Allan Massie: England must get heads down against South Africa

Tom Westley of Essex gets his chance at No 3 due to Gary Ballance's broken finger. Picture: PA
Tom Westley of Essex gets his chance at No 3 due to Gary Ballance's broken finger. Picture: PA
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South Africa poor at Lord’s, England very poor at Trent Bridge, and so the series is even as they resume at The Oval next week. Even it may be, but England must be the more worried. South Africa know what is their best 11, and, with Kagiso Rabada back from his absurd suspension, will be able to field it now. England, in contrast, don’t know their best team and on recent evidence have forgotten or, in some cases, never learned how to play Test cricket.

In the second innings at Trent Bridge they looked like headless chickens. Test cricket demands application; they were all out in fewer than 50 overs. To score consistently in Tests requires the ability to keep the score moving and disturb the fielding side by pushing the ball into gaps for singles.

A fish rots from the head and England’s troubles begin at the top. Alastair Cook remains a very fine batsman, but he has always had trouble against Vernon Philander, and his record against South Africa is only moderate. His partner Keaton Jennings made a hundred in his first Test in India (having been dropped before he scored), but has done nothing since. He retains his place principally because the present policy is to give batsmen a number of Tests before discarding them.

In any case, Cook and Jennings are too alike, both tall left-handers with much the same method. This makes life comfortable for opening bowlers who don’t have to adjust their line and length when batsmen change ends. There’s a lot to be said for a left-hand, right-hand opening partnership. With the teenager Haseeb Hameed, who started so promisingly in India, out of form in the early weeks of the season – and with no chance of finding it thanks to the ECB’s cloth-headed decision to devote July to Twenty20 cricket – the selectors might have been wise to recall Middlesex’s Sam Robson.

The experiment of bringing back Gary Ballance to bat at 3 is judged to have failed, with everyone criticising his technique. Actually, though he hasn’t made a big score, he has, at least in three of his four innings, got his head down and stayed some time at the wicket. However, a broken finger rules him out now, and Tom Westley, of Essex, pictured, gets a first chance. Reports suggest he at least knows how to set about building an innings.

The captain Joe Root is of course fine at 4. His 78 in the first innings last week was dazzling. He was the only batsman to make Philander look ordinary. Nevertheless, he got himself out just when he should have been intent on consolidating. Knowing how to pace an innings is an essential element of batsmanship.

It’s asking a lot of Jonny Bairstow to bat at 5 and keep wicket. He has done better than most in the first two Tests, but the appalling shot he played in the second innings at Trent Bridge should leave a blush on his face as red as his hair. It was an abdication of responsibility.

Then we come to Ben Stokes at 6. He is a remarkable cricketer who may become a great one, but his scores in the two Tests have been 56, 0, 1, 18 – 75 runs in four innings, no better than the maligned Balance. Curiously, when England have been criticised for playing “champagne cricket”, Stokes has been trying to bat more responsibly, not, however, successfully. I suspect he may be one of those batsmen who has days when he takes attacks apart, too many when he struggles.

At 7, we have Moeen Ali. I love watching him bat. On good days he is as elegant as David Gower used to be. But he isn’t solid, he can rarely graft. As an all-rounder and England’s best spinner, he has a certain licence. But it would be nice to think that if he comes in with England say 150 for 5, he could set himself to bat for a full session and more. Incidentally, I would like the coach Trevor Bayliss (whose own job must – certainly should – be in danger) to drop this nonsense of Moeen being regarded as England’s “second spinner”. He has now taken 112 Test wickets. According to Bayliss, the number one spinner is currently Liam Dawson because he “offers more control”. Not much sign of that yet.

As for the pace attack, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad are still great on their day, but the shades of evening are falling, and neither is likely to be with us much longer. Mark Wood has, sadly, been innocuous and, as a bowler, Stokes has more days when he looks innocuous than ones when he looks dangerous.

In short, England are ropey and erratic. Like the little girl with a curl on her forehead, when they are good, they are very very good; and when they are bad, they are horrid. They won’t become consistently good till they accept that Test cricket is a long game in which few things are more important than the ability to maintain concentration for hours. They have to come to terms with its demands or South Africa, who have players who recognise this, will run away with the series.