There’s a good time and a bad time to win your first sporting cap

Seeing new players emerge onto the sporting scene is one of the great delights of competitive sport. It’s almost as pleasing as watching seasoned professionals performing at the peak of their powers (which reputedly occurs at around the age of twenty-six); or hanging on beyond their pensionable age through sheer brilliance, force of will and managerial loyalty.

Sometimes the arrival of new players is the consequence of panic. Managers, coaches and selectors, fearing the sack or the harsh side of their supporters’ tongues, look for solutions in new faces. The trouble is, this approach doesn’t usually work unless it is part of a wider, more-considered strategy. Fergie’s kids may have been kids, but they were the product of a carefully-considered youth strategy.

I remember the dread days of English cricket in the 1990s. New faces seemed to appear as often as they did on that eponymous show of the 1970s; and if they failed, they would get the same cruel treatment from those infinite legions of judges ready to cut them down. A player (or a comedian) might achieve fame for their allotted fifteen minutes, then be cast back into their obscurity and only reappear, if unlucky, a couple of decades later in a game of Trivial Pursuit (this also applies to the comedian).

There were reasons enough to panic in those days: not least the West Indian executioners masquerading as bowlers; though it’s probably more accurate to call it fear. The real panic was with the selectors. They struggled to find an eleven with which they were happy, and only later realised that a debutant was as likely to fail as succeed. Though that was the era, was it not? And the lack of team continuity – and confidence in selection – perhaps contributed to a poorer win-loss ratio.

It’s a statement of the obvious that young, inexperienced players are more likely to succeed if they debut in a settled side. Andrew Strauss’ first test match perhaps illustrates the point: a century at Lords against New Zealand in 2004. He might have got off to this flying start anyway (and average just over sixty in his first year), but the settled nature of the team helped. Trescothick, Vaughan, Flintoff, Hoggard and Harmison formed the backbone of a side on the up; and a year later they won the Ashes in that great summer, of which I remember escaping from the office into the sun and watching the drama unfold in the nearest establishment possessing a television, and then later on the day of celebration at Trafalgar Square to witness the intoxicated victors falling out of their bus.

We forgive winners, I’ve noticed that. Six years after the 2005 Ashes, the English rugby team got up to their own mischief during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. But there was one key difference. They didn’t play well. Vaughan and Flintoff won, while Tindall and Tuilagi lost – simple.

Between getting knocked out of the 1999 World Cup and winning the competition in 2003, the England rugby team possessed a winning culture. Against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, they won ten out of twelve games, which is no easy task. At that time, players emerged into a team imbued with confidence and true ability, each adding something new rather than merely trying to arrest the decline. Okay, so a review of the debut list shows quite a few forgettable names; but each player who broke into the side for a permanent run, rather than so Clive Woodward (not yet knighted) could ‘take a look,’ were genuine talents. Ben Cohen, Mike Tindall, Iain Balshaw (what could have been had injury not blighted him!), Jason Robinson and Steve Thompson all made the team better for their inclusion.

Sporting fortunes rise and fall: Always. After 2003 and 2005, the rugby players and cricketers alike fell off quite drastically. But the cricketers were soon back, even reaching number one in the ICC rankings and winning the two most recent Ashes series. There is a buoyancy to the side, and the expectation is that each new player will succeed rather than fail as they did in earlier eras. Take Anderson, Broad, Swann, Cook and Trott: they all improved the side and they all succeeded almost immediately. One might mention Anderson’s pre-2005 Ashes debut, but he was only kept out of the side by the great quartet of Flintoff, Hoggard, Harmison and Jones. That’s no insult.

We are currently in the throes of the Autumn Internationals. England has already played Australia and Argentina, winning both quite comfortably, and there is a sense that a player will now only force their way into the side if they are going to improve things, rather than because there is no other option. That’s where we want to be, and it doesn’t really matter what happens against New Zealand at the weekend.

I don’t expect England to win the game, although they might, and despite last year’s unexpected triumph; the All Blacks won’t have forgotten that one, and they’ve not lost a single game since. No, the mood is buoyant and the supporters can tell Lancaster and this crop of players might be onto something. Which makes it all the more exciting to see new players pulling on the shirt for the first time: because to get into this side, they really do have to be pretty good.

South Africa close Day Five of the Test with a win, but not before England show what’s in store for the ODIs

Graeme Smith contemplating South Africa’s ascent to No.1 in the ICC Test rankings at the end of the 3rd Test against England

And on the Fifth Day, time did run out, and England lost the Test series 2-0 to South Africa.

‘Haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance,’ was Boycott’s prognosis at the start of the day, and with England already down to 16-2, needing a further 330 to win, very few would disagree.  Except Finn, who sounded confident at the previous night’s interviews.  But it’s his job to be confident, and better that than negative.

