Sunday, 17 January 2016

A sudden victory

Sunday, 17 January 2016
At the start of day three, not many would have expected the game to be over at the close of play. England were still in their first innings, Joe Root not out with a century to his name. He was there at the end of the day too, but England were in their second innings, wrapping up the match and a series win. What happened in between was magic.

Stuart Broad has long been that bowler capable of having those magic moments, the spells that make a game his within a blink of an eye. We saw it this year at Trent Bridge, we saw it early on in his career with that magic spell at The Oval in 2009, and we've seen it many times in between. But Broad is no longer simply the bowler of magic spells. Over these past few years he has been one of England's most consistent performers, and deservedly leads the list of wicket takers so far in this series. He might not always be the best loved player - and certainly revels in playing the villain when away from home - but he now finds himself as the number one ranked bowler in the world. It's a mark of his continued excellence in the past year, more than just the odd spell.

But even so, those magic spells sure are magic. The two sides were pretty much level pegging after one innings apiece - South Africa with 313, England with 323. South Africa even made it through to lunch unscathed - a tricky little five over period where things could easily go wrong. But it was the hour after lunch instead when the damage was done. A spell of five wickets for one run in 36 balls from Broad saw South Africa fall from 23/1 to 35/5. South Africa were being demolished; Broad was rampant once again, the echoes of Trent Bridge apparent. The other bowlers got themselves in on the act, too: Stokes getting the ball swinging violently, dismissing Morris and Rabada; Finn doing for Vilas; and Anderson taking debutant Viljoen. But of course it was Broad who got that final wicket, that final moment - diving for the ball with one hand to take number six caught and bowled. Figures of 12.1-6-17-6, the latest edition in his collection of magic moments. South Africa all out for 83.

England are really starting to deliver better performances as a team, not relying so much on the same old faces to get them through matches. The big names of Cook and Anderson are yet to make telling contributions in this series, yet England have already sealed the series win with a match to spare. The batting, whilst not the finished article, has been less of the two-man show it was with Cook and Root for much of last summer - instead Stokes and Bairstow lead the runscorers, and really all but Cook in that top seven have made an important contribution at some stage. The bowling attack looks exciting, with Anderson and Broad one of England's most successful partnerships of all time, Finn being one of the most dangerous bowlers in the series, and Stokes the fourth pace option who provides just as much of a threat. Moeen Ali too has been important, being economical and being especially threatening on wearing pitches like in the first test. Even the fielding, something that went so wrong in the previous match (though that being an anomaly in itself since Bayliss took over), was exceptional. Look at both those catches by James Taylor at short leg, with barely half a second to react. Absolutely electric.

Joe Root's innings must be mentioned as well. It was a pitch that offered something for the bowlers, one of those always described as 'a good toss to lose'. South Africa's batsmen got themselves in but never capitalised on their starts - all reaching double figures, but none making it to fifty. England's bowlers might have done better on the first day, too - really not hitting the right lengths for the conditions. But when Joe Root came out to bat, he just looked at ease. He so often does. And this time he went to the full three figures, not falling between 50 and 100 as he has done on several occasions recently. It was perhaps one of his best innings for England, his second century away from home and scored with a strike rate near 80. Stokes was there alongside him, pretty much picking up where he left off in the last game with 58 from 54; the pair scored at seven an over during their century stand. Bairstow again delivered important runs in the lower order with 45, another success story for England in this series.

With one match to spare, England already have the series win secured. And deservedly so. Apart from their struggles in the second half of the previous test, they have looked the happier, more confident team throughout. They've played exciting, attacking cricket with the bat and ball, and have had some very special individual performances as well. South Africa have had their struggles - injuries like Steyn's obviously having a big impact, the captaincy an issue, and the recovery from a difficult tour of India. Now they have been knocked off the top of the test tree, India taking their crown. The last match may be a dead rubber, but South Africa will still be desperate to salvage something from this series. England, meanwhile, will just want to pick up where they left off here.

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