Wednesday 21 March 2018

Cricket: Careless Strauss sets wrong tone

Mike Atherton

The scoring rate was slow at times, but it was a day that was dull only to those with dull minds.

Eleven wickets fell and only 253 runs were made as scoring looked a difficult business throughout. The pitch may have been straw-coloured and the skies blue, but a string of high-class batsmen were slaves not so much to conditions, but to a posse of quick bowlers who have started the new year with a spring in their step.

After the success enjoyed by the spinners in the first two Tests, this was a day when every wicket fell to seam, James Anderson mopping up South Africa's tail to finish with a five-for and Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn sharing six of the seven England victims.

Friedel de Wet went wicketless but bowled never less than accurately and, with Jacques Kallis back to full fitness and picking up the bonus wicket of Ian Bell when the batsman was set, South Africa's attack has gained a much sharper edge since Durban.

Makhaya Ntini's omission helped, but the suspicion remains that this improvement was more to do with South Africa's sharply honed competitive instincts rising to the fore again in the wake of the embarrassment of Kingsmead.

After being bowled out for less than 300 in the morning when they must have dreamt of many more, they knew they had to scrap, and scrap they did.

There was a sense of animal rawness to the day because of it.

England finished 50 in arrears, with Matt Prior and Graeme Swann repelling two urgent overs with the second new ball as Morkel and Steyn strained to finish the day on a high.


The tourists will hope that Prior and Swann can wrest the initiative on the third morning, reducing this game, in effect, to a one-innings match -- that, and hope that Kallis has a rare failure and the other South Africa batsmen continue to betray their frailties. It is shaping up to be a cracker.

South Africa bowled with menace and discipline, but England had too much of a hand in their own downfall with the bat. Too many batsmen got themselves in and then got themselves out, either through anxiety, overconfidence or a mixture of both.

Andrew Strauss led by example, albeit of the wrong sort, when he drove loosely in Morkel's first over, edging to Mark Boucher. Three times now the beanpole has dismissed Strauss in this series, each time from round the wicket. The England captain has some thinking to do before what may be a crucial second innings.

As ever, when the ball has the better of the bat, the cricket has been gripping to watch. Runs had to be earned and, after Strauss' early dismissal, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott fought hard to see off the shine.

Trott, having done that hard work, then dragged Steyn on to his stumps from wide, after which Kevin Pietersen limply chipped a return catch, athletically taken, to the same bowler, second ball. He is having a strangely anonymous series.

At this point seven wickets had fallen before lunch. The remainder of England's top order followed Strauss' dubious example, Cook pulling to square leg, Paul Collingwood falling over a full ball from Morkel and Bell cutting a long hop to point.

Collingwood's leg-before decision was delivered by Tony Hill, the umpire, who points the finger in schoolmasterly fashion, as if directing to the headmaster's study -- which is where England's top six could have expected a caning.

At least Cook and Bell looked in good touch, Cook again sure outside his off-stump and severe on left-arm spinner Paul Harris, whose threat is diminishing with every passing day.

Bell had to survive a barrage of bouncers and was becalmed at the start of his innings, but unfurled some lovely strokes, none better than two exquisite late cuts off Steyn.

With the series still to be won, the gift of wickets was taking seasonal generosity too far and it needed a battling 51-run partnership between Stuart Broad and Prior in the final session to keep England in touch, Broad standing tall and playing straight until Steyn scuttled a rapid ball through his defences.

Prior, usually a fluent timer of the ball, was never quite at his best, but he passed fifty towards the day's end, only the second England batsman after Cook to do so.

Earlier, England's bowlers had reaped belated reward for their excellence of the first day by hustling out the remnants of South Africa's line-up as the turnstiles were still clicking.

Four wickets fell in only 17 balls, South Africa advancing their score by a measly 12 runs, England's bowling and fielding at their predatory best.

Graham Onions has the happy knack of not bowling looseners and he produced a beauty to Kallis first ball, a seaming, lifting number that the batsman did well to edge. England had barely passed his bat the day before and now Kallis was walking back to the pavilion without adding to his score, the fickleness of the game apparent to all.

Steyn followed three balls later, snapped up by Trott diving to his left at slip, and Morkel three balls after that, Swann, this time, the catcher low to his left.

Anderson picked up those two wickets and added a third when he trapped De Wet leg-before and suddenly his figures had been transformed from a modest two for 62 to a memorable five for 63. It was no less than he, and England's attack generally, deserved. (© The Times, London)

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