Friday 27 April 2018

Cricket: Bold Smith leaves England on brink

Mike Atherton

England are tottering. Challenged by Graeme Smith to make more runs than any other team in the history of Test cricket to win the series, they must now realistically bat out 90 overs on the final day to keep their lead intact, any hopes of victory having disappeared in the final session with the wickets of Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen.

This last, coming four overs before the close yesterday, was a body blow that England may not recover from. Two wickets would have been as many as England would have hoped for, although when Strauss and Cook combined forcefully for their eighth three-figure production at the top of the order, they may have briefly entertained the notion of creating history.

At that stage, wicketless with the new ball and not much turn for Paul Harris, South Africa had lost their way, half-chances not going to hand and opportunities ignored. Cook escaped when a top edge flew over Friedel de Wet's head at deep square leg and he ought to have been run out on 45, the throw from JP Duminy wide of the mark.

Instead, the home team finished the day strongly, a process begun by De Wet when he replaced Dale Steyn after tea from the Kelvin Grove End. His third ball induced a top-edged pull from Cook, a surprise on two counts because the left-handed batsman had looked in control and the pull is one of his favourite shots. It brought his downfall in the first innings as well, but he is in credit with it overall.

Six runs later, as if pining for a dear companion lately departed, Strauss followed when Harris spun one far enough to take the inside edge, and pad, Hashim Amla at short leg accepting the offering. Harris, although no Shane Warne, will still be a threat on the final day, the pitch now very dry and the majority of balls dusting the surface, if not misbehaving unduly.

Strauss' departure was a shame because he had shaped well against the threat of Morne Morkel from round the wicket and looked set for a score. He left Morkel better than before and although occasionally troubled by Steyn from the same angle, he also announced his growing authority with three consecutive fours off the same bowler after two loud shouts for leg-before.

Strauss' dismissal brought Pietersen to the crease to the usual chorus of boos. As ever, his arrival upped the ante: he got off the mark with his first ball -- Jonathan Trott wisely on his toes at the non-striker's end -- and was given out leg-before by Daryl Harper to his second. Pietersen immediately called for a review, which showed two things: a clear inside edge and that Harper is as useful as a hat stand in the middle but not for much else.

This was the second shocking decision -- the first that of Ashwell Prince in South Africa's second innings -- that Harper has given in the match.

Smith immediately set some fascinating fields for Pietersen. Two men hovered halfway down and either side of the pitch, encouraging the batsman to play squarer than he might have wanted in order to pick up runs, as the pace bowlers aimed straight and full, the ball now reverse-swinging a touch. The ploy worked delightfully when Pietersen aimed a straight ball from Steyn through square leg after he had scored only six, the leg-before decision straightforward.

Pietersen tucked his bat under his arm in the manner of Alec Stewart -- neatly and quickly -- and turned snappily on his heels, which meant that he did not see the primal nature of Steyn's celebrations. One roar was followed by another, and another, and then a triple punch of the ground, his face by this stage going a deep shade of puce. Pietersen might be out of touch, but his wicket still matters.

Smith was having a game to remember at this stage, because he had just switched Steyn to the Wynberg End, the bowler taking only two balls to deliver the great prize to his captain. It has been a match to remember in general for Smith, who had earlier fallen 17 short of his third double hundred against England when he pulled Graham Onions into the deep.

It was the end of a deeply impressive innings by Smith, who left the arena to the kind of thunderous ovation that stays long in the memory. Smith appreciated it and turned three times to the gallery as he exited.

Thereafter, South Africa's batsmen fell on the charge, Jacques Kallis slashing behind and AB de Villiers launching high to mid-off, where Stuart Broad took an excellent tumbling catch. Duminy found some much-needed form before he, and Mark Boucher, perished in the hunt for quick runs.

It is not quick runs that England need on the final day, or indeed runs of any kind now that victory is beyond them. What they need is the kind of Churchillian defiance they displayed in Centurion, recently, and in Cardiff last summer.

There are men capable of the job, such as Trott, who is at the crease unbeaten on 24, and Paul Collingwood, who is in next. With South Africa snapping at their heels, it will not be easy -- but then something worth striving for rarely is. (© The Times, London)

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