England must stand and deliver against South Africa

England captain Joe Root will find himself under increasing pressure in the next few weeks.  Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
England captain Joe Root will find himself under increasing pressure in the next few weeks. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
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Two matches played and both sides will think they could win the series. England and South Africa are surprisingly well matched. A smattering of world-class players, a few decent workers at Test level and enough wannabes lacking real quality to make each session compelling.

Such a mixture has made this a classic contest between mid ranking sides. But who will keep it together over the next two Test matches to secure the series win?

After the first match at Lord’s England were rampant. Their win was too easy, South Africa almost supine in their submission. That may have led to some complacency in the second match at Trent Bridge, usually a good hunting ground for England, where South Africa comprehensively won with a performance of great conviction.

The visitors, after that victory, certainly seem to be in a better state at the moment. The return of captain Faf du Plessis bolstered them in both skill and character and for the rest of the series, barring any further disciplinary shenanigans Kasigo Rabada will play.

Their bowling line-up looks solid. Rabada, Morne Morkel, the sublime Vernon Philander and the left arm spinner Keshav Maharaj offer pace, swing and variety. Add in the competitive Chris Morris if needs be and it is a powerful outfit.

Their immediate opponents are an England batting line-up in disarray.

Selectors try to avoid radical changes but injury and form have forced their hand. Dawid Malan and Tom Westley, pictured, have been summoned, Gary Ballance jettisoned courtesy of a broken finger. The side they choose from the 13 in the squad will be revealing.

The batting at Trent Bridge was woeful. Dismissed twice in fewer than 100 overs is abject. Westley is pencilled in at three so do they add Malan as well and leave out Liam Dawson? He was rather ineffectual in Nottingham, appearing not quite good enough as a batter or left arm spinner.

If Malan slots in a five it leaves Jonny Bairstow at six, Ben Stokes at seven and Moeen Ali back at number eight. It is more powerful and the only concession is Joe Root has to be the legitimate second spinner.

Then it is either Mark Wood, if he has recovered from a bruised heel or Toby Roland -Jones as the third seamer to Stuart Broad and James Anderson. Wood has been a bit off form but three debutants in a match and Keaton Jennings still a novice, and one struggling as well, may be a bit too much. Decisions, decisions. It is a tricky issue, but one of England’s own making.

If Ballance was not injured he should still have been dropped. Root’s loyalty to his Yorkshire teammate was laudable but misplaced. After initial success every team now knows how to counter his crablike adhesion deep in the crease.

Westley has been a bit like Banquo’s ghost for a couple of years. The man discussed, a presence but never quite present. He has a good temperament, has scored well for Essex in first class cricket for seasons and importantly has excelled in the matches against the tourists.

Earlier this season he scored 106 for the England Lions against South Africa. Last year he scored 99 against Sri Lanka and 144 in 2015 against Australia. Goodness, even back in 2011 he scored a hundred against Sri Lanka. It may be he is just a big pressure player. The hope is he is as it would certainly solve a problem for the team as Alastair Cook is struggling, leaving only Root as a top order player firing.

The next three weeks are a severe challenge for Root. The new captain has already experienced the frustrations of leading a young side and the greater pressure it places on his own personal performances. After the defeat in Nottingham he was irked at criticism by Michael Vaughan, a fellow Yorkshireman and former England captain.

Root is a pleaser and maybe dreamed of unconditional support. The reality is ever-demanding scrutiny.

He needs some players to rise to the occasion and prove themselves worthy of Test match status. If they fail, the series will be lost and proper inquisitions begin as the Ashes loom in November.