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Match Analysis

Young England embrace old-fashioned virtues with eye on 2021-22 Ashes

The success of a clutch of players aged 24 or under means Joe Root can look forward with optimism

Joe Root poses with the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy, South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg, 4th day, January 27, 2020

Joe Root poses with the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy  •  Getty Images

That's how England can win the Ashes. Nobody is claiming they are favourites, or overlooking the many other significant challenges that lie ahead (not least India in about 12 months' time). But the Ashes remain, for right or wrong, the barometer by which English Test cricket judges itself. And over the last few weeks in South Africa, England have shown a way they could regain the urn in Australia.
What's that way? Well, for a start, they have acknowledged - at last - that five-day cricket is a marathon not a sprint. And if they are to regularly establish match-defining first-innings totals, they are probably going to have to take their time over it. So the top-order have been empowered to occupy the crease for as long as it takes safe in the knowledge that the middle-order will not only be more comfortable against the older ball, but that they can accelerate if required. It's not so dissimilar a formula to the one used so effectively in 2010-11.
Then there's the bowling. It was fitting that Mark Wood should take the final wicket in this series as it has been his pace that has shown what England have been missing. On flat surfaces, with a kookaburra ball, England have often looked toothless in recent years. With Wood and Jofra Archer in tandem - and let's not forget, that is still only a dream, as they've yet to play a Test together - this England attack threatens real bite. "It would have made a big difference last time to have Jofra and Woody in Australia last time," Joe Root said ruefully.
This victory has all but guaranteed that Root will lead England into that Ashes series. While a change of captaincy never seemed an especially realistic suggestion - there simply aren't viable alternatives, and Ben Stokes called it "laughable" after the Wanderers Test - it could have become a damaging distraction in the months ahead had England kept losing. They could still do with more runs from Root, whose top score in the series was just 61, but his positive qualities should not be underestimated.
The team are united, delight in the success of their team-mates and are dedicated to playing selfless cricket. It says much about Root's character - and that of senior players like Stokes and Stuart Broad - that young players are now able to come into the team and thrive. It wasn't always this way. These are not minor attributes. Root deserves a lot of the credit for instilling them.
It must be acknowledged that this is a weak South Africa side. Diluted by the loss of a coterie of economic migrants, they failed to post a total of 300 in any of the four matches; none of their batsmen registered an individual century. Their attack was led by a man in Vernon Philander who was clearly running on fumes while the other four seamers they used in Johannesburg came into the game with eight caps between them. They are nowhere near the force they once were.
To a large extent, the causes of South Africa's decline are well beyond the realm of cricket. But if the ICC and, more pertinently, the "big three" of England, India and Australia, are serious about nurturing international cricket, they will give more thought to a minimum wage and a new model for the distribution of revenues. If international cricket is to remain viable, it requires not just a strong England, but a strong Pakistan and West Indies and Sri Lanka and South Africa, too. There should be a certain hollowness in beating such an impoverished foe.
That isn't to take anything away from this England team. Even on the final day in Johannesburg, South Africa fought hard. Faf du Plessis was finally undone by a delivery that kept low; Temba Bavuma by one that reared. It says something for the incredible depth of talent in South Africa that, only through the dozens of departures, have cricketers as talented as Anrich Nortje, Pieter Malan and Rassie van dur Dussen won prolonged opportunities. It would be wrong to underplay the value of beating a team containing such players.
England faced setbacks, too. Remember, they were decimated by illness when they went 1-0 down in Centurion. They lost their senior fast bowler, James Anderson, their senior opener, Rory Burns, and their senior spinner, Jack Leach, to illness and injury when they had contributed just three Tests between them. Archer also missed three Tests through injury, while Stokes had to contend with the serious illness of his father. These are significant challenges.
But the holes in the side provided opportunity. And by the end of the series two men aged 24 or under (Archer and Dom Bess) had claimed five-wicket hauls, two others (Ollie Pope and Dom Sibley) had made centuries and two others (Sam Curran and Zak Crawley) had returned career-best figures with ball and bat respectively. All will hope to have their best days in Test cricket ahead of them. And, underlining the sense that this is a team building to future challenges, Sibley, Crawley and Bess will shortly fly to Australia to take part in the red-ball leg of the Lions tour. England's eye is on Australia already.
Of all these young batsmen, Pope is perhaps the most promising. His time for the ball, his range of strokes, his technique and his temperament mark him out as a special talent without obvious weaknesses. Stokes suggested that there wasn't a more promising young batsman in Test cricket and it would be hard to disagree. But you could argue it is Sibley who is the most relevant. For in embracing the somewhat old-fashioned way he plays, England have also accepted the remit of the Trevor Bayliss years was naive. His partnership with Crawley, who looks made for Australian pitches, played a huge part in this series win.
The development of these young players has allowed England to peek into the future with more excitement than fear. For a long time, the bowling attack looked over-reliant on Anderson and Broad but now, with Archer and Wood to the fore, Olly Stone in the wings and Stokes in support, England have started the transition to life beyond them.
That's not to hasten their retirement. Not at all. Broad still finished the series as England's leading wicket-taker, while Anderson claimed match figures of 7 for 63 in the Cape Town Test. They aren't finished just yet. But England have to move on at some stage and, right now, the leap looks less intimidating than it has for a long time. The final Test of the 2020 English summer, at Trent Bridge, could well prove the stage for a double farewell.
There are other concerns. England will need to look after Archer and Wood. And they have played three of their most recent five Tests without a specialist spinner. As a result, there have been times they have looked one-paced and forced to over-bowl seamers who might well benefit from a slightly lighter workload. At some stage, they need to find a way to include a spinner in their side in all but the most extreme circumstances.
And then there's Stokes. Just as Mike Brearley's reputation was made, in part, by Ian Botham and Michael Vaughan's, in part, by Andrew Flintoff, Root is incredibly fortunate to have a great allrounder at the peak of his powers in his side. Yes, he was hot-headed with the spectator in Johannesburg - "A grown man running 50 yards to shout at me. Let's just say we were both immature" - and yes, he will have to learn to handle a great deal more provocation in Australia. But to have a player capable of shaping the game in all three disciplines, to have a player at his best when others might crumble, to have a player so utterly committed to the team good rather than personal statistics… England have something very, very special in Stokes.
So it turned out not to be such a "cursed tour" after all. England won, Ged Stokes is, thankfully, on the road to recovery and the future looks brighter than it has for some time. Of course there will be bumps in the road in the months ahead. But if England's attack at Brisbane in 2021 includes Wood and Archer, if their middle order consists of Root, Stokes and Pope, if those young opening batsmen can build on the good start they've made and complement Rory Burns in the top three… well, we might have quite an Ashes series, mightn't we?

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo