Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The struggle for consistency

Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Just when you think England have got the hang of this cricket thing, you get days like today. Matches like this and like the fifth test of the Ashes, where the series has been won, the focus has slipped away, and a heavy defeat has followed. It's hard to be too upset with a 2-1 series victory away from home and against the team who had been ranked number one in the world, yet it's a defeat that has made the series win slightly less sweet at its conclusion.

But still, there has been so much good from England in the series. They have delivered the sort of performances that show why they're a team to be excited about, and a team to believe in. Like that innings from Ben Stokes - the match was ultimately a draw with England in danger towards the end - but the innings will live on in the memory for years to come. Stokes has given that balance to the side - showing he can deliver with the bat at number six, and be a genuine wicket taking option with the ball. There was Broad's spell at the Wanderers, another one of his magic moments where he takes a team apart in the blink of an eye. In the same match came a brilliant century from Joe Root, one of his finest yet for England. There have been many fine innings from Jonny Bairstow, making a real impact at number seven, and bowling displays from Steven Finn before injury cut his tour short. They delivered when it mattered, and it was a well deserved series win.

Yet still consistency remains a challenge. As in the summer, when it felt like every high was followed by another low, England have again shown that pattern of having one strong display, and then not quite being able to follow it up. After Stokes helped England score 629/6 at five runs per over, they had an error-strewn display in the field, frequently dropping catches and handing the initiative back to South Africa. After running through the South African batsmen in the third test, the bowlers could never quite follow it up in the fourth, and again England were the victims of missed chances. The batsmen never showed enough fight, dismissed for 101.

That said, South Africa were excellent. It was a considerably different line up to the team that had lost the third test - five changes in all. It worked. The debutant Stephen Cook made a century on his first attempt, with Hashim Amla making 109 alongside him. England clawed their way back in - pulling South Africa back to 273/5 after they had been 237/1 - but then keeper Quinton de Kock took it away from them all over again. It was his maiden test century, 129 from 128 balls, that sort of counterattacking innings from a keeper that instantly brings echoes of Gilchrist. But it was a bowler, 20 year old Kagiso Rabada, that stole the show. South Africa needed a bowler to step up with Philander absent and Steyn also missing most of the series, and Rabada was that man. Three five wicket hauls in the last three innings, 13 wickets in this match, the youngest South African to complete a ten wicket match. They may have lost the series, but a star was born along the way.

England are still left with questions to ponder. Again, the batting is the most pressing among them. Compton and Taylor shared one of the most significant stands of the series on its very first day, but since then the runs largely dried up. With Compton it seems largely the same problem as in his first stint in the side: the pace at which he scores. And perhaps the issue got lodged in his head: at times he was calm and unflustered, at others he would be frenetic and taking uncharacteristic risks. He wasn't the weakest of England's batsmen and probably should have another chance in the summer, but he risks being leapfrogged by others before then. James Taylor will likewise be looking over his shoulder, having made less runs than Compton, though his fielding at short leg at least offers an extra string to his bow. Unlike Compton, he also has the benefit of limited-overs involvement to impress the selectors, and with tours to India and Bangladesh also on the horizon he should still be a prominent figure in selectors' thoughts.

Alex Hales though might have the most to worry about. England have come out of another series still considering their options at the top. Though four tests is hardly a fair run for Hales, with his predecessors generally being given seven games to make their mark, he remains in danger of the drop. So far England's hopes that he could become their David Warner haven't yet been realised and he's looked far from the confident, attacking player of the limited overs formats. Maybe it's part of that urge to prove himself in the test arena, maybe it's that the game isn't quite so suited to him. That said, Bayliss is looking for an attacking player in the top three and Hales still could be that man. He has a lot to play for over the rest of the winter, but so will many once the new county season begins.

So where are England at now? They've beaten both Australia and South Africa over the past year, drawn series with West Indies and New Zealand, and lost to Pakistan without completely disgracing themselves. It's a mixed bag really, and a reflection of a young team still finding their feet in many ways. But the hype is building, and it's easy to be excited. In the summer come tests against Sri Lanka and Pakistan that England will back themselves to win, and they will also want to build the sort of consistency and ruthlessness that the best teams have - no more one match on, one match off; no more heavy defeats in dead rubbers.

This series has in many ways shown what England are capable of - and what they still have to learn.

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