A combination of the flu and a stomach virus disrupted the visitors’ preparations against South Africa in Johannesburg and sapped their energy and resources during the 107-run defeat that puts them 1-0 down with three matches to play. Ben Stokes suffered with dehydration on the opening day, then Jos Buttler and Joe Root were both felled on day three. Others infected did their best to hold it together.
The England camp, to their credit, are not looking for excuses for what happened in the first Test. They accept that the errors made – failing to make the most of having South Africa 111 for 5 on day one; losing their last seven first innings wickets for 39; bowling erratically on the third morning – are ones made frequently by this side, healthy or otherwise.
But they do deserve credit for picking themselves up on the final day and making a good fist of an unlikely 376 target, eventually all out for 268 in 93 overs. There’s even a sense that illness has brought them closer together, which is quite literally the opposite of what the management have done by quarantining affected players in the team hotel.
“We’ve seen a lot of character, a lot of guts and a lot of bravery from a few of the guys that have been poorly but got themselves out there, got themselves up for it and shown a lot of fight,” said head coach Chris Silverwood as he spoke to the press following defeat. He is one of the few to have been untouched by the bugs that have also affected five members of the support staff.
“I’m proud of the guys in that respect, the amount of courage that they’ve shown, but equally – and I don’t want to take anything away from South Africa, I thought they played well at times – there are certain things we have to learn from as well going forward.”
Sibley made it a complete XI of players who have been under the weather on this trip joining – in some kind of batting order – Joe Denly, Root, Stokes, Ollie Pope, Buttler (wicketkeeper), Chris Woakes, Mark Wood, Jack Leach, Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad. It’s amusing that even this “Poorly XI” accurately reflects England’s uncertainties up top, long tail and sudden taste for a five-seamer attack.
The issue, now, is how the squad pulls up ahead of the second Test, in Cape Town, which begins on 3 January. In terms of training, those who made a decent-ish recovery during the match, such as Pope and Wood, were able to undergo sessions at SuperSport Park while England were in the field, ensuring they did not mingle. But the Ropey Roulette nature of who and when goes down means nothing can be taken for granted.
Sibley’s turn, for instance, means Zak Crawley could come in to open alongside Rory Burns, while it seems almost certain that Dom Bess will play as the spinner, arriving only last week with Somerset teammate Craig Overton as temporary cover. Leach has not bowled a ball on the tour and has had a tough month having fallen ill in New Zealand, too. Matt Parkinson, the leg spinner from Lancashire, is the other alternate for this role.
“We’ve got 19 here as it is!” laughed Silverwood when the prospect of further call-ups was raised. For now, there is a sense that those lingering bouts of illness will soon be out of the squad, not just the system.
“I’m hoping that the guys involved in this Test are coming through the other side of it now. A lot of the guys have been training behind the scenes, they’ve been coming in when the guys have been on the field, so we’ve kept them separate. I don’t think we need to call anybody else up at this moment in time. But one thing I have learned over the last few weeks is never say never. But I’m hoping these guys are going to be fine.”
It’s hard to fathom just how absurd the last month has been in the camp, from isolating patients to constantly replenishing the stocks of anti-bacterial gel. Perhaps the last time England were undone so emphatically by sickness was during the 1963/64 tour of India in which Henry Blofeld, who was covering the tour for The Guardian, was almost drafted in for a Test in Kolkata.
At the time, Ken Barrington had broken his finger, Don Wilson had done his back and a gastric bug took out John Mortimore, John Edrich, Phil Sharpe and Micky Stewart. It was Stewart who Blofeld was set to replace, having been informed of his selection immediately after the press conference the day before the Test was due to start.
The story goes that Stewart, upon hearing what was planned, discharged himself from hospital on the first morning, arriving at the ground an hour before play. Blofeld, by all accounts, was somewhat heartbroken.
This story has had a few airings recently, as idle tour chat turns to who among the reporting contingent would likely make up the numbers in an England Test match.
“Blowers” was 24 at the time and supposedly a handy school cricketer. Though a number of the touring journalists would jump at the chance to fulfill a childhood dream – heck, adulthood, too – even if catastrophic embarrassment would inevitably follow, there are, annoyingly, some far more decorated options operating in the press box.
The Guardian’s touring journalist here is Vic Marks, with six Tests and 34 ODIs to his name. While he would fit the spin profile – another Somerset twirler, as it happens – he ducked out of the running early, saying he had not put on whites in seven years. And that he’s 64.
Former England captain Michael Atherton is here for The Times, though still has the bad back that took him into retirement in 2001. He is also part of a Sky Sports contingent particularly heavy with top-order batsmen, such as Nasser Hussain and Ian Ward.
By contrast, TalkSPORT have the bowling covered with Darren Gough, Steven Harmison and Gareth Batty, and Mark Butcher’s part-time outswingers available to see them through to the second new ball. The BBC’s Jonathan Agnew, having come out of retirement once in 1992 to bowl an injury-hit Leicestershire into the final of the NatWest Trophy, is also on deck.
As it happens, Batty is the only active professional cricketer in the media park: the 42 year-old is still at Surrey where he is also working as a coach. But he was less than keen to even entertain the notion that he might have to pull on the shirt he last wore on a tour of India just over three years ago.
Of course, the resources available to the ECB mean putting someone better qualified – and under the age of 40 – on a last-minute flight to make up the numbers is a pretty simple task. The players here, despite being put through the ringer, are still upbeat about turning things around in the new year. These are no desperate times.