The truth of the first Test at the Oval was that England started out as favourites, in their own minds, and ended up after five long days as a team that will do well to recover from a psychological battering as the series resumes.
The hype that centred around England and how they had become the number one team in the Test arena was shattered within a few hours on the second day of play at the Oval. Dale Steyn awoke from a first-day slumber to decimate their middle-order and give Gary Kirsten’s charges the upper-hand. With Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis keeping the pressure on, Steyn was as good as he has ever been. He had to live up to being the best in the business and he did.
Pressure abounds in all sport at the highest level and dealing with it when it’s applied is more often than not the difference between the ordinary and the great. England skipper Andrew Strauss had a shocker when it came down to either applying pressure or dealing with it.
The first day at the Oval saw England get themselves into a position that most international teams would dream of. For a period of play, Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen had the bowlers exactly where they wanted them.
However, skipper Graeme Smith somehow managed to not let the situation get out of control. He changed the bowlers, moved the field around and kept up the encouragement waiting for an opportunity. Pietersen got out and left Cook to carry on the attack. He didn’t. Instead, he retreated into a mental state of scoring a century in the first Test without understanding that dominating the situation more effectively would have reaped greater rewards for the team later on in the Test.
It was a defining period that led to the change in the course of the Test. Recognising that moment should have come from a few quarters, not least of all the English change-room. None of the South African bowlers climbed into the team bus after the first day feeling like they had taken a pounding.
The flip-side of the situation was that on the second morning of play, South Africa knew that they had to come out with all guns blazing and anything less would have allowed some reprieve. Steyn and his fellow fast men were relentless and Smith turned up the pressure from ball one.
Smith has had many critics over the years but one thing that is above criticism is his ability to dominate an attack once settled at the crease. In Hashim Amla, he has found a similar comrade albeit with a vastly different technique.
Both have the extraordinary ability to put the poor delivery away with disdain. It effectively places enormous pressure on a fielding captain. It just so happens that Smith has yet to play in a Test in which he scores a century and loses! Such is his dominance.
In bygone times, the world’s greatest all-rounder Jacques Kallis was guilty of allowing the game to meander along while at the crease. This has changed over the last while and he too has become a batsman that does not tolerate poor deliveries going unpunished. Add AB de Villiers to the mix and it all adds up to a batting line-up that is tough to keep in check.
Strauss will be a worried man
Eventually the England bowlers succumbed and the entire team looked ragged and on their knees. This mental pressure then transferred into their second innings at the crease. It was never going to be an easy task to pick themselves up and somehow hang in until time was called on the final day.
Once the slide began, and it started early with the in-form Cook almost immediately, the writing was on the wall. It ended so differently, to what was written in the script by England and their support base.
Can they recover is the real question now. After the show had ended, Captain Strauss talked about his belief in his bowlers despite their inability to take wickets. What else could he say?
However, deep down he would have been a worried man. The next throw of the dice could have huge ramifications for him if the selectors get it wrong. Do they play an extra bowler at the expense of a front-line batsman or do they keep the attack the same?
The middle-order with Bopara at six looked out of sorts and their supposed all-rounder Stuart Broad had no impact on the game at all. Changes need to be made, but the old adage of giving someone at least two Tests to prove themselves may haunt them if it goes wrong again. Drop them for new personnel and then lose also isn’t something comfortable to answer for. There is no right answer unless you win.
Another critical aspect of the Test was the way South Africa countered Graeme Swann. He forms such an important aspect of the England bowling attack. Not only can he take wickets, but can also keep an end quiet during tough times in the field. Gary Kirsten and his entourage covered that base by firstly not giving him easy wickets and secondly by not letting him settle. It was part of creating that pressure on the rest of the attack. It forced open the cracks that were previously glazed over against the likes of the West Indies and India.
Headingly as a Test venue is vastly different to the Oval. Even those who come out to watch the cricket are a different type of supporter. After all, it is the home of Yorkshire and whilst Geoffrey Boycott may still believe he can play the spin of Imran Tahir at his age, it is precisely that kind of area.
England will have huge support and will need every bit of it. A three-Test series becomes hard work when you lose the first Test. To win the series will demand such a dramatic turn-around that it is almost incomprehensible.
However, it isn’t impossible. The problem they have though is that they aren’t playing against one of the minnows. The current Proteas are as good a team as has ever represented South Africa. As a unit, they have learnt how to scrap even when under pressure and that’s something that cannot be bought at the local store.
Don’t for one minute think it can’t get even messier for England. If they aren’t up for the fight right from the outset, you better believe it will!
- Pat Symcox played 20 Test matches for South Africa between 1993 and 1998. He took 37 wickets.