England and South Africa are halfway through what is shaping up to be the latest in a line of belting series between the sides.
Since South Africa’s readmission to Test cricket in 1991, this has arguably been the most consistently thrilling Test match-up. If there is something striking about the two teams now it is that both, for different reasons, have a proliferation of new players — but they are at very different stages of their careers.
If Jofra Archer replaces James Anderson for England in Port Elizabeth on Thursday, six of their XI will be 24 or under. There were five at Newlands and they all made striking contributions. Dom Sibley, 24, scored his maiden Test century; Dom Bess, 22, held up an end and picked up two key wickets; Ollie Pope, also 22, salvaged respectability for England’s first innings; Zak Crawley, 21, took two vital catches on the final day and Sam Curran, the youngest at 21, took three more important wickets.
“It shows we have a bright future and if we keep building, let the foundations set and keep believing in what we’re doing, hopefully we’ll see these guys continue to be successful and build a team around them,” said coach Chris Silverwood.
England’s youthful vim lies in stark contrast to South Africa, who have handed out three debuts in the series — all to 30-year-olds.
They, too, have all contributed strongly, with Pieter Malan and Rassie van der Dussen making crucial runs and Dwaine Pretorius chipping in with big wickets. Six of the XI at Newlands were over 30 and only Zubayr Hamza — whose place is under threat — is under 25.
All three debutants, in their own way, are stepping up to fill a void.
South African cricket has lost plenty of talent in recent years and it is remarkable that the well refuses to dry up. Rather than taking a punt on youth, Faf du Plessis’s team have opted to back those who have spent years grafting in quiet backwaters.
Many of these players, old and young, never thought they would get this chance. Crawley, for example, would not have expected to be playing at Newlands until the day before that Test, when Rory Burns injured his ankle.
“Once you get that buzz you want it every day of the week,” he said.
The two teams are reflecting their selection strategies: seasoned and stubborn South Africa are hard to break down, while England’s win was marked by youthful energy. And that was all part of the fun.