Tuesday 23 January 2018

England look to the heavens

Mike Atherton

At 2.15 yesterday afternoon a sepulchral gloom descended on Johannesburg, through which not even the ground's floodlights could make an impression.

It was brightened only by the occasional flash of lightning, as the most magnificent electric storm reduced the ground to a lake within minutes, thus stopping South Africa's victory charge for more than three hours.

Remarkably, a sieve-like outfield allowed play to resume for a further 23 balls before bad light ended proceedings, but both teams now will have an eye on the weather, the more so because such thunderstorms are a daily feature of the Highveld at this time of year.

Thirty overs were lost on the first day, 39 on the second, and how much we lose from here on in will determine South Africa's tactics as they push for a series-levelling victory. Certainly, they will want to bat only once.

When bad light came, South Africa were ahead by 35, Hashim Amla unbeaten on 73 and Jacques Kallis on seven.

Two overs before the storm, England had finally dismissed Graeme Smith, when he edged Ryan Sidebottom into Andrew Strauss' midriff at slip, but not before this most redoubtable of leaders had amassed another hundred, his 20th in Tests, and pushed his team into an almost impregnable position.

This was another remarkable performance from Smith. He has a habit of scoring runs when they matter.

He was one of only two batsmen to fall on a day when England needed quick wickets if they were to stay in the game. The other was Ashwell Prince, who continued a poor series when he edged Stuart Broad to second slip after adding only four to his overnight total. Thereafter, Smith and Amla carried South Africa into the ascendancy.

England toiled in conditions that, while still helpful, were more batsman-friendly than the day before. Strauss began, oddly, with Broad and Sidebottom, reducing his most potent threat, James Anderson, to bystander status.


Broad responded with Prince's wicket and Sidebottom might have had Smith's when England were convinced he had edged behind.

In truth, England's attack lacked bite, and with Graeme Swann neutered by a more positive approach from South Africa, Strauss was forced to turn to Paul Collingwood before lunch.

Given England's selection, there was much focus on Sidebottom, who, although accurate enough, failed to suggest that the selectors were right to prefer him to Graham Onions. Red-faced and pouting, he gave the permanent impression of a kettle simmering, forever about to reach boiling point.

It was boiling point that England reached when Smith was given not out on review when he had scored 15. England, increasingly, feel aggrieved that the review system, far from being a neutral, automated process, has taken on a South African bias in this match.

They felt that Alastair Cook should not have been given out on the first day, when Daryl Harper decided that a nanometre of Morne Morkel's boot was behind the line and did not call a no-ball to overturn a leg-before dismissal, and yesterday they felt that Smith should have been given out caught behind.

In the absence of Hot Spot, edges are very hard to detect on review, leaving the third umpire with only the sound to go on. England were convinced Smith had edged the ball. The sound on television replays seen shortly afterwards suggested an edge, except that Harper could not hear any sound on his instant replay.

Harper attracts controversy as a horse attracts flies and it later transpired that he might not have had the volume turned up to the requisite level.

All kinds of conspiracy theories sprang up. Whatever the truth, it is regrettable that technology has not been standardised and that the decision review system has promoted a feeling that man-made errors are no longer acceptable in the game.

In any case, Smith would not be the first batsman to get a life and he will not be the last. The bottom line in this match so far, is England have not been good enough. (© The Times, London)


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