England return to cap off triumphant summer in South Africa Test

England return to the Kia Oval today requiring just 33 runs that would cap a triumphant summer of Test cricket, with six wins from seven, their most since 2004.

It has been a thrilling summer of Test cricket, even if this series against South Africa has been a little too dominated by bowlers too good for the opposition batters.

Not even last night’s bad light can obscure that fact. Ben Stokes’ team have played some exhilarating stuff with a certain showmanship but, credit where it is due, the administrators have done well too, showing a flexible and enlightened attitude to fifth day ticketing, and providing a pitch-perfect response to the death of the Queen this weekend. A day off on Friday followed by poignant tributes on Saturday, with still enough time for a result, struck a balance that other sports missed.

For England’s team, the travails of the winter and their run of one win from 17 feel a lifetime ago, not least for Chris Silverwood, sacked as Head Coach after the Ashes. He led Sri Lanka to an unlikely Asia Cup victory yesterday, at a time of extraordinary upheaval at home. The game moves fast, and so do England’s games.

Under Silverwood’s replacement, Brendon McCullum, England have not immediately become one of the best teams in the world. They have not reinvented the wheel. But they are a unit transformed, infused with the positivity preached by the coach and captain, Ben Stokes. They are keeping things simple, sticking to their strengths, and playing with a smile on their faces. There is an infectiousness to it all.

Stuart Broad observed last night that England “are now at a stage where every player has contributed throughout a Test summer, which is really healthy place to be”.

He was able to say that because minutes earlier Zak Crawley had ambled off the field after bad light prevented a finish last night, with 57 from 44 balls to his name. Crawley’s first half-century of the summer – indeed his first since his century in Antigua in March, nine matches ago – came at the eleventh hour: his thirteenth and final innings.

Crawley’s was not a perfect innings, but it was what England needed to calm a chase of 130 against an excellent attack in a game that has not seen a score of even 170. That Alex Lees was a sign that this was not going to be simple.

Crawley cut his fourth ball for three and drove his fifth for four, and had 10 boundaries by stumps, including lovely pulls and drives on front and back foot. Only once he reached that overdue fifty – staying stony-faced as he celebrated – did he offer a couple of chances. There was a drop at midwicket, and an edge between keeper and slip. By then, the back of the chase had been broken. Crawley had played the situation beautifully.

Crawley is a divisive cricketer, who receives opprobrium from fans and faith from management in an era of extremely benevolent selecting. What some of his predecessors would give for the chances he has received. England’s language around wanting him to be a match winner, rather than a consistent contributor, has probably not helped the conversation around his position, even if it does make some sense. After a couple of innings playing within this, though, was the player England want him to be.

Divisive Zak Crawley impressed on the KIA Oval before bad light called a halt to proceedings (AFP via Getty Images)
Divisive Zak Crawley impressed on the KIA Oval before bad light called a halt to proceedings (AFP via Getty Images)

"The quality of shots you saw is everything we see,” said Broad. “It’s a cliche to say you see it every day in training. But we all know within the changing room he’s got the ability to play knocks that a lot of players can’t.

"He’s had a tough summer, there’s no hiding away from that, but his demeanour has never changed in the changing room. He doesn’t let his emotions get too down, he’s never got too high. He’s got the character that you think will be a success at this level and he’s got the game.”

As of this morning, Crawley is still only averaging 22 this summer, 27 this year, and 24 as an opener. But context is required. In 52 innings by openers this summer, just seven fifties have been scored, and no opener who has played more than one match has averaged as much as 27.

Crawley has likely got himself on the plane to Pakistan this winter, and into this England team’s next chapter. Now he needs to make it count.