NASSER HUSSAIN: England will have to play smarter to keep up the Test momentum against South Africa


When England take the field against South Africa at Lord’s on Wednesday, their greatest wish will be to continue the momentum built up during four remarkable victories against New Zealand and India. 

I fancy them to win the series, but it won’t be easy.

South Africa are top of the World Test Championship, and keep churning out results under the gritty leadership of Dean Elgar. Recently, they came from behind to beat India at home.

When England take the field against South Africa on Wednesday, their greatest wish will be to continue the momentum built up during four remarkable wins against New Zealand and India

Swashbuckling wins have set the tone of the new regime under Brendon McCullum (left)

Swashbuckling wins have set the tone of the new regime under Brendon McCullum (left)

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They’ve had a habit of unseating England captains in the not too distant past, and while I’m not suggesting they will do the same to Ben Stokes this summer, Stokes will know his team face a challenge, particularly against the South African bowlers.

The change in mindset brought about by Stokes and Brendon McCullum has been outstanding, but England have also had some narrow escapes this summer. 

New Zealand were ahead in all three Tests, and it needed a huge partnership between Jonny Bairstow and Jamie Overton to get England out of trouble against them at Headingley.

England hate using the phrase ‘Bazball’, because that suggests they’re just swinging from the hip every ball. 

But they also know there will be times when they have to play the conditions: if the ball’s nipping around, put the big shots in the locker for a bit. Stay positive, but don’t throw it away.

This probably applies more to Zak Crawley than to anyone else in the side. He should sit down and watch a replay of his second innings against India, when he made 46 and left the ball well at the start.

His nemesis has been the booming drive early on, before he’s got the pace of the pitch, but on that occasion he bided his time. 

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England know they will must play smart to triumph in the upcoming series against the Proteas

That applies most to under-pressure opener Zak Crawley - who should play himself in before showing off his strokes. His Edgbaston knock should be his template - it's a big series for him

That applies most to under-pressure opener Zak Crawley – who should play himself in before showing off his strokes. His Edgbaston knock should be his template – it’s a big series for him

Crawley has to be smart — once he’s in, he can show off his strokeplay. His Edgbaston knock should be his template. It is going to be a big series for him. The other England batter who may have to tweak things at some point is Stokes himself.

I get that he’s trying to show his team-mates the way by batting with aggression. But he’s too good a player, and too valuable to England’s chances of making big totals on a consistent basis, to be getting caught at mid-off for 25.

He’s a clever cricketer, and he knows that his main aim right now is to set the tone for the team. But there will also come a moment when he decides that scoring hundreds can set the tone too. I have no doubt he will get there. 

The make-up of the bowling attack has become more interesting with the resurgence of Ollie Robinson. Despite everything that has been said about his fitness and his speed in his second or third spells, I’m a massive fan.

Whether he is playing for England, Sussex or the Lions, he takes wickets for fun — and that trumps everything else. But you don’t change a successful side unless there is a good reason to do so, and Matt Potts has done very well at the start of his career.

Fast bowler Ollie Robinson takes wickets for fun - but Matthew Potts deserves to keep his spot

Fast bowler Ollie Robinson takes wickets for fun – but Matthew Potts deserves to keep his spot

I just hope that Potts’ success will focus Robinson’s mind even further, and encourage him to look at the likes of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad and work out what they have done in their careers to still be at the peak of their powers.

And with Stokes determined to back the left-arm spin of Jack Leach, space is tight. I would keep Robinson up my sleeve for later in the series.

For South Africa, the main question will not so much be how do they take 20 wickets, but how do they score enough runs? Elgar is a nuggety opener, and one of the key wickets, but no one in the side averages more than his 39.54 in Test cricket.

Many of them will be facing the Dukes ball in English conditions for the first time, so it’s not going to be easy for them to build big totals.

I realise that Joe Root is the only England batter to average over 40, but Bairstow is in the form of his life and most of the others, including Alex Lees and Ollie Pope, have improved under the new regime. 

South Africa face an immediate conundrum, because Lord's has become a graveyard for slow bowlers and two of the tourists' best, Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer (above), are spinners

South Africa face an immediate conundrum, because Lord’s has become a graveyard for slow bowlers and two of the tourists’ best, Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer (above), are spinners

The South Africans will also have to sort out the balance of their side, and they will face an immediate conundrum, because Lord’s has become a bit of a graveyard for slow bowlers — and two of the tourists’ most important players, Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer, are spinners.

Do they pick both for the first Test, or only one, and save the other for Old Trafford and The Oval, where the ball is likely to turn more if the pitches deteriorate? And that could be where this series gets really interesting. 

So far, Stokes’ England have chased down four big totals on surfaces which have stayed intact throughout the match. But Test cricket still demands that you read the conditions at the toss and bat or bowl accordingly.

Knocking off 250 in Manchester against Maharaj and Harmer may be different from hitting the New Zealand and Indian seamers all round the park on flat pitches.

It promises to be a fascinating series. Forget Bazball, and all that nonsense. This series will be won by the team that plays the smarter cricket. 



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