Might we have just witnessed a changing of the guard?
In the dying moments of the second Test, England had a slip cordon that included Ollie Pope (aged 22 and playing his fifth Test), Zak Crawley (aged 21 and playing his second), Dom Bess (aged 22 and playing his third) and Dom Sibley (aged 24 and playing his fourth). Sam Curran, aged 21 and playing his 15th Test, wasn’t so far away, either, while Jofra Archer, aged 24 and a veteran of seven Tests, would have been involved had he been fit.
Gone, for the moment at least, were Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Jonny Bairstow, while James Anderson has been ruled out of the remainder of the South Africa tour with a rib injury. Aged 37, with the gap between injuries apparently shortening, you wonder how many more Tests he has in him.
All of which underlines the impression that this is an England team in transition from one era to another. The Trevor Bayliss team enjoyed some great moments – not least victory in the 2015 Ashes and in South Africa a few months later – but perhaps never quite hit the heights they might have done.
Now a new team is emerging. There will be times, no doubt, when they stumble and there will be, no doubt, one or two who do not make the grade. But as Chris Silverwood, who celebrated his first Test win as England coach in Cape Town, made clear: these are the young men around whom the new side will be built.
“We had four players aged 22 or under involved in this Test,” Silverwood, said. “And we saw all of them perform at some stage during this Test match.
“I think it shows we have a bright future. If we keep building, let the foundations set and keep believing in what we’re doing, hopefully we’ll see these guys continue to be successful and build a team around them.”
It was interesting to hear Joe Root, the England captain, acknowledge that county cricket is currently not doing as good a job of preparing players for Test cricket as it once did in the aftermath of the result. As a consequence, he feels that players are obliged to “learn on their feet” when they come into the Test side. And as a result of that, a certain amount of failure is probably inevitable.
“County cricket is very different to Test cricket at the moment,” Root said. “So players are having to learn the hard way and at the highest level. They’re having to learn on their feet, but they’re learning quickly.”
It was a point echoed by Silverwood. He knows the next couple of years could include some tough moments – the Test tours of India (in 12 months) and Australia (in about 22) look especially daunting – but he knows that, if England are going to get the best out of these players, they are going to require patience. For that reason, he appears committed to providing them with extended opportunities.
“You’ve got to give them time,” Silverwood said. “Sometimes you’ve got to allow them to make mistakes and allow them to learn from those mistakes.
“We’ve not finished building yet. We’ve still got things to work on. But the way Pope played in the first innings showed a lot of maturity, while the way Sibley built a platform for us in the second innings was very important. He built the platform for the rest of them to play around which was exactly what we needed.
“Not everything is going to work straight away. But things are falling into place and hopefully we can keep building on that.”
These young players are fortunate to have the opportunity to develop alongside Ben Stokes. It’s not just that any team with Stokes in it has a far greater chance of success; it’s that he provides, at this stage of his career, an excellent example of the hard work and commitment required to maximise their ability.
“He is a great asset to have in any team,” Silverwood said. “When it gets tough, he’s the one you want in there. He fights. He doesn’t know how to give up. And he’s an inspiration for everyone around him. His energy gets everyone going.
“For any young kid coming in to the team, to see how he does things gives them realisation of what it takes to play international cricket. He puts a huge amount of effort into making sure he’s properly prepared to not only perform but to get the best out of everybody. He’s setting the standard from a fitness point of view. His attitude, time and time again, is superb.”
The England squad, most of whom have family or friends with them at present, are taking a few days off in Cape Town and will resume training in Port Elizabeth at the weekend.