England’s win over South Africa in the third Test in Port Elizabeth came by a margin of an innings and 53 runs and gave them a 2-1 lead in the series and yet some people still were not happy.
I saw some criticism of England’s top-order batting, with people saying openers Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley and No3 Joe Denly batted too slowly.
I think this misses the point. Although none of them cashed in and made big scores they still did their jobs. They took the shine off the new ball and laid a platform which paid dividends later on.
So often in the past few years Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler have come in under enormous pressure, but this time Stokes and Ollie Pope benefited from the others taking their time.
Pope’s maiden Test century was fantastic and when I watch him I can’t help but be reminded of Ian Bell. The 22-year-old has a sound technique and a classy look to him, and the fact that he has grown up in a different generation means he has even more shots to call upon than Bell.
The ramp shots at the back end of his unbeaten 135 showed his promise and I don’t think it will be long until Pope moves into England’s sides for the shorter formats too.
Some have already asked when the right time would be to move Pope up the order from No6. Why change it? Pope averages 61 batting in the middle order for Surrey and looks comfortable where he is.
He is a naturally attacking batsman who looks at ease where he is but still has many bigger tests to come when he plays on faster pitches, against the seaming Dukes ball in English conditions, under the greater pressure of an Ashes series and against high-quality spin in the subcontinent.
Pope made his Test debut at No4 against India in August 2018 and struggled to leave the ball outside his off-stump. Joe Root’s chopping and changing in the batting order have shown the importance of stability, so I would leave Pope exactly where he is for now.
How to fit Archer in
Away from the batting department, England have a choice to make for the fourth Test, which starts in Johannesburg on Friday.
Jofra Archer, who has missed the last two Test matches with an elbow injury, is back and is pushing for a place in the XI. I always want a fully-fit Archer in my team, but after consecutive confidence-building wins the question is: who should drop out?
The Wanderers pitch in Johannesburg is renowned for suiting fast bowlers, with the altitude helping the ball carry well.
England might therefore be tempted to play a five-man pace attack, as they did in the final Test in New Zealand and the first Test in South Africa, but I think dropping Dom Bess after his maiden five-wicket haul would be harsh.
Although England are right to take confidence from how Root bowled, he is not a frontline spinner and if it seams at Johannesburg it’s likely to spin and bounce for Bess too. Dropping him now would not be good for his confidence.
I wouldn’t drop Stuart Broad, who is England’s top wicket-taker in the series with 12 and will know how to exploit the conditions. It then comes down to Mark Wood or Sam Curran.
Wood has not played back-to-back Tests since July 2017 and could perhaps do with a rest after his exertions in Port Elizabeth. If he isn’t 100 per cent then wrapping him in cotton wool would make sense and I think Archer is the better bowler when firing on all cylinders.
However, if Wood is ready to go then Curran might have to give way. His left-arm variation is useful, but he is not as suited to a fast, bouncy wicket.