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Saturday, 2 January 2016

Bright beginnings

Saturday, 2 January 2016
England winning the first test of an away series is something of a novelty - so novel, in fact, that the last time it happened was in Bangladesh in 2010, and before that it was South Africa in 2004. By looking at the rankings, it might have been easy to think they'd struggle again as they begun this series against South Africa too: England down in fifth, whilst South Africa sit at the top of the pile.


Somehow though, the optimism had sneaked in. England's 2-0 loss against Pakistan hadn't felt quite as bad as other series losses, and they'd certainly had a better time than South Africa did in losing 3-0 away in India. England's batting line-up might still have been far from secure, but if anything South Africa's form was looking worse. The warm up games had brought promising displays, with many of the batsmen scoring runs and bowlers sharing the wickets - the return of Steven Finn from injury particularly causing hope. Anderson was to miss out with injury, naturally a big blow, yet still hopes were up ahead of match one.

England were sent in to bat by South Africa, and duly fell to 10/2, and then 49/3, as Steyn dismissed both openers and then Root fell to the first ball from spinner Dane Piedt. England were in a position they had been through much of 2015 - three down for less than fifty - and two recent returners to the team were together at the crease. Yet that pair of Compton (85) and Taylor (70) brought the fight with them. Compton played the sort of collected, composed, and calm innings at number three that it felt like England had been missing for quite a while - quietly staying in and putting on the runs, providing a solid base for a partnership and for other players to express themselves around him. Taylor was busier, as ever, making it harder for spinners to settle whilst not looking particularly troubled against pace either. Both really played the sort of innings that made you wonder why they were absent from the test side for so long in the first place. With some attacking lower order runs from Bairstow (41) and Broad (32*) too, England made it up to 303. It perhaps wasn't the score they might have achieved - another rush of wickets on the second morning stopped them from going further - but was still a good fightback from a tricky position.


South Africa's batsmen found it even tougher than England's, with only Elgar and de Villiers (49) really getting themselves in. Elgar especially showed the sticking power needed, being disciplined throughout and deservedly carrying his bat for 118*. Of the others in the top seven, all really being specialist batsmen as de Villiers took on the gloves, the highest score was 10. The woes of the tour of India had only continued. Broad and Moeen Ali were the standouts for England with four wickets apiece, Broad's including the big wickets of de Villiers and the captain Hashim Amla. 2015 has been perhaps Broad's most consistent year, and here he showed again his ability to lead the attack in the absence of Anderson.

From then on South Africa couldn't get off the downward slope. It wasn't long before Steyn pulled up with injury in England's second innings, and though a deficit of 89 wasn't insurmountable, it was certainly a lot more difficult without their main man leading the line. Compton again showed his sticking power with 49, with further contributions from Root (73) and Taylor (42). Jonny Bairstow, though, was the pick of the bunch. He found a fluency other similarly attacking players had never quite found, hitting nine fours and three sixes in a 76-ball 79. England were already on top of the game, but his innings took their lead from a chase-able total to one truly out of South Africa's reach. The match might have been a bit mixed for Bairstow, showing his keeping still needs a lot of work, but as a test batsmen he showed he deserves this chance.

And so, South Africa were set a grand total of 416 to chase; more accurately, about a day and a half to survive. The top four made some starts, but still they found themselves four down at the end of day four, Steven Finn having taken three wickets. When de Villiers fell to Moeen Ali on the morning of day five, it felt like the result was decided. Bavuma fell in Moeen's next over, England's first stumping since 2012. Steyn became Finn's fourth victim, a beauty of a delivery, before Moeen took his third of the morning. South Africa were soon all out for 174, victory by a crushing 241 runs for England.


England have a moment to enjoy a rare position away from home - having the lead going into the second test. It was a strong team performance, and yet one where there's still room for improvement. Still, the batting has room for more - there were a lot of starts but no centuries, and a first innings score of 303 often won't be enough. South Africa's batting problems might be more glaring at the moment, but England's aren't gone yet either. But still hope wins through. Players like Compton and Taylor provided the bedrock of England's win through their first innings partnership, both making an immediate impact coming back into the test side. The bowlers delivered: Moeen Ali being economical and dangerous with spin to win man of the match; while the success of Broad and Finn has continued. They also won't have too many overs in their legs, leaving them fresher as the second test begins after just a two day break.

So for once England enter the new year with a spring of hope, after the past two having begun in their own bleak ways. A series win over the best ranked team will of course still be a challenge, and you'd think that somewhere along the way South Africa's batsmen will get it back together, but it's a goal that should certainly be seen as achievable. For now, at the start of 2016, things are looking up.

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