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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Champions plastered by South Africa

The concluded Oval Test was only the sixth test match defeat at home for England since July 2007, three of them at the hands of the South Africans.

The last time England lost at home by an innings was against the Australians in the summer of 2009. The margin of defeat was by an innings and 80 runs. Yesterday England were trounced by the Proteas by an innings and 12 runs at the Oval. But the margin really hides the plastering received by the Test cricket champions at the hands of the South Africans.

Since last summer when England achieved the numero uno status and displacing India with disdain, they have looked head and shoulders above all visiting sides - Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia. This series was to be the contest, top team versus top contender. If the Oval Test is anything to go by, the hunters are now the hunted.
 
The true margin of defeat at the Oval was 2 South African wickets against England’s 20. It doesn’t get more one-sided than that. It was the 5-day express version of a whitewash. Where are the clouds when you need them? And why was the series opener not played at Lord’s?
 
The Proteas landed on the shores after a training camp in the Swiss Alps, played only two warm games before the Test match. At the end of day one, England were sitting pretty. The curators had produced a  bald brown track, obviously to keep Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Kallis at bay. Strauss won the toss, elected to bat and England finished Day 1 on 267/3, with Cook unbeaten on  114, having completed his 20th Test century. A big first innings score was on the cards, normal service likely to continue. There was even talk of the South Africans being a bit “undercooked”.
 
The first session of the second day changed all that and more. The South African bowlers came to the party. England lost the last 7 wickets for 118 runs and were wrapped up for 385, with Morkel, pick of the bowlers, accounting for four wickets. That brought the determined Smith to the pitch, who lost his partner cheaply. And for a while the England total looked par. What followed in the next couple of days is what dreams or nightmares are made of. Two massive partnerships, the first between Amla and Smith, and then an undefeated one between Amla and Kallis took South Africa miles ahead in morale terms.
 
This Test match will be remembered for several records, but mostly for the unbeaten 13-hour vigil at the crease by Amla. The calm and modest South African became the top Test scorer for his country, remaining unconquered on 311 when the declaration came at tea on Day 4. Smith scored a determined 131 in his 100th Test match appearance and King Kallis produced his 43rd test century, remaining unbeaten on 182. The England bowling attack seemed to be completely out of ideas, mostly working on containing than attacking. The swing and seam movement had completely dried up. The pitch was flat and the sun was out.
 
However all that changed in the second innings! With England 252 adrift, the ball started to move laterally in the hands of the South Africans.  By the end of day four they had already accounted for four English wickets, including the two most stubborn, Cook and Trott. The fifth day was further testament, as Steyn moved the ball both ways, as did Philander. The rough helped Tahir, and Morkel was intent on increasing the pressure. The end came swiftly with the second new ball, with one session to spare in the match.
 
The England bowling-attack had worked much better in the UAE against Pakistan, and then in Sri Lanka, in conditions where they did not expect any help from the pitches. Broad seemed to be over-pitching often, searching for swing but with little effect. Swann bowled long spells, often hitting the track harder but unable to extract enough spin and bounce. Anderson and Bresnan worked hard but could not deliver the goods. Bopara was probably the only one who caused a few problems – with the ball. The holding game didn’t work for England. The subcontinental pitch didn’t work either.
 
The South Africans were relentless in the game, with ball and bat, after an average first day. They played with AB, as the make shift wicket-keeper in the absence Boucher, needed to use only four batsmen and did all the damage with their four main bowlers in short sharp spells.
 
The crown is looking slippery tonight. England will come back stronger in the next two Tests. They will not roll over, not at home. This series is very much on. What remains to be seen are the tactics, the team mix and the pitch conditions that the home team comes back with.
 
The Olympics will be a distraction, so stay tuned in! It’s not over yet.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Contest of the Summer

We are nearly there. It kicks off tomorrow, on the 19th of July, at the Oval in London.

For test cricket connoisseurs, it is the highlight of the summer cricket calendar. The heavyweight championship of test cricket, between two rather evenly matched contestants.

The number one ranked English will be challenged by the number three ranked South Africans, nine points now separating the two sides in the recently refreshed ICC point system. One thing is clear though - the winner of this series will be champion of test cricket. It doesn't get tighter than that, especially when the contest is limited to only three tests, and the weather likely to play a bigger part than usual.

This series will be a treat! On display and slugging it out will be the top bowlers, batsmen and all rounders of the game today. Factor in England's form, unbeaten streak at home, perfectly balanced and stable team, on the one hand. On the other hand, star performers amongst the South African ranks, an unbeaten away record since 2006 and the memory of having humbled England at home four years ago.

Graeme Smith has set his side the challenge of knocking the crown off England's head. There is no doubt that if anyone can, the Proteas can.

Both teams will be led by experienced campaigners, gritty left-handed opening batsmen. Smith will lead his side out at the Oval for the 100th time, while Andrew Strauss will play his 100th test at Lords.

Absolutely the best bowling talents of the present day game will be on display in the series. In heavy green conditions it will be a true test for batsmen. So hold on tight as Dale Steyn, James Anderson, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn or Tim Bresnan steam in. Or when Imran Tahir or Graeme Swann mesmerise. For good measure South Africa have options in young Marchant de Lange and left-arm seamer Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

To contest the bowling quality promised in the series, are some of the best batsmen in the game. In addition to the two skippers, the batsmen who will be a treat to watch in the series include Alastair Cook, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. And above all, the superstar cricketer, the best all rounder in the world, Jaques Kallis.

So in this toughest of contests, who will prevail? Will England retain the crown? Or will South Africa finally reach the pinnacle? The prize makes the contest even more juicy.

It will be close. Maybe even wonder if South Africa could repeat 2008, and win by a slim margin. But, honestly, I can not see this England unit crumbling in home conditions. Yes, there will be tight sessions, and South Africa will have their nose ahead in a few. If we get three completed tests, expect three results. In the end though England will prevail.

One last thought. Watch out for Imran Tahir! Wrist spinners have always been trouble, and Tahir has the skills and deception to cause a ripple or two for the English batsmen.

Happy viewing!

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