Ideally a cricket team is formed in the image of its captain. It is why so many are named after the men who command them – Don Bradman’s Invincibles; Clive Lloyd’s all-conquering West Indians; Michael Vaughan’s 2005 Ashes winners; Virat Kohli’s Indian team, the best ever from the subcontinent? Above all, perhaps, Joe Root would like this to be so in his case because the constant doubt levelled at England has become an annoyance. Quite how he retains his calm exterior when dealing with the inquisitions is beyond those of us who look in from the outside. Perhaps he knows that the prickly issues raised have foundation.
Before this Cape Town Test he had won 17 matches as captain – against 15 lost – and some of those victories were indeed things of beauty. He delights in “team”, while standing in wonder at the miracles conceived by Ben Stokes, James Anderson and Stuart Broad. And yet it is Anderson and Broad who have made it hard for him to stamp a monicker on his men. It was ever thus with strong-minded senior players. As Mike Brearley noted, he was lucky to have Ian Botham near the beginning.
Root’s delight at the moment of victory yesterday, and the convincingly positive sense of self at the interviews that followed, signalled a change. For all of Stokes and Dominic Sibley, Anderson, Ollie Pope, Sam Curran and Broad, this was Root’s triumph, and all the more beautiful for it: a triumph carved from good, intelligent captaincy, slick batting and sharp catching. He got what he wanted from his leading men and from the support cast too. Indisputably he was the boss. In an interview of his own after the second day’s play, Broad said as much, paying tribute to his captain in a manner that suggested the old guard was finally under instruction from the new. Not that Root is new, of course, just that a long journey of trust and compliance is over.
The winning burst was quite something. Stokes, as if possessed, hunting down terrified batsmen who suddenly became helpless prey of the scavenging, six-strong slip cordon. This was the flattest of pitches until expectation overtook hope in the mind of all South Africans, at which point panic took hold.
The bat was passed on both outside and inside edge and the ball hammered into Jos Buttler’s gloves as if fired from a gun. When Dwaine Pretorius edged to Root at first slip, the captain collected the ball inches from the turf and held it aloft before sprinting away in almost deranged excitement. Then, seemingly helpless in the face of the onslaught, Anrich Nortje fended to third slip, where Zak Crawley parried high above his head and clung on to the rebound with a natural instinct and blessed eye. Crawley was immediately swamped by team-mates who had morphed from human to hyena and were now just minutes from the final kill. When it came, via the glove of the man who was playing at Newlands for the last time, we were reminded that cricket rarely does sentiment. In the case of Vernon Philander, his last hurrah in Test cricket at his home ground would end in severe disappointment.
Modest in the extreme, Stokes was reluctant to accept the Man-of-the-Match award preferring to talk glowingly about Sibley’s first Test hundred and the job it did in setting everything else up. Good call Ben, but without you and your inspiration this job would not have been completed. Stokes caught flies all match, played a blistering innings and bowled, as far as the South Africans were concerned, like the devil himself.
This Stokes special was all the more relevant for the worrying injury to Anderson who bowled not a ball between lunch and tea, and only a few thereafter. He was seen with an ice pack at his side in the aftermath. But Anderson’s role in this victory cannot be underestimated. His seven wickets in the match, five in the first innings, one the evening of day four and another yesterday morning were the stuff of a champion whose grasp of reality has long been a great strength.
He is 37, for goodness’ sake, and still a racing snake. He is closing in on 600 Test wickets, a number unmatched by any other seam bowler. Only three spinners – Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble – are ahead of him on the list of the best there have been. Anderson claims to love cricket every bit as much as he ever did and says he missed the hard yards when out injured for six months. He has finally returned fit and refuelled to the role of England’s talisman. He is the Burnley boy, and on the back of that first-innings five-wicket haul he has gone past Ian Botham among the men whose five-fers have lit up the cricketing firmament.
At 5.45pm on the fourth day of this Test, the players were in overtime. The pitch was numbingly unresponsive and just four wickets had fallen since 10.30am in the morning, three of those to England’s batting adventure in pursuit of a declaration. There were two overs left in the day’s play: it was all but closing time, and yet, to the irritation of Zubayr Hamza, Anderson wanted one last drink. He cruised in as if on wheels, a thinker and schemer in search of the last-gasp wicket that would be a hammer blow to the South African dressing room. The ball rested in his fingertips, held gently with the seam upright and the shine reversed for the outswinger that would follow a series of late inswingers. He delivered it perfectly – full in length, accurate in line – and Hamza pushed forward. The ball moved just an iota but wickedly late to clip the edge of the well-positioned bat and fly low to Buttler’s right, where the catch was held low and safe by the tumbling stumper. It was the wicket England craved. And it was art.
It is barely believable that Anderson started so long ago. In 2003 the hot news outside of Jimmy’s England debut was Tony Blair taking the Brits into Iraq and the resulting demonstrations; Roman Abramovich acquiring Chelsea for a cool £150 million; the rather ridiculous return to EastEnders. Of Den Watts, who, in effect, rose from the dead; Concorde’s final flight; England’s rugby World Cup victory against the Aussies in Sydney; and London’s new stealth tax, the congestion charge.
He was a thoroughly modern lad – you know the sort of thing: streaked and skunked hair and an initially sultry and shy demeanour. He bowled with a quirk in his action – a dip of the head to the left at the point of release – which led a few purists to surmise he was doomed. Almost 17 years on and the doomed have been the myriad batsmen who have fallen foul of his tricks and trade. He was a wonder, and on the evidence of this Newlands Test match, no less wonderful now than then.
Fate played its hand in this performance, for without injury to Jofra Archer it is possible, likely even, that Anderson would have been left out of the side. He was rusty in Centurion in the first Test, giving cause for concern. Broad outbowled him and Curran picked up five wickets with his waspish left-arm swing. In hindsight, the idea that England’s leading wicket-taker would have carried the drinks is absurd but such is the uncertainty of sport.
An injury to the side, intercostal maybe, is a nasty thing. Shaun Pollock, one of the clan, asked Anderson about it and to a raise of the eyebrows, he added a grunt of disaffection. It is just a fact that as time marches on, injuries seem to march with it: yup, invariably one follows another until even the racing snakes stop racing.
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Meantime, everyone can take a breath. This superb advert for the five-day game took it out of one and all. Quinton de Kock talked of time away from the game over the next few days as crucial. Anderson will be on the rehab table again, a dreary business but one that frightens him not a jot. Put simply, he is not done yet.
Root will have slept best of all, a man comfortable in his own skin again and capable of leading England to victory in South Africa despite the numerous hurdles that keep coming his way. The Port Elizabeth Test should be a bright affair with both teams flawed but ambitious. One match apiece brings us the most delicious prospect of another battle hard fought and, likely, hard won.
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