Saturday, 21 July 2012

So To The Contest

England's much heralded and championed deep batting line up proved all too shallow on the second day at The Oval, as South Africa bowled itself back into the match with a combination of short balls and luck and then crawled to stumps fully locked into defensive mode. It's their fear of an adventure which has held them back from being number one: the very same daring-do that England have rode to the top.

The difference is clearly in the captaincy. Andrew Strauss encourages his men to express themselves and has been able to have men of such diverse temperaments as Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook hold hands and play nice in a lion-hearted cause. He is a courageous man himself. Graeme Smith, by comparison, is dour and nervous of extending the long list of broken South African promises. He manages his bowlers with an eye to defence and bats the same way.

Prior provided most of the tail's runs
Cook left immediately - from prince to pauper in a few overs - bowling himself off the inside edge from just another Dale Steyn ball outside his off stump. The bowler celebrated like a man who had just lost a bad girlfriend, perhaps through surprise or relief but his input into the dismissal was over emphasised. He really doesn't bowl well to left handers. Ravi Bopara, who has been given more chances than Brendan Fevola, failed again to bring form to the Test arena and quickly followed Cook. He faced four outswingers from Steyn, before one pushed back at him bought a concerted shout for lbw which was denied. Smith refused to review what replays showed to be out. Next ball, Bopara played at a bouncer like his sister would and feathered to de Villiers behind the stumps. Bell was gone six overs later, losing his off bail after shouldering arms to Jacques Kallis.

There was sporadic resistance after that, led by the wonderfully adventurous Matt Prior, who provided the most attractive batting of the innings in his brisk half century with the tail. Tim Bresnan helped him add 29 before cutting an ordinary ball from Tahir back onto his leg stump and Stuart Broad added another 45 with the keeper batsman in just nine overs before Vernon Philander hit his off bail. Morne Morkel returned and knocked over Prior and James Anderson in five deliveries, one driving, one bounced and both providing catches to AB de Villiers. Mark Boucher's replacement held five catches for the innings and Morkel took four wickets.

385 was a long way short of what England may have expected last night, especially as there are no terrors in this pitch as yet. The nature of the English dismissals in the first half of the day made it clear that application will equal occupation.

Jimmy Anderson struck early
South Africa started as badly as England, with Alviro Petersen done by a Jimmy Anderson special ... the late, vicious inswinger which beat everything except the back pad. Quick decision, no review. Petersen could have walked without a question being raised. Either side of rain, Graeme Smith dug in and Hashim Amla showed why he has rights to challenge Jonathan Trott for the title of the best No 3 in the game. He plays so late that he gives the impression he is inert but it has the advantage in English conditions, against the late swing of Anderson, to have the longest look at where the ball is headed. From those defensive positions, he then launches sweet flicks from his pads and drives through the off side which are even sweeter, if not for their unexpected appearance from a technique which looks so quiet, even moribund. He gave one chance, late in the day, to Bopara's nudey medium pace. Strauss missed a really tough one to his left which went down to the boundary.

Graeme Smith crawled to 37x
Graeme Smith, on the other hand, has a shocking technique. He was again so leg side dominant, with 34 of his runs coming off his legs - 16 of his 18 scoring shots. Watching him bat causes a fair bit of head scratching as to how he has lasted 100 Tests and made more than 8000 Test runs at nearly 50. Everything is dragged to the leg side, even balls from well outside off stump. He was struck on the pads four or five times for good shouts, played and missed and continually came across to the off to play to leg. Why bowlers would ever bother coming around the wicket to try and crowd his off stump is a mystery because it plays to his desires. Over the wicket, two stumps outside off and you'll find either inside or outside edge. He is the president of the Not Pretty But Pretty Effective Club. Kasey Chambers is believed to have written the club song.

Rain came and went a few times during the day, with time marching on in inactivity after both major scheduled breaks. Twenty overs were lost but the forecast looks healthier than it has for most of the English summer and the players should be the only thing which influence the result now. For all the discussion of a pitch which will break up, it still looks like a section of the Eyre Highway, out past the Nullarbor Roadhouse.

Let's see what food South Africa brings to the table tomorrow even though England have the only Cook.