Monday, 23 July 2012

Graeme Smith: England who?

Hashim Amla 311x
On the fourth day at The Oval, South Africa feasted like the starving who have pushed aside kings and demanded their place at the table. After Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis had added 377 unbeaten for the 3rd wicket, bushing aside the ground record set only last year by Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell against India, the bowlers turned a lifeless pitch into a bed of snakes. It was South Africa's highest score in England. By stumps, the home side lay in tatters.

Starting the day with a marginal lead, Amla and Kallis spent the first hour like patrons settling in their seats for a performance of Hamlet. Only 36 were added until drinks as England gave the appearance of having renewed resolve whilst Kallis had been concerned with raising his hundred and Amla his double. The English desire to bowl on lines that would prevent whole scale mayhem looked to be working but it was an illusion  exposed in the second hour as both batsmen gently squeezed the accelerator to add 75 with apparent ease.

Amla, almost inevitably went to his triple century, becoming the only South African to do so. Only twenty one men have scored triples in Test cricket and Len Hutton had been the only one to do so at The Oval. Amla had to be content with second place behind Hutton's epic 364 in the last match before Hitler killed Test cricket with his skirmishes in Poland. Amla passed some handy performers on his way there, including Dravid, Hammond, Gavaskar, Bradman, Miandad, Ponsford and finally, Dinesh Ramdin's hero. Sitting behind Hutton seems of little consequence in that company.

Kallis dedicated his hundred
For Kallis, it was immensely personal. In twelve previous Tests on English soil, his bowling had been far superior to his batting. For the fourth heaviest run scorer of all time and the man with the highest batting average of any current Test player, he has, like Ricky Ponting, poor returns in England. As his years have rolled on, he has increasingly looked distracted, often going through the motions but in this grand innings, the steely bones of his youth seemed to have been infused back into a body which has let him down a lot in the past few season. The reason was apparent when he reached his hundred. Raising a fist and then pointing a finger to one eye, he left little doubt that his good mate Mark Boucher had been on his mind.

Graeme Smith, somewhat surprisingly, ended the slaughter at tea. Not an adventurous captain, it wouldn't have surprised if he had wanted another hour to rub England's nose in their own arrogance and lead by over 300 or to let Amla chase the Lara Legend but he chose to give the English twenty minutes to mull and discuss and reflect on their failure to make an impact with three new cherries, 188 overs and "the best new ball attack in the world". They had looked and acted like a room full men at the impotency clinic. England had been humbled and Smith could wait no longer to let slip his dogs of war.

Spare a thought for Alviro Petersen. Out for a duck two days ago, he was invited to the best party of all time  - all the grog you could drink; Cleopatra, Monroe, Jollie all waiting to meet him; Hendrix, Lennon and Mayer in the band ... and he went to the wrong house.

Like the West Indies attacks of the eighties, South Africa spent the extended last session hunting in packs. After only eleven overs they had equalled what England's bowlers had done in 188 and in fifteen more they had doubled the effort. Alastair Cook left in the second over, edging a beautiful Philander outswinger to AB deVilliers and forty minutes later, Jonathan Trott went the same way to Steyn. Trott, as in the first innings, was guilty of laxity outside his off stump.

KP undone by Morne Morkel
Kevin Pietersen played probably the worst top order Test innings since Steve Waugh in the Boxing Day Ashes Test on 2002. Waugh had migraine as an excuse. KP's problem was ego. Pietersen seemed determined to disprove suggestions he plays the short ball poorly in a rank display of aggression which achieved the reverse. He hit two powerful blows to the legside boundary but top edge one to fine leg and skied another to mid wicket. Morne Morkel worked him over with a classic fast bowlers three card trick, feeding his ego and his need to assert himself with short stuff and after pushing him onto the back foot, bowling him neck and crop with a full ball which did nothing but go straight. Pietersen was deep in his crease, on the back foot where Morkel had put him, waiting for another short ball.

At the non striker's end, Andrew Strauss resisted. He manages Pietersen well but even his patience must be tested by such impetuous recklessness. Little wonder Strauss succeeded him as England skipper when the selectors paid heed to warning bells. Strauss looked determined to see England through but Imran Tahir's introduction caused him problem. Suddenly the ball was turning and jumping from the rough. Graeme Swann is a different style of spinner and rarely makes it hop, skip and jump but it may has well been a different venue and a different time, for the change the leg spinner bought to bowling on what had been a road was dramatic. Strauss, in order to combat the spin but as in the UAE in January, not having the weaponry, aimed a sweep at Tahir and was caught by Philander as it skied to square leg.

Ian Bell and Ravi Bopar lasted through the final half hour but for England, its all but over. Still 150 behind, it would be amazing if they could salvage this Test.

Its one thing to be flogged abroad, away from eye contact with your spectators but to have your hides pinned to the sight screen before your own crowds is a demoralising experience. Given that this is the strongest England side which could be fielded, free from injuries and full of confidence, the fall from grace after a confident first day, has been dramatic. The mongrel media which is the English press, will turn faster than a nervous sheep on a New Zealand farm and mince the heroes of last week into left over scraps for the street curs. In England, you are only as good as your last headline.

England can do better. They will have to.

Session Count: England 3, South Africa 9