TELFORD VICE in London
MIND the mental gap between England and South Africa in a test series that is threatening to veer off the rails for the home side.
South Africa have overcome the absence of Faf du Plessis at Lord’s, in happy circumstances, and that of Kagiso Rabada and Russell Domingo at Trent Bridge, both in unhappy circumstances, to level matters with two matches to play.
The noise from outside made by Graeme Pollock, who has destroyed his greatness by exposing his racism, wouldn’t have permeated too far into the dressingroom. But it wouldn’t have helped.
On top of that, South Africa had only four days between Lord’s and Trent Bridge to fix things.
Fix them they did, following the 211-run hiding they suffered in the first test with a 340-run thrashing of England in the second.
It was an impressive display of fortitude, and should South Africa hear a knock at that dressingroom door one of these days it could be England hoping to borrow a cup of the precious stuff.
But, for now, Joe Root’s team are reeling from one ridiculousness to the next.
Apparently, in order to give of his best off-spinner Moeen Ali needs to believe he has been picked as a batsman and is, therefore, not England’s best slow bowler.
Good thing, then, that he made 87 in the first innings at Lord’s: that would have helped him explain away his match haul of 10/112.
Of course, to keep this charade going England need to pick another spinner as a decoy.
Liam Dawson’s cover wasn’t quite blown on a turning pitch at Lord’s, where he claimed 4/101. But he was left-arm ordinary at Trent Bridge, where his 1/68 in 18 overs paled alongside Moeen’s 4/99 in 24 overs.
South Africa will no doubt be quietly happy if England keep Dawson in the side.
Just as they are probably a touch disappointed that Gary Ballance has been ruled out for the third test at The Oval on July 27 with a broken finger, courtesy of Morne Morkel at Trent Bridge.
Ballance has scored 75 runs in his four innings in the series, 34 of them in one trip to the crease, and has failed to impose himself on South Africa’s attack, as No. 3’s have to do if they are to be successful.
But England went to the kind of effort that would have been better spent on a proper No. 3 to try and ensure Ballance’s fitness for The Oval, even sending him to a hand specialist on Monday evening for a second medical opinion.
On the latest evidence, Ballance should be good to go for the fourth and last match at Old Trafford on August 4.
The South Africans won’t send flowers with a note wishing him a speedy recovery, but they’ll want to.
England should have recognised Ballance’s fate for the mercy it is and picked a player more suited to the role.
Mark Stoneman has scored three half-centuries in his last four first-class innings along with an unbeaten one-day hundred.
He made two of those 50s opening the batting for England Lions against South Africa A in Canterbury last month.
Keaton Jennings batted at No. 3 in that game and also passed 50 in both innings, but Stoneman looked significantly more comfortable in technical and temperament terms.
Jennings has opened in the test series for scores of eight, 33, nought and three, and has been found as wanting as those figures suggest.
How about, at The Oval, Stoneman opens and Jennings comes in at first drop against an older ball and bowlers not as fresh?
That would be too simple an idea for over-thinking England, who seem determined to wreck what’s left of Jennings’ confidence by continuing to send him out to open.
Dawid Malan — no, not a South African — and Tom Westley have also been mentioned as possible replacements for Ballance.
Malan has averaged well above 40 for the last four seasons while Westley scored a century for England Lions against South Africa A in Worcester last month.
But what is Westley’s strong point, if you listen to the chatter around the England camp?
The fact that he, unlike Stoneman or Malan — or seven of England’s XI at Lord’s and Trent Bridge — bats right-handed.
You read that right: England have too many left-handers, according to some people.
Try not to laugh. They take cricket seriously around here.