As Harold Macmillan is supposed to have explained, there are times when the best‑laid plans disappear like melting snow in springtime and a whole new landscape is created: “Events, dear boy, events.” Macmillan might have delivered these words in more patrician tones than Chris Silverwood or Joe Root but the two Yorkshiremen now have a clearer understanding of what a previous Etonian prime minister meant.
In cricket events can create the most surprising twists and turns that often look incomprehensible with the passage of time. Examples spring to mind all too easily. How did England take to the field at Eden Gardens in Kolkota in January 1993 with four seamers plus Ian Salisbury – with John Emburey and Phil Tufnell on the bench – the day after India had announced they were playing three spinners? How did Darren Pattinson get selected at Headingley against South Africa in 2008? How did Scott Borthwick and Boyd Rankin both end up making their debuts and their solitary Test appearances for England in Sydney in 2014?
On each occasion eminently sensible men were in charge: Graham Gooch, Michael Vaughan and Alastair Cook. The simple answer, to paraphrase MacMillan, is that stuff happened.
The situation is not quite so extreme in Cape Town: there are no debutants on the horizon for England unless they suddenly opt for Matt Parkinson, which is highly unlikely. Nonetheless there is likely to be a diversion from the long-term plan. Out of the blue Dom Bess, who was not selected in the original tour party, has a good chance of playing. Moreover England may end up picking an attack that brings to mind the fable of the tortoise and the hare in the hope that slowness, steadiness and a bit of trickery can prevail against pace.
England’s quicker bowlers are indisposed. That has been the case with Mark Wood throughout the tour and his non-availability seems to highlight what an odd selection he was. Jofra Archer, who despite his profligacy at Centurion, picked up six wickets there, has a problem with his elbow; Chris Woakes has been beset by the flu more seriously than most – though not so seriously as Jack Leach – and as a consequence neither of them is likely to be considered match fit.
So England may end up with an attack comprising the canny old survivors, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, augmented by Sam Curran and Bess with Ben Stokes, who has had plenty on his plate recently, the only bowler capable of the enforcer role.
England’s likely team is not dull and does not lack talent but there remains much uncertainty over Dom Sibley, Ollie Pope, who is expected to replace Jonny Bairstow, Curran and Bess.
Even with Broad and Anderson still there the side are evolving rather more quickly than anticipated. The consolation is that Curran, Pope and Bess, for all their inexperience, are cricketers not easily daunted. They see opportunities rather than burdens.
For Bess, in particular, playing in Cape Town would be yet another bizarre twist in a strange career. One moment he is unable to get a game at Somerset, the next he is England’s first-choice specialist spinner. He will be excited by that prospect while those running the show may ponder the wisdom of denying the more experienced Moeen Ali another central contract. Moeen has a fine record in Test cricket against everyone except Australia and England are not playing them.
The South Africa side for Cape Town are likely to have just one enforced change. Aiden Markram has a finger injury and is expected to be replaced by Pieter Malan, who would be their third 30-year-old debutant of the series. Newlands is now Malan’s home ground and he is also fortified with a domestic record that must be the envy of many. He has scored more than 10,000 runs in first-class cricket at an average in excess of 45.
The forecast is dry and sunny and the expectation is that run-scoring will be easier than at Centurion. That would suit the hosts since the first three days are sold out and a long game would be a money-spinner, though not a great argument for four-day Tests. In these conditions the extra pace in South Africa’s attack may be decisive, as might the presence of an experienced spinner.
Yet there is no guarantee of runs looking at the lineups of the two sides. The South Africans will expect more from their grittiest batsman, Dean Elgar, who failed twice at Centurion, but plenty of question marks remain about their capacity to produce Test runs. In that regard the same misgivings apply to the England team.
Some data to illustrate the point: England have 29 Test centuries but Root (17) and Stokes (8) have scored 25 of them; in the South Africa team there are 26 Test hundreds from three players, Elgar (12), Faf du Plessis (9) and Quinton de Kock (5). Somehow a runfest on the scale of four years ago seems unlikely.
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