Hand-wringing England hope to fix wrong with right

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TELFORD VICE in London

TOM Westley will make his England debut at No. 3 in the third test against South Africa at The Oval next Thursday — not least, it seems, because he bats right-handed.

Westley will replace Gary Ballance, who had a finger broken by Morne Morkel in the second test at Trent Bridge, where South Africa won by 340 runs inside four days on Monday.

England won the first test at Lord’s by 211 runs, and also in four days.

Essex batsman Westley has scored 478 runs, among them two centuries, at 53.11 in the championship this season, and he made an unbeaten 106 for the England Lions against South Africa A in Worcester last month.

Those are decent numbers, but a significant factor in Westley’s favour would seem to be that he bats from the right side of the crease in a team that sent seven left-handers to the wicket at Trent Bridge.

That theory gained currency with the non-selection of Mark Stoneman, who was also in the running for The Oval.

Stoneman is enjoying a demonstrably better season than Westley, having scored 761 runs — 283 more than Westley, albeit in two more innings — with three centuries, and he averages 58.53.

But, unhappily for Stoneman, he bats left-handed.

Perhaps he should take up the matter with the UK government’s Equality and Human Rights commission.

The South Africans would be forgiven for chuckling into their sleeves about England’s hand-wringing over the small stuff while ignoring what’s important.

It’s so obvious it hurts that England need a solid No. 3 who is able to stamp his authority on the innings, and to hell with which way round he bats.

Just as obvious is that left-arm spinner Liam Dawson is a passenger — or at least a designated driver — for ability-rich, confidence-poor off-spinner Moeen Ali. But there Dawson is in the squad for The Oval.

England-born, South Africa-schooled Dawid Malan is in the 13 in case England opt for an extra batsman.

He shouldn’t get his hopes up: he bats left-handed.

England squad: Joe Root (captain), Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Liam Dawson, Keaton Jennings, Dawid Malan, Toby Roland-Jones, Ben Stokes, Tom Westley, Mark Wood.

Coach uncertainty a bad smell in SA camp

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TELFORD VICE in London

YOU would have to go a long way to find a man as steeped in cricket as South Africa’s assistant coach, Adrian Birrell.

All the way to his native Eastern Cape, in fact, where another son of the province as well as another dyed in the wool man of cricket has now buried his mother and delivered her eulogy, and will soon return to South Africa’s tour of England.

But Russell Domingo could be coming back to say another goodbye — to the team he has coached for four years.

“It’s tough, losing your mother,” Birrell said. “Our thoughts have been with him, and it’s fantastic for him to be sitting on his couch and watching us win.”

And how. South Africa’s surge to victory by 340 runs with more than a day to spare in the second test at Trent Bridge on Monday was emphatic a response as they could deliver to going down by 211 runs in four days at Lord’s.

How did the visitors turn things around so emphatically?

“I know this is boring, but it was business as usual,” Birrell said. “We prepared the same way as for all other test matches; we just did exactly the same thing.

“We didn’t panic after Lord’s and the feedback from the players was that we had prepared very well there but had played poorly.

“So it was about preparing as we do for every other test match.”

Not even similar triumphs at The Oval and Old Trafford, where the last two tests will be played, are likely to spare Domingo.

On Friday Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) board will hear from the panel they appointed to recommend who should coach South Africa when Domingo’s contract expires.

That happens at stumps on the scheduled last day of the fourth test at Old Trafford. Or, if you prefer, August 8.

Those among Domingo’s players who have been asked who should be the coach have all given the same answer: Domingo.

Not for the first time, CSA seem set not to follow sound advice.

That’s a pity, because Geoff Toyana — Domingo’s likely successor — deserves a better welcome than he might receive inside and outside the dressingroom.

CSA have said they will announce their decision on the coach after the series, but some insiders say they could do so before the fourth test.

Not that CSA will be in control. Who the panel will put forward is already out there — if you believe some of the whispers — and who gets the job will probably be, too, long before the press release creaks through the board’s clumsy systems.

With the series currently level at 1-1, and regardless of what happens at The Oval, the rubber will be on the line at Old Trafford.

There is no worse way to go into the deciding match of a big series than with an important question hanging in the air like a bad smell, especially when the people most affected by its answer — the same players who are being asked to win that series — appear to have no say in the matter.

Thing is, this bad smell has been around since January 28, when CSA first said they were shopping for a new coach.

