The value of knuckling down
There were two centurymakers at Port Elizabeth on the second day of the first Test. And Andrew Strauss and Boeta Dippenaar both spoke to the press afterwards:
It was a happy homecoming for Andrew Strauss, as he celebrated his first Test in the land of his birth with an unbeaten 120, to give England the upper hand at the close of the second day's play at Port Elizabeth. But afterwards he remained as phlegmatic about his achievement as he had been at the crease.
Strauss has now scored centuries in his debut Test against three consecutive countries, following on from his efforts at Lord's last summer, against New Zealand and West Indies, but laughed off the significance of his feat. "You can go on about those sort of stats all day long," he shrugged. "Obviously I'm delighted I've done it, but I won't be putting it up on the wall or anything like that! They've all been pretty similar really. In each case it's been important to knuckle down and get runs early in the series, and fortunately it has happened.
"It certainly didn't feel any different being back in South Africa," added Strauss, before confirming that no, he didn't receive any jibes out in the middle, and no, he wouldn't have understood the South Africans if they had chosen to address him in Afrikaans. "I have a few flashes of memory of my time in Johannesburg," he said, "but I was so young when we left."
Strauss is now something of a lucky charm for England. He has yet to taste anything but victory in seven consecutive games, and on today's evidence an eighth consecutive win is on the cards. "So much could yet happen," he cautioned. "There's been plenty of ebb and flow in this game, and it's important we knuckle down tomorrow, see off the new ball when it comes, and make this innings count, as the wicket is only going to deteriorate."
There is already a hint of turn on offer, as Graeme Smith demonstrated in a brief spell before the close, and Strauss was hopeful that Ashley Giles would come into play as the game progressed. "That gives us confidence as we're the only side with a specialist spinner," he said. "The new ball skidded through for the first 15 overs, but after that it started to sit up a bit more. It's a wicket to be patient on - you have to wait for the bowlers to come to you."
England had to face a tricky four overs before lunch, and a more jittery side might have had visions of Potchefstroom, where they collapsed to 3 for 3 in a similar space of time. But Strauss had no such fears. "We've got that defeat out of our minds," he said. "It was a disappointment, but right from moment we lost that game we trained hard, practised hard, and mentally we were pretty good going into the first day yesterday."
England's minds were certainly switched on to the task by the sight of Shaun Pollock bearing down on them. "Pollock is almost like a bowling machine," said Strauss. "He's always bang on the spot every time, which makes it hard for batsmen. He's up there with the top bowlers in the world so we were kept on our toes. The wicket doesn't really suit him, but he's quality - you can't take him lightly at all.
"The bowlers out here tend to wait for us to come to them," added Strauss. "So it is a case of playing it patiently. If we want to win game, then it's crucial we build on today's start and apply pressure on South Africa. It was the way we played all last summer, and we'll try to do that again tomorrow."
Although his performance was later overshadowed by Andrew Strauss's efforts, Boeta Dippenaar's third Test century - his first against England - was a huge achievement for a player who has been under intense pressure in the middle of South Africa's unsettled batting line-up. With challenges for places coming from all angles, Dippenaar was a contented man at the close of play, as he contemplated a moment that might just change his career.
"It really does mean a lot to me," said Dippenaar. "There's been lot of pressure on me in terms of positions, so to put in that sort of performance against a quality attack like England's, is something special. Players like Hashim Amla have been pushing hard, so you know you have got limited opportunities to make your mark."
Dippenaar has bobbed up and down the batting order in recent seasons, but his new coach, Ray Jennings, is keen for him to stay in one place for the time being. "Ray wants me to keep on batting at No. 5 in the middle order," he explained. "He's adamant that I should stay still, which is comforting because I have fluctuated from time to time. It allows me to get a game-plan going for my specific role, and grow in that role."
Test hundreds are precious beasts, but Dippenaar claimed not to have suffered unduly in the nervous nineties. "I just took it ball by ball," he explained. "Our game-plan at the start of play was to get to 350, and I knew that I needed to score at least 45 or 50 of those runs. My personal scores didn't stick in the mind so much, so that took the pressure off."
As for what the future holds, Dippenaar was cautiously optimistic. "I like to think it's a step in the right direction [towards a permanent place in the side]. There's a lot of cricket still to be played, but it's given me a huge amount of confidence for the rest of series. I think I've gone a long way towards making that No. 5 spot my own."
For much of the morning, Dippenaar was aided and abetted by the wicketkeeper Thami Tsolelike, a controversial selection ahead of the veteran Mark Boucher. He played a steadfast support role, and afterwards Dippenaar was keen to play up his performance. "Thami is a very very good cricketer," he said. "Sometimes his selection has been overshadowed by political issues, but he showed today he can hold his own.
"We probably finished up around 70-80 runs short, because we really needed to get to 400," admitted Dippenaar - although he wasn't giving up the fight. "We're up against it a bit, but tomorrow we'll come out fighting hard to turn it around."
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following the England team throughout the Test series in South Africa.