A victory to savour

2012-08-25 00:00

FOR a few ghastly moments, the resolve of Graeme Smith and his team was tested to the sort of limits for which their time in the Alps had prepared them. They had thought the game was all but won when Matt Prior skied a catch to Duminy but then Morne Morkel was revealed, by an inch, to have no-balled. Prior returned to the crease from near the pavilion amid the cheers and jeers of the wildly excited crowd. For a brief moment, the Proteas were stunned.

Poor Morkel turned a paler shade of white as he went back to his mark wondering if his second blooper in 24 hours had cost his team the match. Smith himself, however, showed little emotion and the heads of his team did not drop. This was the moment for which Gary Kirsten and Mike Horne had trained them. They knew it was never going to be easy and two wickets remained to be taken.

They were tested further when a marginal third umpire decision, of the kind that had gone against them all series, again went in favour of the home side. Nothing was breaking for the Proteas in the final stricken moments of a match that was now way beyond tense. Heads, however, remained high, shoulders were square and in less than 10 minutes this nerve-racking and entirely absorbing game was over.

What a match it was from first ball to last! If England had won, the media there would be hailing it as one of the greatest Tests played yet at Lord’s and a match worthy of a conclusion to their golden summer. As it is, they will have to console themselves with the recriminations of the defeated and the mourning of a lost crown.

For Smith and his team there is now the simple satisfaction of a job well done. They must be allowed time to savour the moment and to reflect in peace on a series that not only had everything, but was also a glorious affirmation of Test match cricket.

There are heroes a plenty in the South African squad, but thinking about the match at Lord’s, the men who stood out for me were Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Vernon Philander, none of whom would have played for South Africa in the days of apartheid.

Amla was immense, as he has been for some time. In his two long innings of the series, he managed to soak up pressure while keeping the runs flowing. He is a pleasure to watch and one of the great batsmen of the modern era. Without his two contributions, the one so massive and the other so vital, this series would not have been won.

Duminy came into the team when Mark Boucher was injured, but I thought that he took his chance well enough to move ahead of Jacques Rudolph in the scheme of things. He played well in his undefeated first innings at Leeds and again under great pressure at Lord’s. He seems to have overcome his uncertainties against big fast bowlers and I thought he played Graeme Swann very well under tricky circumstances. He always seemed composed and sure of himself. He looks ready to play a larger role in this team.

Philander had the match of his life, so far, at Lord’s. His batting was invaluable in both innings and there is no reason why he should not develop into the sort of bowling all rounder who creates that essential balance in a good team. His bowling in the final innings of the series was superb. He made the two early strikes that rendered England’s task more difficult and then finished the match off with two immaculate away swingers when nerves were coursing through players, spectators and viewers alike. Philander has made enormous progress since his first tour of England when he looked out of his depth with both bat and ball. He has been in Test match cricket for less than a year, but what a year it has been for him. His form has made a difference to the effectiveness and confidence of the Proteas.

Of course, the rest all played a part in the success at Lord’s. Not all of them had the sort of matches they would have wanted, but they each had that moment of vital contribution that spoke of a team that would not be denied.

Robbed at the crease by an Australian third umpire, Jacques Kallis still had an impressive match with four catches, all of which were brilliant, a vital wicket and his most runs in a Test at Lord’s, although few by his usual standards.

Smith looked drained at the end and I am not sure that he could have done with a fourth match. Nevertheless, he had another good series with the bat and held his nerve through some difficult moments despite the absence of Boucher upon whom he had relied for so long. He is a formidable leader and fit to rank among all the great Test captains.

Dale Steyn was easily the most impressive bowler of the series and had a good match at Lord’s. He was relentless in his pace and kept coming at the batsmen. He looked spent after it was over and he, too, must be pleased that the series is done. I still think that it is foolish to risk him as a night watchman against bowlers determined to break his fingers.

Before the series began, I felt that the difference between the two teams might be the greater number of runs scored by England’s lower order. In the Lord’s match, both lower orders did well and spectacularly so in England’s second innings. The turning point of the match, however, was South Africa’s recovery from 104 for five on the opening day.

That was the moment of maximum danger from which the lower order began the fightback that took their team to the top of the world. I hope they enjoy the view.

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