As no doubt only a tiny proportion of you noticed, England achieved an impressive Test match victory against the South Africans on Monday. Impressive batting by Strauss, Key and Vaughan in the first innings, grit and then strokeplay by Trescothick in the second and finally an inspirational performance by Hoggard with the ball to run through the South Africans on the final day ground out what had seemed an impossible victory at various points. This is very pleasing: England have shown mental toughness and no little class to beat a side who must have thought that they had regained the momentum and England would roll over after having lost the previous test. Still, I think there must be some serious worries in the England camp, particularly about the Ashes.
Geoff Boycott claimed, in the aftermath of the third test, that England would struggle to achieve anything in the Test they just won without Harmison, yet Harmison's figures in the fourth test were 12.5-4-25-0 and 14-1-64-0. These are not the figures of Harmison in his pomp, even on what should have been a relatively helpful pitch, and although England did win, this is a serious worry. Hoggard is not the kind of potentially terrifying prospect Harmison in top form is, but an immensely persistent and usually accurate and nagging workhorse who just lacks that little bit of oomph to make him genuinely world class, even at his best. This isn't to say that Hoggard didn't deserve his best figures in test cricket and his first ten-for - he has been a key element of England's success over the past year, and their improvement before that, precisely by being the dogged kind of player always prepared to give everything for the team - but that while a good test player, he is not anything more than that. So although Boycott was wrong about whether England could win without Harmison, I do think he has correctly identified a real problem. Harmison is England's only potential world class strike bowler, and in the absence of a world class strike bowler, England are going to struggle.
There is also the consideration of the batting, which Boycott also draws attention to. Although it was less obvious in this test - Trescothick's 180, Vaughan's 82* and then 54, and Key's 83 meant there were substanial contributions by the rest of the top order - England have been over-reliant on Andrew Strauss in this series. He has scored 612 runs in eight innings, top-scoring in the first five, being denied that claim in the sixth by some vigorous late-order hitting when the match was lost, and then regaining it in the seventh, even if he only got a duck in the eighth. When Strauss has failed, so has the rest of the England batting line up, apart from on Monday. This is not good: the beauty of England's performances since the series in the West Indies has been the way in which when one player failed, others took their place, the way the side played together, admittedly something of which seemed to have returned over the weekend.
Now, I don't think that these points mean that England are going to lose the next test, and thus draw a series they really should have won. The South Africans lack any decent back-up seamers, good as Pollock and Ntini (at home) are, and their middle order is a little fragile: Rudolph's average falls fairly substanially when you take out his 293 runs for once out against the Bangladeshis, and Dippenaar's is fairly poor even when you include his 178 runs for once out against the Bangladeshis, while none of the other players they've tried there have exactly exuded confidence either. The momentum should also be with England, so I'd've thought they should tie up the series at the end of the week. What is the real worry is the Australians.
With the exception of the Bangladeshis in the summer, this is the last series before the biannual ritual humiliation rolls by again. Unless England get Harmison back to form, and sort out their batting, particularly that of the middle order, they will not have a hope, despite all the confidence engendered by the excellent results over the past year. The Australians have world class batting all the way down to seven, and Hoggard's persistence is not going to unsettle them enough to prevent at least a couple of them making big scores: after all, he averages more than sixty against them with the ball, and it's not like he wasn't settled in the side when he went to Australia. Good as Flintoff is, and good as Simon Jones can be, if they're coming on with the Aussies set and scoring as quickly as they do, they're going to struggle as well.
Equally, relying on Strauss to get most of the runs is as a plan going to come unstuck in the end. Fair enough, he's survived and prospered against Pollock and Ntini, who are by no means mugs, but this run of form cannot last forever. The bad old England propensity for terrifying batting collapse has resurfaced, and you can be sure that not only will the Australians have noticed this, but England will have, and they cannot have Strauss going into bat knowing that as soon as he goes, he will be sat in the pavillion watching the Australian attack run through the rest of the batting: it will inhibit him. This is particularly the case if England want Flintoff to prosper, I think: Flintoff does best when he is not actually needed to score - that hundred against the South Africans when they were last here was glorious, but England had already lost the match, and most of his scores against the West Indies and New Zealand were not in desperate pressure situations - and so the middle order must give him a platform. This means Thorpe and Vaughan, who must be regarded as the bedrock of England's middle order now Hussain and, I suppose, Butcher, are gone, must come into consistent form.
So, well done England, but improvement is required...