Proteas in England

Proteas’ tail club reconvening?

2012-08-16 22:30
Vernon Philander (AFP)
Cape Town - South Africa’s lower-order batsmen, supposedly something of an Achilles’ heel, have averted or at the very least postponed potential calamity on day one of the decisive third Test against England at Lord’s.

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There was a real danger, when the tourists subsided to 54 for four well before lunch on Thursday after winning the toss, of the home team even taking to the crease before the close of the first day’s play ... which would have been a serious fillip to their quest to level the series and stay No 1 in the ICC rankings.

As it is, we should keep in mind that things still look rosy enough for England on paper: the 262 for seven posted thus far by Graeme Smith’s team remains well short of the treasured 450-plus they doubtless dreamed of banking just ahead of hostilities
starting at the illustrious venue.

The Proteas were always likely to be on the back foot at stumps, on the basis of those rare first-session blues - albeit not helped in any way by the frankly buffoonish decision of third umpire Rod Tucker to somehow deem senior batsman Jacques Kallis out by way of technology when TV evidence, to smarter eyes, actually only seemed to get him off the hook.

But then just when their ceaseless school of detractors, no doubt, were about to unleash that old bogey word starting with “ch”, South Africa’s lower-end batsmen instead knuckled down with commendable spirit to orchestrate a partial turnaround.

It was a bit of a throwback, in some respects, to those days in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Australia ruthlessly ruled the Test roost and the Proteas, despite a frisky pace attack, were all too often let down by the inconsistency of their specialist batting and only got reasonable enough totals because of the tail-wag efforts of men like Mark Boucher, Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock and Pat Symcox.

The irony of Thursday’s unproductive top-order events was that this was an exception rather than norm: South African Test sides of more recent years have tended to be altogether steelier in the first half of the batting line-up and just a bit donkey-like from Nos 7 or 8 down.

So the Proteas boxed out of character, and refreshingly so, in sessions two and three of the first day’s action, going some way to restoring a sense of equilibrium.

It was the first time, under orthodox circumstances, since that amazingly topsy-turvy first Test against Australia at Newlands in early November 2011 that South Africa have failed to boast at least a half-century from one of their top five batsmen in the first innings - they were skittled for 96 then but struck back like a hungry serpent to rout the Baggy Greens for 47 in their second dig.

I am not going to include the more recent second Test against New Zealand in Hamilton, because the intended No 5, AB de Villiers, who scored 83 to spare some top-end blushes, was operating at six only because Dale Steyn had earlier been used as a No 3 night-watchman.

We will probably know after a couple of hours of England’s reply effort, when they finally take to the crease themselves, what really constitutes a par first-innings total on this pitch.

A hunch tells me that around 330-350 may be that mark here, so the tourists are not light years away from it, especially if Vernon Philander, whose confident, unflustered 46 not out is already a Test-best for him, continues to play with a sense of fun and adventure on Friday morning.

It was so pleasing to see the right-hander shine, and earn some praise from a renowned stroke-player like David Gower in the Sky commentary box,  because earlier innings from him at this level have not done justice at all to his ability.

SuperSport Series-watchers of some seven or eight years ago will remember that when Philander cut his earliest first-class teeth he was a pretty genuine “No 6 all-rounder” and the possibility even existed for a while that willow might eclipse cherry in the order of his value to a team.

More recently his riotous Test success as a bustling seamer has understandably seen his batting take something of a back seat, but if he has been encouraged to resurrect it more meaningfully on this tour, praise must go to those who suggested it.

He will resume day two - with England still armed with a shiny second new ball, mind - partnered by Steyn, who has ridden some luck in fading light (and why not?) to be unbeaten on 21. If he can get through the first few overs of the morning, his own ability to use the long handle to some effect may just come into play.

Frankly, if England’s quickies continue to have their Proteas counterparts hopping about just a bit, it ought to simultaneously stoke the fire in South African bellies to get stuck into the Pietersen-less home batting as well.

Shaun Pollock made the good point towards the end of Thursday’s play that nicks were carrying better on this Lord’s pitch (also showing some high bounce at times) than had occurred in the prior Tests at The Oval and Headingley, which is another reason to suspect that if South Africa can wiggle their way toward 300 it may turn out to be healthier than they’d have initially imagined.

A fascinating aspect to the post-lunch fightback was that its roots were dug by more recognised left-handed batsmen Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy, who may eventually be competing for one “middle” slot in the side if it is rebalanced at some stage to accommodate a specialist wicketkeeper and free up De Villiers just to bat once more.

Both men grafted hard and also played some crisp shots at timely moments to ease pressure, although another - more regrettable - thing in common was that both were dismissed a little softly when well set for really major knocks.

Still, they could sleep aware of their contributions to steering their team out of very choppy waters.

At least for the moment.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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