London: The manner and margin of defeat still defy comprehension. Are South Africa really that good? Have England really become that bad? Has the rarefied air at the top of the rankings mountain really gone to their heads? What has happened to Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann? Why couldn’t England’s bowlers move the ball off the straight and narrow while South Africa’s could? And so on and so on.
England’s defeat at the Kia Oval last week by an innings and 12 runs certainly raised a raft of uncomfortable questions. “We are still scratching our heads as to why that ball didn’t do anything,” says Alastair Cook in response to one of them, while the rest of us still shake our skulls at most of them. It really was that horrible.
This celebrated team have been in holes before — think of the hammerings at Headingley against Australia in 2009, at Johannesburg against South Africa in 2010, at the Oval against Pakistan and Perth against Australia later that year, as well as the three-match series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates and at Galle against Sri Lanka this year — but none as deep as this surely.
That, bar the UAE series, they went on to win the Tests that followed all those calamities should be of some succour, but right now it does seem rather like clutching at some flimsy things called straws. Like blaming the pitch. One with pace and bounce, and spin later in the game, was ordered, but only the latter appeared. The surface was astonishingly dry given the monsoons that had preceded the match. And England, as they proved beyond doubt last winter, are poor in such subcontinental conditions. But, unfathomably, they were even worse than last winter. No player can escape censure, not even Cook, who made a superb first-day century.
Conditions were at their toughest, but he had the opportunity on day two to play the match-defining innings. Andrew Strauss went to the fourth ball of the game, evoking memories of his first-ball dismissal the last time these sides met in that Johannesburg Test. Jonathan Trott played nicely but in his last 24 Test innings he has made just one century — in Galle. He is chipping in, but the full potato is now required.
Kevin Pietersen’s late-on-the-first-day flap at Jacques Kallis was as irritating as his pre-match attempts at horse-trading with the England management about his one-day future.
Ian Bell left a ball from Kallis to be bowled. Ravi Bopara handed his critics rounds of ammunition. Matt Prior had a good match until fatally losing patience on the final afternoon. Tim Bresnan is no longer a lucky charm, Broad was down on pace but, then, he has been for most of the summer, Swann was played with ridiculous ease, and James Anderson only claimed the wicket of the lbw-candidate Alviro Petersen. Why, oh why?
Cook denies there is any sense of cockiness: “We don’t ever think we are the best team in the world,” he says, “We don’t talk about that as a side. The rankings show that we managed to get to the top of the tree. “We have been through a lot of different situations as a side and we know how to deal with them. That breeds confidence, but we never walk around that dressing room thinking we have made it. Cricket is a funny game and we don’t strut around like that. We are working as hard now as we were when we were No 5.”