Cricket: not so easy as it seems

2008-07-11 00:00

Last week there was much talk about how the Springboks had too much going for them to be beaten by an All Blacks team that was without Richie McCaw. Our back row would win most of its confrontations, the line-outs would be Bok territory and it was unthinkable that the All Blacks would dominate the world champions’ scrum. Daniel Carter’s brilliance was a concern, but not enough to prevent predictions of an end to the depressing run of defeats in New Zealand.

Even at half time, the pundits remained sure of their ground. By the end, however, the Boks looked off the pace in almost every facet of the game. The speculative selections of De Villiers had been exposed. Our northern playboys looked short of game time and the All Blacks were better prepared for the ELV’s. The new coach was seen to have failed his first major challenge.

I have a sense that South Africans are full of the same sort of misplaced confidence about the chances of the Proteas in the opening Test at Lord’s, despite the less than ideal preparation that Smith’s team has had for their most important Test for several years.

Media focus has been on the pace attack that the South African captain has at his disposal. A small forest of space has been devoted to Dale Steyn, “the number one fast bowler in the world”; to the evergreen Makhaya, now on his third visit; and to the rising star of Morne Morkel, the purveyor of awkward bounce at 145 km/h. These are the men that will blow away England’s frail top order.

Little has been made of the underwhelming impression this attack made against two under-strength county teams. Steyn may have taken a bagful of Test wickets this past year, but success eluded him in the warm-up matches. Morkel has struggled to find the length that might suit his bowling on English pitches. Ntini looks off his best.

It is rare that bowlers out-of-form make much of an impression at the first time of asking. Playing Test cricket is not just a matter of turning on the power switch, even in a country where such a simple action is not accompanied by spasms of doubt.

All week I have had the feeling that some unpleasant surprises await the Proteas in much the same way that one felt it was too good to be true that the All Blacks were “vulnerable”. England may lack their ideal balance without Flintoff, but they are not a bad team and they are not out of form.

In contrast to the Proteas, the England team has had half a summer’s work. All their bowlers are in good form.

One should remember that the England selectors have put their faith in Anderson, Sidebottom and Broad at a time when all of Flintoff, Harmison and Simon Jones, three of their Ashes heroes, have been taking wickets in county cricket.

With Monty Panesar, the best finger-spinner in the world, backing up England’s fast bowlers, the South African batsmen should be under no illusion that batting will be easy at Lord’s. Smith has hardly touched a bat in anger since his sabbatical in the IPL, which was hardly the best preparation for a tough series. Since his double centuries in 2003, Smith has averaged just 24 against England, who no longer regard him as a major threat. McKenzie is still cutting his teeth as a Test opener and is bound to have his technique given a searching test by Anderson and Sidebottom.

If the opening partnership fails at Lord’s, much will depend on Amla and Kallis if the spectre of 90 for 5 is to be avoided. Remember, this is not a team that is capable of rescuing itself from such a start. It is just as well that both men are in good nick and I have a feeling that the Test match pitches in England will suit Amla. He will appreciate the negligible sideways movement of the ball, as well as the extra fraction of time he has to fashion his exquisite array of strokes.

This will be a watershed tour for Amla. If he does well, he should go on to great things in Australia at the end of the year. Very little media attention has been focused on him, in contrast to the pacemen, but I believe that he has both the technical and mental ability to emerge as South Africa’s player of the series and one of the best batsmen in world cricket.

In late 2004, both Amla and Steyn made their Test debuts against England. Neither of them made much of an impression, but they have come a long way since then. It is fair to say that if England can snuff out their respective threats this will be a difficult series for South Africa to win.

If, however, both of them do well those round them should flourish. For me the progress of these two will be one of the keys to this series.

The other, of course, will be the ability of the South Africans to deal with Kevin Pietersen in their first taste of Test cricket against their former countryman.

It is this duel, with its shadows of phony patriotism and accusations of betrayal, that will not only colour the series but could also determine its outcome.

It is a battle that neither party wants to lose.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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