The Proteas’ bid to beat England in England to become the number 1 test side in world cricket kicked off in the worst manner possible when wicket-keeper Mark Boucher was struck in the eye by a bail and had to withdraw from the tour.
The freak accident did what no competitor could ever do: put an end to Boucher’s international career. In terms of leadership qualities and composure on the field, especially when matters get overly tough, Boucher will be missed.
A foot injury to opening bat, Alviro Petersen looms as another potential crisis. Should Petersen miss the first test it will cause another sizable disruption even before a ball in the series had been bowled.
To add insult to injury fast bowler Marchant de Lange is also not firing on all cylinders.
The opening match against Somerset had the same quality as a traditional Nicky Oppenheimer eleven match when foreign teams tour South Africa. Nothing can be read in the first game.
Three play days remain before the first test starts and if the English weather this summer is anything to go by play on those three days are not guaranteed at all.
It is understandable that the English news papers are adamant that the Proteas will not be match-ready when they walk out onto the Kennington Oval in London next Thursday. They are probably right and it will indeed need something special from Graeme Smith and his lads to pull off a win in the opening test.
Being the first test in a three game series the team getting the upper hand on the Oval will be difficult to over hall.
One thing South Africans need not fear is a depleted Protea-team. The atmosphere in the tourist’s camp might be sombre and subdued at this time but when they take the field they will mean business. They will be more ready than ever; and they will play for Boucher.
After the Oval the Proteas play Worcestershire in a two day outing and when the second test starts 10 days after the first at Headingly the Proteas will be acquainted with the England overhead and atmospheric conditions. After another 10 days and a two day filler against Derbyshire the third test at Lords could be the decider.
The Oval, established in 1845 and with a crowd capacity of 23 500, is not a happy hunting ground for the Proteas and they went down quite heavily against England in all three outings since readmission. In 1994 England won the third test with 8 wickets, in 2003 the fifth with 9 wickets and in 2008 the fourth test with 6 wickets.
The Oval is certainly not as feared as the WACA in Perth but with superb carry and bounce it could be a snake with all the rain around. England’s firm belief that their quicks are better than their Protea-counterparts will motivate groundsman Lee Fortis to prepare a lively pitch, and that is putting it mildly, for day 1. Not that Fortis needs to do much because the atmosphere will be moist and thick; in other words conducive for swing.
The toss could very well determine the outcome of the Oval-test and I suspect both captains will bowl first if they win the toss.
Andrew Strauss would want to expose the Protea-batters to the unfamiliar conditions as soon as possible and will hope to nick out three or four in the morning session of day 1. England’s king of swing, James Anderson can determine the outcome of the game in one good session on the morning of day 1.
Smith will opt to field to unleash the South African kings of swing, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander on Strauss and Alistair Cook. None of these batters are at ease against excessive pace or swing and the Protea opening duo offers both.
There is another reason for Smith to field first should he win the toss. He will provide his batters an added opportunity to get acquainted with the England conditions.
Weather-wise, and based on what happened thus far in the England Summer, it is highly unlikely that the first test will allow uninterrupted play. If rain and bad light have the last say it might not be a bad outcome for the Proteas at all. When they hit Headingley 10 days later they will be as at ease as the England team.
For the Protea bowlers it will be a case of doing the routine stuff; getting the basics right. That would be a line just outside off and fairly full. Drag England’s batters on their front feet, find their edges and put the wicket-keeper and slips in business. The occasional express bouncer will do Strauss if he doesn’t find the edge first.
The South Africans should be mindful that catches win matches and that it is not a cliché but a scientific fact. They should hold onto every opportunity.
Oh, and put Jacques Rudolph in ear range of the English batters and especially Jonathan Trott. Rudolph is just the man to enquire from Trott why he had to emphasize his loyalty to the ECB this week and whether he really misses London when he is in Cape Town. He could also do the kind thing to enquire from Mister Kevin Peterson how his marriage with Misses ECB is progressing.
When Alviro and Graeme go out to bat in the Protea first innings their approach should be survival at all costs. Alviro should face the majority of James Anderson’s bowling and Smith will be more at ease against Stuart Broad. It is not a matter of Smith hiding from Anderson but rather playing the guy posing the least threats in terms of swing. Over the five days there will be sufficient opportunities for Smith to show his metal against Anderson.
It is equally important that Kallis only arrives at the crease after 35 overs and after Anderson and Broad completed their second spells. For that to happen, the openers and Hashim Amla must play with patience and to survive.
Kallis has a mission to show he can bat in England and for that to happen he must avoid hooking, remain on the front foot and do what he so brilliantly does: play and leave balls on length. With Anderson and Broad gone Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann offers lesser demons and should not bother Kallis.
Jacques Rudolph played most of his cricket in the Kingdom and is a trump card. Hopefully Rudolph will use this outing to establish himself in the South African setup.
JP Duminy could also play a critical role at seven and as a spinner. With him there the selectors could consider an all out pace attack with Imran Tahir warming the bench. I doubt that the selectors will go that route but they will probably give it a thought or two.