Friday, December 25, 2009

Pressure Mounting

How many times do we hear that a match has saved Test cricket? After the thrilling climax to the 1st Test at Centurion Park last weekend, writers were singing the praises of the longer format and saying that they never doubted its value. Clearly they weren't bashing their heads off the wall for most of the rest of the match as play crawled along at 2 runs an over for what seemed like an eternity. I'm never going to be the man to call for an end to 5-day matches, but let's face it - a decent spell against an English tail isn't going to send T20 packing.

But that's a story for another day...

Let's stick to the series we've got here. It was a dull match until Friedel de Wet came along on Sunday afternoon and gave Graeme Smith hope of pulling off a famous victory. Despite the debutant's heroics, he looks unlikely to feature in tomorrow's starting line-up. If Dale Steyn is returned to full fitness, it's going to be the young man to miss out. Makhaya Ntini, veteran of 100 tests, looks set to hold on to his place. Experience is valuable, but with Jacques Kallis appearing fit to bowl again I'm surprised the selectors have felt the need to hold on to Ntini. I hope there's more than sentimentality behind it, because he was of little use in England's second innings in Cape Town.
However, the return of Kallis certainly makes any South African attack look more balanced. He'll be there to dry up the runs in the middle overs, put pressure on the batsmen, and either lead to wickets falling or take them himself. Paul Harris bowled decently last match, and JP Duminy deserves to be called more than just a part-timer. If Steyn has his full pace with him, England could be in for a rough ride.

England plan to stick with their line-up, meaning a four-man attack and a place for Ian Bell, with Luke Wright missing out again. Bell looked as faltering as ever last match, with his 1st innings dismissal a particularly embarrassing memory as he left a straight ball to crash into middle and off. He's been given yet another chance, and to be fair, Wright isn't exactly the ideal substitute. If Bell plays well he'll score runs and stay at the crease - if Wright bats well he'll probably make a quick 40 and depart. But you get the feeling that England could use another option in the bowling department. Wright may not be the best bowler in the game, but at least he's another man. Even if he goes for a few runs, the South Africans will be getting more variations and will have to play different balls. Smith didn't fire last game, but all that means is that he probably will now, and with a batting line-up of Smith, Prince, Amla, Kallis, De Villiers, Duminy and Boucher you need plenty of wickets.

A word on Amla - he got a lot of stick from a lot of people, and he answered them in the best way possible. When Jacques Kallis fell on Saturday morning, things looked pretty bad for the hosts - would Graeme Swann's magnificent knock the night before turn the game totally on its head? Amla batted calmly and confidently, mixing beautiful shots to the boundary with intelligent defence. He deserves his place in that line-up and, at No. 3, showed himself capable of steadying a wobbling innings.

Kevin Pietersen returned to the Test arena with an excellent innings of 80-odd before taking on a non-existent single. These things happen, but Andy Flower will be delighted to see the big man back on form. He wants centuries in South Africa as much as his rivals want his wicket, and it should make for some exciting battles.

The first match redeemed itself somewhat with some late de Wet magic, but that didn't disguise it as good entertainment for five days. The pressure's building on South Africa as the home side to take a lead in this series, while England will feel that Onions and Collingwood tipped the momentum their way by hanging on grimly. Let's hope for some fireworks at Durban.

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