England coach Chris Silverwood believes adversity on and off the field has brought his squad together as they look to bounce back from defeat in the first Test against South Africa.
Very little has gone right for England since they touched down in Johannesburg a fortnight ago and they will hope they will be able to leave their woes behind when they travel to Cape Town on New Year’s Eve.
A total of 11 players and a handful of support staff have fallen ill at different points on the trip, with a combination of sickness and flu-like symptoms, while Ben Stokes’ father, Ged, was admitted to a local hospital in a serious condition just before Christmas.
The Boxing Day Test offered a chance to refocus on the job at hand but, rather than a morale-boosting victory, England were on the wrong end of a 107-run defeat in Centurion.
It would be easy for the tourists to feel sorry for themselves, having seen their warm-up week ruined, three players ruled out of the series opener and three more laid low during it.
Yet amid the talk of quarantines, contagions and criticism of their cricket, Silverwood has noticed the group’s bond grow stronger.
“I think there’s some aspects from this Test that have galvanised us,” he said.
“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 have got themselves out there, got themselves up for it and shown a lot of fight.
“I’m proud of the guys in that respect, the amount of courage that they’ve shown. It’s almost pulled us together and made us stronger as a unit. I thought we showed a lot of courage to get out there and get us as close as they did.”
England are desperate to see the end of the bug that has swept the camp but opening batsman Dom Sibley was the latest player to be struck on Monday and the necessary closeness of life on tour – shared facilities, shared equipment, a shared flight on Tuesday – means others may yet join him.
Silverwood must focus on other matters, though, specifically how to bring about his first Test win since inheriting the top job from Trevor Bayliss. So far he has lost two and drawn one and will ponder the balance of the side at Newlands.
The introduction of a spinner seems the most obvious move after two matches relying on the occasional tweakers of Joe Root and Joe Denly, with Dom Bess seemingly in pole position. He earned two caps against Pakistan 18 months ago but is understood to have impressed during a recent coaching stint in Mumbai, where he worked with former Sri Lanka great Rangana Herath.
Bess was not in the initial 17-man squad, arriving as cover when the squad started to struggle, but has been asked to stay on alongside Somerset team-mate Craig Overton.
“With the players we’ve got here and the way things are happening, everything’s got to be on the table,” admitted Silverwood, who echoed Root’s suggestion that prolific seamers James Anderson and Stuart Broad were not immune from the selection debate.
Ollie Pope is primed to return at number six, the position he would have occupied if fit and available last week, and Silverwood must be hoping the 21-year-old brings fresh life to the middle order.
Jonny Bairstow can expect to make way having contributed just 10 runs in two disappointing knocks on comeback, but Jos Buttler is another whose contributions are drawing attention.
After an impressive return to the red-ball side he has not been able to produce consistent runs, averaging 25.10 in 2019 and scoring a solitary hundred in 68 attempts.
For now at least, he has the full support of the man in charge.
“We’ve got to keep backing him. We know he’s a fine player and we know he can hurt people,” said Silverwood.
“We’ve got to keep giving him the opportunity to do that and that’s what we’ll do. Jos is in a position where he will sometimes have to marshal the tail as well and that’s the unique challenge of number seven. At the moment, we feel he’s best suited to that.”