England thrashed by South Africa inside three days after first Test batting collapse

·6-min read
South Africa celebrate a thumping victory at Lord’s  (AFP via Getty Images)
South Africa celebrate a thumping victory at Lord’s (AFP via Getty Images)

If there was always a slight feel of “live by the sword, die by the sword” to England’s much-vaunted “Bazball” approach to Test cricket, then you could say that South Africa came along with a full armoury of rapiers, cutlasses and katanas to cut it to shreds.

It would be unnecessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater but England’s display during this first Test at Lord’s, especially on what was billed as the third day but turned out to be the final day, ruthlessly exposed its flaws.

And it raised plenty of questions about how sustainable such a gung-ho, borderline reckless approach, that may work in white-ball cricket, is for the long term with the red ball.

This South Africa team are hardly a conservative throwback to the dull, dogged Test cricket teams of yesteryear but they seemed positively old school compared to their hosts. And far, far more effective.

In England’s disastrous second innings on Friday, Anrich Nortje was bowling up to 95mph and a scintillating spell saw him rip the heart out of the middle order. Jonny Bairstow, Alex Lees and Ben Foakes all fell in quick succession in almost carbon-copy fashion – edging behind to wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne.

Foakes should feel particularly dismayed by his dismissal – given how inexplicable the tentative, nothing waft at a ball well outside off stump was – but all three were only possible due to Nortje bowling the “traditional” Test line and length just outside off and moving the ball. The rewards were self-evident.

Anrich Nortje produced a brilliant spell of pace bowling (PA)
Anrich Nortje produced a brilliant spell of pace bowling (PA)

By contrast, England’s “Bazball” approach to removing Nortje and his fellow tailenders at the start of day three was short-pitched bowling to increasingly bizarre fields that featured acres of room in front of square on the off side. Bouncers are an incredibly effective weapon, especially against lower-order batters, but mainly when used sparingly or in bursts, rather than as the sole, stock delivery.

South Africa duly added 37 runs to their overnight total, with Marco Jansen and Lungi Ngidi only finally removed when England eventually started bowling more traditionally – both edging to slip.

So poor were England’s batting efforts that those additional runs were largely rendered meaningless but in closer Test matches down the road, such decisions could prove vital.

If the hosts’ first-innings batting struggles were somewhat understandable due to the bowler-friendly conditions they faced having lost the toss and been put in to bat, the second-innings collapse re-exposed the underlying problems that a series of back-from-the-dead victories over New Zealand and India this summer, predicated on moments of individual brilliance from Bairstow, Joe Root and Ollie Pope, had temporarily hidden.

While Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes’s unwavering belief in and loyalty to these particular 11 players has helped unlock extra potential in the likes of Bairstow and Jack Leach, it is surely finally time to admit that Zak Crawley has run out of rope.

Zak Crawley again failed to make a score (AP)
Zak Crawley again failed to make a score (AP)

The opener is clearly talented and is delightful to watch in full flow but he has averaged 15.6, with a high score of 46, in his last 14 Test innings, failed to find any form when he went back to Kent this summer and perished here for 13 thanks to an ungainly, pre-meditated sweep across the line that saw him trapped plumb lbw. By that point, he had already found a leading edge at least four times and desperately needs to find some form, probably away from the spotlight.

At this point, there is little Harry Brook can do to stake his claim any more loudly and he even clubbed 140 for England Lions against South Africa earlier this month. It is time to give him a chance.

Pope was similarly trapped lbw by Keshav Maharaj and Root didn’t need to play at a Ngidi delivery outside the line that he edged to slip, although the ex-skipper has got so much credit in the bank that any sort of criticism for the odd error feels churlish.

At 81-3, it felt like England still had an outside chance of mounting a remarkable fightback but Nortje’s anti-Bazball approach with those three wickets for five runs extinguished that. Although Stuart Broad entertained the crowd with an explosive 35-run cameo, the Proteas could afford to be patient, knowing they had plenty of runs to play with and his luck as each big swing either landed safe or went to the boundary couldn’t last forever.

He was duly undone by a Kagiso Rabada slower ball that he spooned to mid-off but the 36-year-old bowler bore no blame for his side’s batting woes. The end soon came as Matty Potts, Stokes and James Anderson were dismissed in quick succession and a defeat by an innings and 12 runs was confirmed.

England were left to reflect on a defeat that came before tea on day three on a good pitch in a Test that lost most of the first day to rain. A damning indictment on what transpired, although skipper Stokes was almost admirably stubborn in his post-match dogmatism.

Ben Stokes insists England won’t change their approach (AP)
Ben Stokes insists England won’t change their approach (AP)

“I look at the captains before me, captains after me, they’re always going to get criticised at certain times about the way that they want to go out and play,” insisted Stokes when asked if England would consider changing their style of play.

"That’s just part and parcel with life I guess. We know, when we perform to our capabilities, we can go out and put in some incredible performances, like everyone’s been able to see in the four games before this one.

"This isn’t a wake-up call or anything like that, just unfortunately we weren’t able to execute in the way we wanted to play this week and South Africa were better than us."

Perhaps it should be a wake-up call. Bazball is clearly an improvement on however you would label what came before it but the flaws are stark.

Before this Test, South Africa skipper Dean Elgar warned that England could be left with “egg on their faces” if they continued with the style and that proved prescient, although perhaps even he didn’t think it would come to pass this quickly.

There is undoubtedly a version of this approach to team management and Test cricket that can be successful, it’s now up to England to adapt and find it because otherwise there may be a lot more “dying by their sword” in the near future.