English wolf SA 'carvery'
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – England are dining royally at a tasty South African one-day international buffet.
GALLERY: Proteas vs England
These teams have played each other twice in the 50-overs format this season, both at SuperSport Park, and each time the tourists’ batsmen have gorged themselves silly.
First it was the Champions Trophy stinger in late spring, when England’s 323 for eight was simply too much to chase down, despite Graeme Smith’s ballsy 141 in the reply.
Fewer runs were on offer in what was effectively the first game of a now four-match series on Sunday -- following the Wanderers washout -- but this time Andrew Strauss’s outfit were even more commanding as they romped to victory by seven wickets with a full four overs in hand.
The acute heartburn at the two-game banquet has belonged entirely to the Proteas and, although it is early days in the broader summer hostilities, the portents suddenly do not look especially good from a home point of view.
A well-oiled machine at the end of 2008/09, boasting 7-3 supremacy in 10 matches over Australia, no less, several parts to that South African motor appear to have inexplicably seized up at once, what with the Champions Trophy disappointment and now 0-1 status in a shortened bilateral series.
Having slipped into third spot on the ICC rankings, nothing less than triumph over England – themselves humiliated 6-1 at home by the resurgent Aussies just a few weeks ago, let’s not forget – will kick-start any climb back to the top of the global pile by Smith’s troops.
And for that to happen, simple arithmetic tells you starkly that only a hat-trick of Proteas wins, starting at Newlands on Friday, will facilitate it. The against-the-grain quest is not helped by England sporting six ODI wins on the trot against their current foes.
Those here who instinctively view glasses as half-full will comfort themselves in the knowledge that South Africa genuinely seemed an ambitious and unflappable ODI side last season, and really ought to be capable of biting back with some venom.
The more doomsday-minded will ask why some wheels have spun off with such undignified haste, while similarly crumpling their brows over England’s northward curve and Capetonian-born Jonathan Trott’s strong signal of intent against them for the weeks ahead.
Source of immediate angst
As had already been feared, too, the bowling department, especially, is a source of immediate Proteas angst.
Certainly the English batsmen have knocked some impressively deep psychological pegs into local soil, and the only hopes of the tent blowing away may lie in South Africa’s steely record at Newlands and the prospect - a welcome one, that - of a full house to roar the home side along.
The Proteas have won 24 of their 27 ODIs at this venue, including each of the last nine and all three prior encounters against England.
And the last of those was a 108-run bludgeoning during the 2004/05 series, when Herschelle Gibbs smacked 100 off 115 balls and Justin Kemp’s whirlwind 57 off 36 is also a goose-pimply memory to many.
With Jacques Kallis laid low for the entire series, the squad recall for the very same Gibbs – he of the sometimes mercurial blade and always infectious brilliance in the field – on Sunday night was an extremely wise route to follow by Mike Procter and company.
Of course the Kallis void will be a factor in dousing some of South Africa’s bowling firepower, not to mention upsetting team balance, but shortcomings with the ball appear to run well deeper than that.
A brutal truth is that the Proteas’ top strike bowler and current first-choice spinner have been savaged in successive ODIs by England.
Dale Steyn cranked up some really sizzling pace occasionally on Sunday, and that is a healthy development for the Test series to follow, but he also took some “tap” in a glaringly ragged finishing spell and his figures from the pair of encounters read 20-0-123-1.
Likewise, the supposed “bulldog” Roelof van der Merwe, who appears to have temporarily leapfrogged Johan Botha in the slow-bowling pecking order, has also found that life at this level is not simply an unrelenting fairytale – he has been carted for 122 runs in only 18 (wicketless) overs.
So at least two supposedly key elements of the South African arsenal are currently under pressure and not doing their “strike” bit, and it has left the slightly samey, medium-fast remainder of the attack – Ryan McLaren, Charl Langeveldt and Albie Morkel – simultaneously vulnerable to attack with ample opposition wickets usually in hand.
If there are silver linings, McLaren is showing some signs of developing Shaun Pollock-like parsimony, Langeveldt should get better rather than worse as he progressively recaptures fitness and Wayne Parnell will hopefully be in a position to offer left-arm pace variety for Newlands or very shortly afterwards.
And there is one other factor to consider amidst a climate of mild Proteas unease: the England bowling isn’t exactly moving mountains either …