England in SA
SA’s status not dreamy yet
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Graeme Smith (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Glorious, energising sunshine: that is sure to be the earnest desire of Graeme Smith and the rest of the Proteas batsmen when they peel back the curtains in their Johannesburg hotel rooms on Friday morning.
If their wish is granted, and clouds and moisture do somehow stay well away for significant portions of day two of the final Test at the Wanderers, they could be in a position to chisel out a weighty first-innings advantage in the vital series finale.
It will be to England’s seam bowlers’ comfort, however, that the forecast suggests “overhead” and a good likelihood of further rain on Friday, meaning that the tourists are not quite as poorly placed as their fate after the opening day’s play suggests on paper – only 151 runs to the good with South Africa (somehow!) still boasting 10 wickets in hand.
We always knew that there would be some grass left on the Bullring pitch, given the Proteas’ 0-1 situation, and some early signs of unpredictable bounce have already been evident.
Yet conditions clearly become immeasurably more challenging when atmospheric factors add near-lethal swing and seam to the brew: hats off to the composure in the curtailed third session of Smith and opening partner Ashwell Prince, but three or four wickets might have tumbled, especially in a precarious little half-hour stint in late afternoon before play was called off through bad light.
Excuse my caution, but I am not prepared to confidently venture yet that South Africa will actually sport a first-knock lead, never mind by how much.
Nevertheless, South Africa have made some very meaningful initial yards in their quest to share the series.
England’s 180 all out after dubiously opting to take first strike – Smith apparently would have done the same, mind you – was exactly what the doctor ordered from a home perspective: the game is moving quickly, a key factor for the Proteas with a “result” essential.
So if par for England ought to have been nearer 280, as some commentators were suggesting, the South African reply reaching 300 or so will go even further toward teeing up an overdue Test victory for them this summer and retention of the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy.
Whenever the sun did break through on Thursday, knuckling down in the middle suddenly didn’t look quite so murderous, as evidenced in the mini-session before lunch when Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell, England’s most resilient batsmen on the day, emerged from it unscathed after there had been four dismissals in the prior, action-packed period to first drinks break.
Speaking of “prior”, wicketkeeper Matt Prior, to a rash pull, was among four of their top eight batsmen in the order to perish primarily by own hand. The others were Stuart Broad, whose budding batting career has gone rather backwards in this series, and two other SA-born customers in Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott.
Indeed, the dismissals of the last-named two led Geoffrey Boycott, behind a SuperSport microphone, to acidly suggest they had seemed like “double agents” aiding the Proteas’ cause.
There were messages to South Africa’s batsmen in the fatal haste with which Pietersen and Trott succumbed: show due diligence, ride out the early storm, and scoring runs on this track is perhaps not as hazardous as tip-toeing through a heavily-laden minefield.
Those with mental fortitude to accompany a dollop of luck can prosper, as Collingwood and Bell did in posting 76 together – the best stand of the innings by at least two thirds.
As had been the case at Newlands, South Africa’s most experienced strike bowlers, Dale Steyn and the now routinely impressive Morne Morkel, proved the most bothersome to the tourists, accounting for eight wickets between them.
Morkel is so much more on-the-button now, and more prepared also to get nasty, and he made best inroads into England’s top-order.
Then Steyn, who seemed to lack a bit of oomph before lunch, must have eaten his spinach because he came out snorting after it, coming from behind to grab a 12th career five-wicket haul, and keeping up his awe-inspiring characteristic of a “five-for” every three Test matches.
Before the Cape Town Test, he had been strangely mediocre statistically against these opponents – that is rapidly being rectified now.
I thought Ryan McLaren, the slightly surprise debutant as South Africa chose to omit specialist spinner Paul Harris, warmed nicely to his task after a so-so start in which his line of attack had drifted too far outside off-stump to sustain the Proteas’ pressure.
He, too, pleasingly re-examined the script during the break and suddenly got some good shape on the ball, even if he is probably never going to be a genuine throat-hunter.
McLaren will gleefully bank the gutsy Collingwood as his maiden Test victim, catching his leading edge just as the in-form player seemed set for a deserved half-century.
Remember that this is a match where any fifty looks like being worth 80 or 90 on any other deck…