Question 1: How can England take 20 wickets?
A fluctuating first Test has left both Strauss and Smith with problems to solve before hostilities resume. Stephen Brenkley looks for answers
Tuesday 22 December 2009
How can England bowl out South Africa – twice?
Pray for more amenable surfaces is the straightforward option. Otherwise a four-pronged attack will forever be found wanting. England performed gamely if innocuously in the first Test, rendered so by a pitch that behaved politely for most of the match, changing its mood only when the ball was new.
It did nothing at all for the reputation of pitch reading, a science that deserves as much respect as astrology but is usually delivered with much less fun and the tongue nowhere near the cheek. The Centurion pitch, green and looking demonic, had been widely predicted to be a seamer's paradise and instead was a hellhole. Of course, all was redeemed by the extraordinary final session when England clung on for a draw with a solitary wicket left.
Indeed, while England were always taking a risk by picking only four bowlers in Centurion when their recent triumphs have usually involved five, a cast of thousands might have struggled to earn sustained breakthroughs.
For a quartet to succeed, all its members probably need to be in form. That was not the case in the first Test where Stuart Broad, particularly, looked lacklustre. But, bless them, they all kept going even when it seemed that no wickets would ever fall again.
Anodyne surfaces hardly help the cause of bowlers but the ball used in Test matches, the Kookaburra, must also be the target of their scorn. It loses its shine and hardness quickly and well-drilled batsmen are distinctly more difficult to budge afterwards, unless there should be either exponents of reverse swing or Shane Warne against them.
The Kingsmead surface may offer more assistance. In recent years, South Africa have occasionally gone in without a spinner, though that is unlikely this week. Last March Australia won there with an attack of four seamers and occasional spinners.
England do not have that luxury and will be reluctant to ask Matt Prior to bat at six after his indifferent match. It would still leave the problem of who bats at seven. One answer may be to bring in Liam Plunkett, another Durham stalwart. Broad could bat at seven, Graeme Swann at eight and Plunkett at nine – effectively a trio of No 8s.
What is to be done about England's batting?
Four players had poor matches in the First Test: Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Prior and Broad. For England to have any prospect of winning this series that cannot happen again.
Cook owes England some runs and his amended technique did not deliver. Since his well-crafted 95 against Australia at Lord's his Test scores have been 32, 0, 30, 30, 10, 9, 15 and 12. The tourists will have no wish to change their opening pair – not least because there is no obvious replacement aboard – but Durban is a significant staging post of the series for Cook.
As for Bell, the ghosts of Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash, themselves wonderful but unfulfilled talents, appear to stalk at him at the crease. His first dismissal at Centurion was plain soft, leaving a ball that bowled him, and his second, though a snorter of a ball from Friedel de Wet which took the edge, did not reveal a batsman who revelled in the heat of the battle.
England are likely to stick with the same balance in Durban but they must be concerned. Bell, still boyish after all these years, has a few days to find himself.
Don't South Africa have their own problems?
They do indeed and the main one of those will be extremely difficult to resolve. The least incisive of their bowlers at Centurion was the player making a historic 100th Test appearance, Makhaya Ntini. Perhaps he was overcome with the emotion of the occasion, and there is no doubt that it was emotional.
As Ntini said, he was overwhelmed by the messages of support he had received. On the first night of the match he received 140 voice messages on his mobile phone, including one from Nelson Mandela.
"I have been overwhelmed by all the messages but the one from Madiba was very special for me," said Ntini. "I will have it framed and it will always have a special place in my home."
Leaving aside the difficulties involved in framing a mobile phone message, there remains the suspicion that Ntini's best days are behind him. He pushed up above 90mph for a few balls with the new ball but was then operating in the low eighties. To a top-class batsman the difference is noticeable.
It would be easy for the South Africa selectors to pick the returning Dale Steyn and stick with Morne Morkel and the Centurion debutant, De Wet, who conjured a destructive spell with the second new ball to ensure Sunday's pulsating climax.
But that would probably entail the omission of Ntini, an authentic national hero. There would be uproar and, although it is claimed that South Africa's side is picked wholly on merit, the pressure to have at least one black player in the side is palpable. Until now that has been easy to manage; Ntini has taken more wickets this decade than any other fast bowler, he commanded a place. The likes of Ashwell Prince and J-P Duminy do not count when the dreaded quota system is discussed – or not discussed – in government circles.
A case could be made for retaining Ntini because it would truly be momentous to drop such a totemic player after one indifferent match. He also lends maturity and an element of control; the other three all have wild fast bowlers' tendencies.
Are the captains still important to the outcome?
You bet they are. Both had a poor first Test with the bat but Smith, especially, was outstanding in the field. Sporting a frightening pair of green sunglasses, he was obviously master of all he surveyed and put the squeeze on England in the final hour.
Even his decision to give Ntini the final over with De Wet having run amok was justifiable. He understood that the occasion could have been made for Ntini and to understand such niceties when the storm is raging is the mark of leadership.
Strauss as usual stood out for his patience but he may have to risk more boldness. There was a hint of changing his bowling by rota. But England would follow him into a minefield.
Is the review system working?
Up to a point. England are still uncertain about when to ask for reviews – losing all four – but South Africa seemed more determined to make them work.
Broad, who spoke to the umpire after being given out following a review in the first innings, can consider himself extremely fortunate not to be on a charge leading to a ban. When the finger goes up, you walk, you do not hang around to debate the merits of the issue with the man who raised the digit. Broad, whose occasional surliness is unfortunate in one so well adjusted, should be reminded of this.
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