It really has been an extraordinary start to the England - South Africa Test series. Given the fact that it is being contested by the two top teams in the game today with both sides being apparently well matched in all departments of the game and a close contest being forecast right through the three-match series, for the winning margin to be as wide as an innings and 12 runs – with the losing team taking just two wickets in the Test – makes for an incredible result and one which few would have bargained for.
In this context my first observation would be that I have been a little taken aback by the harsh criticism of England. True, they performed several notches behind their best and were hardly recognizable as the No 1 Test team.
If they continue to be outplayed in the manner which India were beaten black and blue in every Test about this time last year, then the severe criticism would be in order. In this case it was just one match which South Africa almost completely dominated to emerge deserving winners by a margin that brooks no argument.
But what if England bounce back in the contest which they are perfectly capable of doing? A good analogy would be a great bowler who finishes wicketless after conceding over 100 runs – a fate Graeme Swann had to endure at the Oval – or a batsman who in the midst of a golden run suddenly goes scoreless in two or three innings.
I feel critics should not go overboard on one below par performance and come down hard on the England players or go overboard in praising the South Africans. Who knows? The tables could well be turned in the next game.
It has happened before in Test cricket. Just to cite one recent example, in February 2010 South Africa defeated India by an innings and six runs in the first Test at Nagpur. Just nine days later India won the second Test at Kolkata by an innings and 57 runs.
I am convinced that the result of the Oval Test is not an accurate reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of both England and South Africa in the overall context. Yes, at the Oval everything went right for South Africa and everything went wrong for England and that is how the lopsided result came about.
But the one-sidedness of the contest is unlikely to be repeated at Leeds and Lord’s. England are too good a side not to recover quickly from the debacle and I am looking forward to a much more even contest over the next two Tests.
That said full credit to South Africa for the incredible cricket they played at the Oval. They outplayed England in all departments of the game in a manner which I didn’t think possible. They displayed total professionalism in their approach and nothing symbolized this more than Hashim Amla’s marathon knock which saw him become the first South African to get a Test triple hundred.
Following an ordinary start to his career he has blossomed out into one of the world’s outstanding batsmen with a blend of method and flair. It’s not easy to bat 13 hours and ten minutes – not many have done that in Test cricket – and if his defence was impregnable his strokeplay was impeccable.
We in India have seen more than enough of his insatiable appetite for runs and the traditional qualities of dedication, determination and concentration that are the hallmarks of any great batsman. For the first time his career average went beyond 50 and it is doubtful whether it will go below that now that he is the complete batsman and the bowler’s nightmare.
Graeme Smith’s 100th Test was marked by a double celebration – his 25th hundred and a victory for South Africa for the first time at the Oval which was a long time coming considering that the visitors played their first Test at this venue back in 1907.
Jacques Kallis incredibly just keeps going on and on. The hectic schedule seems to have no effect either on his burly frame or his cricketing skills. For him the Oval Test was just another day at the office. Two wickets, two catches and an unbeaten 182 coupled with an unbroken third wicket partnership of 377 runs made this day a bit more successful.
It was always thought that the South African bowling was a match for England’s but at the Oval whereas Dale Steyn and company performed beyond expectations the England bowling line-up failed miserably. Swann’s figures were symbolic of the shambles that was the England bowling.
Much has been made of Steve Finn’s absence but the manner in which Smith, Amla and Kallis batted on a flat surface one doubts whether his inclusion would have made much difference. No praise on the other hand can be too high for the South African seam trio which picked up 14 wickets on a rather unhelpful surface.
There was always the chance that Imran Tahir would do well against opponents who are traditional weak against leg spin bowling and it was not exactly a surprise that he picked up four valuable wickets. The tourists even made light of the absence of Mark Boucher with de Villiers filling in admirably as a haul of eight catches will testify.
There is a lot to ponder over for England but the situation is not as alarming as it would seem. They are a much better side than the result at the Oval would have us believe and it is only a matter of time before they get their act together and play up to potential.
On paper they have the batting and bowling to match the South Africans and it is only a question of everything clicking – like it did for South Africa. There is no cause for pressing panic buttons or need for any overhaul. Patience should be shown with much the same squad and as I said who knows – the events could be very different in the next Test!