Trott and Bell came out first, and both those names suggest good things are possible.  Trott has a Test average of just over 50, and Bell of just under 47; both have hit good double centuries.  They began with intent but Bell fell for 4 at 34-3, bowled Philander, caught Smith.  Then a poor run out when Taylor went for a fourth run.  The impression was of a side with optimism, but little overall control, which about sums up the series.

Bairstow again looked reasonably comfortable, giving the loyal crowd something to cheer.  He has a good physical presence at the crease, soft hands when required and the strength to dispatch the ball to the boundary – a good find who will surely rise above Taylor in the pecking order.  The positive approach continued and 75 runs were added from 84 balls before lunch.

A feature of this game has been the sense that all results were possible, even with England having to break records to reach their target.  But any realistic hope finally disappeared when Bairstow was bowled by Tahir for 54, with Trott following shortly afterwards for 63, bowled Steyn, caught Kallis, reducing England to 146-6.

There then followed a flourish, more for the crowd and personal pride than as a serious assault on the target, as Broad hit 37 from 42 balls.  There are ways to lose, and if you must then this is the preferred method – with defiance.  Swann joined in, taking England within 100 runs with a six, only falling after a brisk 41 off 34 balls leaving 60 to win with two wickets remaining.  Was it still on?

No.  Prior skied Morkel to deep cover point.  But then the umpire called him back for a no ball, the news receiving the loudest cheer of the match, probably the game.  But he finally fell for 73 and Finn then followed and they were all out for 294, losing by 51 runs, and South Africa were No.1.

They were made to work hard for their win, and they deserve to be top of the tree.  They’re led well, their batting is strong and their bowling attack is anecdotally and statistically the best in the world.  But the final piece in the jigsaw is Kallis, the great all-rounder of his era.  Only Flintoff gets near him, but even he is not quite on his level.  He gives South Africa their fifth bowler, and the team’s batting does not suffer one bit.  On the contrary, he sits No.4 in the ICC rankings.

England need to work a few things out after this.  They’ve only managed to win one of the last four series, and their opening partnership is misfiring.  People will ask questions: is it time for Strauss to step down, for Pietersen to return, for five bowlers or for Broad to take a break?  But all that’s for another time.  The merry-go-round continues and both teams have an ODI series to prepare for.

South Africa begin to squeeze England on Day Four of the 3rd Test

Without Finn, England would be dead and buried after Day Four. Instead, they’re just dead!

And on the Fourth Day, time began to run out for England.  South Africa has a gentle squeeze on this game, the 3rd Test, and, while they seem unwilling to exert their full strength, they are doing just enough to keep England one step behind them.

By the end of the day, South Africa had built a lead of 345, scoring 351 in their second innings, and England had fallen to 16-2.  While Amla was the only centurion, scoring 121 until bowled by Finn, the others chipped in enough to give them a decent second innings score – enough at least to make victory for England extremely unlikely.

Beginning the day on 145-3, leading by 139, much of South Africa’s work had already been done.  But, as has been the case all Test, each next session has been the critical session because neither team has been able to fully assert themselves.  Build a lead of over 300, and England would struggle.

The seamers – Anderson and Finn – began well, the latter’s pace being extremely useful on this good wicket, but in the end it was Broad who got the first wicket, that of Steyn the nightwatchman.  Swann bowled well again, with an economy rate of 2.00 and 2 wickets.  Had Anderson not uncharacteristically dropped de Villiers, though, his figures would have better reflected his efforts.  Taking such chances is critical.

Amla is one explanation for England not keeping South Africa below 200, but, as a unit, they have not had the zip and pep of earlier series.  Although Swann and Anderson have bowled respectably, only Finn has seemed the more likely to take a wicket (8 in this Test).  Perhaps fresh legs – and arms – are what’s required.  Broad, for one, seems to lack his former bite.  His economy rate was 4.04 this innings, with two wickets.  Not bad, but not great.  Perhaps a brief spell out of the side would give him a chance to recharge his batteries.  Onions is bowling superbly and was surely unlucky to not make the side ahead of Finn these last two Tests.

There are two ways to bowl a side out: starve the opposition out with a strict economy rate, inducing errors in their search for runs; or take them in a more proactive fashion, even at the expense of a few more runs.  Finn falls into the latter group, similar to Flintoff in his prime, and, to be fair, Broad when at his best.

Yet sometimes you just have to hand it to the batters.  The South Africans were never daunted, and by the end of their innings, they will have felt confident their work had been done and that it was just a matter of time until they bowled England out.

And the South Africans started well.  Philander, having made a useful 35 at No.8 (No.9 this innings because of Steyn coming in as nightwatchman), trapped both Strauss and Cook lbw.  16-2 and the probable result is coming into focus.  If England lose 2-0, which seems most likely, South Africa will have earned their No.1 status.

