There are more convincing ways to dismiss a class batsman at the top of his game, but this did not appear to worry an ecstatic England when Graeme Smith trod on his stumps at 5.16 in the third Test here yesterday evening. After watching South Africa's prolific captain amass 656 runs during his four visits to the crease in this Test series, Michael Vaughan and England's bowlers would not have cared less that Smith's demise owed more to good fortune than Andrew Flintoff's fine bowling.
Smith would have played the shot several thousand times in his short career without touching his castle, but on this occasion he stepped back six inches too far and brushed the middle stump with the heel of his left boot. It was clear to see from the reaction of England's players just how important this breakthrough was. It has taken some time, but Vaughan's side had at last dismissed Smith before he had taken a game away from them.
Until this error, on 35, the 22-year-old had looked in his usual dominant form and another big score appeared inevitable. However, on a pitch offering an unacceptable amount of inconsistent bounce, it is his side, on 84 for 2 and still requiring 162 runs to avoid the follow-on, who are trying to save this game.
In another excellent spell of fastish bowling, Flintoff deserved this slice of luck. On several occasions the burly all-rounder had beaten the outside edge with balls to Smith and Jacques Rudolph. However, it was Stephen Harmison who had broken South Africa's opening partnership when Herschelle Gibbs, reaching for a good delivery, deflected it on to his stumps.
Running in hard and hitting this pitch aggressively, this pair, along with James Kirtley, who was bowling for the first time in a Test match, made the visitors' batsmen look uncomfortable. On a surface that is only going to get worse, such simple tactics should be enough to level this series.
While 445 is a good first-innings total, one England would have settled for at the start of this Test, Vaughan would have been hoping for more after watching his team dominate the first day's play. Yesterday England's last seven wickets added only a further 149 runs to their overnight score of 296 for 3.
It would have been worse but for the efforts of England's veteran all-rounder Alec Stewart who scored almost half of his team's runs with a typically attractive innings of 72. After watching Nasser Hussain prove his detractors wrong on Thursday, Stewart would have been equally determined to prove he, too, is still worth his place.
As Hussain walked off, after being trapped plum in front by Shaun Pollock, one sensed there was an invisible baton being passed between the pair. Stewart made his intentions clear with his first scoring shot, a crashing square-cut off the wayward Makhaya Ntini, but runs were harder to come by for England than on the first day. South Africa's bowling - bar Ntini - showed far greater discipline on a helpful pitch and Smith set more defensive fields.
Before Hussain made his way back to the pavilion, the former captain had the pleasure of watching Ed Smith pass 50 on his England debut. The Kent batsman progressed to 64 before he edged an away-swinger from Jacques Kallis through to Mark Boucher and during his three hours at the crease the 26 year-old did not look out of his depth. Before this Test questions had been raised over his ability to cope with the short ball but when South Africa eventually attempted this form of attack Smith dealt with it comfortably.
The manner of Smith's dismissal did highlight a weakness in his game. A feature of Mark Butcher and Hussain's centuries was the way they left the ball outside their off-stump and made the bowler come to them. It may have been nerves, or Smith's desire to hit the ball, but the right-hander was at times too easily lured into flirting with deliveries he could have left alone.
Andrew Flintoff quickly followed Smith back to the dressing-room when he too pushed at a ball he need not have played. After his wonderful second-Test hundred, where he flogged the South African attack to every part of Lord's, this was a curious innings. On the back of this century it was as if the 25 year-old was attempting to play like a proper batsman rather than smash the ball, which is how he plays when he is at his best.
It was in Ashley Giles that Stewart found his most reliable partner and the pair put on 41 useful runs for the seventh wicket. When Giles went, Stewart realised he would have to raise the tempo if he was to emulate Hussain. The Surrey wicketkeeper passed 50 for the 45th time in his 131st match but perished attempting to hit his way to a 16th Test century.
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