As Test matches go in the modern era, the second Test had all the necessary ingredients to keep the hard-core cricket pundits screaming for more. Both captains were prepared to place plenty on the table, which ensured a mouth-watering final session.
Heading into the match, England had to make the play while Graeme Smith and his charges could really just ensure they got themselves into a position where they couldn’t lose - unless England played way above themselves.
Andrew Strauss really had no option but to bowl once he had won the toss as his selectors had backed him into a corner by not selecting a specialist spinner. The pitch was just tailor-made for bowling on the first day. In fact, many would be justified in arguing that had South Africa bowled first, the result could certainly have been very different.
The innings played by Alviro Peterson was as good an innings he will play in his career. While many regard Hashim Amla’s innings at the Oval as the highlight of the tour to date as far as the Proteas go, in the context of the series, Peterson’s contribution was massive.
Again, Smith played a captain’s innings when it was needed.
The opening session against an England attack desperate to make amends from a disastrous performance in the previous match, required absolute skill, concentration and luck.
The adage of catches win matches again rang true. England dropped Peterson at a critical time and could very well prove the catch that sees them lose their number one ranking. Had the catch been taken, it would have seen South Africa under enormous pressure on a responsive track. Getting to the magical 400 mark would have pleased Gary Kirsten no end. However, that would only have been for a fleeting moment.
The England batting line-up has decent pedigree, but with a debutant at number six and a few battle-scars from the Oval pounding, it was always going to require someone to play an innings of enormous substance. Only one batsman in the England side proved capable of leading such an onslaught: Kevin Pietersen.
Love him or loathe him, Pietersen is a special cricketer. Over the years, he may not have endeared himself to some, in fact many, but his ability to drag his team out of the mire when the chips are down is unquestionable. The pace at which he scores means that within a session the game can turn in England’s favour and it did. Not only does he make it easier for someone batting with him, he places the entire bowling line-up under pressure.
In the end, it took England to level par and ensured Graeme Smith and his men had to rally once again. No doubt, there were jitters in the change-room when Jacques Rudolph was called on to replace the injured Peterson.
Again, South Africa were fortunate to have someone who had both the experience and ability to do the job as well as the familiarity of playing at Headingley for five years as a top order batsman. The opening partnership ensured that the Test would ultimately wind down to a draw, despite Strauss sending Pietersen in on a self-destruct mission in a desperate attempt to win the Test.
The draw effectively means South Africa cannot lose the Test series. A comfortable place to be in for the Proteas right now. They are still in the box seat with the Lords Test to play. England still need to make the play.
Two changes were made for the second Test and more will be probably be made for the third. Graeme Swann, for whatever reason was left out at Headingley. However, if fit he will surely play at Lords. It means omitting a fast man. Again, that decision will be a tough one for England. Tim Bresnan can bat better than most fast bowlers. Stuart Broad took five wickets and Steve Finn is their one real speedster. The call will cause a sleepless night for the selectors!
Whilst Gary Kirsten will feel his charges are in a good space conducive to winning the third Test and the series, Andy Flower and his skipper Strauss will have a distracted change-room to deal with in the coming days.
Kevin Pietersen and the English media have created mayhem at a time that it is least needed. Inside the England camp there appears to be a split between their best player and the captain. Strauss has refused to talk about it publicly and likewise Pietersen, and that in itself has caused speculation. No team likes this kind of distraction.
For England right now, no matter how much they may feel the urge to shackle Pietersen, they know that on current form he is a match-winner and that he’s key with the number one ranking at stake. Somehow, they will have to reach a compromise. Pietersen is not the kind of man that will easily take a backward step.
However, any sportsman who has played in a team environment will vouch for the fact that a divided team battles to win when the pressure is exerted. The South African team will know that and will surely be watching the media with glee.
England’s biggest challenge will come from within. It’s a fascinating subplot and one that will be remembered for many years no matter which way the next Test goes.
- Pat Symcox played 20 Test matches for South Africa between 1993 and 1998. He took 37 wickets.