Good morning and welcome to live coverage of the fourth and final Test between South Africa and England at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Since England won the third Test on Monday, my subconscious has been shoving one particular TV scene to the front my mind. It’s from The Thick of It special Spinners and Losers, in which the prime minister unexpectedly resigns and everyone starts spinning.
Jamie, the other maniacal Scotsman, picks the absurd Cliff Lawton as his stalking horse. When word gets out and he is ridiculed, Jamie, with recourse to a popular four-letter word, tells Cliff that he’s not going to be prime minister – or, for that matter, anything else.
“This is your thing isn’t it?” says a bruised Cliff. “Everything has to be in absolutes, everything has to be in black and white. You know: ‘I love you! Fuck off!’ There are lots of shades of grey, you know?”
NB: clip contains adult language. Obviously, as I’ve just quoted said language from it.
The point my subconscious mind is trying to make, I think, is that we have similar extreme attitudes to the England Test team. Three weeks ago they were the biggest shambles since lists began; now they are on an intrepid journey to No1 in the world. Kipling would not be impressed.
Thing is, there are reasons for enthusiasm and cautious optimism. There is nothing in sport as life-affirming as the emergence of a young side. Nor are they many things as exciting as fast bowling. Not just fast bowling, fast bowling. On a Jo’burg pitch that is usually the quickest in South Africa, Mark Wood and Jofra Archer could play in the Test team together for the first time. Most excitingly of all, England have a functioning top six. I know.
The problem is that English cricket has been having false dawns since approximately 15 March 1877, and ultimately they have only won two Tests against a fragile South Africa. While it’s been lovely to see the return of Joe Root’s boyish smile, he really needs to stop saying publicly that England are targeting No1 in the world. This whole how-ya-like-us-now vibe is asking for trouble – particularly in 2021, when they will play two five-Test series against India and another in Australia.
It’s fun, if almost entirely pointless given the unforseeables ahead, to get a little carried away and start picking our XIs or XVIs to win the Ashes in Australia in 2021-22. We’ve been playing that kind of fantasy cricket since geeks began. It’s always the same process – include a big chunk of the present, a tantalising soupçon of the distant future, and at least one leftfield selection that subliminally informs the world you are a deceptively adventurous lover.
Mine, since you asked: Burns, Hameed (I know, I know…), Denly, Root, Stokes, Pope, Bairstow (I know, I know…), Holding Spinner, Archer, Wood, Anderson. But if you ask me again in an hour’s time, I’ll probably have Foakes/Sibley/Cobley in the team.
For now, lest we forget, England have a series to win. Most people think that is already in the bag, but the history of this fixture tells us that heists and late twists can occur. South Africa were the better side for most of their Test series in England in 1994, 1998 and 2003; they drew two and lost the other. For all the limitations of the current side, compounded by the absence of the banned Kagiso Rabada, I’ll be surprised if South Africa go quietly. Not at the Wanderers; not in Vernon Philander’s final Test, on a ground where he has 39 wickets at 15.69.
If England win this series and then the next three – which is not beyond the realms – we have permission to get a little giddy ahead of a mouthwatering 2021. For now, let’s just enjoy the fact that, for the first time since the last tour of South Africa four years ago, the England Test team seem to be making progress. There’s no need to announce our undying love for them just yet, although I reserve the right to tell them to eff off if they are 50 for six at lunch.
That’s if we get any play before lunch.