After the disappointing innings defeat England suffered at the Kia Oval last week, they must pull themselves together for their greatest challenge in years if they are to win the three match test series against South Africa and retain their number one world ranking.
After only taking two wickets in the first test, you would think the bowlers in particular would be under severe pressure. After a toothless performance there will be selection dilemmas, but under the regime of Flower and Strauss the consistency of team selection has been a refreshing change to the usual English tendency to panic. Unfortunately this policy has thwarted players such as Steven Finn and Graham Onions in their attempts to secure a spot in the bowling unit, even if they have taken wickets when making sporadic appearances.
While this policy has been praised as a key reason as to why England have risen to the top of the test rankings, in my opinion it can also mean players subconsciously underperform as they know they are safe and secure as part of the 11 man team. It is all well and good when you are winning but you must also consider conditions when selecting a team. The next test match is at Headingley, notorious for seam and swing bowling. Surely Graham Onions or Steven Finn would be better suited than Stuart Broad who quite frankly was appalling in the first test match.
If Flower and Strauss decided to make a change it would make sure all England players were fully aware their places were not guaranteed and at any point they could be dropped. I am not saying that there is not competition amongst the squad, I just feel England are too reluctant in making changes to their bowling line up in particular.
Take the South Africans; they suffered a huge setback in their preparations for the biggest test series in the world this year. Mark Boucher, one of the all time great wicket keepers had to retire after a freakish eye injury caused by the bails being dislodged by a spinning Imran Tahir delivery in a warm up match against Somerset. The Proteas had a ready made replacement in AB De Villiers to take over with the gloves and he looked solid in the first test match. The team came together and proved they had strength in depth with Hashim Amla scoring a triple century and Jacques Kallis proving that he is perhaps the greatest all-rounder of all time, scoring runs, taking wickets, and holding catches.
I am not saying that England would not have reacted in the same fashion but there just seemed to be a lack of intensity in the performance from the moment we started to bowl. A good first innings with the bat was nullified by blunt bowling after Alastair Cook proved once again that he will become one of the all time greats.
After trying to come up with some reasons for the lack of performance at the Oval I could only find two. The first surrounded Kevin Pietersen and the ongoing debacle regarding his decision to retire from all one day international cricket. Pietersen trying to hold the ECB to ransom is never going to be an effective plan as no one player is ever bigger than the best interests of the team. Pietersen may be our ‘best’ one day player but England will see his retirement as a way of giving someone else a chance to impress.
The recent series against Australia proved this point as Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara were both impressive with the latter earning a test recall, replacing Jonny Bairstow. My problem with KP is that by effectively choosing to argue his case in the public eye, he has risked alienating his teammates, fans, and certainly the ECB. This has to have had an effect on the team and their relationship with the enigmatic Pietersen.
My second reason, which is far weaker than the Pietersen issue, is that England went into the test series complacent. I am sure that after the one day series against Australia and the demolition of a weak West Indies side, confidence would have been extremely high. Whether this led to overconfidence going into the first test match against South Africa is hard to say though. The England camp always seem well grounded so I am unsure as to whether complacency can be interpreted as the real reason for the defeat. Sometimes you have to accept that your opponents have simply outplayed you in every department and the Oval test match seemed to be one of these occasions. It came as a shock because in the past few years England fans have not often witnessed such a demolition, especially on home turf.
So how do England win the second test? The simple answer is to improve their bowling display and hope that the South Africans are not as imperious with the bat as they were at the Oval. England will definitely be tougher to break down and they cannot bowl any worse. It is time for James Anderson ad Graeme Swann to prove they are the best swing and spin bowlers in the world and then England can retain their number one world ranking and show they are capable of defeating every team there is.