Tuesday 20 March 2018

Cricket: England refusing to press panic button

Cook insists series is not lost cause despite South African quality, writes Vic Marks

This England side have been this way before. In July 2009 against the Australians the bowling attack looked almost as insipid at Cardiff as it did at The Oval last week. Australia declared on 674 for six. We know what happened next: England hung on in front of a mesmerised nation.

Then, in August of that Ashes summer, England were thrashed at Headingley by an innings and 80 runs, a similar margin to last week. There was doom and gloom around the country. The team had imploded.

On neither occasion did the selectors make wholesale changes. Nor did the management panic. After Cardiff the two-spinner strategy was shelved so that Graham Onions replaced Monty Panesar for the Lord's Test. After Headingley there were calls to persuade Marcus Trescothick out of retirement or to recall Mark Ramprakash or Robert Key. In fact all that happened was that Andrew Flintoff returned after injury and Jonathan Trott replaced Ravi Bopara. We all know what happened next.

Likewise there will not be changes after last week's numbing defeat at The Oval against South Africa. This time Bopara will survive even if the question marks about his ability to prevail at Test level remain. As usual there will be agonising over whether to include Steven Finn in the final XI; if so, whom should he replace? Same team, different performance, please, is the likely mantra. The parallels with 2009 offer some reassurance. But there is one significant difference: South Africa of 2012 are an infinitely stronger side than the Australians led by Ricky Ponting three years ago. We have seen at first hand that they possess three batsmen of the highest calibre.

We never actually glimpsed the other three batsmen out in the middle at The Oval, but we know that among them is AB de Villiers, who also belongs in the top rank. Against South Africa it is possible that England can play at their peak and still not win.

Alastair Cook acknowledges the size of the task ahead. "It would be an amazing achievement to win the series but it's not out of the question. When we play well we are not as good as everyone says and when we play poorly we are not as bad they say. We can beat South Africa."

At Cardiff in 2009 and at The Oval last week there were reminders that the attack can be neutered and nonplussed by a bland, seamer-hostile surface, which can leave Graeme Swann and his creaking right elbow exposed. Last week the pace bowlers could not get the ball to move no matter how diligently the shiner-in-chief, Cook, went about his business. Usually the England seamers are peerless at mustering some reverse swing.

Stuart Broad, who has seldom bowled so blandly for England over the last two years, reckoned that despite the sunshine there was still dampness seeping up from the outfield, which meant that they could not keep the ball completely dry on one side. Hence no reverse swing.

Sadly this seemed to apply to all three of the balls used in South Africa's only innings. England's No 1 status will be passed over to South Africa if they lose the series. Headingley may not be the venue England would choose to mount their comeback. In 2003 and 2008 England were thrashed in Leeds by South Africa -- by 191 runs and 10 wickets respectively.

Jimmy Anderson played in both those games; on the first occasion he had Kabir Ali alongside him, on the second Darren Pattinson. Anderson won't be accompanied by any one-Test wonders this time but there will still be much debate about the pace attack. The case for Finn grew stronger after every wicketless over at The Oval, but Headingley is Tim Bresnan's home ground -- he should know how to bowl there -- and Broad has a habit of proving doubters wrong.

England need a victory and their bemused bowlers want to see some movement. At Headingley in the 21st century, movement can never be guaranteed. Moreover, we can safely assume that the South Africans are no longer "under-cooked", even if their batting line-up from De Villiers downwards is eager for a bit of time in the middle.


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