Test series catches fire
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Centurion – So who takes that much-loved term “momentum” into the second Test at Kingsmead on Boxing Day?
The answer is fairly simple: South Africa and England in pretty equal measure, with the four-Test series now exquisitely set up after the tourists’ earlier presence for the one-day portion of the tour had somehow struggled to capture public imagination.
GALLERY: South Africa vs England 1st Test
Ironically it took an inconclusive yet classic encounter at SuperSport Park here, in the format of the game that supposedly has its back to the wall, to do the trick.
It’s all square with three to play, and the combat will be spiced further by several thousand English fans apparently arriving very shortly for the business end of the series from their frigid homeland: a mass-ranked Barmy Army was barely visible or audible for the first Test.
They will feel they missed out on a killer opening game, too … one which was engrossing in large dollops for all five days even at times when the scoring rate became necessarily sedentary and those deluded souls who think wham-bam is king went off to watch their paint dry.
The rest of us stayed and revelled instead in what Andrew Strauss so rightly labelled “a great advertisement” for the five-day brand.
Disappointed Proteas enthusiasts, who saw their team fail by one agonising wicket to get their noses in front after a dramatic, Friedel de Wet-engineered assault in the lengthening shadows on Sunday, may well mutter that Strauss would say that, considering his side’s escape by a whisker.
England will of course, be gleeful indeed, and almost certainly bang the Ashes 2009 drum loudly from a “good omen” point of view: they dug out a barely deserved draw in the first Test of that series at Cardiff, with Monty Panesar surprisingly to the fore as a barnacle batsman on the final evening, and went on to recapture the urn.
Will No 11 Graham Onions be remembered in a few weeks, to some degree, as the Panesar equivalent for rearguard heroism that did much to sway the balance in this series? We shall see.
The visitors will also remind themselves that, for all their chewed fingernails deep in the final session of this Test, there were times in this intriguing contest when they had South Africa in some disarray too.
This England side, the Proteas now know all too well, are a genuinely hard nut to crack.
They are motivated, professional, more admirably conditioned than any previous party from their ranks to these shores - it shows in their fielding, where they no longer carry any Teletubbies or Tufnells - and possess some gifted individual players.
Here’s a statistic to ponder, by way of demonstrating England’s discipline under the Strauss-Flower brains trust: in the almost 240 overs they bowled in this match, there was not a single no-ball.
Compare this with South Africa who, despite sending down 40 overs fewer, amassed a tally of 23.
But before this begins to sound too much like a eulogy to the tourists, there is a great deal for the Proteas to take heart from as well - and certainly a case for saying they are the ones, instead, who might be entitled to contemplate Durban with greater relish.
If you had suggested a couple of hours before the start of the Centurion Test - with Jacques Kallis basically out of the primary bowling equation and Dale Steyn, last year’s Test cricketer of the year, a shock late withdrawal - that the Proteas would not repeat the 2004/05 occurrence of quickly going 1-0 down in the series, I think many in their camp would have secretly banked a stalemate, anticipating a fuller pack of cards at Graeme Smith’s disposal for the Kingsmead Test and beyond.
Don’t any ignoramus dare venture that South Africa somehow “choked” in failing to win, either … it was to their eternal credit that, rookie fast bowler to the fore, they suddenly converted England’s apparently unfussed meander through placid late-afternoon waters into a tempest of panic and near-despair.
The Proteas, remember, went into this game with the disquieting knowledge that their record in first Tests of home series had hitherto been an oddly dismal one.
Smith was justified in saying that after more than eight months of Test-level inactivity by his side, effectively holding sway to varying degrees for the lion’s share of the match had to be perceived as a good sign.
South Africa’s campaign could be said to be up and running, happily minus the customary early defeat to grapple with – and of course Fortress Newlands is now just two matches ahead.
The pleasing thing about the Proteas’ batting at SuperSport Park was that all but Smith of their mainline batsmen made at least one significant score in the game, Mark Boucher was magnificent with both bat and gloves, and that whenever a wobble occurred, it was fairly swiftly and decisively rectified.
And a mostly pleasant problem now presents itself for Kingsmead bowling-wise, with Steyn likely to return and Kallis set to do a lot more than trundle down two or three gentle, exploratory overs by then.
Paul Harris was the leading wicket-taker on either side in the first Test, and it is the seam options that will have the wise men scratching their heads most as an array of good candidates offer themselves for deployment.
What is the correct make-up of the South African attack in muggy Durban? Sport24 will examine this separately.
Post-isolation series between these rivals have never been decided by more than one Test. This one looks like being no different.
The last one in South Africa was really decided by Matthew Hoggard’s dream second-innings spell at the Wanderers; the last one in England by Smith’s amazing innings on a near-raging turner at Edgbaston.
Who will tilt this one? Your best bet at finding out is perhaps by booking your seats for the rollercoaster ride early. It deserves decent viewership.