England’s ‘benchmark’ win was built on pragmatism and flexibility

There was a collective dustiness in Manchester on Sunday, with revellers from the city’s vibrant Pride parade and its bumper sporting weekend blinking in the sunshine as they sought solutions to various self-inflicted ailments.

After levelling the series against South Africa through three days of dominance, England’s players began their Saturday evening celebrations on the outfield at Old Trafford; a wholesome game of cricket with some of the squad’s younger family members was staged as a salmon sky developed overhead.

Joe Root was among the combatants, plopping a catch to some safe hands at mid-on and jokingly recoiling in horror as he did three days earlier when Kagiso Rabada had his number for nine. That failure, it turned out, was significant in its insignificance, England winning their first Test without their premier batter firing for two years.

Scores of 228, 186, 218, 121, 115, 175, 86, 142* from Root had powered all eight of England’s victories during this period of 28 fixtures. And so while any self-respecting Yorkshireman would likely have preferred otherwise, breaking this run of reliance on his output can be added to the list of satisfying outcomes from what felt England’s most impressive win of this resurgent summer.

The string of run chases against New Zealand and India were thrilling, while this was as one-sided as South Africa’s triumph at Lord’s. But it was built on some earthy, pragmatic cricket at times, dispelling any notion of an inflexible, hell-raising approach under the captaincy of Ben Stokes and their new gum-chewing head coach, Brendon McCullum.

They rolled the tourists for 151 and 179 in contrasting conditions. The first was a case of cashing in on early cloud cover after a good toss to lose, and the second, under brighter skies on a surface that had become unyielding, achieved by boxing in their opponents, harnessing reverse swing when it transpired and deftly juggling resources with a view to seizing on the second new ball.

And though their solitary innings of 415 for nine declared ended up coming at nearly four runs per over, pressure needed absorbing at times. Zak Crawley (38 from 101 balls) and Jonny Bairstow (49 from 63) had to lock down England’s dominance at the end of day one, likewise Stokes and Ben Foakes, the two centurions, built their game-breaking 173-run stand in a calculated manner.

Stokes called it a “benchmark” performance and felt Foakes should have been player of the match. After a week of dominating the headlines, delivering a pivotal 103 with the bat and defying his angry left knee to prise out four vital wickets across the two innings, this attempt by Stokes to shift the spotlight was amusingly optimistic.

He had also captained in sync with the shifting conditions, moving away from extravagant slip cordons or the plans to bounce the tail that previously felt so prescriptive. England remain far from being the complete package but from his five wins in six Tests this summer, Stokes is already meeting predictions that his qualities as captain will go well beyond simply leading by totemic example.

Not that he didn’t have a point about Foakes, with Surrey’s matinee idol becoming just the third England wicketkeeper to score a century and claim seven dismissals in the same Test. Bairstow, 140 and nine versus Sri Lanka at Headingley in 2016, and Matt Prior, 118 and seven versus Australia at Sydney in 2011, were the others.

Foakes played South Africa’s spin twins so adeptly during his unbeaten 113 — perhaps no surprise given his prowess behind the stumps — and grew in confidence against the quicks. Though the desire for loyalty in selection did not suggest a berth genuinely under pressure, this still felt like a statement performance from a player who is yet to win an England central contract.

This will surely change this autumn, while Ollie Robinson may be able to breathe easy over his prospects of a renewal. England have a seriously skilful bowler here, one who has finessed 44 Test wickets at under 22 apiece and looks physically hardier than before. Stokes, who gave Robinson the stick of demanding greater commitment to conditioning during his absence, but also the carrot of praise, gets another tick here.

It was also instructive that Robinson shared the new ball with the impeccable Jimmy Anderson, relegating Stuart Broad to first change despite 199 Test innings opening proceedings with his old mucker. That this transition was seemingly achieved with no obvious angst is credit to the buy-in Stokes and McCullum have fostered since the start of their alliance.

That said, when injuries among the fast bowling ranks abate down the line it may be that Stokes desire a greater point of difference to his seam attack and the conversation with Broad becomes trickier. There are 10 days in which to ponder selection before the decider at the Oval but one fancies England will look to be unchanged.

South Africa, knocked off the top of the World Test Championship ladder, certainly won’t be, with Rassie van der Dussen ruled out because of a broken finger and Aiden Markram a second middle-order problem amid flatlining returns. The chance of a dustbowl in SE11 notwithstanding, Marco Jansen, such a handful at Lord’s, must also surely return.

And so while there were headaches aplenty in Manchester on Sunday morning, it may be that South Africa’s linger a fraction longer.