Kirsten gets it right
Sport24 columnist Colin Bryden (File)
So, Gary Kirsten was right all along. Fears, expressed by many and shared by this columnist, that South Africa would be under-prepared going into the first Test, proved unfounded.
There was certainly some rustiness on the first day at the Oval, when the South African bowlers looked in need of a gallop, but they came out firing on day two and the rest of the Test match belonged emphatically to the Proteas.
In the course of reporting on more than 150 Tests, I cannot remember a more comprehensive win. To take 20 wickets on a largely unresponsive surface and to lose only two in the course of scoring 637 runs was an achievement of great magnitude.
It was interesting to hear Kirsten expounding on the preparation issue after the game. "The only way you can prepare effectively for Test match cricket is to play Test match cricket, because these days we know that it's very tough to get into Test match intensity mode playing first-class cricket."
That is a harsh but realistic assessment of the sort of opposition provided by county teams in the modern age, when touring sides typically come up against second string players. As Kirsten said, "It's a very different game."
What was most impressive was the mental strength shown by the South African players. Whether or not that was honed during their sojourn in the Swiss Alps is a matter of conjecture but the bowlers never gave up, even when times were tough, while the batting of Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis was a master class.
Kirsten and England coach Andy Flower are similar characters, phlegmatic and content mainly to stay out of the limelight. English pundits said a strength of the England team, in their climb to number one in the Test rankings, was discipline and patience. If that was the case, Kirsten and Smith instilled in their players an enhanced version of the Flower method.
Smith set the tone with his iron-willed refusal to get out, even when he was struggling to put bat on ball, particularly against the off-spin of Graeme Swann. Amla was pure class and endless patience and Kallis was magnificent, especially when England's spirit had been broken and quick runs were needed.
As Smith said afterwards, the second Test at Headingley will be played in different conditions and it will be a different game. Kirsten, though, believes that South Africa have the capability to play top-quality cricket on a regular basis. "I'm not saying we'll be 650 for two again but we feel that we can put in really good performances on a daily basis," he said.
Both teams will start on nought for nought next week, as Kallis noted sagely afterwards. England will be stung, South Africa cannot be complacent.