There is relief as well as jubilation for England. After four matches Chris Silverwood has now overseen a Test victory. It is Joe Root’s 18th win as captain, the same number as Mike Brearley as it happens (though he does lose rather more frequently) yet he often seems to be under pressure. That has eased a bit more.
In Cape Town Root batted extremely well for his 96 runs, yet that will not satisfy him – or his critics. The more runs he scores the better captain he seems to become, a feature he does not necessarily share with Brearley.
Everything clicked at Newlands; Root won the toss, he juggled his bowling attack adroitly even when Jimmy Anderson was no longer an option. England’s outcricket was not quite flawless yet it was exceptional – it had to be for them to win this game on a surface that became easier to bat on. And a few little ploys worked very well: showing faith in Dom Bess so early in South Africa’s first innings, tossing the ball to Joe Denly, stationing a leg slip for Stuart Broad and having a catch taken there from the next ball, bowling Ben Stokes at the end (actually, everyone inside Newlands realised that this was quite a good idea).
This will be one of Root’s treasured victories; it took place overseas, where England have struggled recently; it came at a time when the tour was threatening to disintegrate in the wake of a flu epidemic and a freak injury to their senior opening batsman. There were four kids under 23 in the team, whose naivety and freshness became an asset. And they had to work so hard to cross the line with no more than 50 balls remaining.
It is no wonder Silverwood, a measured man, was beaming afterwards. “We’ve had a tough couple of weeks leading up to this and to come out and see a team performance like that – especially with some of the youngsters – I’m absolutely thrilled and proud of them,” said England’s head coach.
The injury to Rory Burns could easily have been the final straw. Not only was it very inconvenient, it was humiliating as well since it happened when he was playing football, an activity the players love, but which can be considered an unnecessary risk. The loss of Burns – for four months as we now discover – was another shred of evidence for those who had already decided that this expedition was a shambles and that regime change was essential.
“It was just another of them ‘oh no, not again’ type of things,” said Silverwood. “But sometimes you see character come through. Obviously I’m really disappointed for Rory but then you get to see Zak [Crawley] step up as well. The runs he scored in the second innings impressed me a lot. He showed real good intent and there were a couple of catches out there that were really important. Again we’ve got another fine, young character there for us.”
The nippers all made handy contributions throughout but the decisive ones came from more familiar names. Stokes drove the team home with his catching, his explosive second-innings batting, which gained so much time to bowl South Africa out, and that last spell.
It is becoming tricky for coaches to find fresh superlatives for Stokes but Silverwood had a go. “When it gets tough he’s the one you want in there – he fights, doesn’t know how to give up. He did it again for us here. He picked the ball up, charged in and made things happen for us. Again it’s an inspiration for everyone around him. His energy gets everyone going.”
Stokes was Bothamesque in that final spell because it became apparent that he was going to bowl them out come what may. We were not sure how that would be done but somehow it was always going to happen as he hurtled in from the Wynberg End. However, the parallel with Botham is not exact as Silverwood’s next observation demonstrates.
“I think you’ve all seen the way he trains. The amount of hours and effort he puts in to make sure he’s properly prepared out on the field. And for any young kid coming in to see how he does things gives them a real realisation of what it takes to play international cricket. He’s setting the standards from a fitness point of view. His attitude time and time again is superb, so he’s a great talisman.”
Another key contributor was partially overlooked at the end since he was no longer able to bowl. Anderson took seven for 63 from 37 overs in the match. He has seldom bowled better for England. However, the obvious concern is over when he next bowls for his country. He was initially believed to have suffered a side strain, the most nightmarish of injuries for pacemen since the bowler is never sure whether he can safely give 100% without risking a recurrence. England have now revealed it is a rib problem but it will keep him out of this series at least.
Jofra Archer would be the obvious replacement in Port Elizabeth in a week’s time – provided he is fully fit. Other changes are possible after much staring at the surface there. The enforced experiment with Crawley at the top of the order will surely continue but there will be more debate over which spinner to play. Jack Leach finally emerged from quarantine at Cape Town and has been training. He was on hand to watch and encourage Bess, who bowled excellently, but Leach might provide more penetration against all those right-handers.
So there is plenty for the brains trust to contemplate during their week of rest and recuperation, but they will do so in the warm glow of a memorable victory.