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December 17, 2004
If it works for the Australians, then it's got to be the correct tactic. Just as Ricky Ponting's men played it cool on a taxing tour of India last month, so England found that, if in doubt, the patient approach is generally the most virtuous. It was the line that Michael Vaughan sought to sell on the eve of this match and, sure enough, it paid off as well - as Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff hauled England through their first-day nerves to ensure that they reached the close in a more than handy position.
For Hoggard in particular, it was a triumphant day. At Potchefstroom last week, he was guilty - along with most of his team-mates - of banging the ball in too short and forgetting to trust his natural attributes of swing and stamina, but today he hit his perfect length from the very first over. By removing Graeme Smith for a second-ball duck, he ensured that South Africa could never come close to fulfilling their intentions of carrying the attack to England's seamers.
Hoggard is the least glamorous of England's fab four, although he is far from fulfilling the Ringo Starr role. It is not for nothing that he is entrusted with the first over of the match, especially today of all days, when without his early strike and subsequent waspish line and length, South Africa might well have succeeded in putting the mockers on a below-par Steve Harmison.
It was not an auspicious return for Harmison, who has yet to locate his natural length in South Africa. His first delivery was a leaping bouncer that Jacques Rudolph could not have reached on a stepladder, and for much of his spell he was gleefully swatted through the covers by AB de Villiers, who was composed on debut and was comfortable in backing up his promise to treat him as "just another bowler".
It was a massive bonus, therefore, when Harmison burst through Jacques Kallis's defences with a low full-toss. England's early-season vintage might have run riot at that stage - imagine how Vaughan would have reacted in the Caribbean if Lara and Chanderpaul had both fallen for ducks? - but today was not about the short term. As they demonstrated at Potchefstroom, ring-rustiness is not something that can be overcome with a click of the fingers. Is it not ideal to still be feeling one's way into form on the first morning of a Test match, but when was the modern itinerary ever ideal?
Besides, Rudolph was in no mood to allow England to dominate. He is still a relative newcomer to Test cricket, but in terms of this South African top order he is a veteran, and played the innings that might have been expected of his first-namesake, Kallis. He was watchful and full to the brim with common sense, but never wasteful on the bad delivery either, something which Simon Jones served up plenty of in the course of another scratchy spell.
This series was billed in advance as the Flintoff v Kallis show, but on this first day's evidence, it is going to be rather a one-sided bout. Kallis is playing almost exclusively as a batsman, through a combination of ankle and side injuries that will limit his bowling, although after his failure today, he may yet feel the need to rise to Ray Jennings's bait, and bend his back in a make-or-break effort for his team.
Flintoff, on the other hand, just goes from strength to strength. His spell with the old ball after tea, when the pitch was at its flattest, was a triumph of will over substance, and Rudolph was visibly shaken by a near-miss the very ball before he was dismissed. Confidence is coursing through Freddie's veins - let's see if he can give his team-mates a transfusion before the match is out.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following the England team throughout the Test series in South Africa.
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