Putting together a Test team that wins consistently in all conditions can be a brain-teasing puzzle.
Sometimes you haven’t got the right pieces. What was once the right piece can change shape and no longer fit. Forcing a square into a circular hole seldom works.
For England, the jigsaw is a long way from being complete but, either by accident or design, they leave South Africa with a fuller picture than when they arrived.
Over the next two winters, England face trips to India, then Australia, perhaps the two most demanding tours in Test cricket.
Will they travel with answers, or still be scrambling around for solutions?
The top order – four into three
The last time England had a settled top order, Boris Johnson was mayor of London and Joe Root had yet to make his Test debut.
You could argue that it still isn’t settled. However, the problem now isn’t who to pick, but who to leave out.
Dom Sibley has taken his chance by being England’s highest run-scorer in South Africa, while an injury to senior opener Rory Burns gave an opportunity to Zak Crawley.
Even if Crawley didn’t return a big score, he showed enough potential to suggest he is worth persevering with. He can be loose at times, but is only 21. And he certainly has the shots to hurt Test attacks.
|England’s top order
Burns won’t be fit for the March tour of Sri Lanka, so England have time to settle on their first-choice openers. When they do, it might be that Crawley slips to number three in place of Kent colleague Joe Denly.
Denly has done little wrong in his 14 Tests and his steady presence in the top order has given freedom to the strokeplayers lower down. However, he is 33 years old and his ceiling is surely lower than Crawley’s.
Selection for Sri Lanka may throw another name into the mix, with talk of a recall for Keaton Jennings, whose two Test centuries have come on the sub-continent.
Despite always tailoring their bowlers to conditions, Test sides rarely do it with batsmen. It is an interesting idea, but a big call to split the blossoming Sibley-Crawley partnership.
England leave South Africa with their numbers four, five and six looking certain, dependable and powerful. At the moment, this area might be the team’s biggest strength.
For so long, skipper Root, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali have been shuffled around in an attempt to mask deficiencies elsewhere. It didn’t work and, in some cases, inflicted lasting damage on the yo-yoing batsmen.
Because England have not been finding themselves 20-2 and 30-3, Root, Stokes and Ollie Pope are not being required to pick through rubble, but instead build on firmer foundations.
There were questions over how much the captaincy was affecting Root’s batting during the tour of New Zealand before Christmas, questions he answered with a double century in the second Test. His average of 55.60 this winter is his best period with the bat as skipper since 2017, his first summer in charge.
As for Stokes, the superlatives are fast being exhausted. A constant source of inspiration with the ball and in the field, it is with the bat where his game has really gone to the next level. Only Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne and Root have more Test runs than Stokes since the beginning of last year – and Stokes is averaging almost 10 runs more per innings than his captain.
In Pope, England have unearthed their most exciting batting talent since the emergence of Root. He should be allowed to develop at number six, with his inevitable move up the order delayed until after the next Ashes tour.
Little more than a year ago, England had so many wicketkeepers worth their place in the side that all of Bairstow, Buttler and Ben Foakes were crammed in.
Now, none of them can make an irrefutable case for selection.
Bairstow’s poor form resulted in him being stripped of the gloves at the end of the home summer. He was recalled for South Africa despite playing no first-class cricket in between, then made only one and nine in the first Test. His career is at a crossroads.
After being recalled in 2018, Buttler averaged 45 across the year, only for that to drop to 25 in 2019 and 16 in 2020.
If England’s top six are firing, then the destruction Buttler can bring at number seven is a huge asset. However, he has only one century in 41 Tests. How long can they wait for him to deliver on a consistent basis?
Foakes is the best gloveman of the three, scored a century on debut in Sri Lanka at the end of 2018 and did little to merit being dropped in the West Indies a few months later. What followed was a difficult season with Surrey, when he struggled for runs.
England may opt to stick with Buttler in Sri Lanka or decide that so much standing up to the stumps for the spin bowlers necessitates the superior keeping skills of Foakes.
If whoever gets the gig does not make the position their own, the early part of the 2020 domestic season may present a rare opportunity for a keeper to emerge from county cricket. Keep your eye on Kent’s Ollie Robinson.
Who is the spin king?
Tyson Fury calls himself the lineal heavyweight champion because he has never been beaten. His belts were removed from him, rather than surrendered in the ring.
Like Fury laying claim to his throne, so too can three men say they are England’s number one spinner.
Dom Bess is the incumbent, having impressed in his two Tests in South Africa, but he only got the chance because of illness to Somerset team-mate Jack Leach, who has never let England down.
Moeen was dropped after a poor first Ashes Test in August and has since opted to make himself unavailable for the longest form of the game. At his best, he is the one England would plump for over all others.
They would dearly love Moeen to make himself available for Sri Lanka and the daunting five-Test tour of India next winter, two trips where he could find himself in the same XI as Bess and Leach.
In all this, the right character to take on Australia down under must be identified. On England’s past two Ashes tours, Graeme Swann and Moeen were hit out of the series, resulting in one-cap appearances for Scott Borthwick in 2014 and Mason Crane in 2018.
If the pattern is repeated in 2022, England will have almost certainly suffered another defeat.
For so long, England have feared the day when James Anderson finally stops swinging.
Lately, they have been given a window into their future. Because of injuries, Anderson has played only three of England’s past 12 Tests, and in one of those he bowled just four overs.
In that time, England’s long desire for extreme pace has been fulfilled by the emergence of Jofra Archer and return of Mark Wood. Over the same period, Stuart Broad has looked rejuvenated, while Sam Curran and Chris Woakes have provided the back-up.
Almost two years away from their Ashes mission, England look to be assembling the weapons that may finally allow them to go toe-to-toe with Australia.
The challenge will be to keep everyone fit. On top of Anderson’s recent struggles, Wood’s career has involved more time in rehab than on the field and Archer’s elbow gave way to the workload undertaken in his first year as an international cricketer. Olly Stone played one Test and has not been seen since because of a back injury.
It will be fascinating to see who England regard as their frontline pace bowlers when – or, as is more likely, if – all of them are fit at once.
Because pace will not play as big a role in Sri Lanka and India, those tours should allow the various aging and fragile bodies to be rested and rotated, all with the aim of arriving in Australia at full strength.
What a mouth-watering prospect that would be.
Article courtesy of BBC Sport