Andrew Strauss's stock could not have been higher four months ago when he joyously paraded a replica Ashes urn around The Oval. Since defeating Australia Strauss's reputation has continued to rise, and quite rightly so – he is an impressive man and an excellent leader.
But one of the beauties of life, and in particular sport, is that even the best are brought back down to earth and Strauss has had a difficult week in Centurion, where his side are fighting to remain competitive in the first Test against South Africa. From an English perspective his team's plight is particularly disappointing because this should have been a Test they dominated, given Jacques Kallis's rib injury, the uncertainty surrounding the South African side in the build-up to the match and the late withdrawal of Dale Steyn, the home side's spearhead. South Africa are unlikely to be this vulnerable for the remainder of the series.
So why has England's approach at Centurion appeared largely uncertain and conservative when they were the complete opposite on 23 August, the day they regained the Ashes in south London?
England's awful record in the first Test of recent overseas series – they have lost six of the previous seven openers – may well have preyed on their minds and influenced the selection of the team and the tactics they have largely employed. Before the effervescent Graeme Swann arrived at the crease yesterday England wore the look of a side that seemed happy to draw rather than win the first Test.
Replacing the recently retired Andrew Flintoff and maintaining the balance of the side was always going to be a difficult, if not well nigh impossible, task. Flintoff's ability to bat at six may have at times been questioned but his bowling has always been excellent.
But England did not really try to balance the side, and it was disappointing to see his position filled by a batsman rather than someone with the potential to bowl. The bowling of Luke Wright, England's best option as a post-Flintoff all-rounder, may still be pretty raw but it is bowlers that win matches and he should have played.
Picking Wright would not only have helped England's cause in the field, it would have made a statement to South Africa. It would have told Graeme Smith's side that England did not fear South Africa and were after them.
Having picked the extra batsman it was then slightly baffling to see England opt to bowl on winning the toss. If the England management expected the pitch to offer assistance to the faster bowlers on the first day it would have made sense to pick a fourth seamer.
The move would have eased the burden on Stuart Broad, Graham Onions – playing in his first overseas Test – and James Anderson, who still appears to be recovering from a knee injury. As it was, Onions, who has suffered with a calf strain/cramp, struggled with the heat and Anderson looked short of a gallop. England were fortunate that the pitch offered spin and encouragement to Swann, who bowled beautifully.
Swann continues to be a revelation, providing the England team with character, mischief and performances. In many ways Swann is not a modern cricketer.
He is not a natural athlete or someone who conforms to modern sporting stereotypes. Swann gets out, enjoys himself and appears to have interests and a life away from cricket. Perhaps that is why he is the most enthusiastic cricketer England currently have.
When Swann walks out to play for England there seems to be no place in the world that he would rather be. Watching him succeed at a late stage in his career should provide every cricket lover with enjoyment. It should also encourage some of his more earnest team-mates to realise how fortunate they are, get out and live a little more.
Ntini feat deserves ton of respect
Of the 49 cricketers to have played 100 or more Test matches, only eight have been fast bowlers and that is why the achievements of Makhaya Ntini should be celebrated and treated with a huge amount of respect.
Ntini has had an unimaginable influence in turning post-apartheid South Africa into the multicultural Rainbow Nation that it is, but he has had a hugely positive effect on fast bowling.
Throughout his career the fitness levels of the 32 year old have become the stuff of legend and, in an era when over-coaching has tended to oppress natural talent, he has shown that a fast bowler can take wickets at the highest level with a technically imperfect action.
During my career I have been fortunate enough to witness many great cricketing moments but I would rate the time when Ntini took his 10th wicket in the 2003 Lord's Test against England to be one of the finest I have seen. South Africa won the Test and during it Ntini bowled his heart out. On taking his 10th wicket, that of Stephen Harmison, he dropped down on to his knees and kissed the Lord's pitch. It was a spine-tingling moment.Reuse content