Proteas in England
Proteas forget their vitamins
Cape Town - Perhaps the best spin you could put on South Africa’s performance in the field on the first day of the Test series against England at The Oval on Thursday was that they “kept going”.
WIN: A limited edition signed Graeme Smith bat
Scorecard after Day 1
To which many wags might just be entitled to add acidly: “Yes, and to nowhere in particular.”
Rather like the much-touted heavyweight bout where neither boxer throws any meaningful leather at all in the first round, the initial salvoes of this battle between purportedly the two best sides on the planet contained few thrills.
Everything about the day’s play somehow seemed muted ... even the star-studded and so often quirky Sky television commentary team struggled to get out of first gear at times, banging on about specific issues too repetitively in the absence of true oomph or testosterone out in the middle.
Still, it cannot be denied that if crackle came in all too sporadic doses on a slow and hardly bounce-friendly track - where calm, risk-free and even-paced accumulation was the theme for the batting side - England were the ones to take more than a bit of a grip.
An overnight situation of 267 for three suggests that an insurance-purchasing total of 450 at the very least is “on” ... and we all know that eight times out of ten in Tests that means that the men who took first dig will also not lose the contest.
At a venue where South Africa are yet to win a Test, such a scenario will hardly aid efforts or morale in the quest to finally break their duck in 2012, so some dramatic breakthroughs on the second morning would be a great tonic after an opening 90 overs in which it often seemed the tourists had left their vitamin pills back at the hotel.
Flat, lacking imagination, oddly short on hostility ... these were the sort of accusations being bandied around against the Proteas as unbeaten century-maker Alastair Cook, in particular, presented an impressively obdurate blade and occasionally, it must be added, some searing strokeplay.
There just seemed to be an overall lack of fizz to Graeme Smith’s team, although there was at least some degree of response after he got noticeably animated in a group huddle during the final session.
Perhaps this is an unjustified product of the imagination, but it did appear as though Mark Boucher’s absence as a senior gee-up factor from behind the stumps was felt.
While it was comforting that for the most part AB de Villiers did the glove-work on a trying day very decently, Boucher was always renowned for his constant, vocal encouragement and insistence on maintaining standards even in arduous passages in the field.
They could get a bit monotonous at times in his career, but even his sometimes semi-convincing cries of “ooh, I like that” to bowlers could work wonders in orchestrating turnarounds from adversity.
Collective body language was unremarkable from the Proteas on Thursday, with their most experienced strike bowler Dale Steyn
- on a rare, wicketless day for the Phalaborwa Express - particularly tetchy and out of sorts, it seemed.
He was down on pace and aggression, unusually fumbling as a fielder, had the need for occasional on-field strapping or just plain “TLC” and towards the end of the day’s play was even seen during an off-field stint having a right old whinge alongside impassive coach Gary Kirsten
The fast bowler then stumbled a little as he bounded down the steps to return to the field, something also not escaping the television cameras and almost a further indication that he was just not in a great mental space.
“He’s thrown his toys; a little bit of a strop - not happy,” opined David “Bumble” Lloyd.
Just another incentive for South Africa to quickly restore a sense of unity and purpose on Friday is the fact that day-one evidence suggests this dry and potentially abrasive surface will be advantageous to bat on probably not much beyond the second day’s play.
Thereafter, it may begin to turn quite prodigiously, and with the Proteas’ bowlers quite often going around the wicket, they may only be aiding England off-spinner Graeme Swann’s bid to exploit rough in some perilous spots for right-handed batsmen.
Swann, let’s not forget, sports as many as 24 scalps from his last three Oval Tests so clearly relishes bowling at the ground.
Perhaps any appreciation of the day’s play depended on your point of view; former England captain Michael Vaughan suggested on Twitter: “Terrific cricket today; proper Test cricket. England in a very, very strong position. Pitch will be a dust bowl by day 4.”
Maybe ... but there’s also a case for saying it may be fatally early to write off a South African team who, give them some credit, didn’t really allow England’s batsmen to “get away”
to the fullest extent.
They may take some perverse satisfaction from the fact that at this ground in 2003 they walloped their way to 362 for four on day one of the final Test, mainly thanks to Herschelle Gibbs’s smoking-gun 183.
Almost unbelievably, the Test turned on its head ... England clawed their way back to win it by a handsome nine wickets.
The Proteas far from out of it? Perhaps - if they are properly prepared to believe it.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing