So, the 2nd Test between England and South Africa ends in a draw, leaving SA one up with one to play. England’s performance was much improved on the 1st Test, and if there was going to be a winner at the start of the fifth day it could only have been England – barring a collapse, but this team has far greater batting solidity than in earlier, less happy, times.
But what about my question after the 1st Test: should England field five bowlers, forgoing the extra batsman at six? Well, they stuck with four bowlers, but substituted Swann for Finn, hoping four pace bowlers might do what three could not do last time.
Dropping Swann surprised almost everyone, including me, but on the face of it the decision paid off because England took nineteen wickets; a distinct improvement on the measly two of the last Test. Yet they missed the option of a spinner. Even though Pietersen was used to some effect, taking four wickets, his economy rate was 3.71 and 5.77 in each innings. He is not a long term plan. If Strauss used four quicks plus Pietersen, then why not have a five man attack with Swann and trust the top five batters to do their job? The answer probably still lies in his preference for scoreboard pressure. But to win a Test you still need to bowl your opponents out twice.
The problem remains. Against the best sides, playing just four bowlers will put them under considerable pressure. We should note that England, although they did well in this Test, could not get twenty wickets at an economy rate good enough to secure the win.
And neither did Bopara have the opportunity to make up for a missed opportunity in the 1st Test, not playing because of indeterminate personal reasons. Taylor stepped in, scoring a promising thirty-four, but is he really the solution at six just at the moment? I still think Morgan has a place in this side, but perhaps not until the other flare player, Pietersen, has finished Test Cricket.
It is a shame – or perhaps a tragedy – that the complication of Kevin Pietersen’s bizarre stand-off with the ECB and Andy Flower remains. Can he really be putting his Test career on the line in the hope of being reinstated in the Twenty20 team while also being allowed to play a full IPL season? It might explain the blistering 149 he scored this Test – an attempt to show everyone he is too good to be left out, no matter what he demands. But if he imagines himself a sort of cricketing bank too big to fail, he might find that Andy Flower is a little more robust than your average finance minister. Yet I still think it would be a mistake to turn him away. There are still problems within the ECB, and it might just be that it takes a Pietersen to shake things up.
England came into this series a settled team. They were on good form, having just beaten Australia and the West Indies, and they thought Bopara was going to finally show how good a player he is. But then they found they could not get twenty wickets against their closest rivals, Bopara could not perform the way everyone hoped he could, and the Pietersen saga had not been put to bed.
For the first time in a while, I’m not sure what lies in store for England. But there is a growing sense that they might be entering another period of transition, whatever that might entail.