Hoodoos can be broken

2012-07-20 00:00

SOME grounds spook other teams more than others, but that does not mean they have become impenetrable fortresses like The Oval has become for England.

Yesterday marked the first out of 15 very important days in South Africa’s cricketing calendar. For England, it marks the final home ascent in establishing themselves as the number-one side in Test cricket. Both sides have been priming themselves for this moment, but in terms of where the battles will be fought, England has loaded the dice heavily in their favour. The Oval may not be like the Kensington Oval in its pomp or the Gabba in its current impenetrability, but it is a bastion the English have defended for all their worth.

Besides valuable information gleaned from the book South Africa’s Cricket Captains, co-written by the late Trevor Chesterfield and Jackie McGlew, which goes into the series in detail, it would be very unjust of me to comment on what happened between England and South Africa pre-isolation as I was not even a twinkle in my parents’ eye. The English though, under M.J.K. Smith, had to haul down a hefty 399 at The Oval to square the series. It had already been made legendary by Graeme Pollock’s 125 in spiteful conditions at Trent Bridge, rated by many as one of the best Test innings played yet and a pulsating first Test at Lords. England was 308/4 when a downpour drowned English dreams with 71 minutes of the Test remaining. That was in 1965 under Peter van der Merwe.

Since then, South Africa has not come close to winning a Test match at the South London ground. The ground can be said to be a “Gabbatoir” of some sorts, as teams seem to dread the fact that they have to play there. All comers have been vanquished and even in the deep dark days of English cricket, when routine West Indian and Australian whippings were the order of the day, The Oval was the homeless shelter countless captains ran to when the rain became too heavy. Nowadays, when teams get to the Oval, their minds are focusing on the first flight home instead of chasing leather and flogging Pommies. However, they do all the pummelling now and even Graeme Smith knows that winning there is something missing from his CV. It is a small omission, but for the Proteas to get a heads up, it needs to be rectified.

Besides the 1998 tour, where Hansie Cronje’s men faltered at Trent Bridge and Headingley in the last two Tests after leading for most of the series, The Oval has inflicted nothing but pain on South African tourists. Devon Malcolm destroyed Kepler Wessels’ unit in a highly charged spell of high-quality fast bowling on a track that suited him. The formerly bespectacled paceman took 9/57 after being pinged on the helmet by Fanie de Villiers, to which he uttered the immortal words: “You guys are history.”

It did not end there, as Marcus Trescothick, Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff bludgeoned, nudged and bullied South Africa into submission. With the Proteas leading the series 2-1 going into that game and ransacking 362 runs on the first day, it was a match they could have and should have won. An England side that was slowly starting to gain the momentum that would eventually see them topple Australia two years later, had other ideas and rescued a series that was nearly lost.

The 2008 Oval win for England rung hollow in the sense that Smith’s epic unbeaten 154 at Edgbaston had sealed a legendary win and broke a 43-year hoodoo, but it was another opportunity missed. It might have seemed like Smith had ingested Mark Taylor’s go-to-sleep medication after doing the hard yards early in the series.

The stakes are very different and much higher leading into this pivotal clash. Unlike India, the notorious first Test tortoises, they need to motor as England have a cold, ruthless streak attached to their meticulous, calculating execution. Now let the games begin.

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