“Even in the last … I don’t know how many months, there has been a lot of uncertainty,” Birrell said.

“But I don’t think it has affected the players at all and it certainly hasn’t affected the management.

“We just got on and tried to do the job as best we could.”

Birrell took aim at the press when he told the reporters listening to him that the South Africans kept “media noise … on the outside so whatever you say doesn’t affect us”.

“We speak a lot about not bringing outside influences into our inner circle; we work very hard at that,” he said.

But it’s difficult not to include the suits into the bargain.

Whatever. Birrell, a farmer who engages on subjects as far from cricket as beekeeping and drought, lives in the real world. Coaching is but a passion, but a passion nonetheless.

What’s the best thing about being elevated to head coach in Domingo’s absence?

“That it’s only temporary.”

Ah, wisdom. It comes with experience, right?

“As coaches you never have hindsight, you’ve always got to try and think ahead.”

Attention. There’s a man of cricket on deck.

Perhaps not for much longer.

Mind the mental gap between SA and over-thinking England

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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.

England win semi, SA make Mandela proud

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TELFORD VICE in Bristol

A plaque proclaiming Gloucestershire as the home of WG Grace, “The Great Cricketer” himself, has hung outside Bristol’s County Ground since July 18, 1948 — the centenary of his birth.

But Nelson Mandela loomed even larger for the South Africans who were here on Tuesday — the 99th anniversary of the day their first properly elected president was born.

Eleven of those too young to remember Mandela’s 67 years of struggle for change would have hoped to give him a fitting posthumous birthday present.

It was not to be: England beat South Africa by two wickets with two balls to spare in their World Cup semi-final.

Dane van Niekerk’s team fought bloody hard — harder than that other lot who wear green and gold have done in almost all of their knockout matches — but even their high quality attack was always going to struggle to defend the 218/6 their batsmen mustered.

“We were 30 runs short but we went out there believing,” Van Niekerk said afterwards.

England replied with 221/8 to book a berth in the final at Lord’s on Sunday.

Their opponents will be the winners of Thursday’s other semi between Australia and India in Derby.

Sixty-seven, then, was the magic number on Tuesday.

Laura Wolvaardt, South Africa’s silkily skilled opening batsman, just missed it in her superb 66 and Mignon du Preez flipped it around with a gutsy unbeaten 76, her highest score of the tournament.

Together Wolvaardt and Du Preez went 10 better than the Mandela measure and shared 76 for the third wicket.

But South Africa couldn’t find much more Madiba magic at the crease, where their next highest score was Van Niekerk’s 27, or 40 run short of par.

England should have won more easily than they did, but the South Africans weren’t going to go quietly.

None more so than medium pacer Ayabonga Khaka, who bowled her 10 overs unchanged and took 2/28.

Wouldn’t you know it: Khaka was born on this day, 25 years ago, in Mandela’s own Eastern Cape.

One of her victims was Tammy Beaumont, the tournament’s leading runscorer, who heaved and was bowled for 15 as England stumbled to 61/2 in 13 overs.

Sarah Taylor’s 54 put the home side back on top, but the result was in doubt as late as the 43rd over, when left-arm seamer Moseline Daniels saw Katherine Brunt’s charge down the pitch, corrected, and bowled her off her pads to reduce the home side to 173/6.

Wicketkeeper Trisha Chetty’s desperate diving catch to dismiss Fran Wilson in the 48th made it 213/7.

But that was South Africa’s last hurrah, and England needed three off the last.

Shabnim Ismail took charge of the last six balls — and promptly dropped the first one after Jenny Gunn hammered it back at her.

A single accrued off the second.

The third splayed Laura Marsh’s stumps.

They couldn’t. Could they?

No. Anya Shrubsole put the fourth through cover point for four, and it was over.

Most of the South Africans sank to their haunches and stayed there.

Marizanne Kapp, a tough-as-nails fast bowler, sat flat on the ground in the wasteland of midwicket, hands over head, lost in her disappointment.

Grace would have understood. Mandela would have been proud.

Is Philander the new Kallis?

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TELFORD VICE at Trent Bridge

LIKE many would, Vernon Philander scoffed at an assertion Faf du Plessis made after the allrounder played a key role in South Africa beating England in the second test here on Monday.

