From Alps to Oval and victory

2012-07-28 00:00

WELL, I suppose one could say that the Proteas escaped unscathed from The Oval, but that would not be an accurate description of what took place last week. Just as it would have been a tad mistaken to have presumed that Gary Kirsten’s team was underprepared for the first Test match. The easiest way in which to put the events of last weekend into perspective is to note that when the performance of the national cricket team overshadowed the victory of Ernie Els in the Open championship, something very special has taken place.

Those with decent memories will recall that something similar did, in fact, happen in 1997 when the Australian team under Mark Taylor arrived at the Wanderers to play a South African team that were expected to be too strong for the visitors at a ground where the home team should have had an advantage. What no one knew was that Andy Atkinson, the local curator, had rolled the heart out of the fastest pitch in the country in an ignorant attempt to produce a lively pitch.

Batting first, the home team squandered their way to 302 and then watched helplessly as the Aussies ground their way to over 600 runs. During the Australian inning,s Steve Waugh and Greg Blewett batted throughout the third day in a partnership worth 385 runs. Shane Warne and Michael Bevan then bowled the Proteas out on a turning pitch. South Africa lost by an innings.

It is better by far to prepare a team to face any eventuality, which was the purpose of the time spent in the Alps with Mike Horn.

According to Paddy Upton’s diary, it is clear that this gruelling and extremely challenging few days was designed to instill in the team “concepts like dreaming big, preparing excellently, real mental strength, overcoming obstacles, never giving up, committing to decisions, avoiding shortcuts and respecting your team-mates”.

If the performance at The Oval is any measure, the days spent in Switzerland succeeded brilliantly and were worth more than any time spent playing cricket against a couple of inferior county teams.

There appears to be little doubt that The Oval pitch was prepared to suit Graeme Swann in order to give England an advantage over South Africa. Swann, they thought, was their ace in their pack on a dry turning wicket compared to South Africa’s jack, Imran Tahir.

The English management had clearly believed in the myth, perpetuated by Shane Warne in the press, that the South Africans are poor players of spin bowling. In doing so, they overlooked the batting of Hashim Amla and others on slow turning pitches in India. Consequently they paid a heavy price.

For the first time for many years South Africa has four world-class batsmen in its team. Three of them played innings of immense importance and quality at the Oval.

The vital knock was that of Graeme Smith, who battled through a couple of awkward sessions before taking the attack to England and laying the foundation for the runs that followed.

Smith is not pretty to watch, but when on song he is mighty effective. Once his stall is set he scores his runs at a good clip irrespective of opposition plans to curtail his scoring strokes. Moreover, he frustrates bowlers with his unorthodox technique that seems to thrive on the slower pitches in England. Bowlers then lose their patience and begin to deviate from the line and lengths that have brought past success, whereupon Smith pounces.

What more can one say about Amla? Triple centuries are rare feats, but many of them have been dullish affairs ground out against poor attacks on flat pitches. Not so this performance by Amla, which was a thing of beauty to be enjoyed and admired forever. His batting is a perfect blend of timing, technique and temperament. Who knows what other landmarks await a batsman who is such a massive adornment to South African cricket?

Although smallish by comparison with Amla’s immense effort, I thought the huge innings played by Jacques Kallis was one of his best Test hundreds. It is not easy to wait for over five hours expecting to go into bat at any moment. For most players the adrenalin so consumed drains their nervous energy to such an extent that when the time comes to bat they are spent. Kallis is made of different stuff. Like Amla, he wastes little emotional energy whether on or off the field.

He batted with imperious grandeur and heaven knows how many runs he would have made had he been allowed to continue. He is rising 37 years old, but advancing age is not yet evident in his prowess with bat, ball or in the field.

Some think that AB De Villiers is not only the best of the quartet, but the best batsman in the world and he, poor fellow, did not even bat at The Oval. His turn will come soon enough, but I suspect he will be asked to continue keeping, at least at Leeds where spinners have not been effective for years. Swann, for example has yet to take a Test wicket there. I would prefer to see De Villiers back in the slips where a couple of catches went down at The Oval, but I guess one will have to wait until this series is over.

The big question is whether England can recover from such a mauling. They may be lucky with the weather at Headingley, but the odds are now stacked against them even if they produce a sporty pitch. Their bowlers will have sore bodies and scarred minds after The Oval. Steve Finn may come in for Swann to give them four fast bowlers and a fresh face, but I think it has now dawned on them that this South African team is prepared for any conditions. It will require a massive improvement if England are to retain their ranking at the top.

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