Strauss at home in a world of his own
Another debut, another sparkling hundred for relentless opener as England turn screw on South Africa
Sunday 19 December 2004
In the next edition of the manual on how to create modern cricket teams, an entire section should be devoted to the merits of serendipity. Some coaches might prefer physical conditioning and mental tuning, but these are obviously mere props to keep them busy.
A further practical example of this theory was offered in the First Test at Port Elizabeth yesterday when Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss shared a first-wicket partnership of 152 to build a platform for England from which they could well construct an unprecedented eighth consecutive victory. It was a slow pitch, South Africa's bowlers lacked either the nous or the inclination to persuade the batsmen to play often enough and England set determinedly about overhauling - substantially - a total of 337.
Strauss was comfortably the dominant partner and again belied the fact that he is still at the start of his Test career. His century was wholly predictable and the measure of how he has taken to international cricket was that he became only the second England player after Ranjitsinhji 107 years ago to score hundreds in both his first Test at home and his first away. Only six others have done it.
This was in some ways a more personal innings for Strauss than his century on his Test debut at Lord's. He was born in South Africa and spent his first six years in the country before the family emigrated, first to Australia, and then took up residency in England. But he is an erudite product of the English educational system (Radley College and Durham University). If he was coming home he was obviously intent on leaving his mark.
He ensured that England controlled the day and now the match. They finished on 227 for 1, 110 behind. The second new ball will be due after 14 overs of the third day, but see that through and Michael Vaughan's side can realistically start thinking of assembling a total which will enable them to bat only once.
They already appear to have consigned to oblivion the idea that they were underprepared for a Test series. Last May, the idea of Trescothick and Strauss opening together for England was a flight of fancy, if it was that serious. Now, 15 joint walks to the crease later, it is as though they have always been doing the job and that their alliance had always been part of some grand design. One day, somebody might claim it as such.
They were, of course, thrown together by accident when the captain Vaughan was injured in the Lord's nets. Strauss was called up as the player next in line, made a century in his first innings and has never looked back. Vaughan, the No 1 ranked batsman in the world only a year earlier, dropped to number four in the order to accommodate him. Strauss has never looked down.
It is already clear that he and Trescothick have the promise to be an enduringly successful partnership. This was their third century stand since they started against New Zealand at Lord's last summer and each time they have gone on to 150. Their average stand is now above 59, putting them ahead of Graham Gooch and Michael Atherton (56.80), although those who seek to reflect fondly on a better past will be heartened to know that they are still behind Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe (87.81), and Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook (60).
Strauss was fluent, if not faultless, from the start yesterday. His pulling, especially against the ball pitched on or outside off stump, can give opponents reason for stocking the leg-side field. But his square-cutting and driving off the back foot is quite as positive and culminates with much more authority. When he was settled, the drive came more into play - and the South Africans certainly let him settle. They might have tried bowling round the wicket at him to ruffle him because of his instinctive need to play leg-side shots. They did not, until it was probably too late.
Trescothick was purposefully vigilant. There are times, lots of them, when Trescothick likes to impose himself quickly but equally he knows the value of leaving the ball. South Africa gave him plenty to ignore. Of the 139 balls he faced he failed to score from 111.
When Trescothick made 219 against South Africa at The Oval in 2003, it was an object lesson in leaving from a batsman who is born to dominate, and he seemed to remember this. But when he was on 47, he was surprisingly bowled by the debutant Dale Steyn.
At 21, with his shirt half in and half out of his trousers and a no-nonsense run-up, Steyn is billed as South Africa's new pace sensation. His speed, allied to some swing, might have helped him pierce Trescothick's defences but the ball also kept a mite low.
It was England's only loss. As Mark Butcher entered the arena the dressing room must have held its breath. Butcher deserved to reclaim his place for this match after ailment and injury kept him out of the latter part of the summer but the feeling was not so much that his time was not borrowed as running out. In three innings he had scored nine runs. He did not rush and by the close he was looking as comfortable as Strauss.
England could hardly have had a more imposing day. They took the three wickets they needed to bring a close to the opposition innings before lunch and kept them 13 short of the revised (revised lower, that is) target they had set themselves. There were deserved wickets for both Ashley Giles and Simon Jones, and a century for Boeta Dippenaar.
When Dippenaar came into the South Africa side he was talked up almost as much as new Bradmans are in Australia. He has struggled enormously at various places in the order but has managed to keep the faith of coaches. He did not demur when it was suggested that his 110 might be a career-changing performance. Importantly for England the match-changing innings may well have come from Strauss.
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