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December 18, 2004
Compact and nuggetty left-handers are all the rage at the moment. Across the pond in Australia, Justin Langer has been laying waste to Pakistan and New Zealand to the tune of 549 runs in four innings - performances of simple tenacity that his other, more expansive, team-mates could not begin to emulate. And a similar story is unfolding at Port Elizabeth, where Andrew Strauss has added another remarkable chapter to his brief England career.
Strauss's big challenge will come when he suffers his first trot of poor form, but on this evidence it is hard to imagine what demons - mental or technical - will trigger such a slump. By scoring a century on debut, both home and away, and by adding another for good measure in his first Test against West Indies, Strauss has already demonstrated a temperament that is as tough as teak, and, like Langer, he has made a virtue of his limited repertoire of strokes.
Cut, pull, drive. That'll do nicely. If it's in his slot, whichever of the three it may be, Strauss will put it away: otherwise, he will leave well alone. After South Africa's tail had used the bulk of the morning session to inch their way towards a competitive total, it was imperative for England's top order to knuckle down in precisely the manner they had failed to do at Potchefstroom. And by the close, the dividends of Strauss's watchful accumulation were plain to see.
England's failures against South Africa A could be attributed in equal parts to complacency and ring-rustiness, but they manifested themselves in a lack of awareness of their off stumps, as nine catches whistled into the slip cordon. Today, however, with Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini bearing down on England's openers, there could be no taking the quality of the attack for granted. Therefore in hindsight (always a useful thing) that defeat can now be confirmed as the most timely wake-up call imaginable.
The omens were good from the very start of the innings, as England saw off a testing four-over spell before lunch - in the second innings at Potchefstroom, they had been asked to do an identical task, and duly slumped to 3 for 3. Although it was Strauss who took the day's plaudits, equal credit was due to his partner, Marcus Trescothick, who made a matchwinning double-hundred against South Africa when the sides last met at The Oval in 2003. Then, as now, Trescothick produced a series of phlegmatic leave-alones against the probingly accurate Pollock which, ever since his 66 on debut against West Indies, have been a hallmark of his most watchful performances.
Trescothick was less certain, however, against the naturally-angled deliveries from Ntini, and once or twice he flinched in that familiar fashion as a sharp lifter flashed across his bows. But South Africa were their own worst enemies as well, for they bowled 23 no-balls in the course of their 67 overs, which not only disrupted the rhythm of their bowlers, but also guaranteed them a post-match beasting, if their coach, Ray Jennings, is to be taken at his word.
Apparently Jennings had ordered all such offenders to do five laps of the pitch each time they overstepped, which means that Dale Steyn (5 x 8 = 40 laps) could be stuck at the ground until dawn. But Steyn, who had been left clutching ice-cubes on the first morning of the match after bruising his hand in one of Jennings's exuberant fielding drills, rose above his palpable nerves to produce a rousing performance.
With only his third delivery, Steyn was up to 147.6kph, just a notch off his highest recorded speed, and when he shattered Trescothick's stumps with a searing wicket-to-wicket exocet, he celebrated with fist-pumping vigour to enliven the subdued South African section of the crowd. But for most of the day, St George's Park was an English enclave once again, not least for Strauss, who celebrated the return to the land of his birth in the manner to which we are rapidly becoming accustomed.
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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