Monday, 15 February 2016

Lessons to be learned

Monday, 15 February 2016
This ODI series has proved that, as exciting as this England side can be, they still have a lot left to learn. A 2-0 series lead slipped to a 3-2 series loss, as despite having the chances to wrap up a historic double series win in South Africa, England were left to rue mistakes and misjudgments and fall to a series defeat. It was an excellent comeback from South Africa, no doubt about it, but there too is the feeling that England let themselves down.

Patience is the key with this young England side; patience for those watching them, and something for the players to learn themselves. The first match saw them score 399, not even the first time they've been around the 400 mark in the past nine months; but it's not something that's going to happen every time. Of course I'm fond of this self belief, this mentality where there's no limit when they go out to bat. But there is a line between positivity and stupidity, between aggression and recklessness, and England can swerve too much over to the latter side. Take the final match as the most glaring example - crying out for someone to build a partnership with Alex Hales as he made a century. It wasn't a 400 pitch, but one where if a batsman settled, he could be rewarded. But nobody stayed there long enough, and despite an early struggle, it became a fairly comfortable win for South Africa. They made partnerships - de Villiers (101*) with Amla (59), and then with Wiese (41*) - and they reaped the rewards.

Mistakes in the field were also costly for England. They put down three catches at the Wanderers, where they had their best chance to secure the series win. Rashid's drop of Morris on 14 was the most costly - he then made 62 from 38 before finally being dismissed with the scores level. South Africa won by a single wicket. How it could have been so different. They are tiny, tiny moments, but it a format like this it doesn't take long for a batsman to get away and the damage to be dealt.

There are still a few questions over the bowling, though in a batsman's world it will always be a tough task. Reece Topley continued to make a good impression, finishing as the leading wicket taker on either side, but others struggled. Broad, Woakes, Willey, and Jordan took only one wicket apiece, and Topley was the only bowler to average below 40. Jordan suffered the most, conceding over eight runs an over throughout the series. Maybe it was the lack of a truly quick bowler, with Finn, Plunkett, and Wood all on the injury list. It was a hard series for the bowlers in any case with batsmen like de Kock in full flow, and further fine centuries from Amla and de Villiers. But there was still the feeling that something was slightly missing.

There are still the positives, of course. Alex Hales and Joe Root were the leading runscorers of the series, and adapted the best to the situations and conditions. Hales passed fifty in every innings, finally rewarded with a century in the final game after being out for 99 in the second. It was a marked difference to the man who was ill at ease in the test series, looking much more assured in both attack and defence against the white ball. The first match showed exactly why it's so easy to get excited about this team - an opening partnership to get off to a flyer; a middle order with the freedom to express themselves; and a flexibility too, with Buttler moving up to number four and scoring his century. Coming from 73 balls, it was his slowest one yet for England.

A lot of it is a matter of maturity, and this team should get better the more they play. Batsmen will make low scores, they will make bad decisions, chase after one that's not meant to be hit. It's just disappointing when they all do it one after the other when there's time for them to just settle in a bit. Even in the most electrifying innings batsmen still have time to play themselves in before the real battering comes along, just think of how many times you watch a batsman suddenly get on a roll and just hit it everywhere. Unfortunately the captain led by example. Morgan can be brilliant at times, and at other times so poor. He struggled to make a mark in this series, and at Cape Town his was perhaps the worst shot of the lot.

And so, the learning curve continues. Bumps in the road are to be expected, and it's still worth remembering how far they have come, nearly a year to the day since being dismissed for 123 against New Zealand at the World Cup. It was hard to see a way out of the mire at that point, and now we have a team playing with the freedom and self belief we had always hoped for. Maybe the trick now is learning the right time to reign things in a bit.

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