England v South Africa, 3rd Investec Test, Lord's, 4th day August 19, 2012

England must ask tough questions

The home side can have no arguments that they have been out-played by South Africa and if they have ambitions of reviving their Test fortunes will need to be honest about their problems

Just as summer inexorably turns into autumn, so England's grip on the No.1 Test status is ebbing away as surely as night follows day. Like a desperate man losing their grip on a cliff face, England will, at some stage on Monday, fall from their perch. As Bob Dylan put it, it's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

Few England supporters would dispute that South Africa have been the better side in this series. They would accept, too, that England, for all their improvements over recent years, have failed to justify their lofty ranking since defeating India about 12 months ago. What seemed, at the time, like the start of a journey, might have turned out to be the end. A record that may well read six losses from 11 Tests this year by the end of Monday tells its own story.

It is a story which leaves England with some awkward questions to answer.

Firstly, they need to look at why their catching, so impressive when they won the Ashes, has become so fallible. They have dropped nine catches in this series, including chances that might - such as the reprieve of Hashim Amla at The Oval and Alviro Petersen in Leeds - have defined matches. In South Africa's second innings here, England dropped Amla on 2, AB de Villiers on 8 and Jacques Rudolph on 6. It is hard enough to beat South Africa without allowing their middle order an extra innings each.

At present this is a question for which England have no answer. They are not lacking in hard work and good intention but, perhaps, lack the personnel to build an effective slip cordon. It may be that, if they conclude that their slip catching is costing them games - and there is increasing evidence that it is - they need to look at their team selection and ensure they are better covered in such respect.

Stuart Broad's reputation has also declined during this series. Despite one good spell at Leeds, he has been bowling with reduced pace and effectiveness throughout and can no longer be presumed an automatic selection. While the greater potential of his batting might be presumed to see him preferred to Graham Onions, Broad's batting average in this series - 8.25 - hardly justifies that. The bowling average of 39.72 is hardly encouraging, either.

That is not to say Broad should be dropped. He is only 26 and may well come to be regarded in time as one of England's finest seamers. But England really do need to question - and correct - his loss of pace and hostility with the ball and his loss of form with the bat. He is too good to be allowed to go to waste.

But perhaps the most awkward question concerns Andrew Strauss. No-one disputes that Strauss is a fine man with an excellent career behind him. But there are legitimate questions about his future. He has a highest score of 37 and an average of just 17.83 in this series. More to the point, he has hardly looked likely to score runs.

Some of his tactical decisions - such as dropping Graeme Swann at Headingley and the leg-side approach to bowling at Graeme Smith - have been muddled and, by the close of play on Monday, it is likely that he will have presided over one series victory in four. The harsh might also suggest that a more sophisticated captain might have nullified any issues between Kevin Pietersen and the rest of the team before they reached the stage they have. They have been brewing for some time.

It is true that it is not long since Strauss scored runs against West Indies. And they were not the easy runs some suggest. As Kemar Roach proved to Jonny Bairstow, the West Indian attack is not to be under-rated. But the fact remains that the South African attack is a class above and, if England really aspire to return to the top ranking, they need a man at the top of the order who can see off the new ball with more certainty that Strauss offers at present. The lack of alternatives for his position is a concern, but Jonathan Trott, Nick Compton, Michael Carberry and, perhaps, Joe Root are all possibilities.

England's success has been built - partly, anyway - on the principle of continuity of selection. But there is a line between a settled environment and a cosy environment and it remains to be seen if Andy Flower, for all his excellence in the role of England coach, can regenerate this side in the way that Sir Alex Ferguson has a series of Manchester United sides.

Perhaps this series may prove something of a watershed. The emergence of Steven Finn and Jonny Bairstow offers substantial encouragement for the future. Both are young and both will endure some pot-holes on their journey, but they have shown they are men with a future at this level.

Finn has claimed eight wickets in this match, bowling with a pace and hostility that would trouble any side. He concedes more runs per over than England would like in an ideal world, but the key is that he takes wickets. It is a skill that outweighs all negatives. He has time to work on his consistency.

"I wouldn't say I chase wickets," Finn said after play. "I'm a young bowler. I'm not going to get it right every time. That's part of being a young bowler. Everyone experiences that when they're growing up. I'm only 23-years-old. I'm still learning a lot about the way I bowl. I don't run up thinking 'wickets, wickets, wickets' every ball. It's not the way I've been taught to operate and it's not the way the team operates. I went at four-an-over in the first innings, but came back in the second innings and went for less than three-an-over and felt I bowled well."

Finn insisted that England could still win the game on the last day. But to score another 330 in 90 overs against this attack would be an awesome achievement. But perhaps the most damning statistic is this: England have never successfully chased more than 332 to win a Test in a history that started in 1876-77.

