Both England and South Africa have work ahead if they are to climb the Test rankings following the series in South Africa won 2-1 by England.
England stayed in fifth place on the rankings, although South African captain AB de Villiers said he believed the tourists could soon be “the team to beat”, while South Africa dropped from first to third after their second successive series loss.
England’s two wins were convincing but South Africa’s 280-run win in the final Test in Centurion left “unanswered questions” in the words of captain Alastair Cook. The series averages point to the strengths and weaknesses of the England performances.
Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Joe Root scored heavily and averaged over 50 but the only other batsman to average 30 was Nick Compton, whose form fell away after he scored a crucial 85 in the first Test in Durban.
Handed the problematical number three role, Compton seemed stung by comments by England coach Trevor Bayliss favouring positive stroke play at the top of the order.
After showing immense patience and discipline in Durban, Compton fell to some loose strokes later in the series and finished with 245 runs at 30.62.
If Compton did not make certain of a long-term place, Alex Hales was unconvincing as Cook’s opening partner. His only innings of substance was 60 in Cape Town where both teams topped 600 in the first innings.
Cook said that while he believed players should be given too many chances rather than too few, he also hoped Hales would do well in the upcoming one-day series in South Africa as well as in county matches before England’s next Test series against Sri Lanka in May.
While Bairstow batted well, Cook noted that he had “a huge amount of work to do” on his wicketkeeping, although he drew a comparison with Matt Prior, who started his Test career shakily before becoming one of England’s leading wicketkeepers.
Stokes, the man of the series, scored runs at a rapid rate and took 12 wickets to show himself as a genuine Test all-rounder. England batted deep, with Moeen Ali a spin bowling all-rounder.
Stuart Broad was the match-winner in the third Test in Johannesburg. England’s bowling was less effective in the final match when the impressive Steven Finn was missing because of injury.
But Cook said England had depth in pace bowling, with Chris Jordan not used in the series and Finn and Mark Wood likely to press for places when they had recovered from injuries.
South Africa looked in disarray early in the series, when it seemed they were still suffering a hangover from a 3-0 defeat in India. But they improved and finished the series strongly.
De Villiers took over the captaincy from Hashim Amla and made it clear he wanted to put his personal stamp on the job. A shake-up in the back-up staff seems likely, with head coach Russell Domingo agreeing with the new captain that a batting coach is a priority.
The return to batting form of Amla, who scored 470 runs at an average of 67.14, and the emergence of 20-year-old Kagiso Rabada as an outstanding fast bowler were highlights for South Africa. Rabada, who might not have played had long-time stalwarts Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander been fit, took 22 wickets at 21.90, including a sensational 13 for 144 in the final Test.
The selectors finally opted for an experienced specialist opening batsman in Stephen Cook, 33, and Cook looked the part with a calm century on his debut. He looks set for an extended run in the team to partner the gritty Dean Elgar, who averaged 47.33.
While experienced players such as De Villiers, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy performed modestly, the diminutive Temba Bavuma stepped confidently into the middle order. He made a thrilling century in Cape Town but batted even more impressively in scoring 78 not out in difficult conditions in the second innings in Centurion.
Quinton de Kock’s maiden Test century in Centurion was confirmation of his potential as a wicketkeeper-batsman. Rabada dominated the South African bowling averages.
Morne Morkel (15 wickets at 29.73) and Dane Piedt (10 at 45.50) were the only other bowlers to take a significant number of wickets.
England players sign autographs on their way back to the dressing room, after losing the fourth Test to South Africa in Centurion on Tuesday. England, though, won the series 2-1.