“He’s becoming the new Jacques Kallis the way he’s batting,” Du Plessis said of Philander, who scored 54 and 42 and took 2/48 and 3/24 to help South Africa win by 340 runs with more than a day to spare and level the series with two matches left to play.

Du Plessis’ theory got short shrift from Philander sitting next to him: “Absolutely not.”

But the captain would not be told otherwise.

“We joke about it because his technique is becoming the same as Kallis’ as well,” Du Plessis said.

“For me the most important thing in this game was that he had a new challenge on his shoulders.

“We left a batsmen out to play two allrounders and with that comes extra responsibility.

“We gave him the promotion to No. 7 because I back his technique and his batting and he responded beautifully by getting crucial runs for us.”

Philander himself would have been surprised to learn that the comparison with Kallis, outrageous in some ways because of Kallis’ outsized natural talent in all three of cricket’s disciplines, bore scrutiny in others.

In 15 tests here Kallis averaged 35.33 with the bat and 32.65 with the ball. Philander has played only five tests in England, but his averages are 40.28 — with just one not out — and 21.60.

Kallis batted higher in the order than Philander does and thus faced fresher bowlers armed with a newer ball.

But Philander has to marshal the tail and is often called on to deal with the second new ball.

So it was alarming to discover that he was, it seems, trying to talk his way out of playing in the first test, which England won by 211 runs inside four days.

“Going into that Lord’s test I was probably a bit undercooked,” Philander said.

“I had a chat with the higher powers but they wanted me to play.

“I’ve just got back from an ankle injury and literally bowled that week before the test match.”

When Philander arrived in England in 2012 his ability was questioned by English cricket’s cognoscenti.

He left with 15 wickets in the series, the last five of them taken in the second innings of the last test at Lord’s — where South Africa won to confirm their rise to the top of the rankings.

Something similar has happened this time.

Did that bother him?

“Playing international cricket you’re always going to be judged and have people making comments, but that’s something that we as a side put out of our minds,” he said.

“We’ve got a job to do — we’ve got to take 20 wickets.

“As long as I fulfill my role in the side and continue to contribute with bat and ball I’m doing my job.”

Kallis might have said something like that.

Faf factor fuels SA success, but don’t tell Faf …

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TELFORD VICE at Trent Bridge

HOW big is the Faf factor? Both sides of the divide might wonder at that given South Africa’s stunning turnaround in their test series against England.

At Lord’s last Sunday the home side completed a 211-run drubbing, with more than a day to spare, of a team who were without Faf du Plessis — who was on paternity leave.

Du Plessis returned to the fold for the second test at Trent Bridge, where South Africa won by 340 runs 40 minutes before tea on the fourth day on Monday.

It was their first win at the ground since 1965, and England’s first loss in 10 years in which they have won six tests and drawn another there.

There were other changes between Lord’s and Trent Bridge. JP Duminy was dropped, Chris Morris and Duanne Olivier cracked the nod, and conditions suited swing and seam rather than spin.

But it was difficult to deny that Du Plessis was the difference.

Not that the man himself would say so.

“All I try and do is make sure the things I know that make a change in the team, I drill them very hard,” Du Plessis said.

“It’s not a Faf factor. There are a few obvious things for me that I focus on and that generally brings the best out of the team and the players.

“I enjoy doing it. I think it brings the best out of me.”

Vernon Philander thought otherwise.

“The calmness around him and his leadership, it’s massive,” Philander said.

“There’s no sense of panic when the team have their backs against the wall. That’s what he brings to the party.

“It makes it so much easier. There’s a lot more responsibility on senior players, and the guys take it so well coming from him being so relaxed.”

Du Plessis has presided over nine victories, and a solitary loss, in his 13 tests in charge.

The defeat came in the third test in Adelaide, a dead rubber made relevant by the fact that it was South Africa’s first day/night, pink-ball match — and by the mounting pressure on Du Plessis in the throes of the “mintgate” ball-tampering scandal.

He rose to the challenge by scoring a brilliant 118 not out.

South Africa have won all four series they have played under Du Plessis’ leadership. Another success at The Oval in the match that starts on July 27 will make that five.

More evidence of the Faf factor is that without him at Lord’s, South Africa dropped three catches, fluffed another, and bowled 10 no-balls — two of which would have taken wickets. With him at Trent Bridge, no chances were spilled and not one no-ball was sent down.

But Du Plessis had the good grace to shy away when asked how South Africa’s women’s team should go about beating England I their World Cup semi-final in Bristol on Tuesday.

