England in SA
Strauss a threat to Proteas
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Andrew Strauss (Gallo Images)
Centurion – Get Straussy … it may sound a bit like a movie title, but removing England’s captain in the first session, ideally, will be a key Proteas objective on day three of the first Test at SuperSport Park here on Friday.
The left-handed opening batsman, who boasts a notable history of relish for South African conditions, hasn’t taken long to impose himself on the opening encounter of 2009/10, stroking his way comfortably and elegantly to an unbeaten 44 in his team’s initially promising reply to the hosts’ first innings total of 418.
There are still Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood and company to come, but you nevertheless get the feeling that in how long Strauss continues at the crease could lie an important pointer to which side is applying the screws after the respective first knocks.
Certainly the Proteas will not want England, who have only lost arguably their weakest current top-five link thus far in Alastair Cook, to overhaul their own beefy score with a significant number of wickets in hand, because it would give the tourists a sniff at repeating their first-Test triumph of 2004/05.
And Strauss looks like the perfect candidate, from the tourists’ point of view, to knuckle down for a really sizeable innings.
He has the track record here to back up his credentials – on the last visit five years ago, he was England’s standout batsman by a country mile in their 2-1 series success.
The Johannesburg-born player amassed productive knocks countrywide last time, including 126 and 94 not out in the first Test at Port Elizabeth, 136 in Durban and 147 in Johannesburg.
And it was like history revisited in the final session on Thursday as he capitalised to the full on some often wayward South African bowling, which included Friedel de Wet earning a maiden Test scalp pretty quickly but learning some painful lessons as well about bowling to the proverbial big boys at this level of the game.
Strauss is massively assured playing square of the wicket, whether clipping the ball off his legs on the on-side or driving through “off”, and he generally looked in ominously fluent nick as England livened up the day’s hitherto sluggish tempo by scoring at a touch under four to the over before stumps.
South Africa’s century-maker Jacques Kallis, at the post-play press conference, admitted that the Proteas had not distinguished themselves with the ball, and that this had played into Strauss’s hands.
“Yeah, he’s a really quality player and obviously had a fantastic tour last time,” Kallis told Sport24. “We had some plans we wanted to execute at him and we didn’t do that this evening, which was disappointing.
“They’ve got a lot of high-calibre players and we know we’ve got to be right on our game if we want to come out on top.
“I think the reason that England are going at four an over is because we bowled really poorly rather than them necessarily being aggressive. Scoring has actually been quite tough on this wicket – if we get our lines and lengths right we can make it tough for them as well.”
Asked whether he hoped the pitch might quicken up, Kallis said: “It might, a little. Hopefully it does and that plays into our hands.
“Maybe it will start spinning from tomorrow (Friday) lunch-time as well … the history here suggests it does do that.”
England fast bowler Graham Onions, who stuck to his task diligently in South Africa’s lengthy innings and sometimes provided problems with his bouncer – ask Morne Morkel, given a painful blow on the side of the helmet – said the potential existed for a mammoth reply.
“There’s no reason we can’t bat really well (on day three) … we can get past their total and press on. If we do well, we can also push on for a win.
“Once the new ball goes after around 20 overs, the bounce lessens. You can sort of bully the attack a bit as a batting side.”
They sounded like reasonably ominous words and it was clear the limited South African bowling line-up was going to have to sharpen its act to hang onto the initiative the Proteas may, debatably, still cling to.
Some South African fans are probably muttering darkly that Graeme Smith’s team batted too slowly in amassing the 418, but they were always going to have to claw rather than clobber their way to a healthy position after losing both overnight batsmen, Kallis and JP Duminy, in the first session on Thursday.
As it is, the Proteas’ sometimes vulnerable tail, initially marshalled with typical grit by Mark Boucher and aided by Paul Harris’s stoicism as well, performed with some aplomb.
If Strauss carries on from where he left off, we may just find as this game progresses that South Africans will be increasingly grateful for every first-innings run collected over the course of 641 minutes by the Proteas …