England's bowling has been talked up to the skies. The outcome of the series was going to depend on the batsmen scoring enough runs to allow the seam bowlers to show their ability and disrupt a vulnerable South African batting side - or so the story went.
We were told that the combination of coach Duncan Fletcher and captain Nasser Hussain had forged a vibrant new team spirit. The England camp had been confident of success and, rather than buckle under to that first blow we expected to see them pick themselves up and take the fight to South Africa. What happened was that they buckled not only at the knees but at every other conceivable joint as well.
By lunch on the second day England were looking a well-beaten side and the seam bowling was seen to be a thing of milk and water. On a grey afternoon with rain about on the first day, these bowlers should have been looking for three or four wickets by the close. That new team spirit should have seen them more focused and on the ball than ever.
They bowled 30 overs then and no less than 36 per cent of these 180 balls were wide enough for the batsmen to leave alone. One of the oldest truisms in cricket is that a bowler will not get a batsman out if he does not make him play a stroke. On the second day, that figure rose to almost 40 per cent.
The splendid example of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock had been there for all to see. England's batsmen did not often have the luxury of being able to let the ball fly harmlessly by.
It was important that England, having taken one wicket the previous evening, made a good start early on the second morning. Important for their spirit and confidence and important, too, if they were going to keep faith with the public who have been so generous in their support in spite of recent results. Now, the bowlers even silenced the Barmy Army.
Darren Gough never looked match fit. There was no rhythm and, although there was the odd good ball, far too many were wide of the stumps and useless. This was the much-vaunted Gough who, we had been led to believe, held the key to the series.
It was no surprise when he limped off in the afternoon with a sore left knee. Goodness me, haven't we had enough of the ongoing dramas concerning Gough's fitness? Although he came back after tea, it made one long for the fully fit Chris Silverwood.
The others? Well, Andy Caddick seemed to drop his bundle as soon as he saw things were not going his way, which was far too soon. As always he bowled a yard too short - admirable for containment, no earthly use when it comes to taking wickets. These two completely wasted the second new ball.
On the first evening 41 per cent of Alan Mullally's deliveries were left alone and he was no better on the second day. And what has happened to that new trick - the ball that is supposed to swing back into the right hander? Maybe he has left it in England or perhaps he never really had it.
At just above military medium, Gavin Hamilton bowled consistently two- and-a-half feet wide of the off-stump to right-handers, so much so that one could only suppose that the straight ball was a secret weapon he had been advised to use sparingly.
It was all as embarrassing to watch as it was irritating and I expect that we will now have to suffer the meaningless and futile excuses we have heard so many times before and which will ring even hollower now.Reuse content