We need some facts. (Dream on.)

It’s an unspecified time during Christmas. So I could be dreaming or under the influence of exotic chocolate liquors – meaning extravagantly packaged, diesel-filled ‘seasonal treats’. My best guess is that I’m simply up early to listen to cricket.

#TMS and a quiet house. And in time the relatively un-glorious dawn chorus, via a handful of unseen, presumably gale-tossed and bedraggled birds. I release into them. Quietly but chirpily, in the dank and dark, I go travelling.

From the beautiful but sopping West to London – the point of departure. Down into the Tubes that my wife plans to ‘avoid with the children’.
It’s down there – or going down there – that in some Orwellian confluence of Norths and Souths and whirrs and clunks I have that out-of-body witness-thing; watching silently as England, pristine in their whites, inevitably on the up escalator, pass South Africa as they descend.

Amla is looking quiet, Steyn angry and de Villiers strangely disconnected as they slide away. Weirdly, I think I’m still hearing birds. Cook and Root and co meanwhile are bouncing. All smiles and gurns and territorial in-jokes as they rise.

That feels good but we need some anti-indulgent facts here.

The first one that springs to mind (the news that Lemmy just died) feels unhelpfully non-focussing. What’s more real is the lack of sun around my fizzog and warming beer in my paws – confirming I’m still in Wales. So I haven’t entirely Gone Barmy – or at least didn’t get on a plane, or on a tube. No. The dog’s sleeping on my feet, being massaged by my twitching toes. I can see that, feel that. And #TMS is on.

England, as I begin to write, have a lead of 350. Bairstow, coming in at the most perfect of perfect times, has clonked a few, encouragingly positively. Moeen is in there with him and the prospects for South Africa are not good; somewhere between bleak and utterly dispiriting. The sense is that given Amla’s disappearance, Steyn’s issues and the South African public’s relative non-engagement (in Durban, at least) a killer momentum has already been established in this series – and not for the home side.

That may be premature but the impression persists – at least until the South Africans bat. Things skate on, do they not, but I think I’m right in recalling the essences: Broad again rose to the occasion as Leader of the Pack, Mo rolled those fingers and on a trying surface our batsmen stuck at it better? Importantly, Compton and Taylor have done absolutely what they were drafted in to do; applied themselves; job done.

Regarding Compton, I suspect I may not have been alone in wondering whether his relentless campaigning in the media might have worked against his chances of a recall – certainly Graeme Swann appears to be fed up of the bloke, given his endless mithering about the Middlesex batsman’s lack of dynamism – but the Harrow educated, South African-born grandson of Denis has earned his chance… and taken it.

Rightly going against the grain of the daft or disproportionate (but apparently non-negotiable) positivity being preached by everyone with a Level 4 Coaching Certificate, @thecompdog has ground out runs in the historical (meaning arguably dull but crucially opposition-shrinking manner) favoured by everybody who Played the Match Situation, pre 2010. Frankly I don’t warm to the bloke – that self-publicising plus the South African/Harrovian combo doesn’t exactly light the fires of my enthusiasm – but he has been exactly what England needed for this series.

Likewise Taylor. Possibly more so, given his ability to transcend that Diggin’ In mode. The wee fella has got those dancin’ feet moving nicely, to shore up the England batting and manifestly reduce the pressures on Hales and Stokes in particular. Size-wise, personality-wise and contribution-wise, it seems a good balance has been established – for which we have to credit Farbrace and Bayliss. It’s always a question of blend and England look to have most things covered.

Hales will remain a concern until he fires. He has profited from both an absence of other openers and from that fine understanding a propos the team balance. In acknowledging that success, I restate my suspicion that the fashion for positivity (which of course we all love to see!) is over-emphasised – in my view because it’s a seductively blokey if not laddish concept that sits nicely with any coaches need to sound or be generous towards freeing up and ‘expressing talent’. But this is Test Cricket – a test over time – where things are (or often need to be) more slowly gained.

We all get that it’s important to entertain the punters. We all get that times have changed and run rates have bounded forward. But both ‘holistically’ and tactically there is no need for (our) Test Cricket to morph entirely into the other formats. Let 50 overs and T20 provide the boomathon for the masses and let Compton be Compton (in Tests.  Don’t pick him for the other stuff.)  His pedigree doggedness can then set things up for Stokes to be Stokes – boomtastically so, if the match situation allows.

And now back to #TMS, which is buzzing as England reach a lead of 415. Bairstow has enjoyed himself – 79 from 76 – and South Africa have 140 overs to endure. If their body-language doesn’t improve they are more likely to face humiliation than honourable defeat.

This is a potentially significant triumph, then, for England. Stepping into Steyn and Morkel’s back yard and – without arguably hitting peak form – dismissing the World Number Ones with some ease. We look a good side; despite the questions that remain over Hales, Woakes, Bairstow’s keeping(?) and Moeen’s admittedly improved bowling. Through the four match series, things could get alarming for the home side if Cook provides an anchor around which that long England batting line-up can swing.

Dangerous, yes, to come over too optimistic. Bayliss and Farbrace though, have already earned a lump of credit – faith, even. The central allegation against this England group – that there are still far too many batting collapses – seems likely to recede when the evolving team settles. That seems only natural and as the coaches appear to be gathering their posse in good order so things should get better yet.

(*Fatal*!)

The project, however, remains unfinished. Personally I’m not clear if Woakes or Hales will become fixtures; I’m guessing the former won’t and this is only partly because a certain Burnley Express will surely return.

Hales may get an extended opportunity even if he plays fitfully; that seems right because we all know (and the coaches will clearly know) that he’s something of a longshot. He’s such a stranger to playing the traditional opener’s percentages that Hales must either be overlooked completely or persisted with philosophically. Because the group are sending out a message. I do hope there will be a time – coming to a packed venue near you – when Cook is quietly imperious and Hales, his partner, is lankily Warner-like.

Elsewhere the side looks strong – like if somebody fails somebody will surely storm on through. Cook Hales Compton Root Taylor Stokes Bairstow Moeen Broad? In the New Year, why wouldn’t we be dreaming?

 

Brief postscript – in which we pile on the positives.

  • For Moeen’s bowling to (ahem) turn out so well is MASSIVE for him and for England.  A significant step towards legitimacy as an international spinner… and hooooge for his personal confidence. Plus he’s Man of the Match, if a little surprisingly.
  • Compton and Taylor and that successful blend thing. (A blend that may change of course, depending on what the opposition offer.  Again the fact that we look to have a strong SQUAD is looking useful in this regard.)
  • Bairstow’s batting – if not the glove(s)manship – was doing exactly that *making a positive statement* thing the management would have dreamed about.  Behind the sticks he may never be the finished article… but you trying choosing between him and Buttler?
  • Root.  Let’s not forget.  Brilliant… and brilliant contributor to the team *humour.*
  • And talking of which… That Group Feeling.  England are rightly cock ‘a the wotsits and over the parrot.  They whupped the World Number 1s.  They are strong allround… and the feeling is that they may well get better – whether or not Jimmy Jimmy walks back into the side.

Now.  Where are those dodgy chocolates again?

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