Sunday 22 April 2018

Cricket: Super Steyn leaves England in tatters

Mike Atherton

All the talk from England before this match was of team spirit, togetherness and harmony. But conditions yesterday demanded not chumminess, but high skill and a competitive instinct, and most of those qualities came from South Africa.

England were bowled out for 180 in a little more than half the overs that were allotted for the day, no batsman passing 50. Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell, who shared a partnership of 76, were much the best of them, but the rest had no answer to a pitch that offered pace and steep bounce, to atmospheric conditions that encouraged at times lavish swing, and to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, who provided the sternest of challenges.

South Africa's new-ball attack shared eight wickets in 23.5 overs -- Steyn took five, Morkel three and none of England's batsmen had their measure. Steyn bowled a full, attacking length, and quickly, swinging the ball this way and, as Bell found to his cost. Morkel's disconcerting bounce reminded observers of the difficulties that have always been posed by long-shanked bowlers on this type of surface. Except for the odd alarming wide, he was in nobody's shadow yesterday. It was a potent combination.


Steyn caused the first flutter of alarm in the England dressing room with his opening thrust of the day, a nondescript leg-stump ball that Andrew Strauss calmly tucked off his hip. Momentarily, he would have contemplated his first run, but Hashim Amla, placed deliberately behind square at short leg, thrust out a right hand and pulled off a staggering reflex catch; the kind that can inspire one team and destabilise another.

For the next hour, an hour in which three more wickets fell, England certainly gave the impression of a team who had their moorings removed, as South Africa came at them with primal intensity. Jonathan Trott's eight-ball innings was so bad in its nervousness that he might have wished he was batting in privacy. His very public embarrassment was brought quickly to an end when he played across a full, straight ball from Morkel. He did not review and hurried off.

No 3 is a crucial position and Trott's brief trauma can have done little to ease the feeling in the dressing room that this was a bad toss to have won. Kevin Pietersen's innings was almost equally skittish -- he played and missed at his first two balls; nearly ran out Alastair Cook; unfurled one majestic clip to the mid-wicket boundary and four balls later pulled Morkel to mid-on.

Pietersen had tried to impose himself on proceedings, but the magic, for now, is missing.

Any superlative would suffice for the first hour's cricket, which was as dramatic as any opening to a Test could be. All that was needed was a bit of controversy, which duly came when Cook was adjudged leg-before to Morkel on review.

There was nothing wrong with the on-field umpire's call, but England felt that Daryl Harper, the third umpire, had overlooked a no-ball.

To this observer the decision was a fair one, if a little rushed, and England's obvious disgruntlement an unnecessary distraction.

Graeme Smith missed a trick, perhaps, when he followed up his new-ball thrust with Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell, the debutants, when Jacques Kallis, a man with 259 Test wickets at the start of play, might have been a better option.

For the next hour, Bell and Collingwood tucked in against much more enjoyable offerings. Collingwood, in particular, looked in regal touch, going to lunch with his second hooked six, this one off Kallis, who had replaced a nervous-looking Parnell.

The revival was cut short by McLaren shortly after lunch when he induced a leading edge from Collingwood that flew to point. Bell had shown the kind of grit missing in some snowbound English counties and it needed something special to dislodge him.

It came from Steyn, who set up the batsman with three lovely outswingers before sending one hooping the other way through his defences. Bell's backward glances to the replay screen would have confirmed Steyn's mastery and skill.

It was unlikely that the lower middle order would prosper, although it tried to upset South Africa's rhythm by raising the tempo. Matt Prior went hooking, Stuart Broad clipping to leg, after a couple of sumptuous strokes, and Graeme Swann, who had been dropped, driving.

Strauss, no doubt, would have spent the evening questioning his decision at the toss. Two things need to be said in the England captain's defence: Smith would have batted, too, and, with the pitch sure to quicken, there is much cricket to be played before a definitive judgment can be made.

It was a tricky call, which is how it should be: too many pitches these days are weighted in favour of the bat and one that offers a fair balance between bat and ball should always give a captain pause for thought before he makes his decision.

While all this drama was happening, Graham Onions was watching, or making up energy drinks or whitening the captain's pads, or whatever else it is that 12th men do these days.

Tactical or not, his omission seemed grossly unfair. Forget his heroics with the bat in Cape Town and Centurion, he is paid to bowl and he has bowled pretty well throughout this series, even if his figures have not reflected that.

Ryan Sidebottom, his replacement, bowled equally well with the new ball at the day's end as England strained unsuccessfully to break South Africa's opening partnership -- and he may yet have an influence on the match -- but, my, how it must have been galling for Onions to watch.

Onions is a decent man, but the next time Strauss asks him for one more over in 40C (104F) heat, he should tell him to shove the ball where the sun doesn't shine. (© The Times, London)

Live, Sky Sports 1, 8.0am

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport