Alastair Cook (184 runs at 23) – Has another overseas Test series under his belt and the scalp of a South African captain in a pleasing, if not wholly unexpected, reversal of the Graeme Smith Effect. Showed signs of maturity in his captaincy, with attacking fields and innovation, such as James Taylor’s (Not So) Short Leg and a willingness to give batsmen their head to play as they see fit and bowlers the opportunity to keep going if it’s coming out right. He was paid back regularly, most often Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad. That said, this set of figures will give him pause for concern: 3; 13; 55; 17; 22; 71; 177; and 8 – they are England’s scores when Cook’s wicket fell. With the identity of his long term opening partner no more clear now than when Andrew Strauss was in whites and not a suit, the captain needs to get his side through to triple figures more regularly if Test matches are to be won consistently.
Alex Hales (136 runs at 17) – For an imposing physical presence with a reputation for dominating bowlers in white ball cricket, he cut a vulnerable figure at the top of the order with his mind addled by thoughts of attack and defence, playing and leaving, blocking and biffing – by the end of the series, he looked shot to pieces and one can’t help wondering what Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander would have done. Now dons the pyjamas for some white ball stand and deliver stuff with few slips to worry about and confidence to rebuild. If he feels the ball on the middle of the bat again regularly, there’s a case for retaining him for the early season Sri Lanka Tests, but if not, it might be time for the selectors to twist again. Hales, just turned 27, would have plenty of time to come back if that’s the way it goes.
Nick Compton (245 runs at 31) – One can almost feel fans (and perhaps Trevor Bayliss) bristling with frustration as another half volley is blocked back to the bowler, but Compton may be one of those cricketers (like Ben Stokes) for whom the question is not so much how nor even how many, but when. In the critical opening Test of the series, he got England’s first innings from 3-1 up to 247-5 before he was out and in the second, he watched the board tick over from 13-1 to 118-2 before he lost his wicket. Take those knocks away, and the series may well have turned out very differently – he was my (and many others) Man of the Match in Durban.
Joe Root (386 runs at 55, 0 wicket for 77) – Comes in and immediately gets on with it, nudging good balls for singles and hitting bad balls to the boundary – has an English batsmen (okay, betting without KP) ever been so ruthless in dealing with four balls? Just the one century, albeit a critical one in the series sealing win at Johannesburg, and his tendency to toss away good starts is developing into a bad habit (the game won’t always be as easy as it looks now Joe), but they are the only blemishes in another successful series with the bat.
James Taylor (186 runs at 27) – Snared two astonishing catches at shortish leg to see off Hashim Amla and Dane Vilas in Johannesburg making a crucial position his own at a time when England’s fielding can turn shoddy very rapidly. At the crease, he looks to have plenty of shots and, like many a batsman short of stature, can reduce the bowler’s margin for error by hooking and pulling balls just short of a length and driving those a little fuller. He needs to relax into his game though. Ironically, he could do with importing the stillness and ball watching so evident in his fielding into his primary skill – his batting.
Ben Stokes (411 runs at 59, 12 wickets at 29) – Cape Town’s pitch turned into a batsman’s paradise, but nobody knew that when Ben Stokes walked to the crease with England 167-4 to face Kagiso Rabada on a hat-trick. Cue bold batting to get through to the close of Day One on 74… then mayhem on a Sunday morning he, Jonny Bairstow and everyone at Newlands or watching on television or following on radio will never forget. Records were as scattered as the fielders, as Stokes hit orthodox cricket shots right out of the sweetest of sweet spots again and again and again to provoke comparisons with Adam Gilchrist at his destructive best. Add in a momentum shifting 58 in the Third Test and his consistent threat with the ball through vicious swing at handy pace, and England may just have the most exciting Test cricketer in the world right now. There will be days when he’ll top edge one early and the ball will swing straight on to the middle of the bat at half volley length, but that’s a price worth paying for a talent like this.
Jonny Bairstow (359 runs at 72, 19 catches, 1 stumping) – Rode to an emotional maiden Test century on the back of Ben Stokes’ pyrotechnics at the other end, but made decent runs while the series was alive, looking much more comfortable at 7 than he did at 5. With the gloves, he took plenty of catches and showed real athleticism on pitches that were never straightforward for keeping, but he could be untidy at times – this failing showing up more when his colleagues in the cordon are dropping catches or leaving them to fly by. It’s still a tight call between Yorkshire’s and Lancashire’s keeper for the England slot, but perhaps the solution is to try Jos Buttler at 5, especially if his confidence really is restored by the white ball game.
Moeen Ali (116 runs at 29, 10 wkts at 49) – As usual with England’s uncomplaining all-rounder, the figures don’t seem to reflect the performance, which was good enough to shade the Man of the Match award in the First Test, where he picked up 7 of his 10 wickets in the series. Both batting and bowling seem to oscillate between extremes, often in the same over – jaffas and long hops with the ball and silky smooth drives and airy-fairy wafts with the bat. Moeen is probably fortunate to playing with Ben Stokes the other all-rounder in the XI and without another spinner knocking on the door – and luck matters in cricket, as it does in life.
Stuart Broad (51 runs at 13, 18 wickets at 21) – Bowled beautifully throughout the series, sometimes without luck, but elevated his level in the Third Test to run through the South African batting to secure an unassailable 2-0 series lead for England. Regularly found a lovely rhythm with a drive through the crease that allowed him to bowl a length that pulled the batsman forward, then left him groping for the ball as it seamed a little out or a little in at an uncomfortable pace. Glenn McGrath would have looked on approvingly – yes, he was that good.
Steven Finn (12 runs at 6, 11 wickets at 26) – Recovered from injury sufficiently to play the three live Tests and was at the batsman throughout, jarring hands with balls that would climb from a length. Looked back to his best, before run up worries and injuries seemed to knock his confidence and rein in his pace when he dropped back into England’s squad of seamers. Despite Mark Wood’s impressive summer in 2015, a fit Finn looks a notch above his rivals and is likely to be selected as the regular third seamer, if he can maintain this form.
James Anderson (5 runs at 5, 7 wickets at 43) – Frustrated again in South Africa which just doesn’t seem to suit his work – despite the new ball swinging conventionally and the old ball reversing, he’s paying 40 runs per wicket over 8 Tests. Of course, he’s cultivated his grumpy persona for a while now (and he’s only going to get grumpier) which is fine when he’s taking wickets, but can irritate fans and team-mates when he isn’t. With three early season Tests coming up against shivering Sri Lankans, he’ll expect to be mixing a few smiles with the scowls soon.
Chris Woakes (54 runs at 14, 2 wickets at 99) – The speedgun says he’s quick, the naked eye at the ground says he’s quick and his First Class record says he’s quick – but the Warwickshire man looks as threatening as a kitten in a youtube video shared 10m times. Has he a Test career ahead of him, particularly when Jimmy Anderson is no longer available? Or is he a James Faulkner / Irfan Pathan type bits-and-pieces deluxe player best suited to white ball cricket bowling in the middle overs and scoring handy 40s? My heart says the former; my brain says the latter.