Two weeks ago, Lord’s was the scene of England’s fall from the number one ranking in Test cricket. They lost that title to South Africa. Here’s why:
1. Desert snowball
England got to Number 1 by whitewashing an India team whose biggest problem was their inability to arrest the unstoppable momentum of defeat established in the 1st Test. But the snowball effect works both ways, and England were about to get a faceful of slush. In Dubai they convincingly lost the 1st Test against Pakistan by ten wickets. They should have won the next two: in Abu Dhabi, England led by 70 on the first innings and had Pakistan 54-4 in the second; in Dubai again, they reduced Pakistan to 44-7 on the first morning. But getting over the line is a lot easier with momentum on your side – England lost 3-0, and soon added Galle to their downhill itinerary. Yes, there was a series win against West Indies, but in hindsight the predictions that England would slip serenely back into the familiar pattern of home-turf excellence against South Africa were optimistic. They had just months ago played 15 consecutive days of cricket in a losing cause; a demoralising sequence of humiliation whose effects were unlikely to be effaced simply by the comforting sight of a home changing-room.
2. Conservative selection
Some of the barbs aimed at England’s conservatism are ill-judged; the pundits’ chorus of “Get another slip in!” is the worst sort of antiquated armchair-wisdom. Not all criticisms, though, are so easily deflected. For a while England have been well served by Flower’s default instinct to resist change and keep the faith. But England’s lack of progress over the last twelve months begs the question whether that steadiness has become inertia. When Steven Finn and Johnny Bairstow were belatedly introduced in this series, they showed the value of change: they offered fresh and invigorating impetus with bat and ball, and South Africa’s players didn’t look so assured when confronted with unfamiliar problems to solve. At times in the final Test England were reliant on their vibrancy, yet too often Flower has turned away from such proactive calls. By all means disdain the revolving door, but not at the expense of an evolving core.
3. Bad habits
England’s batting line-up, so accomplished during the 2010-11 Ashes and the 2011 India series, has appeared bedevilled by technical weaknesses. Alistair Cook’s tendency to fall over to the off-side and play around his front pad has reemerged. Ian Bell’s flat-footed flirts with leavable deliveries suggest a batsman unsure of his off-stump. Even the reliable Jonathan Trott has been too easily suckered into loose drives. Failure to master the unchartered challenge of subcontinental spin was disappointing, but regression to bad habits against pace in English conditions suggests a more fundamental malaise. Only Kevin Pietersen is averaging in the 40s this year – that problem goes deeper than dustbowls and doosras.
4. Blunt weapons
Not for many a series have England’s bowlers toiled as they did against South Africa. Rampant in Australia, indomitable against India, beyond reproach even in the UAE disaster. But if there is to be a thorough examination of England’s travails in this series, it cannot ignore the attack. The luckless James Anderson was not unimpeachable, but two men especially concern. Stuart Broad looked well down on maximum pace and hostility and could not find the late swing that has underpinned his finest performances. Graeme Swann, clearly troubled by his elbow, bowled too fast and flat and has lost drift and dip from his arsenal. They look jaded – and no wonder. Why, when so much is made of the depth of England’s bowling, are these two virtual ever-presents in all three forms of the game?
5. Justice done?
Quite simply, England are not the best cricket team in the world at the moment. For a while, they, India and South Africa have duked it out at the top of the rankings, but watching this series, one had the impression that the Proteas were merely asserting the rightful order of things. Their bowling unit is comfortably the world’s best, a remorselessly varied attack that possessess pace, swing, bounce, seam and mystery, not to mention the outstanding individual talent of the modern game. Their batting unit, with four of the world’s top-ranked seven, is an imposing edifice of technical solidity and mental steel. The whole is a team that looks better equipped than England to prosper in all conditions – they are worthy of the mace.