Angus Fraser: Swann the key in battle of Cape Town
Saturday 02 January 2010
With the heady cocktail of adrenalin, excitement and relief pumping through his veins, a captain can be guilty of making over-the-top statements in the immediate aftermath of a memorable victory, but Andrew Strauss was right to state that England's performance in the second Test against South Africa was as good as any he had played in since the 2005 Ashes.
It was a magnificent and almost faultless display, with each player contributing. What made the feat even more impressive was that it came only five days after a somewhat confused and ponderous performance against South Africa in the first Test at Centurion. Much was made of England's escape at Centurion but it was not "great". It was nowhere near as satisfying and emotionally pivotal as that in Cardiff during the 2009 Ashes.
Huge credit for the turnaround must go to Strauss and Andy Flower, England's Team Director, for holding their nerve. There were many, including myself, who felt England should make changes in Durban, with Ian Bell being the player to make way for an extra bowler. Strauss and Flower would have been fully aware of the strong views being expressed about Bell's position by pundits and supporters but, in another sign of strength of character and growing confidence, the pair held firm and backed their instinct. Once again it proved to be right.
Bell, not for the first time, silenced his critics with a delightful 140, but he was not the only under-pressure batsman to shine. Alastair Cook underlined what a resourceful and mentally strong cricketer he is with a combative 118. Of the two innings Cook's was the most important because it blunted South Africa when they were at their freshest and most dangerous.
England defeated South Africa because they outplayed them at their own game. South Africa are not a particularly sexy side to follow. They rarely win matches through inspired performances; they win by playing tough, extremely disciplined and skillful attritional cricket.
It was England's bowlers who set the tone for Strauss's side on the first morning of the Test when South Africa, having won the toss, conceded two early wickets and crawled along at barely two runs an over. Ultimately it was Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad who took the plaudits after sharing 15 wickets, but the efforts of James Anderson and Graham Onions should not be -forgotten. In extremely oppressive conditions the pair provided control and support when it was needed. Onions took only one wicket in the Test but he was England's best bowler in the first innings.
After wearing South Africa's batsmen down England then set about doing the same to the hosts' bowlers, which they succeeded in. Much can be made of a team's body language and South Africa's was atrocious by the time England's batsmen had finished with them.
Body language is important because when it is bad it exposes a poor, distracted, disinterested and beyond caring state of mind. Such a mindset cannot be changed in the 10 minutes between innings and it therefore came as no surprise to see South Africa capitulate to 50-6 in their second innings against a rampant England attack. It was a case of "well played England, job done".
One of the quandaries of the series to date has been the inability of the South African batsmen to cope with Swann. South Africa rarely offers great assistance to orthodox spinners yet Swann has not only given his captain control, he has also taken five more wickets than anyone else in the series.
What makes this situation even more perplexing is that South Africa have Duncan Fletcher, the former England coach, in their ranks. One of Fletcher's greatest assets with England was his ability to coach batsmen to overcome spin bowling. His work helped England complete memorable series victories over Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia.
If South Africa are to get back into this series their batsman have to get the better of Swann and hit the spinner out of the attack. It will be a risky tactic because Swann is extremely good but the move would put greater pressure and workload on England's seamers. Strauss would then have to bowl Anderson, Onions and Broad in longer spells, which would potentially reduce their potency.
Last summer's Ashes highlighted how quickly momentum in a series can change and England cannot afford to sit back and reflect on a job well done. With Strauss and Flower in charge they are unlikely to, as England's understated reaction to last summer's Ashes win highlights.
The third Test, which begins in Cape Town on Sunday, will be another major challenge for England because South Africa have a magnificent record at the venue. In the 20 Tests that have been played at Newlands since South Africa's readmission to Test cricket they have won 14 and lost just three, all to the great recent Australian side. England's post-readmission record is appalling. They have been heavily beaten at the ground on three occasions.
If England can overcome South Africa in Cape Town and win the series, there would be genuine reasons to believe that Strauss's side can go on to achieve what Michael Vaughan's failed to – become the best Test side in the world.
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