It's time to rediscover Test-match batting
England's cavalier batting throughout the entire Trent Bridge match beggared belief. Hence the pages of opinions in the newspapers since. Over two innings Joe Root's team occupied the crease for fewer overs than South Africa managed in each of theirs. Most of the wickets lost by England were self-inflicted: the work, you might reasonably presume, of masochists.
The duty of a batsman is to score runs. To do this he must stay at the crease. To do that he must preserve his wicket. The notion of being "positive" - a misleading buzzword for modern cricketers - is fine if applied as the opposite of negative but not so healthy if it is used to encourage reckless play. In the art of batting, the percentages matter. Being positive no more means pushing hard at straight balls pitched on a good length than it does an ill-conceived aerial assault. The defence applied by most of England's top players was negligent to say the least. It appeared to be beyond the means of some of the best players in the land to simply block the ball, in the true sense of "thou shalt not pass". This led to a debate about how much they cared.
Then you stop to think harder and quickly appreciate how very much England's cricketers care and how Joe Root in particular is hurting. Then you remind yourself how quickly these things change. We are all subject to the emotional fallout from a disastrous performance. The ownership of, and investment into, a sporting team is widespread. Almost certainly, if they hurt, the rest of us hurt.
After the first match, at Lord's, South Africa were all but written off. The supporters, both here and back home, talked of everything from government intervention and misguided cricket administration, to injuries, desertions, sabbaticals and new-born babies. The future, most from the republic agreed, was bleak and the downward spiral of international sport in the republic was accelerating. The critics suggested that Test cricket had become a diminished priority, especially in the light of the London launch of the new South African T20 Global League (a name of splendid self-aggrandisement) that overrode the needs of first-class cricket and, more particularly, the Test team. The facts, rather than the emotions, were that big scores had dried up, bowlers had lost discipline and catches were being shelled with embarrassing consequences. That's an ugly list of failings for a cricket team. Everyone harped on about the absence of AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Faf du Plesssis, not to mention the Kolpak crew who had jumped ship for the good life and pots of gold to be found in the shires of England.
Then Faf du Plessis arrived after the complicated birth of his first child and immediately, as if the fairy godmother had waved her wand, the story took a U-turn. We don't have to be magicians to beat this England team, said the magician, we just have to get the basics right and apply them. He spoke with admirable conviction, much as he had done in Australia last winter before the first Test in Perth and then again during the inquiry into the mint-infused saliva he applied to the ball. He is right that his team did not require supernatural powers to win at Trent Bridge but he modestly refuses to accept that his own leadership is well out of the ordinary.
Frankly, South Africa looked a completely different side, even without Kasigo Rabada. The batsmen adapted to the conditions of the day and the requirements of the moment. The bowlers hit their mark and their straps. The fielders caught everything. Du Plessis was both everywhere and everyman, but never theatrical or bombastic. You had to look to find him but there was no missing the steel in his batsmen, the intelligent improvement in his bowlers or the crafty placement of his fielders.
For all the efforts of Vernon Philander, Hashim Amla and the others, the man of the build-up to the match, and of the match itself, was the South African captain. It is a difficult job, one vacated by Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers. Du Plessis follows in the line of Graeme Smith, neither the best nor most fluent cricketer, but a man blessed with the right mind to process all the complications, frustrations and demands, and come up with a clear way forward.
Which, of course, is what Root must do this week. Find a way forward. He faces a problem of perception. T20 cricket is thrown down the throats of everyone in the country who picks up a bat. The patience required for Test cricket is hardly modern-day box office, T20 is box office times two. The England batsmen are fabulous ball-strikers, the proof of which can be seen in the two shorter forms of the game and in the myriad brief innings that light up the Test match arena before opponents snuff them out. England have lost seven out of their last ten Test matches.
Clearly enough, the batsmen aren't making the runs they can. To do so they have to buy into a more thoughtful approach that reacts to the pitch, weather and game situation. They have to show patience when need be, while still looking to pounce on opportunities when they arise. Even Root, whose 190 was mainly brilliant, was twice missed early in his innings at Lord's, having taken the attacking option. These are not the words of a spoilsport. All the truly great players have a defence. To see Viv Richards play a forward defensive shot was to recognise the strength of his mind. To watch Brian Lara absorb the bowling during the first 40 minutes he was at the wicket was to understand the construction of an innings. To witness Ricky Ponting, resolute and ruthless in both defence and attack, was to understand how damn important it was to him.
The England dressing room holds Alastair Cook in high regard. It is high time they learned something from the limits he imposes upon himself and the calm sense of authority that is the stand-out quality in his best batting. This is not to say that everyone should bat like Cook, only that they should think more like him.
One upside to the galling nature of the Trent Bridge defeat is that Test cricket is the talk of the town. Even casual observers want to know why a winning team becomes a shocker overnight. Certainly, whether consciously or subconsciously, England took South Africa too lightly. Now, people will tune in to see if the new captain and his men are able to do anything about it.
It is infuriating, and a concern, to see the salivation over T20 cricket. The fanfare that came with the recent television rights deal was all about the new city-based T20 competition, which is England's crack at the Big Bash that has won new audiences in Australia. There is risk involved with the English version but it is worth taking for the potential in new audiences as much as anything else. The key is to ensure it is not the only show in town. T20 promotes itself, so much so that successful players have begun to belief their own myth. This illusion is damaging the art of batting because, in T20, the loss of your wicket doesn't matter much at all.
The ECB, the various media, the players and the teams of extras that surround them must start to prod, push, prevaricate and persuade on the subject of Test cricket. The space for those huge T20 posters across the metropolis and the glitzy ads in the provinces must be shared with hardcore promotion of Test cricket. The five-day game needs to sound more important than it does at present and the ECB must shout the loudest and spend the most money in its favour.
The foundation of this game we love is the longest form. Upon that foundation is built everything else. The players appear to have been distracted from these simple but hugely relevant facts. For Test cricket to be played well, due care and attention is required. England have the talent, masses of it, but the loss of direction at Trent Bridge needs an immediate and faithful response. This is a lifelong love affair - a relationship that needs work if it is to be sustained - and we are all responsible for it. This is not a one-night stand.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK