Sickness spreads to SA’s attack

2016-01-03 19:26
Morne Morkel (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – First we thought it was a problem primarily afflicting the batting department of the tumbling giant that is the South African Test cricket team.

Then along came Ben Stokes and his fellow-English company to emphatically spread the rot to the bowling division as well as the tourists’ first innings turned into an unexpectedly swollen and riotous affair at Newlands.

The Proteas suffered quite probably their worst post-isolation ignominy on any single day in the field on Sunday – yes, a truly bloody Sunday – to confirm that their current crisis of form and confidence has become a universal one, and no longer curtailed merely to issues at the crease.

The pitch map for the South African bowling looked unpalatably like a collection of randomly-spilled Jelly Tots at a nine-year-old’s birthday party, which hardly helped quell the staggering haemorrhaging of runs.

For good measure, their fielding got more and more scratchy and sometimes even comical as visitors England completed one of their most prosperous and explosive first innings in history in the second Test.

So South Africa are at least consistent right now in their rank awfulness, as their retreat from long-time global mastery gathers steam with fairly alarming earnest.

One saving grace was that they ended Sunday in a welcome, stable position in their reply, with embattled skipper Hashim Amla unbeaten on a fluent 64 and clearly determined to stick to his pledge to restore a theme of leadership by example.

But the story of the day was very much England’s savage assault, spearheaded by the marvellously clean-striking Stokes, on the Proteas’ inexperienced and increasingly cowed and clueless bowling line-up.

How modern legends and proud competitors like Allan Donald, Brett Schultz, Fanie de Villiers, Brian McMillan, Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock and the crocked present absentees Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander must have winced as they watched the carnage unfold between 10:30 and the relief of declaration on 629 for six at 14:20.

The Proteas have suffered some reasonably prolonged periods of angst before, of course, as every team does from time to time when the opposition hit a purple patch during the course of a Test match.

But it is difficult to recall South Africa, who pride themselves in gung-ho pace bowling and a generally aggressive attitude, finding the boot quite so nastily on the other foot for so long.

This had to be a candidate for most nightmarish second new ball they’ve taken, if you throw in the seeds of intent demonstrated in the fledgling stages of the mammoth (it would be a multiple record-breaking 399 runs) alliance between Stokes and Jonny Bairstow near the close of play on day one.

Remember that the tourists were a still-manageable 271 for five when the faded rock was replaced smack on 80 overs by Amla.

But the 46 runs rattled up in a further seven overs before stumps then merely served as a minor signal of what was to come the following day.

In short, South Africa were pummelled for 312 further runs in an utterly embarrassing 38.5 overs -- their only success a quirky run-out seconds after AB de Villiers of all people had spilled a pretty routine catch -- and Stokes (258 off 198 highly eventful deliveries) and Bairstow (150 not out) achieving personal bests by a long way.

England scored at a searing 8.10 runs to the over during day two, ahead of Alastair Cook finally calling his men in from the hugely agreeable, if you were English, assault and battery.

Every Proteas bowler suffered, and you have to say they got what they deserved considering the meek and disorganised way they started out their Sunday morning under more blazing sunshine.

The sloppiness was just what Stokes and Bairstow needed to get into a fresh groove in no time at all, and the cash-in proved well beyond severe.

What it all meant from a South African point of view was that their current, specialist attack may not even get the opportunity for any proper sense of atonement in the remainder of the contest, as the danger clearly exists of an innings defeat should England be in a position to enforce a follow-on.

Even if it doesn’t transpire or they don’t take that option, any second knock by the visitors seems likely to feature a fairly relaxed onslaught in pursuit of quick runs to set some kind of target to the vulnerable host country.

So by the time preparations for the third of the four contests begin – both to be played on the Highveld – the Proteas’ brains trust will be painfully aware that novices Messrs Morris, Rabada and Piedt ought to be prone to demoralisation and diminished confidence after all three posted “centuries” of the undesired kind in their respective analyses.

The infinitely more established Morne Morkel was no great shakes himself on Sunday, after his weirdly sparse use by Amla a day earlier.

This may seem a premature thought, with so much of the second Test yet to negotiate, but shaping an attack for the Wanderers from January 14 already looks a mounting, reasonably grim quandary.

No doubt a Lions-fancying lobby will intensify their call for stocky, domestically in-form tearaway Hardus Viljoen to earn a crack at the Bullring, although you also have to consider that Kyle Abbott may have recovered from his hamstring problem; his endurance and reputation for discipline have been missed at Newlands.

And what of Steyn and Philander?

Both have been frustrated spectators during the second encounter at a venue where they have so often prospered previously, and if passed properly fit these established fighters would be welcomed with open arms for the second half of the series.

Complicating matters, however, is that they are short of healthy bowling rhythm and mileage in the legs – particularly in the case of Philander, who last played competitive cricket in the Mohali Test in very early November.

Problems, dilemmas, uncertainties ... Mr Stokes certainly hasn’t helped matters for the Proteas, has he?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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