Key has the temperament for high-pressure batting

The vogue commodity in Test cricket is momentum. It has been the talk of the town wherever this series has turned up, and clearly has some mileage in it yet. Both teams have craved it at various points, only to unload it as if this inestimable prize was featuring in a game of pass the parcel.

The vogue commodity in Test cricket is momentum. It has been the talk of the town wherever this series has turned up, and clearly has some mileage in it yet. Both teams have craved it at various points, only to unload it as if this inestimable prize was featuring in a game of pass the parcel.

It has gone like this: England had it handed to them first in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, snatched it away briefly in Durban but England regained it, and then South Africa seemed to have annexed it in Cape Town. All week in the build-up to the fourth Test it was easy to tell in whose possession this immeasurably precious element now lay. The home side were not quite going around rubbing their thumbs up and down their chest chanting, "Yah boo sucks, look what we've got", but they knew they had something that England desperately wanted.

They should also have suspected what might happen. The teams have become so evenly matched that you can never be sure if having the momentum is better than not having it. It was like this in England when the countries last met in 2003. Enthrallingly, the series swung one way and the other until finally, at The Oval, England made it 2-2 with one of their most famous victories.

Such a result should not be excluded from consideration in this rubber, The momentum, for what it is worth, shifted initially towards England yesterday, but before bad light ended play early had moved, ever so slightly, back in the direction of South Africa.

The centrepiece of the first day was the partnership of 182 between the phenomenon still known as Andrew Strauss (the next thing you know he will be composing waltzes between overs) and Robert Key.

This was the highest stand for the second wicket in 26 Test matches in the 49 years since the Wanderers - strictly speaking, the New Wanderers - was built and it knocked into a cocked hat the previous highest of 136 compiled, also for England, by Bob Barber and Ted Dexter in 1965.

This statistic alone speaks volumes for the general assumption that the pitch is less than a batting paradise.

But it was slow enough yesterday to be not far from heaven and since England also had the angels on their side in the morning when the outside edge was frequently passed, it was a good moment for Michael Vaughan to win his first toss of the series. Key's mobile phone was busy earlier this week with text messages which warned him of bad news. He was a little perplexed to find that this was the downfall, caused by high winds, of the old lime tree at the St Lawrence ground, Canterbury, the home of his county, Kent. A 200-year-old tree does not necessarily stir the soul of a 25-year-old batsman.

Presumably, the texts yesterday were more upbeat, congratulating him on his 83, unless of course, they were berating him for not getting a hundred. In truth, he should have done, as he well knows, and nicking the old ball to slip is not the smartest of batting moves. Still, Key looks the part most of the time because he has the correct temperament for high-pressure batting.

It is some 20 years since a Kent batsman established himself in the England side and for most of his 31 matches Chris Tavare was as immovable, and some would say as animated as that lime tree. Key has the opportunity and the character to be significantly more than dead wood in England's team.

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