Proteas in England
SA in good shape for Lord’s
Cape Town - South Africa’s sound enough shutout job on England at Headingley on Monday leaves them enormously closer to clinching the series and reclaiming the mantle of No 1-ranked Test side.
The second Test petering out to a rather rain-affected draw already means the Proteas cannot lose the series, and simply earning a stalemate at Lord’s from August 16-20 will also be enough for a second triumph on English soil in only four years.
Credit must go to both captains, Graeme Smith and Andrew Strauss, for a positive spirit on day five which, at different stages, saw each team have just a flickering chance of orchestrating a result when a stalemate was always the heaviest likelihood.
If good judges had been asked at the start of the unacceptably short series which venue would be the likeliest for England to fail to bowl in-form Smith and his charges out twice, majority sentiment would almost certainly have indicated that illustrious
Unusually allocated the final Test, when it is more often associated with the first or second in series between these foes, Lord’s has a modern reputation for being generally batting-friendly and often not showing major deterioration as games grind on.
It is also a favoured ground - and then some - for post-isolation South African cricketers, many of whom cherish the opportunity to get on the famous honours boards for centuries or five-wicket hauls.
The Proteas got into first-innings trouble in the opening Test at Lord’s in 2008, but even then a monster second-knock effort helped them earn a comfortable draw in the end.
This time the tourists are less likely to be caught “cold” - on the contrary, they are getting well into their stride now and it is England who are just beginning to look leaden-footed and short of ideas towards the end of their busy home season.
The South African attack may have taken some stick from Kevin Pietersen as each side went past the 400-mark in their first innings at Leeds, but their collective discipline mostly remained intact and they really ought to get better rather than worse for the third game of a series straight out of the southern hemisphere winter.
Probably the most pleasing aspect for coach Gary Kirsten out of the Headingley draw will have been that all of the batsmen who either failed or did not get the opportunity at the crease at The Oval now do have meaningful runs beneath the belt.
Alviro Petersen led the way most admirably with his weighty, career-best 182: that 533-minute vigil after a pretty lean spell leading up to the game was the major “security” initiative in ensuring that South Africa would firmly deny England the opportunity to square matters at 1-1.
But with AB de Villiers, Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy also spending decent time in the middle, the jigsaw is looking close to complete ahead of Lord’s, with some niggling injuries to key personnel likely to be the only significant Proteas worry as the series heads south for the climax - at least they have 10 days to ensure clean bills of health.
It is England who have the most to chew on as far as the make-up of their team for a must-win game is concerned.
The off-spinner Graeme Swann will return at Lord’s, after his hotly-debated sidelining at Leeds, which means that one of Tim Bresnan or Steven Finn will have to sit out the final Test - unless England gamble, against their nature, by sacrificing a batsman to ensure a five-man attack.
You might have included Stuart Broad in the list of potential candidates to be left out for the Lord’s, but then on Monday he suddenly found some hitherto absent fire in his belly to give the South African second innings some ropey moments.
South Africa’s record at Lord’s since 1994 is exemplary: three really thumping wins and just that 2008 “blemish” when they had to fight a rearguard action to stave off possible defeat.
You have to go back to June 1960 for the last time South Africa lost a Test at Lord’s - the second in a five-Test series, eventually lost 3-0 by Jackie McGlew’s tourists.
That is not to say, mind, that the Proteas are well nigh “done and dusted” for the series victory: as with every English ground, atmospheric conditions can play a part in setting up results either way, and South Africa could yet trip up if they enter the last Test with a fatally defensive mindset or some butterflies set in.
Smith was at pains after the Headingley Test to point out that his team becoming overly cautious at Lord’s was unlikely.
“You’ve seen here what our attitude is, Mike,” he said firmly when asked about their likely mindset for the final Test by television commentator Mike Atherton.
The other minor variable to consider is that Lord’s has been an Olympic archery venue, so cricket preparation has been unusually thwarted there of late.
Still, England will take no special comfort from the words of former captain Michael Vaughan this week.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph during the Leeds Test, he said: “Unfortunately, Lord’s is the last place in England where you would want to go when you need to get a result.
“There have been a lot of high-scoring draws there in recent years.
“Maybe, after the archery, the pitch won’t have had as much rolling as normal, but it will still be pretty hard for England to take 20 wickets there.”
Man of the match Pietersen, nevertheless, went close to urging a green-top at Lord’s, given England’s precarious series situation: “We’re going to have to play positive cricket next week on what will hopefully be a very sporting pitch.”
Of course a “mamba”, if that can possibly be laid out by the curator, might also play menacingly into South African hands ... *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing