Strauss' class act anchors England

England 263-4
v South Africa

Andrew Strauss's reputation as a batsman of the highest class continued its inexorable rise yesterday when the England opener scored his third century in four Test matches against South Africa here in Johannesburg. The 27-year-old's innings of 147 was the highest of his fledgling Test career and it allowed England to regain much of the momentum they had lost in the previous two Test matches.

Andrew Strauss's reputation as a batsman of the highest class continued its inexorable rise yesterday when the England opener scored his third century in four Test matches against South Africa here in Johannesburg. The 27-year-old's innings of 147 was the highest of his fledgling Test career and it allowed England to regain much of the momentum they had lost in the previous two Test matches.

But Strauss's remarkable effort ended when he drove wearily at Shaun Pollock 17 minutes before bad light prematurely ended an absorbing day's play. The edge flew to Jacques Kallis at second slip, and the South African all-rounder took a sharp chance above his head.

Before the light faded below an acceptable level, England also lost Graham Thorpe to Makhaya Ntini, and these two dismissals against the second new ball took the gloss off what was looking like an exceptional day for the tourists.

Strauss was not the only English batsman to shine on the opening day of the fourth Test. The left-hander received excellent support from Robert Key, who scored 83, and the pair's second-wicket partnership of 182 was the principal reason why Michael Vaughan's side were able to reach 263 for 4.

In Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff and Geraint Jones, England possess batsmen capable of taking their total past 400, but much will depend on the initial hour of cricket this morning. If Matthew Hoggard, the England nightwatchman, can make a nuisance of himself, England ought to be able to maintain their strong position. But should the visitors lose two or three quick wickets they could end up wasting the memorable batting of Strauss and Key.

Finishing the day in such a manner will have frustrated England. After a bitterly disappointing festive season - bad light deprived England of a near certain victory in Durban and they then lost heavily in Cape Town - Vaughan's side needed a strong performance here and until the 83rd over it had been supplied by the team's most inexperienced player.

Strauss's introduction to Test cricket has been nothing short of phenomenal. The former Middlesex captain scored the first of five Test centuries at Lord's in his first Test innings and this performance appears to have given him the confidence to play without fear.

When Strauss drives, pulls or cuts he does so with power and control. He seldom looks like missing the ball, which unerringly keeps finding the gaps. On one occasion, when he came down the wicket and smashed the left-arm spin of Nicky Boje into the sightscreen, the fielders were irrelevant.

But Strauss would not be able to play attacking strokes if he did not possess an almost impregnable defence. Lady luck is obviously shining favourably on him, but this was a chanceless display, and it is not the batsman's fault if the opposition captain places his fielders in the wrong position.

Strauss's bat was beaten on a couple of occasions by seaming deliveries, and he edged Pollock at a catchable height through a hole in the slips once, but when he became accustomed to the pace and bounce of an excellent pitch he looked in little trouble.

The frequency with which he has been able to turn decent starts into three-figure totals has placed him in exalted company. Of the batsmen who have had more than 20 innings in Test cricket Strauss currently lies third in the century/innings ratio.

Don Bradman reached three figures on 36.25 per cent of the occasions he walked out to bat, while George Headley scored a hundred 25 per cent of the time. Strauss, who has now scored five hundreds in 21 innings, is the next highest with a remarkable 23.81 per cent.

This majestic batting also moved him into fifth on the list of run-scorers after 11 Tests. Strauss's tally has risen to 1,202, at an average of 63.26, and he will move into third position if he scores a half-century in England's second innings.

Initially, South Africans would have taken pride in the fact that somebody born in their country had gone on to represent England, but by now they must be sick and tired of the sight of him. And boy must they wish that his father had not chosen to take his young family from Johannesberg to Sydney and then on to London in the 1980s.

Strauss spent the first six years of his life in Bedfordview, a leafy suburb six miles from the Wanderers cricket ground, and he saved his best Test hundred for the public of his home town.

South Africa tried desperately to keep the ball away from Strauss's strongest areas - square of the wicket on either side - but the straight bowling of Pollock, Ntini and Dale Steyn was met with the full face of a broad bat. And Strauss once again won the game of patience. He bided his time, waited for the bowlers to err and this hundred was completed 40 minutes more quickly than his previous two on this tour.

Before taking control with Key, Strauss had watched Marcus Trescothick play another unconvincing innings. The Somerset opener scored a wonderful century in Durban but his lack of footwork was once again exposed here. The left-handed batsman had wafted at several deliveries and failed to make contact and it surprised few when he edged Steyn to Mark Boucher.

Boucher was one of two changes to the South African side. The wicketkeeper replaced Hashim Amla - allowing A B de Villiers to play solely as a batsman - and the Proteas' selectors also decided not to risk Charl Langeveldt, who fractured his left hand in Cape Town.

England were also forced to make one alteration with James Anderson replacing Simon Jones, who was forced to withdraw with a back injury. But the loss of Jones was more than made up for when Vaughan won his first toss of the tour. The England captain wasted little time in informing Graeme Smith that he intended to bat and left the field with a huge grin on his face.

Key would have played in the last two Test matches no matter how he batted yesterday but he still needed this innings. Ntini tried to rough him up with several well-directed short balls and Boucher had the odd word in his ear but he knocked back everything the South Africans threw at him.

It was also nice to see the right-hander coming down the wicket to Boje and hitting him down the ground, even though the spinner had had him stumped in the previous Test. But just when he appeared to be on course for his second Test century he drove wildly at Ntini and was caught at first slip.

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