So much for Tests being boring

2009-12-21 00:00

SOUTH Africa will rise today with a twinge of regret, but in better spirits than their English counterparts after yesterday’s epic last-ball draw.

So much for Test cricket being in danger of a grim death. Yesterday, between Perth and Pretoria, the age-old tradition served up two nailbiters, games that went right to the end and had spectators gripped by the intensity.

At Centurion, the drama was as unexpected as it was most welcome. The game had sort of meandered for the first three days, but from Hashim Amla’s most accomplished Test century thus far on Saturday to Kevin Pietersen mixing brilliance with a bumbling good dose of airheadedness, this match had just about everything.

Andrew Strauss tried to deflect the blame away from Pietersen’s moment of madness on 81, but before the needless run-out, the not-so-English duo of KP and Jonathan Trott had looked well on their way to saving the match with little strife as they added 145 precious runs.

But as Graeme Smith said in the post-match interview, “it is a crazy game”, and one that came to life in one manic final session.

It seemed all set up for Makhaya Ntini to serve up a fairytale finish in the last over, but Test cricket is played in ovals and not Hollywood studios.

Make no mistake, England will know that they escaped, and they will be eager to show South Africa up for their folly. Pietersen will return to Kingsmead for the first time in a Test, and he will certainly want to make a statement.

The Proteas will be privately kicking themselves for waiting so long before declaring on the fourth evening. Runs were never going to come into the equation because England were only concerned with saving this match.

But hindsight is bliss, and Smith was quick to note that they had done all they could in the time they had given themselves.

If anything, this match was a glaring illustration of how teams can overcompensate through fear of losing. Both sides were a bowler light, and it showed as they struggled to bowl each other out.

South Africa’s late charge came on the back of the unlikeliest of sources. Friedel de Wet had been largely anonymous in the match, but his burst of wickets (4/55) will give Mike Procter and his selection chums some serious fat to muzzle over.

But who would they dare chop from the side? Dale Steyn simply has to play, for his combination of pace and swing was sorely missed — especially in the final session.

Makhaya Ntini and Morné Morkel would have seemed the logical duo to join Steyn at Kingsmead, but De Wet has shown himself to be a willing and wicket-taking source of energy.

But if Ntini goes, the selectors will then open themselves up to accusations of allowing sentiment to rule their choices in the first Test.

It would suggest that Ntini’s sole purpose at Centurion was to provide a round of drinks, and the visiting media will certainly have a field day.

That remains an unlikely route for the selectors, and Ntini’s ability against left-handers will just about give him the nod, despite De Wet’s late burst.

Morkel is a very delicate personality, and Mickey Arthur will be loath to ditch him now when he has shown that he is on the right track. And the lanky speedster can produce balls that few can play when he gets it all right, as Strauss will attest to after his dismissal late on Saturday.

This series is intriguingly set up now, and South Africa will know that they let a big chance slip by yesterday.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, but rather lack of firepower at crucial stages.

Smith pointed out that this was his side’s first Test in just about nine months. The batsmen are in fine fettle, but Smith needs a combination of bowlers that can snare 20 wickets.

That’s how matches are won or lost at this level, and that is where South Africa fell agonisingly short yesterday.

FINAL SCOREBOARD

South Africa first innings418 all out

England first innings356 all out

South Africa second innings(301/7 decl.)

England second innings(o/n 11/1)

A Strauss c Boucher b Morkel1

A Cook c Smith b Harris12

J Anderson c Boucher b De Wet10

J Trott c De Villiers b De Wet69

K Pietersen run out (De Wet)81

P Collingwood not out26

I Bell c Boucher b De Wet2

M Prior c Boucherb De Wet0

S Broad c Boucherb Harris0

G Swann lbw Morkel2

G Onions not out1

Extras (10b, 3lbb, 11nb)24

TOTAL (for 9 wkts)228 - 96 overs

Fall of wickets: 1-5, 2-16, 3-27, 4-172, 5-205, 6-207, 7-208, 8-209, 9-210

Bowling: Ntini 18-7-41-0 (1nb), Morkel 18-3-46-2 (7nb), Harris 26-11-51-2 De Wet 23-8-55-4 (3nb), Duminy 8-2-17-0, Kallis 3-1-5-0

Result: Match drawn

Man of the Match: Graeme Swann.

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