England v South Africa: Poor Proteas give Joe Root gentle start to life as captain
The day before England’s first Test of the summer, I watched South Africa do a fielding drill at Lord’s as I did a report for BBC Radio 5 live.
I said at the time that I have never seen a training session as bad as that one on the day before a Test. They were dropping catches, letting the ball through their legs and they had no energy or sharpness.
A poor practice the day before a match doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but, sure enough, the visitors were hammered by 211 runs.
Their performance with the bat in the second innings, bowled out for 119, was so bad that, if it had been England, my Test Match Special colleague Geoffrey Boycott would have combusted.
This takes nothing away from England, but they had to put in little more than a mixed display to give Joe Root a win in his first match as captain.
Had it not been for Root’s knock in the first innings – 190 with the assistance of a couple of drops and a stumping off a no-ball – Moeen Ali’s lovely 87 and an important late-order half-century from Stuart Broad, England might have been well short of a decent total.
After that, Broad and Anderson bowled nicely in the South Africa first innings, but the man who will take all the bowling plaudits is off-spinner Moeen, who picked up his first 10-wicket haul in Tests.
Not since he ran through India three years ago in Southampton has Moeen taken England to victory with the ball in the final innings of a match. He struggled on the subcontinent during the winter, so this should be a boost to his confidence.
Perhaps he took something from the innings he played into his bowling, as all-rounders can often find that success in one discipline benefits the other.
I really do take great pleasure in watching Moeen bat, much like I did from my old team-mate David Gower. Not only that, but he should rightfully be classed as England’s go-to spinner, despite the selection of Liam Dawson. Moeen has earned it.
This Test provided a number of new beginnings for members of this England side.
On Gary Ballance, recalled to bat at number three, not a great deal has been learned. The 34 he made in the second innings was admirable because batting was very difficult when he arrived on the third evening.
However, his mode of dismissal in the first innings, had a familiar, retro feel. After taking that huge stride back as a trigger movement, Ballance was desperately trying to get forward and was pinned lbw by MorneMorkel.
Bowlers know how Ballance likes to play and that backwards trigger gives them so much more room to pitch the ball up. He will have to examine that technique and decide if it will allow him to succeed at this level.
For most of his second innings Ballance was in the company of Alastair Cook, a man who looks like has he gulped in a huge breath of fresh air by giving up the captaincy.
I interviewed him on the fourth morning and was able to draw a comparison between the Cook of now and the Cook I spoke to after the fifth Test against India in Chennai last year. It was like a different man.
Cook will not be a grumpy old pro, chuntering in the corner as the team move on. He will enjoy his cricket and bat the way he does. The 69 he made in the second innings was classic Cook – playing nicely without taking the attack apart.
With his schedule – no one-day internationals – he could play Tests for a long time to come.
The biggest change was for Root, who finally got to lead England five months after being appointed as Cook’s successor.
It’s very easy to evaluate captaincy from the commentary box, to nitpick every decision, but Root did OK.
He might have used Moeen earlier on the third day, but he showed good energy in the field and came up with some imaginative plans.
Big decisions, like what to do at the toss or when to declare, were not a factor, so in some ways it was a straightforward introduction to the job.
The biggest plus for Root is that he made a big score, because no-one can say, for a little while at least, that the captaincy has affected is batting.
However, even though he wasn’t necessarily challenged by the tactical demands of the game, and he had the luxury of England winning handsomely, Root seemed tired when I spoke to him at the end of the match. Once or twice he lost his train of thought.
Captaincy is hard work, especially for those who haven’t done much of it before. Root is learning that he has to be sharp all the time, making decisions, formulating plans. His mind will be racing, even when he tries to sleep at night. It is something he will have to learn to deal with.
Root, though, has fewer problems than Faf du Plessis, the South Africa skipper who has arrived back in England following the birth of his child and will take charge for the second Test at Trent Bridge starting on Friday.
He has to instil some character and fight into his team. If we see the same practice drill in Nottingham as we did at Lord’s, the writing is on the wall.
The way South Africa capitulated was embarrassing and they need to show they are better than that.
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