Richard Sydenham - An English view

England dominated the first 3 days of the series but South Africa have turned it around since then

Tuesday, July 22, 2021
South Africa turn it around in a week

Leeds: South Africa’s clinical victory at Headingley turned the series on its head after they batted over three days to save the Lord’s Test. It is England who now have it all to do with two Tests remaining.

The Proteas’ courageous effort at the home of cricket when three batsmen scored centuries in the second innings, albeit on a flat Indian-like pitch, reversed the momentum in the series and although England had bossed that Test they came to Leeds with their heads bowed and their bowlers fatigued after enforcing the follow-on. It’s no surprise they lost heavily against a rejuvenated South Africa.

Whereas South Africa were able to name the same team and go into the match full of confidence at their jailbreak, England’s continuity of selection and cosy morale was shot to pieces.

So what changed in a week? Firstly, England were forced to omit back injury victim Ryan Sidebottom. The left-arm swing bowler has taken more Test wickets this year than anyone apart from Dale Steyn but maybe he is now starting to detect how gruelling the international treadmill is after his first full year in the arena.

James Anderson was also forced to have a scan on his back before the match but played in what was Andrew Flintoff’s comeback – his first Test in 18 months. ‘Freddie’s Return’ would normally have been a joyous occasion and though it was, this was overshadowed by the selectors’ muddied strategising.

England had to leave out the out of form batsman Paul Collingwood – a vital cog in the team with his energy in the field - to accommodate Flintoff but the real mess started when Anderson first reported his back problem.

Chris Tremlett was in the squad after being drafted in as cover for Sidebottom. But unbelievably, the little-known English-born, Melbourne-raised Darren Pattinson was called up when Sidebottom failed his fitness test as Anderson played. Not just called up but given his debut when Sidebottom failed his fitness test – ahead of Tremlett.

Dale Steyn after taking the wicket of Tim Ambrose © AFP
England had set a world record for picking the same Test team for six Tests in a row before Leeds, and although that had to change to allow for Freddie’s comeback, it surely didn’t have to happen in quite such a destructive way; destructive for continuity and in terms of man management of veterans like Simon Jones, Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison on the fringes, who have worked hard to return to fitness and form.

Pattinson in the event bowled competently and showed guts with the bat to support Stuart Broad at the death, but I suspect he has already bowled his last ball in Test cricket and will join the other one-cap-wonders of world cricket.

Broad’s uninhibited 67 not out at the end also raises questions about his position. His batting continues to impress and he now has a better Test average than his opening batsman father Chris did but he is in the team primarily to take wickets but has a bowling average near 50. Maybe the selectors need to be radical with him and move him up to six, with Flintoff seven and ‘a wicketkeeper’ at eight (Tim Ambrose is far from an automatic choice for Edgbaston). Much thinking needs to be done.

It is interesting how a team can go from a buzzing, confident unit like England after back to back series wins over New Zealand and a near-win against South Africa at Lord’s to a rabble with poor morale. The same happened in 2007 when only rain prevented them from taking a 20th wicket and beating India at Lord’s. India went on to take the series 1-0.

Ironically, despite England’s whooping at Headingley, the Botham-like innings against the odds by the ever-improving Broad that prevented England’s first loss by an innings at home for five years, will have lifted the gloom somewhat. Such small issues do matter.