Few people would have predicted England’s latest result a couple of weeks ago. They had just lost the first Test in pretty convincing style, and the keyboard warriors were out in force.

Miraculously–inevitably, almost–those same warriors have been replaced by heaps of praise for this England side. In the words of one James Fraser from Dad’s Army, ‘we never doubted you for a moment’.

This victory was not your average, run-of-the-mill win, either. The margin, an innings and 53 runs in the end, actually flattered the hosts somewhat, who owed much to a spirited final-wicket stand of 99 between Keshav Maharaj and Dane Paterson. At least that afforded them an hour or so of easy watching because they were completely outplayed in this Test match.

England, by contrast, were superb. This side is really starting to come together under Joe Root’s captaincy and the entire squad is brimming with exciting cricketers. No, we’re not getting carried away enough to suggest we’d whitewash the Aussies in their own backyard just yet but the improvement on this tour alone is extremely encouraging.

A team game

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Normally, we’d pick out a player or two to focus on at this point but it’s actually tough to know where to begin, such was the even spread of star performances. England’s young guns all played their part, with Ollie Pope and Dom Bess’ first innings efforts proving especially decisive.

For once, it feels as though Ben Stokes’ brilliance was overshadowed a touch – perhaps we’re just getting used to it – while Root’s career-best bowling figures and excellent handling of Mark Wood may also have slipped under the radar.

Much has been made of Root’s relationship with Chris Silverwood, England’s new coach, and the emergence of their own take on all things England Cricket. There seems to be something in that, too; a team–or squad–is more than just the 11 players out on the pitch, after all.

Silverwood’s appointment has brought fresh ideas and a new voice, and it may well have been exactly what this side needed. ‘Back to basics’ has been the order of the day, particularly when it comes to top-order batting and so far it’s worked.

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The individuals

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A team performance this was but it would be wrong not to afford a little more time to zoom in on a few star(let)s. Starting with the man of the match, this fixture will surely be remembered first and foremost for Pope’s maiden Test hundred.

There will likely be a few more, judging by the Surrey man’s incredible maturity and exquisite technique, but let’s just appreciate this knock for what it was before we start calling for him to bat in four different positions. His partnership of 203 with Stokes defined England’s first innings, as they built an unassailable lead.

Pope’s innings oozed class and rightly drew plenty of comparisons with some of England’s finest as he punished anything loose and worked the ball around with apparent ease. He then backed up his knock with a wonderful display of athleticism at short leg, as he took six catches across South Africa’s two innings. If the cricketing world hadn’t heard of Pope before this Test, they have now.

Another young gun also starred in the South African’s first innings and it’s perhaps not a name many would have expected to see before the start of the series. Dom Bess, Somerset’s back-up spinner over the summer, tore through the South African batting order the first innings and ensured that England were able to enforce that crucial follow-on.

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He showed great control once again and, with conditions offering him a little more help than they did in Cape Town, was duly rewarded. Perhaps he wasn’t quite as effective in the second innings, but 5-51 isn’t bad for someone with such little cricket under their belt. Expect to see plenty more of him over the coming months.

Third on our list is, perhaps, not who you’d expect. He’s not in his early 20s, nor do his stats necessarily reflect how he’s almost certainly feeling but Wood must be over the moon. In his first international game since the World Cup final, he bowled as if he’d never been away. He hurtled to the crease and consistently surpassed the coveted 90mph mark, earning a few wickets for his teammates without necessarily finding the luck he deserved.

Wood went wicketless in the first innings and was unfortunate to do so but backed up his speeds and his areas second time around to get the ball rolling. The Durham quick has done more than enough to retain his place for the final Test, and will just be hoping to keep himself injury-free for as long as he possibly can.

Again, Stokes’ absence from this list feels exceptionally harsh – his ninth hundred was everything we’ve come to expect from the world’s greatest all-rounder. He dominated the bowlers and clearly helped Pope through his innings. Root also captained extremely well and returned his own career-best figures with the ball. We’ll have plenty of time to bring the focus back to these two, though–it’s unlikely they’ll be feeling too left out.

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In context

England have won two out of two in 2020 but this result is off the back of three consecutive Test defeats. There’s an argument to be made for a clear trajectory, though. New Zealand was a tough tour played on two flat pitches but perhaps it was necessary. The trajectory since those defeats has been an upward one and, if that general trend can continue, the future looks bright.

Root and his men still have a job to do, make no mistake. There is a series to win, and a scoreline of 2-2 would represent an injustice to the way this squad has performed over the past couple of weeks. Next up, Johannesburg!

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