Cricket: Centurions batter England
IF THERE were any doubts that South Africa would give England a thorough examination of their standing as the No.1-ranked team in Test cricket, then the last two days have completely dispelled them.
The Proteas, after a poor first day, have dominated this first Investec Test match and have now set things up so only two results are possible, a draw or South African win.
It has been played exactly as a Test match between two evenly matched sides should be, no quarter asked for and certainly none given.
The damage yesterday was done primarily by Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla. Both were stubborn, patient, well organised and clinical in their batting and the much-vaunted England attack was blunted and made to look rather ordinary.
Rarely do they toil for 120 overs for only two wickets. It was not their fault. The pitch is dry but soporific, lacking pace and bounce.
That meant batting should have been easier and so it proved as both Smith, celebrating his 100th Test match, and Amla scored centuries.
Not that the vagaries of the conditions would have affected Smith, who has a phenomenal record batting in England. He looked composed at the crease but never joyful or elegant. The problem is with his bottom hand, his grip closing the face of the bat and his tendency to shovel most balls to the leg-side. That means he never looks good, not aesthetically pleasing anyway, but he is mightily effective. And what he is rarely given credit for is his cricketing intelligence.
England off-spinner Graeme Swann has troubled left-handers ever since the Decision Review System came into force.
Indeed, he averages 20 runs per wicket against southpaws compared to 36 against right-handers. But Smith neutered him superbly by moving his guard over towards off-stump and making sure that, whenever he pushed forward with bat and pad, his front leg was outside the line of off-stump and therefore prevented him from being out leg before wicket.
It sounds simple but few others have thought of it or, if they have, could not make it work so well.
Swann initially bowled well to Smith and, for a lengthy period, the tourists’ skipper was unable to score against him. But one sweep shot and Swann straightened his line to the stumps and that was where Smith wanted him to bowl, as it allowed him to pick off runs into his favoured leg-side.
The release of pressure on Smith was evident, his first 50 runs taking 160 deliveries and then the next 50 only 41.
Amla adopted similar tactics against Swann but for different reasons. DRS reviews hold no new fear for him, he naturally plays through the leg-side by preference so he was pushing his front foot outside off-stump to try to create an angle to mid-on or mid-wicket. He did it wonderfully well and, when Swann dropped slightly short, Amla’s feet were lightning quick to get fully back in the crease to work the ball past square leg.
By using the depth of the crease, Amla was creating plenty of separation between himself and the pitch of the ball.
He also creates separation between himself and the opposition. England tried to rough him up with some short stuff, and then targeted his favourite leg-side clip with two catchers staggered in formation around midwicket but he ignored it all. He is a serene presence at the crease, calm, phlegmatic, cussed and highly confident in his game. In short an ideal first drop and very similar to England’s No.3, Jonathan Trott. If England struggle to remove him and Smith cheaply during this brief, three-Test series then they are in trouble as Jacques Kallis, one of the finest Test batsman of all time and AB de Villiers, a flamboyant and thrilling stroke-maker follow them at four and five.
When England did manage a wicket, Smith rather unluckily bowled by Bresnan with the ball cannoning off his leg and boot before dislodging a bail, it offered little respite.
Amla perhaps raised an eyebrow for a second before scratching his guard and carrying on in exactly the same fashion as before.
Kallis, a man who averages 57 in Test cricket injected a little urgency into the scoring-rate. It was remorseless and, for the purist, absolutely wonderful Test match cricket.
A side was gaining the ascendancy through hard work, and disciplined grind. The breach that the bowlers, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kallis had made on Friday in England’s dominance was relentlessly widened with every run accumulated throughout the day
Kallis moved easily towards his 43rd Test century and Amla set his sights on his second Test double-century as they chiselled away at England’s lead. A full day of batting today and England will have a difficult Monday to bat through if they are to save this Test.
England have spoken consistently of the desire they have for a challenge. Well, now they have one and a mighty good one it is, too.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South