Forget me not

2008-08-15 00:00

Do not pay too much attention to the loss at the Oval, but do not entirely forget it. For Graeme Smith and his team, the main task had been accomplished. A win at the Oval would have been a good way to seal the series, but it was not essential in the same way that a good start was imperative for Kevin Pietersen and his adopted team. Motivating a team for a dead rubber has always been difficult, even for the most astute captains. During the halcyon days of the recent Australian teams, a good proportion of the few Tests they lost were dead rubbers. Whatever captains may say to their teams before such matches, the adrenal glands of their players are not easily fooled.

One only has to look at the number of our batsmen who were out fiddling to balls that they had left alone earlier in the series. When the second innings resumed last Sunday, the match could still have been saved but Hashim Amla, who had batted with such authority the evening before, began the day with a wild swish outside the off-stump off the first ball of the morning and was soon out. That single stroke said much about the importance South Africa attached to the match, but the clues were plentiful from the moment the captain cut a wide ball straight to gully where he was dropped off the first delivery of the match. As the Duke of Wellington once said: “There is no greater anticlimax than a battle lost except a battle won.”

One should also remember that South Africa’s best bowler, Dale Steyn, was absent from the team that lost at the Oval. I have little doubt that he would have played had the series been alive and the fact that he was given more time to recover from his injury sent a message to the rest of the boys that this one did not matter. As it turned out, Steyn would have revelled in the conditions, with the ball swinging on a fast bouncy pitch, but one cannot fault the decision not to play him.

What was disappointing was the failure of Morné Morkel to take a single wicket in conditions that suited him. I feared all along that too much would be asked of Morkel on this tour. When Steyn fell out, he became the team’s main strike bowler, but he failed to deliver. His bowling was lamentable when Pietersen and Collingwood ran amok at Edgbaston. Although he obtained disconcerting bounce at the Oval, far too much of his bowling was off-target.

There is little time left to get rid of the flaws in Morkel’s action before the team leaves for the tour of Australia. Rather than play him in the one-day series, it might be better to get him signed up with a county for the balance of the English summer. The county championship is still cricket’s best finishing school. There is no doubt that Morkel has huge potential, but unless he develops an action that allows him to “hit his areas” with greater consistency, success will elude him against the better batsmen. One wonders what, if anything, the team’s bowling coach has been doing with Morkel on this tour?

At least Makhaya Ntini finished the series on a strong note. He has now taken more Test wickets than Allan Donald and is only a couple of seasons behind Shaun Pollock’s tally. At 31, Ntini should have a few years left in him, but he will need to keep himself in better shape than the portly condition with which he began the series. His angle of attack still disconcerts batsmen, and provided he can keep his pace up, he has more to offer this team. It is a pity, however, that after 91 Test matches he still is a complete rabbit with the bat.

This tour illustrated that the selectors have problems with the other bowlers. After a promising start at Edgbaston, Andre Nel bowled poorly. It is difficult to believe that he is the best of the rest. Nel is a full-hearted cricketer, but his batting is almost as bad as Makhaya’s. The batting of this group of bowlers is poorer than any tail within living memory and will continue to cost the team Test matches unless someone can be found to come in and make runs at number eight.

Albie Morkel suggests himself a possible all-rounder, but, like his brother, his bowling requires a lot of work to get it up to Test standard. The rest of his cricket is good enough. His fielding is sharp and he is the only South African bowler, apart from the much-missed Shaun Pollock, who has the ability to hurt the opposition with the bat.

Paul Harris made some useful runs, but his bowling was ropey. He failed in his role as a containing spinner and proved no threat to England’s left-handers — even when bowling into the rough. I do not believe that he will do much better in Australia, where even the best left-arm spinners have had little success.

There is no obvious replacement for him in the absence of any manouevre that could hurry along the qualification of the Pakistan-born leg spinner, Imran Tavir.

This was a series that the South Africans nicked because they played the two most crucial sessions better than England. It also helped that Jacques Kallis took a number of telling wickets when it mattered most.

• Ray White is a former UCB president.Ray White argues that defeat at the Oval was no great loss, though there are lessons to be learnt.

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