"As a team over recent years we have enjoyed breaking records and defying people's beliefs against us," Finn said somewhat implausibly. "We really do believe in the dressing room that we can win this game. The older ball does a lot less than the new ball and tomorrow we'll be playing against a ball 15 overs old. When the ball is softer there is no uneven bounce and when the ball is old and the sun is out, it's a very good wicket to bat on. It's going to be important to build partnerships and get our foot in the door. Then, later in the day, maybe we can smash through it and win the game."

Maybe. In truth England need a miracle of Biblical proportions to win this game and retain their No.1 ranking. And it is hard to see how even a plague of locusts can help them now.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 22, 2012, 18:13 GMT

    @JG2704: So KP is presumed guilty ? (if you use google, you'll know how easy it is to send text posing as someone else).

  • James on August 22, 2012, 0:46 GMT

    Lessons need to be learned but I don't think dropping a whole host of players is the answer. Resting Broad is one answer; don't know if it is the correct one, could he do with more bowling in ODIs - arguably his favourite format - to build rhythm?. The KP issue needs to be sorted - maybe we are underestimating the effect disharmony has on the team. But I think an issue not raised is England's ill-discipline while fielding (e.g. sledging, tutting, chuntering). Perhaps they have focused too much on aspects like this rather than catching well.

  • Jeff on August 21, 2012, 11:40 GMT

    Compton = average county circuit journeyman who has had one good season. Carberry = another average county veteran. Both are nearly as old as Strauss so how can they be called the future?

  • VaRUN on August 21, 2012, 6:15 GMT

    Cannot wait to see this English pop-gun attack bowl to Sehwag on a slow pitch. Bring your daughter, bring your daughter...to the slaughter...editor, this is a fav Iron Maiden song of mine, not cursing anyone! please publish

  • Philip on August 21, 2012, 0:09 GMT

    @H_Z_O - It is totally wrong to suggest that a South African kid (such as Matt Prior was) turns up in England and the experiences of his first 11 years will have no bearing on his subsequent development. At 11 a kid who's going places in the game will already have absorbed a well-defined cricketing culture. Prior (whether one likes him or not) does, I believe, show South African traits such as mental toughness etc in line with an early upbringing in the South African cricket community. That in no way means he shouldn't play for England, but rather that Eng cannot claim him as a whole product of their system. You cannot change a kid that much. You work with what's there. Neither is England the only place to find ex-South Africans. New Zealand has a few as well. NZ is a place where the toughness exists but it is dominated by rugby, so the pool is diminished in an already small popluation. Eng has a far, far greater population than NZ. It shouldn't need to look south as much as it does.

  • John on August 20, 2012, 22:14 GMT

    @Hira1 on (August 19 2012, 20:49 PM GMT) Rumour yesterday (among fans commenting pre Surrey's match) was that KP had actually texted SA players on how to bowl to our players , highlighting their weaknesses etc. Not sure the truth behind it but if true , would you still want KP playing in this match?

  • steve on August 20, 2012, 18:27 GMT

    One of the best last days test cricket for a very long time. SA deserved their victory and the #1 spot but Bairstow, Prior, Broad and Swann made them work for it and that's how it should be.

    The sniping from the back crease players and keyboard warriors should not be allowed to demean the efforts of both teams.

    England can now put KP behind them and review each players contribution and evaluate their future and plan to regain #1 because with the exception (possibly) of one other team, there's no real quality elsewhere- as those supporting India have pointed out.

  • Safdar on August 20, 2012, 17:26 GMT

    The no 1 ranking was misleading. South Africa should have taken it over some time ago. England have looked worse than South Africa for years.

  • Dummy4 on August 20, 2012, 17:26 GMT

    In the wake of this Test match, some serious questions have to be answered. The haters cannot blame KP for England's lost as well, KP wasn't playing. The fact that England are a stronger team with KP in the side is proven even further, but take nothing away from South Africa as they, more than anyone, deserves this victory. Well played Saffers. That aside, an amnesty must be reached and the ECB need to do some serious rethinking in regards to their contracts and their management of players, including double-standards and such. KP also needs to fire his advisers and learn to keep his feelings to himself. Bairstow looks a solid #6 but not a KP replacement. If anything, the ECB need to adapt now to the international schedule and look at how they manage their players to keep the England team competitive over all three formats. While not one player is bigger than the team, make no mistake, having KP back will make England a more competitive side. Long way back for them now though.

  • H on August 20, 2012, 17:22 GMT

    South Africa absolutely deserve their number 1 status, they've been a very good side for a long time now, with a formidable record home and away, and they've just been better than England in all departments. However, the margins have been smaller than the Oval match made them seem, as proven by England getting 294 batting last, without their best batsman (regardless of why that was, the fact is, he didn't play). England's gradual improvement with each match of this series suggests that a five match series could well have had a different outcome. Take nothing away from South Africa, though, they did what they had to, and were always one step ahead of England, it's just a shame we never got to see the series this should have been. Bring on 2015, I say.

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