England need powerful response
South Africa struck a potentially damaging psychological blow when dominating the First Test
Last time England went to Headingley to try to repel South Africa's invasion the selectors took a huge gamble. They picked the fast bowler Darren Pattinson, an Englishman reared in Australia, and promptly saw their team lose by 10 wickets.
Not that it was Pattinson's fault entirely but it turned out to be his only Test. On no occasion since that match in 2008 have England been bold or reckless in their choices (though since one of Pattinson's two victims was Hashim Amla, who made 311 not out in the first Test mauling last week, you never know, it may be time for a recall).
On balance, despite the nature of the defeat at The Oval, by an innings and 12 runs after South Africa made an unprecedented total of 637 for 2, the squad announced this morning for the second match starting in Leeds on Thursday will toe the party line. The 13 who pitched up in London with high expectations will be in Leeds, though with slightly less anticipation of success.
Ravi Bopara, recalled to the team for the fourth time, will have at least one more match to prove himself a Test batsman and so he should. There is a clamour for Steve Finn to replace Tim Bresnan but Bresnan's qualities are still too easily overlooked.
England had become accustomed to winning at home. Defeats two years ago by Pakistan and three years ago by Australia were followed by significant victories. The dent to their confidence from a 3-0 drubbing by Pakistan in the UAE this year appeared to have been eradicated by a return to form.
This has the early feeling of being different and England simply must respond on Thursday. It is refreshing to note that they are making no excuses for their pummelling and expecting no sympathy. Equally, they can still win this series.
Alastair Cook, the team's vice-captain whose century seemed to have put the match beyond South Africa on the first day at The Oval, said: "Clearly it hurts a side when you get beaten like that. It's probably one of the heaviest defeats I've had in my career. It does hurt you. When we play well we're probably not as good a side as everyone says, and when we play badly we didn't just become a bad side. We have some outstanding cricketers in our dressing room but we must play closer to our potential. We had the meetings after the game so that we can go to Headingley with a clean slate. Heavy defeats have normally spurred us on to play better in the next game. We have to do that to get back in the series."
After almost a week of reflection, however, it is still difficult to come to terms with the sequence of events in the opening Test. South Africa had a moderate first day in which England cruised to 251 for 2 and ended it on 267 for 3 ready for consolidation of their position.
From then on, the tourists dominated in as complete a way as is imaginable. The batsmen flopped twice, in failing to cope with the only bowler friendly conditions in the match on the second morning and then in careering to catastrophe in the second when resolution and stoicism were required.
The bowlers were probably entitled to a bad couple of days, though it is a concern that the reason seems to remain a mystery. The tourists' bowlers managed to get the ball to move off the straight and England's did not throughout most of 189 overs.
Cook said: "We are still scratching our heads as to why that ball didn't do anything. We treated it the same way as we treat any other ball whether we are in England or the Kookaburra abroad. We have always managed to get the ball at least doing something – but we weren't able to do that. We tried different techniques for all of them but we were left scratching our heads especially when we saw them reversing it after 30 overs."
It is premature to suggest that South Africa are simply a better team than England though a repeat performance would invite the conclusion. The tourists have cricketers of the highest class in seven of their 11 places. England never worked their way through to two of the less illustrious batsmen, Jacques Rudolph and J-P Duminy, and allowed Imran Tahir to dictate terms for the first time in a Test match.
The fear for England is that South Africa's huge total has given them a feeling of impregnability, rather as when England made 517 for 1 at Brisbane on the last tour of Australia they knew they had their man. Nothing was the same again. The psychological blow alone is hard, let alone all those runs.
Cook clung on to England's record in picking themselves up. "It's not difficult but it's clearly not a nice experience," he said. "When we went to Australia and lost 5-0 that was slightly different because we knew we weren't good enough to beat Australia. But with what this England side has achieved over the last few years, we know we can beat South Africa and we have the players to do that, it's a different mentality." We shall know more by next week.
Investec, the specialist bank and asset manager, is the title sponsor of Test match cricket in England. Visit the Investec Cricket Zone at investec.co.uk/cricket for player analysis, stats, Test match info and games
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