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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Johnston on January 13, 2016, 12:24 GMT

    @ Brahms / nursery ender / JMcIL

    Bairstows recent Div 1 first class keeping record for the Tykes is actually not bad at all 2015 9 FC games 28/0; 2014 13 FC games 38/4; 2013 8 FC games 27/0. So that's 3.23 dismissals per game.

    Maybe the real problem is with outfield catching, especially in the slips. As JMcIL rightly points out there have been an awful lot of spilled chances over the last year. Remember Bell's annus horribilis? The odd Bairstow gaffe behind the stumps might not seem so bad if all those other chances had been taken.

  • Jason on January 13, 2016, 11:46 GMT

    @landl47, I'm always amazed by people who are not prepared to allow a player to establish himself in a team, unless there are instant payoffs, and when challenged the refuse to provide viable alternates.

    Most of the time they talk about Read or Foster as alternates ignoring their ages, or untried and unproven players like Billings, Cox , or Clarke.

    I feel that Ballance was harshly treat especially after a few low scores, but on the plus side Yorks got a key player back while losing JB.

  • John on January 13, 2016, 4:52 GMT

    Bairstow's batting in the right place at #7 and he'll be fine as a WK. The guy plays 3 tests as WK/batsman and people are calling for him to be replaced. Give him a chance to develop a relationship with the bowlers and get the feel of being a test WK before deciding he can't make it, for goodness sake.

  • John on January 13, 2016, 4:44 GMT

    @Brusselslion: Of course it's true that the overseas stars don't often play in the county championship any more, but that's because these days, with the much expanded international schedule and all the T20 leagues around the world the top players simply don't have time to play in the CC. Heck, neither do England's top players- they play one or two games a year and that's it.

    However, at least England has a set-up which allows young players a chance to play with good prospects and experienced veterans from overseas. No other country has that. Overseas players don't play FC cricket in Australia or SA or anywhere else. It's one reason why England, much to the irritation of fans from other countries, has young players coming over and qualifying as England players.

  • John on January 13, 2016, 4:26 GMT

    NUTCUTLET ON JANUARY 11, 2016, 21:29 GMT One of the most significant differences between England Test sides of today and those of the last century is that players arrived in the Test side as the Finished Article in those increasingly distant days.

    Although it's true that cricketers didn't make the test team until later in their careers, I can't say that I think that made England a better test side. Australia always blooded its players young and let them develop in the test team. It's a hard way to learn and some didn't make it, but those who did were toughened and ready for anything. A lot of England players in the past came in because they were good County players and then couldn't handle the transition to international level. The current England side is young and developing together. By the summer of 2017 I think they'll be an extremely strong test team. I know it requires patience, but it'll be worth the wait.

  • John on January 12, 2016, 22:44 GMT

    England's fielding errors are clearly not a blip. I recall the home series against WI before SA last toured England as the time I really noticed England dropping a lot of catches. They won that series but I mused at the time that similar issues against better opposition could cost them dearly. That turned out to be the case in the following SA series and has pretty much continued since. Every now and then they'll put in a couple of good performances in the field and I think that they've turned a corner and then a game like Cape Town comes along and they're back at square one again. The drops of de Villers and Amla in particular may have more far-reaching consequences than just costing England that game. Pretty much the whole SA batting lineup has grown in form and confidence as a result and that may cost England the series.

  • Bernard Arthur on January 12, 2016, 20:48 GMT

    Dear Cricketingstargazer, I would like to assure you that it is far from my intention to disparage the cricketing ability of Alec Stewart, whom I consider to have been a very, very good batter. But I do believe that his great talent as a top order batter was to a certain extent wasted by the attempt to make him keep wicket. I have the impression that he would have benefitted from the strategy Sri Lanka have employed with Sanga. I would be interested to know what Alec Stewart himself thought about this matter. I am still of the opinion that Adam Gilchrist was extraordinary, but, for that very reason, an example to be admired, but not imitated.

  • alfred on January 12, 2016, 19:10 GMT

    Jonny's batting has been brilliant in this series, and he should definitely be in the team, but as a batsman... his keeping is, and has always been ordinary in tests... time to pick a real keeper, not a bits and pieces man. Thought this was clear after UAE, thought it was clear after the first test.

  • Johnston on January 12, 2016, 17:01 GMT

    I've nothing against the "new breed" of w/k batsmen like the two JB's, Kieswetter, Billings etc, but surely above all else the test 'keeper should be the best glovesman in the country. If he bats it's a bonus, if he doesn't so what. These days, the test selection committee seems obsessed with bowlers and keepers who are not the best out there. They're picked over others simply because of their secondary game.

  • Mark on January 12, 2016, 15:12 GMT

    Hi Sevillano, as I pointed out, for the early years of his career Alec Stewart was regarded as a sub-standard (and part-time) 'keeper and not particularly good bat! (the living definition of your "bits and pieces" 'keeper). However, but hard work and the fact that England kept faith in him, he became a very high class 'keeper and a very good bat (after 13 Tests he averaged just 26.5, but he ended up just a fraction under 40). It took him 19 Tests as 'keeper to get his batting average over 30 and his batting average as 'keeper never reached the dizzy heights of 36. There were some 'keepers such as Read and Geoff Humpage who could cause mayhem in the CC, but were embarrassingly inept with the bat when elevated (Chris Read's ICC trophy campaign in India when he was recalled probably still makes him wake in a cold sweat). The point is that until a player has had a run in the side, you can never really know if hard work will overcome the deficiencies in the weaker of his two disciplines.

  • No featured comments at the moment.