But, with Bell and Trott at the wicket, two batters capable of scoring good centuries apiece, anything is possible.  Isn’t it?  Isn’t it?

On day three neither England nor South Africa could take control of the 3rd Test

Jonny Bairstow up for the challenge of chasing down any total South Africa sets England

After the thrashing England received at the hands of South Africa in the 1st Test, these two teams have been quite evenly balanced this series.  The 2nd Test was drawn, and neither side has so far taken control of the 3rd Test.  No sooner does one team slump to 105-5 (SA), then the other team offers up 54-4 (Eng).  Do either of them want to be No.1?

Well, yes, of course they do.  It’s just that England and South Africa match up quite well in all departments.  They’re athletic in the field, they bat and bowl well, and they’re equally capable of getting their decision reviews both right and wrong.

But there is a difference.  In the top ten of the ICC rankings, South Africa have three bowlers (Steyn, Philander, Morkel) compared to England’s two (Anderson, Broad), and four batters (Kallis, Amla, de Villiers, Smith) to England’s two (Cook, Pietersen) – and Pietersen is not even playing here at Lords.  This seems to corroborate what we all suspect: England are good, but the tourists are better.

Yet the South Africans do not quite seem to be pressing home their statistical advantage as we might expect.  While they scored 309 in their first innings, England finished on 315 due to a fantastic 95 from Bairstow.  Not only was he coming into the side in the wake of the Pietersen affair, but he came in to bat with England in serious trouble, and was also making a return to the side after not quite making a success of his first caps against the West Indies earlier this summer.

Such parity could, in some instances, take all the excitement out of the game, but not here.  Each battle seems close-fought, and we recognise the achievement of England overhauling South Africa after such a poor start.  And so the game effectively started again from scratch in the second innings – all square with two and a half days to play.

England will be disappointed to have only taken three wickets by the close of play, but they will still feel they are in the game despite the South Africans being 139 runs ahead with seven wickets in hand.  Indeed, this is one of the most pleasing aspects of England’s game: they don’t seem to give up as they used to.  The bowlers worked hard all afternoon, and Swann’s economy rate of 1.90 was excellent.  Though scoring runs is not really an issue for SA.  Draw the Test and they win the series to take England’s place as No.1 Test team.

So, discarding the hope and the optimism, how is this game really balanced?  Well, South Africa will feel the most contented.  All they need to do is play out the game; no chasing required; just bat until England run out of time to overhaul them.  But this is Test cricket, and Day Four is another day.  In fact, in total we have five of them – plenty of time for a pleasant surprise.

Bairstow and Bell steady the English ship on day two of the Test

Ian Bell and Jonny Bairstow at the wicket on Day Two of the 3rd Test against South Africa

England will have ended the first day of the 3rd Test against South Africa in relatively good spirits.  262-7 is not a bad return on a day’s work in the field, but they will have taken especial heart (and perhaps some relief) from proving to themselves that they can bowl this South African team out.

All they had to do today was knock off the remaining wickets cheaply and post a moderate total with their own wickets intact.  If they could then go on to post even a modest lead on the Saturday, they would have a real chance of levelling the series to retain their No.1 ranking.

But it was not to be quite so straightforward.  While an extra 39 runs might not seem like much, it took the South Africans above the 300 mark.  The first five wickets fell for 105 runs while the second five fell for 204.  This is the wrong way round: the sort of tail-wagging we have come to associate more with England over the last two years.  Yet 309 was a manageable total, if only the English openers could see off the new ball and one of the top three stick around for the remainder of the day.

Lords, Stauss’ home ground, his 100th Test – he will have hoped for a performance to match his debut, scoring a century.  But even though the pitch was playing well, Morkel’s pace and height proved awkward.  Having the No.1 bowler coming in as first change is also a useful luxury, saying much about South African confidence in Morkel and Philander as their opening pair.  Yet it was Morkel who clean-bowled Strauss (around the wicket) before lunch.

A good review of the umpire’s decision led to Trott being given lbw, then Cook was caught by Kallis off Steyn wafting outside off stump, and unfortunately Taylor, on his second Test, was soon caught at first slip off Morkel.  54-4 and England looked in trouble.  A few nice shots seemed to be quickly followed by mistakes.  There’s something about a batter looking at the ground after being dismissed that screams lack of confidence.  This is the English weakness, always has been.  The skill is there, but it’s frustrating to see them hesitant at the crease.  One can’t help thinking that Pietersen’s outrageous defiance eases the burden on England in this respect.

Then again, perhaps it’s little more than South Africa having the best (probably) bowling attack in Test cricket at the moment.  And with it they have four pace bowlers, Kallis giving them the balance a team only finds with the inclusion of a genuine all-rounder.  I won’t return to this issue just now except to say that it seems quite plausible to me that England’s failure to press home their advantage yesterday comes down to their lack of a fourth seamer.  Fatigue, even to the slightest degree, comes to all bowlers.

