England's upsurge a reflection of depth and lessons learned
It arrived right at the nick of time for England. In the last 18 months or so, the English Test team has undergone plenty of changes. Alastair Cook retired, while there are growing doubts about James Anderson continuing in the side.
In the past year, in 22 innings, England have been bowled out for under 100 three times, below 200 nine times, and crossed 400 only once. Hence, an overseas Test victory against South Africa, who were one up in the series--and a convincing one at that, is special.
Before this game, Joe Root spoke of his frustration at how England seem to bring their A-game when they are lagging. The captain stated that they need to showcase the same kind of determination, grit, and character right from the start of the game. He further said that they need to seize the opportunities with both bat and ball as and when it arises.
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This was the opportunity he was referring to and his men seized it by producing an all-out team effort. England needed to secure this victory after dominating the better part of four days. As the day progressed, the required seven wickets stubbornly refused to fall. If the unthinkable didn't start to become thinkable, the Proteas threatened to perform a reprise of Adelaide 2012 or Johannesburg 2013 to remind England of instances like that of Antigua 2015 or Christchurch 2018. Any result other than a win would have crushed the Englishmen's spirits given the pressure they were under.
There were plenty of individual performances that shaped this memorable win. If there were one performance to single out, it undeniably would be Ben Stokes', the indispensable heart of the team. The statistics - six catches, 119 runs, and three wickets don't do justice to the impact he had on their first victory in Newlands since 1957.
Dom Sibley's hundred was crucial in the visitors gaining the upper hand in the second innings. When they obtained the ascendancy, Stokes thrust himself into the scene on the fourth day and started going after their bowlers straight away. His 72 off 47 deliveries put paid to South Africa's hopes of restricting the tourists to a gettable total. Stokes' brisk scoring also meant that Joe Root was able to declare their innings early, giving the bowlers a timely crack at the opposition. And, in retrospect, they needed all the additional time.
When going gets tough
Character, passion, and stamina - is what the all-rounder exemplified with the ball after the umpire signalled the start of the final hour on day five. England still needed three wickets. It was time to put everything on the line. This is the kind of moment Stokes lives for. He did it against India at Edgbaston in 2018 and against Australia in 2019 at Headingley. And here was one more opportunity to script one of their famous victories and the first away from home since February 2019.
He began with serving Dwaine Pretorious with a highly testing over in which his line and length were probing throughout. The quickness and aggression, combined with a word to the bowler, proved that Stokes only means business here. In his next over, he sent back Pretorious and Anrich Nortje in successive deliveries to pump up the Barmy Army. Two overs later, he made Vernon Philander his third victim of the game to deliver a triumph by 189 runs.
Credit also goes to the depth and the quality of players that the English county cricket cultivates. Dom Sibley's vigil of 311 deliveries followed after his previous six innings found him nicking to the keeper or slips. The career-defining knock of 133 was a testament of how quickly he learnt from his weakness that lied outside of off-stump. The century by Sibley and the emergence of Rory Burns in the past year may mean that England might be closing in on finding a bonafide Test match opening pair since Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook.
While Joe Denly may not have the impressive numbers to back his case, at number three he has helped in stemming the blood loss post an early wicket. With the ball, Denly backed up his first wicket of Dean Elgar on day four to send back Quinton de Kock on day five. De Kock's scalp came at a very crucial juncture for England, having holed a juicy long hop delivery to mid-wicket. On a deck that notably didn't assist seamers a lot, Denly found both turn and bounce.
Tat brings us to Dominic Bess. The raw statistics of 60-17-119-2 may not reveal the significant influence he had on the win. The 22 year old, who received a call-up supposedly as a cover for Jack Leach, produced breakthroughs out of nothing in both the innings. Apart from claiming Elgar and Faf Du Plessis in the first and second innings respectively, he was successful in curbing the flow of runs. And being only his third Test and the first since 2018, Bess's returns were exceptional.
Then there was Ollie Pope's critical half-century in the first innings that later on, gave his side a sizable lead of 46. And the indefatigable Anderson gave everything he had in him. Before tea on the final day, the 37-year old's struggled with a side strain. Yet, he was the man called upon to bowl and he bowled good enough to maintain the pressure. Anderson finished with spectacular match figures of seven wickets for 63 runs in 37 overs. Also, the veteran became the oldest seamer since Freddie Brown in 1951 to take a Test fifer.
Now that the four-match series is levelled, England will arrive in Port Elizabeth with confidence. The upsurge is just the start. Joe Root's men have the responsibility to level up their performance and maintain consistency in the upcoming games.
Published 08 Jan 2020, 17:13 IST