The polarity of the England Test team is remarkable. The desolate performance of Trent Bridge was quickly forgotten as South Africa crumbled to a crushing defeat, inferior in all three facets in the 100th men’s Test match at the Oval. And yet, despite the dominant victory, England leave the game with questions still to be answered.
Coach Trevor Bayliss is still unsure of how best to balance his side: Dawid Malan was unimpressive on debut (although there was little he could do about his first innings dismissal) and the Australian appears to be considering a Liam Dawson return for what should be a turning pitch at Old Trafford. Tom Westley’s gorgeous leg side flicks and crushing cover drives appear to have fastened down his spot for at least the West Indies series, but his top order cohort Keaton Jennings struggled again, his scratchy 48 in the second innings of which much came off the outside edge just about securing his place for the final Test against the country of his birth. Runs will be required should he wish to confront the Caribbean collective later this month.
However, the major positive of The Oval Test was the performance of Toby Roland-Jones. Soon to be 30, Roland-Jones has bowled consistently well at Middlesex for a number of seasons and excelled last year in an extremely successful campaign, not least with his County Championship sealing hat-trick in the final session of the final game against Yorkshire. This catapulted him into the thoughts of England selectors and he has fluttered in and out of the squad ever since, receiving an ODI debut in May. Mark Wood’s early-series futility and nagging injuries vaulted Roland-Jones into a scrambling England side with a huge chance to impress as England’s third seamer. Coming on as first change, his nagging accuracy and clever length variation was a throwback to England seamers of yesteryear and suited the Oval pitch beautifully.
Modest in pace, Vernon Philander has proved that this is not crippling to a bowler’s chance of success at Test level and Roland-Jones exploited a misfiring South African top order, dismissing the top four with relative ease. A five-for in the first innings and subsequent three wickets in the second full of class and skill, and perhaps suggesting Roland-Jones is a major asset for England in Test cricket. Despite a lacklustre first-class season at county level, the Middlesex man goes to Manchester full of confidence and will hope for similar success.
This is an opportunity that may not have come. Chris Woakes had been entrenched in the third seamer role after shining last summer but his Champions Trophy was curtailed by an injury from which he has not yet recovered (he may return for the West Indian encounters). Had the aforementioned Wood bowled with his usual ferocity and not suffered injury he would likely have also been kept ahead of Roland-Jones. Jake Ball, another to succumb to injury problems, was considered ahead of the eight-wicket debutant with his consistency on difficult pitches in the subcontinent and impressive white-ball returns. Roland-Jones, therefore, was arguably seventh in the pecking order of England pace bowlers when incumbents Stuart Broad and James Anderson are factored in.
This shows just how strong England’s fast bowling group really is, and the level of depth that is possessed. While variety is perhaps not a strength, with all of the aforementioned named right armers, it’s good to have a plethora of options given how often injury can hit. The question, however, is who finds themselves in the third seaming slot come the Ashes series, which looms on the horizon. Ben Stokes is a more than capable fourth seamer so just one will play alongside Anderson and Broad and given how crucial quality pace bowling is in order to succeed in Australia, Bayliss and the other England selectors need to ensure the right man is found.
The listed quartet are all options, but concerns are held over all of them. Woakes’s ability to swing the Kookaburra ball has been questioned and without his usual ability to do so with accuracy, he is an altogether easier proposition to face. However, the Warwickshire paceman seems a natural successor to the ageing Anderson in a couple years. Wood is injury-prone and has not shown an ability to bowl with real pace and consistency with red ball in hand this summer, it may be best to focus on white ball cricket to avoid his body breaking down. Ball has not yet proved to be an extremely threatening bowler and is perhaps underperforming in terms of pace. He has also never bowled in combination with both Broad and Anderson, suggesting he is not being viewed for a role alongside them. The dust has not yet settled on Roland-Jones’s standout debut but already suggestions have been made that he does not have the raw pace to succeed in Australia and that good consistent line and length bowling will not win an Ashes series.
There are others, too. Steven Finn has been around for years but never nailed down his spot, but his pace, height and wicket-taking ability makes him a very potent performer (he is once again in the squad for Old Trafford but is unlikely to play.) Tom and Sam Curran both stake their claims with a clump of first class wickets and much potential, but the Ashes may come too soon for either, although Tom impressed on T20 debut and Sam’s left-arm ability is handy.
The Overton twins are also highly rated by many, with the taller and quicker Jamie flirting with England selection already. Tom Helm is the third Middlesex seamer behind Finn and Roland-Jones but has a significantly better bowling average and strike rate than his older teammates this summer in the County Championship. In addition, Ben Coad seems to be another Yorkshire youngster set for England honours in the future. At Sussex, two standout young bowlers have contrasting paths to England candidacy: George Garton has been brought through the system playing Under-19 cricket and has made solid England Lions’ performances leading to an opportunity to bowl at the senior England side. Meanwhile, Jofra Archer is the joint leading wicket taker in Division Two this year after breaking into the Sussex side last year. His pace, bounce, consistency and ability to bowl long spells at good pace mean his name is often discussed at County Grounds around the country, and the Bajan has stated his desire to play for England over his native West Indies.
A glut of pacemen of much intrigue, and a question to be answered. England have the fourth Test against the South Africans, then three against the West Indies (including the first Day/Night Test in England) remaining this summer to decide who they want to take to Australia. On arrival, there are three warm up games during which it will be decided who will earn the role as England’s third seamer for the first Ashes Test in Brisbane on November the 23rd. There are many options, but whoever is chosen may be crucial to England’s chances of retaining the Urn.