It hardly feels like any time has passed since I was at Edgbaston last summer watching England become the number 1 ranked test team in the world. I was probably very harsh on India back then, claiming that as number 1 side in the world they should be able to compete anywhere and we had annihilated them. Since then England have proved that actually, there are a lot of really good teams around that can dominate any given series. England's spell at the top of the rankings lasted just 11 tests (losing 6 tests, 2 series and winning just 3 tests), which included a 3-0 embarrassment against Pakistan... I don't think our batting has recovered properly since then.
In this series South Africa were clearly the better side. If you looked at the two teams on paper they appear fairly well matched, personally comparing each position there's only a few positions I'd have definitely chosen someone from one side over the other (Prior instead of Duminy and Smith over Strauss are the two that spring to mind) before the series started, yet the Saffers out played England in every area. Our usually consistent bowling attack was destroyed at the Oval, 637/2 is an embarrassment, I don't think Jimmy and Broad really recovered from that. Their batsmen also dug in with 5 centuries between them and 5 people averaging over 50 - compared to England's 2 centuries with the only people averaging over 50 (Bairstow, Pietersen and Swann(thanks to 2 not outs)) not playing all 3 tests. I don't even want to talk about our catching.
That said... I don't think it was as one sided as it could have been, England did show some battling qualities and actually had small first innings leads at both Headingley and Lord's, however in both cases this was down to an outstanding innings - KP at Headingley and Bairstow at Lord's. The game at Lord's was a great display of what is excellent about test cricket, could you get that sort of tension and excitement from a T20 game? Of course not.
I was at Headingley for day 2 (the day before KP took the fight to them) and England's bowlers looked a lot less toothless than the South Africans. You always sensed that the likes of Steyn, Morkel and Philander were in the game and capable of taking wickets unlike the English players.
One of the key reasons I felt we got to number 1 was consistency in selection. We had a settled team who all knew their roles. Now however, the issue with Kevin Pietersen totally overshadowed the build up to this test. It is quite clear that he has never been the most settled person in the dressing room, there has long been assumed that there is a rift there but until now they had put up with it for his quality. I personally can't see him coming back into the set up, which is a shame because he is England's best player and the stats pretty much back that up. This effectively opens up two spots in the batting order, as England have struggled for a long time to find a quality number 6. Since Paul Collingwood's last test they have had:
Eoin Morgan (16 innings, 29.60 average)
Ravi Bopara (4 innings, 24.33 average)
Samit Patel (3 innings, 13.33 average)
Johnny Bairstow (6 innings, 37.40 average)
James Taylor (3 innings, 16.00 average)
Bairstow's performance at Lord's seems to have cemented his place in the team, for now, and he does look like a good prospect. Taylor can count himself unlucky with his dismissal yesterday so hopefully should find himself in the squad for the winter. Assuming two of these players are in the starting 11 come the first test against India on November 15th then the team will have quite an inexperienced feel to it (as it did for this test) which is worrying when playing in the sub continent. It may be that Tim Bresnan gets the nod at number 7 instead (9 innings at 39.17) with Matt Prior (26 innings at 41.82) bumped up to number 6.
To put these figures into context, in the same time period Kevin Pietersen averaged 54.23 from 28 innings. Only Ian Bell's 58.04 average from 29 knocks is better and only Alistair Cook has scored more runs (1425 to KP's 1410). One person who should really look at his own game considerably is Andrew Strauss. Since averaging 43.86 in the Ashes tour where Collingwood made his last appearance the skipper has scored just 953 runs in 31 innings at a lowly 30.74 (10 runs less than Matt Prior and only 5 more than Stuart Broad - 25.37 off 22). Considering Morgan was dropped for his 30 average this really isn't good enough from the skipper. His leave on Sunday night was one of the worst pieces of cricket I have ever seen and scoring just 107 runs in the series just wasn't good enough. I don't think he will, or should stand down - I'd like to think he'd carry on until after the next away Ashes tour (2013/14) but he really needs to perform this winter to justify his own place in the team as that is getting harder and harder to do.
I hope Strauss is correct and they do come back and reclaim the number 1 ranking but they have a lot of hard work to do. The batsmen really do need to start applying themselves better. Hopefully they were watching at the Oval when Amla, Smith and Kallis batted for what seemed like an eternity.
Anyway, congratulations to the Saffers - they thoroughly deserve it, each one of their players seemed to contribute at some point and they definitely look like the best balanced team. I can only see them having problems on the sub-continent but even then their batting should be good enough. Could see them hanging around at number 1 for a while!