x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

England face stern test to save No 1 ranking from South Africa

Taylor could take the problematic No 6 position in batting at Headingley which has been a good venue for the rivals.

Captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower have been the architects of England’s rise and they will have to revisit their strategy to stave off the immediate danger to their top ranking.
Captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower have been the architects of England’s rise and they will have to revisit their strategy to stave off the immediate danger to their top ranking.

England's top ranking may well be on the line when they take on South Africa in the second Test at Headingley in Leeds from today, but of deeper concern is that their reputation as the world's best side will be also.

A South Africa win would give them their second successive series win in England following their triumph in 2008 and take them to the top of the Test table. It would also seal England's first series loss at home since that summer.

Though England have risen impressively since Andrew Flower and Andrew Strauss came together as coach and captain not long after that loss, since becoming the world No 1 Test side last summer, England have lost five Tests out of nine.

That has included a 3-0 whitewash at the hands of Pakistan in the UAE, a 1-1 away draw with a struggling Sri Lanka side and now, a comprehensive dismantling by South Africa last week at The Oval.

Their only wins in that time came earlier in the summer against the West Indies and they were not without a struggle either.

Although the Pakistan and Sri Lanka results have been written off – surprisingly, perhaps – as exceptional results in environments with which England have always struggled, the comprehensive nature of The Oval defeat has been seen as more significant.

There has been self-assessment in the aftermath; England held what a couple of players described as a very "honest" meeting to assess the loss.

James Anderson acknowledged the side had not played like a No 1 side but the harshest public words came from Graeme Swann, who called the defeat a "public humiliation" and said the run since getting to the top had been "dismal".

Flower, usually the last man to panic, has played it down, as is his style. "I wouldn't describe our results as being dismal," he said.

"I think you have to look a little deeper than that. The series in the UAE was in different conditions and we struggled against their two spinners. You can't compare that to the first Test against South Africa.

"Sometimes you are outplayed, regardless of your attempts at dismissal or strategy implemented, so you have to give credit to the opposition.

"It would be very hard for me to argue our strategies were successful. But in international sport you'll have huge ups and downs, and our make-up has to deal with those ups and downs."

More specifically, England will worry not so much about the bowling as the two ends of their batting order.

Up top Andrew Strauss has averaged 32.41 in 31 Tests (not involving Bangladesh and West Indies) since May 2009.

A double failure - and a panicky one against spin in the second innings - will not have gone unnoticed, doubly so against an opposing captain who not only scored a hundred, but has brought the downfall of two English captains since 2003.

At the other end, England will hope that the promising young Nottinghamshire prospect James Taylor can end their concerns over the number six slot.

They have tried five different men in that position this year alone, still struggling to overcome Paul Collingwood's retirement at the end of the last Ashes series.

Ravi Bopara was the incumbent, after Eoin Morgan and Jonny Bairstow failed earlier this year, but has pulled out for "personal reasons".

As befits such results, few such concerns can be reported of South Africa.

With the Olympics on, they've happily kept away from the limelight, drawing a low-key two-day game against Worcestershire along the way. The captain Graeme Smith has even been home to attend the birth of his first child.

Headingley, historically, is a good ground for them. They have lost only one from four Tests there, winning both their last two in 2003 (by 191 runs) and 2008 (by 10 wickets).

The only hitch might be a curious recent trend: in four of their last seven Test series since February 2010, they have relinquished a series lead immediately after winning a Test.

That may well have been on Jacques Rudolph's mind when he said that the side will have to come down from the high of last week's win.

"Our challenge will be to get off the wave of the first Test match, from a mental point of view," he said. "Obviously it was a convincing win for us but we are not too results orientated. We expect a strong fight back and we are prepared for what we are going to face."

Headingley long ago shed its reputation as a seam bowling haven but neither side is likely to take in an all-pace attack; Swann's elbow problem is still a concern for England but he will play.

South Africa too are unlikely to change their attack, though the leg-spinner Imran Tahir will have to adapt to conditions not as dry as the Oval.


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