Yet, Bell and Bairstow then proceeded to prove this theory wrong.  Bell scored a patient 58 off 157 balls, showing his customary touch and positivity, yet he will be extremely annoyed not to have seen out the day.  He really needed to go on and get a big score after England’s poor start.  But he steadied English nerves – such an important task – putting on a much-needed partnership of 124 with Bairstow.

The most pleasing note of the day came from Bairstow’s performance, ending the day on an unbeaten 72.  He looks a strong prospect for the future, unafraid to take on the best bowlers, but it is in the present that England need him just now.  And nearly as welcome was the absence of any discernible weakness while facing the short ball; some thought this a real problem after his experiences against the West Indies earlier in the year.  The South Africans peppered him for a while, but the ball too often found its way to the boundary.

Strauss will be mightily relieved that Prior and Bairstow saw out the remainder of the day, closing on 208-5.  Considering the poor start to the innings, he can hardly have hoped for more, trailing by just 101.  They could have ended the day with no hope of a win, but it is surely still a viable outcome to this final Test.  Tomorrow should be as riveting a day as any we’ve had so far this season.  If England can retain their No.1 ranking, they will surely have earned it.

England play South Africa in the 3rd Test without Kevin Pietersen

James Anderson dismissing Graeme Smith caught behind by Prior

Coming into this third and final Test, one might assume the task of winning in order to level the series and retain their No. 1 ranking would be beyond England.  The last few weeks have certainly been torrid: decidedly thrashed in the 1st Test and distracted by the looming shadow of Kevin Pietersen in the 2nd.

There have been bruised egos, there have been text messages from a player about his captain – derogatory or provocative depending on your perspective – and the England management has refused to let one individual rock the boat, leading to Pietersen’s exclusion; all this before the 3rd and final Test on which so much rides.

To lose your most destructive batter just after he has scored a scintillating century to save the 2nd Test, and just when you need to win, might seem like an error perhaps on the level of leaving Swann out of the side.  But this side was built with the team ethic in mind, and a clear statement has been sent to all players, not just Pietersen, that the team will always come before the individual, no matter how good they are (at least while Strauss and Flower are at the helm).

With Swann back in for Bresnan and Bairstow taking the place of Pietersen, England will have hoped for a fresh start.  It even seemed that the commentators were hoping for something similar, England supporters that they are.  Boycott took just a few sentences to make the point that Pietersen was wrong to have done what he did and must apologise, meaning it, before he can be allowed back in.  Then Vaughan moved the commentary on and insisted they would restrict themselves to talking about the cricket.  And Strauss, making his 100th appearance for England and just as keen to be getting on with the cricket, was as level headed and calm as always at the post-toss interview.

And considering everything that had gone on beforehand, England did probably all they could on the first day.  Anderson trapped Smith early on, caught behind by Prior, and the decision to retain Finn as the third seamer seemed to pay off.  He still needs to work on his consistency and economy rate (4.08 for the day compared to Anderson, Broad and Swann at under 3) but the pace and lift he generates makes the overall attack more dangerous with his inclusion.  In time and with regular selection, this will come, I’m sure.

At one point South Africa were 105-5, so could have been rolled over cheaply, but closing the day on 262-7 will be moderately pleasing for England.  Yet they must take the remaining three wickets early on the second day, preferably for less than 300 runs – anything more expensive will make it difficult for them to score enough runs while leaving enough time in the game to put the South Africans under pressure.  But, if England can do this and get a score, this is a first day that could lead to a win.  But they must bat well and apply that scoreboard pressure they seem to love so much.

It was good to see Swann, with a new and sharp haircut, finding some turn.  That he managed to dismiss Jacques Rudolph for 42 with a solid strike of the stumps will give him confidence.  Not that a lack of confidence has ever been one of his problems.  But of late he doesn’t seem to have been quite as potent a bowler as in the past.

It was, however, disappointing to see Trott bowling – not because he can’t bowl, but because I still don’t think part-time bowlers are a good idea at Test level.  While they can sometimes surprise the opposition into giving up their wicket, as a general rule they are just not good enough.

So far, England doesn’t seem to be missing Pietersen.  But then again, they haven’t batted yet.  I’m sure no selector would ideally wish to have two batters of such inexperience playing at the same time, but it seems they had little choice.  Perhaps we should see it as a sign of strength and a vote of confidence in the players graduating from the county game?  Let’s hope both Bairstow and Taylor do not make them regret their decision, and let’s also hope they are not called on to bat until well into Saturday and England are already in the lead.  With the pressure off, they might just perform.  We shall see.