South Africa v England: Why we should enjoy the ups and downs of Joe Root's men

England celebrate
England's win in the second Test against South Africa was their first in Cape Town since 1957

When Ben Stokes was rampaging to the crease, bowling England to victory on the final evening of the second Test against South Africa, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Dom Bess and Ollie Pope were next to each other in the expectant slip cordon.

Just 14 caps between them. Not as many as silly mid-on Sam Curran has on his own, but the Surrey all-rounder forms a quintet of which Sibley, at 24, is the oldest.

The first England team to win in Cape Town since 1957 was half made up of players whose parents may not have been born then.

The youth of England's victorious line-up was overshadowed by the drama of the conclusion, and perhaps because it slotted neatly into a familiar narrative of fluctuating fortunes. England have been riding a rollercoaster for so long that the climbs have ceased to be daunting and the drops no longer turn the stomach.

The win in Cape Town came after a hammering at Centurion. It is now nine matches since England returned the same result in back-to-back matches.

This England disappoints when we expect and surprises when we fear the worst. The veering from sublime to ridiculous not only frustrates the players and staff, for whom inconsistency can cost careers, but also fans who invest emotion, energy and, in some cases, vast sums in travelling to support.

And the frustration is well-founded. It is true that a team containing Stokes, Joe Root, Stuart Broad and James Anderson should not fall in a heap as often as England do.

But it is also true that England, for a variety of reasons, have not had a settled opening pair since the 2012 London Olympics and have recently tried more kinds of spin than a failing government.

A team trying to plug so many holes, either with experienced county professionals or, as is the case now, talented youngsters, is quite likely to have extreme highs and lows.

Perhaps it is the time for those of us who watch to accept that is OK. Better than OK, in fact. Almost enjoyable.

Maybe every defeat does not have to be mulled over as a disaster, where we lament the county schedule, and blame pitches and the limited-overs game (which England are quite good at).

In the same way, a victory is not a sign that England's alchemists have struck gold, but rather that the puzzle of finding a team able to compete and win all over the world is a small piece closer to being complete.

For now, and probably some time to come, England are halfway between the gutter and the stars, providing the great thrill of the uncertain.

It was The Verve's Richard Ashcroft, barging his way down Hoxton Street in the video for Bittersweet Symphony, who told us he is "a million different people from one day to the next".

England are just that in the same series and occasionally the same match. Remember Stokes' Ashes heroics at Headingley? England were bowled out for 67 in the first innings.

It is what keeps us coming back for more. Can anyone really say with any certainty which England will turn up for the third Test in Port Elizabeth on Thursday? It is what makes them so fascinating.

Even individually, the players themselves have multiple identities.

Root is one of the most complete batsmen to have played for England, yet has seen his numbers dip during his period in as captain. Perhaps he is not ideally suited to the captaincy, yet there is no-one better suited to captain England right now.

Stokes is capable of the most exhilarating, awe-inspiring performances, those which grab a match by the scruff of the neck and choke it into submission. But only now are his batting and bowling averages significantly diverging and must continue to do so if he is to take his place in the pantheon of the great all-rounders.

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'I'm just trying to be Ben Stokes'

Jofra Archer can bowl at the speed of light, but has done so only sporadically in his first seven Tests. Jos Buttler is among the most fearsomely destructive batsmen on the planet, yet has only one Test century.

Even Broad and Anderson, with careers that will probably never be matched by other English bowlers, throw in the occasional maddening spell where the top of off stump is avoided at all costs.

Just lately, since Chris Silverwood took over as coach, the noises coming from Root and the hierarchy have been encouraging - with talk about the aim of winning the next Ashes series in Australia, and an admission that the batting needs more brains than brawn.

Only four Tests in, there have been mistakes: five-strong pace attacks; batting so intent on crease-occupation that it has become static.

But we may also look back on this as the time that the seeds of a new England were sown, especially when players such as Archer, Curran and Pope clock up their 100th caps.

Sometimes it is the adventure that brings the wonder, and the climb to the top is more rewarding than the view you find when you get there.

Think of the football club promoted to the Premier League, only to find that the grim battle against relegation is nowhere near as much fun as the race to escape the Championship that came before.

If the joy really does come from the journey - the ups and downs, twists and turns, open road and traffic jams - then following the fortunes of this England team is a pleasure.

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.

Enjoy the England ride.

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