There is a phenomenon in English society known as “tall poppy syndrome”. Briefly it means to build somebody up in order to knock them down, the idea being that the tallest poppies that stand out from the others in the field are the most likely to be cut down to size.
Having spent the best part of the season signing the praises ofEngland’s new management team of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum it would seem peculiarly English to bury them in criticism after one defeat, however desperate that defeat may have been.
There are a number of reasons that England had won 1 of their last 17 Tests before this summer, and it was not solely due to the leadership of Joe Root and Chris Silverwood. There are glaring deficiencies in both batting and bowling and Stokes and McCullum are no more likely to fix these overnight than Eric Ten Haag is to suddenly turn Manchester United into Premier League title contenders. There will be bumps in the road and there will be abject performances. This does not mean that the captain and the coach are failures or that England’s new positive approach is worthy of going the same way as the DeLorean and the Betamax.
Amidst all the naysayers in the written and social mediashaking their heads and saying “I told you so” over Bazball’s failure this week, it is worth noting one fact. England did not play in anywhere near as aggressive a manner as they have in the previous four Test matches this summer, with the possible exception of the Lord’s Test against New Zealand. Ben Stokes, in particular, started his innings in this match in far more controlled fashion than the almost manic slogging we have become used to witnessing from him this summer. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, likewise, seemed to have dialled down the more extreme aggression of their earlier outings.
The reason that England did not go hell for leather at Lords is because South Africa did not allow them to. The Proteas attack was just too good for England to adopt their new approach. Stokes himself admitted as much in his post match interview. The brutal fact of the matter is that England would have lost this match heavily regardless of their approach to it and who their captain and coach were. The home side were blown away by what is quickly becoming the most exciting attack in the Test game. Lungi Ngidi bowled with control,Marco Jansen shows great promise and Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada bring back memories of Alan Donald, Dale Steyn and the other great South African fast bowlers of the past. They outgunned England’s attack to a remarkable degree. The 130 fastest balls of the match were all bowled by South Africans. Until Stokes and McCullum can find bowlers capable of bowling 90mph plus and, far more importantly, staying fit, there will always be the danger of their attack looking embarrassingly popgun in the face of opponents with serious pace.
The main l criticism that can be levelled at England after this game is the staggeringly inept tactics applied to bowling out the tail, which, yet again, failed spectacularly. At Edgbaston against India, they got lucky. Stuart Broad’s 35 run over and the carnage either side of it did not cost them the game. At Lords yesterday, however, the same tactics resulted in making a difficult task nearly impossible.
It is almost painful to keep repeating the same obvious yet simple truth, if line and length is good enough for the top order it will be too good for the tail. England had fought back into the game when Keshav Maharaj walked to the crease on Thursday evening. What followed for the rest of the innings stretched the boundaries of credulity. Stokes had persisted with four slips for the majority of South Africa’s top order but as soon as the lower order batsmen, who could reasonably be expected to edge the ball to slip with more frequency, arrived in the middle the cordon scattered to leave a field that left no doubt as to what the approach would be. The results were equally predictable. This is the biggest concern so far with Stokes captaincy, an almost rigid way of thinking that leaves no flexibility to adjust to the changing situation of the game. The tail are in, the field must go back and the bowlers must bang it in short, or so goes the thought process. The fact that James Anderson was left unused for the whole of Friday morning, as Anrich Nortje pummelled England’s bowlers, was bizarre to say the least. Of course, once England did pack the slip cordon and bring Stuart Broad on to pitch the ball up,they quickly bowled South Africa out. One has a feeling this will not change Stokes and McCullum’s thinking for the next match, however.
Loyalty to one’s players is admirable but persisting with Zak Crawley is becoming almost an act of cruelty. He was so horribly out of form during England’s second innings yesterday that, at one point, he even managed to chip a leg stump half volley straight up in the air while trying to glance it through the onside. The Kent man is a talented stroke player but surely must be given a rest from the side for his own good.
England’s second innings surrender left one with a slightly hollow feeling. Once the top order had been blown away by Nortje there seemed precious little will to resist or play for pride amongst the lower order. Matthew Potts shot in particular, with Ben Stokes farming the strike at the other end and only one ball left to survive in the over, bordered on a dereliction of duty. If that sounds harsh, consider the consequences if Jack Leach had played a similar shot at Headingly in 2019. When Stokes is at the crease the impossible is possible. The job of the man at the other end is simply to stay with him.
One defeat does not spoil a summer, however. There is a sense that the slightly staid atmosphere of Lords does not suit this team. They play to the crowd on the raucous terraces of Edgbaston, Trent Bridge and Headingly. Perhaps next week’s venue of Old Trafford will be more suited to them.
What England must not do is allow “Bazball” to become a millstone round their necks. There has been so much talk of the term in the build up to this match that it almost feels as if it is something that England have to live up to every time they are out in the middle. This will bring unnecessary pressure. Stokes team must just play the game and the conditions. The rest will take care of itself.