No one quite sure what to expect of England’s chameleon cricketers
After Trent Bridge success, South Africa the confident side prior to Oval Test
Toby Roland-Jones: has been given the nod in place of Mark Wood for the third Test against South Africa. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters
It must have been a long week for the England cricketers – the men, that is. While the women have been justly feted for their exploits, not least for reminding England what a captivating spectacle cricket can be when we do not know who is going to win, the men have had to overcome the temptation to brood.
After the Lord’s Test against South Africa there was much rejoicing about the brave new world: a fresh regime with a brilliant, proactive captain in charge of a talented, young side, suddenly unfettered.
After Trent Bridge England were brash, irresponsible fly-by-nights, lacking desire and commitment and none too bothered about respecting Test cricket. As ever and rather boringly, the truth lies somewhere in between. It is tough to make a headline proclaiming “England not quite as good as we/they thought they were”.
So England’s chameleon cricketers arrive at the Oval in a nervous disposition. For the onlooker it is exciting since it is hard to know what to expect from this side. For the old lags in the team the prospect of South Africa and the Oval is not so mouthwatering.
Five years ago South Africa defeated England by an innings and 12 runs here; Hashim Amla was unbeaten on 311; the tourists declared at 637 for 2. Jimmy Anderson took a wicket in his first over, after which neither Anderson nor Stuart Broad could conjure another one in the 75 overs they delivered.
Thus England’s opening bowlers have moved from their favourite venue – Trent Bridge – to what has often been a barren hunting ground. In 2012 Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were far more effective.
After the rain of Wednesday England must decide whether to retain Liam Dawson rather than elongating the batting line-up by giving a debut to Dawid Malan. Before the rain arrived the surface was reckoned to be dry, which is good news for Dawson since another spinner should be of value. However, the blunt observation remains true: that Dawson, for all his virtues, does not demand a place in a really good Test team.
Toby Roland-Jones has been given the nod in place of Mark Wood, who has not entirely recovered from the bruising on his heel he endured at Trent Bridge, making him the first player with a double-barrelled surname to play Test cricket for England since the Nottingham Test of 1935 against South Africa when Norman (“Mandy”) Mitchell-Innes made his solitary appearance. Daniel Bell-Drummond of Kent can only do his best to hide his disappointment at being pipped at the post.
Roland-Jones, a strapping six-footer is not the fastest bowler in the country but he may have the longest run-up. To use one of Trevor Bayliss’s favourite phrases there is “something about him”.
Not only did he deliver the hat-trick against Yorkshire that ensured the County Championship for Middlesex last September, he also dominated the earlier game against Yorkshire in July at Scarborough by smashing 79 and taking three wickets on the last day, a performance which prompted his first call-up to an England squad. Roland-Jones will improve the batting of England’s tail, if not the over rate.
He will join England’s other debutant, Tom Westley of Essex, who will bat at No3 and will turn up on time. Westley and Roland-Jones had the benefit of attending universities, whose cricket has been part funded – though now to a lesser extent – by the MCC. Roland-Jones went to Leeds-Bradford University, while Westley was at Durham when Graeme Fowler was running the academy there.
In his recent autobiography Fowler recalls the student Westley fondly but he also relates how he delivered unto him and Greg Smith, who played for Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, the most almighty rollicking, in essence because he saw two talented cricketers coasting along but specifically on the issue of punctuality.
At the time Fowler feared he had gone over the top – a month later Smith acknowledged he was “spot on”. Both students took note, kept playing and proceeded into the professional game with varying degrees of success.
Oddly, on the day Westley was selected for England, Smith announced his retirement. The presence of Roland-Jones and Westley at the Oval is a good reminder of the benefits of the system for gifted young cricketers at a time when funding is under threat.
Westley, 28, is an impressive character who scored a century against the South Africans at Worcester earlier in the summer. It probably helps that he bats right-handed given how the South African opening bowlers have settled so easily into the ideal line against the three left-handers they have so far encountered at the top of England’s batting order. He used to bowl off-breaks quite seriously but less so in recent years. Of course, judging by recent experience, that might change now that he is in the England team.
Westley is unlikely to be overawed even though he will never have batted under such scrutiny before. He will not be anywhere near as good as one of his Cambridge-born predecessors in the England Test team (and the only one I can find), who also batted on Parker’s Piece in his youth: Jack Hobbs.
In this instance the injury to Gary Ballance’s finger has been timely. After such modest returns from the top order in this series some form of shake-up was required, but modern selectors are very reluctant to drop anyone.
Even so Keaton Jennings surely needs a score if he is going to stay in the side for the entire series. His partner, Alastair Cook, needs a single to go past Allan Border and thereby become the ninth highest runscorer in Test cricket in his own right.
For South Africa there are no selectorial issues. There will be just one change from the side that thrashed England in Nottingham. A refreshed, chastened and highly motivated Kagiso Rabada will replace Duanne Olivier, which obviously strengthens the pace attack. Meanwhile Amla, who returned to form at Trent Bridge after something of a drought, may well revisit the scene of his triple century with a gentle spring in his step.