x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

South Africa have shattered England's illusion

The Proteas didn't just beat England at The Oval this week, they handed out a shellacking.

South Africa's captain Graeme Smith, right, has a habit of seeing off England captains. Philip Brown / Reuters
South Africa's captain Graeme Smith, right, has a habit of seeing off England captains. Philip Brown / Reuters

South Africa didn't just beat England at The Oval this week, they handed out a shellacking. On a slow pitch, they lost only two wickets while taking 20; and they lost the first day. Some random thoughts in the aftermath of the win.

This was no shock

The margin of South Africa's victory might be surprising, but the win should not be. South Africa are not your average visitors from the subcontinent. They have not lost a Test series on their travels since July 2006.

They have lost only one series anywhere in that time (in the same period England have lost seven). South Africa have four batsmen in the top 10 and three bowlers in the top 10. They may not be top of the Test rankings (right now) but they have arguably been the best all-surface side in the world since Australia slipped.

How good are England?

Forget the rankings for a bit. Talk of greatness should never have entered this discussion simply because great sides are not judged over three years but over much longer. Even go medium-term: England have won only three of 12 away series since 2005 and two of those were gimmes against New Zealand and Bangladesh. That is no mark of greatness. The 2010-11 Ashes win, unsurprisingly, has inflated their value.

Are they merely very good? You could argue this, though less easily when you talk of a side that has lost five Tests from nine since just the start of this year. And there are not that many instances of a very good side getting whitewashed in a three-Test series (one Test loss, even two could be an aberration but three in a series? And five out of nine?).

Maybe England come back and win this series; they are a very good side at home (but not nearly as dominant as a great side would be) but a recalibration is now necessary.

Bowling not the problem

If any bowling unit was allowed one poor Test, it was England's. With South Africa they have been the best bowling attack over the last few years, and they have greater fast bowling depth. But the batting?

It's a strange one because they're not obviously a weak batting order (other than at number six). They have batsmen who can bat long and score big. But if it is well known that they are vulnerable to spin, maybe it is time to now recognise that they are just as susceptible to quality fast bowling; remember Pakistan's visit in 2010?

Captain under pressure

We know how this goes don't we? Graeme Smith comes to England, England captain resigns. If you take out Bangladesh and West Indies as opposition, Andrew Strauss has been averaging an underwhelming 32.41 in 31 Tests since May 2009. Talk of his form very nearly became shrill over the winter losses and two more failures at The Oval could easily reignite the matter.

He has enough credit - and gas - stored to survive this doesn't he? Maybe. But another failure and another loss and you might not be so keen to bet against Smith completing a hat-trick of English captain-victims (after Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan).

No 1 not what it used to be

Given the experiences of India and now England, getting to the top of the pyramid might be preferable to actually being there. South Africa, India and England have all reached the top and then struggled to hold on to it over the last three years.

If England lose another Test match, they will be replaced by South Africa. But given that only two teams dominated over nearly 30 years, Test cricket's current shuffling of the pack is a good thing.

Do preparations count?

Much of the writing off of South Africa's chances was based on their thin preparation before the series. They had not played a Test since March and only one two-day game and a rain-interrupted three-day game before this Test.

In light of this result and in a modern calendar where cricket never ends, is it really clear just how much warm-up games help touring sides? South Africa managed fine in England in 2008 after playing two warm-ups. When England last won a series in South Africa, in 2004, they played just one three-day game before the first Test.


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