Cricket: Strauss refusing to play for a draw
This morning, England are on the brink of their second significant achievement under Andrew Strauss' captaincy.
Victory or a draw in the fourth and Test, which starts at The Wanderers today, would secure a series victory and confirm the end of the malaise that enveloped the team in the aftermath of the 2005 Ashes triumph.
Strauss was an integral part of that historic win, and the downturn that followed, and so, as captain, he has been beautifully placed to ensure that there would be no repeat after last summer's successful Ashes campaign.
Yesterday, he tried to examine the reasons why England went into such a decline four years ago.
"I think after 2005 quite a few of us felt that we had achieved top-dog status," he said. "This team is slightly younger, and has players at different stages of their careers, and we have very much had the feeling that we are a long way from No 1 and that there is much to do before we can say we are.
"We understood the nature of the challenge here and our work-rate has been exceptional.
"Team spirit is a tangible thing and has played a big part in our resilience at Centurion and Cape Town.
"Also, I think we've been guilty in the past of being a little 'top-heavy' and relying too much on senior players for their input. It is very important to create an environment where young players feel they have a right to contribute and we have worked very hard at that. If you get that right, then you have a team that is greater than the sum of its parts."
If this sounds a little premature and windy (and virtually the same thing that every recent England captain has said), then Strauss was quick to acknowledge the scale of the challenge before they can lay claim to the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.
"We know that we have to improve upon our performance in Cape Town, where we missed some opportunities," he said.
"In all likelihood this is not going to be a draw, so we have to get our mindset right: it is a very dangerous attitude to go into any game looking for a draw. We'll be looking to win."
The Wanderers pitch is known to produce a fair balance between bat and ball: there was only one draw here in the Noughties.
But all the talk earlier in the week of a 'terror pitch', after some typically enthusiastic comments from Mickey Arthur, the South Africa coach, has been overplayed.
Yesterday morning, though, as both teams practised, the skies were dark and overcast, not unlike the first morning of the Test match in 1999, when England were reduced to two for four.
If the same conditions present themselves today, batting will be tough: if not, then the captains face an awkward call because the pitch did not feel particularly hard yesterday, giving the impression that it may break up and become difficult to bat on.
South Africa captain Graeme Smith was focusing on making sure his team had recovered from any hangover after their disappointment of the drawn third Test in Cape Town.
"I think we played really good cricket for those five days and we just lacked the knockout punch, as we did at Centurion," he said. "If we keep playing like that, a victory will not be far away."
Young left-arm paceman Wayne Parnell will make his Test debut for the Proteas in place of the injured Friedel de Wet, leaving the final choice between misfiring left-arm spinner Paul Harris and seaming all-rounder Ryan McLaren. Parnell is hugely promising but inexperienced and Smith cautioned against putting too much expectation on his shoulders.
McLaren's presence would give Smith two debutants, which he may be reluctant to have with his team trying to rectify a 1-0 series deficit, especially because he was at pains to distance himself from the comments of his coach. Arthur made a big play of saying his side had to 'gamble' to win.
Also, there is more at stake for Smith than Strauss, because a failure to win would mean a second consecutive series loss at home, after the defeat by Australia last year. South Africa could then, rightly, be accused of the same kind of complacency that affected England after 2005. As Strauss knows all too well, once that has set in, it can be difficult to eradicate. (© The Times, London)
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