South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Durban, 1st day December 26, 2004

Dangerous, damaging - and far from disarray

Graeme Smith chats to Dale Steyn - Smith's gamble paid a handsome dividend © Getty Images
This was the day that was never meant to happen. South Africa, so we are led to believe, are in disarray - riven at every level of selection and unable to field the same team twice in a row. Meanwhile, England - settled and steadfast - are riding as high as they ever have done. Before the toss this morning they seemed to be a shoo-in for their ninth win in a row, their 12th of the year, and an unbeaten record to take into the New Year Test at Cape Town.

But how the mighty are falling. One crumb of comfort for England, as they survey the wreckage of their first innings this evening, is that they have not been bowled out for so little in the first innings since the Lord's Test against West Indies in 2000 - a match they went on to win by two wickets in a thrilling finale. But that victory relied on the Windies collapsing to 54 all out in their second innings. South Africa aren't looking like doing that just yet.

In many ways, this South African team is identical to England's hit-and-miss line-ups of the 1990s. Ray Jennings - all fire, brimstone and raw passion - is the tactical and temperamental equivalent of David Lloyd, while Graeme Smith evokes memories of Mike Atherton in his uncompromising leadership from the front. And just as England were capable of pulling off astounding victories from on-the-canvas situations (think Barbados 1994 or The Oval 1997), so it seems South Africa are capable of doing likewise.

After the Port Elizabeth defeat, Smith appealed long and loud for some continuity in selection, but nothing of the sort has occurred. Four changes were made for this match - including the axing of Thami Tsolekile and the promotion of Martin van Jaarsveld in a Mark Ramprakash-esque last-minute phone-call - and a fifth change was narrowly avoided when Smith demanded the retention of Dale Steyn ahead of Charl Langeveldt. It seemed a hopeless and fractious situation but, as they well know in these parts, it's always darkest before the storm.

Smith's decision to bowl first seemed to be an act of desperation - in their three previous victories at Kingsmead, South Africa had won the toss and batted. Had it failed, he would no doubt have been pilloried in the manner that Nasser Hussain was at Brisbane, but instead it paid the most handsome of dividends. Mind you, with the odd delivery already creating a puff of dust, and Steve Harmison back in some sort of groove, South Africa must now make their first innings count. They cannot afford to do what England almost did at Port Elizabeth and allow their bloodied opponents enough leeway to set a tough target for the fourth innings.

England's insecurities were writ large across their performances. Perhaps it was too much Christmas pudding; perhaps it was astonishment at being asked to take first strike. But Andrew Strauss needed 26 deliveries to get off the mark, and was as fretful in his shot selection as he had been placid at PE, while Marcus Trescothick, 29 yesterday, flashed a trademark indiscretion over the slips before being stunningly caught off the inside-edge by AB de Villiers who, in that very instant, justified the selectors' leap of faith.

On his home patch, however, it was the performance of Shaun Pollock that lifted South Africa to their heights of old. His early spat with Strauss, who attempted to leg-glance a shy at the stumps, was an indication of the fire in his belly but it wasn't until after lunch, when Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff were extracted in quick succession for a total of one run, that he got the luck that his impeccable line had deserved.

Pollock has been an under-valued warhorse in this new era of South African cricket - a metronomic reminder of their former glories. And, though England might seek to deny it, his importance has been vastly under-rated so far in this series. Complacency was widely believed to be the only thing that could defeat England in this game. But, as England themselves know from their struggles of the past, teams such as these are never more dangerous than when they are down.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following the England team throughout the Test series in South Africa.