As You Think So You Become
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Whatever your view of Dominic Cummins, the controversial chief advisor to Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the blog post he published earlier this month in search of "weirdos and misfits" to join the government contained some interesting views. Cummins's main point was that a diverse range of skills, characters and experience is essential to provide the sort of civil service excellence he believes is necessary to move Britain forward in a post-Brexit world. In other words, too much consistency of thought inhibits progress and possibility.
A Test match batting line-up needs a similar blend of talents, a similar ability to draw on different types of players who are able to solve different problems. Pick a line-up full of aggressive and attacking players, for instance, and it's unlikely they will be able to cope with the ball hooping round corners on a dull English day when circumspection is required. Select a top order full or defensive players and there is nobody to put the pressure back on the opposition bowlers or take advantage of a flat pitch. A mix of skills, with every player in the order knowing how they are expected to deliver those skills, is a recipe for success. Different batsmen for different needs, if you will.
It is clear that England are trying to assemble a batting order with a mix of talents to implement a clear game plan. They want a steady top three to see off the new ball and set the platform for their stroke-makers from four to eight. After a prolonged period when the top order has consistently crumbled and the strong middle order has been asked to perform a salvage mission rather than a destructive one, that is a sensible plan. The possibilities of Jos Buttler coming in at, say, 250-5 are far more exciting than when he comes to the crease at 100-5, for instance.
On a day which veered between the turgid and the energetic, England's batsmen largely played their roles as designed at St. George's Park. The top three of Zak Crawley, Dom Sibley and Joe Denly occupied 332 deliveries between them and set a platform for the middle order. Then once Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope got in, they kicked England on so that they were, at 224-4, in a decent position by the close given the slowness of the pitch and how well South Africa had bowled. Their job, and the job of Buttler and Sam Curran, tomorrow is to make good on this platform.
There are some who might look at the total and think England had been too defensive. That criticism could be most obviously levelled at Denly, who scored 25 from 100 balls and got badly bogged down against Keshav Maharaj, as he did in the first innings at Cape Town. Crawley and Sibley were similarly patient, too, and then similarly dismissed before they were able to move through the gears. At times today, it felt a bit like England were reliving their teenage years. There was potential but also moments of acute disappointment and naivete. It wasn't always pretty and sometimes it was downright ugly. And at times they really didn't help themselves.
As in the first innings at Cape Town, the four England batsmen to be dismissed today got in and then got out without kicking on to a sizeable score. At Newlands, five of the top seven made scores between 29 and 47 in that first innings. Here, the top six all made between 25 and 44 - albeit that Stokes and Pope, unbeaten on 38 and 39 respectively, will hope to kick on a lot further tomorrow. The dismissals of Sibley and Crawley, both caught at leg-gully, were particularly limp given they had both played nicely in the morning session.
As well as the wickets which kept England in check, the slow pitch made run scoring difficult for the most part except, perhaps, for the two ten-over new-ball periods at the start and end of the day. After Lunch, South Africa were particularly excellent in a session which cost them just 56 runs, bowling straight, with discipline and smart fields. Denly, who was reluctant to sweep, got stuck playing forward defensive shots on repeat against Maharaj who was content to sit in on a line outside off-stump with a decent amount of spin. As soon as Denly tried to manufacture a shot, he was out LBW.
Denly has made just three single figure scores in 23 Test innings, providing a solid enough buffer at number three in this series, but he hasn't yet gone on to register a significant score which he will need sooner or later. There is also no doubt that he needs to find a way to rotate the strike against spin but he is doing one of his roles - that of crease occupation - well enough. Sibley and Crawley did a decent job too. It was the first time England had not lost a wicket in the opening session of a Test when batting first since 2011. All this grind is certainly not flash but it's not for nothing either.
The hard work could have come undone, however. When Joe Root was dismissed shortly after Denly, England were 148-4. Another quick wicket or two would have put them in the mire and the downside of scoring slowly would have been realised. After all, the danger with getting too deep into a defensive mindset, as England seemed to do at times today, is that when wickets fall, the team hasn't gone anywhere. At least if runs are being scored, a total is being built. Thanks to Pope and Stokes that danger was avoided today and England's tactics worked out fine. But that won't always be the case.
This England line-up is still very much a work in progress, of course. Nobody is getting carried away with an innings of 25 from 100 balls or from a team total of 224-4. Prioritising crease occupation may have been a necessary first step towards a more solid batting line-up but it does carry risk and it will only take this England team so far. For now, though, the specific skills of the likes of Denly and Sibley are slowly inching them forward.
In time, England will need to develop multi-faceted players in the top order, who can play both defensively and with aggression, who can absorb pressure and then dish it out. In Root and Stokes, England already have a couple of players who meet that criteria. Others, like Crawley, Pope and Sibley, may get there in time. Denly will have to prove he can do better too but at 33, he has less time than the others to do so. But for now, England have what they have; players with specific skills to do specific roles. By and large, they did them today.