A rap on the knuckles …

2008-07-18 00:00

Fat, flat and flattered. This is not the distorted grammar of a third form schoolboy, but rather the state in which the Proteas ambled down the steps of the Lord’s pavilion in search of their fourth consecutive win at the former headquarters of cricket.

Whatever the captain, Kallis, Boucher and Ntini have been doing since their Indian sabbatical ended, they have paid scant attention to any diets prescribed by the team’s nutritional expert.

All four of them rolled on to the immaculately manicured turf looking like the oldies at the annual Cordwalles fathers’ match. A full day-and-a-half later they trooped off behind an England total that was more swollen than their waistlines. By this time, the pre-match bravado of Smith’s team had given way to dull acceptance that, far from being an attack for all seasons, the South African bowling need some assistance from the conditions to pose a threat to England’s batsmen.

The poor bowlers, in both the impoverished and hard-done-by senses of the word, were done no favours by their captain, who had inserted the opposition on one of the few featherbeds of modern Test cricket and then proceeded to set fields for them that made batting absurdly easy for the England batsmen.

Smith’s excuse might be that when his bowlers had no idea where the ball was going, he had even less idea where Pietersen, Bell and friends were likely to hit it.

What was even more dispiriting to supporters of the team was their low-intensity effort on the field. It is true that it is almost impossible to keep morale going when a score attains the probability of reaching 600, but this is one of the poorest out-fielding teams the South Africans have put onto the field since Dudley Nourse’s old men took on the Aussies in 1949. Harris and Morkel form a pair of carthorses from whom England pinched singles at will. While McKenzie and Amla are good close to the wicket, the sight of them patrolling the outfield with the flabby four looking after areas close to the stumps increased the impression that this is a team short of athletic ability. Only Prince, De Villiers and Steyn looked up to the standards we expect from South African teams.

Much was expected from the bowlers, who failed to deliver after a week of flattering attention from the English media. In their defence, the Lord’s pitch is disgraceful, fit only for a gravedigger’s shovel. Yet there was some life early on. It was squandered by an attack that was so wayward that after 90 minutes only THREE deliveries would have hit the stumps. Steyn found neither swing nor bounce from the conditions. Apart from the corker which cleaned up Vaughan, he looked far from being the best fast bowler in the world. Morkel did well enough in the circumstances to suggest better things are to come from him, but that was it as far as “the much vaunted attack” (as the English media now love to call it) is concerned.

Ntini’s best days — and the dominant feature of his physique — now look behind him. He is lucky to get another chance at Headingley in the second Test which started yesterday — where conditions may suit him if it is cloudy — but those who saw him bowl at Lord’s will be wondering if Andre Nel might not have been a better choice.

The left-arm slow bowler, as Geoff Boycott likes to call Harris, was brutally exposed by Pietersen and Bell. One wonders if the team can afford to play him again. The thought is that Robin Peterson, who may not have much less to offer as a bowler, will add something to the batting and a great deal to the fielding which, on the evidence of Lord’s, needs a top-up of talent. Harris is playing at Headingley because he is fancied by captain and coach. Sadly, the English batsmen fancy him even more.

Still, all’s well that ends well. After three dreadful days, South Africa escaped from Lord’s thanks to a lifeless pitch and obdurate batting from Smith, McKenzie and Amla. No praise is too high for the captain, who came into the match with no form but delivered the goods when a failure from him would almost have certainly meant defeat for his team. He is a strong character who is unafraid of a good scrap. One wonders what he made of De Villiers’s stupid shot that sealed the fate of his team’s dismal first innings?

McKenzie played wonderfully well in an innings of great discipline. He batted for almost 10 hours without playing a poor stroke and confirmed the thoughts of all those who believe he should never have been left out of the national team. Amla was thought by the English to be the weak link in the South African top order, but they now know that he can play. They threw everything at him, with no effect on that wonderfully imperturbable temperament.

In the end, the match was defeated by a wretched pitch. Six centuries were made, of which five were scored by South Africans, including a marvellous innings by the resolute Prince when all was falling about him during the first innings. It is just a pity that the most telling hundred of all was played by a man (Kevin Pietersen) whose presence in the England team is a living manifestation of a misguided policy.

•Ray White, who is currently in England, is a former UCB president.

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