lost 1 series in 3 years so is that so bad ?

  • Alex on August 4, 2012, 17:05 GMT

    Kevin Pieterson bullying best bowler in the world Steyn. What a batsman. He is the X factor. Yes England has cook , strauss , trott but Kevin is a fighter. He needs to be cajoled to get best out of him.

  • Alex on August 4, 2012, 17:04 GMT

    I see Kevin Pieterson the man for england. Great batsman when your team under pressure. England selectors should pay respect to him

  • Subash on August 4, 2012, 16:32 GMT

    @JG: Everyone knew India was on the verge of decline and it was one last hurrah for the great batting lineup who have been playing international cricket for atleast 15 years now. It was imminent for India to fail but what disappointed us Indian fans is the way they lost test matches against Eng. They just gave up except for Rahul Dravid. Given how much the Indian team depends on their batting lineup an injury to Zaheer did not help the cause as he has been the spearhead of India's bowling attack for a while now. Again no excuses as we were thrashed fair and square. It was bound to happen but for a team to lose the way Eng have lost since becoming #1 makes the title of this article more appropriate.

  • Dummy4 on August 4, 2012, 14:28 GMT

    One thing's for sure, the next few years of Test cricket will be fascinating, as England, Australia, Pakistan & a resurgent West Indies snap vainly at South Africa's heels, with New Zealand, Sri Lanka & Bangladesh providing the occasional shock & a one-man Indian team known as Virat Kohli sinking without trace as legions of their supporters sit in darkened rooms muttering "Revenge, revenge."

  • John on August 4, 2012, 14:11 GMT

    @disco_bob on (August 04 2012, 09:21 AM GMT) - I actually don't know what you're querying me about. My points are that England got those results against those teams. Australia's result was similar to England's vs India. OK Australia played a full strength Indian side but how much confidence would the defeat Eng inflicted on India have affected them? Could be said that Eng laid the blueprint on how to beat India.

  • Lou on August 4, 2012, 13:00 GMT

    I think one of England's big problems is dropping catches to tell the truth. With most teams it doesn't matter too much as they will give more chances with the English bowlers keeping disciplined lines, but SA are a pretty disciplined bunch. I really believe they have to sort out the catching.

  • Luke on August 4, 2012, 12:51 GMT

    Lets just not go OTT here - England lost the first test largely because of the weather, days 1,3,4 & 5 were brilliant batting pitches, don't forget England were 267/3 and looking completely untroubled, on day 2 the ball was swinging round corners and looking almost unplayable both in the England innings and in the 10 overs of the SA innings before the rain blew in and conditions improved. Any team coming in after being in the field for so long and with no chance of winning is going to struggle.

    England have gone off the boil slightly, dropping rather too many catches but this is not a huge gap in class, unfortunately with a 3 test series there is little to no chance to recover.

  • Mark on August 4, 2012, 11:52 GMT

    Their bowling speeds have been very disappointing to be honest, Broad was hitting 90 regularly last year, now he is barely hitting 80? Sad to see, SA batting lineup is quality through and through, Duminy at 7? That is scary. SA are blessed with AB (Not as good a keeper as Prior, but good enough and a much better batsman) and Kallis, who is still a world class seamer, which gives them immense balance. I'll be sad to see Kallis retire as he is one of my all time fav players, and for SA, it will create a huge hole. Not only do you leave a massive hole in the batting (one which is impossible to fill as Kallis is one of the best bats of all time) but a huge hole in the bowling too. England still have some fine players as well and Anderson is still, imo, by far the second best seamer in the world (and not as far behind Steyn as some would have you believe). If I hope for one thing in India it is that Anderson does well.

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