Is the decision on six batsmen and four bowlers really settled?

Hashim Amla reaching 300 for the first time.

Sporting postmortem is fun, and it’s also very easy.  Unfortunately it’s also a little dispiriting when it’s your team or your favourite sportsman (or woman, but I use the word in its generic sense, as I do chairman, serviceman, etc.) that has lost.

And so it is today.  South Africa wrapped up the 1st Test at the Oval yesterday by beating England by an innings and twelve runs.  England began reasonably well, scoring 267/3, but failed to capitalise, finishing with 385 all out.  The players might have dreamt overnight that this was enough, but South Africa had other ideas, and greater application as it turned out.  They just batted and batted, scoring 637/2 declared.  And that was it.  England scored only 240 in their second innings to lose the game convincingly.

Only one thing limits acerbic comment following such a defeat: goodwill from former success.  And comment duly hovered just short of the condemnation we might have expected in less successful times – a bad day, undercooked, not much in the wicket, etc.  The commentators held their tongues.  After all, the England team is a good side, world number one (for now).

But what if something more serious is going on?  On BBC Radio 5 Live, Michael Vaughan referred to a look he saw on the faces of the England cricketers, one of panic, shock or perturbation that, a) they didn’t expect to be beaten like that on home soil, and, b) they didn’t know what to do about it as it was happening.

Andrew Strauss has been criticised for his captaincy before – not for his leadership qualities or for his teammates’ regard, but for his cricketing brain and his ability to make tactical decisions on the hoof.  Geoffrey Boycott seems the most vocal on this.  He likes and respects Strauss the man, but questions his ability as a captain.  Yet even he held back, preferring to concentrate his fire on poor batting and bowling.  But perhaps if Strauss was a better tactician he might have forced the South Africans into more errors.

We probably shouldn’t forget this is just one game, and the South Africans are a good side.  Smith, Amla, Kallis and Steyn would (almost) certainly get into any side in the world, and we might mention others.  And with the best bowler in the world in Steyn, by some distance, and the best cricketer in Kallis, you might expect them to put England under considerable pressure.  To say that ‘England has the players and captain she has’ might be a truism, but it’s a bit unfair to blame Strauss for the bowlers and batsmen not performing in one game.

There is, though, one matter worth mentioning.  Ever since Andy Flower and Strauss decided to arrange the team around four bowlers and the extra batsman, it’s worked pretty well.  It’s taken them to world number one, and the logic of ‘scoreboard pressure’ seems to have its merits.  The reasoning is, a) that a high score undermines the opposition, especially the batsmen overwhelmed by the enormity of the task (Arguably, this was England’s fate this Test).  And, b) that a high score, freeing the bowlers from the worry of defending a small total, enables them to bowl more aggressively; under such conditions, the opposition batsmen wilt.

An extra batsman can, indeed, be a strength, but it can also be a serious weakness, especially when the team fails to get runs and the opposition batsmen are good.  The four-man attack soon becomes tired and the captain has nowhere to turn.  Second tier bowlers like Bopara (not to single him out) are not good enough at Test level.  Their weapon, a surprising change of pace and style, will not unduly worry the best Test batsmen.  Their place in the side ought to be based on their primary discipline alone.  If they’re a batsman then their batting, if a bowler their bowling.  Sometimes teams are forced to compromise this principle through lack of talent, but the result is often a compromise of the team’s overall capability.

You can get away with four bowlers against weaker opposition.  But when you come up against the best, you are likely to struggle.  Bowlers will tire, even the best of them, and while it’s too early to say this Test proves the point, it surely begs the question.  Might it not be better to bring in an extra bowler, such as Finn, a recognised wicket taker and with real pace?  Harsh on Bopara, but the side is unbalanced with only four bowlers.

But we probably shouldn’t expect Flower to change.  He’s shown no sign of accepting this rationale, preferring the safety of the extra batsman and the lure of ‘scoreboard pressure.’  And all said, he would probably be right to keep things as they are.  No panic.  He doesn’t have a record of bringing in players only to throw them out after one game, and his methods have taken England to the number one spot, even though that’s not likely to last given the form South Africa is showing so far.

Perhaps the time to change is for the winter tour, unless, of course, Bopara gets a century next game and the bowlers run though the South Africans as they have done with other opposition many times before.  I’ll let you know after the fact, as diagnosis is, as I’ve already said, far easier postmortem.

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