Places up for grabs as England end tour on a losing note
The tourists lost seven wickets for 49 in just over an hour to slump to a 280-run defeat in Centurion, as Kagiso Rabada ran riot for the second innings in a row.
England will rightly celebrate a 2-1 win over a Proteas side who went into the series as the world’s number one team, but there are major question marks over several of the side.
Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow have all excelled with the bat but their efforts have not been matched elsewhere in the order.
Cook has been among the strugglers but, as he closes in on 10,000 Test runs, his credentials are not in question.
The same cannot be said of Alex Hales, James Taylor or Nick Compton. All three have ended the tour on a low note – averaging 17, 26.57 and 30.62 respectively – and cannot be certain of lining up when England welcome Sri Lanka in May.
Cook did not sugar the pill when he assessed the trio’s performances. “There are a lot of unanswered questions in our top seven batting,” he said. “Results matter and your end column of runs is absolutely vital. So to say they’ve totally convinced me would be wrong, but there have been flashes.
“There’s certainly places up for grabs. Myself and Trevor [Bayliss, head coach] and the selectors will have to sit down and discuss that because the output we’ve had in this series hasn’t been good enough if we’re trying to get to number one in the world – which is the ultimate aim.
“Those guys have got to continue working hard and make sure when selection comes round for Sri Lanka they’ve got a bucketload of runs for their counties.”
While Bairstow performed admirably at number seven, scoring 359 runs with an average and a strike-rate above 70 – by a distance his best run of form in international cricket – his wicketkeeping has not progressed at the same level and he has been error-prone at key times behind the stumps. In the fourth Test alone, he dropped or reprieved all three South African centurions.
Cook hopes he can banish those mistakes sooner rather than later, but there is an argument for him to play as a specialist batsman.
“Runs at seven are vital for most sides but the keeper needs to cling on to more chances than he puts down. Absolutely,” said Cook. “Jonny has been outstanding with the bat in this series, but he knows he has a huge amount of work to do on his keeping.”
Summing up, Cook added: “It’s not the way we wanted to end the tour and this whole five days we haven’t quite been as good as we have been in the other games.
“But it is incredibly encouraging to outplay South Africa for three Tests as we did and still have areas to improve upon.”