Skittled out for 101, England crashed to defeat in Centurion, but received the Basil D' Olivera Trophy
Shortly after 11.30morning, England received the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy but the celebrations were muted. There was no popping of champagne corks or bouncing up and down or repeats of the sprinkler dance. Instead the side posed for a photo, and walked away with smiles on their faces.
England had deservedly won the series 2-1, but it was difficult to get overly excited after being bowled out for 101 - their lowest total in South Africa since 1899. The hosts required just 66 minutes and 82 deliveries to wrap up the seven wickets required for victory, as England rolled over.
Kagiso Rabada was again the star, finishing with 6 for 32 in the innings and 13 for 144 in the match - figures that have only been bettered by Makhaya Ntini among South Africans. While that gave the hosts plenty to celebrate in the midst of a 280-run win, the manner of England’s capitulation took some of the gloss off their achievement, even if this was a dead rubber at the end of a demanding run of 17 Tests.
“I can’t quite put my finger on it,” said Alastair Cook. “We spoke a lot about how we wanted to finish the tour, but we just haven’t been good enough in this game. It just shows, like we already knew, how much hard work we still have to do as a side. We’ve never pretended we’re the finished article. There are a lot of areas that we’ve got to get better at. It was no coincidence that the two games we won we caught everything, and the other two games we dropped far too many chances. That is a big area of concern for the side.”
In many ways the series numbers just didn’t add up. South Africa had the most centuries, the most five-wicket hauls, the highest run-scorer in Hashim Amla and the highest wicket-taker in Rabada. It also dropped fewer catches, and yet it had lost the series. It is one of Test cricket’s quirks that the most important factor - who wins the ‘big moments’ - has little tangible way of being measured.
More explicit was the presence of a certain individual in England’s side.
“England is very fortunate that they have what South Africa had a year or two ago - four frontline seamers and a spinner,” reflected Russell Domingo. “South Africa doesn’t have someone like Ben Stokes who scores hundreds and takes five-wicket hauls. Jacques Kallis used to do that. Its bowling all-round strength is a massive factor. Bowlers win you games and that has been the difference as far as I’m concerned - they have sustained the pressure a lot better than we did throughout the series.”
Stokes’ 411 runs at an average of 58.71 and 12 wickets at 29 were handy, and made him a deserved winner of the man of the series award, but the balance he brings to the England side was just as important. South Africa chopped and changed its team throughout the series, using no fewer than 17 players, but without a seam-bowling allrounder they could never replicate that balance.
On the plus side for the hosts, it is in possession of a 20-year-old fast bowler with one of the brightest futures in the game. Morne Morkel took the first wicketmorning, dismissing James Taylor for a top score of 24 with a lifting delivery, and Dane Piedt had Joe Root caught at slip in the next over, but thereafter it was The Rabada Show.
He dismissed Jonny Bairstow twice in two balls - the first time off a no-ball - and also had Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad caught behind the wicket. When James Anderson was trapped lbw, he had 22 wickets in three matches in the series at an average of 21.90, and South Africa had wrapped up the game.
“He showed the maturity of a guy who’s played a hundred Test matches and the pace of a guy who’s only played one or two,” said AB de Villiers. “He’s got to be looked after really well, so it’s up to some of us and the management to make sure he’s fresh when he walks out onto the cricket field. He is the future.”
Equally impressive in the series was Temba Bavuma, whose 284 runs came at a fraction under 50. In the context of where South African cricket is at, the significance of Bavuma and Rabada’s emergence can not be overstated.
“We know how South Africa’s history has gone with the racial issues that we’ve had in the past, so to see two guys come through like that and step up has been fantastic, and for me to be captain and see the two of them perform like that has been probably one of the highlights of my career,” said de Villiers.
Nevertheless, South Africa still has some way to go in its rebuilding process. With Stephen Cook and Quinton de Kock also performing in this Test, it at least has a clearer idea of who its best XI is, and de Villiers provided some assurance about his future in Test cricket. “There’s no decision to be made,” he said. “I’m very excited about our future.” But forging a new identity and confidence in the side will take time.
A couple of hours after they had walked off the field, England was joined in their changing room by a small group of supporters, armed with a trumpet, and the disappointment of the morning was melting away. Hearty songs were sung and the focus was back on the series success and a promising future.
“I think England is possibly the team to beat in the next year or so,” was de Villiers’ assessment. “England has got good leaders out there and a lot of match-winners. I think that the future is looking bright for England. I think some of the guys - and I may have been misquoted - are getting a bit older. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the skill to bowl out teams and score the runs that they need to. Under Cooky’s captaincy I think England has got a really good two years to come.”