England Knocked Off Their Perch

I wrote this after England’s Test-Series defeat to South Africa and the farcical saga that surrounded star batsman Kevin Pietersen…

After an absorbing, yet tragically short-lived Test Series, South Africa have defeated England 2-0 and claimed their place at the top of the ICC’s Test rankings at the hosts’ expense. Since the second day of the First Test at the Oval, on the 19th July, England have been thoroughly out-played by this vibrant and dynamic South African side; boasting a world-class bowling attack and a supremely gifted batting line-up, they are deserving of their new-found status.

At no point have England been on top of the opposition, and Graeme Smith’s charges were comfortably the better side. In Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel and Vernon Philander they boast the best pace attack in the world, whilst their batting top-order of Smith, Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers is unrivalled.

As absorbing as this Series has been, truthfully it has been rather one-sided. South Africa’s batting, bowling and fielding has been far superior to England’s. England seemed to have mislaid all the ingredients that elevated them to the number 1 position just a year ago.

That England have dropped 9 catches during this three-match Series demonstrates how dramatically their previously high fielding standards have fallen. Their much vaunted bowling attack took just 2 South African wickets in the first match at the Oval and was not as economical as usual; only Steven Finn, who took 8 wickets at Lord’s, has emerged with further credit. Most alarming however, was England’s failure to apply pressure or strangle the life out of the opposition; with South Africa 54-4 in their first innings at Lord’s they should not have been allowed to make 309.

England’s batting was similarly lamentable throughout this series. Too often the top-order failed to build a sufficient platform for the rest of the innings. This was most evident at Lord’s where England were reduced to 54-4 in the first innings and 45-4 in the second. Though English batsman were constantly guilty of giving their wickets away, this had much to do with the hostile pace bowling and meticulous planning of the Proteas, something conspicuously lacking from England.

Though England lost their number 1 status on Monday, they have suffered for some poor displays since reaching their holy grail. They endured a turgid winter in the UAE against Pakistan and in Sri Lanka, where the top order failed to acclimatize to conditions on the sub-continent. They swept aside a sub-standard West Indies side earlier this summer but have been out-fought and out-played by their biggest challengers, the South Africans. They face a tough battle to reclaim the ICC Mace that they had fought so hard for with a return to the sub-continent in November for a four-match series against India – interestingly with South Africa travelling to Australia, the ICC Mace could well switch hands again over the next few months.

When your most vociferous supporter is Piers Morgan you have a problem

England are unlikely to travel to India this winter with star-batsman Kevin Pietersen; having allegedly sent ‘derogatory’ text messages to his South African friends advising them on how to dismiss captain Andrew Strauss, his England career, particularly under the current setup, is surely finished. When your most vociferous supporter is Piers Morgan you have a problem. It is such a shame that the finest England batsman of his generation could ruin his career, legacy and reputation in such a derisory manner.

Pietersen has always proved a divisive figure since his breakthrough in 2005; cricketing purists took exception to his flamboyancy, his skunk hairdo, his former pop-star wife and the England badge tattooed on his left bicep. His bombastic batting has always mirrored his spiky personality; aggressive, assertive and unpredictable, which in part explains his controversial post-match interview at Headingley a few weeks ago. He admits that he likes to shoot from the hip, but his behaviour in the last few months has been staggeringly incomprehensible. He retired from ODI’s and T20′s, citing a ‘ridiculous’ schedule that compromised his family life, only to demand a few weeks later that he be allowed to pick and choose Test match appearances in order to fulfill his contract with the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL. The Youtube video that he released just over a week ago smacked of a man with conflicting ambitions and commitments, which has won him few friends in either the game or the media.

England’s problems however run deeper than simply re-integrating Pietersen into the setup. Claims that England’s dip in performances throughout this series were symptomatic of the ‘Pietersen Problem’ ignore the fact that England have been under-performing for the last year. Graeme Swann’s form has dipped considerably; in this series he claimed just 4 wickets at an average of 77. Given that the off-spinner is 33, is a return to the prolific start he made to Test cricket between 2008 and 2011 beyond him? Stuart Broad was also off the boil throughout the series, whilst his batting average has declined in the past year. Captain Andrew Strauss, despite hitting two centuries against West Indies earlier this summer, is under pressure once again; it is far easier to justify your selection when the team is winning, but this no longer a dominant England side – they have lost 6 of their last 11 Tests.

The question of whether Strauss, having celebrated his 100th Test by relinquishing England’s place at the summit of Test cricket, has reached the end of the road is unlikely to be answered by the ECB, who prioritise stability and will not seek to break-up the Strauss-Flower duopoly. If, however, England suffer another chastening winter on the Sub-Continent and Strauss enters next year’s back-to-back Ashes series without scoring a glut of runs then it is justifiable to ask these questions. Strauss will not want to retire from Test cricket on a low, yet increasingly it looks as if he has stayed on at the helm a year too long.

As England demonstrated between 2009 and 2011, they prefer to be the hunters rather than the hunted. Planning for their mission to return to the summit will begin in earnest. Whether it will include Kevin Pietersen remains to be seen. Whether it should include Andrew Strauss will remain a hypothetical question.

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