Tour review

South Africa v England, 2019-20

Rory Dollard

Test matches (4): South Africa 1 (24pts), England 3 (90pts)
One-day internationals (3): South Africa 1, England 1
Twenty20 internationals (3): South Africa 1, England 2

As the calamities piled up for England in their early days in South Africa, Ben Stokes revealed that the squad had begun to speak of the "cursed tour". By the time the Test series was in the books, it had taken on the form of a blessing - rebirth for the team, renewal for individuals, and the restatement of a project being gently remoulded to Joe Root's specifications.

A series win for England might not have seemed an outlandish prediction: they had beaten a much stiffer South Africa side on their previous visit, four years earlier, then easily retained the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy at home in 2017. But circumstances made this a result to savour. Illness had swept the camp from the moment they touched down in Johannesburg, with symptoms of flu and gastroenteritis working their way through the squad. In a vain attempt to contain the spread, net sessions were depleted, daily health bulletins posted by the media manager on the travelling journalists' WhatsApp group, and quarantine rooms established at the team hotels and training grounds. Head coach Chris Silverwood had hoped to cure England's reputation as slow starters, dialling up the intensity with a first-class match against a strong South Africa A side. Instead, he was forced into requesting the fixture be downgraded to knockabout status.

A sorely underprepared squad were defeated in the First Test at Centurion, by the end of which 11 players and six backroom staff had been affected. Root was among those stricken mid-match, as was Stokes, whose participation in that game came under intolerable emotional strain: his father, Ged, had been taken seriously ill two days before Christmas, rallying sufficiently in intensive care to tell his son he had to play.

Stokes's standing was already established and, on the eve of the Third Test, he was crowned ICC Cricketer of the Year. But his performances during this series - 318 runs, ten wickets, 12 catches - told of a deep well of resolve. Numbers alone were enough to earn him Player of the Series, though the intangibles were just as compelling: how and when he contributed, the tone he set, and the psychological impact his mere presence had on South Africa.

Yet England's misfortunes lingered long enough to ensure they were not once able to pick their preferred side. Rory Burns injured an ankle playing football before the Second Test at Cape Town, where James Anderson broke a rib while returning match figures of 37-15-63-7; Jack Leach endured a doomed fitness battle, and Jofra Archer was limited to one Test after hurting his elbow.

But the stand-ins proved more than able, and England's strategies sufficiently nimble, for the setbacks to be worn lightly. Root's captaincy was both a cause, and a beneficiary, of this success. Winning all four tosses helped, but overseas victories are not the preserve oflucky generals. He showed stoicism when things veered off course, sensibly enforced the follow-on at Port Elizabeth, and wisely declined to do so at Johannesburg. Even while using 16 players, he managed to retain team unity and tactical cohesion. For the second time - after Sri Lanka in 2018-19 - Root had captained England to three successive away wins, a feat beyond either of his predecessors, Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss.

And, after all the talk of their aversion to the Kookaburra, England bowled out South Africa in all eight innings. The biggest challenge of Root's reign could still be carving out the right space for Archer, who continued to inspire intrigue even when he was unfit, though there was no temptation to press him into action when his body pushed back, and an assurance from Root that he would be handled with care.

For South Africa, and particularly their careworn captain, Faf du Plessis, English talk of a curse must have sounded like a fuss about nothing. Stomach bugs clear, bones and muscles heal, but some problems run deeper. Already hobbled by Kolpak, Cricket South Africa were swamped by backstage chaos in the days leading up to England's arrival. Key commercial partners abandoned ship, and there was an accreditation row with domestic media, before the cavalry emerged in the form of Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis. Their respective appointments as acting-director of cricket, head coach and batting consultant brought instant credibility, and injected a dose of awe into the dressing-room. But, allied to the return of Jacques Faul as acting-CEO, some detected a managerial "whitewash".

A day after the final Twenty20, du Plessis (who missed both limited-overs series) announced he was stepping down, having first led the white-ball teams in 2012-13, and the Test side in August 2016. Following a Test series in which he had averaged 18 and often looked frazzled, he spoke of a "new direction" and of "putting the team first".

Before then, the murmurs grew as transformation targets - which are supposed to average out over the course of a year to six players of colour in each XI, including two black Africans - were missed in all four matches. Temba Bavuma, as is his fate, became a lightning rod for the racial debates, his name cropping up more than any other; he made his solitary appearance in the final Test. Explaining Bavuma's non-selection at Newlands, du Plessis suggested the national side "don't see colour". It was a laudable sentiment, but not easy to take for large sections of South African cricket. Enoch Nkwe, who swallowed his ego to accept a demotion -from interim head coach to Boucher's assistant - could emerge as one of the set-up's wisest counsellors.

South Africa fielded five debutants, at least one in each match, with Beuran Hendricks, aged 29, the youngest. The short-term results were mixed, the long-range investment uncertain. England preferred fresher blood. There was 22-year-old Dom Bess, a late arrival as cover for Leach; he locked down an end at Cape Town, then took the first five wickets at Port Elizabeth. There was 24-year-old Dom Sibley: his maiden hundred, a tireless unbeaten 133 to underpin England's second-innings charge at Cape Town, brought out the paternal side in Stokes, who stuffed his trophy for the match award in Sibley's kitbag. With 324 runs, he was England's top scorer, pipping Stokes and Root. There was 21-year-old Zak Crawley and his bold talk of "taking down" Kagiso Rabada.

