There is a gulf between South Africa and England that suggests the best the visitors can do is minimise the damage.
How South Africans rejoiced when Graeme Smith retired three England Test captains in Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss inside a decade from 2003 to 2012. It’s the South African nature to believe ‘Poms are soft’ and there’s no tougher competitor than Smith, one of the great opening batsmen and captains that Test cricket has seen.
But. There’s always a but. That was then, and this is now.
It’s July 2017 and Dean Elgar, in his first Test as South African captain, has led his team into a 211-run defeat to England, for whom Joe Root was making his own debut as England captain.
Elgar may well be remembered in English circles as a ‘one-captain wonder’. For he will be replaced by the returning Faf du Plessis for the second Test, and there is nothing that transpired in the Lord’s Test to suggest that Elgar was appointed captain other than by a process of elimination.
Who were the other candidates? Heino Kuhn, a veteran opener making his Test debut? Hashim Amla, who has already given up the role? JP Duminy, probably now the most cuddled No 4 in Test cricket? Theunis de Bruyn, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj, Morne Morkel?
Great for Elgar that he captained South Africa at Lord’s, but he’s no Smith.
Test cricket asks so many different questions of players and the team environment than the glamorised and instant environment of T20 and 50 overs. It’s tough, mentally and physically, and England were so much more up for the fight, as they have been all summer against South Africa.
In boxing parlance, this Lord’s Test was won by England by knockout in the 12th round – with each session of the match being one round. And this is how it unravelled:
Round 1 (Session to lunch): England 87-4 (10-9 round to SA)
Rd 2 (Lunch to tea): England 182-4 (10-9 round to England)
Rd 3 (Tea to close): England 357-5 (10-8 round to England)
Rd 4 (Session to lunch): Eng 450 all out, SA 10-0 (10-9 round to SA)
Rd 5 (Lunch to tea): SA 96-2 (Round even 10-10)
Rd 6: (Tea to close): SA 214-5 (10-9 round to England)
Rd 7 (Session to lunch): SA 323-8 (Round even 10-10)
Rd 8 (Lunch to tea): England 48-0 (10-9 round to England)
Rd 9: (Tea to close): England 119-1 (10-9 round to England)
Rd 10 (Session to lunch): England 182-8 (10-9 round to SA)
Rd 11 (Lunch to tea): SA 25-3 (10-9 round to England)
Rd 12: (Tea to close): SA 119 all out
England won by knockout in the 12th round after leading 107-102 at the time. It was a hiding.
This might be a different way of explaining the first Test, but Test cricket is like a gruelling boxing fight. It’s a war of attrition and England got stronger the longer the match went.
Sure, the toss was important on a Lord’s pitch disintegrating before our eyes. But South Africa’s fielding and commitment to the cause was disappointing, and the only belief that the game could be won was when the hosts were against the ropes at lunch on the first day.
This is also said to be the driest English summer since 1976, which suggests that the talking points for the following three Tests are going to be more about the spinners and the batsmen equipped to play spin as opposed to the seamers.
Which also means that this is not a ‘traditional’ tour to England. South Africa’s batsmen have over the years struggled against spin, and the fact that Moeen Ali was Man of the Match at Lord’s with a 10-wicket haul should be an indicator as to what lies ahead.
If I were a betting man, right now my money would be on either Ali or Root to be Man of the Series. There is very little in this South African set-up to suggest anything other than trying to hang in there manfully, but not being able to dominate an organised and well-coached England.
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