It was Ben Stokes, in his Mirror column, who first referred to this as England’s “cursed tour.” And, as Rory Burns was carried from the field at Newlands – the latest casualty of the warm-up football sessions the players so enjoy – you could see what Stokes meant.
At the time of writing, it is impossible to know whether Burns will be fit to play. He has, at this stage, been diagnosed only with a twisted left ankle and has been sent for a scan and x-ray. The manner in which he left the field – in obvious pain and unable to support his own weight – did not augur especially well. It would be a surprise to see him on Friday morning. The worst case scenario, a broken ankle, would rule him out of the rest of the tour.
England have been equally coy about the involvement of Jofra Archer in the second Test. But, for the second day in succession, he took almost no part in training and must be considered highly unlikely. He, too, has been sent for a scan on his troublesome elbow and, in the circumstances, it would be a surprise if he was risked. As Joe Root put it, “we need to make sure we don’t blow him out for six months.” Mark Wood, who might have been the man to replace him, is not yet fit to do so.
For a team one-nil down in the series to lose their highest run-scorer and highest wicket-taker from the previous Test would be a considerable blow. But such has been England’s fortune on this tour – 11 players have been struck down with illness in the last couple of weeks – that it’s getting to the stage where you expect little better. During training the coach, Chris Silverwood – who claimed his only Test five-for here 20 years ago, bowling at a pace (around 95 mph) that would impress even Archer – narrowly missed a collision with a fork-lift truck. He responded with the rolled eyes of a man who isn’t expecting a lottery windfall any time soon.
Much of these setbacks have simply been poor fortune. But the Burns incident may well revive calls to abandon football in training. Notably Ashley Giles, the director of England’s men’s teams, has raised doubts about the wisdom of the activity. This episode will do nothing to dissuade him, though it is worth clarifying that Burns was not the victim of a tackle, but instead landed badly after kicking the ball. To some extent, these things happen.
But, as Root is wont to say, such setbacks provide opportunities for others. And the plucky young bowler likely to benefit from Archer’s absence is 37-year-old James Anderson. For, odd though it sounds, he was most likely to miss out had Archer been available. His record in South Africa – he has a bowling average of 41.25 here – is notably worse than Stuart Broad’s – 25.16 – and another look at the pitch has rendered it essential to include a spin bowler. It looks flat, slow and dry. It should be full of runs. And the captain that wins the toss should elect to bat.
That spinner will almost certainly be Dom Bess. While he was not an original selection for this tour, he was called up as cover for Jack Leach and has impressed sufficiently in the nets to edge ahead of Matt Parkinson in the pecking order. Leach, while back in training, is not considered fit to be considered for selection, while Parkinson, who has few pretensions as a batsman or fielder, is seen by the England management at this stage of his career as much more of a white-ball prospect. Increasingly his selection for this tour is looking puzzling; he was picked for just four first-class games by Lancashire in 2019.
It’s an incredible opportunity for Bess. A few months ago, he was so frustrated with his lack of opportunity at Somerset – where his progress has sometimes been blocked by the presence of Leach – that he went on loan to Yorkshire. He only won a recall to the Somerset side when Leach was selected by England. But he is seen as fiercely competitive, unlikely to be intimidated by the occasion – and a full-house crowd at one of the world’s great Test venues really does promise to be quite the occasion – and made scores of 57 and 49 in the two Tests he played at the start of the English summer of 2018. As a result, he will strengthen the tail considerably and is expected to come in at No. 9. He is also an outstanding fielder, as he showed when claiming a superb catch off Anderson in his second Test.
The only concerns relate to his bowling. All six of his five-fors in Championship cricket have come on a Taunton ground tailor-made for spin bowling and the concern is, on a flatter surface, he may lack the weapons to counter high-quality batsmen. The England camp feel he has progressed substantially for the time he has spent working with Rangana Herath at a spin camp in Mumabi, but he is yet to have an opportunity to put such learning into practice; he played his last first-class game in September. While Simon Harmer and Leach both claimed five-fors in the game, he claimed 1-34 from 17 overs in Essex’s first innings and 1-8 from seven in the second. If he can, in the first innings, go for under three-an-over and allow his captain to rest and rotate the seamers, his selection can probably be considered a success.
The beneficiary of Burns’ misfortune looks likely to be Zak Crawley. While there might have been a case for promoting Joe Denly to open and retaining Jonny Bairstow, it instead appears England will stick with Denly at No. 3, recall Ollie Pope at No. 6 and recall Crawley, who batted at No. 6 on debut in Hamilton but opens for Kent in the County Championship. An opening partnership of Crawley and Dom Sibley already sounds like the answer to a quiz question in years to come.
But Crawley can bat. While his opportunity may come a year or two before is ideal – he is just 21 and has a modest first-class average of 30.79 – he has played a couple of innings (notably centuries against strong Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire attacks) that really caught the eye. Crucially, he seems to play pace well and has impressed with his equable temperament.
But there’s no pretending that any of this is ideal. For reasons that are, in general, beyond the control of the captain and the coach, there is a makeshift look to this team and a chaotic feel to the tour. Cursed? Let’s see how the next week goes.