Most of all, there was Ollie Pope, who had just turned 22. His reputation as a coming man had long been foretold, starting at Surrey, then swelling to a consensus across the county game; his out-of-position debut in 2018 against India had been a false start, his return in New Zealand a palate cleanser. But this was proof of his quality. Pope's three first-innings efforts - he missed the Centurion Test through illness - made a persuasive body of work: he top-scored with an unbeaten 61 in the Second Test, went through the gears to hit a staggeringly accomplished 135 not out in the Third, and outscored Root during a century stand in the Fourth. His strokeplay was pleasing enough to earn comparisons - inside and outside the dressing-room - to the previous generation's premier classicist, Ian Bell, yet his repertoire may be evenbroader. A selection of ramps, flips and flicks after he had reached his maiden hundred were as eye-catching as his sweet blows through extra cover, and gave a thrilling hint of his range.

Of course, England were by no means a kindergarten. Led by Root and Stokes in their peak years, and still leaning on Anderson's and Stuart Broad's combined tally - by the end of the series - of 289 caps and 1,069 wickets, there was also room for the return of a thirtysomething with the Tiggerish enthusiasm of a first-timer. Almost six months after tearing his side in the World Cup final, Mark Wood bounded back for the last two Tests, rattling batsmen with his pace and trajectory, and sweeping up 12 wickets at 13. He had spent long enough out of action over the years to wonder if every 90mph bouncer, and every cartwheeling stump might be his last. It showed. For good measure, he hit eight sixes.

South African optimism was thinner on the ground, particularly when it was announced that the venerable Vernon Philander would be their latest star trading an international career for a Kolpak deal. His first spell after breaking the news, at Centurion, began with five maidens; in mockery of his planned departure for Somerset, he banked figures of four for 16. But his influence faded, and only sentiment prevented him from being rested from at least one Test. His lethargic swansongs at Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg might easily have been bettered by those waiting in the wings, but the skills which brought him 224 wickets at 22 will be harder to replace.

There were bright spots. Quinton de Kock and Anrich Nortje were the series' leading run-scorer (380) and wicket-taker(18). DeKock was still prone to loose dismissals, but was comfortably South Africa's best batsman,not that he faced much competition: their eight innings produced a best of 284, and an average of 241. He also held 23 catches behind the stumps. Already one-day captain, he seemed well placed for the Test job, too, following du Plessis's resignation.

Nortje established himself as a Test cricketer of merit. Over thecourse of the series, he did his best to put flesh on the bones of bowling coach Charl Langeveldt's description of him as "a proper Dutchman", which seems destined to stick. He charged in combatively and whole-heartedly, always fast and only occasionally furious. His willingness to embrace the role of nightwatchman, and wear the bruises, marked him out as another pillar of the future.

For the moment, though, the South Africans - who had lost to Sri Lanka in February 2019 - were nursing successive home Test series defeats for the first time since 1948-49 (against England) and 1949-50 (Australia). Match referee Andy Pycroft had a busy few weeks doling out fines and demerit points - one leading to the suspension of Rabada from the Fourth Test - but his hand was forced mostly by bad language rather than bad blood.

By the final evening, the players had come together in the traditional style, an entertaining and hard-fought contest put to rest over drinks. Gideon Brooks writes: With the next World Cup not until 2023, the first half of the white-ball series lacked context, beyond being a first victory lap for England's world champions, seven months on from the drama of Lord's. The three super-over stars that day were all missing: Stokes and Jos Buttler (after a disappointing Test series) were rested, Archer injured.

Conversely, with the T20 World Cup in Australia only eight months away, the 20-over series was a belter. It showcased the talents of two well-matched sides, and suggested England's World Cup win had added self-belief to their armoury. Silverwood and captain Eoin Morgan had viewed the ODIs as a vehicle to find out about fringe players; it was not, they said, about putting out their best XI. In the first two matches - the second, at Kingsmead, was spoiled by rain - leg-spinner Matt Parkinson and Sam Curran rather proved their point, failing to push their cases.

With England 1-0 down after a brilliant century from de Kock at Cape Town, the management brought in Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali at the Wanderers. They helped secure a 1-1 draw, and preserve an unbeaten record in bilateral one-day series stretching back to March 2017 in the West Indies.

Joe Denly was England's leading run-scorer, with 153, though he was less successful in the T20s. In three terrific games, which saw 1,207 runs scored - a record for a three-match T20 series - Morgan, Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy came to the fore for England, while openers de Kock and Bavuma matched them for South Africa, sharing stands of 48 in 4.1 overs, 92 in 7.5, and 84 in 7.4.

Lungi Ngidi bowled the hosts to victory in the first game, at East London, after England failed to score seven from their last seven balls. But Tom Curran responded with wickets from the last two of the next game, at Durban, as South Africa lost by two runs. A late flourish from Morgan then inspired his side to chase down 223 in the decider. His seven sixes in that game made him the first England batsman, and the fifth in all, to hit 100 in T20 internationals (next, on 55, were Buttler and Alex Hales). It meant England had come back from behind in each of the three formats, ending a memorable tour on a high.

© John Wisden & Co