Monday 27 January 2020 8:26 pm

Five conclusions from England's thumping 3-1 series win over South Africa

England bowled South Africa out for 274 on day four of the fourth Test in Johannesburg on MonsY to complete a 191-run win and wrap up a 3-1 series victory.

Having gone 1-0 down at Centurion, the visitors surged back to dominate the next three Tests and earn only their second overseas series win in four years.

Here are five conclusions from the last six weeks in South Africa.

Root’s at the wheel

After the first Test of the winter Joe Root’s captaincy was under intense scrutiny. There has long been a theory that Root’s batting has been affected by leadership, with a dip in form coinciding with added responsibility.

In a spiky interview after his poor run continued in a crushing defeat by an innings and 65 runs against New Zealand at Bay Oval in November, Root said he was “not too worried” and reaffirmed his commitment to the captaincy.

Joe Root
Root has enjoyed a good series with the bat and in the field for England (via Getty Images)

This tour in South Africa has seen him back up that statement. Root has scored 317 runs in seven innings at an average of 45.28 while also stamping his authority on the team. 

He has called the shots out in the middle, generally marshalling his troops effectively to build pressure. The fact England have taken 20 wickets in four successive Tests is down to the captain as well as his bowlers.  

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Top-order solidity 

When Rory Burns suffered ankle ligament damage ahead of the second Test of the series it appeared a major blow – not just for England’s hopes in South Africa, but also for the following trip to Sri Lanka.

In his absence England’s new, young opening pair have done a wonderful job to fill Burns’s shoes. 

Dominic Sibley registered his first Test century in Cape Town, and although he failed to pass 50 in his six other innings, he fulfilled the role given to him well, blunting the new ball to finish as England’s top run-scorer with 324 runs at an average of 54. 

Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley
England’s young opening partnership have prevented top-order collapses (via Getty Images)

Zak Crawley, meanwhile, has posted more modest returns, but the fact he improved his career-best score in five successive innings shows he is getting to grips with Test cricket.

In the fourth Test the pair made England’s first century opening stand since December 2016. Suddenly, the future looks bright at the top of the order.

Wood comes good

Mark Wood’s Test career has been hindered by injuries – ankle, knee and side – because of his unique bowling action. Fit again, his return to action has been a huge success.

Jimmy Anderson’s broken rib and Jofra Archer’s elbow injury could have derailed England’s bowling attack, but Wood’s impact in the final two games offset the losses and more.

Mark Wood
Wood took 9-100 in Johannesburg to win man of the match (via Getty Images)

His 12 wickets in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg cost just 13.58 runs apiece, with South Africa unable to find a way to deal with his extreme pace, hostile lengths and unwavering enthusiasm. 

Wood finishing off the series with the wicket of Anrich Nortje on Monday to complete match figures of 9-100 and pick up the man of the match award was a fitting end.

Pope’s serene progress

Ollie Pope has lived up to the hype. Billed as the most exciting young batsman since Root, the Surrey youngster has come of age in South Africa.

His unbeaten 135 in Port Elizabeth was an exhibition of stroke play all around the wicket and was finished with some ramps and flicks which gave a nod to the inventiveness of the Twenty20 generation.

Ollie Pope
Pope looks the perfect fit for England’s middle order (via Getty Images)

That wasn’t it though: his 61 not out, batting alongside the tail in Cape Town and 56 in Johannesburg showed the century was no fluke.

Pope has balanced the side nicely at No6 and his unselfishness in playing the situation, as well as his short-leg fielding, already appear to be real strengths. 

Buttler’s struggles

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. Joe Denly’s returns – 210 runs at an average of 30 and a strike-rate of 36.14 – look fairly meagre, although he has performed the valuable service of chewing up 581 balls, more than anyone bar Sibley. 

His place at No3 may well be safe for Sri Lanka, but another average series could spell trouble upon Burns’s return in the summer.

Things are less certain for Jos Buttler after a series in which he failed to show the natural talent he possesses with the bat.

Jos Buttler
Buttler has found poor ways to get out in South Africa (via Getty Images)

An average of 16.42 and a top-score of 29 does not make for pretty reading, especially with viable wicket-keeping options Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes waiting in the wings.

England have consistently defended Buttler’s position in the side. But considering Foakes made a century on Test debut in Sri Lanka last time they visited in 2018, might Chris Silverwood be tempted to limit Buttler to white-ball cricket?