July 24, 2003

A straight road to South African domination

Wisden Verdict by Paul Coupar

England v South Africa, 1st Test, Edgbaston, Day 1

Dring on ... and on: Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs

This was not a day of turning points, of twists and turns. It was a straight road to South African domination. They ended the day on a monstrous 398 for 1. Last week Australia scored at 3.45 an over on a similarly slow pitch against Bangladesh; here South Africa flew at 4.37. It was England's worst start to a series since 1999-2000, when, amid a riot of fends and edges, they careered to 122 all out in Johannesburg.

The worst of the carnage came between lunch and shortly after tea. From 100 for 0 at lunch, Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith blazed past 300 before England's 12th man had even thought about preparing the post-tea drinks. But the most spectacular session of the day was not the most important, and the key to what Gibbs did after lunch lay in what he didn't do before.

A natural strokeplayer, Gibbs's batting often walks the tightrope between the carefree and the irresponsible. His reputation for misjudged flashes outside off stump is matched only by his reputation for misjudged asides to the press, the latest of which revealed that he treated his six-month ban for match-fixing as a "holiday". But before lunch he watched countless deliveries whistle past off stump, took 25 balls to score and never gave in to temptation. His restraint was a study in willpower. The time he took to play himself back into form allowed him to change the tone of the match in the afternoon, when he scored 96 in a session and pulled the attack apart.

What was disappointing for England as the tide turned against them was not that Gibbs and Smith hit boundaries, but that the boundaries were smashed to every corner. Gibbs scored 77 on the off side, 102 on the leg. Though wickets weren't coming, England could still have stemmed the bleeding by bowling on one side of the wicket, but no-one seemed able to do it. For the first time in an England shirt Anderson, who was smashed for nearly eight an over by Gibbs, looked what he is: a 22-year-old who was still playing for Burnley last year.

And leaky bowling was topped off with butterfingers. On a day when England beat the bat less than 20 times, three dropped catches were three too many. But they can take heart from history. In the last three series where they have bowled first (Australia in 2002-03, Sri Lanka in 2002 and 2000-01), England have tripped up by conceding at least 470. But only in the recent Ashes debacle did the first innings set the tone for the summer. In both series against Sri Lanka, England hauled themselves back and eventually won the rubber. So, while the first day was a disaster, there may be a few twists and turns yet.

Wisden Bulletin - Gibbs and Smith put South Africa in complete control