“Maybe they can give us some advice,” he said with a nod to the dismal record the men’s team have assembled in major tournaments.

“They’ve been exceptional. They’ve dominated their games.

“It’s been amazing to see the skipper [leg spinner Dane van Niekerk] leading from the front, bowling like Shane Warne.

“Once they win the final we’ll have beer with them and they can give us some information on how to do it.”

Everyone present had a good-natured chuckle at that.

Joe Root wasn’t in the room. He should have been, if only to be cheered up a touch.

“I definitely feel older – it’s been a tough week,” Root said.

“Root is reeling,” was The Observer’s headline on Sunday, which was also when former England captain Michael Vaughan took a swipe while commentating for BBC radio’s Test Match Special.

“The England batting has been appalling,” Vaughan said. “Maybe it’s a lack of respect about what the game is.”

On Monday, when Jonny Bairstow hammered the ninth ball after lunch straight into the hands of mid-on to reduce England to 84/5 on their spiral to a total of 133, Vaughan said: “I can’t believe I have seen that. All you need to do is dangle the carrot and they’ll go for it. Dumb batting! What is he thinking?”

Vaughan, though, was full of praise for Philander, who took 2/48 and 3/24 and scored 54 and 42.

“Philander is the worst possible bowler to face when you’re trying to get a score,” Vaughan said as the soon-to-be man-of-the-match swept in with the new ball in the second innings.

Root, who was Vaughan’s club teammate at Sheffield Collegiate, was unamused.

“I think that’s very unfair – I can’t believe he’s actually said that to be honest,” Root said.

You can say it ain’t so, Joe. But that means nothing until you prove it wrong.

SA crush England to level series

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TELFORD VICE at Trent Bridge

WAS it the reassurance that returned with Faf du Plessis, the emotion engendered by the plight of Russell Domingo, or the removal from the chain of weak link JP Duminy?

Whatever it was, it earned South Africa a crushing victory over England in the second test on Monday.

The visitors were home with more than a day to spare, winning by 340 runs.

If the weightiness of the scoreline seems familiar it’s because England won the first test by 211 runs inside four days at Lord’s last Sunday.

Du Plessis, the cricketer most comfortable with captaincy, missed that match: he was at home marvelling at his and wife Imari’s firstborn.

Domingo, an increasingly revered coach in his own dressingroom, didn’t see the end of it: his mother, who was seriously injured in a car accident last month, had taken a turn for the worse and died in the hours after the last wicket fell.

Duminy, as selfless a servant as a team could have, played what may be his last test: seven completed innings without reaching 40, nevermind 50, and only two centuries in his last 16 trips to the crease tipped the selectorial scales against him.

Five days after they were laid low at Lord’s, South Africa rose from that canvas to fight on at Trent Bridge.

Eight days on, they delivered the knockout blow by dismissing England — who were set what would have been a world record target of 474 — for 133.

The innings that lasted a touch more than three-and-a-half hours and no runs were scored as the last three wickets tumbled off four balls.

The home side resumed with a solitary run on the board, and lost their first wicket to the 11th ball of the day when Vernon Philander bowled Keaton Jennings through the gate for three.

Philander struck again to trap Gary Ballance in front for four, and England were 55/3 when Chris Morris yorked Joe Root for eight with a fine delivery that swerved past the bat and clipped the base of off-stump.

Morris then claimed the key wicket of Alastair Cook in the fourth over before lunch with a bouncer that reared viciously at the batsman’s head.

Cook took desperate defensive action, and the looping chance he gloved was stunningly caught one-handed by wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock diving far to his right.

Opener Cook batted for a minute short of two hours and faced 76 balls for his 42.

The trend continued nine balls after lunch when Jonny Bairstow slapped a delivery from Keshav Maharaj into the hands of mid-on to go for 16.

England’s last serious hopes of delaying the inevitable were Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali, but they were dismissed six balls apart for 18 and 27.

Moeen’s rash sweep off Maharaj was caught at square leg and Philander took a fine, low return catch in his follow through to send Stokes on his way.

Duanne Olivier ended what was for him a low-key match by having Mark Wood and James Anderson caught at gully and behind the wicket with consecutive bouncers.

Philander and Maharaj took three wickets each, and Morris claimed 2/7 in six overs.

The series, locked at 1-1, resumes at The Oval on July 27.