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From today, cricket will be on England's sporting back burner. The London Olympics, understandably, has wound Britain into a frenzy of wild excitement, and/or complaintative grumpery, and/or a sudden and unquenchable interest in the finer points of canoeing, equestrian dressage, and the timeless national hobby of watching people carry a small bit of fire quite slowly. It is a British tradition as old as Britain itself. There must be one spectacularly giant witch to burn at the opening ceremony tonight.
Perhaps it is fortunate that England has an Olympics to distract it from a Test match hammering so comprehensive it could have passed itself off as an underfunded inner-city school. Last year, England brutalised the then-world-number-one-ranked Indians. At The Oval, the boot was not only on the other foot, but it was triumphantly stomping on their throat like a vengeful rhinoceros. "Too close to call" had been many people's pre-match prediction. It was as if Nadal and Federer had met at the Wimbledon final in 2008, with the world on the edge of its collective seat to see the two greatest tennis players in the universe, and Nadal had beaten Federer by knocking him spark out with an anvil to the head.
Andrew Strauss and his team can thus attempt to recover from their surgical disembowelment at The Oval away from the glare of press and public. The Test series moves to Headingley next week, before returning to the hauntingly sport-starved city of London for the final climactic showdown. Or last rites. Delete according to whether you think England (a) will be able to respond to this poor start as they have responded to most other poor starts recently, or (b) have been so utterly tonked that they will forget that they had taken 20 wickets in 22 of their previous 28 Tests, and remember only that, either side of those 28 Tests, they have suffered successive cloutings-by-an-innings at the hands of Graeme Smith's rampant Proteas. (By my reckoning, this is only the fifth time that England have suffered successive innings defeats against a team in their Test history ‒ previously, v Australia in 1897-98, 1946-47 and 2002-03; and v India in 1992-93.)
It was one of South Africa's finest Test wins, four days of almost perfect cricket against very good opposition on a tediously snoozy pitch that gave minimal assistance to either bowlers or, just as importantly, spectators. If an Ancient Roman fortune teller (and let us assume there is one amongst England's numerous backroom staff) had tried to read the future from the entrails of England's Oval disembowelment, he is unlikely to have come up with anything particularly positive. He might have prodded around in the still-warm guts and made vague prognostications of an improvement with the ball, but that would be merely a statistical inevitability. Wouldn't it? As 19th-century cricket pundit Oscar Wilde once said: "To concede 600-plus for 2 once may be regarded as a misfortune. To do so twice looks like carelessness. Do join me in the tea interval when my special guests will be WG Grace, William Gladstone, Jack The Ripper and Nick Knight." (Nick Knight is immortal. He has been alive since before the last Ice Age.)
The fortune teller might also try to cheer everyone up by poking at an intestine and pointing out that England have had at recent a tendency to start series sluggishly. They were poor in Cardiff in 2009, in Centurion in 2009-10, and in the first innings in Brisbane in 2010-11. They were crunched by ten wickets in Dubai last winter, and were well beaten in Galle. But they only lost one of those five series, won the second Test in four of them, and played three-quarters of a good match against Pakistan in the other before being power-skittled for 72. Perhaps they should start drinking their coffee before the first Test of series, not the second.
South Africa, on the other hand, have tended to misfire after a potent start. They contrived to draw series with India (twice) and Australia after being one Test ahead by conceding second Test defeats, and they allowed a victory-starved Sri Lanka to equalise the series last winter, before rectifying that situation in the third Test. Smith's team have often looked a side on the verge of cricketing greatness, but have not yet achieved it.
The next three weeks will prove whether or not they have laid aside those vulnerabilities. The evidence of The Oval suggests that they have. But then, the evidence of their annihilation of Dhoni's Indians in the first Test in December 2010 suggested that as well, and they proceeded to lose the next Test.
They have in their ranks the three highest-averaging batsmen of the decade, and the greatest bowler to have entered the Test arena this millennium, supported by a man who has made the best start to a bowling Test career since the 19th century, and another proven Test paceman. What is puzzling about this South African side is not how good they were at The Oval, but how adequate their series results have been over the last few years.
There are crumbs of comfort that England will be edgily forking around their plates between now and Headingley. But whether they can reconstitute those crumbs into an edible cake, against a team that seems to be finally realising the full extent of its talents, after a total and utter battering, will be the greatest challenge Strauss' outstanding team has faced, and one that will define their status in the history of the game.
● If one shot has exemplified the failings of English batsmanship since I started following cricket, it has been the sweep, and its rogue dysfunctional cousin the reverse sweep. From Botham's final, very brief, innings as captain at Lord's in 1981, via Gatting's World-Cup-losing plink in 1987-88, to Pietersen's flap-steer at Hauritz in Cardiff in 2009, and assorted ineptly executed swishes in the UAE last winter, the sweep has been the shot that has had England fans weeping into their sandwiches more often than any other.
Last Sunday, England were in deep trouble, but the shine had worn off the new ball and the pitch was still showing all the life and vigour of an extremely hungover Galapagos tortoise after Charles Darwin threw a massive party to celebrate working out how evolution works. Andrew Strauss, becalmed by the insistent probery of the South African bowlers and the tension of his team's predicament, then chose what he instantly realised was the wrong moment to attempt the accursed horizontal-batted gamblethwack off Imran Tahir. On Monday, Matt Prior, batting with class and purpose, with the new ball minutes away and with his considerable eye very much in, and the old ball spinning out of the rough but from an easily negotiable round-the-wicket angle, followed his captain's example.
The remarkable thing is that both men got away with it. They both missed, both looked rueful, and both looked as if they were telling themselves not to do that again. Both men, however, did do that again. Seconds later. Both were unwilling to take the hint they had given themselves that sweeping was (a) unnecessary in the circumstances (b) tricky at the best of times, and (c) about as sensible as performing DIY dentistry on your own kitchen table using a second-hand pneumatic drill. Both men top-edged, both were out, and both hung their experienced heads in self-flagellatory recrimination. Ooops.
● Both Strauss and Prior received merited criticism for the shots that brought about their downfall and confirmed England's fate. Pietersen was also criticised, albeit in a slightly odd way. He was criticised for playing stupid shots that he didn't get out to, and then criticised for getting out playing a sensible shot, badly. Such is life for Kevin Pietersen. He has always been technically flawed and played a calculating high-risk game. As a batsman, he is vulnerable and magnificent, powerful and fragile. He is the only natural aggressor in England's top 6. He will always be slammed for being too aggressive. When the risks do not pay off, or the calculations are awry. He is Kevin Pietersen, splitter of opinion, sporting fascination.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.