Boom, we’re back.
In the wake of a second consecutive Test victory that leaves them on the brink of an improbable series win, English optimism is on the rise. Away wins for Joe Root’s team have been a rare thing in the last few years, and two victories in the space of a fortnight has caused more than a few flutters of optimism in the minds of the players and the fans alike.
Joe Root commented that the Number One Test ranking was “back in our sights”, and whilst he had a glint in his eye it would have been hard to imagine him saying such a thing after Centurion. By the barest of margins, England have just about managed to keep a lid on things – but there’s a clear sense of a team confident they’re moving in the right direction.
While there have only been two Test wins in the Chris Silverwood era, there has been a reassuring level of logic to proceedings, to the way they want to win their Test matches. Silverwood’s England have shown considerably more control with the bat than their previous incarnation; in the two Test series they have played under the former Essex coach, their false shot percentage has been 11.8% and 13.9%, both of which are lower than any series in the entirety of Trevor Bayliss’ tenure. Partly that is comes from the pitches in New Zealand and Port Elizabeth, but even taking that into consideration there has undoubtedly been a change in approach. There has been a conscious effort to defend more, to attack less, to remain in control of their strokes. That much is clear.
With a template in place, again, it’s easy to get swept up in things. Suddenly, England seem to have a solid top three, a free-wheeling middle order, and a seam attack that can bowl quickly and get results with the Kookaburra ball. They now seem to be led by a captain who feels confident and is buoyed on by the swaying choruses of ‘Jerusalem’ that swallow up the air around England’s overseas tours, rather than cowed by the expectations they imply. Suddenly, England look like a Test side to be reckoned with.
Except, of course, there’s a fair bit more going on than that.
This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a vintage South African side. They have been ravaged by a huge range of socio-economic issues that have been discussed widely elsewhere. They are a not a strong cricket team right now, they are not a strong cricketing culture, and they are working from a flimsy base with conversations around race, representation and wealth marring any significant progress on the field.
The cricketing consequence of all this is that South Africa’s batting is very, very bad. At CricViz, we have a Wicket Probability model, which uses ball-tracking data to calculate the likelihood that any ball should lead to a wicket, a run, or any other scenario. It allows us to look at the deliveries a batsman or batting team have faced, and compare their returns to what we would ‘expect’ a typical player to average. According to this model, the deliveries that England have bowled in this series would, typically, have averaged 28.9. That’s very good, particularly good for an England attack who have struggled without the Dukes ball in hand, and they should not go without credit. Yet South Africa have actually averaged 23.4 with the bat, well below what we’d expect.
Across an innings, South Africa have been leaving more than 50 runs on the park, averaging 5.49 runs-per-dismissal less than the average Test batsman would. Under performing to that degree is not something to ignore, because it isn’t normal.
In the last decade, England have played 28 series of at least three Test matches, against a range of opponents in a range of conditions. In that time, only twice has the opposition fallen so far below what was expected. In 2010, when Pakistan toured England, they averaged just 16.09 with the bat, a vast 12.2 runs-per-dismissal less than our model suggests that they should have given the balls they faced. That was a tour marred by all sorts of controversy and drama, which to some extent explains the calamitous results. The other occasion was an altogether more low-key affair, when Sri Lanka toured England in 2016. They averaged 21.31 with the bat, 8.9 runs-per-dismissal below what our model suggests they should have averaged. English conditions in early summer – a particularly damp and grisly one – were conducive to collapses.
Those are the only two occasions in the last decade when a side has faced England and fallen further below what they should be hitting with the bat than South Africa in this series.
There are cricketing caveats as well as socio-economic ones. Aiden Markam, a frustrating talent in many ways but a talent without doubt, has been sidelined. The potentially terminal poor form of Faf du Plessis is not the result of administration, but the passage of time and the process of age. Men like Rassie van der Dussen and Pieter Malan may be older, but they have played little to no Test cricket. They are learning, and the coaches are learning about them. It is understandable.
This is not intended as a slam dunk on South African woes, far from it. Rather, England need to quell any sense of optimism that may come from another win in Johannesburg this week, and could easily gather in momentum with an equally hospitable Sri Lanka tour coming up very soon They need to remember that, whilst this obviously isn’t the end of a journey, it isn’t necessarily the start of one.
For now, see this series for what it is. The bludgeoning of an old enemy, an enemy that has inflicted plenty of pain on English cricket over the years. Relish it, at a level. But don’t move too far from the fact that South Africa have never been lower in the modern era, and that the economic pull of England is in part responsible for that.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.