IN YEARS to come when we think back on England’s Test cricket in 2019 one match, one man and one special day at Emerald Headingley will be the thing that instantly springs to mind.
Ben Stokes’s incredible century against Australia – with a little help from Jack Leach – inspired one of the greatest wins in England’s history.
They will still be talking about “The Miracle of Headingley 2019” in the year 3019, assuming that Test cricket by then has not gone the way of the dinosaurs.
Take out Stokes’s 135 and England’s one-wicket triumph in Leeds, however, and England’s Test cricket this year has been pretty mediocre.
They started it with a 2-1 defeat in the West Indies, lost the Ashes with a 2-2 draw against the existing holders and went down 1-0 in New Zealand earlier this month.
A consolation win against Ireland in a one-off Test was about as much consolation as finding a £5 note after inadvertently discarding a winning jackpot ticket.
The third Test at Leeds – plus the World Cup final – is what we will remember about 2019.
There is still one more Test to go, however, with Joe Root’s men facing South Africa at Centurion starting on Boxing Day.
It is the first of four Tests in what promises to be a fascinating series; no one has a blinking idea who is going to win it or, if they do, they are lying/guessing.
Both teams, effectively, are in transition – England under a new coach in Chris Silverwood, South Africa after a period of turmoil behind the scenes.
Amid a desperate crisis in the running of their cricket, a new backroom staff has been brought together in an attempt to bring about much-needed unity.
It is not a bad backroom staff either, featuring Graeme Smith as director of cricket, Mark Boucher as head coach, and batting and bowling consultants Jacques Kallis and Charl Langeveldt respectively.
Between them, they have more experience than you could shake a stick at. Will this band of brothers have a positive effect?
At the same time, South Africa are vulnerable and prime for the taking – as much as any South Africa side can be in their home conditions. Their squad for Centurion includes several uncapped players, and there are concerns regarding their batting order.
Like England, their strength lies in pace bowling, with conditions set to offer plenty of help in that respect. Can England’s batsmen cope with the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander? Can South Africa’s cope with the likes of Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad? We are about to find out.
Above all, this is an important test for England’s new regime and their stated aim to bat time and score heavy first innings runs.
That policy was only partially successful in New Zealand, where Root’s double hundred in the final Test in Hamilton sends him into this series in much better heart and stills – but not completely silences – questions concerning the effect of the captaincy on his batting.
Root needs a positive series with the bat and also in terms of his leadership, and his performance in Hamilton was sublime. That is the Root that England want to see more of.
Other batsmen need to stand tall, however.
Joe Denly has played 10 Tests now and not made a hundred. Dominic Sibley has played only two but already the knives are out in certain quarters.
Jos Buttler has yet to convince in Test cricket either as a batsman or a wicketkeeper.
It is surely baffling that he is preferred to Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow.
England’s preparations have been disrupted by illness, while neither camp has had much meaningful red-ball practice.
Neither Archer, Broad nor spinner Jack Leach played in the two warm-up games because of flu, while many of the South Africans have recently been playing only T20 cricket.
James Anderson is back after a calf injury and, according to Root, looks fit, refreshed and raring to go. The enforced time off might have benefited Anderson, and England hope there is life in the old dog yet.
After this series, England visit Sri Lanka in March before home engagements with West Indies and Pakistan in the English summer. On paper, they are capable of winning all four series including the South African one, but no challenge is easy in this day and age.
The schedule is crazy and it cannot be easy for England to adjust having only just played on the slow pitches in New Zealand, with only 23 days between the Hamilton Test and the start in Centurion.
It is a schedule that sets up sides – particularly away sides –to fail more often than not as it is difficult to acclimatise.
England will hope that is not the case this time in what promises to be a compelling series as we wave goodbye to the year of Ben Stokes.