South Africa v England, 3rd Test, Johannesburg January 11, 2016

England's fielding 'blips' threaten a habit

An evolving England side are not only searching for consistency with bat and ball but also in the field where missed chances proved costly in Cape Town

Like the man who tells himself the cigarette he sneaks after a cup of coffee doesn't really make them a smoker, so it can be hard to distinguish - or at least admit to - the difference between 'a habit' and 'a blip.'

It was natural for Jonny Bairstow to dismiss the spate of dropped catches in Cape Town as "a blip." You could hardly expect him to say anything else. Besides, it is true that the likes of Joe Root and James Anderson, who put down chances during the Test, have a fine record in the field. These things happen.

But as England started their training ahead of the Johannesburg Test with an intense fielding session, it was a reminder that they remain a work in progress in every way. England missed somewhere between five and 10 chances, depending on how charitable you feel, in the second Test and have reprieved both AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla in each of the first two matches. Had they caught better, it is entirely possible they would be 2-0 up in this series.

Yet, just as several young batsmen are finding their feet at this level, just as Moeen Ali and Steven Finn are developing bowlers, so England are searching for the right combination in the field that gives them the best chance to win games. Ian Bell - increasingly fallible in his final months in the side - has only recently left the slip cordon and James Taylor has only just moved to short-leg.

It appears Ben Stokes may replace James Anderson, whose concentration is drained by the demands of bowling, as slip fielder to the spinners, while Nick Compton has yet to totally convince at point - he dropped the most straightforward of the chances in Cape Town - and Alex Hales is still bedding in at third slip. It will take time for all of them to acclimatise.

And then there is Bairstow. His batting in this series has been as reliable and polished as anyone. In both Tests, he has made hugely valuable contributions and, if England had to name a Man of the Series right now, he would be in a reasonable choice.

But batting is only half his job. And while his own keeping was better in Cape Town than it had been in Durban - he let through just four byes in 211 overs - he did maintain an uncomfortable habit of missing a chance a game. This one, a catch to his right that was not straightforward, followed a very tough missed stumping and another catch to his right at Durban. He also missed a routine stumping in the warm-up game in Pietermartizburg and a stumping and a catch in his previous Test in Sharjah.

All of which sounds more like a habit than a blip.

But we knew Bairstow's keeping was "a work in progress," as Trevor Bayliss described it, when he was selected. Just as we knew Moeen was not the finished article as a spinner and Stokes is learning his trade as an allrounder. All will, no doubt, benefit from patience and Bairstow cannot be faulted for his hard work or dedication. His selection remains a risk, though.

The same could have been said for Jos Buttler. His keeping had improved through his period in the side and, given time, perhaps his batting would have done, too. But the team management felt, with some justification, that prolonging Buttler to the torture that his struggles had started to become would do him more harm than good. He was dropped for his own benefit in much the same way that Finn was sent home early from the tour to Australia in early 2014.

Which left Bairstow the next in line. He knows that much hard work remains, but makes the point that he is a relative novice in the role and will improve over time.

"You're only going to learn by doing and that's the way I've always done things," Bairstow said. "When I first kept for Yorkshire, it was my second first-class game and I think I'd kept in two games for the second team. It was three years before I kept a full season.

"So my keeping is a work in progress. But I'm pleased with the way I'm catching the ball and pleased with the way I'm moving. I don't think you can ever say you've nailed it, but I'm pleased with the contribution I've made. It's still a massive learning curve."

Jonny Bairstow: 'I don't think you can ever say you've nailed it, but I'm pleased with the contribution I've made. It's still a massive learning curve' © Getty Images

The game has changed a great deal since England found room for a specialist keeper such as Bob Taylor and it seems most unlikely that it will change back. Indeed, it is debatable whether Taylor, for all his talent, would have been able to sustain a career in the modern game. Perhaps even the likes of Jack Russell and Keith Piper, who played such huge roles in the success of their county sides in limited-overs cricket, might struggle today.

Michael Bates, perhaps the closest comparison with Taylor in the modern game, is an outstanding keeper but, due to a batting average under 20, is struggling to sustain his career despite the fact that his keeping played a huge role in Hampshire winning the Lord's final in 2012.

In time, Ben Cox - a vastly improved keeper who benefitted from working with Saeed Ajmal during the 2014 season, in particular - might be an option for England? Or Ben Foakes, if he can ever win the gloves at Surrey, or the steadily improving Sam Billings? In the longest term, Joe Clarke, like Cox a Worcestershire player, may be the one to watch, though it is hard to see how he and Cox can fulfil their potential at the same club.

In the meantime, Bairstow has a chance to make the position his own.

The one England player to miss training on Monday was Compton. He is the latest member of the team to succumb to a nasty stomach bug and, while the England camp insist he should be fine for the game, he must be a slight doubt given how long it has taken other people to recover. Gary Ballance would come into the side if Compton does not recover. Training is optional for England on Tuesday.

The Test pitch, already bearing cracks, looks unusually dry. But rain is expected in the next few days and, if Cape Town taught us anything, it is that cracks do not always crumble and offer assistance to bowlers. Bethuel Buthenizi, the assistant groundsman here for more than two decades, is proud of his first Test surface as senior groundsman and expects it to offer pace, bounce and some assistance to bowlers of all types. "350 would be a good score," he said.

England are confident that playing at altitude will have little negative impact upon them. They spent a week or so at the start of the tour in Potchefstroom - which is similarly high above sea level - and their seamers will enjoy any extra bounce and carry as much as South Africa's. They will need to ensure the errors of Cape Town really were a blip, though, if they are to defeat the No. 1 rated Test team.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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