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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Even in Jonny Bairstow’s absence, England’s options leave their middle order stronger than the Proteas

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Johannesburg — England’s man of the summer, won’t be donning the whites at The Oval later this week, perhaps creating an advantage for the Proteas.

Jonny Bairstow has been the toast of English cricket, encapsulating the essence of “Bazball” like no other, revitalising his Test career in the process and also topping the batting charts in 2022.

Bairstow, injured his ankle while walking to a tee box during a round of golf with some mates in Leeds last Friday. It was a catastrophic injury that not only keeps the 32-year-old out of the series decider that starts on Thursday, but also the T20 Cup, scheduled to take place in Australia next month.

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So what effect will it have on England and by extension the Proteas? From England’s perspective it puts a halt on one of the most dominant periods an individual batter has had in recent years. Bairstow has scored 12 hundreds in an 89-match Test career that started 10 years ago. Four of those centuries have come since Brendon McCullum took over as the coach of the England Test team. Bairstow’s aggregate of 1 061 runs is the highest among batters this year, and he averages 66.31, having made two other hundreds, one in Australia in January and the other in the Caribbean in March.

While South Africa have pinned him down thanks to the extreme pace of Anrich Nortje, Bairstow’s innings of 49 in Manchester came at crucial period, halting the momentum the Proteas quick bowlers had created on the first evening of that Test.

It’s a major threat that the Proteas don’t need to deal with, but that doesn’t mean England are short of options in filling that space while adhering to the same kind of ethos Bairstow has displayed with his bat in the last few months.

Ben Duckett, more famous for pouring a pint over James Anderson’s head on a night out in Perth some years back, is Bairstow’s replacement in the squad and with over a 1 000 runs to his name for Nottinghamshire in the County Championship, Division 2, he is a man in form and with a point to prove, having played the last of his four Tests in 2016.

The other, more likely option to start, given he has been part of the squad since the start of the series, is the uncapped 23-year-old, Harry Brook. He made an impression in the tour match that preceded the Test series, scoring 140 for the England Lions against SA at Canterbury. Brook struck 16 fours and half a dozen sixes in that innings, adhering to McCullum’s call to bat aggressively. The England coach was on hand to witness that innings, and the 191-run partnership Brook and Duckett, who made 145, shared in that match.

Bairstow’s absence is a blow to England, but it doesn’t leave as a big a hole in the middle order, which even with a new player coming, still seems stronger than what the Proteas can come up with in that same department.

Joe Root, the second highest run-scorer this year behind Bairstow, is due a big innings, and Ben Stokes showed his prowess at Old Trafford. Batting between those two will imbue anyone with confidence.

Meanwhile, the Proteas selectors were involved in what were undoubtedly lively discussions on Monday about the composition of the starting XI for The Oval. Marco Jansen is most likely to make a reappearance, but there would certainly have been discussions about whether to go with a rookie middle order in the shape of Ryan Rickelton and Khaya Zondo, or to give Aiden Markram one final shot at earning some redemption in the Test format.

Perhaps further discussions will take place in the coming days ahead of the start, because it is a crucial area – a major weakness – as reflected on the leading run scorer charts for the year.

There are just two SA batters in the top 20 Test run-scorers in 2022 – Dean Elgar with 509 runs in 15 innings at an average of 36.35 and Keegan Petersen, with 464 runs from 11 innings at an average of 42.18.

SA won’t win at The Oval unless those two and others make significantly bigger contributions with the bat.

SQUADS

South Africa: Dean Elgar (capt), Sarel Erwee, Marco Jansen, Simon Harmer, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Keegan Petersen, Kagiso Rabada, Ryan Rickelton, Lutho Sipamla, Wiaan Muler, Kyle Verreynne, Khaya Zondo, Glenton Stuurman

England: Ben Stokes (capt), James Anderson, Ben Duckett, Stuart Broad, Harry Brook, Zak Crawley, Ben Foakes, Jack Leach, Alex Lees, Craig Overton, Matthew Potts, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Joe Root

@shockerhess

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