South African sort of tripped, fell, hurt themselves and had other things on their minds as the first Test started.
Their last series was an unofficial T20 competition where they were beaten by Zimbabwe in the final. From there they went to Switzerland for the sort of male bonding camp that sports psychologists and coaches love. Then their heart, the South African rock, Mark Boucher almost loses an eye and has to go home. They lose a back up bowler with real pace from their squad. And even while winning the first Test one of their previous team-mates had a positive urine test come out.
They shouldn’t have won the first Test so easily. And they shouldn’t be in a position where in this Test they can’t lose.
I expected big things from South Africa this summer. Their bowling attack is more fearsome than a Christopher Nolan batmobile. The batting has a certain weight to it in experience and runs. And they’re a quality team bonded unit; as you’d say in press-conference speak.
What I didn’t expect was them to bully England so easily. Beat them, sure, it could happen. But grind them down into little particles, chip away at their confidence, take away their spinner, make their bowlers look drab and convince their batsmen to give away starts, no. Didn’t see that coming.
Part of it was the weird start to the series. But mostly it was because for a long time South Africa have been ordinary in Test cricket. In 2008-09 they were the first team to beat Australia at home since Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock tried to kill Wesley Snipes in the sci-fi classic Demolition man. Beating Australia was the culmination of winning nine out of ten series in a whirlwind period of destruction and bullying. That made them a sort of unofficial world No.1. In their nine series since then they’ve won three. THREE.
Steyn, Kallis, Amla, Morkel, DeVilliers, Boucher, Smith and Philander are in their team, and more than a few other handy players have come and gone in that time, and they could only win three out of nine series. The only one they lost was against Australia, everything else was a draw. They’ve draw with India (twice), England, Pakistan and Australia. They’ve defeated West Indies, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
It’s not exactly the results of a team set up to demolish the world’s best team at home. It’s a polite record that bothers no one.
In roughly the same period of time England have played 12 Test series. They’ve won nine of them. In their last three they’ve won, lost and drawn. There were signs they were vulnerable. But that’s on really fast pitches or really slow pitches. Not their own pitches where they’ve been prancing around like greek gods for the last few years. And while South Africa had some heavy weapons, there was also a fair bit of recent history (from both sides) to suggest they wouldn’t exploit it.
Part of the reason for so many draws is that Cricket South Africa don’t schedule full Test series. They prefer ‘seriesettes’ of only two Tests, or bargain basement three-Tests series. Both of which lend themselves to drawn series. And then they tend to win the first one, fall asleep in the second one, and it’s drawn before most people have switched on.
That could have happened here. Headingley has bowled out batting line ups before they’ve stepped out. Australia against Pakistan, England against Australia and England against South Africa all bore the brunt of batting in the first dig here. And with England playing an extra quick under cloudy skies, South Africa could have folded and given England a chance to draw.
Instead the least naturally talented of their seven batsmen fought, scrapped, limped and edged his way to a massive score. By doing that, Petersen dragged South Africa, very slowly, to a total that couldn’t lose this match. Maybe it didn’t give them the best chance to win, but Alviro can’t control his own hamstring, never mind the weather. At the very worst, they head to Lord’s still up in the series. In the past, players like Alviro (their non-champions) would go missing in big games like this. They had a soft under belly of seemingly talented players who went absent at crucial times. Alviro did the exact opposite; he stood as tall as he physically or mentally could.
The South Africa of 2006-2008 would have won or drawn this last Test. The South Africa of 2009-2011 would have lost this Test.
They’ve beaten England at their own game so far, but they’ve still got work to do. While a draw against the No.1 team away from home is far from embarrassing; they owe it to themselves to do more. Amla, Kallis, Smith, Petersen and the bowlers deserve to leave this country as winners.
In World Cups, South Africans are known as chokers. In Test cricket they’re often under-performers. This tour should not have gone as well as it has. They have the team and advantage to destroy England at home, dramatically snatching the No.1 title officially. Or they can draw limpy from here and have the amazing Oval Test mean very little at all.