Strauss tells England to show steel and launch comeback
Captain says 'character and guts' can turn series around as second Test begins
If England manage to prevail in the second Test against South Africa here, it will be classified as the greatest of their modern comebacks. The team led by Andrew Strauss since 2009 have made a habit of winning immediately after losing.
However, to do so after the scale of the defeat they suffered in the first of the three Tests at The Oval last week, with their precious No 1 Test ranking on the line, would be token resilience of the most enormous kind. For four days England were so overwhelmed, eventually losing by an innings and 12 runs, that their self-belief must have been eroded.
The captain was naturally defiant yesterday: "There's clearly a steely determination amongst the troops to show that we are better than what we showed last week," said Strauss. "In the past when we have lost a game we have always bounced back well and I anticipate us doing that this week.
"It's going to take a little bit of character and guts but I know we've got a bit of that in the squad. I'm very confident we'll come out here and play a lot of good cricket this week."
England, who will introduce James Taylor for his debut as their only change, resisting the temptation to play an all-seam attack, will need to play a lot of good cricket in almost every session, of course. Recent experience of the ground, the opponents – and indeed the opponents on this ground – does not augur well. It is the first Test involving England at Headingley since 2009 and they have been badly beaten in the last two.
One of those defeats was to South Africa, in 2008, by 10 wickets. They also won by 191 runs here in 2003. Of more pertinence might be the fact that South Africa have triumphed resoundingly in the last two Tests between the teams, at the Wanderers in Johannesburg early in 2010 and last week, the first time in 139 matches that they have won by an innings twice consecutively.
Graeme Smith, the captain who has engineered both results, and on both occasions scored a hundred, was careful to avoid over-confidence yesterday and could not have been more respectful of his opponents had he been a courtier bowing to a monarch. "We have had enough time between games to come back down to earth and really refocus on what we want to achieve as a team," he said.
But not all the history is on South Africa's side. Four times since 2010, against India twice, Australia and Sri Lanka, they have had a resounding win in the opening Test of a series only to lose the second. Smith, fresh from returning home to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, was not falling into that snare.
"It is probably the nature of two top teams that that can happen," he said. "Obviously we would love to carry on in the way we played at The Oval but generally we haven't got caught up in the outside stuff, we just concentrate on what is successful for us. The guys understand what it is going to take to be successful again so we don't come in here expecting England to give us anything for free – we are going to have to earn it and we certainly have the mindset we can do that."
Being the No 1 side in the world has been an albatross for England. Since the status was officially bestowed by the ICC after victory over India at Edgbaston last year they have lost five of their nine Test matches. Compare that with the nine before that of which won seven and lost none.
Strauss wants desperately to preserve the No 1 Test ranking but cannot get too sucked in. "Well, I think the truth is that if you start worrying about the rankings too much you can get side-tracked by worrying about what other teams are doing," he said. "That's not helpful.
"We reached the No 1 ranking in the world and we really want to go on and stay No 1 for a long time. Our route of doing that is to win a lot of consecutive series. That's our challenge.
"We're obviously 1-0 down in this series and we need to turn it around, and clearly ahead we have some stern challenges in India later in the winter. So there's a hell of a lot of important cricket coming up, so that should whet the appetite and float people's boat. I think it will do." Boat-floating time starts today.
England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, J W A Taylor, M J Prior (wk), T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson.
South Africa (probable): G C Smith (capt), A N Petersen, H M Amla, J H Kallis, A B de Villiers, J A Rudolph, J-P Duminy, V D Philander, D W Steyn, M Morkel, Imran Tahir.
Pitch report It has a tinge of green and is bound to be moist underneath. It promises to be a stern challenge for batsmen under gloomy skies.
Umpires S J Davis (Aus), R J Tucker (Aus). Third umpire: Asad Rauf (Pak) Match referee: JJ Crowe (New Zealand).
TV Sky Sports 1, from 11am.
Odds England 9-4, Draw 7-5; South Africa 9-4
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