England humbled as South Africa square series with 340-run win – The Guardian

And we thought the South Africans had been given a thrashing at Lord’s when they were defeated by 211 runs. Here the margin of the tourists’ victory was 340 runs. It seems we have a tight, unpredictable series to savour marred only by the individual matches being massively one-sided so far.

At least there remains some doubt about which side will prevail in the end but after the Trent Bridge Test the South African team are far more at ease with themselves and there is every reason to believe they can improve. No such certainty exists with the England side, although the assumption is they can hardly play any worse than this.

If Lord’s had a dreamlike quality for Joe Root, with everything slotting effortlessly into place, this was a nightmare as England – with the exception of Root himself in the first innings – batted with an ineptitude beyond the expectations of their most pessimistic supporter.

In this match on a challenging surface – but a perfectly good one for Test cricket – England amassed 338 runs in their two innings from 96.1 overs. South Africa, to the relief of the ground staff perhaps, batted longer than that in their first innings of 335 – by one ball. And then they were able to declare in their second after another 104 overs at the crease.

England’s batting lineup was punctured as easily as party balloons landing on a bed of nails. On Monday it was all over by three o’clock, with England losing 10 wickets in less than 40 overs. Spectators loitered in the stands bewildered and betrayed. It was hard to argue that they had their money’s worth, although there was much to admire in the excellence of the South Africans in the field. But that was unlikely to be the reason the crowd turned up.

Clearly the return of Faf du Plessis has made a huge difference to South Africa; he has been a significant source of runs and authority, but the expectation that the tourists would be badly handicapped by the absence of Kagiso Rabada in this match was never fulfilled. In fact, South Africa are now so much better placed in this series. At The Oval in on 27 July they will be stronger. Rabada will surely come into the side in place of Duanne Olivier, even though Olivier, after a forgettable game, perversely found himself on a hat-trick after dismissing Mark Wood and Jimmy Anderson with the last two balls of the match.

Meanwhile, Chris Morris, omitted at Lord’s, will now be inked in the South African side without thinking. On Monday he bowled England’s captain with a superb away- swinging yorker, then he dispatched his predecessor, Alastair Cook, with a 90mph bouncer. Not bad for a second-stringer.

With Morris at No8 and Vernon Philander embracing the idea that he is now an all-rounder, South Africa surely know their best team. It is fanciful to suggest that England are in the same position after this dire performance.

The areas of concern are not surprising and were signposted before the match. The “peripherals” have struggled in this Test, none more than Keaton Jennings, who was the first to go on a sun-drenched morning. He pushed forward to a relatively straight ball from Philander and he was in the perfect position to defend the ball – just after it hit his stumps.

Jennings stands tall and barely moves forward and in this instance the bat came down crookedly. His place will be a topic of conversation in the next selection meeting. Will the yearning to be fair outstrip any gut instinct that he does not look as if he will score runs at The Oval?

Similar questions will be asked of Gary Ballance. The ball he received from Philander possessed more demons since it kept exceedingly low before hitting the pad. Ballance was given not out but in this match the decision of the on-field umpire has been overturned with disturbing frequency and so it was no surprise when he had to go.

Philander’s opening spell was superb and wonderfully simple. He bowls perpetually straight from very close to the stumps and allows no respite, even if he lacks the pace of his colleagues. Left-handed batsmen in particular – and England have three of those at the top of the order – have to live with the constant threat of being lbw. Later in the day, just as the wise men in the press area were advocating the benefits of batting 18 inches outside the crease, Ben Stokes was spotted doing just that, whereupon he was promptly caught and bowled.

Morris’s wickets were even more important. If England were to hinder South Africa then the impediments were bound to be Root and Cook. There was no great disgrace in Root being bowled by that brilliant away-swinging yorker; Cook is usually at ease against the short ball but here he was startled by the pace of Morris’s bouncer and fended in a most uncharacteristic manner.

Thereafter there was an ugly procession. Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali were caught attempting to attack Keshav Maharaj, who somehow conjured 6-63 in this Test, and the tail was not minded to hang around.

And 340 is a lot of runs to lose by; six defeats in eight matches is a lot of losses. Entertaining England may be but presumably this was not the bold, brave cricket the ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison, was calling for in the spring. Stubborn regimes in the past have often insisted that their players should have the chance to atone after a heavy defeat. That does not seem appropriate now. There will surely be changes for the next Test in 10 days’ time after much agonising. After the match at Lord’s it took England’s selectors five minutes to pick their squad for this Test; they may take five busy days to come up with their squad for The Oval.

England humbled as South Africa square series with 340-run win – The Guardian

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